“What would Bill do?” mused Dave Frey as he peered out over the expansive grounds at Oak Ridge Estate in Arrington, Virginia where he is in the thick of planning the four day Lockn’ Music Festival, projected to attract over 25,000 attendees.
With more than 30 years of music business experience, Frey has been resolute in his choices, his expectations, and his belief in his ability to pull off a major annual festival in a field in Nelson County. Frey honed his chops under the tutelage of concert promoter legends like Ron Delsner in New York and Bill Graham in San Francisco, the mentor who he summons in spirit when logistics become challenging. (Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991.)
When Frey decided to organize his own festival earlier this year, along with co-founder and Relix magazine publisher Peter Shapiro, the basics came easy. “We decided that we wanted to book a show that we’d like to go and see,” Frey said. “It was that simple. And if we did that, hopefully there would be a lot of others like us that would go.”
The show that Frey and Shapiro wanted to see was initially headlined by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and considered a “get” and a testament to their connections, but the appearance was cut from the line-up due to a hand injury sustained by guitarist Poncho Sampredo. In a move rarely encountered in the industry, the organizers took fans into consideration and offered a refund period.
The loss of Young coincided with the decision to change the festival’s moniker from Interlocken to Lockn.’ Frey was not willing to go into detail about the name change, but Shapiro released a neutral statement prompting speculation that legal factors were in play over rights to the name.
With alterations behind it, Lockn’ touts a jam lovers line-up anchored by Further featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, John Fogerty, Widespread Panic, Zac Brown Band, and The String Cheese Incident, with Jimmy Cliff, Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Punch Brothers, and The Black Crowes all on the schedule. The Trey Anastasio Band is a recent addition, and an e-mail from the Lockn’ office confirmed that there are “surprises still to be announced.”
Before he became the publisher of Relix, Shapiro was a promoter at (and eventually owned) New York’s famed Wetlands Preserve and he was known for orchestrating seamless sets. Frey’s bands played often at the club, and from those experiences came the “interlocking” idea that underlies the concept of Lockn’. “I got back together with Peter, and we liked the continuous music flow,” Frey said. “A lot of festivals have that quiet period (during a set) where you can hear music from another stage.”
Another facet of the interlocking concept is artist collaboration. “I’m most excited about some of the artist interactions,” Frey said. “The advertised ones and the unadvertised ones. These guys are taking things very seriously—John Fogerty with WSP and Zack Brown with The String Cheese Incident.” New addition Grace Potter is scheduled as a collaborator, and Frey confirmed rumors about secret rehearsals among other artists. “There are some collaborations that cannot be talked about, that will remain unannounced,” he said.
Eric Borgersen, a marketing associate for Lockn’, thinks the festival’s production style will have an impact. “If there are a bunch of surprises and true collaborations, fans will be so excited they will demand more,” he said. “Super jams are one thing, but this festival has the opportunity to take collaborations to a new level.”
In a business that’s about connections, Frey and Shapiro have many to choose from. “I’ve been booking shows since 1983,” said Frey. “I have lots of relationships and Pete certainly has a lot of relationships. We try to do a few things well.”
Frey spent a large part of his career as an artist manager at his firm Silent Partner Management (which he relocated to Charlottesville in 2008) and worked with a range of artists from Blues Traveler in its heyday to Cheap Trick, The Ramones, and the Brazilian Girls. He also operated temporarily under the umbrella of Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management before returning to his own smaller shop. It is his work with the touring H.O.R.D.E. Festival in the ’90s that inspired his Lockn’ venture.
“I was working for Bill Graham, running the New York satellite office, and I was managing Blues Traveler. Blues Traveler, Phish, Widespread Panic, and the Spin Doctors had all gone out to find a gig on some of the big summer tours and didn’t get any,” he said. “John Popper and I had this idea to put together a collective of bands (in order) to play larger rooms at lower ticket prices and play at amphitheaters instead of trying to play in the clubs.”
“Everyone was going to play equal time and get equal money. Then the band managers got involved and that changed,” Frey laughed. “But, John and I started the H.O.R.D.E. tour eventually.” Frey found joy in the in the tour’s continuous sets. “Two bands on stage with segue sets.”
Choosing the site was another fortuitous connection for Frey. He was eager to build a festival, and searched around the country for the perfect location before discovering it in Arrington, Virginia, practically his own backyard.
The landscape of Lockn’ has a mystical quality to it, with sloping emerald green hills enclosed by the majestic, hazy Blue Ridge mountains. “The site itself is spacious, beautiful, unbelievable,” Frey said.
Surrounded by forest and field camping, the centrally located music stage will offer excellent sightlines, a superior drainage system, and various points of access. “All mass gathering sites need basics: space, egress, and infrastructure,” Frey said. “We’ve been working really hard on the traffic plan with police, VDOT, and our own engineering team.”
The estate was named for a massive oak that stands out on a ridge above the stage site and serves as the branding image for the property. Frey wants to carry that over in his event. There will be no carnival gimmickry or strobe flourishes at Lockn’. The ambiance will come from the pastoral spirit of the land. “We will incorporate it iconically,” he said. “The Oak Ridge tree will be lit and made special.”
An uncanny sense of calm surrounds Frey, belying the maelstrom of planning obstacles and rapid-fire deadlines ticking off as the opening day approaches, not to mention the loss of an iconic headliner. He makes the creation of a brand-new 40,000 capacity event appear to be just another “day in the life” of a music business veteran.
“We are just trying to book a show that we would go see,” he said with a smile. “And quite honestly, if you don’t like these bands you probably shouldn’t come, because they are going to be featured.”
Lockn’ Music Festival/Oak Ridge Estate /September 5-7