Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival has always been billed as “where music meets mother nature.” In the past that has been an appropriate tagline, with the rolling hills and large forested areas of Clinton Lake State Park providing a great setting for a music festival.
In 2008 however it took on a much different meaning.
We were no longer ass deep in music; instead, by Sunday it was ass deep in mud.
The week opened with some small but energetic Wakarusa pre-parties at local watering holes throughout Lawrence. And while the crowds might have been sparse, Oakhurst brought their own fasten your seatbelt Colorado bluegrass to help kick things off. On a more local note, Springfield, Missouri’s own Big Smith laid down an energy-packed set of their own before turning the stage over to Prism to close out Tuesday night with their funky electronica.
Wednesday night was highlighted by darlings of the festival, Dirtfoot. Everyone who caught one of their sets during the weekend left impressed, and Wednesday night’s pre-party set certainly set the tone. Their foot stomping, percussion-driven bluegrass was infectious, and they garnered the first of their batch of new fans from the weekend with their performance at the Bottleneck.
The first official day of the festival opened with dark clouds on the horizon and grim weather warnings. Despite the ominous outlook, the bands got to work, which helped get the day off to a hopeful if not optimistic start. Robert Bradley and Donna the Buffalo managed to attract their usual Wakarusa crowd in the Revival tent while transplanted local favorites Truckstop Honeymoon treated the crowd to one of their trademark tongue-in-cheek set lists over on the Sun Up stage.
By the time former Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone’s bluegrass duo Uncle Monk took the Prarie stage, the howling wind was drowning out the stage microphone’s ability to reproduce their picking and really served as a precursor to what was to come. At 7:30 PM festival organizers made the decision to shut things down in the middle of Limbeck’s set and encouraged everyone to seek what shelter they could find. Ultimately the storm was not as bad as forecast – there were no tornadoes, but 70 mph winds and hours of driving rain certainly threw a wet blanket on the start to the party. Casualties of the storm were mostly contained to wet camping gear and sets by Buckethead, Lotus, Everyone Orchestra, Dirtfoot, & others.
Daylight came Friday finding festival goers in a mixed state of relief & disappointment. While the storm battered all the campers, everyone was safe. The disappointment of loosing nearly half of the first day performances was fresh on everyone’s mind. Sunny skies quickly lifted the mood and energetic sets from reunited local grunge rockers Paw helped raise the energy level.
By mid afternoon there was no questions the festival was hitting its stride. Mates of State, Built to Spill, Buckethead, and Arrested Development all drew great crowds and built the energy for a last minute substitution on the Sundown stage. Galactic took the stage ahead of their scheduled late night set in place of Cake. They certainly built on the crowds’ anticipation for the experience that is The Flaming Lips. As usual Wayne Coyne and the Lips didn’t disappoint. Their stage presence is unmatched and the crowd was up for it on such a perfect evening.
After things quieted down on the main stage, Cake kept the energy up in the Revival tent with a terrific performance. Despite air travel delays, John McCrea’s persona and Cake’s signature sound made for one of the sets of the festival. The waterlogged masses of Thursday night finally got to hear the Everyone Orchestra and a great electronic set from EOTO to close out the night.
Saturday opened with another gorgeous Kansas sky and the kind of hot, but not unbearable weather we have come to enjoy at Wakarusa. It also brought another day of great music. If there was one complaint to be had Saturday it was the potential for schedule conflicts with some of the festivals headliners playing at the same time on opposing stages. Alejandro Escovedo, Ozomatli, Papa Mali, Leftover Salmon and the Old 97’s had fans bouncing between stages all afternoon.
Meanwhile Porter Batiste & Stoltz, Dr. Dog, and Hot Buttered Rum made the decision of which stage to be at even more difficult. By late in the evening the potential for conflict seemed to dissipate some for the STS9 vs. Ben Folds sets and they drew different audiences. Late night sets were kicked off by another scorching set from Cornmeal with sit-ins from Vince Herman and the guys from Leftover Salmon. To wrap up the night the guys in Tea Leaf Green showed what late night rock-n-roll is all about with their blistering set with nearly the first 40 minutes a nonstop jam. Not to be outdone Dirfoot gave TLG a run for their money with their rocking set to a packed Sun Up tent.
With 2 days of great weather and music under their belts there was a sense that Sunday would be the crescendo to the festival and make up for Thursdays cancellations and weather. But, when the first thing to greet you entering the festival grounds is a revised schedule notifying you that headliner and 12 time Grammy winner EmmyLou Harris has canceled for health reasons it was not a good omen to begin the day. Dr. Dog and Dumpstaphunk got the day started while competing sets from Leftover Salmon and Tea Leaf Green again made for some tough decisions.
The looming threat of severe weather once again struck with a vengeance just after Keller Williams & The Transmitters finished up their reggae inspired set on the main stage. The skies opened up and performances ground to a halt while the downpour worsened. The undaunted crowd seemed to taunt Mother Nature cheering with each lighting bolt and thunder clap. Eventually the torrent subsided and things got back underway, but in a very limited fashion.
Perhaps most disturbing was the nearly 2 hour gap in any real updates to the crowd as to what the post stoppage plans were. In the end, all stages except for the Revival tent were shut down. As a result, Wakarusa lost its second night of major headliners with no performances by Mickey Hart or Zappa Plays Zappa or the previously canceled Harris. It left a lot of fans scratching their heads as to the meaning of rain or shine and more than a little frustrated that things were not more clearly communicated to the restless crowd. David Grisman and his quintet put on a great, but truncated show for the crowd in the tent. Split Lip Rayfield and the Avett Brothers followed suit with an energetic set to a significantly deflated, even defeated crowd to close out the Festival in a sea of mud & frustration in the Revival tent.
Overall it was 2 days of great music and 2 days of weather and organizational chaos that left many with an empty feeling from what could have been. Wakarusa seems to have had some growing pains the past few years that have been largely masked by great lineups and solid weather. Wakarusa 2008 didn’t get any favors from Mother Nature, and this year once she met the music the result wasn’t festival magic but band cancellations, mud and confusion. Hopefully Wakarusa learned some lessons this year about planning for inclement weather and can make good on their missteps. They owe it to the fans that braved the weather and disorganization that was Wakarusa 2008.
Wakarusa has always kind of been the little festival that could, but one again face tough challenges ahead if they want to continue to be successful.