Words by Caleb Calhoun
Photos by Steve Mack
It’s Sunday afternoon at Nelsonville Music Festival and the entire press team is congregated on the porch of the media cabin. Although most of them are sitting it conjures up a vision of a basketball team, called to huddle before a third or fourth overtime session, the players doubled-over and wheezing, hands grasping the bottom of their shorts.
From in front of the cabin the sign reads PRESS, but from the porch the back of the sign has been inscribed with inspirational messages written by Athena and Maggie, the official press welcoming committee. The largest letters read thusly:
But be better.”
Not that running around a music festival for four days seeing a perfectly slated lineup of artists and musicians is some kind of heroic sacrifice. Still, after the weekend we’ve had I’m pretty sure each of us could use a Rip Van Winkle and some pedialyte.
But sleep is what you do sitting at the office on Monday afternoon and quite the priceless commodity at a festival like this. We had all arrived Thursday and descended on the festival en-masse like a troupe of freshman journalists at an ANTIFA rally. We had our film loaded, our questions ready, and our minds open. We had our schedules planned out, our priorities listed, and our sunblock applied. We had starched clean shirts and dresses, neatly done hair, and the dogged determination required to succeed in any journalistic endeavor.
We also had one of the most well curated festival line-ups I have ever seen, and a festival that was, from both an industry view-point and a fans perspective, impressively professional and fore-sighted from top-to-bottom.
So we set up camp, made some new friends, and let ourselves loose inside.
I’ve never been to southeast Ohio before, and I’m a little intrigued by a landscape I most certainly did not expect. Camping by the river, relaxing in a beautiful valley surrounded by forested hills, this is not the Ohio I am familiar with, nor the Ohioans I had planned on seeing. I’m struck immediately by the amount of previous year Nelsonville merch that many of those in attendance are wearing. If I had to wager I would bet that at least 50% of these patrons have been here multiple years, and that would probably be a conservative estimate.
In the press tent myself and renowned photographer Lindsay Jordan are the only ones popping our Nelsonville cherry, a nearly 90% recidivism rate, and all of the rest of the journalists and photogs are literally giddy for us to experience this for our first time.
It doesn’t take long to understand why so many of these fans come back year after year. The grounds are immaculate and the stages offer everything from massive platforms to cabin porches (imagine, the opportunity to see acts like Tank and The Bangas, Paul Thorn, and Dead Horses play acoustic porch shows to about fifty people).
I meander in during one of the many Ohio bands that will play this weekend, a four piece of melody punk-rawkers named RADATTACK. Looking over the lineup in advance I am impressed by the commitment to both global and local acts that the festival has shown. They hold me for a few minutes with their energy but I am pretty intrigued by a three-piece out of Brooklyn that I have never seen before, Sunflower Bean, and so I head towards the main stage. It’s been raining and I am relishing the barefoot walk through the soggy, springy field. It feels like walking on silly putty, the texture just soft enough to squeeze gently under my feet but firm enough to not get stuck between my toes.
As I arrive they are already playing and their music is the sonic version of what my feet are experiencing. Their energy is indie without any of the hipster inaccessibility, and their strength of presence and connection is mature beyond their years.
As engaging as they are however, their vocalist and bassist, Julia Cummings, reminds me so much of my most recent ex that I decide to make a move. As I dip out the back I run into my photographer Steve Mack and he tells me that he is headed to the Boxcar Stage to check out a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter named Shannon Lay. I follow him over, past the half-pipe (yes you read that correctly) and to a smaller stage nuzzled perfectly in a small valley, seating rising gently in front of it, pond with peninsula tongue yawning to it’s left.
Lay is seated and accompanying herself on the guitar. Eerily powerful vocals contrast with almost mousey, shy thank-you’s in between songs. The sun somehow refracts around a cloud to create an eerily, powerful glow causing our shadows to fall at funny angles and her straight, bronze hair to come aflame.
“Life is just a dream and it’s up to us to manipulate it,” she would tell me later in the weekend, a statement that, after chatting with her at length and seeing multiple sets of her music, I have no reason to doubt.
It’s Friday night, Deer Tick is playing what many will later say is the best set of the festival and I am at the campsite. I need a break and have realized that the FOMO component is so high at any given moment that I have to just power past it and take care of myself. I’m trying to gather my thoughts, to turn off the fire hose and maybe lick some of the fresh water off the grass.
Earlier this morning I sat beside the Main Stage during sound-checks and watched a group of children play some sort of convoluted game of kickball. There are children’s parades slated every morning and a phalanx of young’uns hanging out by the skate park. There are children with hula hoops, children with protective head phones, children with costumes on, children splashing in puddles. There are literally children and teenagers everywhere, and there isn’t one tablet or cellular phone to be seen.
Later this evening I will sit around a campsite with some of my best friends, all of whom I met yesterday. In between I am trying to sip good music by the ladle-full, and hoping it drips through the keys of my typewriter and onto these dog-eared pages I’m carrying around.
The Black Angels were special last night, magnificent in every way. Their darkness cut through the warm Ohio evening and, according to the locals could be heard nearly two miles away. Their projectionist and the musicians working as one, created a visual and sonic trip through their entire catalog.
Tomorrow Tank and the Bangas, will take the stage right before George Clinton, and what a party that promises to be.
But tonight, on the Main Stage is The Decemberists, and while I don’t actually end up getting to see very much of their set, no amount of Powerade and cigarettes at the campsite right now could ever prepare me for what I am about to encounter.
Within the hour I will find myself surrounded by law enforcement and homeland security, the entire festival on the verge of being shut down for the night, and all because of me. Right now though, I take another swig and lay back in my hammock. There is plenty of time to live, and tell that story later.
By Saturday it is all starting to bleed together a little bit. The clouds are gone and the southern Ohio sun is out and enraged at having been hidden for so long. The Nelsonville Crew has done a magnificent job on the muddy sections, something that only I in my bare feet am disappointed in. I’ve seen more than thirty bands in two days and I’m starting to lose the plot just a little.
I’m sitting at the media cabin, listening to J.D. Hutchinson playing on the Porch Stage, and reflecting on my conversation with Tamara Lindeman of The Weather Station from the day before. I had already loved their music but their mid-afternoon set sold me forever; her voice like a cool breeze after a humid thunderstorm, coaxing away the rain and holding a siren-like draw on the previously scattered patrons.
She had been a joy to chat with afterwards, cogent and intelligent, but thoughtful, her aura fitting right in with the beauty of the scenery and the kindness of the people attending this festival. We spoke about the mid-Ontario Bible-Belt, the song-writing process and the maturation of one’s creative pursuits.
“It allows me to cover more ground, which is nice,” she had explained, speaking of her change in lyrical style for her most recent release. “I like to write about things that are messy, and all of these things are messy, so writing the songs in that way felt really good.”
Not that there is anything messy about her unbelievably well-crafted songs. Her self-titled 2017 release, which she played most of the songs from during her set earlier, not only takes her music in a new direction lyrically, but also covers new ground for how involved in the process she was.
“I always thought I was bad at making decisions,” she told me,”but making this record I learned that that is because I have never given myself permission to make those decisions before.”
From arranging the strings, something she did with a MIDI system and then had transposed, to doing a good amount of the actual production work, she did more than get her feet wet on the industry side of putting together a record.
“It interests me now,” she chuckles. “I’ll hear someone talk about a record they want to make and I’ll get all these cool thoughts about arrangements and how to add reverb and everything else. Once touring with The Weather Station is not full-time maybe other people will let me work with them.”
And there is little doubt that they will, but for all of us following her music, we hope that day doesn’t come for some time.
Meanwhile back to Saturday, and Tank and the Bangas are about to play a short acoustic set on the Gladden House porch. I break out of my day-dreams and make a move, this isn’t something I’m interested in missing.
Tank and the Bangas play a three song set that they finish out with Walmart and I catch their bassist Jon afterwards. They had all hung out at my house a few weeks ago and I’m looking forward to catching up. Jon is a skateboarder but has never done vert and he is looking to get on the ramp. I hit up my new friend Aubrey to be his tutor and get him off and running.
Meanwhile the day is building to a crescendo as Lung and Alvvays make late afternoon appearances that help keep the crowd energized. I miss Colter Wall‘s set, to my chagrin, while I interview the beautiful and talented Bedouin but find that The D-Rays, playing on top of the halfpipe while skaters turn their tricks, are the cure for what ails me.
This really is a place full of bliss, almost pre-Adamic in nature, full of all kinds of joy and peace. It doesn’t matter if you are a kid, an adult or a geriatric, there really is something for everyone. Time is running down on the day though, and I need to be as close to the front for Tank as possible. I head back toward the main stage, bare feet braving the gravel at the entrance, and move up to the front, this time however, with my typewriter attached to my wrist.
I’m not usually one to carry a forty pound suitcase holding my typewriter into the middle of the crowd, I prefer to keep it a little further out of the way, but, as it turns out, this is 2018, and things have changed.
It was just last night, after I left the campsite and headed in to The Decemberists, that all off the traffic had happened. I had been getting in the habit, over the first couple days of the festival, of setting my typewriter down in the grass by the soundboard and then heading down to the front of the main stage to dance and take in the show. Most of those here at the festival had seen this behavior and knew what was going on.
The thing of it is, The Decemberists brought in a pretty solid crowd of single-day ticket holders that did not, in fact, have any idea what was in the case or what I intended to do with it. As before I set it down and headed up front into the heart of the crowd. I found my friend Aubrey and we posted up just to the right, about six rows back.
As they were just getting ready to play I noticed a legion of police officers descending towards the stage, and I nudged my friend and mentioned that somebody must have fucked things up bad.
Two songs in and I find out that the person that fucked up bad was me. A woman grabs me from behind and as I turn around she screams at me frantically. “Law enforcement just took your typewriter and security needs to see you immediately,” so without so much as a word to my friends beside me I take off like a rocket.
I find the security guard that had been closest to where I left it and he informs me that I need to leave the festival grounds proper and go back to the entrance to get it back. When I get there I am swarmed by security guards, police officers and homeland security. Still, they are mostly good natured about it.
“Hippie festival like this,” one of them tells me, “we don’t have much to do. We needed that excitement.”
Still, having your main tool taken away by a robot, sniffed by a dog, scanned with an x-ray machine, and tested for bomb residue isn’t exactly the goal of a journalist who is hoping to get continued work.
The head of security calls me over for a very somber chat. “Our protocol takes fifteen minutes before we clear the venue,” he admonishes me. “Three more minutes and we would have pulled The Decemberists off stage, sent everyone back to the campsite, and swept the entire area for bombs.”
But I’m still here. My wristbands haven’t been cut, my campsite is still my own, and, in the words of my father, “God takes care of fools and babies.”
If Friday night was my freak-out, Saturday night was my catharsis. Tank and the Bangas take the stage dressed in gold, Tank herself wearing some sort of golden cage that does almost nothing to cover most of her body. The show is theatrical, powerful, and most of the time, heavy. They open with Kendrick Lamar’s Levitate, and close with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, jamming hit after hit of original music in between.
This is how you make 4,500 die-hard fans in one hour. Their show, one of the very best going right now, leaves no doubt as to where this band stands in the echelons of modern music. They are doing something no one else has ever done, and they are doing it with style and grace.
They are the perfect intro to the raucous performance that George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic are about to give, the perfect segue from day-to-night, overall, just nearly perfect.
I catch Clinton and friends (all twenty-seven of them) and then head back to the campsite for a bit to chill and rest up before heading to DJ Barticus’ late night set at the campground stage. But I never make it. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and exhausted from three days of non-stop running around I find myself passed out in my hammock before my friends even make it back to the campsite.
I wake up Sunday groggy but determined. There is one more day left to this festival and I intend to cover it righteously, I intend to do my job. I intend to be amazing, efficient, and better.
After an emotional interview with Sarah Vos and Daniel Wolff of Dead Horses I take in the first part of their set over at the Boxcar Stage. I run into their manager, Rebecca and let all of the tears I had been holding back in the interview out. Growing up bi-polar in a right wing version of the protestant church that doesn’t believe in mental illness, well, it’s a difficult thing, and something that has specifically touched Vos and her music. It’s also my life story.
I head back to the press tent, and I find myself, Sunday afternoon at Nelsonville Music Festival and the entire press team is congregated on the porch of the media cabin. Although most of them are sitting it conjures up a vision of a basketball team, called to huddle before a third or fourth overtime session, the players doubled-over and wheezing, hands grasping the bottom of their shorts.
But we remain undaunted. Tuneyards is playing just 100 yards away and we decide it’s time for a press-team dance party. Weary but determined we press on, ready to lose ourselves in the music one more time, this time shoulder to shoulder with the finest group of photographers and journalists perhaps ever assembled.
On the stage directly before was a band from Columbus called Counterfeit Madison. They were a revelation all weekend as Sharon Udoh belted lyrics, rolled around on the floor, and set her keyboard on fire over and over and over again. Their set wasn’t lost on the Tuneyards.
Merrill Garbus, in between songs, mentions it. “It was great to finally get to see Counterfeit Madison,” she tells the audience. “I’ve been wanting to see them live for a long time.”
Then she proceeds to lay down a set that has everyone in the audience moving and shaking. The exhaustion has been driven away by her voice, by the music, and we all get down as hard as we have all weekend before heading back to the main stage for Ani DiFranco and the last set of the festival.
Yesterday, while Lindsay Jordan was taking my portraits, she had said, “Did you hear that,” as the camera clicked. “That is the sound of time stopping.”
If anything sums up Nelsonville Music Festival, those words do. Either that or, “See you next year.”