Words by: Kristal Kuykendall | Images by: Norman Sands
Wakarusa Music Festival :: 06.04.09 – 06.07.09 :: Mulberry Mountain :: Ozark, Arkansas
After being harassed last year by Kansas tornadoes and in several previous years by law enforcement, Wakarusa attendees this year surely didn't have a clue what to expect as the popular Midwest festival moved to a new home on Mulberry Mountain near Ozark, Arkansas.
The weather was perfect all weekend. Cool in the evenings (lows in upper 50s to lower 60s) and sunny and warm every day (highs in the 80s). The locale was pretty darn near perfect, too. Mulberry Mountain is a lodging and events ranch covering 650 acres on the gently sloping side of a mountaintop in the Ozark mountain range. In the heart of the Ozark National Forest, it sits close to national park hiking trails, beautiful hidden waterfalls, a nationally known river (the Mulberry) for swimming and floating, a national park campground with swimming beach and showers, rock climbing opportunities galore, and more.
So the setting, as you can imagine, is absolutely breathtaking, and an outdoor-lover's dream. And, as it turned out, these folks – including government and law enforcement officials, apparently - were thrilled to have us there. Although state police presence on the highway outside the festival was heavy as officers targeted drunk drivers, police presence inside the festival (and even at the gates) was almost nil. People's privacy was respected, and as long as you didn't try to sneak your own beer into the shows you had nothing to worry about. Everyone had a great time, everyone got along and problems seemed at a minimum.
But what about the music? Well, I won't call it perfect but I will say this was by far the best Wakarusa I've ever attended, and ranks as the second-best festival overall I've attended (the best ever being Rothbury 2008). In fact, the music was damn good. We knew the lineup was outstanding going in, but no one I knew was really sure how the interplay between the stages was going to work until we got there. That's because previous festivals we've attended there (Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival, held the last three years in late summer or early fall) had only about a maximum of 3,500 people. So, how they were going to fit 10,000 (or more) people and four stages in that place was a mystery.
We wanted Wakarusa to be a smashing success in its new home, because (a) it's convenient for us Arkansans if it keeps coming back, and (b) any festival can handle only so many bad years and still keep plugging. But we were painfully aware that the new layout, and its effect on the sound, was going to be key to its success. Perhaps I should explain the layout. Mulberry Mountain has always had one Main Stage in the far back corner of the enormous, wide-open, grassy mountainside that you enter when you pull into the property. After a short walk to the south through a wooded area with campsites throughout, there also is the Backwoods Stage. But for Wakarusa, the far northern end of the large grassy Main Stage area was being used as well; it's where the two tent stages were set up, along with rows of vendors. Skirting the outer rings of the Main Stage area were the general campground areas, all organized into relatively neat rows of cars and tents. And I must say it was laid out very well compared to most festivals, especially considering how compact it seemed - you never had to walk very far to get where you were going, and never up any steep hills, (fortunately).
So, considering the compactness of the location and with the addition of the new tents, I, for one, was practically holding my breath until the first "competing" shows began, i.e. when there were shows going on all four stages simultaneously. It happened quickly, occurring between 2 and 2:15 on Thursday afternoon. And it wasn't bad! I was at the Main Stage, and although I could tell there was something going on at the Backwoods Stage it didn't bother me or interrupt my listening. It sounded even better while inside the two tents, even though they were fairly close to each other and to the Main Stage. You could not hear anything but what was playing under your tent.
With weather, locale and sound issues all handled, I felt free to enjoy the bands. And did I - along with slightly more than 10,000 other people who attended. Although the organizers might not have met their attendance goal of 11,000, I think that after word spreads about how great this Waka was next year they'll easily exceed their goal.
Continue reading for the Wakarusa review...