Writers Note: Special thanks to Kathy Camp for providing the camera and some of the photos as well as taking care of me and my friends once we lost everything, this article wouldn’t be possible without your help.
Review and Photos by Katherine Dodds
Three hours outside of Colorado, 3 a.m. on the twenty-ninth day of May, three people sat in a broken down car on the side of I-70, all with the same goal; let’s forget the car we have to get to Wakarusa. A ride on a tow truck, a hundred phone calls later, a three-hour nap in a dirty hotel in nowhere Kansas and finally our new ride showed up. Back onto I-70 with the car left behind, we were still on our way, because nothing could stop us from getting to Wakarusa.
It was the 10th anniversary of Wakarusa, a festival that hosts hundreds of bands with thousands of people from around the country and a four day adventure through music, love, people and unpredictable moments. This year was unlike any year Wakarusa had faced in the past. This year there were tornado warnings and rain guaranteed for the first three days, unlike previous years where Mulberry Mountain had been granted sunshine and high temperatures mixed with dense humidity. Despite the prediction of unkind weather, the people continued to pour in through the entrance where the masses set up tents and claimed their camping spot in record-breaking times to ensure they had the space they needed to live out this festival.
Parking and setting up camp is in itself an adventure for everyone, whether you were in Main Venue, Media and Artist, Backwoods or down by the river camping. The deal is, you park your car, jump out and start throwing everything you own out as fast as you can to protect the tiny piece of land you’ve been granted for your camping space. Adrenaline pumping, there is loud music, screaming, sometimes a little shoving and then at last as darkness settles and the Main Stage erupts with music, everything seems to come together in a peaceful serenity as everyone nestles in together awaiting the beginning of the next day. There is no live music Wednesday night; it is the early arrival campers and the artists who are allowed in to set up early, and this night is full of debauchery and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment – you’re here, you’re settled in and tomorrow brings the music and the adventure.
Unfortunately this year, Wednesday and Thursday night not only came with people, it came with rain – and the rain came down hard – and the first night was spent keeping the ones around you warm, huddled in the tents or under the safety of the canopies. We awakened to a dark sky on Thursday and quickly began to plan our day. For Wakarusa has overlapping sets, and it was my personal determination and duty to try and cover as much of this festival as I possibly could – I wanted to meet everyone, cover every band and cover as much ground as I possibly could to bring home the story of the bands that present at Wakarusa.
Due to the weather, the first sets of the day were cancelled and then even more sets were cancelled, and the entrances to the venues closed. The people began to wander and comingle in an anxious manner, hoping that the stages would open and the dancing could commence. That is when I began to realize the most important lesson that I brought home with me – festivals aren’t just about the bands and their performances – festivals are about the people who come to see these bands, and the ridiculous conditions they put themselves through for the simple moments of music they strive to listen for.
The first bands allowed to play brought the masses of people towards the entrance gates, and here began the unforgettable experiences, the hooligans, the shenanigans, the laughter, the love and the music. The bands that graced the main stage, Yonder Mountain String Band and The Black Crowes, each played full sets as the speakers from the main stage shook the trees and the musical vibes could be felt throughout the entire area, booming through the valley and connecting the crowd.
During the beginning of Yonder’s set, we headed toward George’s Majestic Backwoods Stage to listen to the groovy booty-shaking jamming tunes of The Magic Beans, a small group of young men hailing from Boulder, Colo. Their presence filled the area of the Backwoods stage, and despite the beginning of the muddy-water-soaked-earth, people were dancing and grooving to their fast paced drums, incredible guitar chords and electric keyboard and bass. The Magic Beans came a long way from home, stopping along the way to even play a small venue in Oklahoma.
Half way into Sound Tribe Sector Nine’s set, they made the announcement that they unfortunately had to stop playing because a tornado warning had been issued and they cautioned people of the danger and suggested they leave immediately and head to the safety of their cars rather than their tents. This first warning only brought a small amount of rain and wind, and around 1:00 am the music began again. During a press conference the next day, a member of the Motet explained how exciting and incredible it was to be one of the first bands allowed to play once the danger had subsided. Tipper, The Motet, The Werks and Emancipator were some of the few bands allowed to finish the first night out.
Of Monsters and Men played in the Revival Tent, which was packed to the brim, people pouring out the sides. Their set was beautiful and the soft tunes and sweet voices crooned the mud covered water logged people, allowing the difficult mud treks and cold weather to disappear, sanctioning the music to bandage anything negative. The Motet was nearby in the Outpost Tent, using their funky music and incredible stage presence to soothe the crowd. Back at the Main Stage Soja, Umphrey’s Mcgee and Dispatch played unbelievable sets, and despite the mud bath one was to receive if they danced in the venue, everyone danced. Lanterns were lit, hoola-hoops were moving, light sticks glowing and the music flowed around the Valley of Mulberry Mountain, and the people were alive, ignoring the harsh conditions.
Once again though, Mother Nature hit, cancelling any shows after Dispatch and warnings were given to the crowd to hide in their cars to avoid the rain, hail and gale force winds. The next day we headed back down the hill into the horror of the main venue. The entire area had become a muddy swamp, with parts of the campsite being at least eight inches deep in water. Everywhere there were sullen faces, broken canopies, destroyed tents and flooded campsites. Our campsite had been destroyed, our canopy was gone – probably blown far away by the wind – all of our tents completely broken down, our bedding soaked and our food floating in the muddy water. There was a silent moment of absolute disbelief between all of us, and we began the process of mucking through our things.
I looked around at all of the damaged people and sites and noticed that there was a glow of perseverance, the people didn’t leave because their material objects were destroyed or because they had to sleep in the mud, beer cans were cracked open and the love of music overcame the importance of comfort. There were moments of sunshine on this Saturday and we took advantage, sledging through the deep mud to watch Rebelution, Lyrics Born, GROUPLOVE, Gogol Bordello, Del the Funky Homosapien and Widespread Panic. Lyrics Born gave a shout-out during his set, embarrassingly admitting that he was concerned about his Michael Jordan shoes, while the crowd were no longer even wearing shoes, and he commended the crowd for their strength and their perseverance to hear the music despite the horrific conditions.
The sun finally fell upon Mulberry Mountain on Sunday and the worst was behind us; we had survived through the torrential rain storms, enormous winds, tornado warnings. And here we were basking in the sunshine – not regretting a single moment, no worries about our broken tents and lost canopies, we were here for the music and the music wasn’t deterred by the conditions either – the music was here for us. Cherub and Griz brought high-energy beats and deep bass to bring energy to their crowd at the completely packed California Grassroots Satellite Stage. From there we traveled back to Main Stage for the Rastafarian beats of Rebelution and then the resurrected lyric genius Snoop Lion and delicious beats of Amon Tobin. The closing act EOTO finished the festival with their soft, quirky, electronic mixes that crooned the masses back to their campsites.
I went to this festival to learn about the music, to follow the artists and to come home telling a story about the amazing abilities of musicians. Instead I came home with a profound respect for the crowd. The love of music overcame every possible obstacle at this festival and the powerful pull of the music overwhelmed my consciousness; because it was used here to help people survive through extremely harsh conditions. Despite the weather, the people came together to survive – all with a common goal – to listen to the music. The power of music has never been so prevalent in my life, and I say to everyone who made it through that muddy, intense weekend you are the reason music is alive. Because it lives in us and we fight for it to stay in us, to be with us no matter what, music keeps us alive and we in turn support its life. I walked away with the lesson that music would not be alive without the people who live for it.