We should be living by the mantra of Nelsonville Music Festival 2.0 that was posted around the festival site: “Watch your step! Uneven ground!”
One could have taken that warning literally and figuratively during the festival’s first voyage in three years. From the stages, bands talked of the pandemic pause, the damp environs, and the mud, but chose instead to simply lean into it.
I must be honest, a week later, I’m still exhausted from hiking back and forth from our campsite, up hills and into hollers to stand taut until a full set had commenced in the rain. But it’s a good kind of exhaustion, a good kind of stink, like a huge exhale before returning to the grind of modern civilization. We leaned into it.
Where else was this happening at this moment? Where else was a reset completely reset? Sure, it poured throughout Saturday and into Sunday afternoon, internet and electricity seemed an afterthought, and headliner Lucinda Williams canceled because she got the bug, but Nelsonville returned to a primitive state without sacrificing the character that made it so dearly beloved. Scaling back–in terms of the docket of music and the overall footprint–was necessary to return to the festival’s roots.
Utopian? Well, the new digs certainly exude that ideal. The Creekside Stage, nestled far from the center, among a canopy of trees, was the perfect setting for the folkier side of the line-up. Madi Diaz’s (pictured above) super intimate Sunday set showcased the new artist’s melodic therapy through personal narratives and minimalist picking. It was a shame we didn’t find the stage until it was almost too late. The Snow Fork Stage, where the largest performances took place, faces a mammoth cascading hill where one could simply spread out under the stars and take in the entire spectacle. Front-loaded with hits and fueled by Michelle Zauner’s boundless enthusiasm, Japanese Breakfast’s inspiring 90-minute Friday night set wowed what was perhaps the weekend’s largest crowd. I had doubts that Zauner could yet fill stadiums and now have to eat my words.
Nelsonville’s strongest selling point has always been its knack for curation. Of course, the sweet spot is niche NPR fare, but every year, there’s the chance to discover uncut gems you wouldn’t find at many other venues of this type, artists you may not have sought out or heard without this kind of coaxing. The lack of phones and staggered schedule provided for some deeper listening, and that exercise became rewarding with the Eastern-psych bouillabaisse of Montreal’s phenomenal Teke:Teke. Trumpets, flutes, and bagpipes all coalesced around a bit of theater and a lot of magical proggy detours. Equally nourishing was Ruth Rich’s ensemble, who played spiritual jazz instrumentals crusted with ambient waves of static noise. Yo La Tengo was the most intentional act of the weekend, using the extended stage time as headliners Saturday to craft a masterful set from their decades-long songbook. In addition to accompanying the still-spry, 80-year-old Nelsonville native and festival mascot Michael Hurley on three of his timeless tunes, the trio raged through an immensely long version of “I Heard You Looking” and the Sun Ra anthem “Nuclear War” before ending with Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” Ira Kaplan was downright feral on guitar this night. It’s hard to name a better live American band these days or one with their brand of incomparable chemistry and sonic charms. Hope someone will be able to boot this.
Nelsonville also excels at pulling in groups from the region to showcase their talents to a much larger audience. Highlights included sets from Cincinnati’s In the Pines, which registered as Hold Your Fire–era Rush mixed with indie ethos; Corey Landis and the Finer Things, who opened the Porch Stage on Sunday with a set of rambling country pop just as the rain began to finally dissipate; and a revived Nick Tolford and Company. This nine-piece Columbus revue sprinted through past glories with mile-wide smiles and the same vibrations that gave Nelsonville its original celebratory reputation a decade ago. DANA (pictured top), who have ties to the Hocking Hills, but now reside in Columbus, took full advantage of their all-access spotlight over the weekend. I’m sure, judging by the number of millennials clad in new DANA textiles, that the incendiary outfit made throngs of new fans. They started Friday headlining the late-night and very hidden Camp Stage and had an evening crowd enraptured with their shock and awe-shredding punk skronk. (I could hear them continuing past 2 am as I fell asleep.) Maybe their success here will open the gates for more bands of their ilk to make NMF an even weirder experience.
As far as MVP awards go, I’ll have to hand that to S.G. Goodman and Mdou Moctar (pictured above), the former being an artist I hadn’t heard before Friday afternoon. Goodman sings Appalachian torch songs with the shuffling vigor of the Velvets and the voice of a worn-yet-wise veteran. The Kentucky native was equally charming in her stage banter, spinning tales of the road and of her home while chiding her bandmates and the crowd with deadpan sincerity. I made sure to catch her three times over the weekend (another feature of NMF: artists play multiple sets in different settings), but the most searing was her alone at the Creekside Stage.
Still, nothing could top Niger’s Mdou Moctar. Their Taureg psych has been buzzed about in recent years, but in the Nelsonville setting it felt simultaneously right at home and light years away. In place of the canceled set by Lucinda Williams, they took the stage on Saturday night to a welcoming crowd who were fully unaware of what was about to take place. In the space of their set, they trekked through most of their new album, which is full of incredibly complex ziggurat riffs and unparalleled rhythms. Moctar’s guitar playing is from another world and it melted faces (mine included). To cap the weekend, the band was invited to play a closing set on the Porch Stage, and they chose to play acoustic–another indelible highlight–and bring down the masses gently, a euphoric lullaby to end the revelatory return of the Nelsonville Music Festival. I’ve already made plans for 2023.