Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival

Lawrence, KS
June 5 – 8, 2008

Text and video by Brian F. Johnson

Courtesy of photographer James Allison www.jamesallisondesign.com

DAY I – (but, not really)

Any festival can get hit with a stroke of bad luck or bad weather. The good ones are the ones who know how to rebound, and 2008 was that kind of year for the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.

Google Maps clocks the drive from Denver to Lawrence, Kan. as 8 hours and 15 minutes, but on a day when 30 tornadoes touched down in the state of Kansas, Google’s time allotment gets thrown out the window.

From essentially the western edge of Kansas all the way to Lawrence (which is on the eastern side of the state), I was caught in a storm that I couldn’t get out of. I tried to drive through it, but the conditions were insane, with sheets of rain and wind that were so powerful it obscured the view of everything except my windshield wipers. Plan B was to sit and wait it out, but even after an hour of letting the storm move around, it had yet to pass and so I slowly ventured on.

For the record, whoever makes up speed limits in Kansas is an asshole! I-70 shouldn’t have a speed limit in Kansas. You should be able to go as fast as you want, but when the conditions were good, 70 m.p.h. was all that Johnny Law allowed, so I kept to it.

Finally, after nearly 13 hours on the road, I pulled in to Clinton Lake State Park, the home of Wakarusa. It wasn’t actively raining, but the sky had grown black with clouds, wind was blowing hard and thunder was booming. Lightning flashed all around, turning the dark skies mid-day bright every few seconds. The wind was blowing and the thunder was clapping, but it wasn’t raining.

I had gotten out of the car to have a smoke when a bolt of lightning, which broke off into multiple fingers, hit the ground nearby with a huge, thunderous clap, scaring the shit of me. I flinched and ducked, then looked over to the guys in the car next to me, laughing their asses off. Soon, however, no one was laughing. Word came that the weather wasn’t going to improve and that the festival was shutting down for the night. Done! I had traveled all this way to find that I wouldn’t be seeing music — not today anyway.I was too tired to be bothered by it, and in a few minutes when the rain did hit, I realized they had made the right decision to pull the plug for the night. I found a parking lot, crawled in the back of the van, chugged a beer and passed out.

DAY II – Friday

I woke to find surprisingly sunny skies, but having missed the box office the night before, I still had no idea of the lay of the festival land. Turns out the box office had gotten swamped the night before, so they moved it to a parking lot near the water’s edge of Clifton Lake. For a couple of hours a bunch of stunned-looking folks gathered in the lot, all asking when the box office would open and the accompanying questions of where to go, etc.

That aside, however, if you hadn’t been there the day before, you wouldn’t really have known of the calamities from the storm. The organizers did an absolutely amazing job at simply moving on and going about business as usual for the festival. Throughout the rest of the weekend, I didn’t hear or witness one gripe about something that they hadn’t properly handled. A TON of festivals could learn a lot from that.

By noon I had set up camp, filled my lungs with smoke and my stomach with coffee and I was on my way to see music.

Stardeath and White Dwarves @ Sun Down Stage

All I knew about these guys when I walked toward the stage for their Saturday morning set was they sure as fuck know how to name a band. Brilliant band names and great music don’t always go hand in hand, but this time they most certainly did. They played the first notes I heard at Wakarusa and it was some pretty damn awesome indie/experimental rock. As it turns out the lead singer of Stardeath and White Dwarves is Dennis Coyne, the nephew of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Stardeath also calls Oklahoma City home. While the family ties may certainly help push the band, they don’t really need the help. They’re a solid act that I would highly recommend.

Back Door Slam @ Revival Tent

This was another act that I had no knowledge of before seeing them on stage. Anyone who digs Eric Clapton, Robert Cray or Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies would be foolish to miss an opportunity to see them. I’d never heard of lead guitarist Davy Knowles before Saturday, but his guitar playing should no longer be kept a secret.

Apollo Sunshine @ Sun Down Stage

These geek rockers are one hell of a strong band. Jumping from groove-funk to indie pop effortlessly (and sometimes even in the same song) the band members move from instrument to instrument and style to style like flipping channels on a remote. You’d think that the result would be a bit unsettling and nerve racking, but the composition of their songs is such that it just makes good sense, and good music.

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise @ Sun Up Stage

I’ve been a fan of Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise for more than a decade, but I’ve never gotten to see him live. As I was walking toward the stage, I heard the opening notes of his song “Once Upon a Time” and my walk quickly turned to a run. I got there just as he began to sing the first chorus and the great, great line, “I remember Marvin Gaye, singing, ‘Let’s Get It On.’” Seeing the blind Bradley smiling, hunched over his keyboard and belting out that tune with such soul and feeling was magical. As the end of the set approached, he played another one of my favorites by him, “California,” and both he and the band nailed it. As I strolled away from the tent, I laughed to myself thinking about what would happen if Bradley was suddenly able to see. I mean, does he know that these soulful-ass guys he’s playing with are a bunch of white boys? I was even surprised, and I’ve seen pictures of the band before!

Blackalicious @ Revival Tent

There’s not too much to say about Blackalicious. Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab are phenomenal entertainers. Gift of Gab is so damn smooth in his rapping it’s amazing. His lips were almost blurring from rapping so quickly, but he was crystal clear in his delivery and made it seem so damn easy. It was a great set to catch.

Courtesy of photographer James Allison www.jamesallisondesign.com

Buckethead @ Sun Down Stage

Poor fucking Buckethead. It’s already got to be hot enough under that damn fried chicken bucket, but during his set he was staring right into a sweltering setting sun. He must have been sweating his extra-crispy ass off. Buckethead is an amazing talent. His fingers look like they’re each five feet long and the guitar is like putty in those massive meat hooks. But, since he plays alone to a soundtrack, his set did get a bit stale. Even though he shreds and even though he has that whole creepy bucket and robotic movement-thing going, watching someone shred for an hour can get a little old. And the late afternoon sun didn’t help. I ducked out about halfway through and headed back to the Revival Tent.

Courtesy of photographer James Allison www.jamesallisondesign.com

Arrested Development @ Revival Tent

I’ve seen these guys several times before and they never fail to be entertaining. Anyone who knows anything about Arrested Development knows that they’re subtle and smooth in their rhymes and anything but subdued on stage. Speech, Sister Eshe and Tasha LaRae, are three awesome performers. Eshe has never spent a calm moment on stage, but this day she was particularly keyed up, throwing herself from one end of the stage to the other. Unfortunately, though, it was almost too much this day, as her dancing kind of took away from the music itself. It was still entertaining as hell, but it was a disappointment to be distracted from the tunes themselves.

Galactic @ Sun Down Stage

Cake was supposed to play this time slot, but travel plans forced them to switch with Galactic. I know I’ll probably get attacked next time I walk through Boulder for saying this, but honestly, I don’t get Galactic. Everyone in the group is an incredibly talented musician, but to me, it just doesn’t translate into anything I want to listen to. After 10 minutes of watching them, I get bored, as I don’t think they provide enough rewards. Some bands are excellent at building to climaxes and rewarding their audiences. Galactic can build for sure, but when you get there with them, it just doesn’t pay off.


The Flaming Lips @ Sun Down Stage

This was my main impetus for attending the festival. I think the Lips are genius, but have only had the opportunity to see them once before, so I was very excited and prepared for this set. Yes, the Flaming Lips sets are the same time and time again. True, Wayne Coyne doesn’t have the best voice ever. But, I think that these guys are one of the most crucial live acts touring today — a must see on so many levels. The Lips’ have been bringing naked-ness back to summer festivals and during their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Song Remains The Same” a half-dozen or so naked ladies were on stage dancing and frolicking like good hippies should, amidst the largest confetti shower I’ve ever witnessed.

Rolling Stone once listed the Flaming Lips among one of the “Top 50 acts to see before you die” and I wholeheartedly agree. Their stage presence is unparalleled. Their light show is better than Pink Floyd’s. Their crowd interactions are infectious. Spending an evening under the stars with the Flaming Lips with a head full of mushrooms is something that everyone should experience at least once. I’ve already re-listened to a recording of the set and it still stands up as awesome, even in a sober state. It was most certainly the highlight of the festival.

Courtesy of photographer James Allison www.jamesallisondesign.com


The day started off warm and grew to hot, but because of constant high winds, it never really got as hot as it could have. Things had started to dry out by now and while there were still muddy spots throughout the grounds and in the tents, for the most part, it was as if the storm never happened at all. I left my campsite and traveled all the way over to the other side of the festival grounds, probably a good mile or two, to get a shower. I’ve never been to prison, but I now have a decent idea of what showers in jail are like — without, of course, the impending violence and gang rape. The showers were the low-light of the festival; small, cold as hell and devoid of anything resembling privacy. Keeping clean at Wakarusa, I suppose, is not a priority.

Garrett Nordstrom Situation @ Prairie Stage

Having showered in seconds, I found myself with time to spare and sat down in front of the Prairie Stage for this Kansas City Band. I had never had a situation with Garrett Nordstrom before, and I will not be seeking one in the future. Simply put, this bar band was boring and a sad opener for Great American Taxi.

Photo by Brian F. Johnson

Great American Taxi @ Prairie Stage

This set proved to be the Colorado-crowd reunion set of the weekend. When I saw the leopard-print hat of the Cheesecake Lady come into view, I knew the Coloradoans would soon follow and sure enough, more than a handful turned out to support the Nederland boys. Never ones to skip the built-in benefit of having friends around, Vince Herman and company welcomed a few folks to the stage, including Brian Shey on tambourine and Herman’s son, Silas, who ripped a blistering acoustic guitar solo.

Papa Mali @ Revival Tent

The mud from the day before had turned to a thick paste in the Revival Tent. It was still messy, but not as gross or slippery as the day before. Papa Mali’s set helped pack that paste down as a large crowd gathered under the D.I.A.-like tent for his set. Mali’s technique, soul and overall sound is impeccable. He commands attention on stage. However, despite all of those pluses, the set lacked a true punch. Nothing was bad at all, but after a while it got a bit drab, for lack of a better word. I think that Mali is simply more suited to venues like the Fox, than the big festival crowds.

Porter, Batiste and Stoltz @ Sun Up Stage

I only caught one song by PBS. It wasn’t them that made me walk out of the tent. It was simple scheduling. But, in fact, it was easy to walk away from them, as I’ve seen them before and knew that they’d nail pretty much anything they played.

Photo by Brian F. Johnson

Leftover Salmon @ Sun Down Stage

Colorado reunion number two! When I heard that Leftover Salmon was reforming last year to play select shows, I was honestly nervous about the phone-in factor. If they weren’t 100% back together, would they just wing every show and kick back, I wondered. Well, I’m happy to report that the phone-in factor is not an issue. Vince Herman was coming off a three-week tour with Great American Taxi and obviously tired from the road, but as soon as he strapped that guitar around his neck it was like he’d been relaxing for weeks. Leftover’s as strong as ever as a unit onstage. They may all be involved in other projects, they may never practice, but they don’t just phone it in. They’re the quintessential festival band. They ripped through a number of their classics as well as some Bill Monroe and John Hartford tunes in the late afternoon sun.

Courtesy of photographer James Allison www.jamesallisondesign.com

Dr. Dog @ Sun Up Stage

I skipped out a few songs early from Leftover Salmon to make it over to see the Old 97s, but on the way, I got sucked in to something completely unexpected – Dr. Dog. This Philadelphia-based five piece is a great blending of indie pop, psychedelic rock and hard rockin’ bar band. Stumbling upon them was as rewarding as finding a stack of cash when you’re flat broke. I only stuck around for two songs, but was thoroughly impressed and would be happy as hell to see them again.

Old 97s @ Revival Tent

Old 97s is a band that everyone says I should like. Well, I think “everyone” is full of shit, because I don’t see anything great, or really anything even that good about them at all. I walked in half way through one of their tunes which wasn’t awful but far from impressive. The next song was one I recognized, but don’t know the title to. It seemed like there were some communication issues going on, as the band a couple times, sort of lost their rhythm. But the end of the song was the clincher for me. Lead vocalist Rhett Miller and lead guitarist Ken Bethea looked at each other with furrowed brows as they attempted to find the final notes together. They failed to do so. With a crash, the band botched the ending of the song, and that was enough for me. I may give the Old 97s one more chance at some point, but I’m pretty much over them.

The sun had gone down and I was getting weary, so I headed back to the campsite to relax and have a couple beverages. As the evening progressed I was tempted to turn in and call it a night, but was feeling guilty about it. Despite the lack of energy, I couldn’t get the words of Johnny Drama, from HBO’s “Entourage,” out of my head. “I am not a pussy. I am not a pussy.” I didn’t want to be either, so I mustered to make it over to the Sun Down Stage for what would be my final set of the weekend.

STS9 @ Sun Down Stage

I’ve never been a fan of Sound Tribe and, unfortunately, this set wouldn’t change my mind. I had enough “medication” left to get out of my head, but had I taken all of it, I still don’t think I would have gotten into this performance. Maybe my mind was already made up before I reached the stage, but I gave them what I thought was a decent shot, and just couldn’t get into their chemical-based heavy jam, and the almost intimidating bass. There were fire dancers in the crowd, who made for a really cool sight to see, but it still wasn’t enough to engage me.


After a bit, I called it quits and headed back to the campsite. On the way, there was this hill I had to walk down and a little tiny ditch I had to cross, with just the slightest embankment, and I do mean slight. It took all of my effort to get up and over that little thing. I was spent, had all the music I could handle and though there would be more sets on Sunday, I knew I’d be well into my trip back down I-70 by the time the music started. I did not learn until later that rain came back to Wakarusa on Sunday. The biggest reason to stick around for music that day was Emmylou Harris. At the last minute, however, Harris cancelled, so in hind sight I was right in leaving early.

Bottom line, is that Wakarusa is a well-put-together festival. It operates seamlessly to the fans, and gives enough musical variety to keep it consistently interesting throughout the weekend. Their ability to re-group and carry on after the storm of day one was impressive to say the least and if they keep booking the strong acts that they have, the festival could grow into one of America’s great summer festivals. But, next year I will bring my own golf cart to get around.

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  1. Pingback: 2008 Wakarusa Music Festival Reviews and Photos

  2. Jonathan Keller on

    Good work on this. Almost feels like I was there except I have no hang over. 🙂

  3. No review of Wakarusa is complete without a mention of Madahoochi’s insane Friday night set. They played with more energy, more raw rock power than any band there the whole weekend. There were better musicians, bigger names, but nobody… NOBODY had the raw no-holds-barred rock and roll energy that Madahoochi unleashed.

    Other than that, great review! Bookmarked 😀

  4. HI,I was brutally attacked in the campground at the wakarusa festival, mulberry mountain, arkansas, at roughly 4pm, friday, june 5 2009.
    my assaialant used the martial arts weapon known as ‘nunchucks’-he had various tattos, specifically one of a pentagram on his back.
    I was also subsuquently robbed.
    my jaw was broken in three places, and I sustained nearly $7,000.oo in medical bills.
    If you saw this attack, or can identify the person who did it, please contact Franklin County Sherriff’s office Detective Robert Limbocker, at (479) 667-4127.
    thank you.if you are not comfortable with speaking to the police, alternatively, you can call (720)838-6564, or email vendingmachine@hotmail.com

    detective limbocker is ALSO trying to determine the identity of two plainclothes security guards, who witnessed the attack,bu tmade no move toward apprehending the assailant at the time.
    security supervisor michael neville, so far, has refused to identify these two gurds to investigators, and nathan prenger, event co-ordinator, hasd refused to provide the events insurance information.

    any assistance in this matter would be appreciated-even if it is only a licence place of a care associated with my assailants campsite..thank you.