Wakarusa Music Festival, Wakarusa, KS – 5/30-6/2
This year marked the tenth anniversary of Wakarusa. Since its origins near Lawrence Kansas, where it was held its first five years, before being relocated to scenic Mulberry Mountain in Ozark Arkansas, the festival has consistently featured stellar line ups and this year’s featured numerous bands that have played the festival over the years and have been an important part of the festival’s tradition, including: Widespread Panic, STS9, The Black Crowes and Umphrey’s McGee.
Late Wednesday night as festival goers drove the forty miles of winding highway from Fayetteville, many of them wondered about the weekend’s forecast, which predicted rainfall at least several nights. The tone of the weekend was hinted at quickly, when by 1 a.m. Wakarusa’s internet, necessary to process tickets, was shut down for several hours due to severe rain and fear of lightning strikes. Many spent hours waiting in their cars and were only able to enter the actual festival and set up their camps as dawn broke.
Thursday evening fans headed into the muddy main stage area for a solid performance from Yonder Mountain String Band. Following Yonder came one of the highlights of the festival, a performance by The Black Crowes. The Crowes played at Wakarusa in 2009, and vocalist Chris Robinson along with Jackie Greene, a recent addition to the Crowes lineup, performed at Waka in 2012 as part of an acoustic with Bob Weir. The show was part of the band’s first tour since 2009 and as such it was certainly exciting to see the band return for Wakarusa’s tenth anniversary.
By the time The Crowes took the stage it had begun to rain. The set opened with “Jealous Again” > “Twice as Hard,” and it was immediately clear that the set would be a high energy show driven by Greene’s guitar work and Robinson’s commanding vocals and stage presence. A particularly fun part of the Crowes’ set was a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin Jack Flash.” As Robinson crooned “It’s all right” and Greene pounded fiery riffs across the night the crowd rejoiced and it seemed it didn’t matter if they were shin deep in mud and it was raining. In the middle of the show the band transitioned into a soulful “She Talks to Angels” featuring Greene on mandolin. The performance drew attention to the powerful lyrics and emotion of the song and made this classic every bit as moving as when we first heard it some twenty years ago.
Following The Black Crowes more fans continued to pour into the increasingly muddy main stage area for one of the most anticipated shows of the festival, Sound Tribe Sector 9. It might be difficult to overstate the importance STS9 has played in Wakarusa’s development as a festival. The band has appeared seven of the ten Wakarusas, many years playing multiple nights.
By the time the band took the stage the scene was what would expect from a STS9 crowd: tripsters in fitted hats waved flags, inflatable toys and lights from every flagpole and piece of bamboo they could find. The show opened with a “Shock Doctrine” that featured a horn section that included the band’s label mate Russ Liquid. The band then moved into “Kamuy,” a song that featured cascading piano work, great bass work from Murph, and an instrumental based jamming that strayed a bit from the more electronic sound that has defined much of the band’s style in recent years. The group seemed to really hit their stride during this song and the following “Kabuki.” Murph seemed particularly excited and interjected bits of commentary between almost every song, encouraging the crowd that was dancing in the now heavy rain. The set continued with the band playing well with a notable “Bigs,” that paired with their LED pyramid worked the crowd into a trance like state of dancing. An “Arigato” followed. The song has seen considerable reworking from its original form, including soulful vocal sampling, and saw the horn section rejoining the band. A beautiful “Circus” followed from which the band entered into “March.”
Unfortunately, this marked the end of Tribe’s performance as following “March” Murph informed the crowd that there was severe weather moving in and that Wakarusa was making them get off the stage and he was “Disgusted and sad about it.” He promised the band would return to play the remainder of their set. This seemed unlikely however, as a woman soon came onto the stage insisting that the crowd return to their vehicles.
By Friday morning the swampy conditions that had already defined the festival had worsened significantly. Many had learned that shoes became almost immediately ensnared in the deep mud and trudged barefoot through the festival grounds. Riverside camping, an area located outside of the main festival grounds where campers are bused in from, had flooded so badly that a new campground had to be created on a local man’s land.
Despite the frustration of the previous night hopes were high as Friday’s lineup boasted Umphrey’s McGee and another Sound Tribe set which most agreed was likely to be particularly good to make up for the previous night’s lost time.
As the day progressed the weather was fair and the sun came out periodically. That evening as Umphrey’s approached thousands pushed into the mainstage area and crowded onto what solid ground remained. As a band Umphrey’s has continued to improve significantly year by year and amass an ever growing base of fans who were thrilled to see the group return to Wakarusa.
Later in the evening it was time for STS9’s highly anticipated second set. Thousands of fans packed into the Revival Tent. Unfortunately, with members of the band visibly ready to begin playing a woman came out onto stage to announce the group would not play and more severe weather was expected. Loud booing echoed across the tent and many were hesitant to leave. Ultimately, however, the cancellation of STS9 and the remainder of the evening’s shows, including Shpongle Presents the Masquerade, which many attendees had greatly anticipated proved necessary for the safety of all. For hours high winds ripped across the festival tearing down canopies and toppling tents. Rain torrented the festival as lightning cracked across the sky. In the morning rumors circulated that several attendees had been hospitalized by lightning strikes.
On Saturday morning a thick grey sky rose over a near post-apocalyptic scene. Thick mud enveloped nearly every part of the camping grounds. Several strange sculptures had arisen like swamp monsters from the mud: spiraling mounds of canopies and tent poles rising ten feet in the air sat near the street. The largest bearing a sign reading “Brokedown Palace,” testified to the fact that Gonzo mentality had triumphed in the face of nature’s fury.
Despite the desolate scene spirits were high as Saturday proceeded. The day’s lineup included Rebelution, Gogol Bordello and Del the Funky Homosapien. Most importantly the evening was the first show of Widespread Panic’s summer tour and for many the highlight of the entire festival’s lineup.
Panic opened their show strong with “Lonely Valley”>”Climb to Safety”>”Lonely Valley.” The middle of the first set was fun, including a “Love Tractor,” “Ribs and Whiskey,”“Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” and a “Greta” that featured some excellent jamming. While the first set was well played and enjoyable it seemed throughout that the band was holding back some of the energy they intended to release upon the mud covered crowd in their second set.
The second set began with “Disco” and it became apparent by the band’s energy that the crowd was in for a treat. Perhaps the highlight of the entire show came in the middle of the second set with a heavy version of Tom Wait’s “Going Out West” that churned like a freight train through the night. The song featured some of JB’s strongest vocals of the night and a burning solo by Jimmy Herring that was as dark and beautiful as the scene it played over. “Going Out West” then moved into a strong drum solo before transitioning into a “Hatfield” that included a JoJo Herman driven “Riders on the Storm” tease: a nod not only to the late Ray Manzarek of The Doors, who had passed a week and a half prior, but also to the thousands of fans who had made it through days of stormy weather.
From here the set moved through “Ride Me High” and “Pilgrims” into a “Pleas” that ended in a powerful solo from Herring, into a powerful “Conrad” in which the lyrics, “Spend all of my days just trying to stay dry,” couldn’t have been more appropriate. From “Conrad” the band moved into the show closing “Mr Soul.”
There was some disappointment amongst fans in the lack of an encore. It seemed a slight damper on a show that most in attendance had battled days of storms to attend. Overall, however, Panic’s performance, particularly during set two, marked not only a great start to the band’s summer tour, but an important high point in a festival that had been marred by severe weather and cancelled shows.
From Panic a large percentage of fans trudged through the mud for what proved to be another excellent performance by Umphrey’s McGee. The band played late into the night to a crowd completely filling the large tent and spilling out into the surrounding swamp.
The remainder of the night included Papadosio,The Polish Ambassador and a sunrise set from The Floozies.
Sunday morning saw many exhausted fans pack their mud covered gear into their cars and begin the slow drive out through the rolling mountains of Arkansas. Throughout the entire day the festival grounds continued to slowly open up as more campers made the decision to head home.
A large number however remained for the final evening which included a performance by Snoop Lion, Snoop Dogg’s current venture into reggae. Snoop’s show that evening saw him smoking blunts on stage and was enjoyable when he stuck to classic songs and away from the effects and auto-tune driven “reggae” of his new moniker.
The remainder of the evening included shows by Grammatik and Amon Tobin. The festival was closed out by the always crowd pleasing EOTO.