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Observations on Wakarusa

Notes from the Mulberry Mountain jam-band extravaganza.


At Wakarusa. - GRAV WELDON

This is the first thing, and everyone says it, but still, it cannot be overstated: Mulberry Mountain is an unequivocally spectacular location for a big music festival or camping or both. The landscape is lush, green and gorgeous. It is a jewel. And you really do feel separated from the world up there. Interstate 40 might be just a short ways down the road, but you wouldn't know it.

A fair number of the people at Wakarusa — perhaps 62 percent or more by my wildly unscientific, gut-feeling calculations — seemed to be of that variety of hippie who loves nearly all music, almost unconditionally. I'll admit to being somewhat jealous of these folks. How good must it feel to wear comfortable clothing while tossing your nappy locks about and smiling with utterly unselfconscious abandon, purely because the sound of other people making music fills your heart with joy such that it causes you to twirl around for hours? Say what you will, punk rockers and smart-alecky snark-sters, but the hippies are the ones who truly don't care what other people think. And you know what? Bless their hearts, every last one of them. That's right, bless their hearts because even though they might be irritatingly sincere space cadets with BO and self-indulgently noodle-y music and politics of the most half-baked sort, they are putting more love out into the world than hate, and that's a good thing.

Man, there sure seemed to be a lot of girls named Molly who kept getting separated from their friends. I was bumping into all these guys who were like, "Molly? Molly? Molly-Molly-Molly?" Finally I said to one of these dudes, I said, "Hey man, your other friend who was dressed kinda like you, he was looking for Molly too, just like, 15 minutes ago right here. You guys need to go up to the media center there on the hill and tell somebody that she's missing." He gave me a confused look and walked off, going "Molly? Molly?" It was weird. Oh, uh, just kidding about all that. Apparently Ecstasy is known as "Molly" nowadays. Or maybe they've been calling it that for a while. I haven't been to a rave since some time in Clinton's second term so my drug lingo is probably a bit dated.

People at festivals drop things. This happens for a variety of reasons, some intentional, others unintentional. At Wakarusa, they don't want you to drop anything — "leave no trace" and all that. But people do anyway. Sometimes, they drop things they really didn't mean to, things they really need: wallets, keys, critical pieces of clothing, various recreational accoutrements. I learned from the Internet that when you find one of these dropped party favors, it's called a "ground-score." Thus after a set is over, there will be lots of people with flashlights scouring the earth for ground-scores. I didn't see anybody make a good ground-score, though they probably wouldn't announce it real big if they did. One guy wearing a dress and one of those gigantic 19th century Chinese peasant hats chanced upon a rather expensive-looking camera lens. He held it up, shining his flashlight on it. "Anybody? Anybody?" Nope, nobody. Ground-score.

Events like Wakarusa undoubtedly provide a critical release valve for severe extroverts. Where else can you walk around for four days wearing only sunglasses and a hemp sling wrapped around your bidness and not promptly get tossed into the pokey? They were all out in force and their freak-flags were flying high and free. That said, I was surprised by the number of Natty-Lite guzzling frat-bro types in attendance. I saw one such guy wearing a turquoise tank top with all-caps neon letters reading, "You had me at Chi O."

If there's anything music festival people love as much as spinning around in a circle, it's glowing things. Sticks, necklaces, rings, hula-hoops, wands, batons, slightly longer sticks — you name it, there's somebody at Wakarusa slinging around a glowing version of it while spinning in circle. Something else they love? Those floating sky lantern thingies. The kind where you light part of it on fire and it ascends into the night sky before burning out completely about 200 feet up and they're a poignant visual metaphor for our own heartbreakingly beautiful yet ultimately doomed journey heavenward? Yeah man, they love those things. I must've seen a hundred of them or more.

Oh yeah, the music. You can see a whole, whole lot of it in a short amount of time. The lineup is certainly dominated by what could be loosely thrown together under the jam-band umbrella, but there were also many bands that didn't fit that description. In the span of only a few hours, I saw/heard: Sousa-by-way-of-steampunk from the MarchFourth Marching Band; lightning-fast bluegrass from Split Lip Rayfield; newfangled old-timey music from The Devil Makes Three; hiplet-friendly art rock from Rubblebucket; the awesome Crazy Horse-esque classic rock of Blitzen Trapper; quasi-hippie indie rock from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros; dubstep with a real-live drummer from Break Science; soaring folk-rock from The Avett Brothers; and obnoxious mash-up mischief from button-pusher Girl Talk. And that was only a portion of what was on offer on a single afternoon and evening.

Here's my main takeaway: Nearly everyone I saw at Wakarusa seemed to be having an absolute blast. Even when it was rainy and chilly and gloomy on Friday afternoon and evening, there was no bellyaching. In fact, there were quite a few people rolling around on the cold ground, making out. But in all seriousness, how many other places are you going to go and see 20,000 or so people all having that much fun? Now to be sure, my cranky, creaky old ass is way too irritable and anti-social to go to a festival like Wakarusa every year, but if you're a serious jam-band head and you live anywhere remotely close to Ozark, you should just permanently mark off late May/early June on your calendar every year.

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