May 25, 2011

Live Review: Nelsonville Music Festival 2011

With all the outpouring of adoration that has hit newsstands and blogs over the past week, it almost feels superfluous to give my spin on this year's Nelsonville Music Festival. For the second year running, I found myself involved in the organization and execution of this weekend of music, just a short drive away from my collegiate hometown of Athens, OH. As was the case last year, my duties throughout the weekend kept me away from a good deal of the music—I manned the festival's first press tent, providing a base of operations for all attending reporters and photographers. It goes without saying that this year's event was a larger beast than in years past—acts like the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo and Neko Case bring with them an audience and press presence that previously would not have given the fest a second glance. In spite of that, Nelsonville managed to retain everything that has traditionally made it such a unique festival experience—namely, friendly people, an eclectic lineup and a welcoming, laid-back vibe.

Most of my Friday afternoon was spent hectically rushing around making last minute preparations. Thanks to my proximity to the back porch stage, I got to hear snippets of sets from locals Hex Net and Whale Zombie. The former sounded just as wonderfully raw and gritty as their sets at the Union and Casa usually do, while the latter benefited from the open air, filling it with their gargantuan instrumentals. Above all, it was great seeing bands that I see on an almost monthly basis playing for audiences who were more than likely experiencing their music for the very first time.

Fridays at the Nelsonville Music Festival usually ease attendees into the weekend—the typical crowd has been campers looking to get the weekend started as quickly as possible. That got thrown out the window this year, with country legend George Jones headlining the main stage on the event's first evening, bringing in an onslaught of devotees who quickly filled the field. His set evoked Loretta Lynn's—the previous year's headliner—marked by a backing band that acted as their own warm-up act and a featured performer who delivered beleaguered renditions of classics from bygone eras. It was nice to see Jones onstage, but ultimately he delivered a set (and accompanying merchandise) that only diehard fans could truly appreciate.

The late night entertainment split itself between the main and back porch stages, filled by Colombian electro-pop group Bomba Estéreo and west coast rockers the Growlers respectively. Buoyed by thumping arrangements and rapid-fire Spanish lyrics care of the flashily dressed Liliana Saumet, Bomba Estéreo turned the main stage into a dance party that was quickly doused (but certainly not extinguished) by one of the weekend's first bouts of rain. Meanwhile, the Growlers poured out their bluesy, Morrison-esque tunes against the beautiful, colorfully lit cabins and trees lining the back porch area. One torrential downpour later, the stage was set for a particularly soggy Saturday in Nelsonville.

Sunrise found the main stage running a few hours behind, owing to a delay in the Flaming Lips' travels that pushed back the onstage construction of their neon rainbow backdrop. In the meantime, I made a point of catching a few songs at She Bears' set on the back porch stage—it was keyboardist Caitlin McGlade's last show with the group and the grandiose outdoor setting was fitting for such a momentous occasion.

Shortly after She Bears finished I had my rockstar moment of the festival as I escorted a local journalist and photographer onto the Flaming Lips' tour bus for an interview with frontman Wayne Coyne. He had some wonderfully kind things to say about the festival and Ohio in general, some of which you can find in this article. Most of all, I was struck by Coyne's stark honesty and genuine enthusiasm for his line of work. He's an entertainer who just happens to be a wonderful musician—the born ringleader of this shimmering spectacle of a band.

The first act I got to see on the main stage was Cheyenne Marie Mize, best known for her work with Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Her set showcased more than just her vocal prowess, finding her behind the drumset as well as on guitar and keyboards as she and her band worked their way through tracks from her debut solo release Before Lately. As you can see, Wayne Coyne stationed himself at the side of the stage for the majority of her set, rightfully impressed by her striking voice and sophisticated arrangements. He certainly wasn't the only musical celebrity looking on—whilst escorting a group of photographers into the pit during the set, I turned around to find none other than Sean Lennon standing just behind me. It's safe to say that Cheyenne has her fair share of admirers.

As Saturday's first major bout of rain set in, Athens' own Southeast Engine took the main stage to a crowd that seemed unfazed by the pelting moisture. The set wound through key track's from the group's latest, Canary before delving into their back catalog. The highlight for me was a particularly full sounding version of "Holy Ghost," a track with an organ riff that still sends shivers down my spine. Despite the weather, it was a wonderful hometown (or close to it) showing from a group who is quickly gathering national acclaim.

A frenzy of excitement swept over the crowd as Sean Lennon and the striking Charlotte Kemp Muhl took to the stage in preparation for their performance as the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Adorned in a variety of eccentric hats and sporting a 19-year-old drummer, the group launched into a surprisingly short group of songs filled with vocal harmonies familiar to any fan of Lennon's father. While the band's latest record was a subdued, predominantly acoustic affair, their live show was a near constant stream of swirling synths, yowling guitar and heady beats. Just four songs in, GoaSTT left the stage, citing a lack of rehearsed material to play.

The next two bands to take the main stage were collectives of sorts—certainly two of the larger groups the festival played host to over the course of the weekend. The first was Lost in the Trees, a self-termed folk orchestra from North Carolina who dabbles in slightly more subdued (though no less epic) versions of the sort of chamber pop arrangements that Arcade Fire is known for. Frontman Ari Picker just seemed happy to be in front of a crowd, as evidenced by his beaming smile throughout the set. The second group was a 31-piece marching band by the name of Mucca Pazza. Hailing from the Chicago, the band brings everything from a drumline to cheerleaders and launches into some of the most demented (and undeniably cool) marching numbers you've ever heard. They were a crowd favorite, if only because they blew everyone away with their sheer numbers.

As the evening breeze blew in, so too did the sounds of Yo La Tengo. Their set was heavy on their noisier, decidedly less-poppy material, including sprawling tracks such as "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven." Georgia, James and especially Ira seemed to be in very good spirits all throughout the set, making several quips about their experience in Athens, including allusions to Ohio University's student elections. Casual fans likely got what they came for in the form of renditions of "Sugarcube" (dedicated to the Flaming Lips) and "Mr. Tough." If you (like myself) were hoping for guitar freakouts and general weirdness, you didn't leave disappointed either.

The Flaming Lips did not skimp when it came to their Nelsonville Music Festival performance—every traditional element of the group's stagecraft was present, from the side mounted confetti cannons to the Wizard of Oz-themed, costumed onstage dancers. It was just as much of a production as the previous three times I've caught the Lips live, with enough deviation from past sets to make it just as exciting as the first time. Wayne Coyne surfed over the crowd in his space bubble, the group entered through their immense LED screen and balloons pelted onto the audience all throughout "Worm Mountain." In terms of new material, the band played a track from their Neon Indian collaboration entitled "Is David Bowie Dying???" but mostly stuck to the familiar throughout the evening. That included favorites such as "She Don't Use Jelly," "Yoshimi Battles the Pick Robots, Pt. I," and "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." Coyne had nothing but kind things to say about the festival in general, referring to it as a giant party in the woods at which the Flaming Lips were (contrary to their usual role) not the weirdest act in attendance. Despite some bouts of rain towards this end of the set, the band managed to make it through a two song encore of "Race For the Prize" and "Do You Realize??" before wrapping it up for the night and sending the remaining, soaking crowd on their merry way.

I started my groggy Sunday morning watching part of Samantha Crain's set on the back porch stage, before being whisked away by other responsibilities. I made it back to introduce Y La Bamba, a wonderful folk rock group from Portland with some amazing vocal harmonies. They commanded a pretty sizable crowd for a band playing early on Sunday at the festival, but they deserved every set of eyes and ears in attendance. Next up on the back porch was Ned Oldham and Old Calf, who delivered some wonderfully solemn numbers from their new release via No Quarter Records entitled Borrow a Horse. It should be mentioned that I found it hard to believe that Ned is related to Will Oldham, until he opened his mouth and started singing.

The main stage was closed out with a double headliner of sorts, starting with the Queen of Rockabilly, Ms. Wanda Jackson. The diminutive 73-year-old singer sauntered onto the stage and launched into a set that mined her extensive back catalog. Unlike many performers her age, the years have been fairly kind of Jackson's voice, allowing her to yowl her way through all the standards. She was as jovial as could be, talking about her relationship with Elvis and making mention of recent collaborator Jack White. Despite a backing band that seemed dead set on sapping the life out of many of their arrangements, Jackson's set was as high energy as you could ask for and seemed to a be hit with those in attendance.

Last on the main stage was the the veritable siren of folk rock, Neko Case—presiding over those brave enough to slog through the mud with her signature shock of unkempt red hair. Accompanied by singer Kelly Hogan, Case's set was devoid of any real surprises, sticking closely to material from her past two solo releases. It was a joy to witness her belting out the refrain to "People Gotta Lot of Nerve," and I had my fair share of chills when she hit the notes on "This Tornado Loves You." In all honesty, I think I enjoy her more when she's onstage with all of her cohorts in the New Pornographers, but seeing her solo reaffirmed just how powerful those pipes of her's truly are.

So, we had a little (OK, a lot of) rain and a good amount of resulting mud. The thing is, I don't think there were many people in attendance who had their experience significantly sullied by either of these factors. The Nelsonville Music Festival has established itself as an event where wonderful people come together and share in a mutual musical experience, rain or shine. Like I said, I've been reading so many positive things about this year's event that it seems silly for me to heap on any further praise. It was an honor to be involved once again, and I'll definitely be back in some capacity in the years to come. Let's just hope for a little more of that shine next time around.

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