Wakarusa | 06.04 - 06.07 | Arkansas

Words by: Kristal Kuykendall | Images by: Norman Sands

Wakarusa Music Festival :: 06.04.09 – 06.07.09 :: Mulberry Mountain :: Ozark, Arkansas

Wakarusa 2009
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.

Wakarusa 2009
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...

Thursday, 06.04.07

Allie Kral & Tim Carbone :: Wakarusa 2009
The festival's first day started off with a bang, or a stomp rather: Chicago-based bluegrass band Cornmeal on the Main Stage. The four-piece acoustic ensemble was clearly ready to rock, never mind that it wasn't very crowded yet because most folks were still either on their way or setting up camp. Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth sat in on a few songs, providing a double fiddle that sounded, at times, perfectly harmonious enough to be just one amazing fiddle on songs like "World Got You Down" and "Girl With the Short Brown Hair."

Next up was Split Lip Rayfield, whose progressive punk-jamgrass was just as full of spunk and off-beat charm as ever. Meanwhile, Joe Purdy took the stage in the Revival Tent not too far away. An Arkansas native known for his country-chart-topping hit "Wash Away," featured in the 2004 season of ABC's television series Lost, Purdy might be compared to Jack Johnson, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne.

Lightnin' Malcolm & Cedric Burnside gave the people what they wanted. Think a Dirty South, blues-rock version of The White Stripes. This duo brought it, oblivious to whether anyone was appreciative or not - but the fans were. Burnside, the grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of famous drummer Calvin Jackson, is himself fast becoming renowned for his skills on the drums. And his guitarist, Lightnin Malcolm, who toured for years with such blues stars as Cedell Davis, R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford and Otha Turner, will tear your heart out as he shreds both traditional and cutting-edge blues licks.

Jimmy Herring :: Wakarusa 2009
But alas, the Cedric listening had to get cut short, because 30 minutes into his show, the fairly new Jimmy Herring Band took the Main Stage. Herring, lead guitarist for Widespread Panic and a past guitarist for many bands including The Dead and The Allman Brothers Band, was accompanied by Neal Fountain on bass (instead of Oteil Burbridge, who did spring tour with the band), Jeff Sipe on drums, Scott Kinsey on keyboards and Greg Osby on sax. Herring impressed his fans in the crowd as well as the critics, letting loose on the notes while revealing his '60s and '70s influences. I dug it. I don't know if I'll be rushing out to buy his debut solo album from last year, Lifeboat, but I'd definitely listen to the whole thing if I had it.

Next up was dinner break and Underground Orchestra in the Outpost Tent. UO is a Los Angeles-based rock/progressive fusion band, as the members like to say, and consists of Ben Baruch, Ej Wasik, Chris Michetti (formerly of Raq) and Garrett Sayers (formerly of The Motet); Steve Molitz (Phil Lesh and Friends, Particle) joined the boys on keys for the weekend. The group killed it in both performances at Wakarusa as they rocked their particular version of jazz, funk, fusion and Middle Eastern melodies - all done in the jam band style. UO ended its Thursday show with a unique version of Daft Punk's "Robot Rock."

Steve & John Kimock with George Porter Jr. :: Wakarusa 2009
After dinner, we got to check out a little bit of Porter Batiste Stoltz, a New Orleans supergroup of three well-respected musicians who have played support (and at times lead) for other famous musicians for decades. They were absolutely fabulous, wowing the crowd with their Crescent City funk and very groovy jams.

But, shortly after their start, Steve Kimock Crazy Engine took the Main Stage. We cut out for that, having fallen in love with Kimock a few years back at a performance with Donna Jean and Friends in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This time around, Kimock was playing with Melvin Seals on keyboards, Janis Wallin on bass and his son John Morgan Kimock on drums. Steve Kimock didn't disappoint; the show was just as pleasing as ever, with melodic tunes and rifts taking your ears as well as your spirit up and down and back and forth on waves of musical ability. He brought it to a head with "That's What Love Will Make You Do," followed by the closer, "Fiyo On The Bayou," with George Porter Jr. running over after his set to sit-in for Janis Wallin on bass. Great stuff. I wrote in my notebook: "I know I just ate dinner not too long ago, but sitting here listening to this, I feel fat and happy in more than one way."

Next, I got firmly planted in a great spot, ready for Railroad Earth to blow me away. And did they ever! Railroad Earth, I would swear, has been on Phish tour recently. And Panic tour. And has been hanging out with Dylan, and any other artists that might inspire the members of one of bluegrass' most improvisational and creative bands. Yes, I said it. Railroad Earth - which never ranked that highly in my book until this weekend - took their musical talents to a whole new level on Thursday night, and they had an out-of-this-world visual experience to match, in the form of an amazing light show that neither distracted from the music nor distorted the experience.

Railroad Earth :: Wakarusa 2009
As a listener who is somewhat familiar with RRE, having seen them several times and owning a few of the band's albums, I was struck by how much it seemed like they were channeling Phish - and I mean that in a good way, despite the fact that I'm not an especially huge Phish fan. The songs just had an exceptional, soothing flow to them, the notes possessing an extra-special connection between each of them. This was not your father's bluegrass (unless your father grew up in the '60s and did a lot of LSD, that is). The vocals, which always remind me of Bob Dylan in their intonation, were spot-on and crystal clear, especially in the harmonies on the 15-minute "Head." The band particularly jammed well on "Smilin Like a Buddha," during which fiddler Tim Carbone just about burned through his bow he played so hard. Outstanding. I'm pretty sure my jaw was on the ground during the entire set, which lasted nearly two hours and closed with "Little Rabbit."

Next up was Thursday headliner No. 2, Gov't Mule, an admitted favorite. The band, led of course by guitar magic man Warren Haynes, opened the two-hour show with "Blind Man in the Dark" and then "Streamline Woman," which prompted me to jot down, "Nitty gritty rock 'n' roll! Particularly crisp and sharp as a knife!" (I was beside myself.) Haynes really got the crowd worked up with a rousing rendition of "Don't Step on the Grass Sam," and he kept them in a frenzy by quickly going into the sing-along favorite Radiohead cover, "Creep." The drum work on "Thorazine Shuffle" was highly impressive, and was followed by a version of "Sugaree" that was so lovingly sung by Haynes you'd have thought he wrote it. If you've ever seen Gov't Mule, you already know they encored with "Soulshine." I've seen better encores from this band, but not better shows.

Matt Abts - Gov't Mule :: Wakarusa 2009
Just as Gov't Mule was winding down, Yonder Mountain String Band, one of my other all-time favorite bands (I have a Top Five — it's the most I can narrow it down — and both are in it) took the stage at the Revival Tent. So, I practically sprinted over there and arrived in time for about the second or third song. I was amazed to see a full house going crazy over the song "Angel," which is not, in my mind at least, your typical party, festival or even dance-along song, but whatever. This crowd was hyped with energy and ready for Yonder to throw down the gauntlet at its 12:30 - 2:30 a.m. late night set. So, Yonder obliged. Jeff Austin, the mandolinist and lead singer, was clearly on fire and thrilled to be at Wakarusa and in Arkansas. There are a few songs the band does particularly well when they're really feeling the energy from the crowd, and they did them here, with "Rambler" and "Boatmen's Dance" being my faves. The show ended with "Two Hits" and encored with "Bloody Mary Morning," both crowd-pleasers.

Although I barely caught any of it before I crashed for the night, I did grab a glimpse of Dirtfoot's late night show on the Backwoods Stage. How to describe Dirtfoot? This Louisiana band is part redneck tribal dance music, part Cajun slam rock, part New Orleans jazz and part jamgrass, sort of. Funky sax on "Gonna Get Ya," smooth sax intro on "Back of a Stranger." The vocals are spoken on many songs, but they're nice when sung, like on "Back of a Stranger," and the lead singer's voice reminds me of Metallica. The strong polka backdrop of "Break My Bones" is fun, after it finishes catching you off guard. And that was about all the live music I could take for one day. Good night to me!

Continue reading for Friday's coverage...

Friday, 06.05.09

The Heavy Pets :: Wakarusa 2009
After staying up all night Wednesday, Thursday night's sleep was much needed and lasted a long time. So, I confess to listening to my first Friday show from my tent. It was Big Smith, a longtime favorite self-described "hillbilly rock" band from southern Missouri. Big Smith always draws a crowd - and keep everyone's toes tapping - with their awesome harmonies, up-beat original tunes and off-beat lyrics (one of their most popular songs is "12-Inch, 3-Speed Oscillating Fan"). Big Smith took the Main Stage at noon, which some of the band's members had told me was quite the accomplishment for them. I trust they sounded as good up close as they did from my tent in the Main Stage camping area.

Around 2 p.m., The Heavy Pets took the stage at the Outpost Tent. This lively and playful jam band was on its second Waka gig, and its booking manager Alex Evangelist told me the band had a great time this year. "The new location was much more appropriate. The people flow was positive and the scheduling was perfect," Evangelist said. "There was a strong common vibe, and the crowd made every show its own." The Heavy Pets, with recent addition Felix Pastorius on bass, clearly had been saving up their energy for Waka after traveling 24 hours from a gig in Florida to get there, and the crowd was appreciative at Friday's set. From the opening "Help Me Help You" to the closing song, "Bibbles," The Heavy Pets were impressive.

Next on the Main Stage was Sly & Robbie, who described themselves as a "bushwhack reggae" band. I'm not sure what that means, but to me, Sly & Robbie sounded like Jamaican funk-meets-reggae. And they had a trombone that blew it out. Some songs sounded very reggae, some sounded like New Orleans funk that had been transplanted to the Islands a few years back. Some sounded like a mixture. Others had an almost Latin American backbeat. The percussion (that's Sly) was impressive and persistent on every song, and Robbie's bass lines drove the beat while lifting your feet. I can see now why Sly & Robbie are such a big deal among the U.K. and Jamaican reggae/dancehall set, and have been for decades.

Les Claypool :: Wakarusa 2009
By the time I got to Les Claypool he had already taken the stage. Upon arrival I was told I'd just missed him performing in a chimpanzee mask. Big surprise there. Claypool's on stage antics are well documented and probably draw as many onlookers to his shows as his music does. He didn't let us down, musically or otherwise. He wore a couple of masks, he danced like a robot, and he showed us why he's a world-class rock bassist. Sans mask (part of the time anyway) and wearing a three-piece suit, bowtie and top hat, he transitioned with ease between playing lead, harmony, melody and solo, and he covers so much on the bass that his band doesn't even need another guitar. Really. It's pretty amazing to witness.

On the Main Stage at 8:30 p.m., Yonder came back with more. I gotta say, the crowd energy was not the same being in a wide open space this time instead of under a tent. It definitely felt different. For some bands, I have found that having a ceiling to bounce some of that energy and sound back down to the crowd definitely increases the potency of the show. Such is the case with Yonder. However, that said, Yonder did not seem to notice this on Friday night. No, sir! These four guys from Colorado were dead set on ripping us off some licks, roof or no!

Jeff Austin - YMSB :: Wakarusa 2009
So, even though we were outdoors, in the midst of a cool spring evening in the Ozark Mountains, we felt like we were watching our friends (albeit, well-stocked with musical equipment) play on their front porch, except there was nothing laid-back about it when Jeff Austin tore into his mandolin in the middle of a cover of the Talking Heads' "Girlfriend Is Better." And when they went into a freakin' rocking version of "Follow Me Down To The Riverside" no one was sitting still - least of all Yonder's guitarist Adam Aijala, who showed off his complex picking skills during that song. Then it was Austin's time to shine again during "Kentucky Mandolin," which delighted us by including a brief reference to the "Sesame Street" theme song. Awesome fun!

Next, STS9 drew the biggest crowd yet at its 10:45 p.m. show on Friday night at the Main Stage. It took me a long time, and I had to attend several live performances, to even begin to "get" STS9. The dub-breakbeat-psychedelic jam band builds small, repetitive parts upon one another inside a musical structure that's both simple and complex, all at once. It's extremely danceable and very tranceable, as the 8,000-plus people there that night will attest, and it's perfect for a light show extravaganza – another tool STS9 skillfully uses to build small parts into large, texturally rich compositions. In a word: Astounding! The band started out playing some of its original grooves, and gradually, over a two hour period, worked its way into the newest album. The set went beyond its allotted time, not surprisingly, and the crowd went nuts at the encore - though it had been nuts, with true glow-stick throwing frenzy.

STS9 :: Wakarusa 2009
Come to think of it, it perhaps was the glow-stick wars that helped make STS9 the most exciting show thus far. For my friend's young daughter, it definitely was the glow-stick wars and the amazing light show that accompanied STS9's set. That, and the band's cool and crazy costumes, made the show seem like the most energetic I'd ever attended, and my friend and his daughter agreed. And it was outdoors! No roof in sight! Blowing my previously stated theory out of the water. Go figure...

After the sensory overload that was STS9, I was grateful for the cool air on the walk over to Galactic's late night set in the Revival Tent. But it didn't take long for Galactic's grooves to grab me and get me back into a dancing mood. The horns ruled, especially on the title track to the band's latest CD, From the Corner to the Block. But really, it didn't matter what Galactic played because they played everything so well, and with so much funk and so much attitude that everything from hip-hop beats to polkas was keeping the tent full of people on their feet. Seriously. It was a hoot!

Meanwhile, over at the Outpost Stage, EOTO, which consists of String Cheese Incident members Jason Hann and Michael Travis - was impressing a techno-loving crowd with its "live dub-step, live electro, live house" music. EOTO is really something to watch. The pair uses instruments as well as computer equipment to throw out some crazy beats and licks, dub themselves, play over themselves, layer on special effects, then mix in a tiny bit of some familiar lick or lyrics from some popular dance tune, and it's great, improvised dance music. It's fun and fascinating, and, not surprisingly, the Outpost folks ate it up.

Continue reading for the rest of our Wakarusa coverage...

Saturday, 06.06.09

Wakarusa 2009
Having packed most of the bands I wanted to see in the first two days, I was looking forward to a slightly slower-paced Saturday - and to a shower at a friend's cabin, too! Unfortunately, we drastically underestimated the time it would take for four women to shower and "get ready," so our first set on Saturday afternoon was JJ Grey & Mofro. It was a lazy, hot afternoon, and Grey's laid-back, Southern jam-rock grooves were just right, especially on songs like "Blackwater." Grey was definitely feeling the positive vibes of the weekend, and he stepped things up a notch with some rockin' harmonica solos on the last two songs of the set.

Next up on the Main Stage was Galactic, which showcased a slightly more rock 'n' roll sound than funk at this performance. Still, the rock 'n' roll was heavily subsidized by the funk influences, and Galactic made us grateful, especially on its covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" and the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," which featured vocals by JJ Grey.

I secretly was dreading the next show, and that's because the last time I heard G. Love & Special Sauce, I was a little put off. Can't put my finger on why, I just didn't enjoy the music. I think now that it was a combination of poor song selection and bad crowd vibe. Nevertheless, I was here and I was going to give it another shot. And I'm so glad I did. This was the most accessible I've seen G. Love; you didn't have to know and love his songs to enjoy the show. Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines sat in for a bit, as did Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars) and a few other musicians whose names I didn't catch. A brief foray into The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" sent the crowd into fits. I've always thought G. Love was talented but I just haven't always found him to provide a positive entertainment experience. This time he did.

The Black Crowes followed on the Main Stage and wasted no time in getting things rocking, Southern style. As my friend with the daughter put it, the Crowes offered a style of Southern rock that no one else at Waka even touched, and, of course, they excelled at it. Plus, the Crowes bring us Luther Dickinson, a Southern favorite, native of Mississippi and lead guitarist/founder of the North Mississippi Allstars. His new-virtuoso style and slide-guitar skills bring something to the table that the Crowes previously lacked, while not altering the band's signature sound or imprint. Dickinson, though not as jumpy, flamboyant or energetic as lead singer Chris Robinson, is amazing to watch, especially if you're a fan of guitar solos.

Chris Robinson - The Black Crowes :: Wakarusa 2009
Neither Robinson nor Dickinson was a disappointment Saturday night, as both were clearly in their respective moments. The band opened with "Move It On Down the Line," sounding as tight as ever. Not long into the set, old favorite "Jealous Again" hit and then a few newer songs, including the Latin American-tinged "High Head Blues." I confess to getting lost in the songs somewhere, so I don't recall which particular song it was ("Nonfiction"?), but one tune about halfway through the two-hour show featured an extended super-psychedelic rock guitar jam that was very trippy. It was like each guitar was doing its own really tripped-out solo, and none of it sounded like it would possibly go with anything else, but then it somehow all blended together beautifully and harmoniously. I felt a little bit like I was watching Fantasia for the first time. For real. And the vocals all night were amazing, but they were particularly moving on "Poor Elijah," which featured, as several songs did, the Crowes' backup singers, and it also included a commanding slide guitar solo by Dickinson, much to the joy of the crowd.

After the Crowes, STS9 took the Revival Tent stage for a late night set, and it was just as high-energy, if not more so - because after all there was a roof this time! - than the previous night's Main Stage performance. The songs on this night seemed to cater to the younger set, weren't quite as long, and overall averaged a higher BPM than the previous evening's selection, which, of course, meant the place was packed with lots of younger folks dancing their butts off and throwing glow-sticks. The light show, again, was astounding.

Over in the Outpost Tent, Shpongle took the stage for the ravers in that area who needed something a little more techno-flavored than STS9. They got what they were looking for with Shpongle, a two-man ambient techno-trance group that, on this night at least, transformed the entire performance hall into a floor full of dance-crazed, energetic music fans. Bartender, I'll have what they're having!

Sunday, 06.07.09

John Molo - Moonalice :: Wakarusa 2009
On Sunday afternoon, we unfortunately had to leave, despite the fact that there were several bands (namely The Heavy Pets and Gomez) that we wanted to see that evening. However, before we left, we heard Charliehorse on the Backwoods Stage, in an alt-country, roots rock performance fit for any great and storied tavern stage. This band just keeps getting better and better.

So we packed up our campsite, got the worst sunburn of the weekend while doing it, and got the heck outta Dodge. There was a wait in the traffic line to get off the property, with many people leaving that afternoon. As we pulled away, we agreed that Wakarusa 2009 was a smashing success, and we'd do it again if it were only half as good. Suggestions for next year? Plan a better Sunday lineup, and have many, many more porta-potties on hand. Driving down the snaky, mountainous Highway 23, we purposely turned off the stereo, listened to the quiet of the wind and relished our favorite performances of the weekend.

Continue reading for more pics of Wakarusa 2009...

Lightnin' Malcolm & Cedric Burnside
Wavy Dave Burlingame - Cornmeal
Allie Kral - Cornmeal
Jessie Baylin
Chris Robinson - The Black Crowes
The Black Crowes
Galactic
Damn Bullets
Dirt Foot
G. Love
EOTO
Steve & John Kimock - Crazy Engine
Les Claypool
Madahoochi
Matisyahu
G.E. Smith - Moonalice
Bo Carper - New Monsoon
John Parish
George Porter Jr.
Warren Haynes - Gov't Mule
Todd Sheaffer - Railroad Earth
STS9
Brock Butler - Perpetual Groove
Sly & Robie
Split Lip Rayfield
Uncle Lucius
Adam Aijala - YMSB
YMSB

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