Venue owners, record companies, booking agents, publicists and journalists, to name a few, all have vested interests in music. So do political and religious leaders. For centuries, both have harnessed the beat of their chosen drummer to get folks marching in the same direction. Gene Triefenbach is a music fan who understands its application to politics. More specifically, as president of the Greater St. Louis Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Triefenbach knows the value of benefit concerts in educating the public and raising money. "The marches we've done have worked out well for fundraising and inspiring people to help out with the cause," he says. "But one thing we found is that having conferences to help people learn about the drug war really doesn't turn people out. They cite boredom as the main reason they don't come. With a musical event, they're going to get all the information they would get at a conference between the bands' breaking down and setting up; they're going to get the education, along with the entertainment and a good time."
Education, entertainment and a good time are all on the agenda for this weekend's celebration of NORML's 30th anniversary. "They were already having the party for the Bearcat Harvest Fest, and we were looking for a place to have our event as well," Triefenbach explains. "Thirty years ago is when president Nixon decided there should be this war on drugs and the war against marijuana. Within a few weeks after that, NORML was formed."
Triefenbach's involvement with NORML began when he was working as an intern with the American Civil Liberties Union. "I needed to do an internship for my college education, and the college sent me to the United States prosecutor's office and a couple of other real nice places like that," he says with a sarcastic laugh. "NORML was having a conference in St. Louis, and Deborah Jacobs from the ACLU was speaking, so I approached her about doing the internship for the ACLU. From there, I met the NORML people, and Deborah expressed that NORML was struggling, that in fact they were going to lose money and be in the hole financially from an event that didn't unfold real well."
After offering to help then-president Ben Cohen with promotional events, Triefenbach was soon doing much more. "A couple of years ago, Ben moved to California, and I was the vice president at the time," he recalls. "So somehow my job, which was only supposed to include helping with shows and making sure the ACLU heard of problems relating to the drug war, expanded to be the president of St. Louis NORML."
Dave Suntrup and his wife, Glee -- owners of the Bearcat Getaway and Black River Amphitheater, the Harvest Fest's venue -- have seen Triefenbach effectively mix politics and music before. Located approximately 105 miles south of St. Louis, in Lesterville, the Bearcat is a 100-acre campground along the Black River. The property has two stages for live music, including a large amphitheater recently used for Salmonfest, a music-and-camping festival sponsored by Leftover Salmon that attracted more 4,000 people. "Gene first came to our place about three years ago, and he asked if he could set up a NORML booth and pass out information and stuff like that," Suntrup explains. "Soon after Salmonfest, he approached me and asked if we would be interested in including NORML as part of our fall festival. We believe in their cause and said, 'Yes, we would like to work something out and help NORML, and you guys can have a great place to have your party!'"
Originally from St. Louis, Suntrup purchased the Bearcat 16 years ago at age 31. "Our family vacation was always a camping trip, and I promised myself that I'd live in the country one day," reflects Suntrup, who says his trade, masonry, allowed him to fulfill his dream. "That's how I was able to pull this off; I kept my brick business going in St. Louis and did a lot of driving over the years."
At first, live music at the Bearcat was more pleasure than business. These days, the two are evenly balanced. "We've been getting serious about the music business for about five years now," says Suntrup, who hosts live music on weekends at the Bearcat's smaller "campground" stage. "It's more intimate there. Most of the time that's where we have our bands play, so for the price of camping, you get all your firewood and the entertainment is included. But when we have a big deal, like when we did Salmonfest, we use both stages."
Music has helped Suntrup's business. Now he's hoping that mixing in some politics won't hurt. "I'm a little concerned about the local reaction to the NORML benefit," Suntrup admits. "I don't want to seem like an irresponsible person that's fostering drug use or anything like that. We really don't believe in a lot of things that are going on, people harming themselves or others with a crazy lifestyle, but you know, we do believe in the NORML cause."
A portion of the proceeds from the festival -- which will feature lectures on a variety of drug-war topics, including the medicinal use of marijuana and the economics of prohibition -- will be donated to NORML. "We'll try to teach people how to not let the police run over them," Triefenbach remarks. "One of the things that money from the event is earmarked for is to start a Lake of the Ozarks chapter of NORML in Lebanon/Springfield. We've got pretty good organization around the state right now with Dan Viets and the Missouri Marijuana Coalition, so we're very close to doing a statewide initiative."
Musically, support for NORML extends well beyond state lines. "We've got bands coming from Boston; from Fayetteville, Ark.; from Springfield," says singer/guitarist Tony Vrooman of local jam-band favorites Vitamen A, the Friday-night headliner. "There's going to be a wide spectrum, from a regional to a national level of bands, so there's going to be a good mix of music."
Describing Vitamen A's sound as "extremely varied," Vrooman says that the band "purposely tries to play within as many genres as we can put into an evening." Vitamen A has performed at NORML benefits in the past. "As a group we've always supported and stood behind legalization and are interested in decriminalization, at least offering medical use to those who actually need it," Vrooman explains. "I'm hoping that our government comes to the realization one day that there are more important things than waging war against your own people. Hopefully music will help bring forth more recognition to that standpoint and that political view."