Monday, June 30, 2008

Wakarusa 2008

We were notified a week in advance that we had press passes to the Wakarusa Festival in Lawrence, Kansas. Although we live in Kansas City, we wanted a complete experience, so decided to camp out instead of making the hour round trip each day. It seemed like a good plan despite the fact that we had no camping equipment.

The festival is held at Clinton Lake State park, a nice setting with lots of open grassy space surrounded by mature trees for shade, a small but friendly swimming beach, and everything from primitive camping areas to full hookups. Having purchased a Honda Element the previous week, we went to Cabela's and purchased a tent that converts the back of the Element into a bedroom with attached living space. Armed with a blow-up mattress, a mini-fridge, and a cooler of beverages, we set out to experience Wakarusa.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Driving into the park the Sunday before the festival, we followed a truck loaded with signs. Every 50 yards or so, it stopped, a man got out and planted a sign, then moved on. Most of the signs warned of checkpoints ahead, directed vendors to their appointed areas, or identified VIP or Family camping areas. Each day we returned to the lake, there were more signs, identifying temporary primitive camping areas, designating lanes, advising drivers to watch for pedestrians, lowering speed limits, renaming streets, posting banned items, advertising radio stations. On the day before the festival started, the photo-op Wakarusa Festival sign appeared, finally making the site official.

The strangest signs of all were posted on Wakarusa way, the main road between the primitive camping areas and the main festival grounds. They were no more than 12" high and said simply "SLOW". Did the Wakarusa organizers think the pedestrians would be exceeding the 15 MPH posted speed limit?

Let it Rain, Rain, Rain

The festival derives its name from the river that flows into Clinton Lake, which was named by the Potowatamie tribe. It loosely translates as “knee-deep in mud”. Turns out they were right. We erected our tent the Sunday before the festival started, then visited it each day to see what damage had occurred by the severe thunderstorms that blew through all week. The first day, three inches of water inside the tent and a bent pole. A case of t-shirts in the trunk took care of the water, and the local Ace Hardware provided clamps to fix the pole, extra rope and stakes to secure the tent, and garden edging to divert the water. Although another storm blew through on Thursday (the first day of the festival), our fortifications held. Others were not so fortunate.

As the storm approached Thursday, organizers closed down all the stages and cautioned people to leave and find refuge. As in the story of the great flood, some heeded the warning, others stayed on. One group to stay provided the trolley and taxi service between the camping and stage areas. These individuals come from across the country and travel to multiple festivals over the summer months. Their camp was nestled in a wooded area at the back of the park. Not having anywhere else to go, they gathered in one tent to ride out the storm. It didn’t take long before the weight of the water overpowered the tent and drenched them and their belongings. They spent the rest of the night in the nearby shower house.

Some campers embraced the power of the storm and joined in. One camper stepped into the tall grass behind his tent to take a quick shower, and was assailed by a woman not far away who asked if he was naked. Upon his affirmative reply, she invited him to join the group of like-minded individuals dancing in the rain. On Sunday, when the next storm blew in, two babes-in-arms mimicked this behavior when they shed their soaked clothes and enjoyed nature’s cleansing, much to the amusement of the adults passing by.

In the primitive camps, where no structure existed for shelter, campers spent the night in their tents or cars. Friday morning was spent taking down partially collapsed tents, wringing out bedding, finding enough surfaces to hang drenched items to dry, and moving cars to pavement before they became lodged in the over-saturated ground. By Friday afternoon, everyone seemed resigned to having their shoes ruined, the smell of wet hay in and around the stage areas and tents, and standing to listen to musicians. Some even took the high road and showed off their considerable skill at body mud surfing. This was taken to a new level after Sunday’s downpour, when the Revival tent became the scene of a mud wrestling match.

Social Consciousness

Billed as a music festival, Wakarusa also addressed health, political, and environment challenges. Demonstrations of yoga, hoops (who knew the lowly hula hoop would be so relevant to the 21st century?),

and cycling (the non-motorized variety), shared space with vegetarian fare, Trojan condoms, freedom in school advocates, and young professionals exhorting the crowd to register to vote. The state representative for the Lawrence district told the crowd Sunday evening to “sign up or shut up” then welcomed the David Grisman Quintet to the stage.

Organizations from two rival schools, Kansas University and Kansas State, joined together to provide recycling and composting services at the Recyclusa station. Everyone was provided two plastic trash bags and encounrage to return them full of trash to trade for t-shirts and other booty. Over the course of the event, a mountain of trash was collected and sorted, however, an even larger mountain was left strewn on the ground or embedded in the mud. What does it take to destroy an eco-system? Two inches of rain and 15,000 eco-conscience music fans.

And the Music Played On and On

In the end, though, even being knee deep in mud couldn’t dissuade the enthusiastic crowds from enjoying exuberant music performed by stellar musicians. Friday evening Paw, a local band made good, started off a little shaky in the Reunion tent. Reuniting after seven years, they seemed to have partied a little too much before the show and spent a lot of time talking about old times and to long-suffering fans in the crowd. When they did play, there were sound problems.

Over on the Sun Up stage, a great New Orleans funky jazz band featuring Trombone Shorty had the crowd movin’ and groovin’ inside and outside the tent.

On the Sundown stage, Mates of State, with Jason Hammel on drums and Kori Gardner on organ, were dwarfed by the large stage. When they played, their very powerful sound and perfect harmonies filled the air. They added a few strings occasionally, to round out some of the songs.

Next up on the Sun Up stage, the Dynamites continued the funk, R&B style. With Charles Walker on vocals and the horn line blasting away, the crowd couldn’t help but dance.

Meanwhile on the Porch, Grimy Styles performed reggae sound accentuated by an effects-laden organ. Visual effects were added by an on-stage artist with canvas and paint.

Closing out the Sundown stage, Flaming Lips presented a show and music definitely in a world of their own. With massive balloons exploding confetti, giant hamster balls, smoking laser lights, animal costumes propelled by people, and Wayne Coyne playing trumpet with his forehead, the controlled insanity never stopped.

Separated from the main stage area by a long walk or a slow NoWaka taxi ride, the Prairie Stage offered big sound to smaller crowds. Saturday morning the Garret Nordstrom Situation rocked the sparse crowd with folksy R&B, with Garret on piano and lead vocals, backed by lead and bass guitars, drums, an occasional violin, and two lovely ladies providing harmonies.

The long walk to the Revival tent was worth it to see The Gourds. Fronted by ukulele playing Kevin Russell, their country tunes with wry, witty lyrics pleased the crowd.

The Gourds were followed by Alejandro Escovedo. Hard driving vocals and guitar riffs, punctuated by violin and cello, showed why Alejandro shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen in April to perform his new hit “Always a Friend”.

Over on the Sun Up stage, the sax-fronted world-funk band Delta Nove performed an infectious mixture of jazz, rock, reggae, and Brazilian beat.

Later in the afternoon, Ben Folds packed the house in the Revival tent. After an eternity of sound checks, Ben’s trio began an extremely pleasing set plagued with sound issues during the first few songs. On the Sundown stage, the pounding bass line from STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9) threatened to overpower, but Ben merely transitioned to songs that mirrored a similar beat. Drawing comparisons to Elton John, he delivered a powerful piano-fueled set.

From the Revival stage, the light show accompanying STS9 resembled the color strips in a Sherman-Williams showroom. At close range, after a couple of repetitive tunes, it was obvious that their name should be Sound TRACK Sector 9.

On the way back to the Revival tent, a quick stop at the Sun Up stage revealed the bluegrass sounds of Cornmeal, who had provided an impromptu session the previous day in one of the primitive campsites. Not to be missed, was the beginning of jam-band king Keller Williams in the Revival tent. This night Keller was “solo”, if you can call it that. His continual experimentation with loops from guitars and synthesizers created a cascading sound that was infectious.

Sunday afternoon Keller performed on the Sundown stage with the tight sounds of the Transmitters complimenting his jams. Unfortunately, another round of storms cut their set short.

After almost 90 minutes of torrential rain, Emmylou Harris cancelled and the Sundown stage was closed causing the cancellation of both Mickey Hart and Dweezil Zappa. The only venue left open was the Revival tent, which was packed with rain-soaked and mud-covered fans not wanting Wakarusa to end.

When mandolinist David Grisman and his Quintet finally made it to the stage, the sounds of bluegrass-jazz got the crowd back in the groove.

Next up, the Avett Brothers, combining elements of folk, rock, and punk on banjo, standup base, and cello, performed with non-stop energy.

This led into the festival-ending, raucous Split Lip Rayfield. With one-stringed base (a ’65 Ford gas tank), banjo, dobro, and flute, the trio hammered out a fitting finale. Even the rain peppered with lightning couldn’t stop the hour-long set of raw, hard driving rock with a folk/bluegrass flavor.

Will the Beat Go On?

Before we enjoyed the final bands Sunday afternoon, we checked out the beach. Doubling as a makeshift mud remover and a cooling agent, the wind-whipped water was being enjoyed by numerous groups of semi-clad young adults.

Although a posted sign warned that no lifeguard was on duty, the beach did have two security guards in an ATV. They were there to ensure that no mischief occurred. When asked whether any major problems had occurred over the last four days, the answer was no. Why? Because the crowd was much smaller than in previous years. Severe weather, gas prices, competing events (including Rockfest in Kansas City), all contributed to the decline. Will the Wakarusa Festival be back next year? That hasn’t been decided.

The rain, the mud, the diversity, and the music all combined to make a memorable event. The sights, sounds, and smells still linger just like the mud under our toenails. If the fans are allowed to vote, Wakarusa will be back.

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