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Located just an hour and a half north of the Valley and home to more retirees than the average small town, Prescott is better known as a premier Christmas getaway than as an arts community. But it's a town with strong local values and arms open to touring acts and new music, and the inaugural Whisperfest, a DIY nonprofit festival, looks to bolster support for Phoenix bands while rallying the Prescott music community.
Hosted in the forested mountains above Prescott at Whispering Pines Camp, Whisperfest — organized by recently formed Squirrelcage Productions — brings together acts from across the Southwest. Prominently featuring Valley darlings Playboy Manbaby, Battles, and Sundressed, the festival is a two-day affair on July 27 and 28 that runs on a slightly different business model than festival-goers might be used to.
"The [initial] idea with Whisperfest was to give all the money back to the city," says Jordan Tomaeno, Squirrelcage Productions' sound engineer and a Prescottonian by way of Chicago. "It was kind of a 'fuck you' to the city, because at first we were trying to plan this within city limits — we filled out the event papers — but then they were like, 'You have to shut the music down by this time, no cursing, the band names can't be this, and you can't do this.'"
It's difficult to create a new tradition in a town that still prides itself on its Wild West charm, and generating word-of-mouth and respecting the imposed restrictions proved a significant challenge for Tomaeno and co-founder Luke Stasica. Initial reception in the local artistic community was skeptical, at best.
"It was scattered," Stasica says. "It fluctuated, generally along the lines of when we put physical items out there like flyers, T-shirts, advertisements. It hit a peak when people realized we weren't messing around, that this was actually happening."
But it took leaving the city limits to make Prescott actually take notice of Whisperfest. Tomaeno sought out Whispering Pines Camp, owned and operated by the Community of Christ, as an unconventional but geographically fitting location for the event, complete with summer-camp cabins and enough space to house traveling acts.
Whispering Pines gave Squirrelcage the green light. "We decided to go 10 miles outside the city. It's still local, so we get away with a lot of things," Tomaeno says. "Whispering Pines is a private camp, but they're owned by a church. If you look at it down the line, the money we make goes to charities, the money they make goes to charity — there's not a damn person profiting from this entire event."
On June 18, Arizona's attention fixated on Prescott as the Doce wildfire blazed through almost 7,000 acres just northwest of the city. Faced with the first large wildfire of the summer season, the community rallied behind their first responders while reaching out to fellow residents.
In what amounted to a premonition, Tomaeno and Stasica considered donating Whisperfest's proceeds to a cause relative to the fire. "We knew we weren't going to make money off this, that we were going to cover our expenses and give the rest to some charity," Stasica says. "Then the Doce fire happened here, and we decided that we were going to donate the money to some organization that had to do with firefighters."
But with the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy and the loss of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in late June, Whisperfest's mission was altered once more. Now all proceeds from the event will be donated to the 100 Club, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to supporting the families of deceased first responders.
The new mission has proved to be a draw for Whisperfest acts. "I was pretty excited to find out about [the 100 Club]," says Trevor Hedges, vocalist and guitarist for Tempe's Sundressed. "I didn't have any part in planning that or anything, but it just kind of reassured us to say yes to it — we get to go up and have a bunch of fun, play for a big crowd, and it's for a good cause."
Whatever its size, Prescott's growing independent music scene doesn't seem to lack enthusiasm. Hedges and Robbie Pfeffer of Playboy Manbaby both say that Prescott crowds are some of the best they've played for. "I've been really happy with Prescott and the all-ages scene up there," Pfeffer says. "It's new, it's fresh, kids are excited to go to shows, they want to participate. That's probably the best place [Whisperfest] could possibly be."
Hedges' own experience with Sundressed backs up Pfeffer's claim. "We've kind of built a following up there, and the kids that come to shows are just so hungry for music," Hedges says. "It's totally different than a lot of shows down here."
That palpable hunger makes sense when you account for the lack of all-ages venues in Prescott, a necessity for the kind of shows that some Phoenix acts thrive on. Squirrelcage Productions recently moved into its own brick-and-mortar headquarters, a shopfront with a basement venue that once played host to Phoenix acts Wolvves, Avery, Japhy's Descent, and Palms, among others.
Though these acts vary widely in genre and sound, Stasica emphasizes that Prescott's arms are always open to all Phoenix acts — simply, the kids just want a show. "I've noticed that there's a level of gratitude that you don't seen in bigger towns," he says. "People love to go to shows and enjoy seeing the bands, but here . . . when people come here to play, it's like we're grateful that they're here."
Whisperfest carries on that decidedly regional angle by featuring acts like Saddles and Instructions, attempting to draw fans from the Valley up to the highlands while fostering a relationship between Phoenix and Prescott. "Once we got the official lineup announced, the first things people notice are the Phoenix artists that they've seen, that they enjoy," Stasica says. And though Prescott is just a short drive up I-17 for Phoenix fans, Prescott's motto of being "Everybody's Hometown" rings true for Playboy Manbaby, and hopefully for Whisperfest's attendees. "Prescott's pretty much as close as we have to a home away from home as far as shows go," Pfeffer says.
The festival is in its first year, but Whisperfest could mean yet another shift in a constantly changing musical community, this time squarely in the direction of Prescott's younger generation. It's not a simple task, and it's hard to keep grounded, but the relationship between Valley bands looking for a eager crowd and the small-town crowd itself could mean a new chapter for both parties.
Stasica is aware of the challenges that Prescott's independent community faces. When asked, point blank, what it will take to keep things moving, he doesn't miss a beat — the words are out of his mouth faster than the question is asked. "We need community support and tenacity, man. Just not giving up."