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Festivals

There is a place nestled within the confines of the towering mountains of the Midwest that has named itself after the plateaus in which it is embedded. The name of that whistle-stop, the name of that precipice, the name of the entire region itself are all one and the same. Ozark, Arkansas. Ozark Mountains. The Ozarks.

In the warmer Midwestern months, upon that place and atop it’s mountain, two tens of thousands of folks descend. You take a right (or was it a left?) after driving through places like Alpena and Wittier and the steep incline begins. 40 miles out from Wakarusa, the excitement of those multitudes that arrived before you is palpable. Even upwind, you can sense it.

In it’s 9th year, Wakarusa is a beacon in the Buckle of the Bible Belt that calls out and beckons. The rock fans, the jamband fans, and the bluegrass fans hear that call from a hippy horn and they move to it like moths to a camp lantern. Hipsters, stoners, drop-outs, professors, burn-outs, lawyers driving Jaguars, teenagers, and senior citizens converge, all heeding that call to unite. And unite they do.

Whilst settling in a field with your neighbor’s tent against the ass of your car and two skeevy bikers to your left might not seem like the environment best suited to generate love for your fellow man, it sure does. That love too might have something to do with nature – morning sunset views whose beauty rivals the best sex you’ve ever had. (I immediately regret that analogy.) Steam rising from rivers and converging upon treetops, a lit up ferris wheel in the foreground pushing forth tears because it’s just so goddamn pretty. The sound of a plucked banjo wafting over the hills and across a river. Wakarusa isn’t a festival; it’s an experience.

I’d love to be able to properly describe it all but it’s just not possible. You have to live the thing, really. And live it we did. Below, some of our favorite moments from this year’s Waka, in no particular order. Please note a couple things though. First, I did not stay up past midnight for any bullshit DJ sets. I’m sorry. You’ll have to ask your candy kid friend about how good Pretty Lights is live. Second is that I went to Wakarusa to see a few things. I saw all of them and more (save Blitzen Trapper, dammit!) and this is just some of what was seen. My brain is still raw and recuperating. I did not cover this as press so I did not go as press — I kept track of no setlist, I used no camera (because as dipshitty as it sounds, I wanted to just breathe in it and not worry about shot composure), I videotaped nothing. I could barely form words until three days after getting home. These are first thoughts but for the purpose of getting back to real life (and planning that trip for next year) this is what I want to say about it. This is really all I can say about it…

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Mountain Sprout @ The Outpost (because I refuse to actually add Kum & Go to that stage name)

They drank. They played a fiddle and a banjo. And they brought forth the realization that it’s acceptable to wear overalls somewhere other than my town and for something other than farming.

Why Mountain Sprout was a band with nary a presence on my radar a week ago is baffling to me, for they sing of my life. A song called ‘River Float’? Dude playing a banjo, cigarette in hand? Jesus, it’s a travesty I was unaware of this business. But I digress for Mountain Sprout is about nothing if not the opposite of business. Playing to the hippies at the festival (who I presume hate the DJs as much as I), they brought everyone in close to the stage the second they struck about it and a raucous commenced.

Out of Eureka, the band clearly knows this crowd and the crowd clearly knew them, singing along and dancing under the white tent. What you could feel most about Mountain Sprout is that they’re genuine — they’re not just talking about living a country life, they’re fucking do it. That song about beer and not being able to find it because you’re in a backwoods dry county? That happened. That one about stinking like a turkey buzzard? I believe these boys have probably been there and will soon again. Mountain Sprout, however drunk they can get, however high they are, sort of epitomize the Ozarks. That might make us uncivilized or simple, but I’m okay with that. Mountain Sprout sounds just like home.

And bands should always follow that modus operandi: Live what you love, sing about it. If the size of Mountain Sprout’s crowd and their enthusiasm was any indicator of what that will bring, then you’d do good to get on that road.

Mountain Sprout :: River Float (Live) [mp3]

BUY some sweet ass Mountain Sprout Jams  :: FACEBOOK

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The Lumineers @ George’s Majestic Backwoods

It’s one of the wonders of Wakarusa that nearly every set is able to bring together such a diverse crowd of music obsessors. But The Lumineers set was an anomaly. The crowd was more populated with the hipster set than any other I saw at the festival but despite common thinking, it detracted none. We arrived early so we could be guaranteed a spot 2 foot from the stage and were granted our wish. The bed of mulch under our feet and the trees surrounding us provided a stunning environment in which to sing ‘Stubborn Love’ at the top of our lungs. With a much fuller band taking the tour route, The Lumineers set was one of the highlights of the weekend. The initially sparse crowd filled in a matter of minutes after the band set in and by the third song, we were all sweating together in the Arkansas sun. The band kicked off shoes (if they’d worn them at all) and steam began to form and fall from band leader Schultz’s knuckles. Crowd participation and elation reached it’s high point when the band launched into their best known jam, ‘Ho Hey’ and from then on, we were all equally enthralled.

I knew this band was good. I’ve got every last inch of their album and EP memorized but when they were so good I actually shut my mouth and just felt the songs? Yeah. The Lumineers. Fuck yes.

500 people clapping in time, singing at the top of their lungs, and stomping their two feet never sounded so goddamn exalted as it did in those woods.

The Lumineers :: Stubborn Love (Live on KEXP) [stream]

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Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (w. Amanda Shires) @ George’s Majestic Backwoods

I delicately explained to my Waka companion prior to Isbell’s set that things were about to get a little country. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while they most certainly did, there was a good amount of southern dirt rock thrown in there for good measure. The great thing about the 400 Unit is that this band is insanely fucking tight live. Frankly, had I closed my eyes it very well might have been that someone had just throw a record on a turntable up on stage and stuck a microphone to it. And while typically, I like my bands to be a wholly different experience live, Isbell pulls it off so very well. Arguably one of the best songwriters of our generation — I’m not shitting you, I read this man’s lyrics like a book and weep sometimes — the band busted out some great jams from Isbell’s Drive By Truckers Days, most notably ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ (and obvious Folk Hive favorite because fuck love!), and still managed to keep it current with cuts from their latest, Here We Rest.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit :: Heart On A String [mp3]

BUY Here We Rest :: SITE

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The Sheepdogs @ The Revival Tent

I reviewed The Sheepdogs once, their album Learn and Burn, and it was all I could do then not to extract every ounce of sentimentality I could muster about the sounds of that album. I wanted to measure it out onto the roads of the internet in a trail I hoped you all would follow. There were a handful of reasons that I doled out my precious pennies for this festival and this band was sitting on the tip of my index finger when I pondered on my digits the justifications for that money spent.

If there’s a word to describe their set it would truly be incendiary. On a weekend when real and dirty-as-the-driven-fucking-snow rock was notably absent (save, apparently, the Gary Clark Jr set), The Sheepdogs filled that void. At one point, my Grown Ass Woman As Waka Accomplice best friend looked over to me, as we pressed up against the steel bars holding us back from the stage, and said something to the effect of, “I seriously needed this fucking rock in my weekend!”. While the band clearly focused on tracks from Learn And Burn and not some of the cuts from their back catalog (I would have danced so hard I knocked out the prissy girl next to us taking duck face facebook shots if they’d played ‘Greedy Man’ or ‘Push It Along’), it was the smartest way to introduce some of the newer fans milling around the tent to the sound that is The Sheepdogs.

It was certainly a shame that, midway through the ‘Dogs set, some listeners who’d obviously burnt out their brains on the shitty drugs floating around decided Primus was a better option but in thinking (and talking and talking) about this set, it’s obvious that’s not the crowd that will stand in line at a record store this fall when the boy’s next release makes it’s way to the masses. That’s okay, though. If I could grow a dick, learn guitar, and then join the band, I’d caution my bandmates that those aren’t the kind of fans we’d want anyway. These kind of jams don’t inspire Pretty Lights fans to ponder the awesomeness of the rock that is sadly missing from their lives. It motivates and gathers the kind of fan that remembers the first time they heard a Dickie Betts slide and what that did to them. Those are the kind of fans I’d want, those are the kinds of fans that I like standing next to me while I scream “That’s how I roll, son!”, heart full of nostalgia and love for that guitar lick.

This band has been seriously underrated in the States – but I wouldn’t sweat it, we’re the country that actually pays Nickelback to play at our fucking football games. They have been overshadowed by a contest involving a once badass music mag. But the fact is this band could have made it onto the cover of that rag 40 years ago, when they were still a trusted rock tastemaker, without having to endure a fucking trite contest to get them there. (Sorry, Rolling Stone. I still love you, Jann!)

At any rate, I was joyed to leave my proverbial balls in that dirt after the Sheepdogs set, for they were sincerely rocked off.

The Sheepdogs :: Southern Dreaming (Live at Pop Montreal via Daytrotter) [mp3]

BUY Learn & Burn :: SITE

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The Del McCoury Band @ Outpost (I will not add Kum & Go. I will not add Kum & Go.)

This has been a sad year for bluegrass. We’ve had to let legends like Everett Lilly, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs move on to the Great Banjo Jam In The Sky. And that’s why Del McCroury is such a treasure — he always has been, he in his immaculate suit while the rest of swelter in a bikini top, but even more so now. Dude is balls to the wall badass. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the whole set and things like that tend to happen at packed festivals like these but to just gaze upon that man’s fingers on banjo strings was enough.

The Del McCoury Band :: Rain & Snow (Live at Bonnaroo, 2002) [mp3]

SITE

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The Avett Brothers @ Main Stage

The Brothers Avett. Sweet Jesus. I don’t know if this is still cool to be so excited about, this band of siblings both real and made over the years, but I’m finding it hard to give a single fuck about that. While they certainly drew a massive crowd I find it hard to swallow that most had bought tickets on the merit of this one headliner which leads me to believe that at least within the Waka crowd, this band has oversaturated.

No matter though, for The Avetts are clearly another band at home in the woods. Moving seemlessly between live staples like ‘Talk on Indolence’ and ‘Salina’ onto excellent Doc Watson inspired covers like ‘Down To The Valley To Pray’ and ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Blues’ (during which I sang myself hoarse), the band was on. But ten, they’re always on. I suppose this is the thing about an Avetts show – each one is pert near perfect so perhaps, after time, they all begin to run together but as someone who has made a trek to see them twice this year, I can tell you they’re always worth it.

The Avett Brothers :: Blue Ridge Mountain Blues [mp3]

BUY I And Love And You :: SITE

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{You see this utterly brilliant, absolutely gorgeous shot?! That’s courtesy of Mantlow Photography. You should click that bolded name, for this dude and his camera are fucking fantastic.}

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes @ Main Stage

We arrived early. Early enough to be just a few clicks back from the stage. And we were rewarded when Ebert took a shortcut to awesomeness right through the crowd.

I have no doubt that the Magnetic Zeroes, what with that crowd of 13 on stage, produces a euphoric show wherever they happen to play, but if there ever was a ‘mainstream’ band fit to play a stage like the main at Wakarusa, it is this one. Sorry Big Gigantic fans. Sorry Umphrey’s lovers. From ‘Home’, false starts and all, to Ebert’s slowed up solo material like ‘Truth’, every song was a party and hug from the band direct to the massive crowd. We met people, we bonded with kids who were literally born the fucking year before my best friend and I got acquainted in grade school, and we drank brandy from a camelbak. I don’t think that’s what those things were made for. It was genuinely 2 of the best spent hours of my life. ‘Man On Fire’ sums up my weekend in song better than I ever could in words…

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes :: Man On Fire (Live at Wakarusa, 2012) [mp3]

BUY Here :: SITE

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In the days since we’ve came home, first descending down the mountain and then heavily into a bed, it’s on my mind, What happened up there, what we say, what we did, who I met.

I drank too much, I’m sure. Pushed the boundaries of my body and mental health with heat and substances and a lack of hydration. I forgot a screwdriver, which we needed. I encountered people who I’ll likely never see again in my years on this planet, and I probably put them off with far too much of my typical force. All those things are part and parcel to some of my flaws – things I do and regret. Things I don’t do and regret. But the mountain doesn’t give a damn. I should be more like the mountain.

Amongst the lingering bullshit self-doubt that I now momentarily have about myself that was born up there, there are still things that elevate me when I think on it. I lived on a goddamn mountain for three days, in a village built with and on love. A city among trees where neighbors really did wave politely and watch over your things for you while you were out. There were 20,000 that had converged upon that spot in nature and time and yet, nothing was taken from me. And I left nothing, save footprints, just like a good forest ranger would recommend. I moved through an immense crowd, parting for them and they for me and then all of us swaying together in a shared love of one thing: music. It’s power. Not greater than nature but just then, up there on that tree covered precipice, one with it.