Nelsonville Music Fest: Music That Makes Holes in the Sky
“I want real things — live people to take hold of, to see, and to talk to. I want music that makes holes in the sky.”
— Megan Bee quoting Georgia O’Keeffe
There is no place I’d rather be on the first weekend of June each year than Southeast Ohio and the Nelsonville Music Festival, whose programmers are inquisitive curators who continually mix folks that you want to hear with those you need to hear. It is a recipe for an invigorating four days of festival-going. This edition was no less amazing, tantalizingly so as there were lots of artists I had not seen before. It exceeded my expectations; here are my proverbial takeaways.
Funkadelic Saturday Night
While I have seen a larger crowd at the fest’s Saturday night, I have never experienced a band and crowd that was so in tune with one another, that swayed with one another so energetically as we did with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. The Mothership landed, and when it ended some 100 minutes later, rarely had I witnessed so much movement on stage, with so many performers that I lost count as they came to the front then slid off to the sides, then back around again and again. It was not only a way of keeping the funkadelic music going; it continually crested with so many performers cresting that wave that so vibrantly crashed over you. Plus, they did a 10-minute “Maggot Brain” that sounded as fresh and startling as it did in 1971. The photos of this performance are in order in the slideshow below to, I hope, give you a sense of what it was like to be there.
Preceding Clinton was the winner of this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest, Tank and the Bangas, whose blend of hip-hop, soul, New Orleans rhythm, and vocal phrasings reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald got the crowd in the mood for the main course to come. Highly recommended.
Indie Bands, Indie Bands, Indie Bands
Let’s face it: Lots of, if not most, general festivalgoers go for the indie bands. Nelsonville has never disappointed in this regard. This year’s top draw was the Decemberists, who seem to touch a lot of bases without ever settling down for a single one. Nipping at their heels is the band on the verge, Deer Tick, that coincidentally preceded the Decemberists on the main stage. It was an inspired double bill, contrasting both coasts and one’s restrained sense of power with the other’s melancholic brawniness.
Since first seeing them some four years ago, River Whyless has continued impress me with what ND and AXS writer Chris Griffy just days ago identified as a sound “interjecting almost discordant synth, percussion, and other instrumental flourishes” into Americana. Needless to say, we both are big fans.
Another band of note was Wooden Shijps, longtime purveyors of psychedelic rock from San Francisco, complete with light show. The festival organizers always have at least one band of this type; this year they outdid themselves. Finally, my favorite, tUnE-yArDs. From their second album, selected by the Village Voice as best album of 2011, to their album of a few months back that was featured on NPR, they consistently upend expectations. Or, as Jazz Winnipeg says, they “defy gravity, bursting like fireworks one moment and retreating inwards the next as the band blends hip-hop, soul, jazz and 80’s house music.” Having only seen them once before, it only increased my unbridled anticipation. I was beside myself.
Legends and Other Old Dogs: Michael Hurley, Charlie Parr, JD Hutchinson
Michael Hurley is a legend among legends. He is the rarest of artists whom other artists go out of their way to hear. Low key, traveling with only a single guitar, none of his daily sets are like the others. Whether it be an older song such as the lovely “O My Stars” or the lamentable “Monsanto,” Hurley’s armchair boogie is full of wonder.
Charlie Parr takes you back in time with his National steel guitar, playing in the Piedmont style,as though he’s scrambling through some alleyway with a hellhound on his trail. Yet he’s soft spoken and deliberate in his delivery.
I have written about local Athens County legend JD Hutchinson before, and his two sets — one solo, the other with his band — demonstrated that he can play anything at the drop of a hat, and switch genres just as quickly. He also has a mordant sense of humor that can squeeze itself into a song. That happened this time when he was doing a credible version of Dylan and Cash’s “Girl From the North Country.” Then, imitating their detractors, he plied those voicings in a way that condemned the imitators. With a sly grin to boot.
Fresh Voices: The Weather Station, Bedouine, Haley Heynderickx
This is what I get most out of festivals: New voices whose vitality challenges audiences, if they’re curious and astute. This time it included The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, whose Joni Mitchell-ish lyricism and unique tunings result in whispered metaphorical vignettes, not dissimilar to those of Isabelle Eberhardt.
As evidenced by her chosen name, Bedouine, Azniv Korkejian, born in Syria to Armenian parents, spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, moved to Boston, then Houston, L.A. as soon as she could, then to Kentucky, followed by a year in Austin, Savannah for a degree in sound design, and ultimately returning to L.A., where she currently lives. Phew! She describes her music as a mixture of ’60s folk and ’70s country-funk with a glimmer of bossa nova cool. Add to that some lithe guitar picking, a mesmerizing voice whose sense of phrasing belies her youth and, in whole, you get a charming enigma that you want to hear more of.
Haley Heynderickx’s new album, I Need to Start a Garden, made me think of the protagonist in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. Live, she appears even more unguarded and unassuming than her doppelganger, yet effusive in manner. It works, as I was humming her meditative tunes for days afterward.
Gladden House Sessions
In its fifth year, these short, intimate back-porch sessions are a collaboration between the festival and Ohio University and WOUB, with students filming, recording, and editing the performances, usually five each day. They, as well as previous years, can be found here.
From Tank and the Bangas’ electrifying set that primed us for their main stage performance later that evening to local-yet-well-traveled treasure Megan Bee and her great sense of place, these sessions are always exciting, and ones I always catch. I urge you check out the videos. The impressive sets this year included Dead Horses, Charlie Parr, Birds of Chicago, Nick Waterhouse, Bedouine, The Weather Station, Paul Thorn(!), and Larry Yes.
Now, scroll through a nice set of photos, including many artists not mentioned above, and of the Decemberists that were band approved.