By Sam Tornow, General Manager
Locality is the core ingredient in the cocktail that is Nelsonville Music Festival. It’s the scent that is initially tough to distinguish, although easy to identify once pointed out. Goers treated each like neighbors because many of them are. The gorgeous green foothills that backdrop any and every direction you looked in, are a common site to those in attendance. And in an area of the country that often feels neglected by the suits in charge, NMF makes it feel like maybe that isn’t such a bad thing all the time.
Young children ran and blew bubbles on the hillsides while their parents sat and watched from lawn chairs. It wasn’t nerdy or whatever–it was genuine. A feeling quickly slipping through the fingers of major festival runners like Coachella’s anti-LGBT CEO, SXSW’s deportation clause, or even the fine people at Bonnaroo who fill the Manchester skies with Trojan condom ads every year.
Instead, Nelsonville Music Festival is largely put on by the historic Stuart’s Opera House. Stuart’s is a nonprofit opera house in the Nelsonville area that focuses on bringing artists and guests to the region. But, as they’ll remind the audience before each set, the festival could not be possible without the help of a number of sponsors, most of which are local.
Because of NMF’s middle-ground size and local sponsors, it has the ability to push their agenda impactfully. Zero-waste trailers and vegan eateries sit around the vendor area, while reused materials and solar charged buildings make up the rest of the campground; A bohemian’s energy efficient dream.
The real gem of this forward-thinking initiative is the Boxcar Stage. Located before the wristband checking station, the stage remained free to the public and featured several brew tents and food trucks. And while this stage could have played host to purely local bands, it instead featured some of the largest non-headlining acts: Margaret Glaspy, Wesley Bright and The Honeytones, outsider-folk legend Michael Hurley, and Jay Som (whom took home Pitchfork’s Best New Music spot for their latest album, for what it’s worth).
In an area as economically plagued as rural Appalachia (with Athens being one of the poorest counties in the state-to-boot), it was a conscious, and human decision to bring the stage back for its second year. But, if the names of headliners Conor Oberst, Ween, Emmylou Harris, They Might Be Giants, Parquet Courts, etcetera, happened to be too enticing to miss (which they are) tickets for the festival sat at a courteous $170 four-day camping pass. And if you happen to be a resident of Nelsonville, only $85.
As the festival opened its gates and the friendly workers started smiling to guests, I lay on the beat-up leather couch in my new apartment sick as a dog with self-diagnosed exhaustion from an unexpected move across the country just days earlier. It kept pulling me in as I struggled to stand up, let alone make my way to the festival.
It was fitting though, as a lifelong fan of Conor Oberst (I’ve always come so close to seeing him live) only to be stopped by some unforeseen force several times. The first day of Nelsonville was no different. As my roommate coined it: The Curse of Conor Oberst.
Being the first full day of the festival, Friday was packed with the starting set. Every stage was brimming with spectators lounging under trees to avoid the heat.
Athens-based babies turned California bigshots Wished Bone were of the first to start the day. Old friends saw each other in the sun-baked field and things were suddenly okay, out of reach from the rest of the world. Cleanly split between the front row of the audience and the shade given off by one of the many cabins, the crowd at the Porch stage was filled in nicely for an early set.
The trio’s naive folk felt appropriately placed under the gaze of the foothills behind. The homecoming was as fuzzy as the Pseudo Recordings cassettes they were selling at the nearby merch tent.
After a nap on a hill with a hat as an eye mask, Cincinnati natives, and Lobsterfest Alums’, Leggy woke me up.
“Do you guys want to hear our surf-rock song?” the bubblegum punks yelled out, only to be met with applause. The band blasted on as if to signal the coming of the more upbeat acts of the night.
Perhaps the most overlooked act of NMF, Rodriguez, connected with the audience in an unparalleled manner. The singer-songwriter unknowingly rose to astronomical levels of fame during times of turmoil in South Africa, while remaining nearly anonymous in the States. He sang songs of protest and peace, just days after the international shakeup of the United States deciding to refrain from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Being deep within a heartland of greenery and just miles from the under-attack Wayne National Forest, the undertones of optimism among anger resonated all too well.
As the afternoon sun cast shadows down upon the crowded Appalachian lawn on the third day of NMF, the indie-pop gem Mirah offered an ending anecdote to their 45-minute set.
“I spent some of my childhood here in Athens County,” she said, as the sweat dripped down her face. “I was here for the first sixish months of my life, so I don’t remember it, but my mom told me that we lived on Miller Street and had a tree growing out of the porch . . . I’ve heard that the tree is gone, but Miller Street will always be there.”
As the set came to end, a child ran to his mother and danced around her. She smiled and took his hands, spinning him fast enough that his tiny legs lifted off the ground. Such small moments have a way of attracting large audiences of onlookers, who played witness to the wholesome moment.
Yeah, Miller Street will always be there.
Coming off the wave of her first proper album under the moniker, Jay Som filled the Boxcar Stage’s hillside area.
When asked who was from the area by Melina Duterte of Jay Som’s, the hillside of the erupted with an array of college students, nicely dressed dads with local brews and just about every vendor in site. The members of Jay Som looked shocked at the reaction to such a mundane question, and then they smiled.
Between songs that swung from upbeat alternative to more lush tracks, the band playfully jostled with the crowd. Duterte went as far as to ask whether the crowd enjoyed “sexy music” and dogs. They answered yes to both.
Half of a delicious O’Betty’s veggie dog and 45-minutes later, the 8-piece soul group Wesley Bright & The Honeytones took over at the same stage.
Boasting classic James Brown-esque charisma, Bright had the crowd out of the shadows on top of the hill and into the heat of the day at center stage; a feat most of the festival’s artists struggled to do. From above, the audience, filled with people aging from 18 to 80, looked like a stream whipping back and forth. Old and young people smiled as they danced to a universally enjoyed style of music.
Saturday night’s acts were spread far across the sonic spectrum: Jenny Lewis, the infamous weens of Ween (exceeding their set time more than anyone else at the festival), and alt-rock T.V. show capitalizers, Twin Peaks (who played well into Sunday).
On Sunday, campgrounds were taken down, cars drove out through the winding Hocking roads, the showers were in sight but the music continued.
Following the cessation of the festival’s final morning yoga session, remaining crowds were treated to locals like The Crooked Spines, cult-hero Michael Hurley’s fourth performance of the festival and a haunting No-Fi Cabin set by the New Zealand gothic-folk singer Aldous Harding, amongst other acts.
Yet, the concluding day was stolen by the final performance of NMF, country legend Emmylou Harris.
The 13-time Grammy winner sang into the wind, accompanied only by the stripped-down sounds of a guitar. She played old material, new material and an assortment of covers. Harris performed with a subtle grace that seemed to come from experience and confidence, a sign of her deeply praised past.
Harris’ set was a simple one, a fitting end to a rather simple festival. Goers were not bombarded with ads or competitions; no overflux of attractions fighting for attention. Nelsonville 2017 felt like exactly what it was: Four days in Appalachia listening to music with some friends.