Ass-deep in music

Wakarusa Festival organizers cope with mounting biggest music event area has ever seen


Richard Gwin/Journal World Photo

Concert organizer John Brooks flashes the "Wakarusa sign" on the future site of the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival. Brooks is one of four directors spearheading the four-day event that will feature nearly 80 live bands and a slew of outdoor activities.

"It's a cool word that nobody knows what it means," says Brett Mosiman.

Although the Wakarusa River feeds Clinton Lake -- the site of the impending Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival -- it's rare to find people in Lawrence who know the origin of the term.

"A guy at the Kansas Biological Survey told my wife what Wakarusa really meant," says Mosiman, one of four directors in charge of putting on the festival. "It's an old Indian term meaning 'ass deep.' So we'll have T-shirts that say 'Ass-Deep in Music.'"

If so few people in the community can explain the word (which is alternately translated as "waist-deep"), imagine how foreign it sounds to those outside the region. That's one of many problems facing the organizers of the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival -- the largest festival of its kind ever attempted in Lawrence, or Kansas for that matter.

"Being a first year, everybody is skeptical, whether it's selling sponsorships or convincing bands to take a weekend out of their summer to visit Kansas," Mosiman explains.

Co-director John Brooks, adds, "Imagine all the first-time calls and contacts and the time it takes to help people envision the event. It's really important to focus on first impressions, otherwise you can buzzkill somebody."

So far the buzzkill has apparently been kept to a minimum. With nearly 80 bands performing 100 sets, on three stages, over four days, Wakarusa is a staggering undertaking. Yet for a first-year festival, most everyone has embraced the project.

"The town already loves music; the town already loves Mother Nature," Brooks says. "It's not like we're selling sand to the lifeguard. But we're being really precise and not promising people the world. We're clear about what we ARE bringing and what we're NOT planning on bringing."

The third leg
There will be no shortage of things to do at the Wakarusa Festival.

Organizers cite camping, Frisbee golf, fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking and mountain biking (with shuttles to take visitors downtown) as a few of the choices. But they understand these activities are merely ancillary to the main focus: live music.

"We have a fabric of bands that like the spontaneous, come-as-you-are, what-has-mother-cooked-up-for-us-today attitude," Brooks describes.

"The lineup is just so strong," Mosiman adds. "Usually, at all these festivals you'll see five or six headliners, and then you'll start seeing a bunch of regional and local bands to fill it out. We've got over 70 national acts. But bands that you might never have heard of -- like Kaki King, Theresa Andersson and Garaj Mahal -- they're ALL going to be stars. Three months ago nobody had heard of Los Lonely Boys, and they're just exploding now."

While Kansans will be exposed to many national artists who have never performed before in the state, the reverse is also true.

"People from Texas and Ohio are going to come see local guys like BR549 and Split Lip Rayfield and just be blown away," Mosiman emphasizes.

"I think it's only natural for Lawrence to have an outdoor festival," says BR549 frontman and Lawrence native Chuck Mead. "I hope the people running the thing can keep doing it every year ... If the cops leave everyone alone and they let the bikers hang out by the kegs, it's gonna be a blast."

  • Friday-Sunday 06.18-06.20Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival 2004
  • more info

Mead says the venture brings to mind the Ghosts of Outdoor Festivals Past. He mentions Megakegger and the Omega Music Festival as bygone events that his bands would annually play.

"(Wakarusa) should get the respect the Megakegger never got," he says. "But in the tradition of Mega/Omega, I love the variety of acts. Robert Randolph, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Slobberbone and us. Now that's great. I'm looking forward to that weekend."

Folks around the country are responding to the gathering with equal enthusiasm.

Relix magazine and both have called Wakarusa one of the don't-miss festivals of the summer, while Billboard has grouped it with the two biggest summer shindigs: Bonnaroo (Manchester, Tenn.) and High Sierra (Quincy, Calif.).

"We've never had a note of music," Mosiman remarks. "Yet there's little Wakarusa being named the third leg in that triumvirate over and over in the national press."

So far ticket sales have been healthy. Mosiman says plans are to cap attendance at 30,000 people, but it will more realistically draw between 10,000 and 15,000 patrons. He claims the event is already close to breaking even thanks to major sponsorships ranging from New Belgian Brewing Co. to Krispy Kreme.

"Even five years ago we would have needed a $150,000 advertising budget to try and pull off a national festival of this scale," he says. "But because of the Internet (, we were able to do it for 20 percent of that. The first week we went on sale really told us the scope of this. We sold VIP tickets for $500 in Florida and West Virginia. People are coming from everywhere."

The men behind the curtain
The conceptualization of Wakarusa began last summer. The idea is the brainchild of partners Mosiman, Brooks, Tim Smith and Nate Prenger, who divide the responsibilities according to their specialties. ("We have the four corners covered," Brooks asserts.)

The individuals collectively boast 75 years of producing experience, having overseen events such as the Jayhawk Music Fest, Spirit Fest and River Valley Music Festival,

"We all thought this would take a year," Mosiman says. "But to my amazement, by the end of January we had a bunch of band confirmations. And I'm like, 'We can't turn back now.'"

So how does this compare to outdoor happenings from Lawrence's past?

"This is more or less 100 hours of music," he explains. "The old Jayhawk Music Festival, we only went from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. So this is 20 times bigger. It's just been a tsunami since January."

Hopefully, that tsunami will not be indicative of the weather -- the one potentially devastating factor to Wakarusa's success. It's OK to be ass-deep in music but not necessarily waist-deep in water.

"We wouldn't want one of those good Kansas straight-line winds to knock a stage over," Mosiman says. "But the type of crowd we expect, they're pretty hardcore for camping. ... If we get a couple showers it will only go to cool the folks off a little bit. It won't dampen their spirits."

Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival schedule
  • Descriptions of all the bands at the festival here on our even listings
  • Thursday, June 17
  • Revival Tent
  • 4:30 p.m. -- Arthur Dodge5:30 p.m. -- Big Metal Rooster6:35 p.m. -- The Schwag8:05 p.m. -- Mindy Smith9:15 p.m. -- Benevento/Russo Duo10:40 p.m. -- Moonshine Still12:05 a.m. -- Ekoostik Hookah1:30 a.m. -- Sound Tribe Sector 9
  • Friday, June 18
  • Revival Tent
  • 2:30 p.m. -- Mother Kali3:30 p.m. -- Tanner Walle4:30 p.m. -- Speakeasy5:30 p.m. -- Bockman's Euphio6:30 p.m. -- Green Lemon7:30 p.m. -- Woven8:30 p.m. -- Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey9:45 p.m. -- Perpetual Groove11:05 p.m. -- Mofro12:25 a.m. -- Jazz Mandolin Project1:45 a.m. -- Particle
  • Sun Up Stage
  • Noon -- Forty Twenty1 p.m. -- Theresa Andersson2 p.m. -- Robbie Fulks3 p.m. -- Drums & Tuba4 p.m. -- Hackensaw Boys5 p.m. -- Slobberbone6 p.m. -- Bottlerockets7 p.m. -- Lucero8:05 p.m. -- Split Lip Rayfield9:10 p.m. -- Keller Williams10:45 p.m. -- Leftover Salmon
  • Sun Down Stage
  • 2:45 p.m. -- Papa Mali3:50 p.m. -- Tishamingo4:55 p.m. -- Greyhounds6 p.m. -- Marc Broussard7:20 p.m. -- Sound Tribe Sector 98:55 p.m. -- Galactic10:30 p.m. -- Robert Randolph
  • Saturday, June 19
  • Revival Tent
  • 2:30 p.m. -- Four Fried Chickens & A Coke3:30 p.m. -- Exit Clov4:30 p.m. -- Bockman's Euphio5:30 p.m. -- Motet6:35 p.m. -- Tea Leaf Green7:40 p.m. -- Greyhounds9 p.m. -- Shanti Groove10:20 p.m. -- Indigenous11:40 p.m. -- Leftover Salmon1:30 a.m. -- Galactic
  • Sun Up Stage
  • 11:45 a.m. -- Hackensaw Boys12:50 p.m. -- BR5491:55 p.m. -- Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise3:05 p.m. -- Bob Schneider4:15 p.m. -- Mofro5:25 p.m. -- Robert Walter's 20th Congress6:45 p.m. -- Hairy Apes BMX7:55 p.m. -- Pomeroy9:05 p.m. -- Spoon10:25 p.m. -- Guided by Voices
  • Sun Down Stage
  • Noon -- Kaki King1 p.m. -- James McMurtry2 p.m. -- Monte Montgomery3:05 p.m. -- Signal Path4:10 p.m. -- Garaj Mahal5:20 p.m. -- Big Wu6:35 p.m. -- Jazz Mandolin Project7:55 p.m. -- Particle9:15 p.m. -- Derek Trucks Band10:35 p.m. -- O.A.R.
  • Sunday, June 20
  • Revival Tent
  • Noon -- Mission 191 p.m. -- Dewayn Brothers2 p.m. -- Weary Boys3 p.m. -- Hello Superworld4 p.m. -- Tea Leaf Green5:20 p.m. -- Mountain of Venus6:40 p.m. -- Barefoot Manner8 p.m. -- Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise9:20 p.m. -- Lost Trailers10:40 p.m. -- Hot Buttered Rum String BandMidnight -- Split Lip Rayfield
  • Sun Down Stage
  • 10 a.m. -- Steve Poltz11 a.m. -- Jennifer Hartswick BandNoon -- The Samples1:40 p.m. -- Big Wu3 p.m. -- Donna the Buffalo4:10 p.m. -- Chris Duarte5:20 p.m. -- Indigenous6:30 p.m. -- Los Lonely Boys7:50 p.m. -- Drive By Truckers9:10 p.m. -- Dirty Dozen Brass Band10:30 p.m. -- North Mississippi Allstars


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