First Annual Free Choice Fundraiser
featuring Lady Short, Dave Brown & Mark Holder, Talisman, Up With the Joneses, All Things Green, Anderson Council, the Score, and Intensify
Sweetwater, TN • June 24, 2000
Roi J. Tamkin
“I’m not used to playing in a field. I’m not used to all these bugs crawling on me,” said the singer for Chattanooga band Lady Short. This might have been his first experience at an outdoor music festival, but for me a fresh cut field, bugs aplenty, and intense heat all spell one thing – Hempfest 2000. Thirty-six hours of speakers, bands, vendors, and camping in a farmer’s field in lovely Sweetwater, TN. Organizer and promoter Brian Palmer cringes at the word Hempfest. “This is the First Annual Free Choice Fundraiser,” he corrects. There are people here discussing abortion, race relations, religion and anything else they care to talk about. If someone wants gets up on the stage to discuss marijuana usage, he’s not going to stop him. Brian is part of Goldenboy Productions, and has been putting together all types of fundraisers across Florida since his college days. He and his wife moved to Tennessee, bought a farm, and can’t wait for their first crop of vegetables. In the meantime, he has all this land. Why not throw a three-day party?
Although called the Free Choice Fundraiser, the event was co-sponsored by the Cannabis Action Network, and the speakers seem very anxious to talk about hemp. The vendors sold hemp oil, hemp flags, Bob Marley T-shirts, drums, and candles. One vendor who looked like an authentic hippie practically pleaded for me to purchase something or at least take a pottery class with him.
It was a great excuse to be outdoors. Not all of the vendors appeared, and some of the bands backed out of performing, but the spirit of the festival did not falter. The perimeter of the field was dotted with pup tents as people prepared for some serious camping. I conducted some impromptu interviews amongst the campers to get their feelings on the festival. I was shocked to discover that most of the people could care less about the legalization of marijuana and more about rain-proofing their tents. They were eager to show me their camping gear and inform me of camping networks such as the Rainbow Tribe of Living Light (http://www.welcomehome.org). There definitely were some funky smells coming from the campsite, but none of it was hemp in nature (excuse the pun).
It was a great excuse for a festival. The bands seemed politically charged. One band member argued that six Western states had legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. He was hoping Florida would follow suit. He was also able to quote me Florida law concerning possession as if from experience. I quickly found myself surrounded by people who all had relatives who died of cancer. We related our stories repeating the mantra, “if only marijuana was legal, her last days wouldn’t have been so painful.” One man asked, “who is the real criminal?” Until 1937, marijuana in the form of Cannabis Sativa L was one of the most effective medicines for treating arthritis and glaucoma. Several medical studies back up its therapeutic effects for cancer patients. As each point was raised, we all shook our heads in agreement – yes, marijuana good, government bad. But whom were we kidding? There wasn’t a sick guy amongst us. We just wanted a joint. I pointed out how the Netherlands recently passed legislation allowing for the legal cultivation of cannabis. Meanwhile, Atlanta ranks first in the number of marijuana arrests. At a rate of 778 per 100,000, Fulton County is three times the national average for arrests.
It was a great excuse to throw a party. Originally, thirty bands signed on to play at the festival. Some bands backed out or even broke up before the concert. Unfortunately, the band that was supposed to bring the sound system also failed to appear, so the promoter drove to Athens, TN and dropped a grand on a brand new sound system. By three PM, the plywood boards at the edge of the field became a musical stage for the next twenty-four hours. A number of Chattanooga bands were on the bill, and I was eager to see what kind of music they made in this little “Atlanta Suburb.”
Lady Short opened the festival with their brand of power-chord rock. They played original songs, including “Wonderful,” which is getting local airplay. Dave Brown and Mark Holder performed an acoustic blues set with Mark on slide guitar. Dave’s songs were autobiographical, biographical and a little creative non-fiction. “Cadillac Jack” was about man who pulled a knife on Dave at the Picklebarrel Saloon. “Jailhouse Blues” was about a friend of Dave’s that ended up in prison. And “Lost My Love Again” was about Dave’s social life. Next up was Talisman. A four-piece featuring a percussionist. They played great ass-kicking rock-n-roll. John Hutchins marveled the audience with his wailing guitar. The band played originals with long jams and punk versions of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Doors’ “Peace Frog”. They closed their set announcing that this was their last concert, trashed the stage then John threw his guitar out in the audience.
After cleaning up his mess, the last Chattanooga band before the sun set took the stage. Up With the Joneses played a mix of originals and covers. They played Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Black Sabbath to a crowd that probably assumed that “In The Flesh,” “Helter Skelter,” and “Sweetly” were all new songs. Which would make sense, because the original tunes fit right in with the rest of the guitar-oriented music. They were followed by Cleveland’s All Things Green. This band featured two guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and percussionist that paused only to inhale throughout the entire performance. They just released their first CD, and played songs off the CD.
Dreading the two and a half hour drive back to the marijuana arrest capital, I left during New Jersey’s Anderson Council’s show, opting to miss Liverpool’s the Score and the New Haven punk band Intensify, who were begging me to stay. “Basically, we like to get on stage and bash our heads into our equipment,” the green-haired one told me. A selling point, indeed. But as the sun set over the fields of Eastern Tennessee, I had to bid a fond adieu to Hempfest 2000. And as I pulled out of the parking field, narrowly missing two mongrel dogs, I realized that not once did anyone offer me any grass. Where’s the justice in that?