Format Festival Kicks off First Year the Right Way

A major music festival within two hours of Tulsa sounds too good to be true. The initial lineup for Format had music lovers in the area salivating. Not only did Format do a great job of bringing in big-name artists, they booked a wide variety of sounds that somehow fit together perfectly. On the main stage alone, fans lined up for R&B, funk, electronic, jazz, and indie pop. The cheers were just as loud for 82-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who delivered a masterful career-spanning performance, as they were for high-energy headliner Phoenix. Coming from someone who isn’t particularly drawn to festivals, Format was a great experience with a lot of potential for growth at future events.

The music

The most promising aspect of Format has to be the artists it drew in the first year. Musicians were not booked solely to appease the locals, but instead to draw visitors from across the country to the growing city of Bentonville, Arkansas. The main stages offered a mix of indie, jazz, and funk, while other venues included electronic artists and DJs. Headliners were split into two large stages, North of Oz and South of Oz. The bands rotated from one to the other throughout the day and into the early evening. Side stages all had a theme and provided more than the standard side stage experience.

Genesis Owusu provided the (subjective) standout performance of the festival. The Australian rapper and singer hit the stage with the Black Dog Band. Owusu’s energy pushed the 4 pm crowd to really get into it. What started with 30 or 40 people quickly grew to an audience too big to count. The performance was dynamic and included plenty of crowd interaction. Owusu jumped the barriers and brought the crowd to the ground for “A Song About Fishing”.

Moses Sumney’s set was grand and beautiful, featuring chaotic instrumental interludes clashing with his soaring vocals. Sumney also performed a surprise solo performance in The Cube, bringing out a raw and personal performance that would be a great thing to bring back in future years.

Friday’s headliner Phoenix brought some of the highest energy of all three nights, encouraging a chorus of voices to sing along with their most recognizable hooks. The visuals and sound were a perfect way to set the stage for the weekend’s biggest bands.

The fest made an effort to include local music in the lineup. This includes the Fayetteville based The Phlegms, who played their high-energy punk music to a packed room inside the Next Door dome. Tulsa’s Kalyn Fay hit the main stage to a small crowd gathered early in the day to catch her set.

The experience

Format Festival obviously put a lot of thought into the visitor experience. From the clean, constantly attended toilets, to the area layout, and friendly and accommodating staff and security, it is obvious that Format is aiming to be among the nation’s top festivals, even from its first year. While there is room for improvement in some aspects, it is hard to imagine a first-year festival aiming so high and getting so close to reaching the mark. The VIP area provided a shaded place to sit and rest and gather your thoughts.

Stage themes encouraged the type of energy they wanted to bring out of the crowd. The two main stages had a relaxed feel, which invited crowds to experience the performance on top of the party atmosphere. Side stages like The Cube, a two-story tall box with a DJ placed in the direct center, or Smokeys, which featured a ring of mist at the entrance, added to the experience.

Some room to grow

Probably the most common complaint uttered at the festival revolved around scheduling. Some artists did not quite fit their stage or timeslot. Watching Vieux Farka Toure play Malian folk immediately following a high-energy EDM set with the word S**T displayed above the stage seemed off. Fatboy Slim DJd a small enclosed area that was at capacity before he even took the stage. Meanwhile, the large cube across the way was nowhere near full. For the most part, everything flowed smoothly, but some minor changes could have helped.

Early afternoons at Format were a bit like a ghost town. Many afternoon performers on the main stages performed to groups of 30 or so listeners. Lido Pimienta absolutely rocked her early timeslot as twenty or so people watched from behind the barrier. While this isn’t the festival’s fault, more people during the day would make it much more enjoyable both for the crowd and performers.

Overall, Format Festival did more in its first year than many festivals do at full stride. There is room to grow. You have to assume that the fest will return for year two, given the number of people who flew in from out of state. There is plenty of room to grow, and given Bentonville’s growth with mountain biking, arts, and culture, there is no reason to believe years two and three of Format will be anything but big jumps in crowd numbers. I feel lucky to have seen the festival at this stage. I hope that if more visitors do show up in subsequent years, the festival will do what it can to keep the local feel that encourages visitors to enjoy the fest in their own way.