The Waka Formula: Looking forward at Wakarusa 2012

Written by David Shehi / Photos by David Shehi & Chris Baldwin

March 21, 2012

Wakarusa has managed to do what few of its peers have been able to: stay alive. Surviving a move from Kansas (for those not “in the know,” its namesake is derived from the Wakarusa River near Lawrence, KS), the annual event shines, year in and year out, as a festival that is “a cut above.”

Going into its ninth year, Wakarusa is looking to continue in a tradition to which only a few can lay claim: keep enriching itself year after year while staying relevant to a constantly evolving fanbase while not forgetting about those who have been there since the beginning. Superficially, one may think “I could do that.” But could you really?

 

 

Think about it.

First of all, consider the music industry’s evolution over the past five years alone. It is an age that has found record companies actually considering dropping the production of compact discs and the quality of sound contained therein for the mp3, a file that sounds about as good as a cassette after a few plays.

Second, consider the diversity at a music festival in general. From ages to taste, there literally needs to be something for most likes at a festival of Waka’s size (estimated 18-25,000 median attendance). Then combine that with the fact that Wakarusa’s backbone remains centered in “jam” friendly artists.

Not so easy now is it?

But rest assured, as Wakarusa heads into its ninth year and proverbial PhD curriculum in badassery, it will do so just as it has for all of its undergrad years and masters program — head toward yet another degree with Magna Cum Laude honors.

 

The Waka Formula:

 

I. The Setting: Mulberry Mountain

Though many doubted the festival’s future beyond Lawrence, Mulberry Mountain (also the site of YMSB’s Harvest Fest) is an ideal setting for a music festival. It is flat, has plenty of natural shade and the Wakarusa layout is easy to understand. It all functions as an amoeba like circle with the only true deviation from the format being the Backwoods Stage, a place where fine musical discoveries can be made. With vendors playing the role as sound buffers, the sound never bleeds over from one set to another, even when the set happens to be dubstep versus Ryan Bingham, which happened last year… proving that Wakarusa knows exactly what they are doing.

Here is what Keller Williams had to say about the scene at Mulberry Mountain (keep reading for the rest of the formula)…

 

Keller Williams talks Wakarusa

 

II: The Lineup

One thing that Wakarusa has always taken seriously has been the bill. Over the years, the stages have been graced with heavyweights from the arena side as well as those that tour the club scene for 300 days out of the year. Reminiscing and looking back, names that immediately stand out are: The Flaming Lips, Widespread Panic, Mumford and Sons, Yonder Mountain String Band, Neko Case, Lotus, Ben Harper, Bassnectar, Grace Potter, Perpetual Groove, Little Feat, The String Cheese Incident, My Morning Jacket, Citizen Cope,  Wilco, Michael Franti and so many more.

Taking a look at 2012, it is immediately clear that the folks at Waka have not deviated from this piece of their formula one bit, providing a bit of something for everyone.

 

Here is a look at about half of what’s cooking in 2012:

Pretty Lights, The Avett Brothers,Primus, Weir, Robinson, & Greene Acoustic Trio, Umphrey’s McGee, Slightly Stoopid,Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Girl Talk, Fitz & the Tantrums, Matisyahu, Royal Family Ball featuring Soulive & Lettuce, G. Love & Special Sauce, Ghostland Observatory, Big Gigantic, Balkan Beat Box, Beats Antique, The Del McCoury Band, Railroad Earth, SAVOY, Nobody Beats The Drum, EOTO, Quixotic, MiM0SA, SOJA, ALO, Tea Leaf Green, Keller Williams, Perpetual Groove, MarchFourth Marching Band, The Travelin’ McCourys Featuring Keller Williams, Gary Clark Jr., Iration, Blitzen Trapper, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Split Lip Rayfield, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Orgone, The Travelin’ McCourys, RJD2, MartyParty, Paper Diamond

 

III. History

As with many festivals and events, Honest Tune has been at Wakarusa since the beginning and this year, we are official media partners with the splendid event.

Asking amongst several HT cohorts in preparation for this piece, words and phrases like “amazing,” “one of the best festivals I ever went to” and “where I discovered that became one of my favorite bands (Lotus) on that very day” were thrown out. A personal favorite though, was what Rex Thomson said.

Rex is very much the connoisseur of festivals, covering ten or so for Honest Tune in 2011. With a mildly crazy look in his eye, Rex said “there are some places that just give you a special feeling when you get there. Suwannee has it. Mulberry Mountain has it. When I am there, I just think of all the happy times people have had and all of the magic that has happened through the music.”

That statement sums it up. Wakarusa’s history speaks for itself. The vibe that springs forth from it  and all of the lessons learned through trial and error over the years all but ensures that 2012 will be all that its preceding years have led us to expect; and once again Fozzie Bear will come to life amongst the voices of countless hippies as they celebrate the weekend of May 31, 2012. Got tickets?

 

Looking back

In closing, there is nothing like a trip down recent memory lane.

Last year while on the scene at Wakarusa, I caught up with Grace Potter, Big Gigantic, Zoogma, hopped in Luther Dickinson’s very air conditioned van, talked charity with Michael Franti and even found myself in the middle of an impromptu backstage jam session led by some bloke named Marcus Mumford.

But before we go there, let us first have a look at a few photos from 2011′s Wakarusa….

 

 

Click the thumbnails to check out some photos from 2011′s Wakarusa by David Shehi & Chris Baldwin


(Scroll down to watch  exclusive Honest Tune videos featuring Grace Potter, Luther Dickinson, Big Gigantic, Michael Franti, Ha Ha Tonka & Zoogma along with scene and fan footage from Waka 2011) 

 

On the Scene at Wakarusa with Marcus Mumford, Grace Potter, and Ha Ha Tonka

Gettin’ In the Van with North Mississippi‘s Luther Dickinson

On the Scene at Wakarusa, Part II: Big Gigantic & Zoogma

Rebel Rappin’ w/ Michael Franti