Sunday, March 4, 2012

The 4th Annual Witches Ball - a Review

Your Author,
in full plumage.

“Everything can be broken except the human desire for connection.”

The 4th annual “Witches Ball” (Benicia) will not go down in History as one of the Great Evenings. A lot went wrong, and yet, you cannot rob people of a good time if they are bound and determined to have one.

The problems were numerous and most transpired long before the first car pulled into the parking lot.
1)    The name, first off. There are literally hundreds of Witches Balls around the country at all times of the year. Trying to find information about this particular event became more difficult right out of the gate.
2)    The Facebook event page. Here it is: Witches Ball. Now doesn’t that just FIRE your imagination? Imagination is necessary here, because aside from the map, there is NO INFORMATION at all to be found here.

3)    The flier. There was a lovely flier for this event, all purple and moons and swishes, but it was very elusive to find online.
4)    I tried the Pagan Alliance website to see if they had it, but all I found was a sad site that announced upcoming events for November (but no events), then an information-free blurb about the Ball that links to the event page (more on that below), and then an announcement that a new chapter of Spiral Scouts is forming with “Regular Meetings beginning in March, 2007.”
5)   The Eventbrite page. Here is the main page for the Witches Ball on Eventbrite
a.     Note first the small photo, upper right. The ONE SINGLE photo of the event. It shows a big guy in black with a porkpie hat tightly hugging a small clown in an empty warehouse. Frankly, this doesn’t give me a lot to go on.
b.     If this is the 4th incarnation of this event, there are presumably photos of the previous years. And maybe, just maybe, one of them might illustrate the phrase “Witches Ball” better than a thumbnail of a clown getting squished. Would a gallery of photos have been so difficult to put together?
c.     The first thing on the page is the Ticket Prices and payment options. Whoa, there pardner. How about you sell me a little on your event before throwing the VISA logo at me? (And, there were four different pricing options, I heard of two more at the event, and nobody seemed to be checking for wrist bands or watching the entrances anyway.)
The Benicia Clock Tower and Arsenal.
d.     Scroll down and you see a big picture of the venue. Nice place. Historic. And a great view of the San Francisco Bay too.
e.     Next up (or down) on the pages is a long section of all the kids activities happening that afternoon. And it might just be the English Major in me, but I’m not equating “Ball” with children’s playtime. Maybe this part should have had another name, or the whole thing needs a name-change.
f.      Finally the rest of the page is mostly given over to large photos of the vendors who will be showing their wares at the “Ball”.
g.     All of this is presented in one, continuous scroll, leaving the right half of the screen empty. The whole effect of this cheap, fill-in-the-blanks page was not exciting. I still had no idea what the vibe of the “Ball” was going to be, no interior pictures (except inside one of the DJs mouths), no costume ideas, and no FEEL for how this was going to be a “Can’t Miss” event that I would gladly fork over my disposable income for.

    The Witches Ball looked good at first. After a 100 mile drive their directions got me right there. I was greeted by a huge, painted sign at the bottom of the hill, below the Arsenal. A nice touch. Parking was adjacent and plentiful. The ticket guy at the foot of the stairs was nice but seemed to be a little hit and miss on actually checking for the ticket thingies. The big, old wooden staircase leading up to the main floor was wildly decorated with vines, foliage and colorful danglies and sparklies. Well done! It truly set the scene for the theme of Forest Faery.

Oh, did I not mention the theme? Maybe I missed it because it somehow failed to make it to ANY of the promotional literature. The only place I’ve seen it is on a link, which is kinda pathetic.

But once you got to the top of the stairs the decorations just kind of…..evaporated. Blank brick walls, bare, white rented folding tables, cables and cords everywhere and a skeletal stage at the end of the room. Would a few tapestries have been such a pain? In fact the only decoration I could find in the main area were a bunch of rubber rats on the bar. This of course fit right in with “Witches” “Ball” “Forest” “Faery”……… “Spring”? no. “Plague”? Whatever.

Ah, "Forest Faery" I see it now.....
It was immediately obvious that things were not going well at this event. After a two-hour drive I arrived at 8:15pm, because the eventbrite page said “8pm – midnight 21+” and then showed a picture of the Sharon Knight Band, which I took to mean that the band would be coming on first. (Which kind of made sense, as the trio version of Pandamonaeon is more gentle and soothing than danceable. Ease people in with the drummerless, acoustic live group and then let the Djs churn everybody to a froth for the rest of the evening. Made sense in my book.)

Anyhoo, I arrive at 8:15pm and nothing is going on. There’s maybe 40 people there, all milling about, while sporadic background music played. I’m REALLY glad I didn’t splurge on the $30.00 VIP tickets, which had the added attraction of getting you into this seething cauldron of naughty fun a full hour early. Hoo-boy!

I find a couple of friends from Pantheacon and have a nice discussion at the bar, amongst the rubber rats. I ask one of the musicians when their set starts and he says 9:30pm. Hmmmm. Soon it is time for a bellydance class to have a show on the main floor. Then the Djs take over for awhile. About 20 people are dancing. I see more friends and we have a fun time on the floor. Then more bellydance routines. Then more DJs. We watch the jiggling and then create our own.

Anonymous photographers were wandering about taking candid pictures of the celebrants without introducing themselves before or after, or handing out business cards. This was upsetting to the female friends that I was dancing with.

But as the evening rolls on, it is obvious that something is missing. Well, LOTS of somethings, actually. From the Eventbrite Page: “Aerial Dance by Lady Luck” “Raffle Prizes” “Costume Contest” – none of these things transpired at the Witches Ball. (Unless they all happened during the special VIP hour!)

Don't get me started on these two.
The Master of Ceremonies duties kinda broke down early in the evening, and we really had no idea what was going on or why, or even what the normal track of events was supposed to have been in the first place. (One thing my group learned last year was the simple use of a white board near the entrance that had the map of the evening’s activities. Just a general idea of what was supposed to go on at each hour. You don’t have to be exact, but people really seemed to like being able to see what was supposed to be happening when.)

For 3 hours we danced and laughed and talked and watched lovely ladies bellydance. Up on the stage the world’s longest sound check continued throughout the evening, but every time the sound guy attempted to bring any sound to the microphones or monitors he was met with some really vicious feedback screams.

It was 11pm – one hour before they close the joint, and we were all kinda danced out. The Bellydancers were in street clothes. The crowd, which maybe topped 100 at one point, was back to about 40 people. And the band finally takes the stage and is greeted by another storm of squalling feedback. Oh, and the trio is now a duo, as one of ‘em is too sick to perform. Rough night for the Sharon Knight band.

We exited during the 3rd song, and we were not alone. The mood in the parking lot was far more festive than inside the “Ball”, where it sounded like the band had just bypassed all the electronics and was truly playing unplugged to the dwindling crowd.

So, a couple of points I want to make clear here. One, it was a Murphy’s Law night for the live groups, but hey, that sort of thing happens. What was more sad to me was the lack of initiative, resources and preparation by the Pagan Alliance group. They were understaffed and overwhelmed by the evening and we, the celebrants, were left feeling uncared for, which is the last thing you want your crowd to be feeling.

On the plus side the venue is lovely and has great potential for decoration and theme evenings. The date, just after Pantheacon, is perfect. The DJs worked hard at salvaging the evening. The bar staff were efficient and sympathetic. There is great potential for this event.

And, more importantly, it is really hard to get a bunch of pagans together in Spring and have them NOT have a good time. We were unceremoniously herded around all evening, (dance now. Now stop. Stand over here while this happens. FEEDBACK. Now dance. Now stop. FEEDBACK. Dance now.) and I think most people still walked away with a smile on their faces.

I hope the organizers of this event have a productive Post-Mortem meeting over this one and come back next year with a more robust, clear, Magickal, knock-your-socks-off evening of visual and sonic fireworks. I’ll be there!

Angus McMahan


  1. Outstanding rendition of the evenings lacking, albeit fun events. Thank you sir, couldn't have summarized it better myself!!

  2. I remember last year there was a worlds longest sound check as well, which is sad, they ended up cutting the band off at 2.5 songs. They need to figure out how to fix it.

    I think the bands, or dances should start earlier, waiting 1.5 hours does not sound right. It would provide more time when these issues come up. Plus standing around for that long not having anything really to do is a waste.

  3. Totally agree, and I am sad to hear that problems this year are repeats. From what I saw - and speaking as a musician and a roadie - the place where the stage was is totally wrong. A blank brick wall and a glass window behind means the sound is going to be bouncing right back into the mics. Better to put the stage on an angle, or even in a corner. Give the sound a chance to escape. Plus the obvious rental equipment was not the best quality. I really want to support them in having a live band(s) however. These problems CAN be overcome.
    And yes, do the live show first, so the evening has a chance to "flow" organically from there.

  4. Next year I say we bring our own "gang" and have a damn good time no matter what!!! Wait...that's exactly what we did this year!! My favorite part of the night was the DJ who came out to dance with us!!! Oh and you helping me down the stairs!! Such a gentleman in your smashing tux!!!

  5. I'd call it a successful reconnaissance, to be sure. But next year we'll have a guaranteed great time, because you'll have your posse, I'll bring mine and then it's pretty superflous whether the Ball improves or not!