THROUGH THE LENS: Nelsonville Music Festival Makes Itself at Home on New Site
Japanese Breakfast - Nelsonville Music Festival 2022 - Photo by Dylan Benedict
The Nelsonville Music Festival has had a lot to deal with the past couple of years. First, like everybody else, it put up a temporarily closed sign due to COVID. Second, just as the epidemic was subsiding (somewhat), the local college it had called home since 2000 decided it wanted to go in a different direction. Supposedly, Hocking College wants to use the grounds for a sporting facility, but not before it hosted a middling country music fest earlier this summer that used the same facilities that Nelsonville Music Festival had developed and groomed over the previous 20 years. To add insult to injury, the college announced the other fest would be held on the same weekend that Nelsonville Music Festival had made into a tradition for artists and fans.
But fortune stepped in when longtime festival supporter Miki Brooks offered a new home. While the new grounds, the Snow Fork Event Center, are just five miles away from the college, you feel like you are in a different world. Just a few months ago it was acres of hayfields, woods, and some stray saplings surrounded by gently sloping hills. My take is that this is already a special place that’s only going to become more so. Reachable only by a country road, its relative isolation makes the music even more enjoyable, now on Labor Day weekend.
The view from the grounds is expansive and most evident when looking out from the main stage, called the Snow Fork Stage, with some woods off to the upper left that surround the Porch Stage. In those woods is the Creekside Stage, a smaller stage that hosts acoustic sets called the Sycamore Sessions (formerly the Gladden House Sessions), filmed by WOUB Public Media. (Past sessions are available here, with new ones coming next month.) A fourth, medium-sized stage, the Pond Stage, sits appropriately enough in front of a pond. Walking around the grounds, with alternating fields and woods, you get a real farm-like feel.
Big Names in a Bucolic Setting
The Nelsonville Music Festival has always presented an eclectic, roots-based lineup for a diverse, knowledgeable audience that has to come to expect no less. This year was no different, though the event was scaled back by both a day and a lesser number of acts. Japanese Breakfast was definitely THE big-name act this year. With a light show to match their infectious sound, they did not disappoint. Frontwoman Michelle Zauner melted any nonbelievers when, as she looked out over the crowd, she said she’d found this part of Ohio to be lovely and “bucolic.”
Jorma Kaukonen, who filled in for Lucinda Williams after she had to cancel when three members of her touring party tested positive for COVID, must have felt the same as he located his Fur Peace Ranch just down the road years ago. The other headliners were Neko Case, Angel Olsen, and Yo La Tengo.
But seasoned festivalgoers don’t just go for the bigger names. It is the discovery of hearing someone who brings something new and exciting to music that is the real thrill.
Danielle Ponder brought her upstate New York soul to Ohio, but instead of relying solely on her powerful vocals, as I have heard several times prior, this time she’d brought a finesse and reflection to her music. While this may be the result of the isolation of the early COVID era, I think it might be her decision to make music a full-time endeavor that has brought a deeper, more reflective element into her music, and herself. It was a richly rewarding experience.
Speaking of riches, each time I hear Sunny War I hear another layer of warmth and acceptance. While her finger-picking often results in a cascading guitar sound, her vocals add a contrasting lushness that leaves your head spinning at times. Not in a bad way; rather, you wonder how in the world does she pull it off.
This was my first time hearing S.G. Goodman live, and I got to see firsthand why she was ND’s Spotlight artist for June 2022. The Kentucky native’s stage banter is as upfront and in your face as her music. Unlike others, her strengths are not in subtleties, rather there are hard edges, cracks, and crevices to explore. Don’t expect to be coddled.
Perhaps the most luscious voice of the weekend belonged to Madi Diaz. Romantic existentialism full of confusion and despair is nothing new, but when it is presented in such a luxuriant manner you are easily seduced. Accompanied by just a guitar, her passionate voice, which is often obscured in the arrangements on her recordings, had the audience enthralled. It was as though your life lay in the balance.
I am pleased to introduce two new photographers to the column, Dylan Benedict and Joe Timmerman, whom I met for the first time at the festival. And we’re welcoming back a favorite, Chad Cochran, who may be better known as Cowtown Chad. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.