Words: Aaron Weaver
Photos:  Brian Bruemmer

We arrived at the Nelsonville Music Festival after a two and a half hour drive through Appalachian Ohio filled with lively conversation about what to expect over the four day event. Brian had been trying to get me to NMF for years but life and work had always gotten in the way, no matter how exceptional the lineup. He had filled me in on what to expect once we arrived; the different performance stages, the various areas of the campsite, the artisan vendors, the best food tent to get a breakfast sandwich, the cleanest place to use the toilet. He told me stories about the friends he had made at NMF over the years, both the ones I could expect to meet this year and the ones that would be absent and missed like family members who couldn’t make it home for Christmas. He made them all sound like characters from a beat novel with the festival grounds at Hocking College the strange setting. I’ve always loved music festivals; throngs of people brought together by their love of music and the opportunity to discover acts previously unknown. And discovery was what I was looking forward to at Nelsonville 2018. I was familiar with a handful of the scheduled musicians but most I had only experienced through the official NMF18 playlist on Spotify. While I was already excited to see Sunflower Bean, Kevin Morby, and the Middle Kids for the first times, the playlist had peaked my interest in a long list of acts I was unfamiliar with. I had been looking forward to this experience for weeks. Now we were there.

Porch Stage crowd with Media Cabin behind. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Day 1

The campground was well filled-in by the time we had arrived. Brian had called ahead to one of his friends already there and holding us a spot. It had been storming and the campers were more concentrated than Brian said was normal as everyone tried to find some high ground to pitch their tents and to park their RVs out of the mud. We set up in the family area away from the camp stage, where late night shows attracted those wanting to party the nights away. It was in the high 80s and the early rains had left a miasma of humidity to go with the muck. We rushed to throw our camp together because the music has already began and we wanted to get inside before we missed anything more. The good news was the bands who had already played were playing multiple sets through the weekend and we would still be able catch them. We entered the grounds to the sounds of a harp playing an ode to Latvia. I bounced around the grounds getting oriented while Brian met with his friends in the media area. I wandered through the vendor tents looking at posters and jewelry and other tchotchkes for sale. There was music coming from several directions and I followed my ear as I wandered around the still sparse crowd of mostly media, musicians, family members, and volunteers.

RADATTACK on the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

The first full musical act I saw was local band RADATTACK, announced as they were still being interviewed backstage by regional radio. I was surprised how young they were and how raw they sounded compared to the production I had heard on their EP. The high school age kids looked the part of rock stars from their shaggy hair to the CBGB t-shirt worn by the bassist. They played a mix of poppy garage and punk rock and showed off their best swaggers.

Sunflower Bean on the main stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Next was Sunflower Bean who were one of the highlights of my weekend. The music was polished, and the band poised, even when the sound check had issues and a snare drum fail halted the first song of the set. Front woman Julia Cumming had a stage presence that reminded me of Freddie Mercury. Her glam rock influences have taught her how to strike a pose and make a rock and roll strut across the stage that gave the band an arena rock presence even when playing in a field in small town Ohio.

Antibalas on the main stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Veteran group Antibalas also had sound check issues. The large ensemble took a while to get things together and started close to 25 minutes late. The festival audience had been growing through the day and the popular Afrobeat band had drawn a crowd. It was around this time that I got a feel for NMF. In its 14th year, Nelsonville draws both long term attendees and newbies alike. The varied demographic had a large contingent of music “grandpas” in their 40s through 60s, high school and college students, and, as the most family friendly festival I have ever attended, toddlers and grade schoolers running around with their parents. At this particular moment all of them were growing restless waiting for Antibalas, and several fans began yelling at the stage for the band to hurry up and start. And then suddenly they did and there was an explosion of head bobbing and shoulder rocking and the pit became a mass of syncopated movement which gave me cause to leave.

Black Angels headlining day 1. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I had witnessed the birth of a hula hoop girl and one of life’s mysteries had been solved.

Day One headliner Black Angels did not disappoint. Their retro psychedelic sound tranced the wet and overheated crowd tired from a day of travel and music. I watched one particularly energetic girl dance with her hula hoop and amazingly miss colliding with the others near the stage as they pushed around her trying to position themselves for maximum face melting. She obviously had spent a lot of time practicing as she had a great deal of well choreographed moves. I’ve always wondered how one becomes the hula hoop girl at a concert. When does one pick up the hula hoop and become that particular ubiquitous stock character? Imagine my giddiness then when suddenly another girl came running out of the shadows and grabbed the plastic circle and began tug-a-war of dancing with the her. The hula hoop girl played along for a few minutes but then held up a finger for the second girl to halt. She then reached down and, as by magic, produced another hula hoop from seemingly nowhere. She handed it to the new girl who, with an extreme look of delight, grabbed it and started dancing in a hula circle completely her own. I had witness the birth of a hula hoop girl and one of life’s mysteries had been solved.

We made our way back to the tents and I collapsed into sleep.

DAY 2

There was a sense of community amongst concert-goers at Nelsonville. They look after one another and treat each other like family.

The family camping area stayed quiet all night long but the mornings came early here. The sounds of people stirring, making their way to the porta-potties, and getting ready for their days made it impossible to sleep in any later than 8:30am. I had turned and tossed in the mud under my tent most the night and woke to find my tent full of bugs. I crawled out of the tent and into the early morning sun; the air already thick with humidity. The ground had partially dried out from the previous day but there were dark skies on the horizon and we all knew what we were in for later in the day. I had planned on wearing my jeans one more day but it was so sticky I pulled on a pair of shorts that I had packed as on afterthought. There were smiling faces everywhere and I watched the grounds come alive with campers getting dressed, brushing their teeth with bottled water, gathering children, and cleaning their sites from the night before. The smell of coffee and bacon cooking on camp stoves filled my nose and made my stomach grumble. I had skipped dinner and now I was hungry. A woman came wandering up with a plate of pancakes and asked if I had any bacon to trade. I told her no but that she could follow her nose and find some. The woman told me that she had gotten the pancakes from a woman down the way and had taken them thinking they were eggs. She didn’t like pancakes. I saw lots of generosity over the weekend; people giving away food, drinks, sunblock, pain medication, hugs. I watched people offer rides, help people get their RVs and cars unstuck, and help find lost things. There was a sense of community amongst the concert goers at Nelsonville. They look out for one another and treat each other like family.

We made our way back to the concert grounds. The music did not begin for a couple more hours but a few of the food vendors were open and serving. I bought a cup of coffee for $2.75 and like a generous idiot tipped my change and a dollar. The coffee was good and strong and fairtrade but did not contain nearly enough caffeine for $4. For the most part, though, I was impressed by the pricing of the food vendors. No one was trying to gouge as is easy to do when the audience is captive. The food at all the vendors was local, made to order, creative, and, at least everything I tried, delicious. Unfortunately we had made my way over too early for the breakfast sandwich I had my mind set on and I would have to wait for the booth to open. Looking to occupy time, I entered the open flap of the merchandise tent and was immediately told to leave as they were still setting up. I went to the media area and watched the photographers edit their photos from the evening before for a while. The media that comes to Nelsonville form their own little subgroup of the festival. I would get to know several of them over the event and was impressed that they were as passionate about the music as they were their art. Most of them were fans first and media second. I was also impressed by how supportive they were of one another, offering each other both advice and praise, and acting as collaborators instead of competitors. They called themselves a family and behaved like one. I watched and admired them in silence until the soundchecks began and it was time get to the stages.

The No-Fi Cabin sign with cabin behind. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

One of the unique performance spaces at Nelsonville is the No-Fi Cabin, a small one room historic schoolhouse where musicians perform without electric. My first experience there was Bill Mackay playing a mostly instrumental set featuring a requinto guitar and was a perfect introduction. I couldn’t get into the cabin itself but listened from the backdoor. Towards the end of his set the sound check from the mainstage began and made it a strain to hear the unamplified music clearly. Mackay was unflustered by the sudden sound explosion, laughed, and started playing along on his acoustic. This would be one of my few complaints about the festival. The bleed over between the different stages could be distracting.

Michael Hurley was the first act on the mainstage for the day. An NMF regular since the its inception, Hurley was an important part of the folk renaissance of the 60’s and still performs the same style music that he has played for the better part of 60 years. Most people hadn’t made it into the grounds yet, and the crown was relatively small, but I was impressed by how many of the musicians performing that day had made their way to the stage to see him. His NMF bio talked about how generation after generation of musicians had discovered Hurley again and again. This is how tradition survives – passed down from musician to musician as one long unbroken chain. I wondered which fresh set of ears would take on the mantle once Hurley was gone and was glad by his stage presence that this was not a questioned that would need to be answered for awhile.

A Hawk & A Hacksaw on the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

At the Porch Stage, A Hawk and a Hacksaw played a set that transported me at first to the Middle East with their duo of persian santur and violin, and then to Eastern Europe once former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes switched from the santur to accordion. I had never seen a santur before, a hammered dulcimer played with small mallets, but the music seemed familiar without me having ever heard it. The upbeat music lifted my spirits and woke me up for the first time of the day.

Birds Of Chicago on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Musicians do not exist in a vacuum. The listener’s state of mind and mood affect their impression of new music as much as what the performer is doing on stage. Birds of Chicago performed very pretty music. I was not familiar with them but had been hearing good things all morning. The vocals were lovely and the music soothing but I could not get into the show. I was impressed enough that I would like to see them again, preferably at an indoor venue with a nice glass of pinot. I had never seen Shannon Lay before either but I knew I liked her from her albums. Again, I just couldn’t concentrate on her set with the heat and the crowd and the rest of the festival going on around her. Her music requires an amount of attention that I could not muster at the time of her performance at the Boxcar Stage; a stage that sits in a free-zone fo the music festival where you can watch music without actually paying to come in. My rumbling stomach got the better of me and I found a stand near the stage making artisan tamales in interesting flavor combinations. I filled up on ancho chocolate beef tamales and felt ready to tackle the music again.

I went back to the No-Fi Cabin to catch Portlandian singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx. I arrived just before she was to begin but it was already a futile attempt. There were people hanging in every window and every door of the small cabin trying to get a peek or at least hear a bit of the music coming from inside. The front, rear, and side porches were filled and I could not get close enough for either. The band showed up a few minutes after I did and looked embarrassed as they had to push through the crowd to get inside. I decided I would have to wait until she played again the next day and left.

Middle Kids on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Around this time it occurred to me how many of the acts at Nelsonville were fronted by or featured women.

Middle Kids were up next and had the energy that I had been seeking. Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Middle Kids played fast paced, indie rock that instantly got the crowd moving. Front person Hannah Joy was charming and funny and undeniably quirky. She told the audience that she was originally from the U.S. and had once lived in Maryland, which she viewed in her mind the center of America. Her stage presence was natural and unpracticed and she said that she had recently read a review that stated that she danced like Elaine from Seinfeld. Her husband, bassist Tim Fitz, did his best impersonation of Angus Young doing his best impression of Chuck Berry while on stage, looking every bit the Australian rockstar. Around this time it occurred to me how many of the acts at Nelsonville were fronted by or featured women. If this was not a conscious choice, it shows a lovely direction that music is heading. Most festivals I’ve attended over the years were testosterone fueled events, except with the exception of Lilith Fair. This was something different though, as it was not men or women performing, but a lot of both genders playing together, and better for it.

Deer Tick on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I thanked her but told her I did not want to try her Unicorn Sauce.

The next performance would be the highlight of my NMF experience. Deer Tick played a tight, anthem ridden set that featured music from throughout their career. A friend at the festival told me that he had been so disappointed in a recent show he was not looking forward to seeing them again and I was readied for disappointment. I needn’t have as this show was fresh, enthusiastic, and the group looked like they were having the time of their life, especially drummer Dennis Ryan who never stopped smiling from ear to ear the duration of the show. John J. McCauley belted out a barrage of country and blues inspired rock songs that sometimes reminded me of The Replacements, sometimes Nirvana, and sometimes Tom Petty. The crowd erupted around me and I had to move to the rear of the performance area to keep from getting trampled by dancing jam-band hippies, hard rockers, and country music fans alike. I had been looking forward to seeing Wooden Shjips since listening to their songs on the sampler, but Deer Tick was so good I couldn’t bring myself to leave. By the time I made it over to the Porch Stage Wooden Shjips was wrapping up. Their final song sounded good but I was still buzzing from Deer Tick. The lovely young woman standing next to me asked if I wanted a bite of her pizza. I asked her what kind it was and she told me it was pepperoni with Unicorn Sauce. I asked what the hell Unicorn sauce was and she told me that it used to be called Slut Sauce because it was all the sauces mixed together but they changed the name because it was a family event. I thanked her but told her that I did not want to try her Unicorn Sauce.

The Decemberists soldiering through illness. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

As much as I was delighted by Deer Tick, I was just as disappointed by The Decemberists. I had seen the Portlandian band once before a few years ago in Cincinnati, but singer Colin Meloy has been sick and the show was bad and cut short. They cancelled the next night show in Indianapolis altogether and my friends and I debated who had gotten off easier. I had been looking forward to seeing them again as a redemption since I had enjoyed their music otherwise. Unfortunately, the frontman was once again not feeling well and his voice was strained and the performance lethargic. I heard the next day that the highlight was when they brought up a fan from the audience to sing a song in place of the debilitated singer but I had already wandered off to the next performance stage by that point and didn’t see it. So had many others evidently. I heard another attendee point out it was a bad sign to see beer lines that line during a headliner’s performance. Maybe there is something in the air in Ohio that does not agree with Mr. Meloy.

Earthless finished off the evening back on the Porch Stage. The psychedelic rockers were well attended as the runoff from the mainstage headed their way. Or maybe the band was drawing their own crowd as they launched into an inspired set of melt your face music that seemed like the perfect end to a long day.

DAY 3

Musicians generally have a coolness about them that fits the clubs and concert halls that they inhabit. That coolness doesn’t always seem to translate well to an all day summer music festival. The guys at least – the long sleeve shirts, black skinny jeans, and the various other layers that make up the rock band uniform seem a bit ridiculous in 89° and 100% humidity weather. The women seem to be able to adapt a little easier to the outdoor climate staying cool and looking cool flowy skirts and blouses, shorts, and summer dresses. The sun had come out on the third day of NMF and coolness would be a sought after commodity.

Local artist Adam Remnant started off the day at the No-Fi Cabin. It was early enough that I was able to get my head in a window to hear a bluegrass tinged song about a going to California, a troubadour love ballad, and an indie folk song about being a boy.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw played again, this time on the mainstage. Barnes needed electric at the front of the stage and the sound guy was not happy about having to provide it. He walked off the stage and came back with an outlet box at the end of a cable and threw it on the stage, muttering under his breath, and smirking. There was a beleaguered soundcheck that never seemed fully resolved before the duo started. Barnes kept trying to work out the problems throughout the set, although I could never figure out after a certain point if it was for the enjoyment of the audience or for his own personal satisfaction. He was a long time into the performance before he acknowledged there was an audience if front of him.

Smizmar on the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Smizmar is a Futurama reference to the soulmate and one true love of an alien race on the show. Smizmar the band is a local act that plays interesting indie rock music reminiscent of the lo-fi indie rock I listened to as a youth; discordant indie noise pop with thoughtful, playful lyrics. I didn’t enjoy the first song and thought I was going to like them but the rest of the performance changed my mind, and I hope catch them again.

Twain on the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Twain was a pleasant surprise for me at NMF. Something about Matt Davidson’s bio picture had turned me off right away. I don’t usually have first impressions like this but the shy, vulnerable man that came on stage was nothing like the arrogant person I was expecting. He made awkward small talk from behind the mic and then admitted that he hated talking to people because he doesn’t feel good at it. His soulful lyrics were so earnest and thoughtful that I instantly felt connected to him. He was several songs in before I recognized him as the former accordian player of Spirit Family Reunion.

Colter Wall on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Canadian country-music performer Colter Wall is only 22 but he had the baritone voice of a much older man and one from a different era of music. His mainstage performance reminded me of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt, but never so much that he did not maintain an identity of his own. This young man is one to keep your eyes on; fans of Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, and Jason Isbell take note.

Fans enjoying Haley Henderickx at the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I got my second chance to catch Haley Heynderickx, this time on the Porch Stage and was happy to have done so. Maybe her dreamy folk was a little too slow for the sunny heat of the day but anticipation led to satisfaction. She made a joke that she could still smell Twain’s breath on the microphone and felt really close to him at the moment. The highlight of the set for me was the long song ‘Worth It’ and Heynderickx punching out the lyrics “Put me in a line, add another line, soon you’ll have a box and you can put me inside.” I don’t think there is a box the right shape and size for this dynamic performer.

Kevin Morby on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

The day kept exciting me. I did not know anything about Cincinnati band Lung before catching their performance but I was ready to find out more. The two-piece band featuring only an electric cello and a drumset had a much fuller sound than I would have have thought. The music was powerful and heavy and Kate Wakefield’s vocals reminded me of a mix of Siouxsie Sioux, Amanda Palmer, and Emily Haines. Kevin Morby played his Lou Reed-esque tributes to New York CIty and his travels around America. Canadians dream pop band Alvvays had a bigger, bolder sound than I anticipated from my the one song, ‘Archie, Marry Me’ that I knew prior to seeing them live. Rock veterans The Gories are a band from the 80s that sounded like a band from the 60s; reminiscent of proto-punk, garage rock groups The MC5, The Stooges, and ? & the Mysterians. I was confused in the best possible ways.

Tank & The Bangas on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I still don’t know what to think of Day 3 standout Tank and the Bangas. The large format group out of New Orleans was part R&B, part hiphop, part soul, part poetry slam, part performance art; but the performance was fully interactive with call and response, commands for yelps, noise competitions, and props handed out to the audience prior to the show starting. I couldn’t get close to the front for this one which was probably for the best as dancing and hopping around was a mandatory requirement of the audience, not to mention everyone on stage. There was so much going on that a kind of sensory overload occurred. I was halfway through one song before I realized they were covering ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. I kept trying to figure out where they booked their first gig. Most bands start out playing in clubs with stages barely big enough to fit three or four people let alone the ten musicians in the Bangas. Tank and the Bangas played an interesting and exciting set that I was glad to see live and would definitely go see again.

George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic headlining day 3. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I can neither confirm nor deny the demise of the balloon squid.

I don’t need to tell anyone who George Clinton is. During his 50+ year career he has become a musical icon as has his Parliament-Funkadelic collective of musicians. His psychedelic-funk helped shape the musical sound of the 70s and the early 80s and would later influence the gangsta-rap era of the 90s. The heavy sampling of Clinton and P-Funk would bring around renewed interest and a resurgence in their careers that has endured to this day. Clinton has recently announced that this is his last tour, and at 76 he has earned whatever retirement he intends to enjoy. He has slowed down onstage from the last time I saw him, spending more time sitting in a chair nodding his approval at the musical shenanigans going on around him than dancing around and leading the two bands and various other musicians that make up the collective, but George Clinton still does what he has always done best; he surrounds himself with talented and entertaining musicians that exhibit his unique brand of entertainment. Buying a ticket to a Clinton concert means you’ve got an invitation to the best party you’ve ever been, but a party you’ll have to watch from the safety of the front porch. Towards the end of the show I witnessed a large crowd parading towards the stage with the largest squid balloon animal effigy I had ever seen. I had heard that the Nelsonville crowd has sacrificed a similar creature to The Flaming Lips a few years. Squidicide was too much for me to handle at the moment and I made my way back to the media area to look for Brian and crew. From a distance I could hear a ruckus and sinister cheering, but I can neither confirm nor deny the demise of the balloon squid.

A giant balloon squid hovers above the crowd. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

We went back to the campground and sat around talking about our favorite parts of day. The camp area was still quiet but you could hear the bands playing on the late night stage in the other section of the campground. We had picked up a couple new people in our circle for the evening and I was starting to understand what everyone meant when they called themselves a family. We talked about music and we talked about art and places we had been and things we wanted to do in life. Suddenly I realized it was three in the morning and I slithered off to bed.

DAY 4

I woke up surprisingly easy considering the late hour of the night before, and surprisingly early. I decided to get up and dressed before the inside of my tent became too hot to get ready in. I thought about taking a shower in the college locker room but I heard from another that the wait was over two hours. I had made it this far without a proper shower and a baby wipe bath would have to do for one more day. We decided to pack up our camp before heading over to the concert grounds so that we could move our cars and make a quick exit once the show was over. I spent the next half hour packing my tent, sleeping bag, camp chair, and various other supplies. We sorted our trash between recyclables and compostable and carried our rubbish to the drop off point provided by the festival. It made me sad to do so because it meant the weekend was almost over and I had been happy here. In another few hours I would have to say goodbye to my new friends and goodbye to Nelsonville and would have to head back to reality. Others were also packing up and many were pulling out as well, ready to make their long drives home before having to go back to work in the morning. It was too early and I was too sober to feel so maudlin, so I straightened myself out and resigned myself to enjoy the rest of the day before thinking any more about tomorrow. We headed into the festival ready for one last day of music and entertainment. I grabbed another cup of coffee needing caffeine badly enough not to mind the price this time, and a roasted vegetable focaccia that I had been wanting since seeing one of the photographers eating one the day before. I walked the grounds as I ate, taking note of the bodies strewn about here and there in whatever shade could be found, obviously not the only one who had not slept much the night before and I suspected many had not slept at all. I listened to Kate Wakefield of Lung chat with an art vendor about music and to whom they get excited to listen. I saved a couple of their favorites to my Spotify on my phone to listen to on the drive home that night. Considering the length of the festival and weather we had all endured, I was struck by high the spirits still were amount the festival goers. Tired and a bit unclean, everyone was still happy and excited for one last day of music and camaraderie. I was too.

As I had each morning, I made my way to the No-Fi tent for the first performance of the day. I arrived early enough to get a spot by an open window although I couldn’t get inside. Megan Bee played minimalist folk-Americana songs that focused on modern lyrics. She told us the No-Fi cabin is her favorite place to perform as the less microphones and cables around her to worry about the better. Her songs and style very much fit the Sunday morning vibe around the grounds.

Larry Yes on the Boxcar Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

He first and foremost wanted to thank George Clinton for all the babies that would be born thanks to last night’s performance.

Larry Yes seemed as interested in telling stories as playing music, which was just fine with his audience. He first and foremost wanted to thank George Clinton for all the babies that would be born thanks to last night’s performance. Not just the human babies either, but the animal babies and the bird babies and the insect babies and the microscopic organisms on each of our faces that has gotten busy as a result of the vibes of P-Funk. He laughed and told us he might still be “fucked up” from the night before and stated that there was nothing wrong with playing the fool. It remained a light hearted and fun performance until Yes turned dark and told us the story of four friends riding mountain bikes at midnight, friends closer than friends, as only the young can be, who suddenly met tragedy as a car on a dark road mowed them down. Ryan and Angela in the front were killed, Caroline third had her pelvis and leg broken, and Larry in the rear got off mostly unscathed except for the emotional wounds of being a survivor. Yes explained that he was healed by the strength of Ryan’s mother who dealt with her son’s death with such grace that he was able to see through it. He then performed a song that he said he wrote as a love song to her in which he warns us not to be afraid of who we are because there is a lot of grace in the smallest of stars. It might have been the heaviest moment of the festival.

River Whyless on the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Fred Lonberg-Holm played discordant jazz music which reminded me of when I used to listen to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra warm up before a concert. Charlie Parr sang us folk music about the people he met while traveling around the country. JD Hutchinson and the Realbilly Jives turned out slowed down tunes my grandparents would have been happy to dance to in their days. River Whyless provided pleasant ‘baroque-pop’ that matched the sleepy feeling of the early Sunday lineup.

The Coal Cave Hollow Boys. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Playing on the Boxcar Stage, The Coal Cave Hollow Boys stood out with their edgy bluegrass performance. I received a text from Brian to get over to the stage because I needed to check them out and I’m glad I did. Already several songs into their set, the crowd was worked up and dancing along when I arrived – a crowd that also included a giant dancing cicada. Band member backgrounds include metal, classic rock, country, and alternative and color their take on the traditional format, giving it a fresh and lively twist that woke up the audience from the stupor of the day.

Counterfeit Madison on the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

There was so much happiness, both on the stage and on the ground, that you could feel the energy around you.

Having received a shout out from George Clinton onstage the night before, there was a large crowd waiting for the joy that is Counterfeit Madison at the Porch Stage. Many of us had already seen the onstage persona of Sharon Udoh earlier in the festival – I had watched her play on Friday to crowd of people in a hard rain to whom she had told several times it was okay if they left and caught another one of her performances. No one had left – but others were there to discover her excited and passionate mix of pop/funk/rock. Udoh erupted onstage, pounding on the piano and dancing and thrashing around the stage to the music. She talked to herself and us, telling herself not to throw the mic again and letting us know that she had forgotten to play the piano the last time she played the upcoming song. There was so much happiness, both on the stage and on the ground, that you could feel the energy around you.

Paul Thorn & The Blind Boys Of Alabama. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I had been looking forward to the Mission Temple Fireworks Revival, the collaboration between Paul Thorn and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Sadly, the Blind Boys announced that they came to us with heavy hearts as they had lost one of their own that day. Founding member and group leader Clarence Fountain had passed earlier in the day and the gospel group was visibly affected by their loss. They asked the crowd for “a prayer for Clarence and a prayer for the Blind Boys to be able to carry on”. They then launched into an emotional round of hymns dedicated to Fountain which included a gospel version of Stand By Me and a spiraling, driven version of Amazing Grace. Thorn remained in the wings for most of the performance, respectfully letting the group say their farewells to their friend. He finally joined the Blind Boys and toward the end of the set but I was only able to hear a couple songs with him before I had to move on to the next stage.

Tune-Yards closing out the Porch Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I was starting to feel the weight of the weekend and thought I might be wearing out. Tired, sunburnt, and possibly a little dehydrated, the sadness of the last set had left me feeling drained. Tune-Yards gave me the boost of energy I needed to get through the day. The genre defying music had the remaining NMF goers moving again, hopping and bouncing in time.

Ani DiFranco closes down the Main Stage. (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Ani DiFranco closed Nelsonville Music Festival 2018, and summed up much of the experience for me. Singer-songwriter, poet, activist, and founder of her own record label, DiFranco rose to prominence in the 1990s as a ‘folk punk’ advocate of the DIY ethos that permeated the era. Her music was smart, thoughtful, and emotionally wrought and bridged traditional styles with modern nuances. At 47, she no longer looks as edgy as she once did with her shaved head or her multi colored dreads, and her thick black boots. Her high-waisted cotton pants made her look more like a soccer mom than the iconoclast that I remembered but she quickly showed she had not lost her taste for vitriol. Looking out over our heads at the surrounding landscape, she told us how beautiful Ohio was “except for the police tower over there”, motioning at the scissor lift that had been positioned at the back of the concert ground during the event. She then let us know that “some of us haven’t had the best experiences with authority”. She then launched into ‘Not A Pretty Girl’, a 23 year old song with a feminist message that seems to be ripped from today’s headlines and demonstrated the prescience her music exhibited. I am struck by how happy she seems now, and I really hope she is, but I also remember the lyrics “some people wear their smile like a disguise/those people who smile a lot watch the eyes/i know cause i’m like that a lot/you think everything’s okay/it is till it’s not” and I’m cautious.

We walked to the car, listening to the final few songs of the festival as we did so, and began the long drive home. We stopped along the way to grab dinner, looking forward to unlimited beverages more than the food. We talked about the festival over overcooked vegetables and out impressions of the last four day. Nelsonville Music Festival is a unique experience featuring a curated performance list that goes against the grain of the typical line-ups dominating the festival scene. It fosters a community of like minded individuals coming together for an event that transcends the music it promotes. This was my first NMF but it won’t be my last. I’m already counting down the days until I get to come together with my new found friends and another four days of discovery.

FULL GALLERY