Wakarusa is a beguiling festival that takes place on Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Arkansas, and this year was the festival’s tenth anniversary – which truly is quite the achievement. Music wise, their was an insane amount variety in the festival’s line-up, with the attendees being entertained by quality acts ranging genre-wise from jam bands to indie bands to reincarnated “lions”. Being one of the most visually majestic and mentally worry-free festivals this author has personally experienced, Wakarusa can sincerely bring a breath of fresh air to the most festival-experienced among us. (Of course intense weather can interfere with that, but more on that momentarily…)
Wakarusa is a four-day extravaganza with five different stages and a plethora of many other musical happenings situated all over the grounds, including and certainly not limited to: vendor music, electronic booths in random places, the Slacker tent, and the mutterings of all the giddy festivalgoers. Ideally, it is a festival you’d go to with your best of friends while you eagerly wait to experience every kind of recreational activity; including games, dancing, and even some friendly racing – in addition to the top notch music.
But, let’s be honest, it’s a music festival and the tunes are what actually brings most everyone to the event. Thursday opened with solid sets from Moon Taxi and Calexico on the main stage. Calexico’s alternative country sound kept the crowd soothed and excited throughout the set, though most of the crowd was absent from the early sets. The crowd didn’t start showing up until after Galactic’s set on the main stage, when Yonder Mountain String Band was playing. Giving the crowd a toe-tapping set, it was more than easy to be excited for the next main stage band, (I admittedly didn’t move from the main stage on most days) The Black Crowes. Bringing some amount of soul and blues into an incredible southern rock sound, The Black Crowes have many, many tracks worth hearing live and this set proved to be no exception. Blisteringly good, it seemed many in the crowd left with a certain taste for more, after their excellent cover of “Hush,” made famous by Deep Purple but written by Billy Joe Royal.
STS9 felt the wrath of the most disappointing thing that happened at Wakarusa – the wet weather. Get this, Mother Nature almost – almost – ruined the festival. Bringing on lightning, STS9’s brilliant and sometimes emotional soft-electronic music was cut short in the midst of their set. The festival smartly evacuated the entire grounds, so it was only understandable that Thursday night left one a little damp and upset with the music being upstaged by nature. And unfortunately the weather struck again, as during Friday’s tunes the heavens opened up for an encore comprised of, well, more intensely wet weather.
However, Friday did kick off with an excellent set from Milo Greene, a band hellbent on soothing melodies and incredible harmonies. “Perfectly Aligned” was a standout performance, starting off with chanting vocals and slowly heading into a powerful wave of sheer brilliance. The indie band really impressed with their early set, proving they rightfully deserving getting a higher billing next time around. Disappointed in myself for only checking the main stage, I headed over to the Revival Tent and caught Deap Vally. Shame on me for not being familiar before, because these girls know how to fucking rock their asses off. “End of the World” and “Lies” are amazing, blues-heavy journeys into the Led Zeppelin territory of rock, where there’s slower and heavier moments with incredible vocal performances. Best part? It’s just two girls on stage controlling their crowd with ease, rocking harder than many bands (with more members in them mind you) in the festival on this particular weekend.
Umphrey’s McGee played their jam set later on Friday, blending rock improv with incredible blues solos. Featuring an excellent round-up of musicians, the entire end of the night was a jam-fest to be stricken with awe about later. Seguing into “Eminence Front” by The Who was a great moment of their set, and even ending one of their pieces with the outro of “Bulls On Parade” by Rage Against The Machine on Tom Morello’s birthday was one of the more memorable and amazing moments of the weekend. Dispatch came out and played a set that included many of their best tracks, including “The General,” “Bang Bang,” and “Two Coins.” The crowd responded incredibly well, and Dispatch also had one of the better sets of the entire festival, especially in terms of audience reception. By starting with some acoustic tracks and transitioned into some incredibly over-the-top reggae-infused folk tracks that sounded so familiar and immediate, it’s not hard to imagine why the crowd was so easily placated.
But, again, like I mentioned above, the weather again came rolling in and understandably stopped the festival from advancing any further than Dispatch’s set. Torrential rain and many tornado warnings (which are not to be scoffed at!) surely did some terrifying among the crowd, especially considering the lack of phone reception on top of a hill in the midst of a huge storm. But everyone got through it, thanks in part to the communal helping attitude inherent at many festivals, and there were no tornadoes or destructive winds in the end. But, wonderfully, the festival shone a brighter side when the storm passed, as plans and sets went on with a small amount of reorganizing and set time changing. And while Saturday and Sunday escaped the scarier weather, rain still was a bit present.
One major stand-out set from Saturday that I had the pleasure to see was Del The Funky Homosapien. Excited to hear solo bits, many backing tracks to his many projects, and even performing some incredibly obscure tracks, Del spat hot fire. Being featured on “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz may have been his best career move, but his Deltron 3030 album with Gorillaz’ producer Dan The Automator is a essential album (in case you haven’t heard).
Sunday featured the most surprisingly enjoyable set of the weekend – Snoop Lion (AKA Snoop Dogg). Blending his old style and new persona, he brought his hip-hop to reggae and mixed both of them with incredible results. Snoop Lion brought his A-game and pleased everyone in the crowd, who were all “recreationally” willing and able to enjoy every whim from Snoop. Never really refraining from the old, Snoop Lion performed Snoop Dogg tracks and tied the entire experience of the festival with a nice, herbal bow.
Looking back on Wakarusa, through the wet goggles of memory, it was an unusually special thing to behold. Even though you’d have to trudge through six inches of mud (literally) and force yourself to somehow keep your shoes on (even though you knew they would be tossed), it was still rewarding to watch excellent music being performed from all kinds of styles and feel the music with thousands of others – others who were also going through the same thing to hear the same music. There’s nothing better than a shared musical experience with strangers, especially if you have to earn it, and one left knowing that everyone sincerely enjoyed being there and experiencing the same thing you did – even if part of it was the aforementioned unfortunate weather. This fact was ever apparent at Wakarusa, and it’s nearly catastrophically lovable. Rain or shine, as most festivals say, Wakarusa was a blast.
Written by Dylan Tracy
OurVinyl | Contributor