Review: Nelsonville Music Festival still the best fest around

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

I've been going to the Nelsonville Music Festival for so long that it's become nearly impossible to separate the years. Did the Yo La Tengo headline last year? Which year did the festival turn into a giant mud pit? When did I see Willie Nelson again? That's not a knock on the festival for not standing out; I've been there six years out of the festival's nine in existence. So after a while, stuff just sort of blends together.

It is after all, as I tell pretty much everyone near me, easily the best festival I've gone to. It's perfectly sized so you're not walking miles just to get from music to camping - or from stage to stage; it's a perfect mix of small, regional bands, under the radar national touring bands and national headliners; it's set in the most picturesque setting I've found for a festival; and the vibe is laidback and actually communal - in fact, many times it feels like a giant reunion with friends from all over Ohio.

What follows is a bunch of random stuff that stood out to me over the weekend.

* Timing and frame of mind played a huge role in which acts I enjoyed most over the weekend. Wild Belle, for instance, seemed lethargic and subdued, but I could have simply been flush with adrenaline at having just arrived and, thus, wasn't entirely in the right mood. The band sounded great - and I digged all the sax - but Wild Belle could have been a perfectSunday afternoonslot, and I might have enjoyed it a little more were that the case. Where Wild Belle's set was too subdued for me Thursday, William Tyler's laid-back instrumental guitar chops were a perfect respite Friday afternoon. I laid down on a grassy bank under some trees, shut my eyes and found myself balancing on that hazy edge between wake and sleep.Simply sublime.

* I've resolved myself to never being in the right mood for Gogol Bordello. I have multiple friends whose musical tastes I respect who LOVE Gogol Bordello. I saw 'em play Lollapalooza in 2008 and wasn't digging them. Still feel the same after this weekend, though at this point I don't feel like I'm "missing" anything - or that my friends are similarly clueless - so much as I've finally succumbed to acknowledging they're "just not for me."

* The Nelsonville Music Festival gets a strong rep for being a country/folk festival for hippies/aging hippies. Yea, there's some of that. But anyone who stuck around the Porch Stage long enough walked away with vastly different impressions. It started, for me, Thursday with The Makebelieves, out of Athens, giving me a jolt right when Gogol was starting to feel hokey. And it continued through Friday's stretch of Wooden Indian Burial Ground, Endless Boogie, Screaming Females and Reigning Sound, all of which totally slayed me and occupy four of my 10 favorite sets at the festival.

* Speaking of non-folk/country acts, I'm always impressed with the number of soul and R&B outfits that come through this festival. Lee Fields & the Expressions continued that tradition, though didn't come close to the highs of Black Joe Lewis or Sharon Jones. But that was probably next to impossible to do anyway.

* Some festivals wait, rightly so, till after noon to begin that day's concerts. People are still sleeping, hung over, whatever. At many of those other fests, this can be a downside, as you're stuck with nothing to do in the middle of nowhere. I made the most of Nelsonville's surroundings by going kayaking with some friends Friday and riding the bike trail to Athens on Saturday for lunch. It made for the best start to the day of any festival I've been to, and also helped keep me going strong late at night.

* I was beyond thrilled to see Columbusites Nick Tolford & Company rocking out the Main Stage after totally owning the Porch Stage in previous years. Festival-goers seemed equally thrilled. I heard a couple of Olde Towne East shout-outs, so obviously some were from Columbus, too. But the crowd gathered in front of Tolford's set kept growing as the songs piled up, so you know there's more to it than homerism.

* Every year at Nelsonville there's at least one headliner who puts on a stinker of a show. Usually that delineation is reserved for older performers who struggle to stand upright for more than 15 minutes, much less belt out their classics and entertain the crowd. This year, the consensus among every person I (un-)scientifically polled, myself included, gave that award to Cat Power. Nearly all criticisms revolved around the word lifeless and uninspired. Another act I didn't enjoy one bit: The Coup. Hip-hop groups are a hard sell for live shows, much less festival shows. It didn't help that Boots Riley made the opposite mistake most rappers do (yelling out their lyrics to the point where they're unintelligible) by mumbling through his lyrics.

* Other Nelsonville constants I enjoyed this year include: seeing multiple bands multiple times across multiple stages. The highlight this year: Cotton Jones. I caught two Porch Stage shows and a No-Fi show, and I probably heard the same songs three or four times, but I didn't care. "Red-Sentimental Blues" became my de-facto soundtrack to the weekend; even when I wasn't listening to it live, I was humming it in my head.

* Jonathan Richman is rightly a legend. He might not be a favorite of mine, but I enjoyed the hell out of his set, which was witty, fun, entertaining and lighthearted. I especially enjoyed his tap dances and the contorted guitar solo faces he made seemingly at random.

* Rain was again a factor at this year's festival, but shows were delayed at most an hour or two this year, and the grounds were impeccably maintained throughout the weekend. The only act noticeably cut short was Mavis Staples', but few complained, especially since Wilco's Jeff Tweedy joined her onstage just before the rain delay. It felt wrong to complain about anything after that heavenly pairing.

* Speaking of Wilco, this was one of my favorite times seeing them live (I'm on six and counting, if my math is correct), and part of that surely was the festival setting. Wilco are simply a great band for this type of concert. But it was more than that, and it was mostly little things, like, as Alive writer Chris DeVille mentioned to me later, seeing bit players in the band play larger roles. Or seeing Calexico join the band on stage. Or simply worming my way to the front three rows, which would be nearly impossible any place else.

* Another thrill at Nelsonville is the people watching, but not in the way it is at other festivals. No, here you're not looking for weirdos as much as you're looking for famous band members who're scoping out the music. Wilco bassist John Stirratt was this year's highlight for me, as it probably was also for Mr. DeVille, who noticed Stirratt and proceeded to make his way to the bassist ala an awkward teen approaching the pretty girl at the junior high dance.

* NMF is a small festival, so it's always intriguing being one of the all-weekenders and watching the different crowds each night's headliner brings in. Two years ago you could easily point out the Flaming Lips fans. This year, it was equally interesting watching Gogol's fans flood the festival grounds Thursday, followed by John Prine's fans Sunday.

* It's always a shame, however, to see fans rush out of town so quickly Sunday, especially when it meant they missed Sunday's Field Report show, fresh off their self-declared "award" for Best Most Awkward Stage Banter. The banter might have been awkward, yea, but it was charming and endearing, and of course I didn't care because I GOT TO HEAR NEW FIELD REPORT SONGS.

* It's virtually impossible for me to go to a festival and not walk away with some merch. Usually it's a record I get signed later, but this year, in a sign of my aging, my big purchase was a candle and some incense. I did snag a Dizzee Rascal record from Columbus' Ghetto Vintage for $3, though.