- David McClister
Update on August 19: Following the publication of this article, the Hardscrabble Music Festival was cancelled.
Helper, Utah has changed its image—from an old mining town headed for bust, to a booming arts center. An influx of out-of-towners with vision and support from local figures like Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman are breathing new life into the old town, and one of the many hip new additions to Helper's new sheen is the Hardscrabble Music Festival, which will bring musicians from near and far, by plane, car and ... train.
California-based festival organizers Audra Angeli-Morse and Cathy Mason are not from Utah, but they have a sense of what makes us tick—namely, that we're really proud of our landscape. "When I first was playing around with names, one of the guys that helped me with developing this project said that Helper is at the beginning of Hardscrabble Canyon, and that the city takes a lot of pride in being [there]," Mason says.
It also feels like the right word to imply what kind of fest it is—one of nitty gritty rock 'n roll, mainly. Headliners include the '60s rock band Flamin' Groovies, the all-women AC/DC cover band Hell's Belles, '90s psych-rockers Spindrift, contemporary firebrands like Rod Gator and Utah artists like Michelle Moonshine, Utah County Swillers and many more.
And some of the California-based bands will be enjoying the unique experience of hopping right on the California Zephyr, the train that departs out of Emeryville, Calif., and stops right in Helper along its long route to Illinois. Mason says, "The mayor was beyond excited when she heard that, because their whole livelihood has been based on the trains for years. So it's so exciting that people are actually taking the train to get to play this show."
From the trains to the people themselves, Helper seems to have a magnetic draw. After Angeli-Morse and Mason met some 20 years ago on a dude-crowded bus while working a tour, they went on to have long careers in talent-buying and producing shows and festivals, plus touring and band managing, counting fests like Punk Rock Bowling in their portfolio. But they always wanted to put on a festival of their own.
The opportunity would come via the pandemic, and via Helper. During 2020, Mason was spending time working on live streams, where she became acquainted with a young Helperite who harangued Hardscrabble into motion. "He kept talking about Helper and how 'you gotta see this town, they really want to do a festival,'" Mason says. "Eventually, he talked about it so much that I went out there."
Mason was immediately charmed, and so were the residents she met. "When they said, 'can you do an event here?' I was like, 'Absolutely, I would love to,'" Mason recalls. Her first call was to Angeli-Morse, whose response was, "Utah? Do I have to go book a bunch of country music?"
But honky-tonk would not be the order of the day in Helper. The historic mining town is lately a playground for the arts, with events like the Helper Arts, Music and Film Fest and their First Fridays gallery strolls. And, like fellow arts-loving small towns like Torrey, they're all about women.
"We're hiring as many women in the business as possible to work the festival," Angeli-Morse says. "We were talking about how one of the reasons we wanted to do that was that it was hard for us to get into the business, to hold our ground. We both have done tour managing and more than once I've heard, 'You're a better tour manager, but they don't want a girl on tour,' or, 'My wife doesn't want a woman tour-managing us on a bus.'"
But in such a small town, where does a festival fit? "We are trying to use as much of what is in Helper and lives in Helper all year long as possible, so we are going to close off a portion of Main Street, about a block," explains Mason, who finds comfort in the "grunt work" of building the stages and wrangling the bands. Main Street will be home to the Main Street Fair and the acoustic-focused Big John Stage; nearby Main Street Historic Park will become the Balance Rock Stage, which at 8 p.m. will yield to dance parties DJ'd by Wendy Stongehenge and SLC local DJs Retrograde and Nix Beat.
They'll also be using The Rio Theater for indoor shows, unless Delta ramps up, in which case they'll move those shows outdoors. They're also working to be able to check vaccination records on the spot, and the mayor is working with the county health department to get onsite testing available. They've also been encouraging locals to come, offering free passes for anyone who gets jabbed at the summer event Helper Vibes.
This is all to say, Hardscrabble really wants to be safe, because another shutdown would be death to the music industry it's part of. "I think Helper is just ready to start showing off their town," adds Mason.
With camping, arts, a slow river to float and now Hardscrabble Music Festival, Helper seems like the place to be for summers to come, so go celebrate this first go-round. The festival runs Aug. 28 - 29, and tickets are $25 for single day, $40 for weekend passes at hardscrabblemusicfestival.com.