Unplugged

The music stops when Nathan Tumulty deserts his Arcanum Festival

The first indication that the Arcanum Festival at the Black River Amphitheater was collapsing was the blackout at the drum & bass stage around 2 a.m., a result of "technical difficulties" that, the crowd was informed, would soon be rectified. At that point, the glitch was no big deal; three other stages were up and running, pumping electronic dance music -- techno, house, trance, ambient -- so the revelers simply moved to another stage. When the power was cut at the main stage, though, the crowd started to sense that the difficulties were more than technical. The suspicion was confirmed a few moments later, when an amateur auctioneer jumped onstage and started selling equipment: "$100 for a turntable!" he screamed. "Who wants a Technics for $100? What about needles? These are nice needles! Any takers?" There weren't any takers, because the audience didn't understand what was happening.

They didn't know that Nathan Tumulty of St. Louis, promoter of the Arcanum Festival, had quietly disappeared earlier in the evening without paying any of the contractors or the performers or the owner of the amphitheater. Even his sister and his parents, who had helped him put on the festival and who were there, had no idea where he was.

The Black River Amphitheater and its accompanying campground, the Bearcats Getaway, are located an hour-and-a-half southwest of St. Louis, just outside Lesterville, Mo. The property is tucked away in the woods, a gorgeous 150 acres comprising a campsite, a few cabins, direct access to the Black River and a natural amphitheater, at the bottom of which is a large stage. Owned by Glee and Dave Suntrup, it's a perfect place for a weekend event: Set up camp, walk across the gravel road to the amphitheater, hear some music, take a swim in the river, retire to the campground and build a fire. The amphitheater often hosts these events, though usually they're in association with rock bands -- Grateful Dead cover bands, jam bands, acoustic acts. This weekend, the Women in Rock event will see some of St. Louis' most popular and talented female artists showcasing their music.

Glee Suntrup, owner of the Black River Amphitheater, had no idea what happened to festival promoter Nathan Tumulty. "He was gone by 8 o'clock," she says. "He wasn't there for any of it. He was gone. Gone. Not here."
Jay Fram
Glee Suntrup, owner of the Black River Amphitheater, had no idea what happened to festival promoter Nathan Tumulty. "He was gone by 8 o'clock," she says. "He wasn't there for any of it. He was gone. Gone. Not here."

In the Bearcats Getaway and the Black River Amphitheater, Tumulty discovered a perfect venue for his electronic-music festival, and he attempted to create something magical. "I took what I had as an idea," he says, "and turned it into a dream."

His dream was the Arcanum Festival. It was to begin the afternoon of Aug. 19 and stretch through the morning of Aug. 20. For a $40 ticket, attendees were promised "18 hours of nonstop celebration under the stars." Using a budget reportedly well over $100,000, Tumulty hired the best of the best: Five stages were to showcase 65 DJs, at least half of them from outside St. Louis (most notably house legend Jesse Saunders, techno originator Kevin Saunderson and turntablist champion Q-Bert); he hired state-of-the-art sound, lighting and laser systems and paid for entire staffs to work on-site; he created an impressive eight-page full-color flier to promote the event throughout the Midwest. According to Tumulty's press release, more than 10,000 people were expected. Read the flier: "150 acres of beautiful outdoors will be transformed into the most incredible, mind blowing visual and auditory experience you could ever imagine.... Prepare yourself for an eighteen hour journey into the future of musical celebration."

Nathan Tumulty arrived at the Black River Amphitheater later than he said he would. According to Glee Suntrup, he was to arrive Wednesday, Aug. 16, to begin preparations for the festival, but he didn't actually get there until after midnight on Friday and didn't get started until early in the afternoon on Saturday, just a few hours before the festival was to begin. The fest did, however, start on time, at 3 p.m. that day, and seemed to be running smoothly. Artists were performing, and a crowd was trickling in. The Arcanum crew continued to set up throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, and though Suntrup says she felt that the festival was a bit unorganized, she didn't get the sense that it wouldn't take place. But early that evening, Tumulty disappeared.

"He was gone by 8 o'clock," she says. "He was supposed to have met me at 9 to settle up with me, and we were all searching for him. He wasn't there for any of it. He was gone. Gone. Not here." As a result, the Arcanum Festival coasted, out of gas. Volunteers -- friends, college students and attendees helping in return for free admission -- were left to fend for themselves, and Aaron Zack, the front-gate manager sent by Dan Friedman, Tumulty's lawyer, to help with the festival, was left in charge. He didn't have any experience in running this sort of event, nor was he expected to.

To the audience, none of this was apparent. By 9 p.m., the crowd, though surprisingly thin and nowhere near the expected 10,000, was getting its money's worth. Buried deep in the woods, far removed from anything remotely electronic, lasers and strobes lit up the forest and river, turning them blue, red and yellow, as all five sound systems burned with beat music. Those approaching the festival along the gravel road from Lesterville may have believed they were witnessing a UFO landing.

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