Wakarusa Festival 2011
Summer is almost upon us, and as much of the nation is either unthawing or cleaning up from several rounds of brutal storms, plans are being made to get out and travel. While baseball stadiums, beaches, and national parks remain consistently popular sources of leisure, live outdoor music season is perhaps the most exciting and anticipated event of summer. The amphitheatres and assorted outdoor music shacks have booked their schedules and are slowly opening their doors. Occasionally, an artist or two may catch my eye, but for the most part these types of shows herald the revival of cheeky, past-their-prime acts who are out hawking some half-hearted new material thrown into a mediocre set list that leads up to a subpar hit of yesteryear. For every Paul Simon or Van Morrison you may catch in this setting, there are several Peter Frampton’s, Kid Rock’s , or Steve Miller Band’s. Or consider the other alternative: the Country Mega-Ticket tours that combine Nashville’s most trendy hat acts into one convenient night of beer drinking, truck tailgating and drunken sing-a-longs.
To that, I say “No thank you!” Instead over the better part of the past decade, the best live music in the summer months is found in remote towns like Indio, Manchester, Hunter Mountain, or Ozark. Eclectic artists from a variety of genres gather at these festivals with esoteric names likes Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Wakarusa. Here, fans camp for days at a time in a sweaty, dusty homage to earlier legendary outdoor gatherings like Woodstock and Monterrey. These assemblies, which have been succeeding for years in Europe, have become all the rage on this side of the pond, and the lineups and events keep getting stronger every year. This year’s Wakarusa looks to be one of the coolest set-ups yet, as four days of wall to wall music is packed into a campground at the top of an Arkansas mountain. Like your string bands? Start small with Split Lip Rayfield or Poor Man’s Whiskey before working your way up to the big stage of Mumford and Sons. Into extended jams filled with spacey echoes and other oddities? Let STS9, Bassnectar, and Umphrey’s McGee set your body into perpetual motion. Looking to get out there with trance-like DJ grooves and club-like rhythms? Lotus, Hallucinogen, and Thievery Corporation will not let you down. And these acts are only the tip of the iceberg. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ 70’s punch will have you dancing in the mud, while Toots & The Maytals’ Jamaican groove will make you forget about the shower you desperately need. Minus The Bear and Ryan Bingham bring a literary bent to the proceedings, reminding you that a barrage of sunshine and good vibes should not come at the expense of intelligent songwriting. And Ben Harper and My Morning Jacket are festival veterans who have honed their massive stadium sound into rock and roll artwork, playing with the intensity and fervor that the huge crowds demand and expect. Most importantly, with hundreds of bands on tap, the weekend lends itself to the wonderful act of discovery. Finding that previously unheard of band that just hits you in the right spot is what festivals like these are all about.
Having attended Bonnaroo a few years back, I know that it takes strength to get through the hot, stifling weekend. Spirits flow, miles are walked, and rest is nary. However, with the right company, an open musical mind, and thousands of like-minded individuals by your side, festivals like Wakarusa can be one of life’s most memorable events.