The Nelsonville Music Festival, or the Ohio Serenade of the Cicadas
I can no longer call the Nelsonville Music Festival the best kept secret in Southeast Ohio. While it remains modest in size — and way more comfortable and friendly than some larger festivals — music aficionados have discovered this laid back, musically diverse festival in the gently rolling hills of Athens County. Even the 17-year cicadas turned out to provide a spontaneous background vibe.
Nelsonville is just eight miles from the home of Ohio University, where there is a bike trail that connects the two towns — and beyond. The trail also passes by the festival entrance, where Athens Cycles provides free and secure bike storage. A nice touch, indeed.
The festival has four stages: one main large stage, two intermediate stages, and one that used to be a very small — and I mean small — one-room school house. That stage, called the No-Fi Cabin, is unplugged at its most intimate. While the bigger artists play the main stage, many also play the smaller stages.
The Porch Stage retains the name it acquired when it was the front porch of one of the log cabins on the grounds. The artists who perform there are more experimental in nature.
The newest stage is the Boxcar Stage, which sits across the festival grounds, backed by a boxcar on an out-of-use railway track. It’s also a free stage, no ticket required, with plenty of trees and a pond.
One other “stage” occupies a small porch next to the No-Fi Cabin, and has no set pre-set schedule. It is a co-venture with WOUB, which films its 15-minute sets for broadcast on WOUB’s website, under the name the Gladden House Sessions. Since the artists themselves choose to play these impromptu gigs, they are announced every morning. This tradition began two years ago. That year’s sessions are still available, and this year’s will be up in a week or so. Highly recommended. Seeing Lake Street Dive swing out on the porch was a highlight.
One more thing before I get to the music. Every festival runs on coffee, pizza, and beer. The Nelsonville Festival offers the best in all three categories, and I will stake my reputation on this. The pizza line is, regardless of time of day, always 20-30 deep. The food and beverages there are amazing. But there is a new tavern in town, the one where I hang out the most. Where I go up and say, “Set ’em up, Joe (one for my baby and one for the road).” It’s run by a local dairy, Snowville Creamery, with killer chocolate milk and esoteric flavors of yogurt. I spend most of my between sets time there.
Along with the diversity of the acts, there were three instruments in attendance this year that, although well-known, are not often heard: Joan Shelley’s cello banjo, Dana’s theremin and Tayloranne’s musical saw. The first two had formal sets, but Tayloranne traveled from Asheville, North Carolina, just to play with Michael Hurley.
Day One I was running a bit late so I primarily stayed at the Main Stage, catching Aoife O’Donovan, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nigh Sweats, and Courtney Barnett. I had only seen some video clips of Rateliff, so I was I was unprepared for the power, energy, and glory that this band possesses. Wow. These guys need to be seen live and often. Headliner of the evening, Barnett lived up to her reputation and did not disappoint the crowd. From the outset there were sing-alongs.
One could have spent Day Two at the Boxcar stage. Highlights included My bubba, a hit from last year, who began the late morning with a softness that evoked a leisurely walk through a meadow of wildflowers at dawn. They have been very busy since last year, touring the US and the EU and recording a new album in Brooklyn. After playing an unofficial set last year at Grimey’s during the AMA, My bubba will have a showcase this year.
Steve Poltz followed with an energetic set, using some electronic effects to accentuate his being a folksinger with a capital F. Think Todd Snider with more humor and less drama (don’t get me wrong; I love Snider). Poltz even composed a song that day incorporating the cicada symphony that was alive in four dimensions during the four days.
Joan Shelley followed, and she further cemented my belief that she is the best singer-songwriter most people have never heard. She has a Joan Baez-like voice and songs to match, and it has to be a matter of time before the world catches up. She also sat in later with the one-of-a-kind Michael Hurley. I first became acquainted with him over 45 years ago when I attended some festival somewhere, and as we found our camping spot at 2 a.m., there was a campfire nearby with someone singing. Turned out it was Hurley doing his soon-to-be signature song, “The Werewolf.” We were smitten, and so must have been the festival organizers, Tim Peacock and Brian Koscho, as he’s been a guest at all 16 Nelsonville festivals. Hurley is the only artist who routinely performs all four days.
After additional morning sets by Hurley and My bubba, Day Three followed with Joan Shelley on the main stage, where her emotional warmth was not harshened by a larger setting or the glaring afternoon sun.
John Moreland had the crowd eating out his hand from the start, when he began his set with the bittersweet “Cherokee.” Following their intimate Gladden House Session, Lake Street Dive took over the main stage, both times performing a knockout version of the Kinks’ “Lola.” It’s not that the Kinks were ahead of their time, but rather that it took a lot of folks a lot of time to catch up.
Charles Bradley followed — a nice juxtaposition. He brought the neo-soul of LSD and the old school style itself. See him, as for a generation or two who never got to see James Brown live, this is the closest you are going to get. No, he’s not an impersonator, but he draws from the same well. While Bradley’s voice is as strong as it ever was, his overall showmanship has gone up a few notches since he last played the fest a couple years back.
As thunderstorms had been predicted for all four days, we had been lucky until Saturday evening, when some thunder and a moderate rain caused an hour delay to the Tallest Man on Earth’s set. I was anticipating this one. I have a thesis: if you see someone once and then do not see them again for a fair amount of time, they are sure to sound invariably, substantially better the next time. When I first saw Kristian Matsson, he was fairly new to the States, and while I found his music intriguing, I lost track of him. I should not have, as he more than lived up to what I’d been hearing about him. The crowd met him with an enthusiastic embrace and did not let go. They were certainly more in the know than I had been.
There was still some rain on the stage that caused Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to set up their four mics further back from the front than usual. A light rain returned, but no one moved. After all, Welch and Rawlings have the uncanny ability to suspend time and space, even when you have seen them five dozen times. I have seen many artists over the years and the only other ones that I have seen have this effect on an audience are Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, early in their careers. You know what’s coming and still you are transfixed. Every time I also wonder how Rawlings’ guitar stays together. There are many other fine guitarists out there, some of whom are as technically proficient, but none weave a spell like Rawlings. To think, in their early Nashville days, A&R, agents, and record label people would take Welch aside and say they could do something with her, but ditch the guitar player.
We all went home that night, wet and a bit tired from the extremes of the 90-degree heat that gave way to a chilly, soggy evening. But we felt more fulfilled than when we began. That’s the mark of a good festival.
Sundays are always the hardest days. I had to say goodbye to my festival buddies: Meghan, who was moving the next day to Austin to work with a record label, Megan the Mohawked tri-athlete, the budding singer-songwriter Adriann from upstate New York, and all my fellow photographers. But the sadness of the goodbye was offset by another day of invigorating music.
Steve Poltz led off on the main stage with another amazing set, and I was able to catch an exciting trio/quintet called the Wild Reeds, at both the Gladden House and the main stage. They are from L.A. and if you want their sound in a few words, I’d call it folk and country ala the Roches. They have great harmonies but with a bit harder edge. They’ll be touring the East in July, so catch them. Of all the folks I was not familiar with this weekend, they most impressed me.
As the day was coming to a close, I caught Hurley and Tayloranne in the Cabin Stage. I sat at their feet and when he did his beautiful “O My Stars,” there was an ever-so-faint, under your breath harmony coming from a few folks in the cabin. Mesmerizing. Next door at the Gladden House I saw the only band of its kind at the festival, the Asheville-based bluegrass band Town Mountain. They also closed down the Boxcar Stage, and they are without a doubt the best young bluegrass band around. Wow.
I then had to hurry on over to catch the closures of the fest, another nice juxtaposition of Nikki Lane and a legend, Randy Newman. Lane brought her near devil-may-care off-handedness that belies a sophisticated talent, and Newman showed up with his wit and musical genius. He and Paul Simon are the deans of American song craftsmanship that harkens back to the days of the Great American Songbook. From his own great solo albums of the ’70s and ’80s to numerous film scores, Newman is a national treasure. I do not think the festival has ever featured an Academy Award winner before. There’s a first time for everything.
Enough of my rambling, on with the slideshow. After you look at the photos, I think you should seriously consider adding the Nelsonville Music Festival to your not-to-miss list for 2017. From experimental, psychedelic rock and roll to soul to bluegrass to eclectic folk to the avant garde jazz, you will not be disappointed in either the music or the people. Many thanks to my fellow photographer Steve Mack, and Scotty Hall for the photo of Randy Newman.