Event: Wakarusa Music Festival
Date: Wednesday, June 4th – Sunday, June 7th, 2015
Venue: Mulberry Mountain, Ozark, Arkansas
Line Up: Slightly Stoopid, Twiddle, Dirty Heads, Nattali Rize & Notis, Nahko and Medicine for the People, Ozomatli, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, Major Lazer, Stick Figure, The Expendables, Matisyahu, Rebelution,Thievery Corp and so many more.
Live: Wakarusa – A Special Report
For the past three years now, over the months of May and June, The Pier has set out across the US to attend several of the most notable music festivals of the summer. This year, after hours and hours of driving, after watching many minutes of live music spread along an 8000-mile journey that circled coast to coast, one event has sincerely stood out from the rest to become a new favorite festival.
With a growing number of destination events to choose from every year, when it comes to music festivals, each summer Wakarusa provides an experience that is truly getting harder to beat. To say ‘Wakarusa has got it all’ would be just a bit of an understatement. The cliché doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the offerings and opportunities this wonderful event provides. So much music and various other activities are packed into this event that we could retell our entire experience over the course of the weekend and still not touch on all that happens out on the mountain. The best way to gain an understanding of Wakarusa’s value is to spend a full weekend at the event. However, after attending the party in the recent past, we can explain our daily experiences from this year to help give some insight to the magnificent marathon of music that is becoming known by more and more of the music-loving-public as Wakarusa.
Located on 650 acres in the heart of Arkansas’s Ozark National Forest along Hwy 23, also known as the Pig Trail National Scenic Byway, Mulberry Mountain Lodge labels their operation as a Lodging and Event resort. A honey hole in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains that is open year round, the grounds offer lodge and cabin rentals, an RV and tent campground, a convention and reception hall, and a variety of exciting festivals and events in addition to nearby recreational opportunities throughout the year. Whether it’s hiking, camping, canoeing, ATV trails, horse trails, hunting, fishing, or just relaxing in the Ozarks, Mulberry Mountain is an outdoor lovers dream.
The grounds of this venue are, as our photographer Pete Monti best explained after surveying the scene by helicopter,
a huge flat spot on top of a mountain completely in the middle of nowhere! Literally on a plateau in the middle of the Arkansas Ozarks, from the air there is not much around besides waves of national forest land. On the the ‘Travel Guide page of the festival’s website, organizers even note in bold, the festival grounds are in a very rural location… Be prepared, ‘going to the nearest town’ is actually quite a haul. The venue’s seclusion makes the site a great spot to host a music festival.
Wakarusa is centered around one of the most diverse musical line-ups of the summer. These various artists are spread across several days and a total of the 6 stages that make the boundaries of the ‘Waka-world.’ The design of the layout for this event-site places Wakarusa on top of our list of favorite festivals.
Built on a large square of field-land carved out of the woods, a main camping area sits as a large rectangle piece of land that is almost centered on the grounds. The 6 stage areas are placed along either long-end of this rectangle camping area, in their own respective lots. It’s a set up that allows Wakarusa attendees to not only experience a mix of different music, but also offers attendees ways to listen to music from all different perspectives.
With a giant and mid-sized field stage, a big tent stage, a natural amphitheater in the woods, a cabin porch stage, and a stage by the river, Wakarusa offers all our favorite ways to watch our favorite bands play throughout the day. When all put together, this beautiful gathering space comfortably fits 25-30,000 concertgoers. An event that’s easily described as big, but not too big. The space is manageable and well organized to where the music is never too far away from any place of stay. The entire Wakarusa setting is the perfect escape to enjoy 4 days of music.
Almost as important as the location of the festival grounds is this festival’s excellent selection of bands. From year to year Wakarusa has constantly delivered a thick line-up. One consisting of over 150 of today’s top touring acts and regional favorites from a plethora of genres. While the event takes place on a seemingly unrestricted prepossessing piece of land, what makes this gathering so successful is the way in which planners properly use the grounds to produce four big nights of music.
A key feature of the site is that the music can be played non-stop to sunrise. And the organizers take full advantage of this, blasting bass from stage to stage all night long. When each of the stages are going, the space, combined with event’s slick scheduling of music across it, transforms into a different world, and a completely different planet once the darkness falls.
Aside from booking the most highly demanded acts at the time, and aside from bringing in a large volume of bands, what seems to be done so right every year is the promoters’ ability to draw to one place so many different branches of musical genres and scenes. When the bill is separated into categorized flyers like the ones below the event can be looked at like several genre-themed festivals, all of which happen throughout a larger event. While several segments of popular music such as hip hop, jam, electric and reggae are always represented, promoters seem to find talent that have sounds which fuse multiple musical influences and acts that attract fans from across the spectrum.
A whirlwind of music all weekend long, during this edition of Wakarusa names like Ben Harper, Major Lazer, The Roots, Thievery Corporation and Umphrey’s McGee filled the headlining slots throughout the weekend. Now, The Pier had a great time seeing all these sets, but we were really in attendance for the weekend’s thick thread of reggae infused performances. Two of the most forward and dynamic groups in the scene, Slightly Stoopid and Thievery Corporation opened and closed the weekend of music for The Pier, and in-between was a spread of some-15 of our long-time and new favorite roots musicians.
Thursday morning attendees began to really roll-in and set-up. It’s always fun to watch the growth of the campgrounds colored canopy. Created by the tops of all the camps expanding across the grounds the build happens almost as quickly as the sunny skies heat up the atmosphere. As people soon finished setting up camp attendees began to make their first stroll to the stages for some music.
During the early afternoon on Thursday the schedule allowed for fans to check out a few cool bands, and hang out in some shady places during the height of the sun’s arch. As the sun’s beam began to slowly descend and everyone’s energies naturally ease up, the music kept everyone up to pace. Rockers, Moon Taxi, moving up to the big stage at many festivals this year, and then the folksier band known as The Devil Makes Three, highly talked about this summer it seems, warmed up the big field. Drawing out the masses from the campgrounds, over at the Revival Tent rising electro-stars Dopapod raged on for a crowd of their own. Another act quickly picking up steam around the festival circuit lately.
After bopping around a bit and listening stage to stage, back at camp we could fortunately clearly hear the Revival area as we rested up ahead of the night’s sets. Following a day full of music, Slightly Stoopid was our first full show to focus on that day. A big favorite of everyone at The Pier, this was a great set to open up our Wakarusa.
Playing the first prime-time slot on the Wakarusa main stage, Slightly Stoopid’s 90 minute set truly showcased why the band is gaining festival prominence. It’s reggae. It’s rock. There is blues elements and funk undertones. Whatever corner of music Slightly Stoopid has carved out for itself, their sound is catchy and easy to move with, no matter your favorite type of music. It’s the combination of all these element of sound with added tinges of hip-hop and their laid back demeanor that easily sparks the fire of a dance party that will have a festival going all night.
Opening with their newest instrumental, Dabbington,” during the set Slightly Stoopid seamlessly mixed new and old tracks as the band played around their deep discography. Their show has evolved from a list of hits that flashed between reggae-dub and punk rock to a more full sounding band that jams. The sound has become more of a psychedelic mixture at times, more rhythmic, more funky. Slightly Stoopid seems to have found their groove with the flow of this style set. Nothing too long or any improve filler, but more of a rehearsed effort to stretch out a their tunes.
During that night the band gave The Pier all access, 360 degrees around the stage. When you see how the machine works close-up, its even more impressive. Watching the 7-piece work effortlessly, the set has become sofine-tuned that the band can get up every time and just have fun. A feeling that radiated off the stage during this night’s set. But no more so than when the band brought out Brendan Bayliss gutarist of Umphrey’s Mcgee to sit-in on “Baby I Like It”. A true highlight of the set be sure to watch our video of the collaboration. In all during their set at Wakarusa the band played through 20 tracks before ending with Dancing Mood, a track that saw the guest appearance of Richelle. A riend of the band and a singer from Stephen Marley’s camp. No encore however, the set just ended as the band had ran out of time, after hugs all around and waves to the crowd it was time to move on.
After, we caught the end of The Revivalists, a talented soul-rock outfit out of New Orleans. Then returning to the big field as one of the event’s most powerful draws, Umphrey’s MgGee, took over on the main stage.
If there is one band who has got it down, it’s Umphrey’s MgGee. These musicians are the real deal, with a collective talent that garners huge respect in the festival scene. With the ability to produce the cleanest distorted tones around, it’s always impressive to hear the band’s brand of rock shred on the big sound systems.
As the lights of the main stage stopped spinning, like a river, the flow of concertgoers made its way to the Revival Tent, mellowing out with the smooth jam-rock of Twiddle. Another talented group of guys., Twiddle the frontman, can jam it all with the best of them, and will surprise the unfamiliar. With electro-jam on the main stage till almost 4 am., the night kept beating on till the sun ended the jam packed opening day.
Thursday was just a bit exhausting, so thankfully our Friday was a bit more subdued. After catching a few more songs from Twiddle around 4:20, we went over to the main stage for an afternoon set from Collie Buddz. Known for his island sound, with music perfect for the sun, those who could brave that same element on a hot afternoon got to see a great set. While the crowd at the stage may have been a bit light, sometimes during those hot afternoon sets, it’s the masses relaxing at camp just an earshot away that need live music too.
After Collie Buddz, while back at camp for dinner, the Outpost stage, audible from camp was hitting hard. With a strong line-up of hip-hop that evening featured both the legendary Chali 2na and the infamous Dilated Peoples, who finally after many years are back on stage.
Later that night after more hot hip-hop from Chance The Rapper, on the main stage the night continued with two hours from prominent jam-ensemble, STS9. A band we hesitate to describe whatever it is exactly they are doing up on stage. As their trance of bass, and impressive rhythms was coming to a close, we beat the crowd out. Then going back over to the Revival Tent to see more Umphrey’s McGee as the band closed out their second set.
Another pretty standard display of their excellent, while the entire set was full of gems, the highlight had to of been their set closing mash up, Strangletoge”,a mix of ”Sabotoge” by Beastie Boys and ”Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent. Only the second time the band has done this number, be sure to check out our footage. Following two hours of face melting progressive-jam-rock we were able to catch the final hour of Big Gigantic. A combination of live Sax and drums paired with sounds off the MacBook, this duo’s dance party is always a bounce-house full of energy.
After staying out late on Friday, we didn’t get much sleep before a Saturday that was packed with roots music from 2pm till 2am. With so much going on, we bounced back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball between the main stage and the Revival Tent taking little time between sets to get refreshments. The day began with the acoustic guitar of Donavon Frankenreiter opening the main stage, before The Dirty Heads filled the field with their blend of acoustic beach rock and hip-hop. Easily one of the most fun set at any event they play. For this one it was just cool to watch our contest winners have a good time, watching the whole set side-stage. Another favorite group of The Pier, we were fortunate the band allowed us full coverage. Check out a bit of the footage right here.
Over on the Revival Tent the ladies of Rising Appalachia played an inspirational hour before the powerful Nattali Rize and Notis took over. The front-women of Australia’s Blue King Brown we got two chances to see Nattali’s set that weekend, and we hope to have more content from here in the near future. Continuing the with the grassroots line of bands, Nahko and Medicine for the People followed. Playing a full 90 minutes Nahko really brought the tribe together as well as filling the stage with family, as the set saw appearances from Nattali Rize, Rising Appalachia, and the bands old bassist and new solo artist Dustin Thomas.
Every weekend always ramps up to Saturday night, and this year at Wakarusa the night did not disappoint. Playing the prime-time 8pm slot on the main stage was a highly anticipated 90 minute set from The Roots. A veteran team of professionals, this act while pretty similar from show to show, never misses a beat. Following The Roots was Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. Back on the scene touring again, these guys are all so laid back, but yet able play scorching southern rock jams. So smooth in fact that these guys should be called ‘Ben Harper and the smooth criminals.’ Like a Marlboro 27, the whole act from the top down is smooth rich and mellow.
Now we are not to sure who schedule two hours of Ben Harper and then a late night set from Major Lazer, but that person nailed it. It was the perfect one-two punch. Ben Harper with his soft lovers rock stole every girls hear out in that field, really warming up the crowd. Then Major Lazer, bringing out the full show, turned everyone up, and dropped a bass hard. With music produced from a deep understanding of dub and original reggae beats, the act is more than just a bass-in-your-face dance party. The theatrics of the way in which the trio presented the tracks of new album they put just days before, was nothing short of impressive. Definitely the best electronic-dance show we have seen.
After an onslaught of music all weekend long on Sunday organizers seem to strategically calm things down with reggae rock roots centric music playing through out the day. Following so many intense long hours of shows, on Sunday all who are left standing can be found siting in the Revival Tent relaxing while listening to today’s top reggae acts.
In addition to the great line-up on a great piece of land, as a whole what really makes Wakarusa our favorite festival is that this event is truly the number one roots oriented event in the country, with a Sunday schedule to prove it.
Just to list the impressive line-up we saw that day… Opening the main stage was another great set from Nahko and Medicine for the People, then over in the Revival Tent was a second set from Nattali Rize, then Stick Figure, The Expendables, Matisyahu, and finally Rebelution. To close out The Pier’s Wakarusa we went out to the main field to see the worldly mix of Theivery Corporation.Final Thoughts
At Wakarusa the activities kick off early every morning with yoga and hoop activities in the Revival field between the second two stages from 9 to 12. After a few sound-checks ring thru camp during the morning, from noon on the music doesn’t quit until early the next morning. We could have sent a team of 10+ out there and there’s still no way we would have been able to experience all of Wakarusa. Naturally though with all these great acts playing, The Pier filled plenty of memory cards with tons of content. To detail every aspect of our daily experiences is a bit much but many of the highlights are worth the mention.
For more information about Wakarusa check out the details below.
To look through photos from Wakarusa, check out a CrowdAlbum HERE or scroll down to our gallery below.