The annual pilgrimage to Mulberry Mountain and the Wakarusa Festival went off this year without a hitch.
Yes, there was a little rain, but not even close to the kind of storms they weathered last year when the festival had to evacuate the grounds and people had to get their cars towed out. Just a nice little drizzle each day to cool everything off.
I didn’t even get my boots out.
And would you believe, I hung with the hardcore HCJ for one night of the big shebang at String Cheese and the Turnpike Troubadours?
But let’s start from the beginning.
Rolling down from Kansas, everything was easy as pie until we got just across the Arkansas border around Bella Vista. That brutal little speed trap was teaming with cops pulling over what looked like mostly young, white drivers. The speed varies in that valley stretch from 70 to 45, and there’s only one way in and one way out.
Once we cleared that, it was smooth sailing along the winding mountain roads for another 50 minutes until we pulled into the festival grounds and found a spot underneath a tree next to a bunch of other media types.
Pitched a tent. Grilled some food. Went out and wandered around.
There were already a lot of people set up, and the general camping was pretty much full. For those that haven’t made it down, Mulberry Mountain is a great spot for a music festival. There are plentiful trees to camp under; there’s a river with a nice swimming hole nearby that shuttles run to and from; getting in and out is pretty painless (especially compared to the monstrous lines at some other festivals); and security is at the proper level, not anywhere near like what it was the final year in Lawrence, when the authorities essentially drove the festival out of town.
We walked around Shakedown Street and looked at what people were selling. The usual. Pipes, dresses, hats, sparkly capes, jewelry, you know the deal.
We primed and headed toward the Main Stage to catch most of the Turnpike Troubadours‘ first of two sets at the fest. These red dirt Oklahoma boys were a few songs in and they were raring to go. Every few songs, lead singer Evan Felker reached back to pull on a bottle of Jack Daniels and then passed it back to the drummer.
There’s almost always a band that really surprises you, especially when you have zero expectations about them, and for me the Troubadours were that band.
I caught them a month or two back in Lawrence at Liberty Hall, and walked away a bit indifferent. But on Friday afternoon, this country rock group was hitting its stride, soaking up the sun and spitting out backwoods gems like Whole Damn Town and Morgan Street. The fiddle player was especially active, busting out straight forward riffs while Felker filled in some gaps with bluesy harmonica when he wasn’t crooning his crackly country drawl.
Keep an eye on these guys. They could easily hit one out of the park with a country-pop song, or just as easily with a more Americana-roots sound.
Next up on the main stage was the instrumental funk band, Lettuce, straight from NYC. The first thing that jumped out – or more like hit you square in the chest – was the incredible boom of the bass guitar. You could feel it compressing the air in your lungs. The band was solid, with some nice horn lines and breaks for the keyboard player, but eventually one song blended into the next, so we took a break to grab a beer in the artist lounge.
Three beers later it was time for one of the bands I was most looking forward to, Dr. Dog.
Though they were put in the sometimes tricky afternoon slot on the main stage, this well-oiled Philadelphia band proved their status as a super tight touring machine. They rollicked through some favorites like Shadow People, slowed it down for a couple in the middle, and then brought it right back up at the end. What Does it Take to Be Lonesome, with its slinky slide guitar riffs, brought out the best in co-lead singer, Toby Leaman, who wailed away in the sun, sweating through his jeans.
As the sun set, we headed over to the Revival Tent to catch J. Roddy Walston and the Business, a Tennessee band that’s now based in Maryland. Though they’ve been around for over a decade, they’ve only recently gotten more national attention after signing with ATO Records last year.
When the set started, the crowd was pretty thin. But as J. Roddy’s howls and piano bashing picked up steam, more and more interested festivalgoers wandered in. By midway through the set, the spaces filled in, just in time for the southern guitar romp, Heavy Bells, a song that’s received pretty heavy play on local KC stations like The Buzz. Even though they’re just a four piece, the straight forward hard rock has a solid body, and J. Roddy’s manic keyboard playing added a throwback feel.
But J.R.’s biggest asset is his easy voice that’s rock even when it’s not trying to be. It’s akin in a small way to Jim James of My Morning Jacket, but with more of an edge. Although that comparison seems too easy given their shared southern roots music and wavy long hair and beard. And far less reverb, of course.
Next episode: The Flaming Lips Remain Defiant With New Drummer At Wakarusa