MULBERRY MOUNTAIN — The heat of summer is perhaps the best time to take a look back at some highlights of this year’s Wakarusa music festival, which took place May 31-June 3.
Thousands of people descended on this rural locale north of Ozark for the music and camping extravaganza, including many dreadheads and hula hippies. Their tents created a patchwork across the vast field, and their RVs and tents filled in underneath the surrounding forest canopy. They brought sunscreen, hats and umbrellas, and many still got sunburned. They sailed down the new inflatable waterslide, rose to soaring heights in the Ferris wheel and hiked to the waterfalls and river on a nearby trail.
They ate pizza, quesadillas and vegetarian plates, refueled with coffee and beer, and refilled water bottles and pouches at the many hydration stations. They saw a mix of weather this year, with lots of sun, some rain midway through, then a storm that brought high winds and hail on the last day.
The main quest here, though, was the music. And that was satisfied in a big way.
In the evening of opening day, the air chilled at dusk, just as Bob Weir, Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene performed their acoustic set. They mostly played as a trio but also did a few solo tunes. Favorites included several from the Grateful Dead’s extensive repertoire — “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” “Loser,” “Bird Song,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “The Wheel” — as well as two delightful covers: “Dear Prudence” (The Beatles) and “Oh Boy!” (Buddy Holly).
The second day, MarchFourth Marching Band played a rousing set on the Main Stage. They donned wonderfully creative costumes and expertly showed an entirely new way of playing traditional marching band instruments. The Portland-based group also said they must have brought the afternoon rain shower (the only rain until the final day). So, instead of a rain dance, they played music for a sun dance. It actually worked, and the rain stopped by the time their show ended.
That night, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros provided a revival-like experience, as they shared their uplifting music and spirits. Their show got off to a late start. They started to perform “40 Day Dream,” but Alex Ebert stopped the 12-member band and did something else. They returned to it later, though, along with a big crowd favorite, “Home.” Ebert twice made his way out into the audience, crawling over barrier fences and dancing with fans.
The Avett Brothers followed, and their show was pushed back later than scheduled. But they didn’t shortchange the crowd in any way. During the show, they repeatedly paid tribute to Doc Watson, who’d died earlier in the week and who was a music mentor. (They weren’t the only ones. So did Del McCoury, Keller Williams and Toubab Krewe.) Scott and Seth Avett sang an acapella version of "Down in the Valley to Pray," in honor of Watson. Watson and the Avetts hail from North Carolina.
They also played a variety of their own great tunes, including “Shame,” “Paranoia in B-Flat Major,” “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “I and Love and You,” “January Wedding,” “Will You Return?,” “Love Like the Movies,” “I Killed Sally’s Lover,” “Laundry Room” and “Talk on Indolence.” (If you missed them at the festival, they’ve scheduled a Fayetteville performance Oct. 16 at the Arkansas Music Pavilion.
On the third day, Gary Clark Jr. blew away the crowd with his approach to blues — part Jimi Hendrix, part B.B. King. Armed with his red guitar, this Austin native performed his own tunes — “Bright Lights,” a strong, slow groove, and “Please Come Home,” which was simply lovely — as well as an amazing version of “Three O’Clock Blues” (an early hit for King). Clark interspersed many songs with blazing guitar solos.
Later, Keller Williams performed with the Travelin’ McCourys (their combo CD, Pick, was released in early July). Their tribute to Doc Watson was “Tennessee Stud.” They also played a great version of “I’m Amazed” (My Morning Jacket), as well as Williams’ fun tune, “Freaker by the Speaker.”
For the following set, Del McCoury took the stage to sing and play guitar with his band. McCoury was a true gentleman and took repeated requests from the audience. They played “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (Bill Monroe), and “Beauty of My Dreams,” which Phish performed regularly and recorded on a live album. But McCoury eventually brought Williams back on stage, as well as Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi (who played their own set earlier that day). They played “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which McCoury learned from the original Flatt and Scruggs recording more than 60 years ago.
Much later that night, Primus made its first Wakarusa appearance, though Les Claypool, the band’s frontman and bassist, has played this festival three times before. Claypool played his whamola, an instrument akin to the washtub bass, while wearing a monkey mask. In a little more than an hour, the band mesmerized the huge crowd with several tunes, including “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.”
On the final day, Toubab Krewe proved to be a special afternoon treat. The instrumental band uses harp-lutes, a horsehair fiddle and African drums, enhancing the traditional guitar/bass guitar/drum setup. They’re from Asheville, N.C., just down the road from Doc Watson, and grew up listening to his music. Using spoons on a washboard, member Justin Perkins sang “Red Rocking Chair” in Watson’s honor.