Last weekend music lovers from around the country united on Mulberry Mountain for what is quickly becoming one of the largest regional music events: Wakarusa. Review by Neil Ferguson. Photography by Arthur VanRooy.
Big photo gallery below review!
Storms passed and mother nature opened up the skies for a beautiful weekend on Mulberry Mountain. The location, environment, and music at Wakarusa have given this festival a special feeling that is obvious by the electric spark you hear in the voices of festival goers. In the 9 years since it has started Wakarusa has grown from a festival with a questionable reputation (Coparusa 2005?) in Kansas, to a major league contender stacked with great bands capable of bringing a sellout crowd to the top of a mountain in Arkansas. This year was one for ages, with bands from around the world playing music on multiple stages for 4 straight days. Here is a look at some of the highlights.
Thursday got going with a full roster of bands, even with many festivarians still arriving. Longtime Waka regulars Railroad Earth played a lively late afternoon set in front of a mid-size crowd. The New Jersey “jam-grass” outfit has been tearing up the summer music festival circuit lately, and summer is just getting started. If there’s one great thing about RRE (and there are many), it’s their ability to convey a friendly light-hearted vibe through their lyrics and playing, regardless of what they’re actually singing about. Tim Carbone on violin and Andy Goessling on every instrument under the sun make up the instrumental core of the band, giving them their distinctive sound that elevates them above standard jamband/bluegrass fare, offering fans a fresh musical experience. RRE is a band just as suitable for a sunny afternoon set as they are for a late night trip out.
Weir, Robinson, & Greene Acoustic Trio:
Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir took some time away from playing with his mega successful Dead project, Furthur, to join up with frequent collaborator Jackie Greene and Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson for an early evening acoustic set. The trio sauntered through a set of Dead tunes, covers, and originals. With three big names it came as no surprise when each member came out for a solo tune. While seeing these big names in a relaxed acoustic setting lacked the intensity and musical force of seeing them with their respected bands, the show was perfect for chilling out on the blanket and easing slowly in to the night.
Colorado band The Motet amped up the grooves with a heady concoction of funk, soul, and afrobeat. The Motet hooks the younger crowd with their tranced out dance music, while simultaneously channeling afrobeat and funk legends like Fela Kuti and James Brown. Did I mention they are all white? Their sound is a dynamic across the board sampling of international music genres. The addition of members of Rubblebucket on trumpet and trombone only upped the ante and had the crowd grooving with delight.
Derek Vincent Smith, the DJ behind Pretty Lights, is certainly talented with his ability to combine hip hop and funk beats with down and dirty dance music. Yet, if you ask any fan what they love about seeing him live they will undoubtedly say, ‘the lights!’ Massive crowds flocked to the main stage like moths to the flame to take part in a wonky dance party and revel in the glory of modern concert lighting. Pretty Lights definitely offers something a little more dynamic than the incessant UFO drone of other overnight success electronic acts like Skrillex, but when it comes to a live experience there’s not much depth beyond the lights.
It’s never fun being scheduled during a popular headliner, but Dallas band Fatty Lumpkin handled the slot well with their own little party in the back woods. The band keeps a fast steady beat going as they weave in and out of intricate jams. Throughout the set the crowd grew and so did the momentum of this three piece jamband. Keep an eye out for them in the Austin area.
Tea Leaf Green:
San Francisco rockers Tea Leaf Green brought the party to the Revival Tent for a late night show that featured unexpected “jameos” from RRE’s Tim Carbone and Nathan Moore on guitar. TLG has always thrown down the rockin’ late night shows at Waka, and at this point it almost feels like a residency. They may be lumped in with jambands, and typically play those types of music festivals, but at their musical core TLG are a straight up good times rock n’ roll band.
Royal Family Ball featuring Soulive & Lettuce:
Friday was dreary and chilly, but the abnormal weather had zero effect on the uplifting music happening everywhere. Under grey skies and spotty rain Soulive got the mid-afternoon crowd movin’ and shakin’ to some dirty funky grooves. Soulive has a thick sound crafted by aggressive musicianship, yet for a funk band their music is surprisingly smooth and mellow. This set was fun and enjoyable, but I was under the impression it would be a super jam with members of Soulive and Lettuce filling up the stage with funky goodness. After seeing this wasn’t the case I rambled on.
Portland band Blitzen Trapper have maintained a cult following for years, but since this year’s SXSW they have been touring relentlessly and quickly building a large fan base. Blitzen Trapper have a sound that’s freshly retro in the way it’s clearly influenced by the psychedelic country rock of bands like The Byrds and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but manages to tap in to something freshly unique that separates them from 99% of the other “indie rock” acts around today. The vocal harmonies and singing skills of every member of Blitzen Trapper conjure a sound in the same vein as The Band. Not to mention Erik Menteer’s distinctive high pitched guitar tone brings to mind the playing of Robbie Robertson. Blitzen Trapper takes these influences and throws them together to serve up a deliciously original musical brew.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros:
This band has a reputation for great live performances driven by leader singer Alex Ebert’s up close and personal crowd interactions, and that the band comes across as a sort of neo-hippy musical commune. Catching the tail end of their set, I was drawn in to the energy of the audience and the catchiness of the happy hippy-pop. Instrumentally, there’s nothing riveting about Edward Sharpe, but they possess the ability to simultaneously appeal to those who wear tye-dye and Birkenstocks, and those who wear skinny jeans and V-necks. There’s gotta be talent in that…right?
The Avett Brothers:
I have been a big fan of The Avett Brothers for quite a few years now. Yet, every time I have tried to see them something has gone wrong or the show has been canceled. On Friday night my time finally came with a two hour set by one of the great touring acts currently out there. Their lyrics of love, loss, and fun are simple and reflective of their down home North Carolina roots. The music isn’t filled with complex jams, but it provides the perfect sound to compliment their harmonic and beautiful voices. Yes, the music is excellent, but what is truly striking about The Avett Brothers is the performance. For those who wonder how and why this band rose to the top so fast, see them live. There is something about watching this group perform that sucks the audience in and keeps them focused on every note and lyric. The Brothers transported many a fan off the mountain and on to a cloud of pure enjoyment, and judging by the wide gaping grins on everyone’s face after the show, I think the band did their job well.
Considering how many festivals and shows this band plays a year, it’s pretty impressive how they are able to ride so high on one solid show after another. Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a fan of UM, even when everyone I talk to seems to be obsessed with them. I had been waiting for that one show to really “wow” me, and the late night Revival Tent show may have been the one. The band effortlessly segued from ambient tranced out jams to hard rocking shred fests without breaking a sweat. It helps that their light director, Jefferson Waful, is easily one of the best LD’s working today. That man could blow minds at a funeral with his lighting abilities.
Gary Clark Jr.:
There’s a special feeling you get seeing a local musician finally receive the recognition he deserves. Such is the case with Austin’s homegrown blues prodigy Gary Clark Jr., who has recently been tearing audiences around the country a new asshole with his fiery performances. This is a musician who deserves every bit of media attention and fandom he gets. With tattered leather boots, tank top, and jet-black shades, he strutted onstage at Waka to a loud and eager crowd. From the moment he picked up his guitar few words were said as he and his three band mates blazed through one song after another. The set was hard-rocking, bluesy, and soulful, with a mix of original tunes and covers. With groups like The Black Keys and Jack White selling out massive venues all over, it comes as no surprise that audiences are craving gritty bluesy rock n’ roll that sends chills up the spine.
The Travelin’ McCoury’s feat. Keller Williams:
Festivalgoers were buzzing about this show all weekend, and when it finally came it was not a disappointment. If you’re familiar with the one-man band that is Keller Williams than you know he’s able to adapt his music to basically any genre. Yet, seeing Keller play with such a legendary bluegrass outfit was a special treat. The band played a mix of traditional tunes, Keller songs, and originals. The set highlight happened when the band was joined onstage by Bill Nershi (String Cheese Incident) and Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon) for a cover of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.”
Athens, GA band Futurebirds played one hell of a set at the Backwoods stage. Their sound is similar to bands like Dr. Dog, except the presence of a pedal steel guitar adds a country twang. The band plays rowdy rockin’ party songs that whip the audience in to a fist pumping frenzy. However, the steel guitar also lets them change tones from party songs to spacey and sparse instrumentals that make you feel like your driving across the desert. Keep an eye out for Futurebirds because they are definitely on the rise.
Straight up jam band hellbent on delivering a fun time. That is the best way to describe the Heavy Pets. Every member of the band gets a chance to step out on long solos, and the keyboardist keeps everything together with his Stevie Wonderesque playing. It’s tough work getting a slot on a small stage overlapping with a festy favorite like Umphrey’s McGee, but the Heavy Pets held it down and played an incredibly fun show in front of an adoring and dedicated crowd.
When I walked in to the Revival Tent for this late night show my first reaction was, “What the hell is going on here?!” What I saw onstage was a collective of musicians, acrobats, and gymnasts doing things that are still difficult to grasp, much less explain. The music itself, which is sort of like String Cheese Incident’s “Rivertrance” meets hipster synthpop, almost takes a backseat to the beautiful women contorting themselves in ways you never thought humanly possible. This show had myself and many others awestruck, and felt like watching a sexual acrobatic performance on acid (Disclaimer: this writer was not on acid). Holy shit!
Once again Wakarusa delivered a one of a kind festival experience that left many festy folk with the feeling they were leaving home…or paradise. If life were a music festival things would be “complicated,” but the fact that there are so many opportunities to drop in and out of that environment is truly a wonderful asset to our culture. Until next year…