Before we even start, I just have to say, youre all fucking legends. John Butler
2010 proved to be a landmark year for Wakarusa. It was the culmination of years of enduring the politics of festival organizing and coming out on top with a premier mid-level event. After settling in to their new home last year, Waka was able to step up their game and build the festival theyd been dreaming of for this past weekend. Even though this was its seventh year, it felt like the first, but with the same intimacy and charm theyve had all along.
With a brand new main stage, a full carnival, and expanded camping, you could tell from the first day that things were going to be bigger. The new Satellite Stage placed off in the south woods created an oasis for those looking for an all night party. And with music running 24 hours, if you wanted to rave at seven in the morning you most certainly could. Singer-songwriters started the day early on the Outpost Stage, and Oklahomas Mud Stomp Records provided open showcases as you walked by the shops. If what you saw on the way to main stage wasnt enough, another side street of vendors was added through the main camping area. How they were able to get so much in such a small space shows that theyve gone above and beyond to solidify the best possible festival experience.
What’s more, a jaw dropping line-up was gathered that pulled from the Jam scenes biggest players (some getting two sets), as well as choice acts to flesh out the days. Thursday through Saturday were stacked with “must see” sets going into the early hours. Sunday would be the most relaxed with only the tents running, and many choosing to get home before the workweek. Those that stuck around were treated to intimate performances from some big names and one last chance to take a dip at the waterfall.
Organizers did their homework, however, and as a result they were able to pack the mountain to the brim with tickets selling out the week before. The days were scorching with temperatures in the 90s beating those who braved to be out in it, but the music was absolutely rewarding, distracting you from the impending sunburn. The nights were a different experience altogether with everyone adorning the neon way with the weekend’s top sets as the backdrop. I say it every year, but there really is no festival like this, and with the momentum theyve gained, Wakarusas not going anywhere.
Split Lip Rayfield:
Split Lip is no stranger to Wakarusa, and every year they play, their momentum builds at the festival. Hitting the main stage early they brought the high energy beat up bluegrass, playing it out like a rock band. Jeff Eatons gas tank upright bass added serious momentum with his metallic slap carrying the set along side fast and furious mandolins and banjos. Dust was kicked and the heat was shrugged off with the fire on stage even being even hotter.
With the strong move of the jam scene to embrace the electronic, Somasphere hosted a packed Outpost tent in the mid afternoon pulsing with knob tweaking improvisational rock. With the electronic drum and bass holding a steady beat, they let the live drums carry the set with guitars dancing around samples and loops. Songs moved from straight thumping electronica into guitar and bass jams, the six-string eventually taking over. The set proved them to be a band to watch for in their scene, and was a great introduction to a sound thats quickly taking over.
Festivals and The Grateful Dead are one in the same, and in the early evening we got a taste as to why they fit so perfectly together. The Deads master of the beat, Bill Kreutzman, brought his latest project with some friends from Tea Leaf Green and Pap Mali having fun with The Deads classic sound. There were new jams from the project, and old ones from a bygone era. Kreutzman showed off with the rest of the band more than keeping up, letting Mali take over for his own noodley blues guitar licks. The improvisations worked through all the classic styles that Kreutzman and Mali pioneered, and for that moment the Dead Heads got their fill.
Pimps of Joytime
As one of the biggest surprises of the festival, Pimps of Joytime put an electro spin to heavy New Orleans funk. Lead guitarist/singer Brian J was ripe with hot solos and blues guitar stomps. Electronic bass and hooks were thrown in every so often to throw you off, but it was perfect for the grand scope of the modern funk party they were throwing. It was a combination of sounds youd never think would be thrown together, and proved surprisingly infectious and unforgettable.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band
With Robert Randolph, you know what youre going to get, and he delivered like he always does to a hot packed field. The set was filled with takes from Colorblind showing off his impressive slide guitar work. Aint Nothing Wrong provided the hype into Homecoming and the bigger than life Deliver Me. Throwing in top 40 tie-ins to older favorites felt cheesy, but the music and show spoke for itself. Theyre perfectionists with an undeniable high energy, but there is a sense that this is it with the band, what you see is what you get. With everyone on stage shooting for over the top it was pure entertainment without having to be anything else.
Over the past couple of decades, Biscos taken on a whole new life, evolving far past its days as a rock band. The group’s set showed why jam has embraced the keyboards and MacBooks, adding them to their set up, as the next wave of jam takes over. The best moments come from the older tracks and the more established jams. The massive glow stick wars erupted early in the set, the music keeping the field in a neon frenzy. Being the self-proclaimed official start to the festival season for the band, the energy was gleaming off the stage as they soaked it all in. The Biscuits are at the top of their game, and the show Thursday night was just more proof.
The Machine: Pink Floyd Laser Show
For any Pink Floyd fan, this is the ultimate spectacle. The band has put together musically the show that many never had the chance to see. Every moment so carefully planned so that when the guitar solo in Money hits with note for note perfection the hair on the back of your neck stands. By having them in the largest of the tents, the lasers (used sparingly) filled the space in a wash of colorful rays and blankets of reds blues and greens. The set pulled from the greatest hits and rare deep cuts from Floyd leaving everyone more than satisfied, and very much in awe.
One of the more anticipated sets of the weekend, Lotus threw down their take on trans-jam to an overflowing tent. There wasnt a body still within earshot as they held the crowd in the palm of their samplers. Still being mostly rock, the electronics provided infectious sugary hooks resulting in one of the best sets of the night.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
Dressed to kill for an early slot on the main stage, Lewis didnt just play the blues, he owned it. Riding high off his excellent debut, the set shined with a backing horns section highlighting Lewiss Buddy Guy like swagger. Full of attitude, the funked up Im Broke brought a new generation to the working mans blues. The band is built for the live experience, and while only one album in the game, they own every moment to final note.
Earl Greyhounds a powerful band. Even with a sparse crowd, they played like it was for a packed house letting Kamara Thomass heavy raspy bass rumble while Matt Whyte tore into his guitar. With a new album out, the fresh material sounded just as thick and penetrating. Oye Vaya and the epic set closer Misty Morning showed that there are several sides to this bands music, taking you from a quiet mystique to in your face sonics with twisting feed back. The set was high on the new material side, the garage blues building on elements of grunge, all just adding more power to the blow your hair back sound. A sleeper set, but another of the best from the weekend without a doubt.
Louisiana band Dirtfoot is a bit of an anomaly in the world of jam. Combining hillbilly punk with New Orleans style you get a kind of energy that sucks you in. Theyre regulars for the festival and have the following to pack a wooded stage. Playing with the harsh six oclock in their eyes on the tiny backwoods stage, they sweated out the hour and a half and kept the crowd a movin’.
By this point, Umphreys McGee has figured out how to transcend just being another jam-rock band. Their sets are heavy, breaking out double bass and stadium size guitars that are just too big for any stage. On the first of two sets, they brought the prog-rock jam bliss, opening with the rare 13:48. With ripping duel lead guitars, they continued to establish themselves, not just as a jam staple, but as a live force to be recon with. They can work in quick covers from just about anyone, like a nod to Motley Crue, but the pinnacle coming from the high end of a blistering build up before falling perfectly into Pink Floyds Time. It was a surreal moment, Umphreys delivering as they always do with a set full of surprises and non-stop rock power.
Thanks to technology, a lot of sound can come from a minimal place. Big Gigantic only describes the rumbling dub-step, and not that its coming from just two guys. With one on drums, the other from the multi instrumentalist tying in hip-hop hooks with his own smooth saxophone lines. The loops and layers sparkled, with the live drums fueling the set. While certainly not the first to incorporate that style, it was all in their delivery, and that little extra from the brass to break up the electronics, theyve found their niche.
Another Wakarusa staple, Sound Tribe have become the must see band in the live-tronica game. It could be that they helped bring it to the foreground, but every set is a blistering spectacle of light and sound. Technical issues kept the set to a slow start, but once the ball was rolling it was the onstage acid trip everyone was waiting for. Impressively David Murphy played the set with an injured wrist, a hole cut in the cast for his two fingers to get to the strings of his bass. While not at their best, it fed the need for the larger than life electronics that the people craved.
Winner for biggest party of the weekend easily goes here. Lorin Ashton lived up to his reputation with an unrelenting throbbing, cutting synths and samples between sub-bombs. Part DJ, and part dub, the blend created a mass of sweaty thick beats, not one person left still in the over flowing Revival Tent. The place was hot and sticky, but so was the earth rattling noise. Every beat thundered as he dropped it, his long locks flying around his head with relentless strobes behind. Hes the king of the late night electronic set with an energy that never came close to easing during his hour and a half blow out.
Tea Leaf Green (Late Night)
A band really is only as strong as their rhythm section, and for Tea Leaf Greens Reed Mathis, he was the band. Mathis ran circles around the songs, taking the lead and squeezing in extra parts whenever possible. Its hard to find a bassist that commanding, taking the spotlight to show off, removing the set far from being just another late night jam. It was a night of ruckus blues bar funk that fit perfectly in the early morning hours and provided a break from the constant thumping of the subwoofers at the other stages. You dont need pretty lights and a laptop at three am; no, a wailing rock band and a stripped down stage were all it took to get the festival to sunrise.
Tea Leaf Green
After the late night jam, TLG got in one more round in the early afternoon, this time on the main stage. The set was tailored to the unusually hot start of the day. More upstrokes and surf inspired, it was a brighter, and easier going set that still let Mathis show off even more. This time, Josh Clark stepped out the guitar more for a not so bass heavy, cooler jaunt. The set qued in the cool breezes with their floating harmonies making it the best way to wake up.
For a band that was once threatened by the dreaded one hit wonder tag, John Popper and company have completely reinvented themselves. Stepping out, their set was ready made for the festival scene. They leaned heavy on the songs that let Popper rip into his harmonica, or Ben Wilson the keys with equal expertise. Radioheads Creep was a bit of a surprise, the blues revision kept desperate enough to stay in touch with the original. Its safe to say that a harmonica can make any song better. Two of Spoonfed Tribes percussionists stepped in on the congas for Traveler biggest songs. The jams were impressive with that endless harmonica that gave them their name. With a set like this, they fit right in with the rest of the festival regulars, providing an impressive second life for the band.
The Black Keys
With the sun at its hottest, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney took to the main stage. A Keys live show is much heavier than the records, sporting gritter guitar work with bigger distortion. The band has created their own rock show for the big stage, revamping older favorites like Stack Shot Billy and Remember When with sonic steel slide break downs and blow out finishes. For the new material, theyve enlisted help from two other musicians to help with the odds and ends found on their most recent record, Brothers. You can tell that theyre still getting used to the bigger band, the chemistry being worked on, just as is the new material. Back to back they played from the latest, with Next Girl bringing the show to its peak, Auerbach yelling out on the chorus. The band seems to be finding the right place for the new songs in their set (e.g. Auerbach taking a moment to figure out his falsetto on Everlasting Light, but turning Howlin For You into an instant live classic), though without a doubt, this band is made for bigger stages.
Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa
Of all the legacies to be kept in tact, Frank Zappas son, Dweezil, has been keeping his dads freaky rock traditions alive and well. Note for note Zappa jumped right in to a set filled with old rarities and favorites, calling on classic albums like the infamous Live at the Fillmore, you know, the white one? he reminisced. The people new it well, and took in another dose of nostalgia. Zappas guitar was spot on and clean, his job only to tell a story of what was, making you wish the real thing was still around. Its the ultimate in tribute bands touting family in a son with just as much natural talent. That alone makes this as close to the real thing as you can get.
Three hours is a long time to spend with any band, but some have enough power and presence to leave an audience begging for more. With hundreds of songs to pull from, it seemed like every last person was standing in that field with a density that reached as far back as it could. It was a marathon set of ripping southern guitars that never seemed to quit, the energy only building until the final moments. As is becoming tradition, impromptu fireworks were set off in celebration of the culmination of a weekend. Every note and word clung to as the southern rock tearing up the stage seemed exhaustingly endless. It was a magical thing to experience, a kind of harmony in song unifying everyone in that moment. Panic proved again why theyre at the top of the jam game, and why theyre the perfect way to headline a festival like this, or any festival for that matter.
After a quick set shuffle due to the loss of the Dirty Guvnors, Zoomga brought one more take on the newly sprouted live-tronica scene. As goes with these bands, live drums and bass make up the backbone with a network of synths over top. Guitars end up taking over bringing the songs through to their climax. Zoomga added more rock intensity, though, throwing in a sample of Eleanor Rigby that worked its way into the set and off the computer. This is the future of improvised music, and as such there are plenty of bands fighting for their place. Zoomga is another one of them, loaded with strong musicians, but still fighting to stand out amongst the pack.
That 1 Guy
More of an engineer than a musician, Mike Silverman has built a sizable loyal following as his second set for the weekend filled up the tiny space in front of the Backwoods Stage. His live style over the years has been honed and perfected, creating a odd blend of kraut-funk that can rock like metal, and groove like Les Claypool. Hes mastered the single man show turning his weird genius into something anyone can dance to. As musician you have to see to believe theres a clear novelty about it all, but you cant deny his originality.
This band has the college festival crowd on lock. Reggae under tones, up-stroked guitars and a penchant for lefty politics make them all too agreeable, and lets be honest, harmless. That aside when it came to the live aspect, theres no doubt that they can put on a show. There were plenty of sing along moments to fill the hour and a half, moving from bouncy reggae rock to ska like alternative. They were cheered back on for an encore, and threw out one last blast of rock with punk speed, stretching the vocals into a ripe yell before thanking the audience one more time. There was a lot of love for the band, and as their only U.S. festival appearance, the set was a real treat for the fans.
John Butler Trio
With a packed tent for one more set, John Butler came out to a deafening roar. The show kicked off with his more popular material hit early on, Used to Get High setting the pace. Once underway, he gave the real Butler show, just him and his guitar blowing minds with what was coming out of the speakers. One-man heavy rock tracks took over the middle of the set, furiously plucking and strumming, adding distortion and slides as the pace got quicker. Later while back with the trio he took that same prowess and put it into what ever he picked up, be it banjo or a lap slide. From alt rock to bluegrass and everywhere in between, Butler proved once again that hes a master of anything with strings and a fret board. The set provided a vast improvement from last years closing day, with more fireworks being set off in the campsites for one last moment of celebration. With Butler at the helm, another year of Wakarusa went into the history books.
Photography courtesy of Priscilla Raba