By Dan Ray
This weekend, Austin’s inaugural Blended Festival, a combination wine, music, and food festival that bills itself as “the ultimate social experience,” brought a crowd of 7,500 to the Hartman Lawn outside The Long Center for Performing Arts. (Note: for safety, a negative COVID-19 test was required for entry and offered onsite)
Blended Festival Press Director Vito Glazers (age 36) told me he, and festival President John Bazzo, started the fest because, as they got older, they still wanted to go to festivals but didn’t want to be surrounded by early 20-somethings high on ecstasy.
“[We] conceived a Coachella-type outing for a more mature audience,” Glazers said.
And while the festival still had it’s fair share of substances — I definitely walked through several plumes of smoke — it was, well, more mature. It had all the traditional festival tropes, but with an upscale twist: Scantily-clad women traipsed around the fest, but instead of wide-eyed, sweaty, and glitter-covered, they were perfectly manicured, heel-clad, and only slightly tipsy. Light-up beach balls and styrofoam glow sticks hovered above the crowd both nights, but instead of a random assortment of shapes and sizes that ended up covered in spilled beer, they were standardized and stayed dry. And yes, people were drunk, but no one got pulled from the crowd by security because they were falling down dehydrated from the typical festival cocktail of Molly + alcohol + no water + Texas heat. They were just having fun.
Call it a slightly older crowd (I’m guessing the average attendee was in their late 20s or early 30s) or maybe it was due to the cool vendor booths such as the hydration station, where you could get a full IV drip for $75 or a B12 shot for $25. There was also a Mental Health lounge where people could chill, nap, etc.
Before the fest, I thought the idea of a combination wine and music festival was a bit odd — wouldn’t everyone fall asleep dancing? While I did see one woman turn away a wine tasting because it was “too hot for wine,” Glazers said the fest sold thousands of glasses and bottles of wine. And several sponsors and vendors were sold out before the end of the event, including San Francisco canned wine start-up Just Enough Wines.
“Blended Festival gave us an opportunity to connect with a lot of really great people and the ability to share our wines and story in a more personal way,” said Just Enough Wines COO Kaitlyn Lo. “In particular, we found our wines provided a great use case at the festival given the more portable nature of the aluminum cans.”
The festival didn’t come without hiccups: Several attendees told me they were unable to find water, overall signage was unclear (especially for wine tastings which were included with admission), and a four-ounce wine pour came in at a whopping $15. Organizers also cancelled Austin’s culinary stage due to COVID-19 restrictions, so there was a small smattering of food trucks that usually had lines. Although, the Summit Stage was nearby with a lineup of DJs like Brandi Cyrus (yes, she’s Miley’s sister) and IAMNOEL that kept people entertained while they ate.
At the other end of the lawn, the main stage featured a combination of live music sets and DJs. The fest is on a three-city tour (Nashville was in August, and San Diego is coming up in October), and several artists — like Saturday’s headliner Kaskade, who, in keeping with the older, bougie theme, is 50 years old and has three children — are part of the festival’s entire run.
“Trailer Trap” artist Blanco Brown, who combines country and trap in a way that’s kind of like Lil Nas X on steroids, gave by far the most innovative performance. Brown opened with a cover of icon Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” moved into original music, threw in some country cover songs, and then started an early-2000s sing-along when his DJ started playing Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” As I beelined toward the stage, the track became a medley of other 2000s hits, like OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” Steeped in nostalgia, the set felt oddly futuristic, like we were witnessing the next big trend in live music/DJ sets being born.
With its mingling of genres and live performance vs recorded tracks, Brown’s set captured the essence of the entire festival, which, ahem, blended a host of musical acts across country, hip-hop, and EDM.
“A lot of people are discovering Blanco Brown through Blended Festival,” said Glazers. “[He’s] bringing people into our festival, and we’re bringing fans to [him].”
Other notable acts included Bryce Vine, a electronic pop/r&b artist who catapulted around the stage; Friday’s headliner Loud Luxury, a DJ duo that spun nothing but bangers and truly made me appreciate the art of curating a playlist; pop artist Shaylen, who’s on-stage confidence was infectious as she belted tracks about girl power; the fun SZNS, a girl group reminiscent of the Spice Girls, sang the national anthem before a moment of silence (the fest was held on 9/11/21); On The Outside, a country boy band that made Hunter Hayes’ “Wanted” harmonious; and, of course, rap icon Nelly.
Technically Kaskade, a much-lauded DJ from Chicago, headlined Saturday, but Austin-born Nelly was the one who stole the show and truly made it ‘hot in here’. (Sorry, I had to.) He came to the stage nonchalantly, casually striding on in front of an eager crowd as he glided through hits like, “Country Grammar,” the OG “Ride Wit Me,” and yes, “Hot in Here.” I had honestly forgotten how many hits he’s had over the years, and his set felt almost like the grown-up version of Blanco Brown’s — a joyous sing-along of 20 years of household tracks.
Kaskade closed the night with what I found to be a fine but fairly underwhelming set after getting down to Nelly. At the end of the set, Blended President John Bazzo came on stage to promise the fest will be back bigger and better next year, which is standard fare from any organizer. But, given how well this festival really did blend music, wine, and the general festival experience, I actually believe him. With a little more fine tuning, this festival may just become the more-mature Coachella.
Check out our best photos from the festival.