Introduction & Photos by Steve Mack
Full Review by Paige Vandiver
The annual Stuarts Opera Hall fundraiser known as The Nelsonville Music Festival just celebrated its 15th birthday party … in style.
In typical fashion, Tim Peacock, Brian Koscho and their staff curated a diverse lineup that included Mavis Staples, Tyler Childers, The War & Treaty, Bully, The Death Valley Girls, RADATTACK and dozens of other talented artists. While music is clearly the draw, there is something for everyone at NMF … art installations, artisan vendors and numerous kids programs, including the traditional Saturday afternoon parade and plenty of time to catch up with old friends and make new ones.
This year our writer was a NMF first timer, Paige Vandiver, a well known musician in the central Ohio music scene (drummer/vocals for The Salty Caramels, Linden Hollow, The Jeffs, Straw and the Scarecrow) was along to interview a number of artists and provide her insight on what makes NMF a must attend summer event.
The Magic of Nelsonville Music Festival … Words by Paige Vandiver
Nelsonville Music Festival has been on my festival list since I moved to Columbus in 2012, but somehow I have never made the obnoxiously short trek to check it out. So I’m here to tell you the skinny on Nelsonville Music Festival (NMF) from the perspective of an extremely seasoned festival chaser with a media pass. It was like I was 12 and they told me I could go on The Price Is Right wearing a homemade Bob Barker puff-paint t-shirt and know that I was gonna get all the way to the Showcase Showdown to win a Subaru, a trip to Bali, and a marble coffee table that I’d just give to my Aunt Phyllis.
My girl Lindsay and I packed up my Rav4 and arrived at the campground around noon on Thursday. The line was pretty short to get in and we had to choose between turning left to set up near her photography friends in the family camp or turning right and to set up near the late-night Campground stage where we’d be up til’ sunrise and I would get to feel like I was 20 again – only with a raging hangover that would last the rest of the trip. We chose the family camp and although I lost street cred, I’m not sorry.
As my new friends on the media crew and I walked up from the campground to the festival grounds, the first area we passed was the free Boxcar Stage. FREE. Anyone can come to this without a ticket and have a festival experience. I have never been to any other festival that gives back as much as Nelsonville. Not only are they they cleanest festival I have ever attended (92% zero waste for the last 3 years) but they are run by Stuart’s Opera House – a non-profit that teaches art education programs to kids. Since all my money goes back to the kids it makes me feel much less guilty about all the Jackie-O’s and Little Fish beer I put down. One thing that continually surprised me over the weekend was how much time I spent at the free stage. I saw more music at this stage than any other. The stage was connected to a legit old boxcar on a railroad track that led you to the next free stage – a skate ramp where I watched the D-rays play a set while the skaters were attempting to do an ollie north (yes, I googled skate tricks) in front of the bass player. And this was all before we even walked into the ticketed area.
Turns out my favorite thing about NMF was finding the artists that I have never heard who will now make me spend the next 6 months listening to their entire musical catalog. Sierra Ferrell was the first one of those gems. I thought I could hear the old record player crackling as she was warbling sweet melodies and playfully hiding behind her ja-pan fan. She was also my first artist interview of the festival and I think we talked her into visiting Columbus soon (stay tuned). The next artist find of day one was Bully. I’m pretty sure Lindsay’s voice is still recovering from all the hollering she did for BULLY while she leaned over the rail at the Porch Stage. Orkestra Mendoza is also on that list of follow-them-now bands with their contagious energy, Latin beats and astounding auxiliary percussion skills. Seriously, the lead singer was utilizing every part of his body with some sort of instrument.
And then I got to see my first headliner from “the pit”, which is where all the photographers and writers go to get all those sweet shots. You know, the ones that make you reminisce seeing your favorite band or kicking yourself for not buying a ticket if you didn’t. They only have the first three songs to find the perfect shot for you to drool over, so move over if you see them running to the side stage before the set. Tyler Childers was the perfect choice to headline on Thursday night and it’s a testament to the festival bookers that he played the Boxcar Stage a few years ago and is now a major headliner.
After a good night’s sleep and a well-timed visit to the porta-potty right after they were cleaned, I was ready for day two. We spent a chill Friday morning drinking coffee and eating oatmeal at the campsite before hopping in the tent to turn ourselves into a pretzel to get dressed. We meandered down to the festival grounds and checked out one of my favorite new Columbus bands – WYD – at the Porch Stage, the second-largest stage of the festival with plenty of room for you to weave your way up front if that’s your jam (it’s definitely mine). We also checked out two other Columbus bands-with-a-buzz: Radattack and The Cordials Sins, who did not disappoint. We had a chance to sit down with Radattack later that day and when we asked about creating their buzz, one of the guys said “In my eyes we are awful at social media, so it’s hilarious to me that people think we are doing it right. The rest of the band deletes my tweets because they don’t think they are funny”. Then they told us their secret was in not washing your hair. They are a blast.
Another rad thing about NMF is that there are various stages of distinct character and they have many of their artists play a set at each of the backdrops. I’d recommend any newbie check out not only a set at each stage, but also one artist on multiple stages. I watched WYD tear it up on the Porch Stage and then perform a stunning acoustic set at the NO-FI cabin (a sweet old school house with great acoustics that holds about 25 people) later that evening. We also listened to Sierra Ferrell at the free Boxcar Stage and then caught her again on the back porch of the Gladden House where everyone was sitting in the grass and soaking up the sun while being serenaded.
And wow, the headliners on Friday night – The Breeders and the Oh Sees – were killer. Listening to Kim Deal belt out Cannonball brought me back to my obsession with grunge rock in middle school. The Breeders had basically gone through their entire set earlier in the day with an hour-and-a-half long soundcheck, which was like having an intimate show all to yourself (almost). And you know those bands where you listen to their record but they have a completely different feel live? That was the Oh Sees for me. I was completely mesmerized by the two drummers playing in synch on two different drum kits for THE ENTIRE SET! I think the only other time I paid attention to anything else in their set besides the drummers (I play drums, I can’t help it.) was when John Dwyer was licking the back of his clear guitar body and making animated faces at the photographers through it. Oh yeah, and when someone in the fairly-tame mosh pit made me spill some of my Mystic Mama beer on my arm.
My absolute most magical day of the entire festival was Saturday. We started the morning in the NO-FI cabin watching an intimate set by Steve Poltz, with a special appearance by his pal Anthony da Costa. I have not laughed that much in years. His owned our attention with his hilarious stories, improvisational style and animated songs. Lindsay and I were seriously in love with this guy by the end of his set where he led us all in an extended singalong of The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin”. And then we got to sit down with him at one of the other cabin porches for what turned from a 15-minute interview into a 3-hour long hang and it was one of those times where there is absolutely nowhere else you want to be. He improvised a song to a little girl named Lila (who was very shy-la), which started a crowd of people gathering around what he named the YES-FI cabin (across from the NO-FI). They played the crowd a mini-concert including some gorgeous solo songs from Anthony Dacosta. In addition to his solo project, Anthony is also a part of some killer collabs with artists such as Sarah Jarosz and Molly Tuttle. We caught his later set at the Boxcar Stage, which had everyone on a beautiful rollercoaster of laughing and crying for the entire hour. Steve Poltz was my favorite. Hands down.
From then it was a blur of awesomeness interviewing The Katys at the YES-FI stage (Cathalyn is a lead singer who is the BASSIST. Love it.), WYD whose 30-minute interview I forgot to push “record” on (ugh. rookie.), The National Reserve, and Laura Gibson who we got to interview inside an old boxcar. Lindsay and I took a break to walk through the camping area located along the path inside the treeline and we plotted our spots for next year. I hear rumors that you can get to the festival a day early, weed-whack your spot, and set yourself up a sweet camping sanctuary by the river. I have to get in on this awesomeness.
We got back just in time to catch one of my must-see bands of the lineup – War and Treaty. Whoa, they blew me away with their magnetism on stage. Mandolin Orange and Death Cab for Cutie were two headliners that I had always wanted to see live and both sets were really solid. My last “new find” of the festival was Death Valley Girls who were so engaging to watch that it was hard to break away, even for Death Cab.
Since Saturday was our last night, we finally made it down to the Campground Stage where all the late-night partiers hang out. I got some of my street cred back and got to hear Ernie Johnson from Detroit, an energetic brass band perfect to close out an amazing night – and weekend.
We had to reluctantly pack up early (8:30 was early to me) and head out on Sunday morning since I had a gig myself, but we stopped by the coffee tent on our way to tell all our friends goodbye. Yes, a coffee tent in the CAMPGROUND. Genius. Also brilliant – they sell ice in the campground. Sadly, we missed The Wood Brothers and the legendary Mavis Staples, but lucky for us all of our photog buddies captured some wicked-good pictures that made us feel like we were there.
Will I be back to Nelsonville? YES. Every year I possibly can. I’ve been to so many large outdoor music festivals and there is nothing like this one. From the music to the beautiful grounds to the altruistic vibe to the zero waste to the food to the beer to the new lifelong friendships – this festival is truly magical.
Check out all of the photos from the event below!