My friends who did not make the long drive from dreary New England to the spacious mountains of Ozark, Arkansauce have all been asking me what Wakarusa was like. I try to think of different ways to describe this year’s festival, but can only reply that “it was a fantasy land.” It was my second trip to the magical Mulberry Mountain, and I am convinced that it exists as the bottom of a massive funnel of free spirits and energy from across the nation.
Burners from the West, Tribe-heads from the South, Northeast bass freaks, aging Deadheads, Widespread Panic fanatics, heady Arkansas natives and friendly Texans- my extended family. Flags of all kinds flew across the sloping campgrounds, like a World Cup of Rage and Music. It is rare to experience such a sense of freedom and seclusion in this land today. With urban sprawl clawing towards even the most remote areas, and corporate music festivals creating farce escapes, events like Wakarusa in the Mid-West South remind me that there are still refuges for unmediated individuality. Surrounded by lush forests and set beneath miles of winding mountain roads, Wakarusa feels as though it exists off the map. You are who you are at Waka, and your neighbors are there to inspire and surprise you.
The Main Stage camping area was a vast miniature Bermuda Triangle. While standing on solid ground you could only look out to see the tops of hundreds of tents, the mountainous tree line, and the orange and yellow banner atop the Main Stage. Homemade signs with sayings like “Womp Rehab”, State flags, and colorful Further-like buses were the only markers one had to navigate. The Use Your Head Crew‘s residence sat comfortably between a Black Cat Fireworks flag and the largest Arkansas flag at Wakarusa. It was prime rage real estate, as we could sit in our campsite or atop our vehicles to watch and listen to the Main Stage acts. It was a surprisingly great way to groove to 7 Walkers feat. Papa Mali and Bill Kreutzmann, Umphrey’s Mcgee‘s evening set, Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa, and Wakarusa hall of famers J.J. Grey and Mofro.
As I navigated through the festival’s vending strip (which was much wider then it was last year), I couldn’t help but notice the rowdy Grassroots California tent, set up directly in the middle of the vendors. Ruga Cons‘ heady hat company sponsored Wakarusa’s Interstellar Meltdown (50 Electronica artists playing late night and sunrise sets), and they had musicians spinning sets from their vending tent virtually non-stop. Fifty feet away was Bowie Van Ling and Blake Atchison’s Brainquility experience under a big top tent. The boys from Tennessee had it made- loads of room, shade, and the spot nearest to the Main Stage. Brainquility provides a “sensational experience” where you lay back in a reclining chair and listen to tantalizing music through their headphones. Where it gets weird is that you also wear a pair of sunglasses with LED lights on the inside, flashing in sync with the music. Just remember to close your eyes, and Brainquility is one hell of a trip. My favorite vending destination of the weekend, however, was the rambunctious UMBA co-op from Boulder, CO. A crew of lovable pirates, gemstone experts and feather-loving clothing merchants. The Use Your Head Crew was most impressed by Sarah Sparkles’ hats and t-shirts displaying an amazing new motto, Rage Life. By the close of the festival, I noticed countless Waka-goers rocking fly new gear from these wacky fauxhounds. All in all, I met so many people who were at Wakarusa following their passions and spreading that which they love to anyone with open minds, ears, eyes and hearts. Preferably all of the above.
In June of 2009, Wakarusa’s first year at it’s new Arkansas site, I had 10,000 neighbors. This year, not only did the festival sell out it’s main campgrounds but even it’s Satellite Camping (an additional camping area set up down the road) was completely filled by Friday! A SOLD OUT Wakarusa of 25,000 attendees! By some miracle, my crew managed to make it to our Main Stage camp site right before the rush Wednesday night. I heard horror stories all weekend from those not so fortunate folks regarding the painful wait they endured, trapped in their vehicles through the middle of the night to be herded to their little slice of land. It wasn’t until Thursday’s late night shows that I realized just how much Waka had grown.
I admit that I somehow believed this year would be exactly like 2009, but I have realized now that no two festivals can ever be the same. As a level Eleven rager, I cherish ample dancing room, easy access to aqua and navigable paths through the crowd- all of which last year’s Waka provided. This year’s Thursday night lineup included Lotus overlapping The Machine which was overlapping The Disco Biscuits. I strapped on my fanny pack, situated my Space Cap atop my fresh lime green headband, and clicked my portable blacklight on. I get inspired by the thought of thousands of Waka-goers throwing on rage gear, holstering glow sticks and getting loose simultaneously. Despite a few unfortunate exceptions, I have noticed that so many people at Wakarusa are there NOW– there for the music and community. We keep it movin’ and do our part to make Waka positive. We do not miss sets of music or pass-out in our lawn chairs in a drug-induced fog. As for yours Ranchly, other than an always full chalice of Sailor Jerry, I proudly managed to catch music from the mid-afternoon through sunrise each day with only the music as my intoxicant. Waka waka!
Getting down at the Biscuits was just like any other Main Stage crowd, with the fans going full steam ahead. The UYH Crew headed out to The Machine early and I stuck around until after the Biscuit‘s “Feel Good Inc.” encore. I was sure that I would be able to find my crew easily in both the Revival and Outpost late night tents. But after taking one look at the packed Revival tent, I realized I had no way of finding the UYH Crew– as we had mistakenly come to Wakarusa without a Rage Animal! It was my first time seeing Pink Floyd’s music performed live, and The Machine made it a swell experience. Knowing that I had missed much of the beginning of the show, and that I would be leaving early to catch Lotus, I squeezed up to the front. I wasn’t really into the band’s laser light show and I heard people around me saying they thought Railroad Earth‘s lights were more impressive. I was happy to have heard the band play some of Floyd’s more popular jams (“Another Brick in the Wall 2”, “Money”, “Pigs on the Wing”) but was most excited to hear them play some of the more obscure jams (“Gnome”, “Let There Be More Light”).
The short walk from the Revival tent to Outpost is one of Wakarusa’s strangest areas. The darkened field exists as the designated fire spinning area, glow-light testing arena, groundscore central and a nice place to lay on your back and look up at the Universe. This year, Wakarusa acquired a fully functioning Carnival, marked by a colorful ferris wheel that could be seen from far and wide. Positioned between Revival and Outpost, it was mere eye candy to me as I always had a show to catch.
Thursday’s Lotus show proved to me that this year’s late night tent steeze wouldn’t be as easy and comfortable as last year’s. The tent setup was identical, but once a show had begun it was damn near impossible to move into or around the inside of the tent. I quickly learned that I would have to show up with my crew, or designate an area to meet outside the tent, to watch the show with the homies. As for Lotus, I barely recognized the music as I reached the edge of the tent. Drummer Mike Greenfield and Jesse Miller‘s sampler were producing some wild almost House dance jam that I had never heard before. It is safe to say that Wakarusa’s late night shows at the madhouse that is the Outpost stage are some of the most massive parties I have ever been to, and the artists playing there knew it. I positioned myself to the left of the stage near Wakarusa’s resident live artist, Michael Garfield’s easel and art display. I was fortunate enough to see him a few times last summer, and in my opinion he is the hardest working live artist around. Besides his unique skills with paint pens and fractals, Garfield has a powerful scientific mind and writes his own songs on guitar. I would recommend tapping him on the shoulder and striking up a (sure to be interesting) conversation. Knowing my crew was lost in the throbbing Sargosso Sea, I proceeded to dancing on the rafters to a rousing “Spiritualize” with an enthusiastic lady Lotus fan.
As I develop an understanding of festival production, the magnitude of the crowds at this year’s Wakarusa caused me to feel anxious about a sold out festival. I worried that the festival’s resources would become spent, and that problems could manifest for Wakarusa. Even though I do believe that the campgrounds could use some more water pickets and an additional non-VIP shower trailer, things seemed to run smoothly. The humidity is high, the rage is in full effect and heat stroke happens when you aren’t prepared for that summer heat. I did notice a few functioning First Aid areas- a step up from the last year’s one, unmanned First Aid tent. The various stage checkpoints seemed to function well enough, working hard to keep fans’ beer cans out of the domain of New Belgium and Budweiser’s hustle. I would always be wary at the checkpoints with my Rage Chalice filled to the brim with limeade, lemonade and orange-mango pirate drank. Thankfully, I always found myself raising my glass to whatever live show I attended.
For the record, throughout the weekend I worked to combat the efforts of one of the most evil and menacing corporate trailers known to man. Camel, Big Tobacco’s left nut, was present at this year’s Wakarusa as a wealthy sponsor. Right smack in the middle of the otherwise serene Vending area, Camel’s massive trailer lured Waka-goers in, like some sort of free Fun House. The bait was air conditioning, wild videos of exciting and daring acts, and handfuls of free tins of SNUS. This trash is actually smokeless tobacco, meant to be placed inside the mouth for some serious sensory brainwashing. Obviously, I never entered this trap, as I feared for my eternal soul. Just walking by the trailer, I could smell the reek of cigarette smoke. If the festival wasn’t so peaceful and beautiful, I may have banded together a vigilante crew to make sure this trailer was never used again. Consequently, Camel created massive amounts of trash as their tins were left scattered across campsites. Thanks a whole hell of a lot Camel, keep up the green work.
Spoonfed Tribe, a crew of ruffians from my hometown of Arlington, Texas were definitely the best, weirdest surprise of the whole festival for me. I don’t know why I wasn’t kicking it with this crew back in grade school. Their Friday evening set was many things: electric, boisterous, confusing, inviting and intoxicating… or was it intoxicated? Either way, I don’t remember the last time a band’s spirit and performance inspired me like these guys. They refer to that which they do on stage as an experiment called The Mood Manipulation – Behavior Modification Program. Wielding brass instruments, masquerade masks, furry vests, and a hell of a lot of percussive instruments, Spoonfed came prepared for their strange trip of a set. I got most riled up by the random outbursts of tribal drumming, where every member was hitting on something. At one point, one of the most manic of members even knocked over part of the drum kit with a loud smash. The vocalist, Egg Nebula, sung hypnotic lyrics into a few different microphones, which produced the most perplexing array of vocal effects. Those psychedelic travelers in the crowd must have been thrown for a loop, as Spoonfed didn’t miss a weird beat. Someone needs to put these guys on a Main Stage!
Sound Tribe Sector 9 may have been the most anticipated show of Wakarusa, and I spent all of Friday boasting about how great Tribe was for their two sets at last year’s Waka. After watching the band play a tremendous set at last month’s Summercamp Festival (via Iclips.net), I hoped that we would get a fire show and they would play my favorite track, “Ramone and Emiglio.” Legendary sound scientist Saxton Waller would be returning from his hiatus to awe the crowd, which strengthened my headstrong prediction.
STS9 battled Main Stage sound problems, causing the band to pause the show on more than one occasion. For whatever reason, the band’s sound remained hearbreakingly low throughout much of their set. The set started off with a diluted “Atlas,” “Shock Doctrine,” and a “Ramone” that I was barely able to get hyped on because there was too much conversation being had in the crowd around me- a sure sign of a troubled Tribe set. Dominic Lalli joined Tribe on stage for “Grow”, which helped get the show back on track. The sound seemed to become less of a problem, and the crowd’s morale improved immensely with Tribe playing “Arigato,” “Rent,” “Breathe In” and “EHM” to end the set. It was definitely one of the biggest and most colorful STS9 crowds that I have seen, despite the shaky nature of the show. I feel like the band hoped to produce an epic show, but came up short. That’s just how the game is played with bands whose shows require twice the sound to keep with twice the intensity of play.
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Future Rock and EOTO stole the show at this year’s Wakarusa. Both of these groups do not know how to play a bad show, as I am yet to experience or hear of one. Future Rock’s Felix Moreno, Mickey Kellerman and Darren Heitz just keep getting better. It is a big summer for them, as they headline a handful of popular festivals. Musically, the band is becoming more comfortable and heavy hitting (including a tricked out version of the new Gorillaz’s track, “Glitter Freeze”). Their stage performance is visually stunning and at times shocking. I love how Felix’s familiar power stance is evolving into a repertoire of impressive rock-n-roll moves. Future Rock provides one of the best dance parties that any live band is creating today.
Speaking of live electronica bands throwing down, lets talk about Jason Hann and Michael Travis. There is something to be said for a couple of touring veterans who totally reinvent themselves as musicians, and play more days out of the year then not. EOTO has quickly gained national clout as a band who plays like they have real love for every member of an audience, no matter the location. You can see it in Hann’s smile, as he and Travis look like they are always having the time of their lives. I saw them play on the same stage at last year’s Waka, but this year it was an even bigger event. If you miss an EOTO festival set, you must be new to raging or way too into Widespread Panic.
I’ve been a big fan of The Black Keys for years, so I was excited about finally seeing what the bluesy duo had in them live. Their Main Stage Saturday set did not disappoint. It was one of the biggest daytime crowds of the festival, as their Southern fan base is large. “This is why I came to Waka,” said Hastings, my local buddy from Fayetteville. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer/producer Patrick Carney are the real deal, as their live sound is just as crisp as their studio work. Carney held down the Keys‘ powerful percussion by playing his drum set with fury- and even his tambourine for a song or two. Auerbach‘s wailing guitar and smooth howling vocals are enough to turn any man wild; a modern musical marvel. “I’m tuning, this is not a song,” he said as he looked out over his sunglasses, “Some of yall might be so stoned you’ll think this is a song.” They had a bassist and keys player join them for the last few songs, providing an even fuller sound. The highlight of the show for me was the track “Strange Times” from the album Dangermouse helped produce, Attack and Release.
Wakarusa favorite, Boombox, played a solid Saturday evening set that included a few new songs I was not familiar with. A huge inflatable ball was being tossed around during the set, hitting the shit out of people who were not looking. This ball was a menace, and I had to get out of the Outpost tent to save my rage chalice from being knocked out of my hand. James Zabiela, Tech House extrodinare from the UK, brought a style to the weekend unlike another artist at Wakarusa. I am now a believer in Zabiela, and hope to see him on the East Coast soon.
Drift Dodgers and I agree that Umphrey’s Mcgee‘s Saturday late night set was one of the better Umphrey’s shows we’d seen in recent memory. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to stick around for the whole thing, as there were so many amazing distractions around Revival. While I was ordering at the popular Spicy Slice pizza stand, I was excited to hear the band play a great “In the Kitchen.” I enjoyed my slice while dancing around the outside of the tent for a few songs. “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” pulled me into the tent where I remained through an awesome encore of one of Umphreys’ better new songs, “Cemetery Walk.”
Bluetech’s sunrise set at the Satellite stage was unforgettable; the absolute peak of Wakarusa 2010. Evan Bluetech‘s composition is unrivaled, and hearing him spin it live lifts me to a higher plane. He threw down hit after hit from his old material, amazing new tracks from his live band, Satori Social, and even some Beats Antique jams. Those of us who made it out to this set were officially the rage all-stars of Wakarusa.
Many people shipped out of Wakarusa on Sunday, as the paved roads and the festival’s Shakedown became less dense. Our crew pondered leaving early, but after three days of Mimosa, Tipper and Bluetech sunrise sets it was hard to consider moving too quickly. I was happy to have shown New Hampshire’s Roots of Creation some love at their daytime Revival set. Led by singer Brett Wilson, they played a banging, booty shakin’ set that was made even headier by a Star Wars’ theme song cameo. I finally got to see That One Guy and his legendary and indescribable musical instrument from another galaxy at the dusty Backwoods Stage. That night, Wakarusa drew to a close with a relaxing and retrospective set from John Butler Trio. It was my first time hearing the popular group, and I couldn’t keep my heels from kicking up to their bluegrass, rock sound. If you get a chance to catch them on the road this summer, you won’t be disappointed. Two Fresh and their boys from Atlanta handled all of the last night’s late night rage from two separate tents. I stuck around as late as I could, but I made sure to make it to my sleeping bag before sunrise for the first time that weekend.