Another year of the Nelsonville Music Festival in the books. What was most apparent this time around were the tweaks and constant tinkering of volunteers and staff to make Snow Fork, nestled even further afield in the Hocking Hills than the original location, the fest’s forever home. It’s the little things that add to the experience. One less stage meant for less overlap and a more intimate Creekside program, while the date change meant less mud and more sunshine. Although Snow Fork remains pristinely primitive, there were less uneven ground and unnavigable darkness, and as a reward, more time to wander and lounge, something that doesn’t usually happen at most music festivals.
Given the cache of this year’s line-up—big names like Lucinda Williams (pictured top), Margo Price, Kurt Vile, and Big Thief—it’s refreshing to see the festival grow, but still maintain the tight-knit community that has defined Nelsonville. Denizens you’ll always spot include the Party City Deadheads, the locals who plan vacations around the week, the guy who naps through anything, the couple who smoke weed once a year, twenty-somethings with Aphex Twin tattoos, the hammock tribe, the chair people, and the kids getting stoned from the euphoria of natural sensory overload. The footprint at Snow Fork continually provides an environment to accommodate them all. There’s truly something for everyone and plenty of pleasure in finding things that are unexpected.
To wit, my favorite moment of the festival was the sound bath provided by Nate Kojun Hayes and his collection of gongs and quartz crystal singing bowls. Situated on the idyllic Creekside Stage, Hayes was almost comically intentional in starting his practice—he is after all a certified “sound worker”—after the last band had played the grounds on Saturday night because the bath wouldn’t work without “total silence.” Through several encores that emanated from Altin Gun on the Porch Stage, Hayes spoke of his instruments, why he does what he does, and how it has a healing power. About an hour later than scheduled, Hayes concocted an aural massage, perhaps the most transcendent performance I saw the entire weekend.
Just as incredible was an early morning stroll with forager Alexis Nikole Nelson through the wilds of Snow Fork. Now an international viral celebrity, Nelson told truths about poison ivy, harvesting acorns, and a myriad of other plants that grow right under our feet, with an effervescent personality that made each hiker feel welcome—special even—in her presence.
Of course, the reason the crowds gathered was for the music. This year’s unexpected sensation came in the form of Jupiter & Okwess (pictured above). The band’s self-proclaimed “Bofenia rock” was an explosive combination of Congolese rhythms; bright, repetitive, Afropop melodies; and plenty of crowd participation. Per usual at Nelsonville, audiences had the chance to witness this spectacle twice over the weekend, but the group’s Saturday performance on the Porch Stage just as the sun set was as thrilling as they come—a non-stop dance party just as the temperature started to cool.
The aforementioned Altin Gun from Amsterdam, brought an equally engaging set of psychedelic madness. Reminiscent of guitarist Erkin Koray’s Turkish funk, Altin Gun took those elements and conjured up their own confounding miasma of sonic mazemaking. On the other end of that spectrum, once a purveyor of fried electric guitar ragas in Wooden Shjips, Ripley Johnson’s Rose City Band has him shaving off the freak detritus of his past and veering into a very comfortable pastiche of yacht-rock and lackadaisical jams. It was perfect in the Sunday midafternoon sun.
Despite the unfortunate name, the Nova Scotian duo Mama’s Broke also provided a mellow respite with their traditional fiddle and banjo folk, while Jake Xerxes Fussell was downright spiritual in his interpretation of the Georgia Sea Island Singer’s “Raggy Levy,” leaving the crowd in stunned silence. Nelsonville always provides artists such as these an elevated platform from which a larger audience can connect to this past. That’s always evident with the constant inclusion of native Micheal Hurley (pictured above), who finished off the weekend with a collection of tunes from his expansive catalog at a packed Creekside Stage. Right in the front row were two of his biggest fans, Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek of Big Thief, nodding and swaying attentively.
Big Thief’s grand finale Sunday night was many things: rousing, heartfelt, brutal, and roughshod. It included a cover of Hurley’s “O My Stars,” before which, Lenker (pictured above) flaunted her love for the festival and Hurley. Of all the acts this weekend, Big Thief seemed to embrace the Nelsonville edict the most. Their set could be seen as “workshopping,” as they played several unreleased songs that nearly came across as unfinished, and renditions of their most popular songs injected with a new sense of purpose and casual improvisations. By the time they arrived at “Vampire Empire,” a song that has been a recent live staple, despite only being released last week, the crowd, now hot, exhausted, and dehydrated, was jolted out of complacency. That’s a testament to two things. Namely Big Thief’s ability to command a festival-sized audience with their quiet, inward music, and those small moments feel larger than life. And it encapsulated Nelsonville’s commitment to the experience. It wasn’t just an end-of-the-fest headlining performance, it contained multitudes and sent the masses home content, enlightened, and anticipating whatever the Nelsonville Music Festival can come up with next year.