All photos by C-Style Photography.
Organization is crucial at a music festival. It’s an irrefutable truth whose importance only increases as an event grows larger and larger. In its 8th year of operation with attendance numbers teetering around 20,000 and a star-studded lineup of musicians, bands, and DJ’s- it’s safe to say that Wakarusa is one of the country’s most sought-after major music festivals. Of course, they didn’t get to where they are without years of hard work and a team of dedicated workers to coordinate the whole shebang.
From an execution standpoint, the festival ran smoothly; sets were on time, ambassadors were aplenty, and (to my knowledge) everyone remained safe. Getting the whole thing off the ground, however, was not quite as pleasant.
My party arrived around 5:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. After a security clearance at the mountain’s base, we drove to the top to enter the festival… only to get the run around (literally up and down the mountain) before learning that we would need to take a two-hour nap in our car until the media check-in opened at 8.
Later, armed with credentials, we went to work setting up camp. It appeared, however, that the security and parking attendants were not all on the same page. No sooner than entering what I was told was the reserved media campgrounds, I was flagged down by a man flapping his arms who’d just exchanged words with the two red shirts that let me in. He informed me some folks the night before mistakenly opened the fenced-in campgrounds to media when it was supposed to be for hired staff. “But since that can of worms has already been opened, go ahead and set up,” he said. “Just stay on this side of the building.” Ten-four.
With camp established and an hour of resting on the air mattress (it was far too hot to actually sleep under the noon sun), I was off to my first show of the weekend. It was with a band called Tyrannosaurus Chicken, a male-female duo from Arkansas. With both musicians skilled in more than five instruments each (and the ability by both to play more than one a time), the two petite players manage to create a backwoods blues that’s a genre all its own. Fans of The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band would have felt right at home hoopin’ and hollerin’ along to Bob’s slide guitar, Rachel’s vigorous fiddle playing, and their raw, soulful vocals.
As their set neared an end, Rachel talked to the assembly as though they were old drinking buddies… and with such a strong local T. Chicken following, it’s not unlikely that they really were old drinking buddies. “We only got ten more minutes!” she yelled without mic assistance. “15!” someone shouted back, begging for more. Rachel continued, “We’re just gonna go ahead and shake ‘em on down for the rest of the time.” Apparently, that’s Arkansas-talk for breakdown free-style jam. There was even a special guest appearance by a shirtless Doug Dicharry, multi-instrumentalist from Mudstomp label-mates The Ben Miller Band, showing off his trombone skills. And pierced nipples.
In a post-performance interview, I learned that Rachel’s father used to play in a blues band with Bob. Through that connection, the two began performing together after Rachel graduated college, where she studied violin.
Tyrannosaurus Chicken has a notable history with Wakarusa, too; this year was Bob’s third appearance and Rachel’s second. Last time they played for nearly 11 hours straight. “We started around 9 in the evening and played through the sunrise,” Rachel told me. “We were just standing in the midway, playing for anyone who came by to listen.”
Minus The Bear was the first stop after dinner. Admittedly, the Seattle five-piece only made my schedule as a result of requests from friends with respectable music taste who insisted I see them at Wakarusa. Little did I know, I would be pleasantly surprised by the band’s pleasingly dynamic songs drenched in electro synth and wrapped in rapid drumming. Between songs, frequent banter with the audience kept the band grounded and easy to connect with. I had always labeled them as “just another indie rock band” but ,while they're still an indie rock group, Minus The Bear offers something more than a typical hipster band: high energy, likeable personalities, and versatile music that explores the electronic and rock realms in a stimulating and innovative way.
As splendid as Minus The Bear was, it was difficult to not be distracted by the growing presence of chicken head hats and KFC buckets that were starting to fill The Revival Tent. Yes. The Bucket was coming. But not just yet.
I meandered through the large gateway crowned by giant WAKA letters and walked down the midway towards The Main Stage. Grace Potter was performing, but something was off. Six hours later, the Interstellar Meltdown would kick off with DJ Sphongle tucked inside of his colossal Sphongleton contraption. The DJ wasn’t there yet, but the fixture was. And it’s massive, white appendages were peeking out from behind its cover, joining The Nocturnals in Ms. Potter’s background.
Despite a well-rounded set of new and old material (including a stunning a capella version of 2005’s "Nothing But The Water, Part 1"), Potter’s strange attempts to create disorder (“I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re not really into this whole behaving thing, so let’s do some stupid shit this weekend!”) and even more bizarre effort to wear her sexuality on her sleeve left me confused. “You know when it’s hot outside and you take a bite of watermelon and it drips here?” Grace asked as she lightly touched her cheek. “… and here,” she continued by running her finger along her thigh. “Well, I love that feeling. And I wrote a song about it called “Sugar!””. Unquestionably and as always, she still impressed all with her natural beauty, mind-blowing vocals, and astounding piano and guitar skills… but if I never see her salacious side again, I’ll be okay with that.
Back at The Revival Tent, Buckethead was playing to a tightly-packed crowd that trickled into the open pasture outside where sprawled out bodies dotted the ground like sprinkles on an ice cream cone. The guitar genius on stage was dressed in silver metallic pants that were held up by suspenders, a long-sleeved blue shirt, that freaky expressionless mask of his, and- of course- a plain white bucket on his head. It’s easy to get sucked into a Buckethead performance and fall under his guitar-induced spell; the blank pages in my notebook indicate I was a victim of his wizardry at Wakarusa. This video does him more justice than my words ever could.
Check out this one wherein The Bucket performs with nun chucks, dances a Michael Jackson-inspired robot dance, and finishes with an appearance from Santa Buckethead Claus.
LA-based female DJ TOKiMONSTA was the first show I saw in what would become my favorite stage of the festival: The Satellite Stage. Just past the designated Shakedown Street that was lined with friendly vendors (I was once asked to lie down and have my body traced with sidewalk chalk; “There’s been a massacre on Shake Down!”), thumping bass could be heard rumbling deep within the nearby woods. A wide, winding, mulched trail led festival-goers down a hill that dumped into a slanted clearing. Large, oddly-shaped decorative sheets of vinyl were stretched tightly overhead in the trees, creating the illusion of encapsulation without restricting the free-flowing energy and excitement of the show. A giant moth repeatedly fluttered up and around the DJ; its large silhouette was so distinct and well-defined that it almost appeared to be part of the stage effects. Web cams pointed at TOKiMONSTA’s work station projected live footage of her hands at work onto projection screens positioned on either side of the stage. Her music was danceable and worked well with staccato head-thumping and other favored dubstepping moves. Interestingly, though, her tunes weren’t so much dubstep as they were a mixture of heavy bass and hip hop samples- triphop, at it's finest.
Around 1 a.m. The Interstellar Meltdown (Wakarusa's electronic "festival within a festival") commenced on The Main Stage. The music of DJ Shpongle was tribal-like and very spiritual, but also managed to stay alert with quick and spiraling drums and beats. Chanting was frequently laid over circling percussion loops, but major-epic drops were few and far between. Instead, the trancy tunes focused on a continual build-up of emotion that was strategically cultivated by DJ Shpongle and released at key points throughout the set. Flanked on either side by LED hoopers, the DJ kept a close eye on his audience from a cubbie hole carved into the third level of the 18-foot tall Shpongletron. Pagoda-like arms extending from the contraption were fully-functioning video screens that rotated through a variety of visual effects and scenes throughout the show. Eyeballs were a continual theme of The Experience.
As his set closed, Shpongle used a microphone to make an announcement. “I’ve got good news and bad. The bad news is that Ott [the next scheduled DJ] isn’t here yet. He’s on his way, though. The good news is… I get to play another one for you.” But at the end of the encore, Ott still wasn’t available and Shpongle said he’d be back to keep playing after a short break. I decided to close the books on day one and headed back to camp for bed.