Wakarusa 2009 Recap
When Brett Mosiman and Company decided to pull up the tent stakes for the last time out at Clinton Lake State Park and take their party on the road, the question those that were involved in the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival must have been asking was "what's going to happen next year?"
With the new location in Ozark, Arkansas atop Mulberry Mountain, they've picked a gem of a spot and from what I can tell the transition was a huge success.
All photos via Chris Tackett on Flickr
With a setting like this, it would be hard to not enjoy yourself. The scenery is incredible. Nestled into an oval-shaped pasture of gently sloped grass, the festival grounds feature four ponds and an endless border of lush, green woods that line the rolling hilltops which encircle the grounds. Acting as a backdrop, these rolling hills are close enough together to give the space a feel akin to that of an amphitheater.
From the very start, the scenery is indicative of how things have changed. To arrive at the site, Highway 23 snakes drivers through some beautiful rural landscapes. Farms dot the landscape. Trees overhang portions of the road creating wooded tunnels that leave you wondering what awaits you after many blind curves. These sharp bends ensure that even the most-hurried driver is forced to slow down and soak up the scenery while winding closer to the festival entrance.
It is a stark contrast to the straight and exposed roads that one takes to get to Clinton Lake State Park.
Upon arriving at the entrance, you're greeted with the familiar cut-out letters that spell out "Welcome to Wakarusa", which have been used in Lawrence, but similarities between the two sites don't go much further than that. There are still the same types of vendors, pay showers and a couple general stores for replenishing supplies. However, whereas at Clinton Lake State Park, Wakarusa had to set up tents and bring in trailers to act as the box office, media check-in, and logistical headquarters, at Mulberry Mountain, there are several buildings on site that were able to be used. The various buildings on this site include old country farm houses, barns, and horse stables. A small white farm house was the box office and media check in. A green meeting center that resembled a barn was used for logistical headquarters and media.
General Store #1, near entrance. See interior below...
Interview with General Store worker about impact on local economy.
Another enjoyable change, in my opinion, at least, is that these general stores are not simply a satellite Hyvee store that looks and feels like it was just dropped down into the field, feeling foreign and out of place. The buildings used as general stores were permanent structures on the property. And one general store was a permanent feature both a supply store for forgotten items like sunscreen or snacks, as well as a gift shop for souvenirs.
The second gift shop, near the mainstage, reminded me of two scenes you might have seen in the movies Big Fish and I'm Not There. In Big Fish, there's a scene with a little secluded town the main character stumbles upon and there are beautiful strings of hanging lights stretching across the lawn. And in I'm Not There, there's a scene near the end when My Morning Jacket (who I would LOVE to see perform at Wakarusa next year) performs in a gazebo surrounded by a crowd of costumed characters that look like they are part of a traveling circus. I kept thinking of these two scenes when I'd see the lighting near the general store and all the funky costumes and fashion many festival-goers wore throughout the weekend.
More representative of a 1930's traveling roadshow or carnival, the hanging lights amongst the trees and shelves of snacks and supplies glow softly orange. The worn and weathered boards and shingles of the general store help add to the feeling that you've been relocated to another time. Even the stages have this worn, country look. The main stage had stones lining the bottom and tall wooden walls that looked like part of a barn lined each side of the stage. The Revival and Outpost tents were just like they've been in previous years, white spiky tents with cool lighting effects underneath. The Backwoods stage was a real treat. Tucked back in a wooded area it was a perfect setting for the bluegrass and Americana bands.
Another great addition were the orange and red hot air balloons that appeared seemingly out of nowhere Thursday evening as the sun was setting. When the balloon captains hit the engines sending flame and heat upwards into the growing shells, each thrust of the engine sends a burst of light away from the balloon, brightening the tents and people below with a soft touch of colorful light. The dirigibles rise gently, one then the other, hovering above the field.
Meanwhile, the moon was nearly full throughout most of the weekend, the sky cloudless and stars clearly visible. Thankfully there was a bit of cloud cover Saturday, which was a welcome break from the warm sunny days that left many a festival-goer pink with sunburn. But there were no tornadoes, no rain and just enough breeze to make you comfortable, so as far as weather goes, Ozark was much more pleasant than Lawrence.
It's really hard to paint a full picture of how pretty the scene is here at Wakarusa. Hopefully the pictures I took will help illustrate some of what I'm describing here. The location and weather were so wonderful, that after the first round of shows Thursday night, I knew that as long as Mosiman and crew could keep the logistics running smooth, my conclusion as to whether this was a success or not would be that it most-certainly was.
As far as the music goes, I don't think Wakarusa really skipped a beat with the move down to Ozark. With heavy hitters like Yonder Mountain String Band, The Black Crowes, Les Claypool, and STS9, Wakarusa brought enough big names to set itself apart from the other similar festival that takes place at this same location, Harvest Fest. I'm curious to see how the relationship between those two competeing events plays out. (Note: there is a partnership of sorts in play already, as Wakarusa ticket holders were able to score a discounted ticket to Harvest Fest if purchased last weekend.)
In order to bring the larger bands onto the bill - many playing in Arkansas for the first time ever - I would imagine there may have been some convincing of band tour managers that needed to be done over the last year, but Mosiman and crew brought a great lineup that rivals that of previous lineups of Wakarusas past. Still referred to often as a "second tier" festival (with first tier being the larger events like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Rothbury, Lollapalooza and the new addition of San Francisco's Outside Lands), Wakarusa comes awfully close to breaking that label, but this week it felt like something they might be trying to run with. While the Bonnaroo's and Coachellas of the world bring upwards of 50, 60, 80,000 people, massive crowds like that don't appeal to everyone. This is where Wakarusa can carve out a comfortable niche (and more importantly more easily manageable - both logistically and financially). Becoming known as the beautifully serene party in the Ozarks would be a welcome label for Wakarusa, I think. Not to mention the fact that Wakarusa still brings a great number of smaller and regional bands that the crowds always love.
And as the rest of the days of the festival went by, it was difficult to find things that I could say were better in Lawrence. On Sunday I made a Pro/Con list of things I liked about each location and here's what I came up with...
Pros for Lawrence
• Proximity to Lawrence/Fayetteville: Clinton Lake State Park's proximity to Lawrence was always nice. Being a local, I could sneak away back to town for a shower and nice meal once or twice during the 4 day event. Visitors could go to Lawrence to restock on supplies or check out some of our restaurants or stores on Mass Street. In Ozark, the closest town like that would be Fayetteville, which was at least an hour or so drive away. People did go to Ozark for supplies, giving that small town's economy a much appreciated boost.
• Water Feature: The second thing I liked more about Lawrence was the easy access one had to Clinton lake. It was easy to walk down to the water and the free showers near the beach were always a popular feature, as well. Mulberry Mountain has some prettier water features on the Mulberry River, but the access was more difficult, either requiring a shuttle ride or a 30 minute hike to remote waterfalls. The remoteness makes that more enjoyable for the people that trek out, I'm sure, but it sure would be nice to have been able to get to some water to splash around in without having to invest an hour just in travel time.
• Better media coverage? (more on this below)
Pros for Ozark
• No tornadoes or dangerous weather
• No cops
• Hot air balloon rides
• waterfalls, rivers
• rural touches at setting fit well w/ music
• remote location. Yes, I am contradicting what I wrote above about liking the proximity Clinton Lake has to Lawrence, but once you get out to Mulberry Mountain, the remoteness is pretty nice.
• beautiful horizons, rolling hills, trees
Wakarusa Media Coverage:
Lawrencians may or may not appreciate what they have in terms of local media, but the World Company really does do an incredible job and their annual coverage of the Wakarusa festival was no exception. Throughout the years there were live chats with the organizers and police officials, photo and audio slideshows, well-produced video segments and the Lawrence.com Deadwood Wakarusa preview issue which was always handed out on-site providing attendees with a well-designed and thought-out preview of some of the weekend's best bets.
At first glance, prior to the festival, I thought that was largely missed this year. With the event taking place in the small town of Ozark, where local media is virtually non-existent when compared to what you have in Lawrence, there has not been nearly as much discussion or entertaining coverage. Regional outlets from larger cities such as Fort Smith, Fayetteville and Bentonville have covered the event, but their initial coverage was your basic run-of-the-mill "so there's a party going on, 10,000 people, 100 bands, let's see what the police have to say" coverage. But because Ozark falls in between these towns and the event is not close enough to feel like a part of the community in Fort Smith or Fayetteville, I got the sense that you wouldn't have the volume of coverage that Lawrence outlets provided.
To be fair, I think the coverage improved throughout the weekend.
A sampling of some of the coverage...
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Northwest Arkansas Edition had a thorough piece prior to the festival that goes into some of the reasons for moving the event from Lawrence. FRANKLIN COUNTY : 10,000 expected at fest's new site FRANKLIN COUNTY : Wakarusa fest opens 'smooth'
Fort Smith's KFSM: Music festival launches in Ozark National Forest
The City Wire in Fort Smith: State Police: No checkpoints planned at Wakarusa Festival
Breakfast on Tour blog had a nice preview with lots of YouTube videos of their favorite artists. Wakarusa 2009 in Preview
The Times Record Online, which serves Ft. Smith, western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma had several good stories. Friday, June 5: Wakarusa: Festival Making An Impression Friday, June 5: Wakarusa: Live Music, Peace, Love Beats A Day At The Office Saturday, June 6: Large Crowds Pack Wakarusa Music Event Sunday, June 7: Wakarusa Thrills Ozarks Sunday, June 7: WAKARUSA: Wakarusa One Awe-Inspiring Gathering
The Fayetteville Flyer offers up a nice photo slideshow Wakarusa photos: Day 1. I haven't seen their photos for days 2, 3 or 4.
Channel 5 news in Ft. Smith & Fayetteville did a piece on the impact the event is having on the local economy. Wakarusa Music Festival Boosts Local Economy
Before the event, I was thinking that while inadequate media coverage would be unfortunate, in a way it would be better than the embarrassing headlines about drug arrests, spy cameras and police checkpoints that had tarnished the reputation of the festival in years past. If the event went well word would quickly spread via word-of-mouth and the event would be even bigger and better next year and it wouldn't matter that there was not much media coverage. However, there ended up being more than I was anticipating and from the looks of it, moving the event to private land helped solve the police problems, and almost all of the coverage discusses how successful and fun the event was. Once again, mission accomplished.
As I said in my initial post before the event, the people that didn't like Wakarusa being in Lawrence probably won't care that it has moved on and is succeeding in it's new location. Good riddance, they'd probably say. But for those of us that enjoyed it while it was in town, I think it's a real shame the town let something like this get away. Lawrence lost a great event, however all is not lost. Brett Mosiman is still a Lawrencian, as is his Pipeline Productions and because of that having Wakarusa succeed in it's new location is still a positive thing for Lawrence. It will allow him to continue putting on great shows here in town and the profits the festival makes down in Ozark, ultimately end up back here in Lawrence. So if you're bummed to hear about how nice the event was down south, keep that silver lining in mind. And, of course, don't miss Wakarusa 2010 next year. It should be even better.
As the weekend went on, I kept a running list of things I'd like to see improved next year. Here are the ones that weren't ridiculous upon a second look with a clearer head...
Ways to Improve Wakarusa for Next Year:
• Fix the Internet. I've never had reliable Internet at a Wakarusa. It shouldn't be that hard.
• Solution to the cigarette butts that litter the ground. Ash trays and signage telling people not to litter would help a lot.
• Hot air balloon rides each night instead of just two.
• Roving vendors selling beer & food throughout the main stage area. It would save you from having to wait in lines and you would not have to get up and miss as much music.
• Healthier food. Maybe I just wasn't looking in the right places, but I never found anything that looked very healthy. By Saturday, I would have killed for a big bowl of fresh fruit. Four days of sitting in the sun, late nights and lots of moving around had me wishing I'd packed more fruits and veges.
• They have yoga daily from 8-11am, but that was too early for everyone I talked to about yoga. An afternoon session would be great. And I think if you changed the wording to be "Yoga Class" you'd get a lot more people participating, some even for the first time ever trying yoga.
• Classes for hula hooping, belly dancing, glow ball twirling, etc. There are all these wonderful performers that do these things while listening to music. I think Wakarusa could make some money having $5 - $10 classes to learn these tricks.
• Bring back the Yard Dog Road Show!
security guard saying he expects 50k, but I think he meant 15k.