This year's Wakarusa Music Festival is a milestone. It marks the 10th year of the event and the fifth year it's been held at Mulberry Mountain, after relocating from its original turf in Kansas. The festival runs May 30 through June 2.
Brett Mosiman, festival director, has been with it from the start. He said the move to Arkansas has been “very, very positive and incredibly well received by the artists and the patrons.”
The event has continued to grow and, less than three weeks before the festival’s start, it was on track for record sales. Organizers want to max out at 21,000 tickets sold this year. All told, with the 1,000 volunteers — plus performers and others who descend on this idyllic Ozark mountain spot — about 25,000 will participate in the four-day event.
In addition to dealing with traffic, security and other issues that might arise, Mosiman plans to spend his time watching the shows — making sure the production quality is good and that the fans enjoy themselves.
To celebrate the 10-year mark, organizers planned a sort of “best of” from the previous years, selecting acts who were along for that ride to fill more than half of this year’s bill. There are about 130 acts serving up more than 160 sets on five stages. Eight countries are represented among the musical acts, including Sweden (Icona Pop) and Iceland (Of Monsters and Men).
“It’s our best-ever lineup in terms of weight and girth and diversity and depth,” Mosiman said.
Fan favorites on the bill include STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9), Umphrey’s McGee, and Galactic. Top draws include The Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Dispatch and Yonder Mountain String Band. Some of the best acts this year are those middle-level acts: ZZ Ward, Delta Rae, Icona Pop, Of Monsters and Men.
The diversity of this year’s music offers acts that appeal to many generations — from Calexico to Ozomatli to Los Amigos Invisibles to Snoop Lion. Mosiman is particularly looking forward to Amon Tobin, who hasn’t really played the Midwest. “He will bring production that will absolutely blow minds,” he said.
Tickets won’t likely still be available at the gate. Mosiman said people can save the online fees by buying tickets at outlets, such as George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville and Papa’s Pub and Pizzaria in Fort Smith.
For this 10th year, organizers also increased the budgets for arts and ambiance, so there will be some surprises for festivalgoers. Returning this year will be the 10-story Ferris wheel, inflatable water slide, interactive art installations and live painters, and the popular Friday night costume parade and contest. Other activities include morning yoga, hoop and flow classes, roaming performance troupes, a disc golf tournament, a didgeridoo workshop and a nonperishable food drive. In addition, river float trips will be available at Byrd’s Adventure Center. The Music Bus Rocks, a mobile music school from Austin, will offer workshops, jam sessions and an open mic performance stage.
There will be 25 to 30 food vendors, plus beer tents, and 75 to 100 arts and crafts booths. People can also bring food and beverages from home — but, remember, no glass bottles.
The weather can range from hot and dry to cold and wet — and many combinations in between. It’s best to come prepared with clothing that layers — jeans and a hooded sweatshirt if evening temperatures drop and a swimsuit for a dip in the river. Also, water, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, big hats and umbrellas remain essentials. (Four general stores are open around the clock for restocking supplies, and several water refill stations are on site.)
In addition to the camping packages, organizers this year added hotel packages. They allow people to stay at a choice of three hotels in Fayetteville — and have a hot shower and breakfast — before heading to the festival by shuttle service.
The best way to keep up with Wakarusa activity is through social media. The festival’s official Facebook page has more than 108,600 likes, the Twitter account has more than 12,800 followers, and their Instagram feed (opened just before last year’s fest) has 2,500-plus followers. The official hashtag this year is #Waka2013.
Mosiman said social media has revolutionized how the festival is marketed. But it’s also been an invaluable tool for communicating to everyone — such as last year, when a severe storm rolled in the late afternoon of the last day.
For efficiency, festivalgoers will once again pick up their credentials at booths set up on the north and south ends of Arkansas 23, where they intersect with Arkansas 16 and with Arkansas 215.
FROM YONDER TO HERE
Yonder Mountain String Band is no stranger to Mulberry Mountain or this festival. The band played the festival when it was in Kansas and then the first year it moved here. They also host the fall Harvest Festival, a three-day fest here that Adam Aijala calls the “Midwest string summit” (referencing the Northwest String Summit the band hosts each year in Oregon).
Aijala has been with Yonder, which celebrates 15 years this July, since the start. He and Dave Johnston (banjo), Jeff Austin (mandolin) and Ben Kaufmann (bass) formed the band in Netherland, Colo., in 1998.
Knee injuries caused Aijala to put down a career in forestry and pick up the guitar for his livelihood. The Massachusetts native knew he wanted to live out west after a memorable backpacking trip to Sedona, Ariz. He visited a college buddy in Netherland and eventually lived there 11 years before moving to his current home of Boulder.
Aijala started with electric guitar, influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Then, he evolved to acoustic guitar and listening to Bob Dylan. He said acoustic guitarist David Grier is one of the best.
Band members took the heavy metal, classic rock and other influences and melded into a fast bluegrass, where they sometimes play 150 to 170 beats per minute. They're comfortable in their own sound, even as it continues to evolve.
“We don’t have to be bound to any genre of music that we play,” Aijala said. “With a banjo and a mandolin, it’s hard to not sound like a bluegrass band.”
Aijala said he’s much more proficient at playing guitar than when he started with the band. As for singing, he’s learned that on stage with the band all these years. “I feel like I’m way more consistent hitting the parts I need to hit,” he said. “But I still have a nasally voice; I can’t help it.”
As for songwriting, he’s always liked the style of Pink Floyd lyrics, but he feels he has more tried to emulate those by Bob Dylan. Some of the songs Aijala has written are very literal, like “Idaho,” but he admires the style of Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt). “I don’t even know what a lot of his songs are about. They’re vague with imagery; poems are like that.”
Some of the band’s best songs are ones all four wrote together: “Sidewalk Stars” — which he calls one of their most unique songs — along with “Dreams” and “Angel.” Aijala said Johnston is the best songwriter. “His stuff keeps getting better and better — nothing too literal and stuff that makes you think.”
Much of the time now, Aijala co-writes with Johnston. “I don’t need to take all the credit. I’d rather make it as good as I can,” Aijala said. “It’s good to have editors, and who better than someone you respect.”
Aijala and Kaufmann started writing a song 10 years ago, part of the band’s “On the Run” saga. But it’s still not done. “The melody’s perfect,” he said, and it even has a jam section. But they can’t nail down the lyrics.
Aijala is thrilled to return to Northwest Arkansas, where the band has played since practically the beginning. They first played at the now-defunct Dave's on Dickson in Fayetteville in 2000, and now schedule at least one stop a year at George's Majestic Lounge. He said the Arkansas fans have remained loyal and enthusiastic. The band particularly enjoys the beauty of Mulberry Mountain, which Aijala calls “pretty as hell.”
Aijala said a new album has been in the works for a while. They’ve released several live recordings, but their last studio album, “The Show,” came out in 2009. They have a lot of material that isn’t on a studio album, and they’re trying to make time to do one. Right now, they’re working on an EP.
ZZ WARD IS ZOOMING FAST
You can call ZZ Ward up and coming, but she’s been on her way for a while. She’s been going by ZZ — short for Zsuszsanna, which “is impossible to say” — since she was a teenager. She played in her father’s blues band starting at 13, and then she played any gigs she could, including hours spent at restaurants, and sold her demo CDs in parking lots.
Ward didn’t consider herself a professional musician until she got signed with a record label. Then, things exploded for her last year, as she released her mixtape “Eleven Roses,” the EP “Criminal,” and her full-length debut album, “Til the Casket Drops.” Her music has also been featured on ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and MTV’s “Awkward.”
Growing up in Oregon, Ward was influenced partly by the blues — her parents were fans of Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Robert Johnson. The other influence came from hip-hop, which her brother played. She looked up to him and his tastes, and she also stole his CDs when he wasn’t looking.
“Even now, if I hear a good blues song or a good hip-hop song, I just get so excited,” she said. “I don't know if we can figure out why certain things resonate with us.”
She thinks she connected with both genres because they explore the most extreme of human emotions — whether heartache, empowerment or anger.
Ward said she always felt like “the oddball out” because she didn't learn music theory or know the correct chords when writing songs. “I write things that feel good to me,” she said.
Her big single last year was “Put the Gun Down,” a catchy, driving tune with an attitude sound. She wrote the song about a year and a half ago, and said it stemmed from knowing someone else could take everything away from you — and often it’s the person who was supposed to have your back.
“It was from a very real experience, written from a place of vulnerability,” she said.
Ward’s voice is smooth and powerful, and she said her vocal heroes include Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Vera Ward Hall and Robert Plant. She’s often been asked to describe her sound. The answer she’s come up with: “back porch blues meets hip-hop.”
Ward said she’s surprised and humbled when fans come up to her after a show, telling her they connect to her music and that it helped them through a particular situation. “I can’t imagine my songs having that much of an impact on people, but it’s incredibly flattering,” she said.
Since her debut album was released in October, Ward has been touring a lot. She’s enjoyed the places she’s seen and the people she’s met. She said she feels like she’s making music so she can change the world — no, really.
“I feel like, for whatever reason, I was put on this earth to play music, to write music. And I think I’m supposed to share that with people.”
As for Wakarusa, she and her band love to play, and that'll be obvious with their performance. They might play some covers and some tunes from her record, but she didn’t get too specific.
“You’ve got to come and find out,” she said.