Hot Summer Nights at Wakarusa 2011

img_8646.jpgWakarusa, held in the beautiful Mulberry Mountain from June 2 – 5, commenced its third year since moving from Kansas. This four-day festival has continued to evolve into an eclectic gathering of music and art, and fans flock from all corners of the country to experience this congregation of human expression. 

 

The daytime heat proved to be too much for many who did not take refuge in the natural wonders of the waterfall or the river found a short distance from camping, but those that were able to slather on the sun block and endure through the upper 90 degree heat were privy to such what – on paper – was one of the more diverse lineups of the season.

 

Early on in the weekend, Luther & Cody Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars Duo got the asses shaking into proper form with “Stompin’ My Foot” in spite of the continued absence of bassist Chris Chew and his soulful accompaniment lines that, at one time, one would have deemed necessary to stir the crowd. Luther and Cody nmas-waka.jpghave come into a place now where the duo — while not the trio, obviously — possesses a similar presence that does not seem lacking as it once did; they have learned to improvise in Chew’s absence. At one point on this day, Luther abandoned his guitar to take a place behind the kit while Cody took to his psychedelic brand of washboard play, demonstrating that the Dickinsons are willing to do what it takes to keep the jams fresh without sacrificing their organic growth.

Festival sweetheart Grace Potter and her Nocturnals took the stage post-NMAS and did what they do: through vibrancy, sexuality and showmanship, they made the crowd buy what they were selling – raw, authentic and soulful rock and roll. As the Nocturnals rocked, Ms. Potter rolled through standards that fit the day perfectly – most pointedly, “Hot Summer Night” and “Nothing but the Water pt. I,” which came at a time when most were parched under the overbearing solar beat down that was being doled out from the azure Arkansas sky above. For good measure, Potter and bassist Catherine Popper gave a call to all the ladies to remove their tops. Some heeded, most didn’t…oh well, they tried.

grace_waka.jpgAfter Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, who also performed stunningly for the oppressive heat, showed us all how to do the funky chicken the proper way it was off to Buckethead. Rocking the infamous white mask and matching pail, Buckethead performed a great rock show on day one that proved to be too much for many of the more hippie-oriented folk. The tent was packed to the brim as this unusual character shredded on his guitar, wielded nunchucks across stage and threw goodies out to adoring fans.

For those not lucky enough to get a spot inside the tent, the immediate area outside was filled with people lounging in the sunset as a troupe of ladies swallowed fire in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. A quick Star Wars teaser was a personal nerdy favorite from this odd little show that was filled with ear splitting licks by the awkward guitar god.

Festival staple Michael Franti & Spearhead took to the main stage as Thursday’s sun set. From the opening number, “Everyone Deserves Music,” and the eventual crowd walkthrough, young and old alike joined in on rocking out to the unique blend of rock, reggae, and hip-hop that is so distinctive with this group. With his ever-political presence, Franti’s act helped unify the intellectual movement within the festival experience.

The first evening of the festival’s Interstellar Sanctum kicked off with the much awaited Shpongletron Experience. While typical Shpongle shows consist solely of Simon Posford on stage, Wakarusa fans were treated to an interactive structure that aided in total sensory overload. Topping it off, live dancers took to the structure complete with LED hoops and adorned in masquerade attire, making the Shpongletron experience more fun to watch than it was to listen.

When the crowd had indeed been “shpongled” and the air was thick with a familiar scent, Posford graciously played more tracks when the next act, Ott, failed to show up on time.

While trying to wait for this DJ (Ott) that needed a lesson in punctuality, the attention of most quickly moved towards the adjacent Revival Tent, where EOTO played quite an unusual set that included a pitchy but enjoyable remake of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” though neither Jason Hann nor Michael Travis adorned a rubber on their eye…now that would have been epic.

p1018784_copy.jpgIn spite of the lack of prophylactic pirates, the crowd hung on every note while dozens of poi spinners, hoopers, and UV painted bodies danced under lasers till the wee hours in what looked like a black light playground… showcasing Hann and Travis’ String Cheese Incident lineage through their newly acquired affinity for theatrics in EOTO.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 fans were pleased to see their beloved David “Murph” Murphy back up and kicking on stage Friday evening after a recent bout with cancer that the bassist has apparently won. Making sure to mark their comeback as the gods of electronic rock, STS9 performed a surprising cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” that confused some and delighted others. While not a first for the Athens expatriates, it certainly wasn’t as well received as it would have been in the days of old, when more fans appreciated musicality than pre-conceived tunes courtesy of Macintosh.

Playing two sets over the course of the festival (the second of which brought out Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli for a ripping “Be Nice”), the band more than made up for the unfortunate cancellation of much of its 2011 winter tour. STS9 seemed rekindled during the two sets. Perhaps it truly is the case that the cancer was a “negative thing that had a positive impact” on the band and its unity and drive, as was stated by STS9 percussionist Jeffree Lerner on Friday prior to the set.

img_9125.jpgFriday’s late night this year had some unusual overlaps in music, forcing partygoers to make tough decisions with their music. Dark Star Orchestra provided the traveling Deadheads with a three and a half hour set.

In stark contrast, most chose to go to the absolutely packed set by Bassnectar, who has toured extensively this past year and been relatively constant with his ability to melt fans’ faces. The decision was made to put faith in Lorin Ashton’s abilities and spend most of the evening with The New Deal. Being their first and last time in Arkansas, as the band has decided unfortunately to end their remarkable 12-year run, the three piece band exceeded expectations, leaving many of its faithful devotees teary-eyed, realizing that this was the end to a band that deserved way more recognition than it ever truly received.

By far, the band that blew all others out of the water was the intensely energetic performance by My Morning Jacket. On the heels of their latest studio effort, Circuital, the quintet took to the stage with front man Jim James sporting his new look that is complete with a two-sizes-too-small trench coat, furry boots that have replaced the space and cowboy boots of yesteryear and what appears to be some beatnik’s scarf that was plucked from the sale rack of a thrift store. Fashion aside, the set tore Arkansas a new ass.

mmj_waka.jpgOpening with the new consummate opening number (also the first track on Circuital), “Victory Dance,” that has replaced the previous consummate opener, “One Big Holiday” (that appeared towards the end of the set), the quintet now appear as giants. Throughout the set, the band’s demonstration gave one the notion that this ensemble has arrived. Their sound was bigger, the bass was heavier and though obviously fronted by James, the entire group now shines more as a collective as opposed to the “Jim James and My Morning Jacket” that once seemed to be the case.

Playing well over its allotted time slot, MMJ has done anything but lose its fervency for playing live music as many do when experiencing similar success (Circuital shipped 60,000 units in its first week). Each song from its now expansive catalog was played with reckless and emotive abandon, as though it was the last time it would be played.

There was some display of dissatisfaction from the tie-dye and pubescent portion of the crowd, but for those with a love for music, it is hard to see where one would have found fault with the performance. For those of us with our roots in rock music, we were blessed to witness guitars being swung across stage and even a moth that bumped into James, who deemed it to be a good omen for the festival. Rock and fucking roll.

The biggest annoyance of the festival was a near constant stray from the planned schedule. Dozens of artists took the stage well after the anticipated start times, which left many fans frustrated, confused and waiting in silence. While this is definitely not the worst complaint of a festival, it dampened the vibe of having a seamless experience. Other artists, such as Ana Sia and Two Fresh, suffered the terrible fate of having their sets cut short. Unfortunately, the problems did not stop there.

Additional production issues included severe sound problems that were too numerous to ignore. For a good portion of Umphrey’s McGee‘s set, Umphreaks toward the back of the crowd were denied the experience of hearing any decent representation of the magic happening on stage. Luckily, this was fixed during the set, but came too late for many who decided to leave this headliner to see acts with less sound issues.

Ben Harper and Relentless7 experienced an even worse fate with complete cut outs of audio, and Frederick Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals struggled with desired vocal levels during his band’s Sunday night set. With a music fest of this scale, this amount of sound problems, almost entirely at the main stage demonstrated that either A) the crew was overextended or B) Wakarusa has lost focus on what is most important about a music festival.

img_8966.jpgOn the flip side of the coin however, Wakarusa grew leaps and bounds this year in regards to its visual aspects, with much more attention being paid to providing eye candy for late night ragers. Giant gonzo puppets and added stage decorations created a delightfully playful atmosphere for people to interact with during their festival adventures. Perhaps next year, the organizers will complete a pass on both accords.

The biggest surprise and pleasure of this year’s Wakarusa was the three performances by Quixotic. Based out of Kansas City, this group provided stunning visual performances intertwined with hauntingly beautiful music. Placed directly in the main stage area and timed to perform before the nightly Interstellar Sanctum, fans lucky enough to stumble upon this gift were privy to breathtaking feats of dance, fire and aerial stunts that helped to symbolize the capabilities of the human body and mind. This experience strayed from the typical festival act, but was a more than welcome bombshell dropped upon our senses. One can only hope that more acts that intertwine music with performance and art will begin to blossom in future festival seasons.

One observation of the festival-goers was that the scene seemed to get a little heavy and out of hand. Perpetual Groove caught a glimpse of this fact up close and personal, when one unruly fan jumped on stage and did an exceptional amount of damage to the band’s equipment in the middle of a set. However, PGroove — who are far from newcomers and have seen more than their share of festival antics — was still ableimg_9093.jpg provide nothing short of an impeccable show regardless of the inability of some to party responsibly. And though the band pushed through, it was an example of an all-too-common theme over the weekend and something that is inevitable as kids no longer follow bands, but rather follow festivals.

After this unfortunate event, Colorado based duo Big Gigantic got the good vibes flowing again with their incredible run, posing the question of “What’s the only thing better than great dance music?” Great dance music with an impeccable saxophone player! What was even more impressive than the saxophone play of Big G’s Dominic Lalli was how much the massive gathering that showed up to the gig was able to dance within such a packed tent.

A slight disappointment was this year’s set by Thievery Corporation. While usually a sure-fire good time, this arrangement was lacking in the energy department. Although still enjoyable, many found places to relax on the ground in contrast to what is typically a show that brings out the groove in most. A few adoring fans made their way on stage, providing the highlight of the set…which was obviously not a musical one.

One band featured in this year’s look at the “bottom 50” on the Waka lineup was the explosive and unforgettable Zoogma. It seemed the buzz was going from the moment the festival started as thousands of stickers found their way to every corner of Mulberry Mountain begging the question, “What the fuck is Zoogma?” Those who let their curiosity lead them to the Outpost tent were met with two phenomenal sets by this five-piece electro rock fusion act from Oxford, Mississippi. In turn, they found out exactly what the fuck Zoogma is. Both sets by this band packed the tent full of equally old and new fans that raged every second thoroughly. Leaving the first set, conversation started in the crowd debating if this was “the new STS9?” The answer remains unclear, as Zoogma seems to be perched to be that and much more.

After receiving much recognition (including a two 2010 Grammy nominations), UK-based folk rock band Mumford & Sons stole the hearts of all who braved the heat and dust on Saturday to hear mum-waka.jpgthis epic new group. Despite being drenched in sweat (at one point front man Marcus Mumford asked “Is it always this fucking hot here?”), the band poured through song after song, including a handful of brand new tunes, which Mumford needlessly apologized for. Let’s face it, the band’s catalog is simply not deep yet.

Despite a massive crowd that showed up to witness this much anticipated show, the musicians were able to still provide an intimate performance through song and dry British humor; in turn, the experience preserved this set as one of the most magical of the entire weekend.

Later in the evening, Mumford gathered up his band mates and whoever else he could find for an evening jam session over a few bottles of Jack Daniels, providing the kind of scene that could have just as easily happened on a railroad track as it did backstage at a music festival. All of this further confirms that Mumford & Sons clearly enjoy making music and have improvisation at the core of their hearts.

With clothes covered in dust and a media pass crusted with neon body paint, Wakarusa 2011 could officially be called a success. While not without a few bumps in the road, the overall feeling from the crowd seemed to be overwhelmingly positive and grateful that this festival remains one dedicated to providing a magical experience for all the senses.

There is no doubt that Mulberry Mountain, a remote location at the end of a desolate road, will once again be taken over by people who chant Fozzie Bear’s catch phrase. Rest assured, we will be there when it happens.

 

Click the thumbnails below to view photos From The Fest by Chris Baldwin & David Shehi

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