After having to cancel their 2020 and 2021 annual festivals, The Nelsonville Music Festival and the Duck Creek Log Jam came together on a beautiful October 8th and 9th Friday and Saturday to bring you the inaugural Hocking Hills Music Festival, the festival you needed after a long and arduous 18 months of pandemic and politics. Both festivals have a reputation for providing intimate events with curated lineups of musical acts with a focus on Americana, perhaps not yet household names, but that are on the rise. They brought that vision when putting together HHMF on 75 acres of hilltop property right in the midst of the Hocking Hills region of southeast Ohio. While accomodation were available near the festival grounds, most settled into the camping area of the festival and made themselves home for the weekend. Campers, tents, vans, and RVs brought together people from all over the region and beyond, and the line up brought fans of all ages together; college students, retirees, and entire families found a place to listen to music and gather for a laid back good time. Weather was mild, crowds were in good spirits, amenities were plentiful and clean, parking was close, no shortage of food or beverages, and the music was exceptional.
We arrived on Friday just as the festival was beginning for the day. Check in was done in your vehicle upon arrival. The volunteers were organized and had a plan for dealing with the arriving crowd. Tickets and vaccine cards were traded for weekend pass bracelets in one spot, coolers were checked for prohibited items in another. Once parked, we had only a short walk to the festival grounds. Two stages were constructed side by side at the far end of the grounds with plenty of open space in front of them before the area behind the “no chairs beyond this point” signs began. Bands alternated between the stages throughout the two days, ensuring no one had to miss one act while another one played. Behind the general admission area were the merch and concession stands. I was parched when we arrived so I stopped to grab a beverage from the G&J Pepsi stand and was excited to find that a 20 oz. bottle of soda that would have cost me $6-$8 at most festivals was only $2 here – no price gouging at HHMF. Quite the opposite actually. My companion went to get a drink but found the satellite stand he chose was cash only and he only had a credit card; but the G&J employee told him not to worry about it, paid for the drink with cash out of his pocket and told my friend to pay it forward to someone else. I looked across the fairway at the Jackie O’s Brewery Adult Ice Cream Truck, where tasty local beers and soft drinks were available to purchase with a credit card, and made plans in my mind for later. There were plenty of food options in the area as well: pizza, stir fry, steak sandwiches, hot dogs, burritos, coffee and smoothies, and assorted carnival fare. We needed to run back to the car to switch out some equipment, so we grabbed a couple festival posters on the way to stash in the car, and I was glad we did as they were sold out when I stopped back by the tent on Saturday. The merch booth doubled as a meet and greet area for the artists to sell their merchandise directly to their fans, adding to the intimate feel of the concert. Since the concessions and the merch were in the direct line of the stages, even when you were buying something you were close enough to see and hear the acts. There was never a reason to miss the music. And of course, the music was why we were all there…
While maintaining an Americana theme for the festival, the lineup was still an eclectic mix of music. Country, Bluegrass, Blues, , Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll; Americana is a large umbrella term for a number of genres with lots of room for cross pollination. No one would ever mistake the Friday headliner with the Saturday headliner, yet both were able to blow the audience away on their respective nights.
Friday night we were treated to the legendary Del McCoury Band and all the polish of old Nashville that they bring. The 82 year old McCoury formed the Grammy award-winning group in 1967, added his sons to the line up in the 80s (themselves musicians of acclaim), and has been an influence on many contemporary bluegrass and jamband groups. Well rehearsed, well costumed, and well produced, the band came off as the consummate professionals they are on stage. Picking, plucking, bowing of all kinds sent the crowd into a frenzy of dance and jigs, the most animated the crowd had been the entire day. I was transported to the harvest and fall farm festivals my grandparents had taken me to as a child and I became nostalgic for my youth for a while.
Saturday night, while not yet a legend himself but instead the progeny of a legend, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real gave us a rollicking set of roots rock/southern rock/alt-country/jam band tunes that pumped the crowd up after a long day and would have made his father Willie proud. Perhaps most recognizable as Bradley Cooper’s character’s band in A Star is Born, POTR has collaborated with Willie, Neil Young, and Lady Gaga among others. Outside of collaborations, they have released seven studio albums including this year’s critically acclaimed pandemic album ‘A Few Stars Apart’.
Speaking of family lineages, one of the highlights of the festival for me was Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues legend singer, songwriter, and guitarist R. L. Burnside and son of hill country blues drumming innovator, Calvin Jackson. Cedric eased into his set with a trio of solo acoustic old school blues songs before bringing out drummer Reed Watson and switching over to a rousing series of electric blues songs which both paid homage to his family’s past while still putting his own unique touch on it and moving it towards the future. Cedric featured quite a bit of his new material in support of his recent album ‘I Be Trying’.
Another festival standout, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers shook and disarmed me with their unique punk-tinged twangy outlaw country. Decidedly raw and honest, the non-binary singer-songwriter wears their heart on their sleeve lyrically. Their melancholy songs are full of hard drinking, hard living and hard regret. One of my favorite moments of the festival was just after introducing a new song called “If It’s Poison” as being about finding the absolute worst person for you and latching onto them and obsessing non stop, one lovely couple began slow dancing to it just in front of the barricade.
I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of The Brothers Comatose. On record they sound more like the California band they are, but live they had a much more defined bluegrass sound. They were fun, too; besides their own original songs they gave us countrified versions of The Zutons’ Valerie (perhaps better known from the Mark Ronson-Amy Winehouse cover) and Ginuwine’s Pony.
Other notable performances: Watchhouse, the husband and wife folk duo formerly known as Mandolin Orange, provided the crowd with pretty music served up clean. Dawna gave us the funk. Columbus, Ohio based Parker Louis played a song about being nice and told us we should all try being nice, which is the best way to describe them: nice. Dori Freeman, a girl and her dad, gave us lovely singer-songwriter songs. Buffalo Wabs gave us danceable claw hammer banjo led jams.
If Hocking Hills Music Festival is merely a placeholder for it’s parent festivals, it was a great time and just what was needed to ease us back into music festivals after the pandemic hibernation. If this was the first of many, I will be back and I will bring my friends. We all need to slow down and enjoy the music every once in a while.