Music, laughs, learning on tap at Sweetwater 420 Fest

Event preview

2013 Sweetwater 420 Fest. April 19-21. Free admission. $5 daily for 21-plus wristband. $150 for three-day VIP ticket, available until April 18. 585 Candler Park Drive N.E., Atlanta. 404-691-2537,

New this year at Sweetwater 420 Fest

VIP Pass — For the first time, the 420 Fest will offer a VIP pass that includes a premier viewing area at the main stage, access to a furnished VIP lounge, climate-controlled restrooms, one meal per day provided by Food 101, Cibo e Beve and Meehan's, and a premium bar with discounted drinks.

Sweetwater Experience Tent — Taste unique styles of Sweetwater beer, including experimental, barrel-aged, Dank Tank and cask ale creations. Plus, Sweetwater brewers, partners and friends on the presenter's stage hosted by Draft Magazine.

Band Competition — Chipotle hosts Cultivate Beats, a battle of the bands-style competition, with the winning act performing live on Saturday (April 20) at the 420 Fest.

Silent Disco — Dance with headphones on in a funky and free silent disco, as live DJs spin. Kids rock out during a special session on Sunday, featuring young DJs.

Sure, it’s a mostly-free, weekend-long party put on by Sweetwater, the Atlanta brewing company known for mottos such as “Don’t float the mainstream” and “We’re here for a good time.”

But from its humble beginnings in 2004, the annual 420 Fest has grown in size and stature to become a showcase for music, comedy, art, and environmental education. And this year, the Sweetwater Experience debuts with a series of tasting and education sessions featuring brewers and beer experts.

Sweetwater’s marketing director, Steve Farace, remembered the first 420 Fest, which drew a curious crowd of 3,000 to an Oakhurst neighborhood park near Decatur for an Earth Day celebration of beer and music.

“We had Tea Leaf Green as the last-minute headliner, because they happened to be playing in Florida the night before, and North Carolina the night after,” Farace said. “They pulled their RV backstage, played for two hours, jumped back in their RV and hit the road again.”

The festival moved to Masquerade Music Park the following year. Since then, it’s been in Atlanta’s Candler Park, near Little Five Points, where a crowd close to 50,000 is expected this year.

“Candler Park has been a good home,” Farace said. “We really want 420 to be a community festival, with a lot of different things to do — good bands, a good beer experience, a positive environmental footprint, family-friendly during the day, and fun for adults at night.”

Jennifer Bensch started Happy Ending Productions, which produces the 420 Fest. Bensch also happens to be married to Sweetwater “Big Kahuna” Freddy Bensch. But she’s been helping out at music festivals since she was a teenager. And after college, she went to work for a company that produced the Country Music Awards, and Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Phish tours.

“We’ve really tried to make the festival more of an experience and not just about drinking beer all day,” Bensch said. “We’ve been adding things like the comedy tent, and the silent disco, which is new this year, and having more kid-featured activities. And, of course, we’ve tried to bring more music every year.”

Bensch’s 2013 music lineup has a funky bent — with funk-rock pioneers George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic on Friday night (April 19); young blues rebels Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears on Saturday night (April 20); and steel guitar gospel-funk artists Robert Randolph and the Family Band on Sunday (April 21) — plus the likes of Papa Grows Funk and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.

“I’d say we’re getting funky this year, for sure,” Bensch said. “George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic is one of those bands that’s been a little beyond our reach, but we decided to go after them and rock it out on Friday night. And Robert Randolph will be a great way to close out on Sunday.”

New Orleans singer, songwriter and guitarist Anders Osborne is a 420 veteran who has appeared on multiple stages at the festival over the past four years.

This year, Osborne will play in a blues-rock power trio with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Carl Dufrene, showcasing new songs and old favorites.

“I love it. It’s a wonderful festival,” Osborne said. “I always remember people having such a great time. And I remember a lot of beautiful kids running around and playing. The first year I was there, people came up in front of the stage, literally screaming, ‘Amazing!’ ”