Contributing Writer : Garret K. Woodward
June 4-7, 2009
The wheels of the truck tightly gripped the desolate Route 23. Tucked away in the northwest corner of Arkansas, the road, sprinkled with hairpin curves and sheer cliff drop-offs, meanders through the mystical Ozark National Forest. It is a tranquil and serene corner of the United States, one most are unaware of yet few are lucky enough to discover. And for the estimated 10,000 who traveled in this direction, curiosity bred numerous unforgettable experiences at Wakarusa 2009.
Blue skies and sunshine radiated throughout the weekend onto Mulberry Mountain for the festivals inaugural year at its new location. I found myself amid a buffet of musical talent. With dozens of bands at my taking, it was quite an arduous process to weed through the scheduling and hopefully find myself at the right stage at the right time.
Kicking off Thursday, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey made it a tough act to follow. Their formula of plate-smashing jazz tickled eardrums and perked intrigue of any within reach. Led by the mad scientist Brian Haas, the quintet carried the listener through dark soundscapes with their piercing genius.
Wandering the refreshing accessible festival grounds, Porter, Batiste & Stoltz laid down their New Orleans funk styling, while Steve Kimock Crazy Engine conjured the lazy, hazy days of summer through teardrop guitar solos; Euforquestra brought the “Midwest Afro-Beat” to the Outpost Tent as Michael Travis and Jason Hann (EOTO/The String Cheese Incident) joined in on an impressive all-member percussion jam which left mouths watering for the eventual late-night EOTO set.
As the afternoon turned into early evening, Trombone Shorty worked the raucous crowd inside the Revival Tent. With his Mick Jagger swagger, Shorty and his slew of brass musicians (Orleans Avenue) made brows sweat and women scream for more.
It was at this point I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Juggling between Railroad Earth (a mesmerizing set of bluegrass and folk on the Main Stage, I found myself drifting during “The Forecast”), Buckethead (the guitar mutant tore through “Purple Haze” and the theme from Star Wars), Pretty Lights (a sweat-drenched electronica mass of humanity and shiny objects), and Gov’t Mule (Warren Haynes led the rebel charge amid gritty vocals and log-splitting guitar riffs- a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” surfaced later in the set), my head was left spinning as I wandered towards to Backwoods Stage.
Tucked into the tree line, the petite stage housed Louisiana based Dirtfoot. Labeled as “gypsy funk country grumble boogie”, the group presented their own delicious stew of psychobilly and blues through “Devoted Mama” or “Break My Bones”, which included the sounds of a rubber chicken, garbage cans and washboards among other unidentified objects.
After I found myself a New Belgium Brewing Co. nightcap, it was back over to the Revival Tent for Yonder Mountain String Band. With moonshine and smiles held high, the heirs of bluegrass tore through “Redbird” > “Steep Grade Sharp Curves”.
It was the end of day one and I was already exhausted and I stumbled back to my campsite, trying to get some sleep before I had to do it all over again tomorrow.
The southern sun sizzled during the early morning hours of Friday. To cool off, dozens wandered down the Ozark Highlands Trail towards a waterfall immersed deep in the ancient hills. The pale flesh of winter bodies glistened in the sunshine poking through the thick forest floors. A two-story cliff provided the perfect launching point of summer shenanigans, while others simply waded in the crisp, natural spring-fed waters. Though one could have been content in spending the entire festival lying out on the rocks, there was too much music to pass up.
After a mind-boggling schedule the day before, I looked forward to a somewhat more relaxed strategy for the afternoon.
An Australian trance band with a didgeridoo, Ganga Giri set Waka ablaze with interpretations of their native culture (not to mention the numerous belly dancers prancing around the stage area). Draped in tuxedoes and rubber masks, Les Claypool and his band of musical outlaws (which included Mike Dillon on vibraphone) harnessed the steamy weather as they crept into the minds of the audience- sometimes to frighten, sometimes to pleasure (“David Makalaster” > “”Southbound Pachyderm” > “David Makalaster” got my nod for best jam of the weekend, as well as the onstage guest appearance by Matisyahu).
The southern bayou moon shone brightly as nighttime fell. In the distance, the dark silhouettes of the Ozark Mountains were visible, as if one threw a blanket of black velvet over the landscape.
Gearing up for another late-night, I began with David Hasselhoff on Acid. Trekking over to the Backwoods Stage, I had to see for myself what melodies were birthed from such a moniker. It seemed I wasn’t the only one curious by the name, as a sizable number of onlookers questioned (in delight) the clashing heavy metal riffs amid a blend of dub and rock influences. To conclude, DHoA is quite possibly the perfect title for the group, seeing as their tones definitely made one feel as if they were watching, or were, the Baywatch star on mind-bending psychedelics.
The rest of my haphazard Friday night was split-up between another set by Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth (like whiskey, both groups only get better with age), and The Egg in the Outpost Tent (mini-skirts, furry boots, reindeer antlers, nightmarish visuals, and blinding lights were witnessed during the trance experience).
Sound Tribe Sector Nine wrapped up the night (for me, at least) with an end-of-the-world, Matrix seizure-inducing light show. Having not seen the gang since Bonnaroo 2005, I literally sat there in the grass, wondering how I ever could find the courage to get up and go to my campsite, in an effort to clear my mangled mind. Anyone who listened and looked into their hypnotizing stage presence probably is still reeling from what came to be. Their wall of ancestral-meets-futuristic electronica devastated eager ears and overtook any doubt of what the highlight of Wakarusa truly was.
As I lay down in my tent, gazing at the stars above, my heavy eyelids finally fell as sounds of Galactic cradled me to sleep (a cover of “Trampled Underfoot” ravaged over the hills and far away).
A dreary Saturday produced the soothing reggae sounds of Mishka (a Caribbean drifter who caught my attention with his humble, yet distinctive, take on a sometimes diluted genre) and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (if you don’t know the sound, I urge a gander at one of the Northeast’s finest dub representatives).
Though there were a few scheduled acts on Sunday, most felt Saturday night was the last chance to dust off the cabin fever. Bringing slide guitar guru Luther Dickinson (The Black Crowes) onstage to trade licks, G. Love and Special Sauce once again proved to the music world their importance, however unnoticed or underrated they may be perceived as. A true ambassador of the blues, G. Love provoked the crowd into a frenzy during “Who’s Got The Weed” as he jumped off the stage, grabbed a joint out of the crowd and proceeded to puff it for the rest of song (a tune filled with raunchy harmonica and Hammond B3 fingering).
Billed at the same time, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and The Black Crowes put me in quite a pickle- how could a southern rock enthusiast choose wisely? But, being the Drive-By Truckers fanatic that I am, I had to at least see what Isbell has been up to. With seemingly everyone settling in for the Crowes (who ended up going on late), only a dozen or so faithfully supported Isbell with his picturesque acoustic melodies and swamp rock numbers, which left me wondering “why isn’t this guy a bigger act?”. Eventually, I exited the Revival Tent as “Jealous Again” played in the distance at the Main Stage.
In 2008, it seemed a redemption year for The Black Crowes as they won back their fan base. So, in 2009, it seems inevitable they proceed to the next step, which is taking their place on the throne of southern rock. Chris Robinson howled and shrieked, while Dickinson blew the doors off nearby barns. It was, and always is, a magical moment when the band hits on all cylinders. They truly are masters of their craft, as chills ran down my spine during “Remedy”- a poignant ending to a pictorial evening.
I opened my blurry eyes as it hit me- it was Sunday morning, the day I must traverse back to New York, some 1,600 miles down the road. I broke down my campsite and waved goodbye to friends found and made throughout the weekend. Wakarusa was over, but a grin came across my face as I pulled out of the venue- the countdown to 2010 has begun.