This article originally appeared on JamBase.com.
Shoes: soaked and muddy.
Body: dull ache.
Another Wakarusa is officially in the bag. A few unexpected twists and turns made the experience unforgettable, from sword swallowing and impromptu mud wrestling to superb musicianship and the emotional roller coaster of learning your favorite band may not perform. And with that, “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s get this show on the road!”
Thursday – Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Welcome to tornado alley.
Wakarusa 2008 by Andrew Wyatt
Early in the morning, the skies were shrouded in drab gray. Like surfing a fickle wave, most concertgoers are fine with a little cloud cover, but prefer to stay dry. The headline of the Lawrence Journal-World was far from reassuring: “Expect Severe Weather Today,” followed by the admission from the County Sherriff’s office that the state park is “not equipped to handle” or shelter the 13,000+ Wakarusians in the event of a tornado. The National Weather Service warned of a potential “tornado outbreak” in the Plains tonight, as local meteorologists hyped a possible second coming of a legendary 1974 storm that produced 39 tornadoes and killed 22. So with a critical eye to the sky, it was time for some music.
HipHopotamus won our attention, as we assumed the name referenced the HBO comedy, Flight of the Conchords. While the ears may have been hungry for music, the band delivered a nice, satisfying performance. The five-piece group offered rapid-fire vocals over tight funk, with words that flowed over the music similar to Anthony Kiedis or Matisyahu. “Get Up and Groove” featured nice solos from both the guitarist and DJ, and at times it seemed they were more rock than hip-hop. A few songs later, and the guitarist was pounding the keys while the DJ spit on the mic center stage. “Hip Hop Is Lost” came late in the set, and typified the heart-on-the-sleeve appeal of the Tulsa quintet. HipHopotamus proved to be a solid party band, and one worth keeping tabs on.
I dipped out to catch the very end of Fatty Lumpkin in a tent about 50 yards away. My earlier opinion of the band wasn’t too favorable, as they sounded like a generic jam band with quick drums. While only catching the final five-minutes or so, the band had a trance-happy gallop that was enough to turn a couple dozen concertgoers into bobbleheads. After finishing the set, the band handed out free discs to anyone that stuck around.
Wakarusa 2008 by Andrew Wyatt
Up next, the South Austin Jug Band. So, where the hell’s the jug? A few minutes into the set, all was forgiven. “Ghost” offered a nice romp and demonstrated the exceptional fluidity of the band. Their Americana roots run deep, and they exude an authentic quality. In another time and place, they could have been the house band on the Andy Griffith Show. The set demonstrated that the band has some chops but really excel at songwriting. “Jack Ass” was a Beck cover off their latest release, Strange Invitation, and has shades of the Stones’ “Under my Thumb” in the introduction. The band then prepared the audience for “one of our favorite bar tricks – the double fiddle” on a top-notch rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” After slowing the pace, the band kicked it into high gear down the home stretch, providing a fiery finish to an exceptional set.
Apollo Sunshine was slated to hit the stage at 4:30, and wound up being the first of many bands to use their first 15-minutes as a soundcheck. After tweaking instruments and shrieking into microphones before an antsy crowd, the band finally started up. No more than 30 seconds in they had guitar issues. After letting out an unenthusiastic “woo,” they announced, “Personal foul on our guitar player – that’s a $20 fine.” Jeremy Black was aggressive behind the drum kit, providing a great crackle and snap to the reverb-riddled rock. Up-beat in a strange way, the trio had the crowd behind it with “Today Is The Day,” which gave Black an opportunity to solo. With 15-minutes left in the set, the bass amp blew up, providing reason to abandon Apollo’s ethereal rock in favor of Papa Mali.
“We’ve got some sunny music for y’all right now,” Papa Mali announced, as they dipped into a swampy tune that resembled a wah-heavy CCR. As always, the band was tight and in control, and Papa Mali demonstrated restraint, picking his moments well.
Up next was a bit of a hike to catch Deadman Flats on the Prairie Stage near the main campgrounds. The local bluegrass band describes themselves as wanting to bring “guns, whiskey, and bluegrass” back into mainstream music. A perfectly on-point cover of Split Lip Rayfield’s “Outlaw” was a highlight, and the band quickly gave props to SLR after the song, acknowledging other Kansas bands appearing at the festival. They provided intense playing, a jovial attitude, and scratched the surface of a pretty interesting musical terrain.
Some of the best bands were still to come: Bettye LaVette, Steel Train, Buckethead, Cosmopolitics, Lotus and the Everyone Orchestra.
On the way into Bettye LaVette, one concertgoer walking the other direction commented, “This is lame.” After mentally chastising the ingrate, we quickly discovered the source of his frustration, a staffer announcing, “Sorry, guys. No music because of the weather.” We were handed a sheet of severe weather instructions, and turned away at the gate. A line of thunderstorms had been working eastward throughout the day, with winds in excess of 60 mph, triggering a region-wide tornado watch. Aside from rumbling thunder and a steady rain, the storm was mostly bark with very little bite. The stages remained silent as concertgoers retreated to shelter for the evening, riding out the storm until daybreak.
Friday – Hip-Hop, Teletubbies and a Slice of Cake
After hearing Trombone Shorty in the distance on Thursday, they went from being a question mark to a stone cold lock on our schedule. Up close and personal, the New Orleans band did not disappoint. The first thing you notice is the airtight musicianship. The horns were funky, firing in perfect unison, and in their best moments were reminiscent of the JB’s in their heyday (seriously). Former child prodigy Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (now 22) leads the five-piece band, and has guys like Wynton Marsalis in his corner, saying he “possesses the rarest combination of talent, technical capability and down home soul.” It’s a high-energy show, punctuated by a crisp backbeat. The band builds songs organically, rotating solos, giving James Martin a chance to jump out on tenor sax or Shorty to rage on trombone. Pete Murano (guitar) was the most unassuming member of the band at first, but built an unbelievable goosebump-inducing solo over the span of a couple minutes that had Shorty standing to the side in slack-jawed awe.
After getting the crowd loose with their own material, the band reached into the archives. P-Funk’s “We Want the Funk” came out first, the crowd assisting with an enthused, “Bow-wow-wow-yippee-yo-yippee-yay!” As the song slithered to a crawl, Shorty turned to his bandmates, and mouthed “Marvin,” which led to the unmistakable introduction of “Let’s Get It On.” Shorty shined here, holding one note for over a minute as the rest of the group circled around. The subtle guitar work provided a discrete platform as the song gained intensity, adding a tambourine and later clapping. The crowd worked into a frenzy, there was no way they could top that. Then, they struck the opening chords of “Back In Black.” Murano delivered some downright nasty guitar work, but the band wound up cutting the song short, asking, “Can we do something special?” After obtaining audience approval, the band kept the beat going while rotating instruments, a feat that was remarkable and likely inaudible on any recordings. The band closed by paying homage to their roots with the funky swing shuffle of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Shorty led the brass offstage in a procession through the crowd, while the guitar, bass, drums and percussion held down the fort onstage. Absolutely killer show.
For a quick change of pace, we bolted over to see Mates of State. Though we only stayed for half a dozen songs, it was clear the band had some well-crafted, delicate compositions. Kori Gardner’s vocals are capable of turning a good song into a great song, and the band excelled at juxtaposing the loud/soft dynamic pioneered by The Pixies.
By mid-afternoon, the weather was surprisingly pleasant, sunny and around 80 degrees. We’d expected to see Paw finish at the Revival Tent, but instead found an MC riding a skateboard around the stage, serenading “party people” with an assured delivery and sparse beats. He handed the mic off to Del Tha Funky Homosapien like a baton in a relay race, creating a seamless transition for Del and A+. “Virus” from 3030 opened things early, and the duo dug into some vintage Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief tracks as well as cuts from the latest release, 11th Hour. Commenting on the weather the previous night, they announced, “We’re used to earthquakes, not tornadoes! But we’re feelin’ the energy here, so we’re gonna give it back.” Before too long, they slid into a nicely chosen cover of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Awards Tour.” It was a non-stop affair, with a great back and forth between Del and A+.
While the stage was being set for Blackalicious, we scurried over to the press tent to talk with The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne. He was seated in a metal folding chair with a small group of reporters and photographers forming a semicircle around him. Coyne mentioned that he felt national politics were important, but stressed the importance of acting locally: “As long as you take care of the few blocks around where you live, you can have a greater impact.” He insisted politics “should remain separate,” and that summer festivals should be a diversion instead of a soapbox. When asked about the importance of his band to other people, he responded by noting that on occasion people attend a Lips show with “a tragedy of some sort in their life. They get here and every once in a while we can change people’s attitudes, if only for a few hours.” He added, “It’s the greatest thing an artist can do. I’m just doing what I enjoy, and if that can transfer to other people, it’s just the greatest.”
Built to Spill was warming up on a nearby stage, which put an end to the interview session. With rhythmic power chord strumming and veiled vocals, the band provided a nice afternoon set for those scattered across the lawn in front of the Sundown Stage. Aside from the guitarist botching the intro on a song early in the set, the band seemed relatively on-point, burrowing fairly deep inside basic grooves.
Blackalicious set up shop back at the Revival Tent. Chief Xcel started scratching while Gift of Gab waited in the shadows. They opened with the beat from “Pen and Pad,” opting for entirely different lyrics. “Blazing Arrow” and “Rhythm Sticks” were other set highlights, with “World of Vibrations” from The Craft batting cleanup. It was a good show, but Del and A+ were a pretty tough act to follow.
On the walk from Blackalicious to Buckethead, a couple dozen people had gathered around another stage to watch budding guitarists shred some cover songs on Guitar Hero. Meanwhile, a DJ opposite the main stage kept the hip-hop theme flowing with a “Gin ‘n Juice” > “Bonita Applebaum” combo while Buckethead’s crew was assembling the stage. Buckethead puts on a similar show each time, but it rarely grows old. The lanky guitar hero leapt into some fierce rockers to open the show, and simulated animatronic pivoting in his black Converse high-tops. He was flanked by white (Greek or Roman) bust sculptures, which made for three unchanging facial expressions center stage.
Although I felt bad about missing the majority of Buckethead’s set, it was for a good cause. The stage manager bellowed, “From Atlanta, Georgia, brothers and sisters, get ready for a reunited Arrested Development!” Band members Aisha and Tasha sprung out, dancing wildly and freely as the other band members took their places before opening appropriately with “I Believe In Miracles,” a track of their recent album, Since the Last Time. After asking, “Y’all ready to go to church with me?” the band jumped into “Fishin’ 4 Religion.” A superb rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” followed, and warmed up the crowd.
Arrested Development teased the next song with “Take me ho-me” repeated several times. The song naturally progressed into a full-blown “Tennessee” as the overflowing Revival Tent was officially bumpin’. The band used the “Take me home” part of the song as an extended bridge, and Tasha nailed a high note that worked the crowd to a fever pitch. A sunny day number, “Stand For” was followed by an equally pleasing “Sunshine,” and AD vocalist Speech addressed the audience, “You’ve got 17 years of revolutionary, positive hip-hop music on stage right here!” The band’s signature song, “Mr. Wendal” followed, and later Speech introduced bassist Za to “share his gift.” Za delivered a rapid-fire bass solo a la Vic Wooten that morphed into “Billie Jean,” with the crowd supplying the chorus. A highlight among highlights though, was AD’s spin on “Redemption Song.” Speech began with affected vocals, his beautiful, fragile quiver approximating Bob Marley. The band owned the song, which gathered steam as Speech boosted his voice a few octaves to come closer to the I-Threes, finishing with a strong, vibrant chorus.
Cake was slated to hit the main stage next, but a delayed flight spoiled those plans. Galactic took one for the team, and traded time slots. While the crew was setting up the stage to the sounds of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” on the PA, Speech and Aisha from Arrested Development paid a visit to the press tent.
There were fewer media types around this time, which allowed for very casual interviews. Speech commented it was Aisha’s idea to reunite, and she made the necessary phone calls. Aisha responded by noting that she was only 13 when the band emerged in the early ’90s, but “we didn’t finish saying what we wanted to say as a group.”
We talked about Since The Last Time for a bit, and Speech attributed the easy-going nature of the album to their relaxed state when it was recorded. “We would hang out and play basketball between takes, and so everything about it just felt really comfortable,” he said. Discussing their performance, the two felt most people in the audience did not know them, and so the reunion also served as an initiation for many in attendance. The show didn’t feel like a nostalgia act in the least, and the band has their eyes set on the future. Speech said, “We’re back, and we’re not gonna stop again.”
Papa Mali was on the main stage, introducing, “The sole international representatives of a new generation of New Orleans’ excellence: Rich, Ben, Stanton, Robert and Jeff. You know ’em and you love ’em! Galactic, y’all!” After a few opening numbers, the band brought out Lateef the Truthspeaker as they indulged in a few tracks off From the Corner to the Block. Lateef knew the magic words to excite the crowd, “Make some noise like the Jayhawks just won it all!” The band covered Balkan Beat Box, which had some nicely defined grooves, and closed with a few recognizable tunes, including “Baker’s Dozen,” which was aided in no small part by Rich Vogel’s work on keys. Galactic put on a good show, but it did not compare favorably to some of their other over-the-top performances in recent years.
The Flaming Lips were next. The stagehands donned bright orange coveralls with matching hard hats, as they assembled a dizzying array of props. Wayne Coyne acted as stage director, examining the preparations thoughtfully, a hand resting on his chin, nodding his approval. After laboring for a good 20-minutes or so, the show kicked off with an introduction fit for the cinema. Teletubbies surrounded Coyne as he entered the giant hamster ball, which rolled out into the crowd, timed with confetti cannons shooting orange and yellow scraps of paper into the air. Even though many had seen the act before, it remains visually appealing and is a good start to an interactive concert experience.
“Race for the Prize” was the opener, after which Coyne addressed the crowd, saying that some festivals last and others don’t, “but this is one of the great spots in the country. Our drummer is from Lawrence, so we feel it’s as much our home as it is his home. Let’s keep these festivals going. We’ll keep coming back here as long as you guys will have us. I swear to God!” Next up was the big cover for the show. The band shelved “Bohemian Rhapsody” in favor of getting the Led out. Coyne commented that he always visualized the song as having people running around naked, “So, here’s your chance.” The video screen behind the band played snippets of Robert Plant as the band launched into “The Song Remains The Same.” Somewhat surprisingly, the band nailed it with crisp drum breaks and spot-on guitar work. In the middle of the song, the crowd erupted as half a dozen completely naked college coeds danced around the stage, eventually circling around Coyne at the finish. That’s enough to frazzle anybody, and, in retrospect, it seemed to be the finish to an unbelievably good “Act One.”
“Fight Test” was another nice treat, while “Vein of Stars” was aided by fireworks from the crowd. After the song, Coyne commented, “Whoever was setting off fireworks, thank you! That was fuckin’ genius!” A stripped-down “Yoshimi” was more heartfelt than successful, and despite his stated preference to keep politics and music separate, Coyne talked more and more about the November elections between songs as the show progressed. The “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” was stopped after a minute, as the crowd was given response instructions. When the song started back up, it sounded as though the bass was blown. They finished the set with “She Don’t Use Jelly.” The performance was one of the most visually appealing of the weekend, but after a promising musical start, the musicianship descended into a muddy sea of sound, and the flow was disrupted with excessive banter between and even during songs.
Cake – Wakarusa by A. Wyatt
The late night/early morning shows began with Cake taking Galactic’s slot at midnight. After 15-minutes of setting things up, they kicked things off with “Ruby Sees All” from Motorcade of Generosity. The band offered some predictably off-beat humor. Opening with a non sequitur, John McCrea said, “Speaking of war, how about a song about driving an automobile?” as the band slid into “Stick Shifts and Safety Belts” from Fashion Nugget. In offering an explanation a bit later, McCrea said, “Hey, we just stumbled in here on drugs. We don’t know where we are or who we’re talkin’ to.” Before too long, the band found themselves in the middle of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” A highlight near the middle of the set was “Jolene.” Though we had other shows to cover, those who stuck around for the remainder of the set had thoroughly positive reviews.
Next, we were sucked into the sonic vortex that is Ozric Tentacles. Their intense space rock simulated an aural assault, with keyboardist Brandi Wynne going nuts on the keys. Guitarist Ed Wynne and bassist Vinny Shillito mixed in effects on occasion before Merv Pepler chimed in on percussion. After about 30-minutes, the band blew out the right speaker, which provided an excuse to check out Oakhurst next door.
Oakhurst was a pleasant surprise. The Denver band had some nice vocal harmonies that complemented the textured bluegrass well. The band can do some serious pickin’, giving the show a good bit of momentum. As with any bluegrass band worth their salt, Oakhurst proved to have a number of damn fine songs in their repertoire, including “Soon As The Sun Goes,” off their recent album, Jump In The Get Down. Drummer Chris Budin drove the song with exceptional timing, creating a real foot-stomper in the late night tent. When the tune ended, the band raised a glass to the audience, “Cheers!”
Around 2 a.m., Madahoochi picked up where Oakhurst left off. The St. Louis band was reminiscent of the North Mississippi Allstars in many ways, with a kind of “gospel march rock” without the gospel. Shawn Hartung’s soothing vocals were compelling, and they proved their worth as a solid regional act.
EOTO was up on stage around 2:30 a.m. or so, and the percussion-heavy duo offered an assortment of bells and whistles for the late night crowd. Throughout the set, they made minor adjustments to the rhythms and riffs, which kept things interesting. By doing so, they retained an authentic, in-the-moment feel. With the bass pounding in front, the duo turned the tent into a dance hall.
Coinciding with EOTO was the Everyone Orchestra back at the Revival Tent. They created a virtual clown car on stage, with between one and two dozen people assembled, with a single ringleader acting as conductor or traffic cop, instructing different sections on how to proceed. Papa Mali was probably the strongest in the band, and the set remained relaxed and pleasurable throughout. EO has a worn-in, down-home appeal strung around loose jams that provided a subdued finish to a long day.
On the dark walk back to the campsite near 4 a.m., the weather was accommodating with temperatures clinging to the 70s, only a whisper of a breeze and the chorus of crickets piercing the silence.
Saturday – Pinball Wizard
We continued pinballing from one show to the next, opting for bite-sized portions of several bands rather than full servings of only a select few.Chicago Afrobeat Project kicked off at high noon. I’d seen Antibalas a few times, and CAP has a more relaxed, tropical feel. The band offered a new song “written for Wakarusa,” as well as “Cloister” from their most recent album. Each member of the group bends their way into the jam until they find a common synergy. If the band was missing anything – which may be a stretch – it could be that no single member is willing to take the reins and incite the crowd a bit more.
On the walk to the main stage, orange and yellow confetti from the previous night’s Lips show still fluttered through the air on 30 mph winds. A string of Allman Brothers tunes provided the soundtrack for the stage crew, as State Radio was primed. The band came out with a reggae-rock vibe, serving as indie’s answer to Sublime. After a few tunes, they commented, “We learned all that fancy guitar stuff from Pete Francis,” who had just finished performing. The band issued basic, straight-ahead, amiable rockers, and the highlight of the set was “Revolutionaries,” a rare treat for the few die-hards in attendance.
The Gourds brought their neo-country act to the Revival Tent, doling out yodels and twang-y lyrics against a sturdy backbeat. The honky-tonk stomp of the show brought together the best elements of modern country, and by the time the band unleashed “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” it was an all-out hootenanny.
Across the way was Panjea. The band established a light, Afrobeat-inspired rhythm, with Danny Sears putting in some quality time behind the trumpet. After a spirited “911/Emergency,” “Proud Line” featured some of the finest interplay between the band members. Panjea was the Swiss Army knife of the festival, in that they can knock a set out in a variety of different ways. Very impressive.
Brett Dennen was up next on the main stage. Barefoot and bandana-clad, he began with a song that was basically a surf-rock version of Clapton’s “Running On Faith.” At times dabbling with a little Eastern percussion, Dennen provided a nice afternoon refresher set, suitable for dozing off in a backyard hammock. This “pastel rock” was breezy enough to make Keller Williams seem like a stressed-out thug. It’s clear he has some talent but at the same time, you almost come away wishing he had broken a sweat.
Back over at the Revival Tent, Alejandro Escovedo. With a tight black shirt and jeans that seemed painted on, Escovedo started off loud ‘n’ proud. Not knowing a thing about the band aside from effusive recommendations, I was pretty much knocked out. He’d let massive strums of the electric guitar hang in the air while his band pounded out the rhythm. Escovedo tossed out “Real As An Animal” from his similarly-titled Real Animal album due out June 24. He then paid homage to past punk rockers including the New York Dolls, dedicating “Sister Lost Soul” to their memory, which featured touching vocal harmonies. The thing that separates Escovedo from the pack is how he offers graceful hard rock, which is generally a more rewarding listening experience than the majority of single-speed rock bands.
At the main stage, Ozomatli entered like heavyweight champs, aided by audio clips from Rocky and Michael Buffer bellowing, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” The L.A. ensemble opened with “Dos Cosas Ciertas,” which set the tone for a high-octane set. With “City of Angels,” Tre Hardson (formerly of The Pharcyde), hopped the fence and mingled with the crowd at close range. In comparing this performance to those of previous years, it seems the band has made more judicious use of the horns section.
During Ozomatli’s set, an unfortunate incident occurred on the lawn as a concertgoer was taken into custody by park police for smoking marijuana. The arrest was low-key and handcuff-free, only noticed by a small number of people. I spoke with one Wakarusa security guard, who witnessed what happened: It seems this was a relatively isolated incident, with police handing out minimal tickets and arrests over the four days. “And so it goes.” Whether knowingly or not, Ozomatli played “Magnolia’s Soul,” featuring the lyrics, “Let the good times roll/ Let the bad times go.” Turning our backs on the incident, we headed over to Porter-Batiste-Stoltz.
“PBS is in the building!” greeted the crowd, and formed the chorus for the opening number. After a call to “get funky,” the band slowed things down and turned the bass up. With “All We Want to Do (Is Get Funky With You, Tonight),” Porter and Stoltz had a bass/guitar standoff, eyeballing each other ten feet apart, exploring the depths of the song. Stoltz carried the burden on “I Get High (Every Time I Think About You),” with a climbing solo, proving his flexibility in playing in the pocket as well as venturing out. For some reason, for the majority of the show, the band members gave instructions to stagehands and sound engineers, though no one in the crowd seemed to care. The band was all smiles, firing on all cylinders, and rewarded attendees with a funky interpretation of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Leftover Salmon set up shop on the main stage, and took note of the Revival Tent on the horizon, “Looks like DIA Airport over there” (anyone that’s been to Denver and Waka can attest to this). After blazing through “Down in the Hollow,” Vince Herman summed it up perfectly: “That felt good, yessir!” It had been a couple years since I’d seen the band, and they turned in a set for the ages, knocking back full-bodied bluegrass numbers from the Left Hand String Band, and turning in stellar versions of both “Steamboat Whistle Blues” and “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”
Over at DIA Airport (Revival Tent), the Old 57’s were gearing up. At least that’s what the pre-show hype guy screamed out. The bewildered look on his face upon hearing the audience’s resounding disapproval was a real knee-slapper. Upon realizing his mistake, he reintroduced the Old 97’s, earning a better response. Frontman Rhett Miller introduced the group, “We’re from Dallas, and we just started our band a few days ago.” In a way, it lessened the guilt anyone had for not knowing the band. For some reason, this band has stuck around for the better part of two decades without reaching the levels of success predicted by critics. In a way, they are today’s Little Feat – a great live act, well respected by many but unknown to most. Unfortunately, the sound mix was wretched during the show, with Miller’s vocals nearly indecipherable. They played well, they played hard, but it’s tough to become immersed in a show that is marred by technical difficulties, especially with so many other acts to see.
Hot Buttered Rum was one of many San Francisco bands making it to Waka this year, and they succeeded in putting on a tremendous show. Notably, they were one of the few bands that seemed to have a fully functional light show, which greatly enhanced the experience. “It’s nice to be in a place where there ain’t no city lights,” they offered before a song that featured an acoustic guitar jam that bled into a violin solo. They paid tribute to “so many great San Francisco bands,” including ALO and New Monsoon. “But right now we’re going to pay tribute to another San Francisco band,” as they led into a crowd-pleasing “Sugaree.”
The Tomahawk Chop chant, familiar to many football fans, inexplicably was in full force before the Ben Folds set. The slow clap that gained steam was next. With these measures failing to bring out the band, the crowd went back to the Tomahawk Chop chant as stagehands made last-minute adjustments on the piano. At long last, the band came out, and Folds didn’t bother sitting down, choosing to stand above the piano and slam into the keys. Early on, he requested and quickly received a boost in the vocal levels that was lacking at the Old 97’s show. “You To Thank” from Songs For Silverman was an early highlight, after which Folds declared, “I’m not one for giving away secrets of the trade, but…,” and then proceeded to give instructions on how to make a homemade shaker (two boxes of Altoids and a cookie tin lid, with a distortion pedal if you have it).
Meanwhile, Sound Tribe Sector 9 was busy unleashing the fury on the main stage. I’ll admit, I was lukewarm at best coming into the show. What I heard changed my mind. STS9 was relaxed, confident and unhurried, producing big-ass riffs peppered with precise notes. The thump of the bass could be heard from the vendor area, about 250 yards away, and the setlist was expansive in nature, setting the scene perfectly for late-nighters to dance up close or watch from a distance. The set featured older hits like “Hubble” mixed with newer tracks. Later in the set, “F. Word” and “Baraka” proved to be a nice 1-2 combination. Overall, it was a spectacular, fluid set that rivaled any other during the day.
Sunday – Dreadful Wind And Rain
On the way into the Revival Tent, we passed by a Fat Tire representative manning the bike station, a fenced-in area about 50 feet in diameter with a couple dozen absurdly-styled bikes to ride. He proved to be quite the entertainer, with dress socks pulled knee high, acting as a carnival barker to entice new riders: “The only thing better than watching is doing it yourself!”
Meanwhile, a carnival of a different sort was gearing up: Yard Dogs Road Show. A banner affixed to a supporting beam at the back of the stage read, “Black & Blue Burlesque.” The band appeared one-by-one, entering through a red velvet curtain, as ringleader Eddie Joe Cotton told the crowd, “We want you to enjoy yourself to the fullest extent of the law,” before the trumpets started blaring. What happened over the next hour is tough to say. It was as much performance art as it was music, with each bandmember selling their character effectively. It was a bizarre combination of burlesque, vaudeville and carnival acts, like something out of a Les Claypool dream. A trio of comely lasses rocked different bikinis throughout the performance, which also featured tap-dancing, accordion jams, melodic gargling and sword swallowing. In one of the final acts of the show, Tobias the Mystic Man appeared to swallow a balloon, only to pull out a full length of rope… and a chicken! Didn’t see that one coming. Well played, Yard Dogs, well played.
An unexpected announcement dampened spirits at Waka a bit. Emmylou Harris would not be performing due to illness. The tall tales grew as the daylight waned, and within hours, reports of her “throwing up for three days straight” emerged.
Tea Leaf Green were the next band to change my mind. After seeing them for about 15-minutes at Wakarusa a few years ago, I had written them off. So, I can’t honestly claim to know any of their songs, but I can honestly claim to be impressed. They had a remarkably cohesive sound, and there were several reports from attendees that Saturday’s show was even better, with photographer Andrew Wyatt commenting, “That’s as close to grunge as I’ve heard a jam band get – very hard-hitting.” There are few mistakes more enjoyable than completely underestimating a band, and TLG’s set was enough to convince me that I have some catching up to do.
After sticking around TLG for a bit, we ran off to see if the buzz around 4th of July was merited. It was. Though we only caught the last 15-minutes of the set, it was clear that something special was happening. They had kind of an indie-Townes Van Zandt feel; whatever it was, each composed section of their songs seemed utterly convincing. This is a young, up-and-coming band that should remain on the radar.
Keller Williams and The Transmitters were due on the main stage, and the opening few minutes sounded like an alternate take of the beginning to “Harry Hood.” After seeing Keller on a few different occasions, it was nice to see him with a full band, producing funked-out island dub. “I’m A Ninja” provided an early example of Williams’ vocal dexterity, after which he inquired, “Anyone fly to the festival? This is for you,” as he led the band into “Doobie In My Pocket.”
We forfeited the next couple songs to catch That 1 Guy. He’s generated quite a stir with his homemade instrument that resembles an oversized harp, which is essentially a series of pipes and strings with triggers attached to effects processors. “Weasel Pot Pie” was one of the more impressive songs as he devolved a freestyle, rhyming “home” with “trombone” and “saxomophone” with a little help from the crowd. Visually dazzling, the Guy just makes some cool sounding racket with each movement of his limbs, a slightly hipper version of Dick Van Dyke’s musical chimney sweep character in Mary Poppins.
As entertaining as That 1 Guy was, we had the David Grisman Quintet waiting at the Revival Tent. Upon arrival, we heard, “The show has been postponed – maybe 15 or 20-minutes – just until this storm passes through.” A glance at the skyline revealed the clouds to the Northwest were dipping lower and growing darker. Faintly in the distance, we heard the final notes of Keller’s “Best Feeling.”
This is when things got confusing. Emmylou Harris’ cancellation caused about half a dozen different time changes for other bands, including Grisman, The Avett Brothers and Split Lip Rayfield. Now, caught between a rain delay and a strict 11 p.m. curfew, it was clear that some acts would either be cancelled or shortened. The problem is that there was no method of disseminating information to concertgoers – heck, even some strategically placed whiteboards would’ve done the trick. As a result of uncertainty and the severity of the storm, there was a steady stream of vehicles exiting the festival grounds shortly after 5 p.m.
The 15-minute delay doubled, then doubled again. And again. The rain was coming down in sheets, with a brief spatter of light hail tossed in for good measure. Nearly everyone was scrambling for shelter, and with each roll of thunder, the crowd in the Revival Tent responded with equally loud cheers. Chants of “Wa-ka” accomplished little. Backstage, security guards expressed doubt there would be any more acts, saying, “Nobody’s going to want to touch anything electrical with standing water during a lightning storm.”
The seconds ticked away like water torture. After about 90-minutes, Lawrence’s own White Owl (who hung out with Jerry back in the ’60s) and a dreadlocked concertgoer provided a spectacle as they wandered into the rain, offering their faces and palms to the sky and kneeled down reverentially in prayer. About 20-minutes after they finished – not claiming there’s any link here – the storm clouds scattered, and the commotion of a dozen stagehands swinging into action brought a fresh round of cheers.
Though the rain dissipated, the lightning lingered, forcing the main stage to shut down, as it lacked basic overhead protection from the elements. About the time DGQ was set to hit the stage, word was circulating that the Mickey Hart Band (with Porter and Kimock) and Zappa Plays Zappa would not be performing. Ouch.
Adding insult to injury, we came to learn there’d been an unannounced impromptu acoustic jam involving the members of Leftover Salmon and more than a dozen other musicians in the small tent known as the “Porch Stage.” The general consensus from those in attendance? F-in awesome.
I would have bet anything that Grisman would open with “Dreadful Wind and Rain.” I mean, c’mon, a two-hour rain delay? The Quintet wound up opting for an opener that allowed each member to introduce himself with a solo. “Thanks for waiting,” said Grisman, as they slid into “Bluegrass at the Beach.” The smoke machines onstage kicked on, which produced a nice effect coupled with the recent rainfall, and Matt Eakle won the crowd over with some spirited fluting. After a couple selections from Grateful Dawg, the band finished the truncated, 45-minute set with “Shady Grove.”
In the middle of setting up for The Avett Brothers, some of the crew stopped and stared. They called other co-workers over with a smile. Just outside the Revival Tent, several girls were mud wrestling. Before long, a group of close to 100 formed a ring around the action, and photographers unsheathed their cameras from protective covers to document the occasion. At the very least, it provided a nice distraction.
“Shame” brought cheers early in The Avett Brothers’ set, and the band flew through songs nearly as quickly as they blew out guitar strings. “This one is for those who survived the storms, wind and rain,” they announced before offering “Paranoia in B Flat Major.” Seth Avett encountered serious issues with his guitar, ultimately peeling it off and sliding it aside while his bandmates picked up the slack. “Left On Laura, Left On Lisa” provided a late treat as the band finished their half-set. Some purists may contend that The Avett Brothers offer more pounding than picking, but that is one of the things that makes them interesting. They are about as close to punk as bluegrass gets.
Once again, Split Lip Rayfield closed the festivities at Wakarusa. The crowd was juiced, and the strong, slow cadence of “Ro-ck Cha-lk, Jaaaaaay-hawk, K-U” brought some confused looks from out-of-staters. As with other shows during the weekend, Split Lip had sound issues. While technicians tinkered for the better part of half an hour, the trio chain-smoked while fiddling around on instruments. The adjustments were becoming comical, and Wayne Gottstein (mandolin), picked on one of the sound engineers, “How do ya like Jimmy’s little yellow overalls?”
At 10 p.m., the band kicked things off with the complimentary “(She’s Lookin’ Good As A) Hundred Dollar Bill” from Should Have Seen It Coming. The band caught their breath, announcing, “We’re Split Lip Rayfield. From here! You guys are the Wakarusa soldiers! Everyone else went home already!”
“Livin’ on Easy Street” contained some of the better harmonies in the set, and was accented by a concertgoer setting off fireworks outside the tent. “Never Make It Home” was a great selection, not only for the kazoo, but for the recurring “muddy water” lyrics. “This is a song about Lawrence,” prefaced “Redneck Tailgate Dream,” and Gottstine stepped out front for a blistering solo. After slowing things down, they addressed the crowd on a more somber note, commenting that it was their first Wakarusa without Kirk Rundstrom. “Let’s make some noise for Kirk!” they encouraged, holding up their drinks in a toast. The hastened pace of “River” came late in the hour, as a light drizzle began to fall. Soon, rainwater was pouring down the flaps of the Revival Tent, pooling inside. After Eric Mardis threw down a tasty solo, Gottstein introduced him to the crowd: “That’s Eric BanJovi Mardis on banjo.” He paused, grinning, “Sorry.” The lightning formed spider veins across the sky, as the 11 p.m. curfew drew near. The final song of the one-hour set and the final song of the festival? “Kiss of Death.”
Wakarusa 2008 will go down as one of the more memorable festivals in recent years, not necessarily because of the variety or quality of music, but because of unforeseen problems with weather and – let’s face it – the cancellations. Two out of the four days were cut short due to inclement weather. Chances are, one of the bands you’d hoped to see was unable to perform. “And so it goes.”