With the summer festival season tempting us with friends and fun just around the bend, now is the time to check in with your favorite artists to see which live music scene will offer you the best experience for your precious vacation dollars. Not to be overlooked is the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival, located in the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks on solemn Mulberry Mountain. This is a festival which has grown and evolved since its early days in the heartland of the Kansas prairie near the Wakarusa Wetlands and River.
Wakarusa will always hold a special place in my heart as my first music festival experience. For those of you who are unfamiliar with festivals of this kind, perhaps you will allow me to reminisce about my first experience at Wakafest back in 2007. And if you're a seasoned veteran, you can understand the significance of that first heart-widening festival.
I was unprepared for the magnitude of events the weekend had in store; throes of fans come to party, making due with bare necessities and escape from civilization, sometimes putting up with the heat to the point that taking a shower beneath melted cooler ice seems like a great idea. And it's always worth it. The strangers who roll in beside you on the opening day and begin to set up camp next to your tent will become your festy family. The area's locals will appear from out of nowhere to inform you of native traditions, watchful neighbors just down the way, and prime watering holes should you choose to navigate back into town. Even if camping with hundreds of other music fans isn't quite your thing, Wakarusa has expanded camping options to offer multiple locations for campers who might prefer a quieter experience during their stay.
The midwestern oasis that was Wakarusa 2007 sprang up during June at Clinton Lake in trendy Lawrence, Kansas. The festival had seen a strengthening force of attendees and was geared up to have a phenomenal fourth year. My friends happened to be festival organizers, who at that time recruited volunteers, so in exchange for working a few shifts during the festival, I had the opportunity to earn my ticket. What better time to jump on board than now, I decided, and began to plan my adventure. I was apprehensive, never having been part of something so huge. Who would I meet? I certainly didn't fit into the rugged fest-hopping crowd. I imagined hippies, hillbillies, and visionary nomads gathering in the woods to perform strange rituals, and I couldn't imagine myself blending in. My friend, a musician and festival veteran himself reassured me that the festival experience was about enjoying the music. This philosophy resonated with the themes of the event. I met people from all walks of life and fans of all genres. As the popularity of this festival grew, so did the variety of its attendants. Townies from Lawrence and diehard bluegrass or jam fans made their way to the campgrounds. Yes, a few of the friends I met that year were of the if-you're-wearing-shoes-you're-overdressed variety, but, barefoot or not, all of us had one thing in common: we loved live music, and we were there to have a good time.
The Lineup seemed to go on forever. Larger-than-life legends like Widespread Panic, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Grace Potter commanded the crowds. Yonder Mountain String Band and John Butler Trio offered to take us on acoustic journeys beneath the summer sun. When delving into the stage schedule the variety was astounding: would fans of Ben Harper be the same jamming with me at Les Claypool and Bassnectar? (The answer is yes.)
Time and again these surprisingly solid acts awaited music fans on the Campground or Sundown Stage: Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, North Mississippi Allstars, Papa Mali, and Dirtfoot really got down and dirty. Raw sounds came out of the speakers as well as the crowd, interacting with the musicians: Papa Mali sang the blues, swinging his dreadlocks in time; Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band pounded the cow bell and incited the listeners to bust a move. My friends convinced me to catch The Avett Brothers who, with their harmonic voices and delicate string picking, turned the stage into a harvest moon dance hall and won me over completely.
One morning after a particularly heavy night of partying, I crawled out from my tent groggy-eyed and searched about the picnic table for some water. Strangers passing by greeted me and asked if I'd eaten breakfast. They said my favorite words: "It's free," and I followed, my mess kit in hand, a bit skeptical, but hungry. When I got to the other side of the more secluded campgrounds I realized this was no ordinary breakfast campfire: people were lined up next to a small picnic shelter. To the left I saw an upright bass, a baritone sax, and a washboard. About a dozen volunteers were beneath the picnic roof, scrambling eggs and bacon and toasting bread and pancakes on a griddle. Jars of homemade salsa sparkled in the early summer sun, and as I chit-chatted with the good folks waiting for the grub, I found out more: the band was Dirtfoot, a Louisiana outfit full of vigor and gin, and the food was Chompdown, a newly founded tradition that has been part of Waka ever since. (If you make it a point to go this year, I suggest bringing something to contribute to the servers. You'll be in line for a while anyway and might as well say you had a hand in what might be the most-appreciated free meal of your life.)
My favorites were jamming in full effect, sometimes late into the night: ALO and Tea Leaf Green, Lotus and Railroad Earth always bring the good vibes. The beauty is that the shows are staggered a bit, so that if you must see the most out of the schedule, you can usually take off during the middle of a show and make it to a good portion of another performance. The stages are arranged to best project the acoustics of the act without melting into another performances' sound. A few of your favorites may even have multiple performances over the weekend.
Those into more technological beats danced late into the night with Bassnectar, Galactic, Lotus, EOTO and Perpetual Groove (whose intense set was whispered about furiously the next morning at brunch). In recent years the electronic acts have become a major component of Wakarusa late-night. At the Satellite Stage, otherwise known as Interstellar Meltdown, fans thrive on the unique live experience of jams and beats from DJs and electronic artists alike.
The highlight of my first festival was without a doubt Widespread Panic, a new live experience for me as well. Thousands of us stood in awe of the instrumental genius of this legendary rock ensemble. The powerful energy of the crowd seemed to fuel the band to play for hours; many of us found ourselves waiting for the set to come to an end before we ventured off for another beer. Waiting... and yet the jam continued for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Bittersweet bliss as you get the jam you have long awaited but neglect your beverage needs. That says something when the fans leave looking more exhausted than the talent!
I have returned more than once to Wakarusa to rekindle the love affair that started there; the new location at Mulberry Mountain changes the scenery, but not the heart of the festival. Where once there was a sandy lakeshore beach we now have natural waterfalls and streams. Hiking during the extreme heat of the day is possible due to the lush forest surrounding the festival grounds. The wilderness lends itself well to Wakarusa's charisma: come as you are, come ready to hear some fantastic music, and double check your gear, because it's a long way back down the mountain!