Wakarusa 2011 Day Three
Fatigue reared its head as Day Three began. Having been up into the wee hours of the morning, the ability to rise up and continue the exploration begins to wane a bit and the ability to press on deteriorates. However, after some camp time and a little Pan-Asian for lunch, the rallying began and off back out we went searching for what may lie ahead. I met Dave, a self-proclaimed “free spirit” from central Arkansas, who had just finished jamming out to Galactic for the second time in 24 hours. A wobbly, yet friendly “digital media owner” sat next to me as I was preparing for an interview and promptly informed me that he had never heard of No Depression, this fine publication for which I told him I was affiliated. It seemed a fruitless endeavor to educate him, so I just nodded my head and told him I had to get going. He mumbled some incoherent thoughts when I asked him the name of his media empire and then told me that Umphrey’s was his reason for being here as he has “partied” with them countless times. Certainly, the band members would vouch for this guy. Sure.
The characters continued to parade up and down the festival grounds and the crowds at each stage were large and energetic. The musical diversity of Wakarusa is something that sets it apart from lots of other festivals. This was on display Saturday, as I listened to Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band ring forth great jazzy licks, watched Grupo Fantasma tear through a charging Latin version of “Burning Down the House” and marveled at the carnival-like festive atmosphere of Portland, Oregon’s March Fourth Marching Band, a 20-person or so collective of brass players, drummers, and stilt-walkers that oozed energy and general oddity with each note and dance step.
Saturday’s main highlights came in the evening hours. Mumford & Sons, riding a string of incredible hype buoyed by a celebratory performance at this year’s Grammy Awards, hit the Main Stage at 6:00 and were greeted by possibly the largest crowd of the weekend. Their British charm and frenetic, full-throttle blend of punk-bluegrass worked well as the crowd danced, hollered, and kicked up a lot of dust in the hot field below. Songs like “The Cave”, “Little Lion Man” and “Roll Away Your Stone” illustrated the bands intensity and fueled their reputation as a great live act. Less successful were a mid-set string of slow, plodding, yet to be released new songs that Marcus Mumford admitted “may be trying your patience a bit”. Here, the set lost its thunder and began to crawl, making one aware of the fact that is really hot and a bit uncomfortable there in the crowd.
Following Mumford & Sons I made a quick dash to the Backwoods Stage and caught the beginning of Frontier Ruckus’ hour-long set. Hailing from Detroit, Michigan these longtime friends play a deeply affecting and highly literary blend of music that demands attention and focus when taking it in. Although the crowds at the Backwoods Stage were consistently smaller throughout the festival, the setting served Frontier Ruckus well as the songs were given space to breathe and audience members could absorb the entirety of the music without the hassle of fighting for space or the distraction of wildly buzzed-out spectators.
Regrettably, the band’s set bumped into the starting time of Ben Harper & Relentless 7, so back I hoofed it to the Main Stage where I caught one of the weekend’s most memorable sets. After an awkward introduction by pseudo-celebrity Beatle Bob(spotted all around the festival grounds rocking out to various bands), Ben recognized his audience and opened with a solo rendering of “Burn One Down”, before bringing down the house, alternating between gently beautiful ballads like “Another Lonely Day” and “Diamonds on the Inside”, hard-charging anthems like “Rock and Roll is Free” and “Ground on Down” and a mid-set cover spectacular featuring Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” and CSN&Y’s “Ohio”. Harper was also particularly gracious throughout, repeatedly thanking the crowd and praising the festival. He also gave a shout-out to his son’s favorite team, the hometown Arkansas Razorbacks and the crowd responded with a minute or two of “Wooo Pig Sooie!”, a reminder that we were deep in the heart of SEC country.
A little more wandering ensued after Harper and Co. finished up, before settling in to catch Thievery Corporation’s eclectic set. Their songs are a mash-up of all sorts of styles and genres and the audience was kept guessing as to what surprise would next arise. Multiple singers, rappers, and dancers crossed the stage, trading lyrics and sometimes even languages as founding members Rob Garza and Eric Hilton kept things in place. The crowd went nuts, with constant roars of approval coming fast and furious as the night got later and the energy levels more raucous.
Following that I was a bit spent, and with our departure day fast approaching, I retreated back to the campsite to enjoy the last few hours of camaraderie with our newfound friends. Meeting people, kicking back to relax, and forming a sense of community is just as vital to the success of music festivals as is the music. Wakarusa did well in providing ample space and amenities for which that bond could be sustained. Despite the general unpleasant side effects brought on by summertime camping, the four-day campout in Arkansas proved to be quite memorable and provided a unique and adventurous manner for which to kick off the summer season. I will be replaying the memories for years to come but also owing a special sense of appreciation for sleep, indoor plumbing, and air-conditioning.