Wakarusa Festival, Clinton Lake State Park, Lawrence, KS- 6/16-19
Returning to the rolling hills of eastern Kansas in the pristine Clinton Lake State Park, the second Annual Wakarusa Music Festival offered a great summertime escape at the core of the nation's Heartland. With a solid line-up including the likes of Wilco, String Cheese Incident, Galactic, Particle, Govt Mule and many more, gorgeous landscapes and four days of superb weather, this year's festival built upon the success of the previous year's incarnation.
2005's Wakarusa asserted more of the amenities of a larger, more established festival. Stages were added, primarily in the campground area, to provide festival goers with additional choices and opportunities to catch both regional and national acts. Unlike 2004 when there was only one primary stage and official vending area, 2005 had two separate and equally unique shakedown-type locations that housed stages, a variety of reasonably-priced vending, children's entertainment tents and other assorted festive fun. Undoubtedly the most significant improvement came in the Campground Stage that lay in the heart of the primary campground. Breakout acts such as Groovatron, Matisyahu, Steel Train and Pnuma each tore through sets here, providing some of the most impressive music that Wakarusa had to offer. The unfortunate cancellation of Sound Tribe Sector 9's late night and headlining sets left many in attendance searching for that bust out act, and this year my choice would be either Jewish reggae upstart Matisyahu or the three fresh electronic pioneers from Memphis, Pnuma.
Arriving on site to the sounds of Lotus under the Campground Stage tent was a fitting way to commence the weekend’s festivities. Performing to a crowd much larger than the typical club and theatre audience the Philadelphian electro-funksters generally draw, the band stepped up their game with an hour and a half full-on dance party. Each time out Lotus becomes more impressive, progressively improving their sound through enhanced layering and texturing. Jambands’ March New Groove of the Month Green Lemon was dually impressive. Although I’d heard plenty of their music beforehand, nothing on disc compared to the energy of the Oklahoma native’s live show. Green Lemon revealed a high octane performance that from start to finish, never let up. Merging pumping electronica beats with smooth reggae melodies and some shredding guitar solos, they induced a more than sizable crowd into a steady fervor making many wonder just who this band was. For the late-late night set, I drifted over to Eckobase to see what the buzz was all about. They were solid, but it wasn’t enough to keep me there for too long.
Friday was the first full day at Wakarusa for me and what a day it was. Let alone the gorgeous weather and all the incredible people, it was nice to witness some bands I’d never really encountered before. Groovatron was one of those groups. July’s New Groove of the Month offered a quirky, Frank Zappa-esque feel that bordered art, jam and pop music. Their late night set, which featured members of String Cheese, Umphrey’s McGee, Mountains of Venus and many others will likely catapult their name into recognition. Also at the Revival Tent was New York City’s Steel Train, another band I’d heard very little about. I was rather astonished by their opening electronic infused jam into a stellar rendition of "Psycho Killer" that arose during their Saturday afternoon set at the Campground stage. As usual Animal Liberation Orchestra’s set was bursting with party anthems and funky jams while Lotus, who replaced STS9 at the Sun Up Stage, delivered another substantially impressive show to an enthusiastic crowd baking under the sizzling Kansas sun. Probably the best performance of the day was supplied by Hasidic reggae newcomer Matisyahu. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you will soon, especially after landing a slew of opening gigs for Trey Anastasio’s summer tour. His heartfelt lyrics and funk-filled rhythms radiated from the Campground Stage and into the campgrounds as more and more Wakarusa attendees filled the tent and swayed to his song of praise and enlightenment. With a stage presence that captures your attention and some striking beat-boxing skills and a solid band taboot, Matisyahu seized the attention of many at the festival, becoming one of the most talked about acts all weekend. After an afternoon basking in the sun, it was time for the emergence of Conspirator. I didn’t really know what to expect from this Disco Biscuits offshoot when arriving at Wakarusa, but after an hour and a half set of balls-to-the-wall explosive electronica, I was hooked. Filling the Campground Stage with sweat-soaked people dancing to heavy psychedelic trance, Aron and Marc of the Biscuits, along with DJ Omen and special guests from Umphrey’s McGee and Perpetual Groove elevated those under the tent into a raucous frenzy. This was one of the peak performances of the weekend, no doubt.
Saturday was much of the same as the hot Midwestern sun beat down on several thousand congregated music fans, some utilizing Super Soakers while others sold crystal wraps and enjoyed a bit of summertime recreational fun. Unfortunately I missed the New Monsoon set which I was told was great, but that’s being at a large festival. There’s so much music, so many friends, so many things to do that it’s difficult to be everywhere one would like. Rose Hill Drive was worth checking out as was a sturdy Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe performance at the Sun Up Stage. One of the biggest disappointments for me was Particle’s set at the Sun Up Stage Saturday evening. I’d been hearing so much positive press about this L.A. electro-funk quartet of late. But their set bored me quite frankly. Steve Molitz’s enthusiasm and dexterity behind the boards was the one saving grace, but other than that, Particle was average at best. After inexcusably missing the Karl Denson set at the Revival Tent, I caught a slight portion of Wilco’s set at the Sun Down stage. I hadn’t seen them live before and it was just something that had to be done. Pnuma, the rising young stars from Memphis stole the show Saturday night. Performing an hour and fifteen minutes of jazz infused electronica, this three piece outfit had all in attendance moving their feet as their swirling keys and passionate drum n’ bass resounded throughout the Campground Stage. This was quite possibly my favorite performance of 2005’s Wakarusa. Watch out for Pnuma to be a breakout artist in the following year, they even just landed a coveted spot at Camp Bisco in late August. Matisyahu’s late night performance at the Campground State was an elevated extension of his previous performance the night before. Inspiring and soulful, his set delivered a poignant and positive culmination to the day’s revels.
Sunday, instead of being a day of music turned out to be a day of travel. Conspirator would be playing a special two night run in Colorado beginning that night with special guest Jon "The Barber" Gutwillig, so it was back to Interstate 70 for a ten hour trek through the Plains back to Denver. On the whole, Wakarusa was a tremendous experience bursting with great friends, lots of sunshine and the opportunity to see some fine young bands strut their stuff.