It all starts with Ryan. Somewhere in the midst of the 29-or-so hour ramble from New Hampshire to the Ozarks, not far from Virginia Tech, we sat in an abounded Prius on I-81, plopped in the midst of impenetrable traffic. The line of machines stretched an hour and a half behind us, lord knows how far in front, and as the sun beat down and the heat waves rippled psychedelically atop the gritty pavement, the four of us sat with our feet dangling, silent and anxious for the weekend to come.
Our daze was interrupted by a small sedan that skirted up beside us, with a young man who was beading sweat behind the wheel. He yelled over that he was a local Virginian who had “sat in this bullshit” all the time, and he knew a way across the mountains that would drop us right back on I-81, cutting a potentially two-hour, creeping mess to a forty-five minute scenic tour of the lush, green hills of the Virginia countryside. We gladly agreed to follow, and with that he darted off just like a good local would, us following intently behind. To our amazement, he took an exit, which was perched only a matter of yards in front of where we had met, and only barely still in our immediate path. Had we been just a few yards farther down the line, Ryan would have taken his escape, leaving us crawling along through hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Such a strange coincidence of circumstance, one that, with a single altered ripple, could have landed us in a much more dismal state of mind.
After a gorgeous, roller coaster of a ride, our messiah pulled into a gas station that perched adjacent to the on-ramp of our pending journey. We all got out to stretch, regroup and formally introduce, still astonished at the happenstance. He introduced himself, and with a smile and much cheer he explained how he saw the karma sticker on the rear of the car, as well as the camping equipment and hippy-type gear that overflowed the vehicle, and it felt righteous and necessary that he extend a hand. He went on to describe his old show and festival experiences, Phish, The Dead, et cetera, laughing and raving about the beauty and wonder of the world and its curious possibilities that erupt without warning. It seemed to be a sample, this moment of human decency; it was a taste of what we would reap as well as sough on such a strange ride. And so, with a handshake and a farewell, we parted ways with much more on the road ahead, yet at still peace with the notion that good resides even in the most remote corners of your own world. The sparkle is spreading.
Traffic would not be the sole hindrance to the trip; oh, no. Even in the most exciting and beautiful circumstances, the tides of instance can blindside you with a right-hook, and it is imperative to maintain stability and optimism. Embrace the pains, for they do well in serving to make that good all the more better. And so, we have mud.
12:00 PM, Thursday, May 30. At the base of Mulberry sat the Riverside campground: the first bit of Wakarusa territory and the harbor of the masses of festivalgoers who kept it damned real. Two of our group needed to check in before we could set up camp in the media area, and when the deed was finally done and the man had been seen about the dog, the black clouds and the white flashes began to drift menacingly overhead. Volunteers and staff scurried to make preparations, commanding people to return to their vehicles and find shelter. Panic spread wide, indeed, but such was not the case with those wandering patrons who made the trek, however far it may have been. No, they were eager, ready to ride the wave wherever it would go and then some. I could see much dedication in these music lovers; such an energy that mother Earth was more than willing to test. It was not long before the black clouds covered the range of the mountains, and for a few hours, the rain and wind ripped along the trees of the rolling landscape, forcing many in stasis before they could enter the venue, including us.
3:00 PM and we’re in; a fresh layer of red mud to greet us. Let the grunge commence. The Prius got stuck almost instantly; the media camping was set filtered in with the woods, a steep-enough slope down to the depths of the valley that hosted the gathering. It was not ten minutes into searching for a place to camp before we ended up slipping in the slop while heaving the car up the buttery slope. Eventually, we found a spot close enough to the farthest point we could reach; yet, we remained immersed in the muck of the mountainous woods, where we set up camp for the remainder of the weekend. A thick layer of mud strewn like bark up to our knees, denying any whim of clean shoes or socks.
Don’t let the mud discourage you in your festival travels, no, no, no. This is the time to grasp the grime, the dirt, the grunge. The freedom. You’ll find it is a wondrous thing churning butter to the vibrations of live music, a ritual seldom found in the everyday of life. It seemed that the trials of such a trip wouldn’t end with that first stretch of driving, yet as the rain scattered over the masses of tents, flags and people, the music began to echo over the valley with those joyous roars waving closely behind.
Waddling our way down Revival Road, we eventually landed ourselves at New Monsoon for our first show. We were discouraged to see such performances as Galactic and Moon Taxi cancelled, an unfortunate reality of nature’s dominance, but the people of Waka graced us with many more acts, all of whom fully capable of achieving redemption. New Monsoon lived up to the expectation, for certain.
For the attendees and the band members themselves, the New Monsoon performance was one of several initial tests that such an event would pose. We answered it, as did many, in the puddles and the mud, toasting the joyous melodies, the heart-attacking quakes of the compelling music and the wild surroundings that thousands had flocked to. They played brilliantly and with much force, rushing energy and light through the toes of the viewers, creating a chaotic yet, utterly rhythmic mass of moving bodies. The mud was little and the cool puddles were plentiful at this stage of the movement, and in a small matter of time, the band set the accelerated tone for the remainder of the allotted days. With shows cancelling, vanishing like dreams upon that first moment of awakening, it was absolutely necessary that each show be done well, done right, and done lively. And that, they were.
Next was Yonder. The mud was thicker at the main stage and it had a certain slime to it, but that did not slow the pace. The Yonder Mountain String Band guys know much in the ways of cranking the knob to an enterprising 11; no surplus of muck could grasp the high knees and swiveling feet. Churning some butter, for sure. The rain poured in spurts, thick beads plummeting to the ground and flickering in the array of beams from the brow of the stage; quick reliefs and fucking wondrous treats for the nomadic kind of mind.
Among other highlights of Thursday night were ZOOGMA, a hyperactive jolt into the abyss that left you wired and ready to trance. I will hand it to them, they most definitely succeeded in carrying the baton and continuing the momentum on the roaring wave; a show that is worth every minute. BoomBox was conveniently located just a tent away from the ZOOGMA show, with a thirty-minute period in between to rest, had the rush bested your stamina. Exhaustion had welcomed me, no doubt, but the upcoming acts had arrived well prepared. For those who stuck to the tents at BoomBox, the psychedelic dance experience proved wonders for the tired mind. The music is the key.
Those who sought more flocked through the swamps of Shakedown toward the main stage as STS9 appeared for their first of two shows of the weekend. And what a groove, it was. Unfortunately, the fickle fist of momma nature flashed and boomed across valleys and over mountains, bringing STS9 to a premature finish, as well as a number of other shows that undoubtedly would have contended with the best of them. Disappointment scathed the crowds but the night was far from over for the wild ones who cheered and raved into the late hours of the evening. Battling the elements in its finest form.
Some loved the mud; others did not. It is not easy to make such a transition from the comforts of a dry home to the muddy waters of a rainy and windy mountain, but many arose to the challenge. Through the masses and the crowds, individuals who swam and soaked themselves in the pools of mud waltzed through the cracks and spread the cheer of living dirty. Not much for mud slides here, but immersion and filth was ever plentiful.
My own immersion into grime happened early. Wading through The Midway, many took nasty spills caused by the slippery potholes that lay submerged and hidden underneath. I had a hell of a digger in the muck of Shakedown that left me with a fresh coating of dirt scales; but no regret, no embarrassment, no shame. With the laughter and cheers, I found my palms cupped and submerged, and with a rush of energy came a shower of goop and an array of hurrahs. I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to have an unexpected public slip-and-crash, yet each time, those around to witness the many falls had extended their support. Cheers to community.
Day 2: Dispatch, Umphrey’s, Of Monsters and Men, Mutemath, Sound Tribe; much to see and much to do. Five stages and overlapping shows, where to begin? A break in the weather allowed for a moment to reposition Clifford, the big red Prius, and a chance to bake in the sun before soaking in the downpour, which lay aggressively on our horizon. The battle continuing, and the morale pushing forward.
There were several highlights on this day, all furthering the rotation of that fiery baton. Of Monsters and Men set the stage in my mind, “Little Talks” being their emotional climax of the set. What rushes of happiness and fulfillment did they bless us with, and although early in the day, a prerequisite to the fantastic headliners, one could not keep from spending the bulk of their fitness in celebration of the sounds.
Umphrey’s McGee and MUTEMATH answered such a show with great passion, and what sites they were to see. The mud was thick, yes, but solid ground could, indeed, be sought. MUTEMATH’s drummers intensity left a lasting impact in my mind, with his incredible talent for conducting the pace and flow of the band, as well as the patrons within the Revival Tent area. Umph’s, MUTEMATH, whatever the choice was, each left the crowd panting and satisfied like an evening of tantalizing coitus.
Having stuck to the Midway area of Mulberry, we decided it was necessary to migrate toward the Backwoods Stage for a moment to rejuvenate and revitalize in the simple wooded area that lead to a small, wooden cabinet of a stage. The path leading to the stage was laden with white lights that coiled up the trees and dangling above in the shape of stars, a serene, peaceful habitat to meander through. This is where we discovered Shedding Watts.
Despite our desire to lay low, these guys brought us out of our funk and up to the front within mere moments. A small crowd compared to the Main Stage, but no matter; plenty of energy to pour and serve. The drummer and bass combination laid the groundwork for the guitarist’s funky rhythms and ripping fills, as well as the keyboardist’s grooving tones, creating an all-around hell of a time that detonated an array of turbulent dancing. These talented musicians played one of the liveliest and entertaining shows of the weekend, and it would come as no surprise to see them higher up on next year’s lineup.
My good friend Drew Obsten, fellow Sparkleberry and one sly son-of-a-bitch, got the attention of Taygun Ozakinci, bass player for Shedding Watts, who invited us to hop over to talk backstage. He told me that they had won the Waka Winter Classic this year as well as the year before, and it seems to be for great reason. He had played with the band for only two and a half years, and in that time they developed such concurrence that enabled the flow of incredible music from some higher being. From Taygun: “…I guess that’s the motto of Shedding Watts: play your ass off and have fun…we really try to connect out there.”
When asked how they had been with the elements, Jake Eisfelder responded, “there was nothing overly scary, just rain for the most part,” maintaining a nonchalant attitude, simply blessed that their canopy didn’t get blown away by sixty mile-per-hour winds like at Harvest Fest the year before. It appears that things are much better on the brighter side of life.
These guys stepped up for all upcoming bands alike, revealing the truth that you don’t need to be a headliner to stand out at a festival. Damn good show fellas; I implore you lovers of live music out in the wide yonder to keep an eye out for Shedding Watts and check out there website. You can also find their music and check out their posts on Facebook.
We also got a chance to meet the drummer and sax player for The Effinays, a funky group of dudes who love to get the crowd stepping, especially the lady-folk out there. They continued to carry us onward and keep the people afloat, a feat not so easily accomplished in the late hours of the night. Other highlights included Dispatch and Eitch, a DJ and dancer/singer combo that played a great show. We ran into Eitch at the Solar Café, which I was happy to see hard at work, and she was a humble, talented individual whose cheer brightened up our day. Such a great sight to see a performer amongst the crowd, spreading her sparkle and high solely on the crazed scene around her, I’m sure.
Friday night ended abruptly as Sound Tribe was nearing their second show, when the performances were cancelled upon the threat of nasty weather. Tornado and hail warnings are nothing to be taken lightly, no doubt. As one staff member said, and this is from my spotty memory, “this shit’s gonna fuck us up. It sucks, but shows aren’t worth your lives.” Brutal truth but trying times do call for such preparation. Much respect for the volunteers and staff of Wakarusa, who remained submerged in the elements regardless of how intense, assuring that the patrons remain safe and secure throughout the roughest of patches.
Sunshine of The Solar Café later expressed to me the difficulty in serving through the wild weather, which sometimes was not possible, but in this fight, each team, group or individual must find the means to make lemonade. The artists and acts would have to be put on hold on occasion, but there remained time to regroup and try again. Still, it remains a righteous bummer to see the stages shut down, the gates closing and the lights of the Ferris wheel cut: what to do next?
And here, at full force, are the howls, the cheers, the life! The rain was cold, the lightning near, and the thunder menacing, yet sounds of celebration continued to echo across the valley, deflecting upward off the mountain tops, meeting the booms head-on. The battle raging on…
Then comes Saturday and finally, sunshine and starry-nights. Papadosio, Widespread and Umphrey’s. Neon red clouds at sunset, hovering over the still ever muddy fields, and it all seems clear. All of the rain, the muck, the wind, the waiting, the wondering, all the rest: it was the full spectrum of the numerous possibilities of how this festival could have gone terribly wrong, or incredibly right. The universe tested our will with much force and we accepted the challenge with open arms. The filth would all be over in time, and after a warm shower and a fresh set of clothes, it would simply become a memory, a foggy dream imprinted in the depths of the mind until the time for passing would come. Wandering through the triumphant masses with a red sky above, there was a sense of accomplishment and exultance that connected every passer-by without a single muttered word.
The night was calm and the mud cold, but the stars were bright and plentiful, towering above in witness to such a strange assembly. Looking up toward the heavens with the euphoric, enticing and exciting sounds of Widespread Panic circling the air, the rush of peace made its presence known, and all that was seen, heard and experienced came to light, while still remaining a curious mystery. Who knows what was discovered, accomplished or realized in those four days and four nights? Had we done anything righteous? New? Was it worth a place in the history of music, peace and life? Or was it simply a great fucking time? I wonder, but it seemed that, at the very least, we succeeded in carrying the baton of where this kind of life and mind began. Woodstock, The Pranksters, the mud, the music, the love, the peace, the life; in the smallest of manners, there was evidence of the torch burning on, even while planted in the path of mother nature’s sometimes cruel bite. Embrace the mud; embrace the rain; embrace the struggles; embrace your pains; in doing so, your conviction and fortitude will be seldom left unrewarded, and in the dark of all the bad, the light shines exponentially brighter. Spread the sparkle even when it may seem futile, and for those who are skeptical of your mettle, your strength, your ability to outlast such an exhausting experience, I leave you with this:
“We talk about the humanity that’s on this mountain. There’s a fella here that said, magic happens on this mountain and without it, this would not be here. And it’s true; there is something about this place in general. It’s life affirming; it’s a battery recharging-type thing for your spirit. I have to say, last night, looking up at a starry sky, you know, after two nights of all the stuff, sitting in a van riding out the storm the other night and a giant army tent flies up and lands on top of us…but looking up at that sky, just being grateful to be able to play and have all these great guys up on stage, I mean it really did just make your heart swell” (Jason Bratlie of Dirtfoot, Sunday Press Conference, Wakarusa 2013). Such a feeling is not limited to the people on stage, not in the slightest. Let out your wild side.
Photos taken by Cole Blake
Cover photo taken by Mike Quinlan
Special thanks to Ami Heinrich and Rebecca Vankauskas of Tsunami Publicity