Nelsonville, Ohio – May 13 – 15 was Nelsonville’s three-day music festival. Set in the rolling and lush hills of southeastern Ohio just over one hour south of Columbus this festival is one to be experienced and not just attended.
One of the key hallmarks of the seven-year festival is the variety, as well as the quality of music. With three stages (Main Stage, Porch Stage and No-Fi Cabin) music is always in the air and calls listeners from one stage to the next. Each act was supportive of the next, with several acts naming off their favorites to catch.
Friday started with storm clouds overhead, but Mother Nature held back and as fest-goers arrived in the afternoon they were free to wander the grounds taking in the music but also arts and crafts from local vendors and students. Wandering the grounds the first impression is “community” highlighted by the fact that the festival is organized by Stuart’s Opera house, but run by volunteers; over 500 donated time, effort and love to put this festival together. No one working the festival had to be there, and in fact watching the volunteers provide directions, preparing drinks and food while dancing and twirling one is certainly struck by the absolute joy that was shared. Even volunteers on trash pick-up duty danced and shimmied as they walked the ground picking up every piece of trash, no matter how small.
The main stage sat on the edge of the grounds facing inwards, three sets of bleachers were on the north-eastern edge of the field and allowed for some to sit and enjoy the show with an unobstructed view. Many fans brought their own chairs, or blankets, or in many cases umbrellas and tarps (for Saturday and Sunday were marked by on-again-off-again rain showers).
The Porch cabin stage was situated on the far end of the grounds facing away from the main stage, which limited sound bleeding from one audience to the other, although between sets the other music could be heard it was not distracting. The Porch stage was set for many local and regional acts, including the ever popular Nick Tolford and Company, Mount Carmel and the Spikedrivers. Each of these local favorites attracted a large audience and were as anticipated as some of the Main Stage acts. The Porch Stage also had a wide grassy area surrounding it on three sides allowing for those looking for a rest to sit and enjoy the show; as the sun set on Friday and Saturday night this area was popular with families and couples as well as the now-infamous hula-hoop girls (more on them later).
The No-Fi stage was directly opposite of and facing the main stage, but was set behind Kids Zone, a separate building which blocked the sound between the stages. This area held crafts, a play area and interactive program established to allow the younger family members some entertainment and attention. With Michael Hurley, as well as groups such as the Shazzbots playing the kids were certainly all right this weekend. This inclusion encouraged those with children (under 12 was free) to make this a family affair and strollers, wagons and portable play areas were visible through much of the festival. There is something endearing and wonderful about watching children dance without abandon and this festival provides environment for much of that indeed.
The campgrounds were also on the college grounds, and were a short walk to the stage area, made even easier with the shuttles that ran between the festival grounds and camping area. If attendees chose to walk back and forth it was a quick and scenic trip surrounded by rolling green hills and trees. Camping was reasonably priced and vehicle parking for those who did not camp was free, a definite benefit that came for one day or who went home at night.
The artist line-up for Nelsonville really is one of the most diverse out there on the festival circuit; Friday nights’ Main Stage shows including Justin Townes Earle, George Jones and Bomba Estereo (yes, from country music to Colombian electronic trip-hop) the crowd greeted each act with enthusiasm and cheers.
Saturday the Main Stage hosted such acts as Baby Dee, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Lost in the Trees, Mucca Pazza, and Yo La Tengo with the Flaming Lips finally taking over the stage and playing through the rain. During the Lips set lead singer Wayne Coyne described how impressed he was with the warmth and the love he saw that day, wandering the grounds himself to take in the festival. So enamored with hula-hoop girls that doubled as “guards” to the backstage area Wayne pulled them up on stage to perform and the Lips accompanied the interlude of hip wiggling fun.
The endurance of the audience was clear; during the Lips set the rain came in rivers leaving the area in front of the Main Stage a mud-pit several inches deep (which proved to be something of a challenge for Sunday’s fans) but through it the entire crowd did not waiver and stayed through to the cold, wet end.
Sunday provided some comfort from the rain in that it was significantly softer, and did break for long periods. The Main Stage hosted Wanda Jackson and the Queen of Rockabilly herself had the entire crowd dancing and whooping. In her 70’s now Wanda knew how to work the crowd and shook her trademark fringe appreciatively. Closing the main stage and the festival Neko Case admitted that it would take a lot for her to stand in the rain and mud all day, but thanked the crowd repeatedly for sticking around. Her set was welcomed with the same abandon as every act that weekend, and made for a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
Held early enough in the year to avoid the staggering heat the festival gambles on whether or not it will rain, this year rain was prevalent but the mood and music made it a worthwhile investment. A variety of reasonably priced food and beverages were available for purchase and the usually forgotten vegetarians had several options. Absent from this festival were the large groups of inebriated festival-goers, even with beer for sale on-site the mood and atmosphere seemed to encourage moderation.
Until the very end the crowds wandered the grounds singing, playing in the mud, and enjoying a community of music and love. Ticket sales for this year’s festival were around 6,000, which is slightly larger than previous years but still significantly smaller than some of the more well-known festivals. Three-day passes went up for sale earlier in the year at a reduced price, but days before the show weekend passes were still available for $80. (One-day passes were also available.) The price, setting and quality of this festival competes admirably with larger festivals and those who shy away from the festival atmosphere for their cost or size will find this to be the best of both worlds.
Written by Meredith Underhill