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SHADOWS FALL’s Brian Fair – Metal’s Dirty Hippie! – an exclusive interview

by on Jul.23, 2010, under interviews

Two time Grammy Nominees Shadows Fall has been shredding the Massachusetts’ metal and hardcore scene for the last 15 years. In 2005 they joined the Ozzfest tour and began their much deserved rise from kings of the underground to a house hold name around the world as the leader’s of the new Thrash Metal movement. Their style has been discussed and dissected ad nauseam. Are they metal? Hardcore? Post core? Metal core? Reggae metal? Hippy metal? Who cares… They rock; they’ll kick your ass given the chance. They’re touring the world in support of their latest CD Retribution, which they released on their own label Everblack Industries.
Shadows Fall is currently on the road with the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival and I had the chance to sit down with their singer Brian Fair and talk about his views of the current condition of the music ‘industry‘, what the pros and cons are in having your own label inprint, the dangers of slamming a vert ramp with your skateboard after a few bowls of your favorite herb, and how it feels to be metal’s dirty hippie.

AWAY-TEAM: This is Slim Jim with Away-team.com talking with Brian Fair from Shadows Fall. So let’s see, first off you guys just kicked off the first show of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival. How did that….

BRIAN FAIR: Yes indeed man. San Bernardino yesterday man, it was killer man, it was a great first show where there was none of the normal equipment break downs or things – just there were regular speed bumps. It went pretty smooth. Everything really worked out well. The show was killer, the crowd was killer! But I’m a little afraid today because since nothing went wrong yesterday we’re assuming it all happens today you know !(laughs)

AWAY-TEAM: Right yeah absolutely. So where are you today?

BRIAN FAIR: You gotta run into the gremlin somewhere. Shoreline which is a little south of San Francisco in Mountain View, California.

AWAY-TEAM: Mountain View, California I’m very familiar with it, I’m from the Bay Area originally myself.

BRIAN FAIR: Oh nice nice. I love Shoreline. It’s one of my favorite venues there is. We’ve done an Ozzfest here before so it’s good to be back. Yeah and bein’ a hippie Deadhead myself I just feel that holy ground you know.

AWAY-TEAM: So how does a hippie Deadhead become the voice of the new generation of thrash?

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah you know honestly I went to as many hardcore and metal shows growing up as I did to Dead shows and Reggae shows and stuff. So I think just kinda keeping that open mind is what’s really allowed us to really kinda push things in directions that other metal bands may not kind of approach. Or just not have the subconscious for the influences that would be there. I’m definitely the dirty metal hippie so it’s… I’m a Gemini, so I gotta have the twin side anyway you know.

AWAY-TEAM: There you go, the ‘dirty metal hippie‘ I like that! (laughs)

BRIAN FAIR: Yup! (laughs)

AWAY-TEAM: So for most people your band Shadows Fall kinda got name recognition within say the last five years. Probably Ozzfest 2005 it is kinda what opened a lot of doors for you, and you became if not a household name, the people outside of the underground really found out about you. But the reality is you guys have been around for 15 years. Your first album came out in 1997. So what do you think took so long…

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah it’s crazy!

AWAY-TEAM: You even have two Grammy nominations in the last three years!

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah it’s pretty crazy cuz you know, we started as like a small little Massachusetts metal band kinda just doin’ our own thing in a very small scene. But it really started to just kinda get back on the radar and blow up. When it seemed like a lot of bands kinda came up at the same time, us, Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, and it just kinda put the U.S. metal kinda back on the map. Metal never goes away. It just may go a little bit underground, but it’s always pretty much full on happening in the scene. So it’s kinda cool that the industry started paying a little attention. I think just even towards like Ozzfest being so successful kinda just put metal in general back on the radar and then us getting in front of those audiences definitely helped.

AWAY-TEAM: So what is it about the Massachusetts area… like you said it’s you, Killswitch Engage, Hatebreed, etc, what is it about that area that’s breeding that metal hardcore theme?

BRIAN FAIR: Well you know it was just a really kind of close knit scene back in the day. Where there was a lot of small hardcore shows and the bands all knew each other and all kind of grew up playing in bands together before that. It was a very open minded scene that was the other thing. People weren’t like limiting themselves to ‘oh we only play traditional hardcore’ ‘we only play straight up death metal’, people were really experimenting melodically and I think that led to bands kind of branching out in different directions and really kinda catching a lot of people’s attention. But it is really funny cuz I mean when we all started, we, the bands, played to each other! There was no crowd you know it was just us. You’d have 10 bands on the bill and that would be 10 bands in the audience. So it’s funny now that it’s kinda like a worldwide thing where we tour Australia and Japan with Killswitch Engage or something like that. It’s just crazy to think about. So….

AWAY-TEAM: You’ve actually got a former member that’s in Killswitch and one that it’s in All That Remains and you guys did a tour together where the three bands were on the same bill or on the same tour together. How does that work backstage? Is there any kinda animosity or does the fact that you guys…

BRIAN FAIR: Aw no! Everyone’s still friends. It’s all good. Like everyone’s just friends. As all the bands were starting…that members were just kinda plucked…When your high school band would break up, you’d meet up with the other two guys. And when their band broke up; then start a new band. So we all we all toured together and played shows and everyone still hangs out. Everyone still lives in the same area pretty much where they grew up so everyone still kicks it.

AWAY-TEAM: So having that close knit familiarity when you guys do tour together, do you guys get real competitive? Does it make you turn it up a notch onstage? Not necessarily to outdo them but to you know…

BRIAN FAIR: I think in general whenever we play with good bands it just motivates you. It’s not necessarily a competition thing, but you just realize, ‘We gotta go out and crush it!‘ But metal lines in general you can’t really half step anyway. They’re gonna let you know. You gotta come out and just kill it anyway. Especially on a tour like this one with so many great bands, you gotta just do something to kinda stand out. Especially in the festival scenario where people are getting little 20 minute shots of you. You gotta make the most of your time and then leave ‘em remembering who you were. So it’s kinda like that when we go out with those bands. It’s the same way you see them go out and crush and you’re like, ‘alright, now we gotta at least hit ‘em just as hard if not harder.’

AWAY-TEAM: Absolutely! You’ve done a lot of label switching over the years. You started out with Century Media, went up to Atlantic, and your last album which was released last year, Retribution, you’ve released on your own label. Is this because there’s more freedom for you to do it how you want it, more creative control, and more monetary control? Or what are the advantages of a do-it-yourself label?

BRIAN FAIR: You know honestly it’s not necessarily the artistic control because Atlantic and Century Media… we would make the records and then play it for them when they were done. So they didn’t really have a whole lot of input that way. But what is great is by doing both the indie label thing for years and then being with Atlantic for a little while, we’ve learned a lot about what works for us as a band and the best way to promote ourselves. And took lessons from both of those experiences to kinda be able to renegotiate our Atlantic deal into a distribution deal with their parent company Warner Music. Where we took the monetary control is the biggest thing too, like budget wise, we were able to spend money in the right places and make those decisions ourselves as opposed to some major labels just want to throw a bunch of money into a video or radio. And hope it hits. With us that’s just not really the way it works. So there’d be a lot of not necessarily wasted money, but money that could’ve been directed in a better direction. So that’s what’s great now, and also there’s no more excuses. Like, ‘oh I didn’t know we were doing this, I didn’t know we were doing that.’ Everyone’s involved so you can all be on the same page and really just try and make the best decisions. But also with the music industry struggling so much, record sales dropping so drastically, it was time to make a new business model anyway instead of getting 10% royalty rate on records. On declining record sales now we at least get an 80%. So we are at least working to put money in your own pocket as opposed to the bottom you know for someone’s car payment on their Porsche.

AWAY-TEAM: Exactly and that that was basically my next question, do you think having the control of your own label will help secure you in, by most people’s estimates, 3 years the major labels will all collapse if they don’t immediately change their business model?

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah that’s the thing you know. It was all about being proactive instead of waiting to see where the chips fell as is the fallout from the downloading mess of the internet… We didn’t want to wait and see what… Cuz you could tell labels were in panic mode. We were lucky when we signed with Atlantic because things were a little more stable. And we were able to get a really good advance and sign a great deal. But those days are gone. Now it’s all 360 deals or they’re trying to take a percentage of your merch, your publishing, your touring, everything! So instead of waiting around to see what was the last of the industry, we figured we’d start our own little business model. I have a feeling that even the CD itself might be gone soon, just the way cassettes and vinyl were before. It’s better to learn as much about the business side and handle as much personally, band for band, as you can. When it gets down to that your gonna have to… if you don’t know what to do then… you know you’re just gonna be sitting there just kinda stuck in limbo so we figured we’d get ahead of the game.

AWAY-TEAM: What I think a lot of people don’t realize is… you mentioned the 360 deals. Most people think that bands make a ton of money off album sales. And in the 80s and 90s there was good money to be made there. But today, and the last 10 years if not a little more than that, your artists and your bands make their money on the road. Selling the t-shirts, selling the tickets, selling all kinds of merch. That’s where you make the most amount of your money. So now labels are doing what they’re calling the 360 deals and they’re taking a little bit of your merch, they’re taking some of your guarantees at the door and your ticket sales just so they can try to survive themselves, and like you said make their Porsche payments.

BRIAN FAIR: Yup and it’s unfortunate for a lot of younger bands. Those are the only options they are being presented with. In a young band and you’re a teenage kid and you just want to get out of the practice space and get on the road. And you think that’s your only option and it may be ok when you’re on a small level. But if you start blowing up all of a sudden you realize you’re like, ‘we’re giving these people money for nothing you know? They’re not even here selling our t-shirts yet they’re getting 10% of every one we just sold!’ It’s really an unfortunate thing; cuz like you said that really is where you make your money. You know touring, merchandising, as well as publishing! Getting yourself onto video games or movies or just random soundtracks and things like that. And as soon as you let the label start dipping into that you’re gonna really be left with nothing else. So it’s really about trying to protect your assets if you can. It’s unfortunate; I remember when we just wanted to rock, now we gotta study tax laws and stuff. It’s terrible but if you want to do it full time, it’s something you gotta really take seriously.

AWAY-TEAM: Absolutely, musicians have never as a rule been great businessmen. That’s what they have the managers for. And now unfortunately you’ve gotta be your own businessman, your own lawyer, your own manager, you’ve gotta take care of yourself because everyone’s getting a piece, or trying to.

BRIAN FAIR: Exactly that’s the other…we’ve seen enough of those Behind the Music’s to know all the things that could go wrong. So now you can’t pretend ignorance anymore. We’ve all watched what happened to Grand Funk Railroad, and all those bands on all those great VH1 Behind the Music’s so (laughs) no excuses anymore.

AWAY-TEAM: So on your label are you going to be signing other bands or is this strictly just to push Shadows Fall?

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah, right now it is just to push Shadows Fall. We wanted really to just see how things worked out. We’ve suggested to other bands to kinda look into a similar deal with the parent company and you know or the independent label group. But in the future if we thought we could help a band in a way without becoming the evil label side of it then that would be awesome. And if they could use our imprint just to help them get like a leg up that would be great. But we would want them to really be running it. It would be more, ‘here’s a platform, here’s a distribution center, now you guys gotta go out and you know run with the ball.’ Otherwise we would just be becoming a regular record label and that business model just doesn’t work. At that point you’re just a loan shark you know?

AWAY-TEAM: So to the bands that are still in the garage or the practice space … What kind of advice can you give to the garage band, they’re trying to make it, how to set themselves apart and get noticed today?

BRIAN FAIR: I would tell them to study hard and get a degree that will get ‘em a real job! (laughs) Honestly I would tell you to really, just get to the point where you just are so comfortable with your sound before you’re just throwing it out there. Really use advantage of all the free networking that’s available, whether it’s putting up songs on MySpace or just staying in touch with bands through Twitter, use all those as much – all the free outlets – as much as possible. Whether it’s YouTube or anything you know, those things weren’t available to us as a young band. We had to just go out on the road and just hand out demos physically as opposed to now, you can just give someone a little flier with all your info and they can hear your music as soon as they get home. It’s such a difference. Shit, they can probably hear it on their phone you know? Like really take advantage of all that and learn as much as you can about how the business side works. Because you’re gonna end up running it yourself at some point if it gets successful. So really, just absorb as much as you can. And also just really get out there and play as much as you can. Cuz the live show is the one thing that can never be downloaded or taken away from the band. The live performance is such a unique experience it really just where it’s all about focused energy, on going out there and kicking ass onstage!

AWAY-TEAM: Ok, enough of the business side, let’s get back to the music. Most of your albums have a cover or two on them from Pink Floyd to Dangerous Toys and even Leeway, how do you guys go about picking a cover? Are these nods to your influences or just songs you want to play putting…

BRIAN FAIR: They’re definitely always an influence you know but there’s two kinda schools we choose from there’s the bands like Leeway and the Cro-Mags that are for us kind of paying tribute to a band that helped kinda shape our sound, but they may not be known by a lot of our either younger fans, or more like not as the underground kids. So that’s where we choose to do a Leeway song or something like that. The other ones like Dangerous Toys and Bark at the Moon, those are just fun. That’s for us to enjoy the studio time and be able to just record a kick ass tune, and for me to be able to sing about werewolves or Teasin’ and Pleasin’. Like I’m never gonna say, ‘I think I got the wrong house’ you know? Like that will never fit into a Shadows Fall song. So for me it’s just a fun experience to just have a little party anthem.

AWAY-TEAM: What were your influences when you started? What made you want to sing to begin with?

BRIAN FAIR: You know I really got into early rock like KISS and Aerosmith and Black Sabbath at a pretty young age. I had a cool older brother and a cool neighbor who turned me onto a lot of good music. But then I got really into punk rock through skateboarding when I was probably like 12, 13. I was listening to Black Flag and the Sex Pistols and stuff, and that led me to going to local Boston hardcore shows and stuff. But the entire time I was going to hardcore shows I was also listening to a ton of thrash metal you know the Bay Area bands – Testament, Death Angel, Metallica as well some of the early death metal so I think that’s really where the kind of combination of sounds of just death metal and old school hardcore and the classic metal kinda all came into Shadows Fall. I think all 5 of us at least shared those kind of common backgrounds even though I was listening to a lot of reggae and jazz, whereas some of the other guys listened to a lot of glam metal and we all had our different stuff. But the common ground we shared the old school metal as well as that kinda early crossover metal hardcore stuff.

AWAY-TEAM: I’ve seen this asked of you before, and reading reviews of various CDs of yours, and when people ask me how to define your sound it’s really impossible to do. I guess it’s because of the various influences but how would you describe the Shadows Fall sound?

BRIAN FAIR: You know just call us a metal band! Because we really do take things from the entire sort of metal history, because we just grew up as fans of all types of heavy music. And you can hyphenate it a million times you can call it like neo-thrash-melodic-death-blah blah blah, and then add metal at the end, but to me it’s just its just metal.

AWAY-TEAM: Ok, fair enough. Retribution sees you guys delving into a bit heavier more aggressive tighter sound than previous efforts. Like almost more focused on a set sound for the feel of the entire album. Was this a natural progression or was it thought out and planned?

BRIAN FAIR: You know it wasn’t really planned but we knew with Threads of Life, the previous album, we definitely pushed the kind of melodic arena rock side of our sound probably as far as it could go so with this record. It was probably subconscious but we definitely started right out the gates writing really aggressive songs. Public Execution was one of the first tunes we were working on, as well as My Demise and War came about pretty early on. And that sort of set the tone where we’re like alright this is going to be a heavy fast record. And there’s still melodic moments like Picture Perfect is a very melodic song with acoustic moments and then a big chorus but overall I’d say it’s definitely probably maybe besides Of One Blood it’s probably the most aggressive record we’ve done from beginning to end.

AWAY-TEAM: I’d described it as tighter, more cohesive, more defined, and straightforward.. just balls out album.

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah there’s definitely a lot of that. We really wanted to balance all of the influences and make them cohesive. As opposed to some bands these days want to fit so much in that they’ll almost cut and paste, ‘alright here’s the death metal part, here’s the breakdown, here’s the big melodic chorus’ and they almost feel sorta just stuck together and forced. We wanted it to be if it was going to be a thrash song and fast it was going to be that way from beginning to end. There wasn’t going to be some weird left turn you know? If it was going to be a melodic hard rock song it was going to stay that way from beginning to end. And I think that’s just us getting more comfortable as song writers. I think song writing is the most difficult thing to progress and learn over time. Everyone gets better as a musician but that still doesn’t mean you can write a song.

AWAY-TEAM: So does the title Retribution reflect the music on the disc or does its meaning lie elsewhere?

BRIAN FAIR: Well you know we wanted a one word title for the first time. Something that just had an aggressive vibe to it, but also we’d kinda been off the radar for about two years between records and we kinda wanted to just stake our claim again. Let people know we were back. There’s just so much metal these days, and there’s so many bands, and it’s so easy to put a record out that we just were like…this was our sort of our coming back atcha thing. Going for the throat sort of record and we just felt like Retribution kind of fit that.

AWAY-TEAM: So how do you as a band go about writing a record? Is it collaborative musically? Do you all sit around and hammer out a song or do you take the riff tapes and piece a song together?

BRIAN FAIR: Our guitar players usually bring a very rough outline of the song or even just a few riffs, and we would just jam on them in the practice space full volume together. And I think that also led to it being an aggressive record, cuz we were actually playing a lot of it live right out of the gates. So it really led to that energy and we were thinking about how they would be onstage as opposed to just thinking of them as just studio pieces. So there and a lot of weird transitions that never would have happened if we would have just emailed back and forth MP3s. Some crazy little wacky idea would come out of nowhere while we were jamming, so I think that really helped make it a cohesive and also just a little more aggressive record. Just crankin’ it and going for it.

AWAY-TEAM: So does the music affect or influence the lyrics or does the writing of the lyrics influence the way the music is written?

BRIAN FAIR: For me, I usually wait til not necessarily the finished instrumental version, but pretty well defined. And I get a vibe from it that will affect the lyrics. If it’s a head crushing heavy song the lyrics have to reflect that. If it’s a long epic kinda song I may get more into a grand storytelling vibe. I definitely usually wait to get that from the music itself.

AWAY-TEAM: As we said before, you’re currently out on the road with some great bands on the Mayhem Festival, what would be your ultimate bill for a show?

BRIAN FAIR: You know we’ve played a festival with them before but we would love to tour with Metallica cuz that’s the one band that I grew up worshipping that we’ve never gotten to do extended time on the road with. And there’s only one Metallica man! They’re the kingpins, so that would be pretty amazing.

AWAY-TEAM: So are you guys sitting around waiting to do the opening for the Big Four then? Is that what you’re asking? To throw in your hat….

BRIAN FAIR: Oh that would be as cool as it gets! But honestly that would be a tough opening spot even to begin with. People would be like ‘yeah great we don’t care, get to the Big Four’!

AWAY-TEAM: Absolutely I can definitely see that. Which hearkens back to the old Bay Area days when if you weren’t Exodus or Metallica onstage everyone would stand with their backs to you and just wait for the band they came to see get onstage…

BRIAN FAIR: Totally it’s just like the opening band getting “Slayer” chanted at them for the entire set. It is definitely some tough spots…Those are the shows that when you do come out and win a crowd over like that, those are some of your best successes. We must have kicked ass tonight because these dudes don’t give a cr-… they don’t care about anybody!

AWAY-TEAM: So I see you guys are performing some off dates while you’re on this festival getting back into the clubs up close and personal with the audience. Everybody wants to be a rockstar, everybody wants to play in front of 60,000 people every night, but which is the better show for you? In the club in front of 300 people nose to nose and fist to fist or something like Mayhem playing for 10 20 30,000 people a night?

BRIAN FAIR: You know for me it really goes both ways. But I definitely grew up playing small, small shows and going to a lot of small, small shows. So to me that’s really probably my comfort zone. The people are there to see you and are right up there supporting and in your face. But there’s something about like… we played a festival in Columbia last week where there was 150,000 people. And just seeing that, there’s really nothing cooler you know? There’s just so much energy and it’s so overwhelming you can barely even focus on one point out in the crowd. Its just so huge and it really can go both ways, but we played a packed club show in Brazil the day before and it was insane! There was so much energy, so much sweat, kids up on the stage and that vibe it brought me back to why I started doing this to begin with. So they both really have a place in my heart but I’d probably always feel more comfortable in a club.

AWAY-TEAM: So how does that change your approach to the show? I mean if you look out from the stage and you see 150,000 people out there how do you connect with that 150,000th person?

BRIAN FAIR: You do have to change the way you do it cuz in the club show you can be standing on the barricade and getting the crowd physically involved in the show so there’s not as much of just a focal point on you. At the big festival there’s a giant security barriers so the focus is just on you, every gesture is a little bigger and you do have to remind yourself to keep connecting with the crowd cuz it is so big. You try to involve them as much as possible, cuz it is really it is a completely different animal. The crowd isn’t part of the show at those big festivals until you make them part of it. Whereas in the club there’s no escape, they’re shoved right up in your face.

AWAY-TEAM: You recently completed your first headlining tour of Canada. Where haven’t you played yet that you really want to?

BRIAN FAIR: You know after doing South America, that was a big checkmark! We went down just recently and did Columbia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. That was amazing! I can’t believe it took us almost 15 years to get down there. For now we have an offer for a festival in China that we hopefully can work out cuz that to me, the fact that we’ve already gone to the Philippines, Korea and all these places I never thought metal would take me, if we can get to China I’m like, ‘Alright now we’re just really we’re runnin’ out of places we’re going to have to play for the penguins down in Antarctica next’.

AWAY-TEAM: That would be really cool, a festival in China wow!

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah that would be amazing!

AWAY-TEAM: So how do you personally get through the monotony of a day on the road without a show?

BRIAN FAIR: That’s why we sold so many off dates. I hate downtime on the road! You usually end up at a Wal-Mart wasting money on DVDs or looking for a movie theater.

AWAY-TEAM: What’s the one thing you can’t live without on the road?

BRIAN FAIR: Let’s see, I’d probably say my pipe but I’d also include my skateboard in that too so…

AWAY-TEAM: And not necessarily in that order right?

BRIAN FAIR: Yeah yeah yeah! And I usually try to keep them separate too!

AWAY-TEAM: That’s probably smartest.

BRIAN FAIR: Choppin’ it on a vert ramp all day can be end up really ending tragically. Although it does still happen from time to time.

AWAY-TEAM: What’s your favorite song to perform live and why?

BRIAN FAIR: You know right now it’s actually been the song War which is sorta, I can’t call it a Bob Marley cover, I adapted some of the lyrics from his version of the Haile Selassie speech that he used in his song, War, but it’s just balls out like definitely the fastest Marley cover ever. And for me the crowd is just like a nonstop circle pit. So it’s a great one to just throw out there and it’s also one of those 3 minute just punch in the throat and then you’re out.

AWAY-TEAM: What’s the one song you didn’t write that you wish you did?

BRIAN FAIR: Pretty much anything on Master of Puppets!

AWAY-TEAM: And my last question for you, what’s the worst name of a band you’ve ever been in?

BRIAN FAIR: Worst name of a band I’ve ever been in? Social Violation. It was a punk rock band when I was literally like probably 12 years old. At one point my whole thing was hitting the guitar with all the distortion up with drumsticks, thinking it was some art scene noise thing. It’s like no, you just don’t know how to hold it!

AWAY-TEAM: Well Brian I appreciate it man good luck out on the road with the Mayhem Festival. You’ve got a DVD coming out ‘Madness in Manila’ next month on the 24th of August good luck with that!

BRIAN FAIR: It’s actually getting pushed back, it’s actually getting pushed back a little bit. We just found a bunch more footage that we had to include so we’re going to actually push the date back a little bit to the fall but ‘Madness in Manila’ is coming.

AWAY-TEAM: I look forward to it! I’ve seen you guys 2 or 3 times, I’ve produced a couple of shows with you and Lacuna Coil in the North Carolina area and I’m looking forward to seeing you guys August 3rd in Raleigh , NC.

BRIAN FAIR: Indeed man it’s going to be a good time! I remember those shows those were good shows! Man, that’s killer!

AWAY-TEAM: Good luck, be safe, and we’ll see you soon.

BRIAN FAIR: Indeed man thanks for spreading the word, we appreciate it!

My thanks to Natalie at Adrenaline PR for the hook up, my transcriptionist extraordinaire melissa for the 15 pages, and Brian Fair for taking the time out of a busy schedule to throw down a great interview.

For more on Shadows Fall click here.

For Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival dates click here.

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