Wakarusa | 06.03-06.10

The word around Mulberry Mountain on Saturday was that the sizzling hot temperature was at a record high.

Mulberry Mountain, Ark.

This year was the year for Wakarusa to shine, and similar to the ferocious sun, it did. Rothbury and the 10,000 Lakes music festivals are on hiatus this year, and many of the bands playing Wakarusa have previously graced the other two festivals. Not only did Wakarusa entice the migration of the Northern festival-goers, it also summoned people from out west. For the first five years Lawrence, Kan., was home to the festival. The seemingly permanent (and perfect) relocation to Mulberry Mountain last year did not stop its loyal fans from following. I probably saw more Colorado State flags than Bob Marley and Grateful Dead flags combined. Wakarusa not only displayed 90-plus bands playing a myriad of genres throughout its four-day duration, but also displayed the goodness and generosity of the community-like festival-goers.

The gates opened for thousands of wookies, festie kids, gypsies, hippies, phamily members, tribe members and the straight-up music lovers at 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning. According to the people who decided to show up this early, the first few hours were confusing and hectic. Caravans of cars were sent up and down the mountain on a wild goose chase, with attendees being told contradicting directions of where to set up their campsites. The Satellite Camping was the first spot the cars would file through. The popularity of Wakarusa forced this spot to be used as overflow camping. This was unfortunate due to the long, steep hike up the road and the lack of buses to get to the actual site of the festival. But, after the initial rush, the volunteers got it together and everything went smooth as ganja butter.

My group’s truck arrived around 11 a.m. Wristbands were received, camping was verified (the person validating camping gave us three free main stage camping passes to give out because he recognized our driver as a person whose high score he beat in a Fayetteville, Ark., bar game). Before anyone in our area wandered over to the music playing in the distance, introductions were made and everyone around was calling each other “neighbor.”  

The festival grounds consisted of five stages—Main Stage, Revival Tent, Backwoods Stage, Outpost and Satellite—gravel roads that cut through camping with vendors alongside them, and a full-scale carnival. (Yes, there was a Ferris wheel.)

After acquainting myself with the surroundings and having a nice lounge session under the makeshift canopy my group built, I decided it was time to indulge in as much live music as possible. The first spot I hit was the Backwoods Stage. Under the countless trees that shaded the entire stage and dirt standing—or, shall I say, dancing area—was the Denver band Oakhurst. Their bluegrass sound was faster and had more in-your-face zest than what I usually associate with the genre. I was positive there was something unique about them when they covered Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”—using a mandolin, of course.
I then proceeded to bounce from stage to stage, not staying for full sets. The number of options overwhelmed me, so I just ran around getting a short glimpse of each band. Thank goodness I made it to Robert Randolph & the Family Band just in time to catch a guitar-driven version of Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface.” This proved my theory that no matter how far you may travel, GaGa’s presence can be felt. I caught a couple solid songs from both Railroad Earth and Disco Biscuits before lying down in the back of Revival Tent for The Machine (Pink Floyd Laser show). The lights beaming and bouncing to classic songs from The Wall and Darkside of the Moon was just what I needed to relax. Just over an hour later…done resting!
Lotus lured a good portion of the laser show crowd, including me, into the neighboring Outpost Tent with their strong beats and off-the-wall samples. After Lotus, the duo that comprises Boombox brought everyone right back to Revival. The sound was as though rock ’n’ roll and electronica agreed to both play equal parts, a 50/50 agreement. This superb tug-of-war between tents and between genres kept the energy high into the wee hours of the morning.
Beat from the continuous jumping and dancing, I made my way to the hill looking down on the Satellite Stage. Blissfully drained, I took a nice nap on the grass while hundreds of people dug and danced to Kraak and Smaak before I trekked to my campsite at sunrise. Live music ends at 7  each morning and restarts at 8. That’s right: only three total hours in the entire festival without a scheduled band.
After a few hours of sleep I walked pass the carnival and into the Revival Tent. The nephew of the Neville Brothers had his band, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstphunk, playing an early afternoon show. “Soul Power” stood out the most with its pure, raw energy. My hour under the tent made me realize I wasn’t ready to hit the circuit yet. I could taste the sweat dripping off my face and it was not refreshing.
Back at the tent while I slouched in my chair, vendors came by with an assortment of items. Not one person seemed to be selling solely for personal gain; they wanted to ensure Wakarusa was a fantastic time for their fellow fans. Souvenir artwork of Wakarusa, usually designed by the seller, was offered for $10 and then, a few words later, $5. A plethora of drugs offered had lower prices than what’d you expect to find on a college campus or street corner. Two girls made rounds, hauling a cooler filled with Bloody Mary fixin’s for five dollars.
My personal favorites were the Bloody Mary girls. I swear the drinks could not have been concocted any better. The array of vegetables submerged in the bottom of the cup made me feel legitimate for living off one breakfast burrito a day. Each time the girls came back by, we couldn’t say no to one more.
Sadly, I missed Jack Johnson’s good buddies in ALO, but Umphrey’s McGee was a terrific start to the night. The two-hour-long set started off with “1358,” the last song on the new album, Mantis; a riveting eight-minute version of “Ja Junk” ended the show. In between the two bookends were stellar Midwest guitar- and harmonica-infused songs. I didn’t want to wait 45 minutes for STS9 to take over the stage, so back to Revival I went for Rebelution. Easily one of the best surprise performances of the weekend, Rebelution had a fast tempo approach to the reggae style. I’ve never seen any group of people so inspired to preach peace and happiness, and I’ve seen a Damian Marley/Ben Harper show. “Bright Side of Life” was the total embodiment of their message to be happy and not take the good things for granted. The grooves of “Dubzilla” slowed things down and actually reminded me of the blunt the man standing next to me was puffing away.
Much buzz was in the air for Tipper’s 5:30 a.m. show, but the last performance of the night for me was Bassnectar. The one-man act of Lorin Ashton (aka Lorin Bassnectar) involved more than just himself. He had speakers towering over his head all along the front of the stage, joined by tall columns of bright white flashing lights. A handful of people ran on and off the stage throughout the performance, but I was never sure what they were up to. This was the most out-of-control/out-of-their-minds crowd all weekend. People stared into the sky doing Snoopy dances, while breakdancers spun on parts of their limbs, while others lay on the ground dancing like fishies. As Bassnectar jammed to his massive bass lines and mash-ups, his waist-long hair flowed up and down, leading me to believe he would’ve flown away if he wasn’t happy right where he stood.
The word around Mulberry Mountain on Saturday was that the sizzling hot temperature was at a record high. If I had to guess, it was certainly above 100 degrees. The easygoing attitude of the 15,000-plus in attendance shone brightly when it became clear that weather would not hinder any plans to see live music. A fellow camper, dripping in sweat, looked at my own drippy face and said, “If there’s something you hate, embrace it.” A few moments later, before it was time to get a tan while watching The Black Keys, I overheard a passerby say quite seriously, “I think we’re on the right track, but I’m not sure.” I’m not sure where he was going, but I headed to the Main Stage.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, the duo that comprises The Black Keys, released the new album, Brothers, two weeks before Wakarusa. However, they started off the set with a handful of older songs, machine-gunning them out in a straightforward fashion without much spectacle or enthusiasm. But once they started belting out the new tracks, they got wild and the crowd happily followed. “Everlasting Light,” “Next Girl” and “Tighten Up” were standout songs that had the band banging and thrashing with expert precision. The duo also had a bassist and keyboardist come out to add some nice touches. At one point, Auerbach was tuning his guitar for well over five minutes and a group in the front was still dancing. He looked in their direction and let them know he wasn’t even playing a song. Either the heat was so excruciatingly hot that the dancers didn’t know what was happening around them, or The Black Keys are just so damn good that even when they tune an instrument it’s something to applaud. Or was it just the drugs?
The next show I caught was Slightly Stoopid. A few years back I saw them play a mediocre show at The Pageant filled with a surprisingly very young crowd and I couldn’t get into it as much as I planned. Stoopid was energized and spot-on with this performance. The crowd appeared to be filled with “Ese Locos” and “Stoopidheads” who knew every rap and every beat. “Digital” and “Baby I Like It” were noteworthy songs, but it was “Officer” that penetrated and pleased the most. How could the crowd not abide when Stoopid sings the line, “Let’s keep this party started/ All you got to do is sing?” It sure was working for them.
Widespread Panic had the longest time slot on the bill. Playing from 9:45 p.m. to 12:45 a.m., the six-piece belted out mellow tunes and didn’t indulge in their faster material. They must’ve seen the heat-drained look on everybody’s face because they were definitely giving us some relaxing music. According to a few seasoned WSP followers, not one of their shows is the same. Jimmy Herring, the replacement for late guitarist Mikey Houser, brought most of the life to the show. The 15-minute drum/bongo solo got to be a bit much, but Herring’s impeccable skill on the guitar never got old.
Sunday morning, our neighbors and about 30 percent of the campers packed up and left for home. Our courteous neighbors had been letting us use one of their fans which had helped us survive for the past couple days. Now that it was packed up and gone, we couldn’t sit around for much longer. After some recovery in the shade and delicious Bloody Mary drinks, I was ready to finish off my weekend with more music, but not before the topless redhead came by our campsite. She stood before my campsite in nothing but blue swimming suit bottoms and glitter while holding three large nitrous filled balloons which she had obviously been deflating into her body all afternoon. With a big friendly smile, she asked my group, “Do ya’ll want to buy some balloons? It’s to get my brother outta jail.” We all sadly had to decline to help her sibling out. But if any of us enjoyed whip-its, I’m sure we would have handed her some money. Everyone at Wakarusa was trying to put forth some kind of effort to help others out, no matter how strange the way. I didn’t see one law enforcement officer the entire time I was on Mulberry Mountain. Everyone got along and could coexist peacefully without any need for the boys in blue.
The last three bands I saw were Mishka, State Radio and John Butler Trio at the Revival Tent. Mishka played a soothing show that led me to a much-needed nap. Chad Urmston, formerly the front man of Dispatch, came up next with State Radio. They brought the energy back up with a set heavier in rock and punk than reggae. It was an impressive performance, but hearing Urmston’s voice just makes me want to hear a song from his defunct band, Dispatch. Finally, John Butler Trio came on to close out Wakarusa. After a few songs, Butler started honoring the crowd by calling us “legends” over and over, and thanking us for not leaving until the last band played. They had played at Red Rocks in Colorado the night before and then immediately came to Arkansas for Wakarusa…and we are the legends? Humble as pie that John Butler. After a nearly two-hour set, he said his goodbyes to us and we said goodbye to Wakarusa.
The overall kindness and absence of any ignorance in people that prevailed over the four days at Wakarusa solidified my stance on the importance of music. The fest reeled in over 15,000 people willing to respect, understand and appreciate their fellow man. The assortment of bands all meshed together without a hitch, as the only complaint was the confusion of the hectic first hours and Satellite Camping. That passerby was onto something on Saturday. I think we are on the right track, and I am sure. | Alex Schreiber

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