The Agit Reader

Nelsonville Music Festival
Hocking College, Nelsonville, June 6–9

June 13th, 2019  |  by Kevin J. Ellliott


I’ve already written at length about the uniqueness of the Nelsonville Music Festival in the lead-up to this year’s fest, so I promised myself that when I returned I wasn’t going to wax nostalgic about the vibes that had followed me home. Instead of proclaiming the annoying credo that “you missed out,” I would simply scan through my phone notes (everyone was charging their phones with the power of the sun) — some coherent, some with sigils and abject punctuation, all overjoyed hyperbole about the entire weekend — and report a few highlights from what I experienced.

And yes, “experience,” is inherent in the nomenclature when spouting about Nelsonville. As I’m currently reading the tome Heads by Jesse Jarnow, it’s easy in the Hocking Hills to see examples of his “psychedelic America” continuing to write chapters. Anyone who returns from Nelsonville, returns having helped in some way to the communal “blesh” of Nelsonville and the surrounding ‘burgs who continue to fly some semblant freak flag. For four days, the timewave stops. You can obtain a nature-cure if you wish, a musical bounty of new loves and new friends, a grungy stink of campfire and river water, or just a clear-headed realization that Nelsonville presents one of the last bastions for any of these things.

Here’s just a glimpse of what I saw.

The Breeders on Friday Night

In a set that was unwieldy compared to the Breeders’ usually buttoned-up perfection, it appeared Kim and Kelly Deal (pictured top) were simply enamored with the environs and countering appropriately. They played “Firestarter” into the Prodigy-sampling rumble of “S.O.S.” Kim carved a serpentine guitar path through the stand-still middles of “Walkin’ with a Killer,” before ending with a rousing rendition of “Gigantic,” reclaiming it from the Pixies, who should know better than to mess with it anymore. All the while, the battery of Jim Macpherson and Josephine Wiggs maintained a motirik lock that shifted and kept pace with the sisters’ loose abandon.

Thee Oh Sees on Friday Night

Despite a lengthy, and cranky, live soundcheck, Thee Oh Sees were not to be outdone, though head Oh See John Dwyer made mention of the difficulty of following the Breeders. I’d never seen the band before this, and their records have mostly flown under my radar. Perhaps too much driveled prolificness and not enough focus? But I was surprised to see Thee Oh Sees as a headlining-worthy, headlining band. With two drummers, a sound wizard atop a mountain of gear, and dueling guitars flanking the stage, they locked into a continuous grind that veered between psych and prog, maybe even a little doom metal, but intensely symphonic for what I’ve always identified as a group equipped with little more than three chords. Dwyer’s been reaching for some Zappa levels for some time.

Julia Jacklin

Julia Jacklin on a breezy, cloudy, Saturday afternoon

Touted as the farthest traveler, Australian songstress Julia Jacklin (pictured above) matched the melancholy waves of weather that defined the quiet Saturday afternoon. Slow pace and reserved showmanship were common threads among performers this particular fest, but Jacklin pulled it off with the most authenticity. It was a woozy fever dream in the midday, the set’s energy built from letting the mind wander and Jacklin’s angelic voice carry the weight.

Steve Poltz under a raincloud Saturday afternoon

The Canadian singer-songwriter is well-known for his family-friendly acoustic sing-alongs, and while much of his set was of this innocent ilk, it was his rendition of “You Were Meant For Me,” which he wrote with Jewel, that was the centerpiece of his show. During a 15 minute version of the song, he interjected a long yarn about the songs creation, which included a tale of drug busts on the Mexican border, 40 pounds of weed, prostitutes, and hobos along the train tracks. Poltz would be the true Nelsonville hero, were it not for Michael Hurley, whose previous set of avant-folk was concentrated solely on waiting for the aliens to come.

Ernie Johnson from Detroit, at the Campsite Tent, late on a Saturday Night

As an annual caveat, each year one must persevere to reap the best rewards from Nelsonville. Though yes, those rewards are omnipresent from the time you park, taking a nap, making sure to drink your water and eat, and spending some time in silence, prepares you for the late night show in the campground, which is guaranteed to be the moment when the fest’s magic peaks. Saturday night was no different, with Ernie Johnson from Detroit closing it down until 3 AM. A misnomer, Ernie Johnson from Detroit is not one man from the Motor City, but ten from Cincinnati finding a mind-bending groove and sitting on it until an ecstatic breakthrough. I imagined them as the ultimate show band: three horns, two guitars, a bass, a guy on Rhodes, two drummers, and a percussionist—all on top of their proverbial game. There were a lot of influences fit into the fold, from Afrobeat to free jazz to standard bar band blues riffs, but they never succumbed to novelty (other than their matching jumpsuits). This was a band reaching for something beyond, which is a given should you be booked to finish off a whirlwind day.

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