It wasn’t how George Claussen envisioned the first Major Rager concert would go. But the weather, as it so often does during Masters Week, refused to cooperate with Claussen and the other Friends With Benefits organizers, forcing them to move the 2014 outdoor concert from the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre to the then-newly constructed Augusta Convention Center.
Now, as Friends With Benefits prepares for the 2017 Major Rager on April 6 at the Augusta Common, Claussen and co. are keeping their fingers crossed once again.
“We actually have a meeting at 2 p.m. today with our insurance man to go over rain insurance,” Claussen laughed. “We’ve been fortunate, knock on wood, that there hasn’t been a bad rain since that first year, but our first four Friends With Benefits shows were all rain outs. Lord willing, the weather will be good and everything will go well for another year.”
It may not have been how he wanted the Major Rager to begin, but Claussen said that little hiccup in the plans really taught him a lesson.
“You know what was so great about that was that when we had to move I saw for the first time the unity of Augusta,” he remembered. “Every news station, every outlet, every company, every sponsor, everyone pushed that we had to move it. Because we moved it the day before. And everybody helped us out, from sponsors to people with personal Facebook pages — everybody got behind us to let everybody know it moved and that the concert was still going on. So that was a big eye-opener for me.”
This may be the fourth Major Rager, but it is the sixth Masters Week event that Claussen has helped organized. Before they went with the straight live-show format, he and friends organized Birdies and Bogies, a fundraising event that featured live music, a JD, food and beverages. And that event started as a bet between Claussen and a friend in Charleston.
“I went to a New Years event in Charleston a friend of mine threw and we were talking and kind of had like a little side bet,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey I bet you we could raise more money on a Masters Week event in Augusta than you can on a New Years event in Charleston.’”
They then decided to donate the money to charity, creating the William Weston IV Fund after a family friend who had recently passed away. They also designated funds to Press On, an organization that raises money to cure childhood cancers headed up by three families directly affected, including the Simkins family from North Augusta.
Press On will be the recipient of funds from this year’s Major Rager.
After the Second Birdies and Bogies event in 2013, Friends With Benefits was born and the group decided they wanted to focus their Masters Week event on being an outdoor concert.
“So the first year was a success and the second year was a success, so we said, ‘Hey, let’s take this up a notch,’” he said. “Rock Fore! Dough was the only thing that was really going on during Masters Week, concert wide, so we thought, ‘Let’s do a concert instead.’”
Claussen said he envisioned an impressive event, so he had to be sold on the name.
“Someone came up with the Major Rager which, at first, I hated,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘Man, this sounds way aggressive. This is a very prestigious event and Major Rager sounds like something that is going to be crazy.’”
The 2014 Major Rager included the bands Umphrey’s McGee and Moon Taxi, who had headlined the Birdies and Bogies event. And, despite the last-minute venue change, things went pretty smoothly.
When it came time to plan the 2015 concert, Friends With Benefits wanted to repeat their headliners from 2014, but couldn’t because of what’s called a radius clause. That simply means that because the two bands had already committed to playing shows nearby and close enough to the time of the Major Rager, they couldn’t also play the Friends With Benefits show. (Remember that fact: It’ll come up again later.)
“So we decided to bring in Gov’t Mule for the second year with the Revivalists and Lettuce and that’s, of course, the first time Sharon (Jones) ever got on stage with us,” Claussen said. “She jumped on stage with Lettuce and sang. It was just a magical night, a great night. That was also the first year we did the XM Radio worldwide broadcast. It was just an awesome show.”
In 2016, Umphrey’s McGee was able to return, but instead of a regular show, they performed a set of covers.
That brings us to 2017, when the folks at Friends With Benefits had a decision to make. They’d always focused on an 18-35 demographic who likes jam bands. Was it time to expand?
“This year, we were thinking, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’” Claussen said. “We knew we were going to get 3,000-4,000 people out here. Is it time to take it to the next level? We didn’t want to go too corporate; we didn’t want to do some pop show. We wanted to stay with our brand as much as we could.”
At the same time, the dreaded radius clause popped up again, with two music festivals on the weekend of April 20 — the Sweetwater 420 Fest in Atlanta and the Wanee Festival in Florida — that had already booked many of the bands they might have been interested in.
“We were double radiused out in the jam world,” he admitted. “Your Phish bands and your Widespread Panic, none of those were even available. We were stuck. How can we stick with what we want to do when we have two huge jam festivals on the same weekend? For us it was like, ‘Who’s even out there? What’s available for us now?’”
To make matters worse, it was already November of 2016, the time when Friends With Benefits would usually be announcing the lineup for the next Major Rager.
“We just threw some feelers out there to different random artists, from Jack White to Ben Harper to Flaming Lips,” he said. “We knew Flaming Lips had a new album coming out and they’ve been around since ’83 and have four Grammys, I think. We wanted to keep it to our age crowd, but also to try to make it a little bit more appealing to a Masters crowd that might be here. You know, Flaming Lips are weird, but they’re well known and they’ve been around for a while. So instead of trying to hit this 18-35 demographic, we decided to try to go up to 55-year-old demographic. And it kind of went back and forth and back and forth and we were finally able to get everything done and announced. We didn’t get it announced until the end of January; it was really, really late.”
The next question for the group was who could open for the Flaming Lips?
“We still wanted to be able to hit that crowd that we’ve been hitting for the past three years, so, of course, we called Moon Taxi and we ran into another radius clause with the Shaky Knees Festival,” he said. “So we called them up and said, ‘Can we get around this radius clause if we get you to play a special set?’ So we went back and forth with Shaky Knees and they approved it. This is almost even cooler than having Moon Taxi, having them play a Rage Against the Machine set as People of the Sun. And then we got Eric Krasno, who is a founding member of Lettuce who played two years ago. And then Stop Light Observations, who’s a new band out of Charleston that are just really blowing up.”
And while the Flaming Lips don’t exactly play the kind of music Major Rager fans are used to, it will live up to fans’ expectations of seeing an extravagant live show. In fact, Claussen promises those who attend may not know what hit them.
“From Rolling Stone (magazine) to everyone else, it’s known as one of the best live shows in the world,” he promised. “What (frontman) Wayne Coyne does and the production they’re bringing in here — you know, 500 pounds of confetti, three 18-wheelers full of production — it’s insane what is about to happen at the Common. He’ll be in his clear plastic ball riding the crowd. It’s extremely different and, again, it’s not about knowing the Flaming Lips it’s about the experience they make you feel when you go to one of their shows. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“And, you know, people trust us,” Claussen continued. “They may not have known who Umphrey’s McGee was, who Gov’t Mule was, who Lettuce was. In fact, I had someone write that on Facebook and it made me feel good. They said, ‘I’m not sure who the Flaming Lips are, but I know y’all know how to throw a party so I’m coming.’ That’s what we wanted. I know this is a little bit different that what you’re used to, but trust us: You’re going to be blown away.”
And how is Friends With Benefits going to follow up a show that features costumes, a giant plastic bubble, confetti and, possibly, a unicorn?
“We haven’t thought too much about next year’s show, but you can’t go backwards,” Claussen admitted. “Once you open that can of worms, you’ve got to keep going. We haven’t thought about what we’re going to do yet, but it’ll definitely be bigger than this year.”
Before they can even think of 2018, though, he and organizers are just focused on the next step in their plan to take the Major Rager to all four major golf tournaments. While Claussen said he couldn’t give any details, he did say they’d already secured a venue in Charlotte, N.C., for the PGA Championship this August.
“That was always our ultimate goal was to go to all four majors, so we’re adding the PGA Championship this year and then, next year, we want to add the U.S. Open until we do all four majors every year,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky. Charlotte is letting us use a venue that has not been used since 2009. The powers that be over there have been very supportive, and a lot of it has to do with the people here who are involved vouching for us and what we’ve done for their charities.”
Right now, however, Claussen said they’re “crazy busy” getting ready for the Flaming Lips on April 6. Now if they could just find a way to make sure it doesn’t rain.
The Major Rager w/ The Flaming Lips, People of the Sun, Eric Krasno Band, Stop Light Observations
Thursday, April 6
$35, general admission; $105, VIP; $100, Fore! Pack; $15, Sky City after party with Funk You, Schema