Words and Images by Tim Newby
When Hot August Music Festival founder Brad Selko hopped on stage with headliners Old Crow Medicine Show during their show closing version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” to blow some harmonica it proved the perfect way to close the day’s festivities. From its start twenty-two years ago with two acts, to its three stage, thirteen band line-up that it sports now, Hot August Music Festival has established itself as one of the premiere one-day events of the busy Festival season.
Since its beginning in the cozy confines of Selko’s backyard for a couple hundred fans, to its sold-out present day location at Oregon Ridge Park, the Hot August Music Festival has stayed true to Selko’s vision of a creating a high-quality, intimate fan-friendly festival. With only a minor tweak to its name, changing from Hot August Blues to Hot August Music this year – to reflect the growing diversity of bands that fills the line-up each year, Hot August Music Fest has for the last twenty-two years been exactly what Selko hoped it would be.
Topped by Old Crow Medicine Show and Nickel Creek, this year’s line-up was one of the most diverse ever. Over the three stages fans saw everyone from blues-master Tab Benoit, to indie-rockers Dr. Dog, to Brooklyn funksters Turkuaz, to roots-rockers Cabinet, to electronica-based ELM, to singer songwriter Jordan August. It was a line-up that had something for everyone. Selko’s attention to detail and focus on fan-comfort shows all over the festival as he brings in extra-food vendors, more bathrooms, and has more beer staff all which help to eliminate lines to almost nothing, which in turn leads to happy festival goers who can spend more time watching the stellar music they came for not waiting for their beer and lunch.
The setting of Oregon Ridge also helps to create an extremely fan-friendly environment. The main stage is set at the base of a large hill and is surrounded by a picturesque array of trees which helps create a natural amphitheater and ensures that no matter where you are you have a great, unobstructed view of the stage. The two smaller stages are a short walk away, enabling one to bounce from stage to stage and catch as many acts as possible without missing much action.
Selko’s other over-riding philosophy each year is his willingness to schedule bands with the idea of quality over quantity. He prefers to give each band enough time on stage to really get warmed up and stretch their legs as opposed to the brief forty-five-minute sets that seem to be the norm at too many festivals that instance on shoehorning as many possible bands on stage. Selko gives each band more than ample time to get up and stretch their musical legs. The main stage’s second act, alt-country rockers Houndmouth, made mention of this during their ninety-minute set when they remarked that it was the longest show they had ever played. Their raucous set saw them blasting through almost all the tunes off of their debut-album, From the Hills Below the City, before wrapping up with a spirited take on Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Following Houndmouth was one of the day’s unquestionable highlights Dr. Dog. The six-piece band from Philly played an eighteen song set that pulled equally from their last four albums with the rarity “Alaska” thrown in to keep the old school fans happy. They also featured a sit-in from festival opener Bosley on “Ain’t It Strange.” Their set was a rocking, high-energy outbreak of fun that had everyone perched on the hillside at Oregon Ridge Park up and grooving.
After Dr. Dog attention was focused on the two side stages, as bluegrass-themed Cabinet packed the smaller stage that was tucked away in the woods for a rollicking, rambling trip through Americana highlighted by an adventurous version of “Diamond Joe.” As Cabinet wrapped up they gave way to Brooklyn funk-machine, Turkuaz, who were on the larger second stage and started their show via an introduction from the infamous Dr. Rich Barnstein. Turkuaz set was an ass-shaking explosion of funk.
One of the day’s most highly anticipated sets followed, as the reunited Nickel Creek is touring again for the first time since their farewell tour of 2007. As Nickel Creek took the stage it seemed as if everyone in attendance surged toward the main stage creating arguably the largest crowd of the day. The band’s set was a tour through their extensive archive and a strong reminder of what made them such a special band.
Despite the absence of blues in the festival’s name, Tab Benoit made sure the blues were not forgotten with a blistering set on the second stage that followed Nickel Creek. His set was a stunning affirmation of the power of New Orleans flavored blues through his mind-bending guitar work. Benoit’s set seemed to almost seamlessly segue from song to song before giving way to the day’s headliner’s Old Crow Medicine Show on the main stage.
Old Crow’s shows are rowdy affairs with band members bouncing around stage, swapping instruments, and throwing out devilishly gorgeous licks. An early guest spot by Baltimore’s unofficial mascot the Natty Boh Man who danced along with the band got things heated up right away. The band, as they always do maintained that peak of energy for their two hour set, blasting through all facets of their vast repertoire, including a boisterous “Humdinger,” a sublime “Take’em Away,” and unsurprisingly “Wagon Wheel.” They wrapped up their headlining spot with a string of covers to close the day starting with a melody of Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson tunes, before breaking out the perfectly placed “Streets of Baltimore,” which then lead into their common take on Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” The night was brought to a close with a handful of guests as all of Houndmounth, Cabinet, and Selko hit the stage for Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The joyous celebration onstage was only matched by the joyous celebration and dancing from those in the crowd and was the perfect ending to a perfect festival.