The Nelsonville Music Festival organizers found a gem of a spot that I hope they never outgrow. The fest takes place at Hocking College, just down the road from downtown Nelsonville, Ohio. It’s an obscenely picturesque location for a music festival, nestled among southeast Ohio’s Hocking Hills and dotted with 1850s-era cabins and schoolhouses. Now in its ninth year, the festival brings in upwards of 4,000 attendees. Even when big names like the Flaming Lips, Willie Nelson, Yo La Tengo and Loretta Lynn come to Nelsonville, the festival never feels unmanageable or overwhelming. It’s a mid-size festival with small-town charm.
Among this year’s 50 acts were headliners Wilco, Cat Power, John Prine, Gogol Bordello and Mavis Staples. Here’s how the weekend went for me.
I mistakenly assumed that Thursday night at Nelsonville would be more of a pre-party, as it had been in recent years. Stupid assumption. This festival is officially four days, not three. So I missed out on Wild Belle and Gogol Bordello, but fortunately Rachael was there to capture what the kickoff looked like.
I made my tardy arrival to the main-stage sounds of Columbus, Ohio’s Nick Tolford and Company, a neo-soul act that earned a deserved spot on the 10 Ohio Bands You Should Listen to Now list. “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, baby,” Tolford crooned, and I obliged, surrendering to the sunny vibes, bobbing heads and dancing feet around me. It was exactly how you’d want to start a festival experience.
After that it was off to the Porch Stage—a more intimate, shaded spot next to some cabins—for William Tyler, Merge Records’ youthful heir to the throne of John Fahey (a comparison he’d like to shake, but if the shoe fits…). In this environment, Tyler’s instrumentals were beautiful on their own, but I especially appreciated his sincere but funny preambles that provided context for and imported meaning onto his melodies. “Geography of Nowhere” made more sense alongside vignettes of a trip to the Middle East (“full of haunting, desolate landscapes,” he said), and the awesomely titled “Hotel Catatonia” came with a great story of getting locked in a TCBY freezer while “Hotel California” played over the shop’s speakers.
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, who just released the album Child Ballads, played one of the weekend’s most memorable sets in the No-Fi Cabin, which is exactly what it sounds like: A tiny, sweat lodge of a cabin where artists play unplugged sets to as many people who can cram inside its thick walls. Depending on the artist, it can be tough to hear because of sound bleed from the main stage. And it often fills up in no time, leaving many to crane their necks through the doorways and open windows. But if you get inside in time, it’s something special. Mitchell and Hamer blended beautifully, playing traditional ballads, covering “Hearts on Fire” and digging into Mitchell’s previous (stellar) records, Hadestown and Young Man in America. It was the pair’s last show of the tour, and despite the breezeless heat and Mitchell’s pregnant belly, neither the musicians nor the cabin dwellers wanted it to end.
Wooden Indian Burial Ground was a jarring, quasi-melodic dose of post-punky psych, and though not every song won me over, the band played with an intensity that made me want to keep watching. Eventually I wandered to the main stage to hear He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, where I kept waiting for evidence that the band put as much effort into their songwriting as they do their cartoony stage appearance. It never came, so it was back to the Porch for Endless Boogie’s classic-rock-meets-krautrock, which was the perfectly loud, scuzzy antidote to the glittery schlock I ventured away from. Nelsonville books a bevy of folksy/rootsy/country acts, but that shouldn’t scare away music lovers who like bands that leave your ears numb and fuzzy. Endless Boogie did just that, laying down grooves with a three-guitar attack that were ferocious, heavy and still circular enough that the shirtless hippies up front had something to dance to. Frontman Top Dollar aka Paul Major’s growling and borderline nonsensical stage banter were icing. I loved it.
Like his main contemporary (and previous Nelsonville performer) Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and his band, the Expressions, channeled James Brown on the main stage. I prefer Bradley’s voice and songs, but Fields has all the moves. Unfortunately his set got cut short by a thunderstorm, though he picked up where he left off later that night.
I’m not a Cat Power superfan, but I’m a fan. Chan Marshall is a treasure, and though I initially wasn’t keen on her recent sonic left turn, Sun, I came around after a few listens. But I could not get into her headlining set Friday night. Maybe it was my impatience and/or festival fatigue after waiting out the storm in my car, but her insistence on making every song as vocally unpredictable as possible coupled with her penchant for jerking her two microphones away from her face killed a lot of melodies, and her newfound diva stage persona just came off as awkward. Marshall’s backing band, who often overpowered her, didn’t help. So I meandered back to the porch to watch Screaming Females tear through a shred-filled, angsty set.
My kids, 4 and 6, got to experience Nelsonville for part of Saturday, since the festival does its best to make the event kid-friendly. The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus provided great eye candy as my son got a free balloon-animal jetpack and my daughter got her face painted like a puppy. This Vine pretty much sums up why it’s worth taking kids along for at least part of the Nelsonville experience.
I liked Lucius and Joe Pug just fine, but it wasn’t until Jonathan Richman took the stage that Saturday got really good. Onstage, Richman is an unfiltered firehose of songs, stories, dancing and whatever else strikes him in those moments. It was joyful, wonderfully goofy, sincere, cheeky, heartfelt, hilarious. The man could not contain everything going on inside him while performing. He had to step away from the mic and open his arms or pick up a bell or sing to the front row or talk to drummer Tommy Larkins or just tell a story that may or may not be related to the song he was just singing. When telling/singing a story about inhaling the fumes of a diesel engine as a kid, he said, “I realized I loved life.” It shows.
Cotton Jones and Sharon Van Etten both provided fitting soundtracks for a drowsy, hazy sun-baked afternoon leading into a set from Calexico. I’ve long been a fan of the band, and they’ve long been on my to-see list. It was a quick set, but I didn’t walk away disappointed. The crisp horns and well-mixed keys, vibraphone, etc. made the lengthy sound check worth it, too. Calexico is often overlooked and accused of making the same album over and again, but not unlike Sun Kil Moon, I’d argue it’s more about consistency than a falling into a rut. Oh, and the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” cover was an unexpected treat.
Mavis Staples and her band sounded terrific, but her set was unfortunately cut short when those thunderstorms returned. By the time the clouds dissipated, she was unable to return to finish the set. At least we got to see Staples sing “You are Not Alone” with Jeff Tweedy, who produced her previous and forthcoming records. Wilco then took the stage at 11pm for a long set of deep cuts (“Should’ve Been in Love”), newer songs (“Whole Love,” “Art of Almost”) and several from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (“I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Poor Places”). Ever since the addition of Nels Cline on guitar Wilco has been as tight as they are experimental, seamlessly jumping from melody to cacophony and back again. It makes for an engaging, varied live show. Tweedy dubbed the encore “Wilexico,” bringing out Calexico to join the band for “California Stars” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
I did sneak away at one point to catch a couple songs from Cincinnati band Wussy, whose album Strawberry is a personal favorite. The band debuted at least one new tune they’d never played before, and the powerful chorus stuck with me: “I’m not the monster that I once was / 20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.”
I began the final day of the festival with a porch set by the Black Swans’ Jerry David DeCicca, who’s working on his first solo record. Vocals from Bird and Flower’s Eve Searls were a welcome addition, and though the lap-steel contributions from musician-in-demand Sven Kahns were missed, DeCicca’s songs were as weird and well-crafted as ever.
David Wax Museum didn’t do much for me (maybe I had met my Tex-Mex limit for the weekend?), but Tift Merritt provided a lovely soundtrack to a sunny afternoon. The real afternoon treat, though, was Field Report, the new project of Chris Porterfield, a big-hearted dude who thanked everyone possible from the stage and even blessed a couple sneezers. The guy is so approachable that several fans kept trying to have conversations with him during the set—a phenomenon I also witnessed at a previous Field Report show. (There is no wall.) All the songs from the band’s self-titled debut translated wonderfully onstage, as did a few new songs. Don’t sleep on this band.
The festival couldn’t have ended on a better note. While dark thunderheads threatened in the distance, John Prine took the stage before the twilight hour and seemed to single-handedly keep the clouds at bay. Dressed sharply in a dark suit, Prine looked and sounded every bit of 66, but the accumulated coarseness in his voice serves him well—better, in fact, than the nasal sound of his youth.
Long in the tooth legends are synonymous with Nelsonville, which is part of its charm. But it’s a crap shoot. In years past, Lee “Scratch” Perry was a debacle, but Wanda Jackson sang with more ferocity (and better pitch) than women half her age. George Jones (RIP) could barely hold a tune. Loretta Lynn’s son was a drunken mess in her pre-show, but Lynn held her own quite well.
A legend is a legend, so I’m always grateful to witness one in person, even if the sonic result is less than I’d hoped. But of all the legends Nelsonville has brought to the stage, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any quite as much as John Prine. He wisely keeps the stage setup minimal, just Prine and his acoustic guitar flanked by a lead player and a bassist, both of whom were exceptional players without distracting from songs like “Long Monday,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Six O’Clock News,” “Picture Show” and others. Prine’s a songwriter you can (and should) appreciate from his albums, for sure. But hearing those stories in person is something I didn’t realize I needed on my bucket list till it happened. As Field Report tweeted later that night, “Why does anyone write songs when JOHN PRINE.”
Driving back to my cabin along the endearingly winding backroads of the Hocking Hills, I replayed as much of that final Nelsonville set as I could, intent on cementing the experience in my brain so that one day when I’m 66 I can tell some young’uns what made John Prine so special.