The spooks were out early this year at the second annual Hangtown Halloween Ball, a three-day out-of-body experience that took place Oct. 26-28 at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds. The event spilled over into local businesses, providing a healthy influx of cash on the pre-Halloween weekend.
New Jersey-based megaband Railroad Earth summoned its masses to what has apparently become their home festival. An estimated 4,000 dreadlocked, tie-dyed and elaborately-costumed music fans heeded the call, traveling great distances for a deep immersion into a netherworld that featured nearly round-the-clock music.
Reports of the three-day fete were universally positive. The music was lauded by attendees as superlative. The production went off with barely a hitch. Everyone who had contact with the attendees reported them to be well behaved and friendly.
Jayden and Lonnie Wright drove from Phoenix to see Railroad Earth and were planning to take their time driving back. “We love these guys … seeing them play back to back like this is awesome,” said Lonnie.
“The whole scene here is just … full of love and peace, I guess,” added Jayden. “It sounds kinda’ hippie dippie, I guess, but look around you, this is very cool.”
Railroad Earth once again headlined all three nights, backed by 30 bands performing dance-friendly rock, funk, bluegrass and soul music on three outdoor stages, plus late night indoor shows.
Many of the acts were veterans of the High Sierra Music Festival, staged each July 4 weekend in Quincy. High Sierra’s management joined Railroad Earth and South Lake Tahoe’s Pet Projekt Events this year, providing a lot of big-festival-in-small-town knowhow and equipment, including the big stages and sound systems.
The result was a nearly flawless production and a commitment from Railroad Earth management to return annually.
High Sierra spokesman Casey Lowdermilk called Placerville and the fairgrounds “absolutely ideal for an event like this.”
The typical non-overnight visitor to El Dorado County spends $110 per day on average, according to travel industry data cited by county Tourism Director Jody Franklin. The number rises when local lodging is factored in.
Most Hangtown Ball attendees camped at the fairground as part of a three-day $160 ticket. They might not qualify as typical visitors, but local business reported that they ate, drank, bought provisions and put gas in their RVs.
Many didn’t venture outside the fairgrounds for the entire three days, but many others did, purchasing In-and-Out Double Doubles, Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfasts, Big 5 camping supplies, co-op natural food, Carl’s $6 burgers and pints of Placerville brewery’s trademark Strong Blond.
Dreadlocks were spotted on Main Street Placerville on a bright fall Saturday, rubbing elbows with the more conventional tourists.
But the economic impact of the Hangtown Ball doesn’t stop there. County Fair CEO Jody Gray reports that the organizers spent $30,000 to rent the fairgrounds, parking lots and ancillary facilities for the three-day weekend, and paid an estimated $8,000 more in commissions on food and beer sold during the event.
Railroad Earth Manager Brian Ross, contacted at his home in Santa Monica midweek, said he was “very happy” with the Hangtown Ball, and “extremely pleased” with the strong turnout. “We’ll definitely be back,” he promised.
Gray reports that the event organizers have asked fairground management to hold the date for the next 10 years, but have yet to sign a contract.
Ross called that a formality, and reiterated his support of the event and the venue.
“Everyone loved it and there were no major problems,” he said.
Captain Mike Scott of the Placerville Police Department confirmed Ross’s observation. He called the audience an “easy going crowd,” and said the department received a handful of noise complaints, no worse than other fairground events, and just three calls for service, the worst of which was a report of public urination.
Local businesses surveyed by the Mountain Democrat enjoyed strong weekend sales. The Placerville Best Western sold out. Event organizers booked a block of 40 rooms for the all three nights. They booked similar blocks in other area motels.
Raley’s store Director John Phillips praised the attendees, who were unfailingly polite and friendlily in the store while emptying his beer shelves, necessitating an expedited replenishment on Saturday. The demand for drinks, ice and camp food was constant over the three days, he said.
He also had high marks for the festival security, which kept an eye on his parking lot.
Placerville Brewing Company Supervisor Jenny Wood reported a strong weekend with lots of unfamiliar but smiling faces. Carl’s Jr. and In-and-Out managers also reported strong sales throughout the weekend.
Unlike other events at the fairgrounds, the uptick in business was generally spread out over the weekend, the only exception being Denny’s. Assistant Manager Karen Bojorquez reported a rush on Saturday night late and another on Sunday morning.
Local Railroad Earth fans Winston Blackwell and Michael White stage much smaller Summer Solstice Celebrations targeting a similar audience. They were on site all weekend with a cadre of friends.
Like their out-of-town brethren, they reveled in the high-caliber music and the chance to spend three full days immersed in the jam music scene.
“When you stay you have a completely different experience than if you go home at night,” said Blackwell. “It’s the magic of being there. It creates a connection between the people and the event.”
Blackwell likened the festival experience to a timeout from everyday life, a chance to shake off the self-defining roles and responsibilities for a few days.
The fairgrounds was the perfect venue, and the fall colors and mild days were perfect. “We even had a full moon at night,” he said.
Both Blackwell and Matt Semonsen said the test of the event will be bad weather. Placerville experienced heavy rains the week before and after the Hangtown Ball.
Ross countered that the fairgrounds offers plenty of sheltered areas, and that stage-moves are not out of the question in the future if inclement weather appears certain.
Blackwell summed up what the event means to Placerville. “This place has a lot to offer,” he said. “A lot of those people are going to return. Hopefully Placerville recognizes this event for what it is, a money machine.”