One of the most anticipated weekends on the calendar for Ohio music fans, the Nelsonville Music Festival will be kicking off their 15th year at Robbins Crossing on the campus of Hocking College on June 6. While on the surface it would be easy to tag NMF as a celebration of primarily folk, country, and Americana acts, NMF offers one of the most eclectic line-ups of any of the larger open-air music festivals in the region, if not the country. There’s an intimacy and a genuine love for music at the heart of the NMF, which makes it such a prized pilgrimage for the throngs who keep returning. One reason for that quality over quantity mindset is it being a production of Stuart’s Opera House, a historic, non-profit theater located in Nelsonville . There’s little in the way of glaring sponsorships or promo tents. I’ve often thought of it as the only music festival in which one can actually relax without the pressures and anxieties that normally accompany a large-scale fest. It’s about as close to a utopian experience as a concert-goer can get.
This year is no different. The Nelsonville organizers have curated one of the fest’s strongest line-ups. As a preview to our upcoming coverage, here are five acts who are sure bets and five who are somewhat unknown, but should win over fans by Monday morning.
Tyler Childers (Thursday, 9:45 PM): Proof that NMF is keen at finding gems in the rough, the Lawrence County, Kentucky singer-songwriter is a fest alum, playing a much smaller stage (and even the No-Fi Cabin) a couple of years back. Now he’s returning as a main stage headliner, as among artists of his ilk (his latest album was produced by Sturgill Simpson), he’s currently in high demand, selling out shows at the Ryman Theater and crossing genres of folk and country into a darkly spun web of maudlin mountain jam.
The Breeders (Friday, 9 PM): Dayton’s Deal sisters are now running the victory lap for last year’s surprisingly taut reunion album All Nerve. Those who have already witnessed their return can attest that it’s more than merely a nostalgia trip. With Josephine Wiggs back on bass and arguably indie rock’s finest drummer, Jim Macpherson, as battery, Kim’s meditative guitar grinds are as vital as ever. I can’t imagine how blissful this set will be under the stars of Hocking Hills.
Thee Oh Sees (Friday, 11 PM): John Dwyer has been many things over the years, but with Thee Oh Sees he’s found his artistic peak. Still harkening back to when San Francisco was weird, his Castle Face Records is emblematic of where that streak heads into the future. As the anchor band on that label, Thee Oh Sees meld mutant garage rock and psychedelic rumblings with an alarming amount of nihilism and sci-fi boogie. Prepare to end the night in an ecstatic aurla ooze.
Michael Hurley (Sunday, 11:30 AM): The proclaimed mascot of Nelsonville Music Festival, Hurley is a local who has played at every fest since the first 15 years ago. The man basically invented outsider folk as a member of the Greenwich Village boom that began in the mid-60s. At 77-years-old, his lengthy discography only grows larger and stranger with each passing year. Though Sunday will be his largest audience of the weekend, you can see him several other times throughout the fest.
Mavis Staples (Sunday, 6:30 PM): With the recent death of Aretha Franklin, the consummate Mavis Staples is one of the few surviving links between the present and a bygone era when gospel mingled with R&B and pop. She’s a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and Nelsonville veteran, and there’s little doubt she’ll close this year’s festival with stunning grace and power.
Under the Radar
Molly Burch (Friday, 6 PM): While this Austin-based artist gets lumped in with a number of female singer-songwriters mining lovelorn lullabies and sprite indie-rock, Molly Burch dazzles with an ethereal voice that rarely needs musical accompaniment.
WYD (Friday, 11:30 AM): Led by the guitar wizardry of Souther’s Carly Fratianne, Columbus power-trio WYD is in a renaissance of songwriting. Every new track from the group feels like a luxury addition to the song that came before. While studio tricks add to the mystique and abject quality of their music, in the live setting, chops make-up for lack of those accoutrements.
Mourning (A) Blkstar (Saturday, 12:30 PM): I’ve only ever heard a few tracks from this Cleveland ensemble, so as a live act, I have no experience, but I’ve been told they are not to be missed. I’ll let the press kit do the talking here: “Mourning [A] BLKstar is a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora. Creating songs of both eulogy and revolution, the expansion of 21st century Black consciousness is felt in waves… a force that has deep conviction, purpose, and weight, songs are voiced through a lens of chopped up drum grooves, stark melodies, washed-out synth tones, and historic sample pulls.”
War and Treaty (Saturday, 6:30 PM): Married couple Michael and Tonya Trotter play a hard-to-classify gospel-funk that centers on the duo’s strong, spiritual voices. Recently highlighted on CBS Sunday Morning, the stories in their songs are just as heavy as the good vibes they have placed all over their debut, Healing Tide.
Flor De Toloache (Sunday, 2 PM): File under the WTF status that always comes with a handful of bands each year at Nelsonville. Flor De Toloache is the world’s first and only all-female Mariachi band. That’s enough to pique my interests.