“Genre is like gender, it is a suggestion” — Porch Stage announcer when introducing Mirah
While the 17th Nelsonville Music Festival is now history, I am continually reminded of how special a place Southeast Ohio was and is to me. Even though I did not attend school there, I often visited friends in Athens County, sharing Robin Hood Ales as music was played on rural back porches. After years of musical excursions as varied as New York’s downtown experiemental scene and a current association with the Met Opera, when I visit Nelsonville I feel like I am going home. Here are takeaways from this year’s fest.
As you drive to the parking lot, you pass the fest’s campground. This year, even just an hour into the festival, it was overflowing, a sea of tents, bursting at the seams. It even has its own stage for music at midnight, and yoga in the afternoons. Upon entering the festival itself, it was as if it was a Saturday night, not the usual laid-back Thursday. It has always been well-attended, but not like this year. Full, yes, but not claustrophobic. It’s a difference you can feel.
In other words, I can no longer call it the best kept secret in Southeast Ohio. It has been discovered. This is great not just for the festival itself, but to the many Ohio artists that are featured there. Folks may come for the bigger names, but we are treated to some folks who ought to be heard, some of whom have been hiding in plain sight.
It’s also the most family-friendly of all the festivals I attend. Not only is there a specific area for children’s activities, you’ll see groups of children playing kick ball and other improvised games in the open areas on the grounds. While there is certainly security, it is so unobtrusive that you are not aware of it unless you are looking for it. That, too, is part of the festival’s openness that makes it so special.
2. Legends, Headliners, and New Voices
There is a great diversity in the music as well. On previous years, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn have been the featured legends. This year, it was Emmylou Harris, Rodriguez, and, of course, Michael Hurley, who’s been there 13 of the festival’s 17 years.
Other headliners, such as Ween, They Might Be Giants, and Connor Oberst, bring in a diverse audience as well. As they are the last folks on the main stage, the audience swells and dances in the darkness.
The newer faces that knocked us out included Margaret Glaspy, honeyhoney, the Cactus Blossoms, Sarah Shook, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Sallie Ford. My personal discovery was the Easy Leaves from California, who have honed a nice harder-edged country sound that also swings thanks to upright bass player extraordinaire Kevin Carducci.
But Aldous Harding was the artist everyone (myself included) was talking about. Having read an article on her in The New York Times a couple weeks back, I was primed. But, purposely, I did not listen to her, as I wanted to experience her live first. From New Zealand, she would have have been a perfect fit in the downtown New York music scene in the experimental ’70s. She also had the lyric of the weekend: “Won’t stop turning until I become twisted.”
There was also, as one photographer noted, a proliferation of women artists with Telecasters. From the sonic adventures of Marisa Anderson to Glaspy’s sideways take on Americana, it was refreshing as it was invigorating.
3. The Gladden House Sessions
This is a recent addition to the festival. Now in it’s fourth year, WOUB Public Media, in partnership with the Ohio University School of Media Arts & Studies, offered 14 intimate 15-30 minute sessions on a front porch of one of the 19th-century log cabins on the festival grounds. These are recorded by the department’s enthusiastic students and are posted on its website. While this year’s sets will not be available until later in June, the ones from previous years are archived here.
It is hosted by its founder, Josh Antonuccio from OU, who also has a short Q&A with the artists. This year’s hit was Aldous Harding, who kept us all enthralled during an extended set. She shape-shifted not only her vocals, but her very being as well. Word must have gotten out about her set the day before, as her set was the most well-attended.
4. The Boxcar Stage
What a treat: a free stage open to everyone. Sponsored by the Ohio University Performing Arts & Concert Series, now in its second year, the stage is set up in front of a boxcar that sits on an abandoned railroad line. It offers a nice open space, pond on one side, a gently sloping hill where you can enjoy a day’s worth of music unencumbered by the normal comings and goings. It also has its own food and other vendors.
The stage offers the same level of musical talent as the others, such as Glaspy, honeyhoney, Sallie Ford, Hurley, Easy Leaves, and my local discovery, Ohio-native Caitlin Krauss. She’s a grad assistant at OU studying music therapy. Later, as I had to hear more, I sat at her feet in the No Fi Cabin, transfixed. I was not alone; she has many other admirers as well.
This stage, like the festival entrance, is tangent to a paved bike path that runs from Athens to downtown Nelsonville. So it is easy to cycle there and back, and thanks to Athens Bicycles there is secure storage area for your bike as well.
This and the Gladden House Sessions are perfect examples of how well the festival, and Stuart’s Opera House that hosts it, is integrated into the larger community. This was also the most laid-back stage, and it closed Saturday night with a square dance. Delicious.
5. Americana Sunday
Whether intentional or not, Sunday on the Main Stage was a delight for Americana lovers: Emmylou Harris, Son Volt, John Fulbright, and the Easy Leaves, who opened the sunny afternoon. However, morning arrivers were treated to Emmylou’s soundcheck that was nearly a full set in itself. As the crowd grew from just a dozen or so to hundreds, Harris was her normal patient and congenial self. At one point she commented that we were seeing “how the sausage is made.”
The sunny, warm afternoon left us all looking forward to next year.
Now, scroll through festival photos. You will note that three are first-time photographers to ND, Kevin Smith (Saving Country Music and Blue Suede News Magazine), Chad Cochran (www.cowtownchad.com), and OU student Marie Swartz. I thank them for their generosity and friendship. I also hope we see more of their photos on our website and this column.