WAKARUSA : : MIDWEST MECCA

With weather patterns as dynamic as the band lineup, Lawrence, KS played host to the first-ever Wakarusa Festival. Situated on the grounds of Clinton Lake State Park, festival organizers found an ideal plot of land that offered boating, multiple Frisbee golf courses, and plenty of open space in addition to four days of camping and music. It didn't hurt that the campgrounds were divided into sections named after Simpsons characters. One of the unanticipated amenities provided to concertgoers was a "No Waka" shuttle service of school buses offering free rides from the campgrounds to the concert grounds around the clock.


Wakarusa :: 2004
A delayed flight out of Denver meant that I missed the majority of the music on Thursday night. A number of people in our group were most impressed by the Benevento/Russo Duo's performance in which Stanton Moore of Galactic joined the fray.

By all accounts, the most unforgettable moments of the first day materialized in the early morning hours of Friday when a vicious thunderstorm rolled through the concert grounds. Sound Tribe Sector 9 had just finished their set at 4:00 a.m. as the winds picked up and the storm moved in. This wasn't merely a rainstorm--it was an absolute downpour with constant flashes of nearby lightning and crashes of thunder that were felt as well as heard. A number of tents were found overturned or ripped the next morning, lending credence to the locals saying it was the worst storm in recent memory.

FRIDAY :: JUNE 18

Austin's Papa Mali turned in the first solid performance of the day on Friday with a brief but spirited slew of songs. Violinist Theresa Andersson joined the group for the set, adding an interesting flavor to the mix. This is a band that makes for a fun night out with high-energy, danceable music and quality musicianship.


Neal McKeeby of Drums & Tuba
Wakarusa :: 2004
Drums & Tuba were a bit late kicking things off, which proved to be a nice bonus for those trying to make it over from Papa Mali's show. This is a band I had seen several years back open for Galactic and wasn't too impressed with. As it turned out, they have evolved from a novel idea into a fantastic band. Brian Wolff (tuba) and Tony Nozero (drums) complemented each other extraordinarily well, and Neal McKeeby provided an impressive display by playing two guitars at once: one held in his hands, the other locked into a standing rack. The guitar stunts and other sound effects produced were more than just interesting ideas--they contributed to the sound in such a way that the live recordings will stand on their own. D&T was the most improved band I've seen in the last couple years.

Heading back to the other stage, we got to check out Tishamingo. Who? Yeah, we weren't quite sure either. The band itself wound up having a nice broad sound, rooted in southern rock. They aren't afraid to get a little funky, either. One of the bigger highlights was a tasty version of Little Feat's "Skin It Back." By this point, the band had attracted the attention of a few other musicians now watching things from behind the stage. Between songs, Galactic's Robert Mercurio shouted out a request for "Margaritaville," which wasn't granted but drew a couple chuckles. Fans of Widespread Panic would be advised to catch Tishimango the next time they come through town.

We wound up staying at Tishimango for longer than expected, and only got to catch the end of the Hackensaw Boys. Bluegrass with an edge--and an act we would catch the next day.


Greyhounds :: Wakarusa :: 2004
Next on the list were Greyhounds. This is a band offering up some lighter funk, and had immediate credibility with me after Ani DiFranco made a cameo on their last album Liberty. While they put on a decent show, it felt a bit uninspired alongside the massive talent we saw that night. It seemed as though we had caught a talented band with great vocals on an off night.

The next notable act was Sound Tribe Sector 9. While they aren't usually my cup of tea, they turned in an interesting performance. As always, Sound Tribe delivered a high-octane display with an intriguing amalgam of electronica and improvisation. Although their organic sound is the product of all members adding their piece, Zach Velmer garners the most attention with his frenzied attack on the drum kit. This show wound up being every bit as good as the one the night before.


Papa Mali with Theresa Andersson
Wakarusa :: 2004
Decisions, decisions, decisions. MOFRO, Leftover Salmon, or Robert Randolph? Unfair! Our group wound up being pretty evenly divided between the shows, and everyone came back happy. MOFRO gave a funky performance while those seeing Leftover Salmon were treated to a guest appearance by Fareed Haque on guitar. I instead headed for the Robert Randolph stage, and couldn't have been happier. Impressive handiwork on the slide guitar and a relentless rhythm section put the crowd in a dancing mood right off the bat. After a fiery rendition of "Purple Haze," Marc Broussard decided to join the party and offered his incredible vocal talents to the Stevie Wonder classic "Boogie On Reggae Woman." The band was on point and found a solid groove early on in the show. By the end of the night, they pulled out all the stops, culminating in a triumphant "rotation jam" where the band members took turns on each other's instruments without letting up in the least.

After gospel rock with Robert Randolph, we raced over to see the end of the Jazz Mandolin Project. We managed to catch only three songs, but a very impressive three at that: "Xenoblast" and "Oh Yeah," which are my two favorite JMP tunes, as well as Led Zeppelin's "What Is And What Should Never Be." Jamie Masefield has always maintained that Lawrence is his favorite city to play in, and the band certainly plays as if that were the case. Between their show that night and the next day, JMP solidified their status in my mind as one of the premier acts in live music today.

SATURDAY :: JUNE 19


Hackensaw Boys :: Wakarusa :: 2004
When the Hackensaw Boys assembled the stage on Saturday morning, a total of four people were in attendance. Four. And that included me. While waking up by the crack of noon proved to be an insurmountable task for many concertgoers, those that made it out wound up seeing a great show. They play good ol' bluegrass with rough and gritty vocals offsetting a fierce pace established by the band. While half the band looked as though they could have used a square meal and a good night's sleep, the music speaks for itself.

On the other stage, Kaki King was nearly finished. Fortunately we caught the last 20 minutes or so and were mesmerized. Without the aid of digital loops, she thumped out multiple bass lines while creating unique melodies and also slapping the guitar for some percussion. It's little wonder why she has opened for artists like Mike Gordon, Victor Wooten, Robert Randolph and Charlie Hunter: her playing at age 24 is awe-inspiring. I was more caught up in her performance than any other solo acoustic act I've ever seen (like Keller Williams or Tim Reynolds).


Signal Path :: Wakarusa :: 2004
The next nice surprise of the festival was Signal Path. A number of us wound up enjoying their performance quite a bit more than either Sound Tribe Sector 9 or Particle. It seems as though they are able to find a much deeper groove than Sound Tribe and are capable of producing a much more diverse sound. The songs--while still relying heavily on electronics--are much less linear or predictable as other bands often lumped into the same category. Fareed Haque and Kai Eckhardt were enjoying the show backstage while waiting to go on next. Great layering work on the keys and a drummer tutored by Stanton Moore make this a group of guys to keep an eye on.

Garaj Mahal was slated for the next slot, and didn't disappoint. Their best jam emerged in a great version of "Kick the Donkey," and fans of the Fareed Haque Group were grinning as the band launched into "Papyllon" at the end of the set. Although the bass was too low and the drums were too high in the mix, the band sounded great.


RW2C with Reed Mathis and Mike Dillon
Wakarusa :: 2004
Robert Walter's 20th Congress provided the finest collaboration of the weekend by far. Walter's tasteful musings on the keys were accented by longtime collaborator Cochemea Gastelum on saxophone, and the band recently announced the addition of drummer Jason Smart from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Smart appears to fit right in with Walter's sound and has a phenomenal sense of timing, enabling him to punctuate the jams in the right spots. After covering a Miles Davis tune, the crowd went nuts as a number of guests joined the band. Stanton Moore sat in for a couple numbers, while Mike Dillon helped anchor the rhythm section on congas and the marimba. Smart's old buddy Reed Mathis was next in line, and got to crank out a nice bass solo before the mayhem was over. This was the "all-star jam" of the weekend that many had hoped to hear.

We next headed to Hairy Apes BMX with no clue of what we were about to hear. Mike Dillon assumed the lead role for the band this time around, and wound up bringing back a number of guests from the 20th Congress show that preceded him. The sound was one of the edgier of the festival, tempered by a Grassroots-era 311 sound in a number of parts. Dillon layered some nice vocals over the mix, with a pitch and delivery that is reminiscent of Mike D from the Beastie Boys. Garage a Trois band mate Stanton Moore next came out for a bit and set up shop on a miniature drum kit while Brian Haas from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey joined the crew on keys. Cochemea Gastelum also came onstage to add in his piece on sax. While the jam wasn't quite as successful as it was with the 20th Congress, it was a helluva lot more than we expected from a band called Hairy Apes BMX.

Onto the Jazz Mandolin Project. This was now the third time I've seen Jazz Mandolin in the past few weeks, and after seeing them for a number of years in college, I can definitely say that the band is beginning to hit full stride. The addition of Mad Dog on trumpet and keys has breathed new life into the band. Whereas their sound was threatening to become a little predictable, Mad Dog has added a new dynamic that takes them to the next level. This is a band that is now beginning to turn in hour-long performances of single songs with a ridiculous amount of technical skill. After August, the Jazz Mandolin Project may be the most exciting four-person band to watch in live music.

Galactic with JJ Grey of MOFRO :: Wakarusa 2004
The late night performance by Galactic proved to be the best overall show of the day. Playing until nearly 4:00 a.m., the boys from New Orleans put on an incredible show--easily one of the best of the weekend. While the Houseman was out of commission, a guest vocalist from the Greyhounds and Papa Mali stepped up to fill the void. They established a party atmosphere from the beginning, and the band had fans dancing behind them onstage for the entirety of the show. They sounded ridiculously tight, and Kai Eckhart churned out some filthy bass lines towards the end of the set. It was a triumphant finish to a great day of music in Lawrence.

SUNDAY :: JUNE 20

Those up early enough on Sunday got to see the Jennifer Hartswick Band open things up on the final day of the Wakarusa Festival. We arrived just in time to hear the band perform Chicago's "Twenty-five or Six to Four," which turned out to be the closer. After finishing the song, Hartswick addressed the audience: "Okay, now we only have time for one more... oh wait. Actually we don't, so thanks a lot!"

Later that morning, while walking back to the camp site, we overheard Colorado's Mission 19 perform an acoustic version of Outkast's "Roses" that had people grinning.

After a brief stretch of unremarkable shows in the early afternoon hours, Indigenous took the stage. They have a deep, heavy sound. As the rhythm section slowed things down a bit, guitarist Mato Nanji dugs in to create some bluesy riffs. The chemistry of the band members was impressive and likely stems from the fact that they share blood: all are members of the Nakota Sioux Indian family with brothers Mato and Pete joining forces with their sister Wanbdi and their cousin Horse. Their cover of the blues standard "Red House" was a fitting choice for their style of playing. They were another pleasant surprise, and another up-and-coming act to keep tabs on over the next couple years.

Los Lonely Boys :: Wakarusa 2004
The introduction for the next band could not have been more accurate: "If you haven't seen these guys yet, you are about to freak out." Los Lonely Boys! Wow. All I had heard of them was that they were Willie Nelson's favorite band today. Playing self-described "Texican rock," these three young brothers from San Angelo, Texas came through like a breath of fresh air. Every time their sound could be defined: "bluesy," "rockish," or "tejano," they would make slight adjustments and keep the audience on their toes. Five years from now, Henry Garza could be a household name. Traversing a number of genres on the guitar, he gave the impression of a young Carlos Santana at work. The kid is that good. For their second to last song, they opted for the easy-going sound of "Heaven." The onstage antics that followed were unreal. Henry and Jojo Garza were playing their guitars behind their heads, Henry was next covering Jojo's eyes as he played bass, both brothers then gripped their guitars in one hand and while holding the guitar straight up in the air, proceeded to maintain the exact chords and rhythm for the song. Nothing short of amazing. If you have been searching for something new, Los Lonely Boys should be at the top of your list.


Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers
Wakarusa :: 2004
As the sun was setting on the final day of Wakarusa, the Drive-by Truckers assembled the stage. At first the crowd didn't know how to react. Most had blank stares directed toward the stage. After about 20 minutes or so, the band wished the crowd a Happy Fathers' Day and launched into "Decoration Day," which finally brought the audience to life. The Truckers then gave a preview of their new album (coming out in August) with "Ain't Never Gonna Change." Excellent versions of "Marry Me" and "Outfit" rounded out the set. It was a solid performance, and something I had been looking forward to for awhile.

Next up was the band synonymous with Mardi Gras: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. After playing for nearly 30 years, they have figured out how to put on a damn fine show. While the opening couple minutes found the band sounding a little sludgy, with too much distortion on the lower end of the sound and poorly defined bass lines, the band quickly turned things around. They sounded incredibly crisp, with sharp playing from the horns and some remarkable paying by guitarist Jamie Mclean. The sound was funky and fresh, and the band closed things with the crowd-pleasing cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

North Mississippi Allstars :: Wakarusa 2004
The madness continued in Lawrence, as the North Mississippi Allstars were up next. While the musical abilities of the band are beyond reproach, I personally haven't been too fond of their vocals in the past. A nice surprise came when Jamie Mclean and Gary Gazaway joined the band. The Allstars are now a great deal more dynamic than even a couple years ago, and are beginning to play more to their strengths. Rounding out the set, the Allstars brought out the Dirty Dozen Brass Band which closed things with a bang.


Split Lip Rayfield
Wakarusa :: 2004
Shutting down Wakarusa for 2004 were the home state heroes Split Lip Rayfield. Fans of Yonder Mountain String Band will go nuts when they hear these guys, though they're a little edgier and rougher than Yonder Mountain. All of their changes are lightning-quick, and the sudden stops are all well-executed. The late night tent was turned into a veritable hoedown, with Split Lip leading the way and converting many people into immediate bluegrass fans. What a perfect finish to an incredible extended weekend in Lawrence.

The city of Lawrence itself has more than doubled in the past 20 years as more people have found out about this Mecca of the Midwest, yet Wakarusa may still turn out to be one of the best-kept musical secrets of 2004. After the skies opened on Thursday night, the rest of the festival had "Jetson's weather:" sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. That, and there were about 75,000 fewer people to deal with than at some of the "other" festivals this year. Whether it was funk, jazz, bluegrass, blues, rock, or just a lot of chigger bites, there was something for everyone that attended Wakarusa Festival this year. A triumph in its first year, Wakarusa's growth in popularity is sure to rival the growth of Lawrence in the coming years--but it was a fun little secret while it lasted.

Words by: Nathan Rodriguez
Images by: Rob Foster
JamBase | Midwest
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