Over the last several years, Hot Springs' Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival has grown from an upstart event with a handful of bands to a weeklong smorgasbord showcasing more than three dozen groups of every flavor and variety, usually with several international acts thrown into the mix.
Bill Solleder and Shea Childs started the nonprofit, volunteer-run VOV (which kicks off Sunday, March 18) back in 2005 as a way to catch bands traveling to and from Austin for SXSW.
While the words "music festival" might bring to mind giant outdoor extravaganzas like Coachella or Lollapalooza, with massive stages, sunburned throngs and miles of port-a-potties, VOV is a "small-venue" festival, Solleder said. That said, many of the bands that come to VOV have also played the big stage of outdoor festivals like Bonnaroo.
Last year, Solleder and Childs moved the dates to the week after SXSW and saw enormous growth in attendance, Solleder said. "We moved the dates from piggybacking on top of SXSW to the next week, which is Arkansas spring break, when all of these high school and college kids are off."
That's likely the reason that VOV more than doubled its attendance, drawing between 400 and 600 people throughout the course of the all-day shows. Fortunately, interest from volunteers has also amped up. "We had a volunteer meeting last week, and we put a little Facebook thing out. I had set up I think 30 or 40 chairs thinking, 'Well that'd be great.' But we had 60 people show up," Solleder said.
Along with the growth, though, have come concerns about making sure VOV retains its intimate vibe. "There's been talk about how far do we let it go?" he said. "We want to maintain this very community, underground idea and not go big. But we'll see how this year goes and whether we have to worry about growth."
Part of VOV's appeal as far as bands are concerned is that it's a much more relaxed environment (the main venue is, appropriately, Low Key Arts) than the media pressure-cooker and resulting parade of posturing that is SXSW.
"And we pride ourselves on hospitality," Solleder said. "I spend a good chunk of volunteer meetings telling them, 'The most important thing for you to do as volunteer is, when a van rolls up, I need you to go up to them, put out your hand and say 'Welcome to Hot Springs.' "
This year, the welcome mat includes a gift-wrapped package.
"Each one of our volunteers gets a band and they're responsible to buy that band a present, so when they roll up it's like 'hey how's it going?' And then they get this wrapped present," he said. "Those are the small things that make it memorable for bands down the line."
Another new concept at this year's VOV is a series of secret band, secret venue shows. Even after being booked up solid, Solleder kept getting calls from bands that wanted to play Hot Springs. Thus the forthcoming Pass-the-Hat shows: Each band will play a nontraditional venue such as an old mansion downtown, an art gallery or a barbershop. The artist and venue will only be announced the day before, and will depend on word of mouth and social media for promotion. Solleder offered a few hints about the acts: among others, there'll be an old-school Brooklyn rapper, a German rock band and a group that is in the "lineage" of At the Drive-In.
While VOV has long hosted workshops, 2012 marks the first year that there will be daily classes, including a knitting workshop led by The Breeders' Kelley Deal, a comic illustration lesson from antifolk notable Jeffrey Lewis, a class by custom guitar maker Yuri Landman and more.
The doors open at noon on Sunday with a huge lineup of a dozen bands. The music starts at 1 p.m. with R. Ring, which is Deal's band with Mike Montgomery of the band Ampline. Chicago's Love of Everything (affiliations with members of Joan of Arc, Cap'n Jazz, Make Believe, etc.) plays next, followed by The Water Liars and Southeast Engine, both of which are, along with R. Ring, members of the Misra Records roster. Kelley Deal's knitting workshop starts at 4 p.m. at Studio 10.
Brooklyn duo The Big Sleep plays big-sounding rock at 5 p.m. followed by Detroit spazz-rockers Child Bite. Canadian rockabilly sleaze-merchant Big John Bates takes to the stage next, followed by Tulsa power-pop-punks Broncho. At 9 p.m., the one-man wrecking crew known as El Paso Hot Button is up.
If you dig Tame Impala (the Australian band whose 2010 LP "Innerspeaker" was a modern masterpiece of introverted psych-rock) then you won't want to miss Pond, which features three of the minds behind Tame Impala. Round about 11 p.m., check out the Brooklyn-based bedroom psychedelia of Oberhofer. Ohio country-punks Two Cow Garage close out the evening.
Monday's show starts at 7 p.m. with a lineup that falls all over the sonic spectrum. You've got the ramshackle folk rock of The Underhill Family Orchestra; the otherworldy, Animal Collective-approved weirdness of Prince Rama; the ragged, catchy pop-punk of Nashville upstart Pujol; the harmonically rich, sophisticate-pop of Grandchildren; the Spacemen 3-soundtracking-a-spaghetti-western kinda thing that New York's Psychic Ills are doing a kinda these days; the frantic yet catchy post-punk of Cloud Nothings; and finally, the kaleidoscopic prog-pop of Maps & Atlases. Jeffrey Lewis leads a comics illustration workshop at 4 p.m. at Studio 10. There's also going to be one of the aforementioned Pass-the-Hat shows at 6 p.m.
On Tuesday, there's a workshop on laughter yoga at 4 p.m. with Susan Gonzalez and a Pass-the-Hat show at 6 p.m. The main lineup starts at 7:30 p.m. at Low Key Arts with Japanese pop weirdoes The Depaysement, the high-octane modern rock of L.A. quartet The Royal Heist; the booze-soaked rock 'n' brawl of Kentucky Knife Fight; snotty, throwback pop punk from New Jersey's Lost in Society, and some bouncy indie rock shuffle from American Pinup.
Check out the rest of the schedule at www.valleyofthevapors.com. The Times will have more VOV coverage next week.