Nelsonville Music Festival 2017: Four days of music, art and community
Written by Brooke Forrest on June 9, 2017
Last weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, was the 13th annual Nelsonville Music Festival, which took place in the small southeast Ohio town of Nelsonville. These four days of music, art, camping and other entertainment were truly something special.
Admittedly I’ve never actually been to a ‘real’ music festival. I tend to stick with the kind that you can drop in on for free and then head home after your day of fun, not the expensive week-long ones you have to travel long distances to. But at the invite of a friend, fellow BSR writer Ashley Moor, we attended this past week’s festival. With headliners like They Might Be Giants, Ween, Jenny Lewis and more I was convinced it would be a worthwhile trip and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.
For day one of the festival we caught several highly impressive up-and-coming acts including Big Thief, Valley Queen and Parquet Courts. Ashley was most excited about Big Thief. They put on a deeply interesting show, with lead singer Adrianne Lenker sweetly telling moving stories through her songs and unique voice. As someone unfamiliar with the group beforehand I must say I was incredibly impressed with the band’s guitarist Buck Meek. He had a gorgeous voice and I would love to have heard more from him including more actual duets between him and Lenker. I was very pleased to find out the pair have made music as a duo. The band that I was most excited for on Thursday was Parquet Courts. I was pleased with their loose and entertaining set. In addition to their already witty lyrics the group made jokes throughout, including some, in my opinion, always excellent Sheetz references. Unfortunately for me I was left wanting more; they had a perfectly good set but I would love to spend more time watching these Brooklyn indie rockers perform more of their sardonic tracks.
The headliner for the first evening was Conor Oberst. I’ve never seen him perform before so this was a treat. I enjoy his music but was far more familiar with his older Bright Eyes work. Oberst stuck mainly with his new music but still put on a surprisingly energetic and satisfying show for someone known for his depressing musical stylings. Oberst frequently complimented the other bands of the day and spoke well of the music festival itself. The highlight for me was when Oberst made a rather bold reference to the current President by discussing the “the fraud from New York” before setting into one of his last songs for the evening. This was just the first of several moments throughout the festival that a musician took time out of their set to make not-so-positive remarks on the current administration.
Nelsonville, like many other music and arts festivals, certainly gives off that more earthy and potentially ‘liberal’ vibe but the frequent references to resisting the current administration rarely felt overly damning or unfair. But it is safe to say they were likely preaching to a very agreeable and responsive audience.
For the late night sets of the evening the Porch Stage offered Bummers, a local surf rock band from Columbus. The MC for the stage made a joke about the band surfing all the way to Nelsonville and thus began their delightfully retro rock set. The Bummers were one of the bands I was happy to find during the festival. I was admittedly pretty excited for any new band I could hear that fell somewhere within the alternative and punk categories, and Bummers fit in nicely. As did Ron Gallo, a very interesting discovery for me. I think one of the greatest parts of any music festival is being exposed to acts you may not have known otherwise and Gallo was one of my favorite new finds. He immediately caught my attention; not only were his songs excellent and exactly what I was looking for but he was also a hell of a showman. He had a commanding and inviting stage presence and made various entertaining jokes and declarations through his performance. At one point he even doing an impressive Goo Goo Dolls cover as a joke after someone in the audience requested it. Gallo was so good I made sure to catch him a second time during his Friday evening set, where I was just as impressed as the first time. He was high-energy, hilarious and raw. At one point he ended up breaking strings on both of his guitars resulting in an impromptu Q&A portion of the show where he eloquently explained his philosophy of life as well as humorously dodged a very eager fan’s question about his relationship status. Gallo was a highlight of the weekend.
On Friday I caught several highly unique and varied performances starting with St. Lenox and Counterfeit Madison. St. Lenox, aka Andrew Choi, had an immediately arresting voice. I’ve never quite heard anyone that sounds like him and I think that’s something pretty special. His sound was enough for me to take notice but his captivating lyrics and interesting backstory made him quite memorable. Choi grew up in a Korean immigrant family in the midwest and went on to study music at Juilliard, get a Ph.D. in philosophy, and then go to law school. Dissatisfied with his law career, Choi got into music and thus St. Lenox was born. He has such an honest and distinct style and I for one am glad this soulful singer exists. Next up was Columbus’s own Counterfeit Madison, aka Sharon Udoh. I must say I was instantly drawn to her through her photograph and in this case I’m glad I judged a book by it’s cover. Udoh gave one of the most intense and powerful performances I’ve ever seen. Like a rock n’ roll Nina Simone, Counterfeit Madison sang guttural tracks while wailing rather beautifully on her keyboard. The comparisons to Simone are somewhat fair given her latest album Counterfeit Madison Meets Nina Simone: A Celebration of Blackness, is a live performance record of numerous key Simone songs. Though she may remind you of some of the greats in soul or rock she is something all her own. Plus I have to say I’ve never seen someone rock so hard they break their keyboard and as Udoh declared during her final song, “I think I broke my keyboard. It wouldn’t be the first time and it won’t be the last.”
Later in the day I had the pleasure of seeing Sara Watkins, a singer-songwriter and accomplished fiddle player who was also new to me. But I must say I was pleased – Watkins was highly charming and sweet and had a great voice. She wooed the large crowd with some lovely covers, including the spectacular Zombies’ song “The Way I Feel Inside”. Though she is certainly more ‘country’ than my normal tastes her clear talent and stage presence were more than enough to win me over. My next delightful discovery for the day was Margaret Glaspy. Glaspy was another act I normally wouldn’t have checked out if it wasn’t for the insistence of the friend I was with. But I am so I glad I saw her – though she certainly falls in that borderline folksy female singer-songwriter group, her unique and deep voice makes her a standout. She put on such a good show we made sure to see both of her sets. Glaspy is clearly a clever songwriter and talented musician and her darkly sweet voice made me an instant fan.
During the headlining parts of Friday, Cleveland’s own Cloud Nothings put on a raucous set. I frankly know the band mainly through the fact that they are frequently featured on BSR, so I was happy to finally check them out for myself. They had the distinction of being one of the few bands of the festival to result in some actual moshing, and it may have been the most friendly and happy mosh pit I’ve ever witnessed. The other highlight of their performance was drummer Jayson Gerycz; the man went non-stop. I spent most of their set watching him in disbelief. After Cloud Nothings was the legendary Rodriguez. I was interested to catch some of his performance mainly because of his unusual backstory, I was also fascinated to discover that many people attended Nelsonville just to see him. He played to a large and devoted crowd but I only briefly attended his set, in large part because he mainly just played covers.
The main act of the evening was They Might Be Giants. TMBG are truly one of my all-time favorite bands and this year marks the ten year anniversary of the first (and only) time I’ve seen them perform. They’ve aged well; from their opening song I was transported back to being just as giddy as I was the first time I saw them. They also put on a rather epic show – they filled the main stage lawn – and had maybe the most theatrics I saw all weekend. They performed a mix of some of their classic hits and newer releases while creating some memorable moments like when John Linnell accidentally squashed a bug on his keyboard. He announced how bad he felt while also admitting that was probably a first for him. TMBG was another main act to make references to the current commander-in-chief, though their reference was far more discreet than others, they did encourage resistance before breaking into a rather fitting rendition of “Why Does the Sun Shine?”.
After an truly wonderful performance by They Might Be Giants, I found myself wowed by the other late night acts Mothers and L.A. Witch. Mothers had a seriously cool atmospheric sound. Hearing their moody music through the brightly lit trees felt kind of perfect. They feel like they would be a fitting houseband at the Bang Bang Bar in the Twin Peaks reboot. Later in the evening L.A. Witch provided exactly the kind of music you’d hope for with a name like that. The trio, actually hailing from L.A., brought the female driven lo-fi punk that I was craving all weekend. Not to judge many of the other acts, but in a sea of folk and lighter indie rock, L.A. Witch instantly stood out and made for a delectable end of the night.
The next day ironically started with a band that has actually played the Bang Bang Bar. The Cactus Blossoms performed dreamy old-school americana-style rock. Brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum (aka The Cactus Blossoms) have received many comparisons to the Everly Brothers, which I think is more than fair. A twangy darker version of “All I Have to Do is Dream” would’ve fit right into their set. During that same morning I had the privilege of catching folk legend Michael Hurley, who is a longtime friend of the festival and played several sets. Though I was sad he didn’t play some of my favorites tracks of his, just seeing the man who inspired and influenced so many artists was cool enough.
After a rather ‘folk’ driven afternoon, Jay Som brought a very welcome change with their experimental indie-rock sounds. In addition to their excellent music they may have been the most hilarious of all the acts I saw. Accidentally going off in a lengthy Blockbuster, Napster, and Myspace reference/joke they proved to be entertaining in more ways than one. After that they gave a happy and humorous shout-out to public transportation before playing “The Bus Song” and then made perhaps the most poignant and random observation I heard all weekend, stating, “I’ve been to a lot of music festivals and this is by far the most Grateful Dead t-shirts I’ve seen. Respect.”
The headliners for the evening included Jenny Lewis, I unfortunately missed her act but heard from Ashley that it was a fantastic performance, made all the better with confettI-filled balloons. I was lucky enough to catch Lewis perform several years ago and I know she puts on a really terrific show. But I had to make room for seeing a band I’ve never seen but always wanted to, the other headliner for the evening, Ween. The main stage was packed with die-hard Ween fans. Clearly this was one of the performers with a bit more of a cult following. I was eager to see this group mainly because I knew they were gonna put on a seriously unusual show, and they did not disappoint. With crazy lights and effects and a parade of Ween-faced balloons, it was one of the most wonderfully strange shows I’ve been to, and I must say it was a festival highlight to hear them play “Push th’ Little Daisies” live. After Ween, we caught Twin Peaks who put on an unruly and somewhat trippy show. The night was made all the more unusually entertaining by the late-night campground act DJ Barticus and John E. Clift. As I laid in my tent it was certainly something else to hear retro dance music blasting through the trees as I fell asleep under the stars.
By the last day of the festival I was exhausted but I was also incredibly excited because the band I most wanted to see, Shannon & the Clams, were finally up. Hailing from Oakland, California, the group described by John Waters as “The Mamas & Papas of punk dance halls everywhere” arrived in full retro pop/garage rock style. I was just excited to be so close to this remarkably cool band. Despite having to play through kind of ridiculous heat, they delivered. I got to hear them play some of my favorite songs while also witnessing, for the first time, a crowd of people doing the twist at a punk show. Shannon and crew tried to keep things lively through the heat, even making an endearing ‘keep Nelsonville weird’ joke. Though I’m sure it would’ve been even better in a less hot and sunny environment I was thrilled to finally see Shannon & the Clams live. The other main acts for the day were Son Volt and headliner Emmylou Harris; both groups gave lovely performances to a very devoted crowd of country fans. After several days of music, art, camping and community I must say I was more than pleased.
Clearly I’m not the expert on all things music festival, but I must say that Nelsonville exceeded my expectations. I got what I was promised in terms of days of excellent live music but I also had the pleasure of what was one of the better large scale events I’ve attended. Nelsonville felt like a community, there were people of all ages and a general feeling of friendliness. I only dealt with a few moments of annoying people, which by the end of the weekend felt like nothing compared to the amount of friendly happy people I encountered. I kept describing the area and many of the acts as ‘folksy’ and I think it kinda exemplifies what Nelsonville is, that small town feeling at a rather impressive music festival. It’s the best of both worlds and I can’t wait till next year.