Treefort Music Fest Teaches Us How To ‘Festival Better’

In the high swing of festival season and in the wake of disasters like Fyre Fest and the anti-Coachella backlash, I’m curious if it is possible for us to “festival better.” Am I crazy to want a little more from these productions? To want a little more from us as humans? What if we went looking for more? More as artists and individuals, listeners and party go-ers, more as a community?

Point is, I think there’s something vital missing from our festival culture. And I think I might have found the solution in the most unlikely of places.

Treefort is an annual five day arts festival — held in downtown Boise, Idaho for six years running — and is the pinnacle of what makes the nation’s smallest big city so great. If you’ve never been to Boise then some of this might surprise you. But, if you know anything about this inconspicuous little hamlet, then you know it’s nothing like what you might expect, and it’s everything you might ever want.

To give you an idea of how my experience at Treefort felt, imagine me: outside at the main stage on a barely warm March afternoon, the clouds parting for patches sun, a little beer drunk and smiling from ear to ear. And Lizzo, an MC hailing from Minneapolis is on stage, absolutely crushing it, delivering a heartfelt message about powerful women and positive energy. I look to my right and a four year-old is on her father’s shoulders, a tear is rolling down his cheek as he cheers. And to my right a group of teenage girls’ clad in festival attire jump around, and behind me an elderly woman claps and hollers.

This moment I get it, what they’ve been telling me since I took a press pass: Treefort is for everyone.

Over the last five years Treefort has turned into a little party monster. And I think it is a major undersell to call Treefort a music festival, though music is undeniably the beating heart of the festival. I prefer to refer to it as a holistic arts festival… for everyone. It’s holistic in the dictionary sense of the word, only in understanding its parts can we grasp what it means as a whole. Under the umbrella of Treefort is a milieu of other “forts” that seem to grow exponentially as the years go by… Yogafort, Filmfort, Storyfort, Alefort, Foodfort, Kidfort, Comedyfort, Hackfort. The list goes on and on, thus opening the idea of the festival into a broader spectrum than I have ever experienced.

Every single one of these Forts functions like its own microcosm of the festival, with their own lineups and guest artists that will fill your five days, and stretch your creative curiosity in every direction imaginable. And when the afternoon grows long and the sun begins to set, every bar and restaurant in town hosts a night full of music in every genre from techno to country, metal, and cry yourself to sleep acoustic, and bands I’m not even sure we have genres for yet. Traveling musicians, and acts on the brink of everything big flock to this festival, preaching from the stage what a relief it is to be in the company of a town like Boise. You can feel it, this inclusive, “come sit with us vibe” pulsing throughout the town.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, during Treefort we’re all just together.

I was brought into town to cover Storyfort, the literary hub of the festival, a lineup stacked with authors, panels, craft talks, and poetry readings, that cater to my basest love of the arts. I could spend days there, hypnotized by the words of people I admire.

A highlight for me was listening to Al Heathcock read from his unfinished novel. Every morning during Treefort I stumbled from my hotel room with coffee and spent a few hours listening and gathering inspiration for my next big project. And it worked, I found myself more ready to work than I have been in months.

I even wrote myself a note “work harder.”

In the night I bounced around between venues, every bar in town had a stage, a lineup spanning those 5 days. Music until three of four in the morning if you know where to find it. Acoustic guitar melodies flow out the windows of house parties and living room shows in the north end, musicians shacked up with locals, a line out the door of the El Korah Shriners Club.

At Treefort, you can find any music you’d like, que your own lineup in the Treefort app and run around town to catch all the shows. What I love is to find a bar I like, and post up for an evening, discover bands I never would have seen otherwise. And there I am, tucked into a booth in a bar in Idaho, watching some girl sing about a boy who broke her heart in Austin.

And thus it goes, in a varied combination for five days straight– a little universe all its own.

What if your festival experience asked you to grow as a human, to learn as an artist, as an individual? What if we stopped worrying about what everyone is wearing and who is who and we all just hung out for a weekend? I truly mean it when I say Treefort is for everyone, there is no scene, no pretense, no cool kids, or exclusionary vibe. It’s just nothing but goodness.

So, let this be a call to change festival culture and learn from these Idahoans. Let’s be a little more inclusive, and a little more loving, a little more inclined toward discovery and trying something new. Because there are podcast chats to hear, midnight Magic Sword to attend, and tacos to eat, and lambs roasting in honor of the Basque heritage, and late night breakfasts, and a million other delightfully strange things to try and see and listen to. And who knows, you just might love it.