Concert review: Nelsonville Music Festival

Joel Oliphint


The Friday bummer was that Gary Clark Jr. had to cancel. But because the cancellation pushed things back, I got there in time to see Angel Olsen, who put on a captivating early evening performance with her band. On record, Olsen's singing sounds breathy and ethereal, but onstage, her voice is grounded, and her vibrato is a gut punch. There's a pathos running through Olsen's music that, combined with her hundred-mile stare, is deeply affecting. She closed the set by herself, covering Roky Erickson's "For You." "If I was on trippy drugs I'd have bawled my eyes out," one fan said after the last note cascaded into the hills.

After a hoedown in the No-Fi Cabin with Justin Fowler and his sweaty friends, I took in All Them Witches on the porch stage, which began with two festival-goers' onstage wedding ceremony. I got bored with the band's jammy groove-metal and felt similarly "meh" during goofy critical darling Mac Demarco's set on the main stage, but all was made right with a late-night bout of Diarrhea Planet, the over-the-top, finger-tapping Nashville power-pop six-piece with four guitarists, all of whom somehow feel entirely essential during the set. The shredding and power chords were nonstop, and the band seemed just as giddy as the moshing crowd. (One audience member was so inspired he hopped onstage naked. Twice.) Talk was minimal other than egging on the crowd and yelling out a song title or description, e.g. "This song's about sleeping at a funeral home!" Diarrhea Planet also debuted some tunes from the band's new record, Turn to Gold, which comes out Friday.


Joan Shelley, a modern-day master of trad folk, took the main stage amid the sounds of recently emerged cicadas humming and balloon-animal cicadas popping. Nathan Salsburg provided melodic backup on a second guitar as Shelley's hypnotic, clear-as-a-bell singing entranced, especially on an a cappella cover of Addie Graham's "Darling Don't You Know That's Wrong."

Over on the boxcar stage - a new addition this year, and free to anyone - the cicadas were so loud they almost drowned out the hazy, John Fahey-style guitar of Daniel Bachman. But in the end it only added to the experience, turning the performance into an art installation with sweeping drones.

Rain and thunder delayed things for a bit, as the sound crew squeegeed the main stage with mopped up the water with towels, but eventually Charles Bradley, the "Screaming Eagle of Soul," danced the robot and bore his soul for a pain-soaked, rain-soaked set. "Make this world right!" Bradley scream-sang, addressing his plea to anyone and everyone. His backing band, the Extraordinaires, put every retro-soul act out there to shame.

All Dogs made Columbus proud on the porch stage, as Maryn Jones led her band through songs off Kicking Every Day, and just like the record, there wasn't a weak one in the bunch. "This song is about Columbus, Ohio - specifically the Monster House," Jones told the crowd, shouting out the DIY house-show venue. "It changed my life. It made me who I am today." If these hooky, punk-influenced songs wouldn't exist without the Monster House, then we should all be thankful for it.

Saturday's main event was Gillian Welch, who performed an acoustic duet set with longtime partner Dave Rawlings, drawing heavily from albums The Harrow and the Harvest and Time (The Revelator), and throwing in the duo's famous cover of Radiohead's "Black Star." As Welch told Alive previously, she was hoping not to get drowned out by other, louder stages, and Saturday night Welch told the crowd she was thankful not to get "Skrillexed" at Nelsonville. "It's just a real good time. It's just a big, soggy party," she said, referencing the drizzle. Rawlings didn't hit a bum note the whole night, even when riffing at lightning speed on his vintage archtop acoustic, and the pair's virtuosic harmonies were stunning, filling the damp air for well over an hour, including two encores. Naturally, "Look at Miss Ohio" had the whole crowd singing along.


Athens expat and recent Fat Possum signee Adam Torres played an absolutely gorgeous set to the Sunday crowd on the boxcar stage. As the cicadas whined and whirred, Torres' crystalline falsetto stole the show, though his backing band was crucial, too. Thor Harris, drummer for bands like Swans, Bill Callahan and Shearwater, added just the right amount of creative percussion, and the eerie, atmospheric drones of Aisha Burns' violin reminded me of vintage Black Swans with late, great violinist Noel Sayre.

I'd been skeptical of the Wild Reeds, thinking the three-female led act was a quintessential NPR Tiny Desk Concert band of pleasant-but-unremarkable folk-rock, but that image was quickly shattered on the main stage. The Wild Reeds can harmonize with the best of them, for sure, but it's more angsty than sweet, like a Sharon Van Etten triple threat. Suffice it to say, women owned the main stage all weekend at Nelsonville.

Closing out the weekend after another brief rain delay, songwriting legend Randy Newman brought everything a music fan could have wanted to his set. He brought the hits, like "Short People," "I'll Never Get Over Losing You" and "You've Got a Friend in Me" (the Toy Story song). He brought a laugh-out-loud sense of humor, whether in his between-song banter or in "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," a song the 72-year-old wrote about aging musicians like himself who won't stop writing and touring. During the refrain, Newman instructed the crowd to sing "He's dead! He's dead!" and they happily obliged; Newman feigned bruised feelings at the enthusiasm.

The satirist also brought his acerbic wit to political pieces, tweaking Vladimir Putin and U.S. foreign policy in song. But the most moving moments came during Newman's tender songs, during which the crowd fell completely silent. "She Chose Me" and "Marie" hit harder now that Newman's voice is even craggier than in the past, full of weight and experience. As Newman choked up in the middle of the devastating "Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" it was impossible not to feel the same way.

Perhaps that's the highest achievement of artists - to make us feel what they feel. If so, the 2016 edition of the Nelsonville Music Festival was a success at the highest level.

Read Alive's review of Thursday's Nelsonville kickoff by clicking here