by Sven Eberlein

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A couple of days ago the 6th annual Bicycle Music Festival, the largest 100% bicycle-powered music festival in the world, took place in San Francisco. Starting at Old Cabin Meadow in Golden Gate Park, the event then went mobile with a Live on Bike performance ride from Golden Gate Park to Potrero Hill, with the night time portion of the event happening at the Showplace Triangle at 16th & Wisconsin.

I was there for the Old Cabin Meadow part of the festival and soaked in the vibe of this truly amazing event.

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The mission of the Bicycle Music Festival is to promote sustainable culture in general and bicycle culture in particular, by physically engaging and immersing our community in the magic of bike culture, and cultivating and nurturing a network of local sustainable musicians, through our staging of free, community participatory, bicycle-based music events.

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When I first arrived it was still early on in the festival. The second band of the day, klezmer flamenco rockers Cradle Duende, was just setting up, but the thing that immediately struck me about this event was the “community participatory” part of it. There was no raised stage, roped off VIP areas or any other hint that we weren’t all participants here. I walked right through the “stage” and behind the row of bikes that had been set up for all of us to power the 2000 watt pedal-powered PA system.

Pedaling at the Bicycle Music Festival
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It was really quite amazing. Instead of the usual stinky and noisy gas powered generators that would be used for an event like this, there was this…

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and just like a conventional concert, there were a bunch of technicians running around, working out the kinks, only these guys specialize in bike power!

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The human-powered P/A system, which besides being the most fun and green way to amplify a live concert, also transforms every song into an audience participation song, and radically democratizes the concert-goer experience (the power to amplify the people onstage rests entirely in the will of the people offstage; democracy at its healthiest you might say!).

More about the sound system and how it all works here.

This is quite a revelation. Too often the technology we invent ends up separating us from the experience, making us mere spectators in someone else’s master plan: Here we are now, entertain us. But here we were all active parts of a collective experience, in effect co-creating whatever was about to unfold. Instead of the usual wall of sounds and lights that runs on borrowed energy from distant places we don’t even know, this was about as real and immediate as it gets. When the bands started rockin and legs got tired, the call would go out for fresh pedalers…

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One thing about a bicycle music festival, you meet quirky and fun people with quirky and fun bikes. I had a great chat with Svante from Sweden about washboards and Pedersen Bicycles

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Then it was time for Cradle Duende to play a smokin’ set (I’m trying my hand as a videographer on my point and shoot, so excuse the occasional shakiness)…

Cradle Duende live at the Bicycle Music Festival 2011 in Golden Gate Park
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followed by Evan Francis Jazz Band, for whom the double-decker tree bike generator kicked into action…

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while over in the “backstage” area fresh smoothies were pedaled…

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of course, I couldn’t resist…

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and speaking of backstage…

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the all access pass at BFM grants you rare insights into musicians’ gig preparation that regular concert goers can only “dream” of…

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The audience (all cyclists, of course) were equally relaxed…

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that is, until the barn dancing started…

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and things got spinning…

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that’s when Svante got in on the action…

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here’s what it felt like from my amateur video perspective…

Barn dance with dance caller Alan Winston at 2011 Bicycle Music Festival
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Things were really picking up now, the meadow filling up with ever more people and their bikes, as everyone was getting ready for the bicycle-mobility part of the festival:

The entire audience/band/stage/crew completely packs-up everything they bring (stage and musical equipment too) onto bicycles, and travels as a large group to the next festival stop. There are no sag-wagons or equipment trucks hauling the amplifiers and other heavy gear – everything is hauled by bicycle.

Unfortunately, I had to go to another engagement planned already, but here’s a clip from a previous BFM that paints the picture:

Live On Bike mobile stage: Artists and bands perform while rolling down the city streets mounted on the backs of cargo bikes and bike trailers outfitted with microphones and amplifiers. The sound is wirelessly routed to “soulcycle” party bikes interspersed throughout the crowd, surrounding the crowd with sound.

Fossil Fool performs "Sendin' Out" at the Bicycle Music Festival 2008
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The moral of the story? Well, you could make the case that this might be a window into the future, when community, simplicity, collaboration and inventiveness will fare best on a planet with shrinking fossil fuel reservoirs. You could stress the importance of creativity in changing the way we look at the world and existing unsustainable paradigms, and I have.

On a basic utilitarian level, you could ask why cities, municipalities and cities haven’t integrated the concept of collective pedal power in their plans. Think of all the health clubs and gyms where thousands of people waste away precious kinetic energy every day. How about stationary bikes at street corners and city plazas to feed energy into the local grid? I mean really, if a bunch of musicians and artist types can pull off the technology to power a moving rock concert, imagine what we could do if our brightest, most educated minds were put to work on this. If we can build missiles and smart bombs, we surely can build smart bikes and systems to distribute pedal power.

But ultimately I look at this from a much more primal, gut-instinct perspective.

It’s as simple as this: What’s not to love about bikes and music?

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o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o

Photos & Videos (except Sendin’ Out) by Sven Eberlein

More pics here