By: Sam Kayuha, In The Record Store staff writer.
Last year, I spent 24 hours in Las Vegas and I left with the impression that its environment was created, seemingly piece-by-piece, to guarantee visitors willing to spend the money that the experience would be as they expected.
The same has felt true at the larger music festivals I’ve attended. Bonnaroo is the hippie commune magnified, Lollapalooza the relatively glitzy gathering of music’s A-listers. Each is its own “brand” and they have proven successful at realizing them.
Elsewhere, outside of an industry sector that has been corporatized and saturated, are the shockingly-green hills of Appalachian Ohio, and, settled right into the middle of them, the Nelsonville Music Festival.
It is difficult to even compare Nelsonville with the larger, more branded festivals. It seems to exist in world where the things that make the Lollapaloozas disappointing are never even possibilities.
For one thing, there is the price — just $150 for four days of music — less than half of the cost of the largest fests. Then there are the sponsors; Jackie O’s and Madtree beer on tap, Athens staples like O’Betty’s, Donkey Coffee and Bagel Street Deli selling food. There is no Pepsi Stage, whose logo looked down on PromoWest Fest in Columbus last summer.
Nelsonville felt so insulated, physically by the evergreens rolling away and by the impossibility of buying anything made outside of Ohio; it was hard to imagine that anything of importance was happening anywhere else.
Of course, size and scale differ, in both fame and number of the acts. But even while Nelsonville puts an emphasis on local and proximate artists, it has never been starved for star performers. The Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, Wilco, St. Vincent and The Flaming Lips (twice) have all crossed its stages.
But Nelsonville doesn’t need its resume recited. Now, in its 13th year, it remains true to its ethos of locality and sustainability, and it’s only getting more popular.
The volunteer at the entrance to the campsite told me to go the right for the “rowdy” side, or to the left for the “family” side. "Rowdy" meant late night sets in a tent close enough to make anyone forget about trying to sleep. I never found out what the other side was like.
The crowd was a mix of the subset of the more bohemian-inclined Ohio University students (okay, it’s a superset), curious and creative Appalachians, and in-the-know out-of-towners. Anyone present was happy to find themselves there.
Conor Oberst, the man formerly behind Bright Eyes, headlined the night before in a performance that was raved about. While many of my fellow campers took until the late afternoon to recover from Thursday night, I took to the festival grounds, where, after a morning yoga session and a guided hike, music began just before noon.
Sets alternated between the Main Stage and the next biggest stage, the Porch Stage. Operating elsewhere was the Boxcar stage, set on the edge of grounds next to a of couple old, abandoned train cars, and the NoFi and Glidden House stages. Even with the little variance in popularity of the non-main stage bands, the level of difference between stages was stark. At Boxcar, the twangy country thrived. NoFi was a small cabin that housed little more than a dozen people for stripped down, mostly acoustic sets. Glidden hosted short sets from artists also scheduled elsewhere, to be filmed by Ohio University media students.
Columbus was represented by bands like Doc Robinson, Bummers, and a new discovery for me, Swarming Branch. It’s surfy, somewhat twisted take on mellow guitar rock was soothing and funky.
On the main stage in late afternoon came one of the largest draws of the day, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings. The band broke out with 2012’s “Attack on Memory,” a Steve Albini-produced, hard-rocking yet melodic statement that put the band at the forefront of indie’s resumed fascination with punk. Though that album may have been the crest of its wave, the band continues to tour the world and release records. Its most recent, “Life Without Sound” is excellent.
The set hit its high points, which were the moments when the uneven mix could be forgotten. “I’m Not Part of Me” and “Psychic Trauma” from “Here and Nowhere Else” were loud and energetic.
Rodriguez, the Detroit folkie who quit music in 1976 but returned after a 2012 documentary examined his popularity in South Africa and Australia, appeared on the main stage, his voice as monotonously beautiful as it was in the ‘60s. He played tracks from his second and last studio album, 1971’s “Coming from Reality,” and classic rock covers by The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane.
They Might Be Giants closed the night on the main stage, answering the question of how it has been able to stay relevant since 1982. They are a serious rock band but a humorous one, only slightly more straight-faced than “Weird Al” Yankovic, with the musicianship that puts it on the level of fellow court jesters of rock, bands like Primus and Butthole Surfers. The band has the stone cold classics (“Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” “Birdhouse in Your Soul”) to drive the crowd into a frenzy, and the deep cuts to keep it entertained in between.
But for many, despite They Might Be Giants’ best efforts, the true party didn’t start until after the grounds were closed. Late night sets in the conveniently-located campground tent were the scene of real madness, a compact setting cramped with attendees all in need of a shower and more sleep than they were letting themselves get. The deep lavender lighting, the pounding, off-kilter guitar rock of Water Witches and influences of alcohol, et cetera, made whatever was happening under that white tent feel like a wrinkle in time. Rarely does two in the morning come so unexpectedly.
And yet, the sun of the morning and the heat that came with it, cutting through the chill in air unapologetically, woke me by 9am; just in time for morning yoga in my dirty jeans. It was a much needed injection of serenity when I could still hear echoes of Water Witches howling in my head.
For anyone still nursing a hangover or a bad mood came the kids of the Stuart’s Opera House after-school music program, who performed covers to a warm-hearted and truly impressed crowd. It would take only a listen to the pre-teen singing the first few serene notes of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin” to convince a politician not to cut arts funding.
From there I listened from outside the window of the NoFi Cabin as Darrin Hacquard, a local from Rockbridge, Ohio, delivered perhaps the best set I heard all weekend. Accompanied by a couple drums, bass and his guitar, he ran through a set of new songs that sounded tight and perfected. There is no better place to hear country-folk than the hills; it is the kind of music I expect when I go to Nelsonville, and Hacquard's darkly funny takes on life, death, suicide, friendship and family nearly brought a tear to my eye.
Elsewhere, outside of realm of country and bluegrass, Hellnaw pounded away savagely at its drums and bass on the Porch Stage. Then, dressed in all-white, and accompanied by a keyboardist in all-black, Aldous Harding performed her brand of bizarre New Zealander neo-folk. Her set felt like the kind of parody Saturday Night Live might do of Bjork, especially when she introduced a song titled “What if Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised later to find Jenny Lewis already reached legendary status — her solo music and work with Rilo Kiley were enough to make her sunset set on the main stage a high point of the weekend, and for some, its most anticipated moment.
The official headliners of the night were Ween, which you could tell by walking around that day. The band’s fans, feverish in a similar though less homicidal way than the juggalos, stood out among the crowd.
I had needed about 15 layers of sunscreen to ward off the sun during the day, but once it was gone I had to concentrate to keep from shivering. But I still couldn’t turn in, as one of the weekend’s biggest draws was to take to the porch stage at 11 pm.
In 2011, I saw Cage The Elephant at perhaps their most rock ‘n’ roll. The band roared, matching the energy of the mosh pit and even surpassing it. Until Saturday night, I had never seen a band bring the energy of house show to a crowd of hundreds like Cage.
Twin Peaks, a Chicago band who I thought was still under the radar, brought enough force that it had to relay a message from security that if the right side of the crowd pushed any harder the stage was in danger of collapsing. The group of 5 young men, raised their PBR’s to the crowd and head banged with a ferocity that made me worry about their chiropractor bills in ten years.
Lack of sleep matched with its raucous energy made the band’s set almost a fever dream. Going only about 40 minutes, it felt as though it had only just begun when the group closed with a punked up performance of the Rolling Stones’ country-fried singalong “Dead Flowers.” The comparisons to perhaps the greatest rock band ever may seem like reaching, but they pulled off a better cover of a Stones song than I have heard by anyone besides Cat Power and her version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” You absolutely need to see this band live as soon as possible.
Nelsonville Music Festival 2017 was a place for discovery; of new music, waiting just a few steps over, and of the fact that it truly is possible to get away. Stimuli besides what was right in front of me didn’t exist. But disturbing news alerts came even without wifi, reminding me that even though it felt nice to be removed, to take away the bad and isolate yourself in good, you can’t have one without the other — just one of the philosophical revelations that came to me during Darrin Hacquard set.