The Nelsonville Music Festival Through My Eyes
Written by Chris Ramos on June 12, 2019
John Dwyer locked into the rhythm during the Oh Sees performance on the NMF Main Stage, Friday, June 7th
All Photos by Noah Tropf
As the crowd buzzed with immense energy, quick chatter, excitement unbearable to contain; John Dwyer paces the stage. With a cigarette in his hand, soaking in the calm before the storm, he says “you guys are crazy”, with a big smile on his face. Two drum sets, bass, keyboards, and an acrylic Gibson SG shaped guitar (kudos to the Electrical Guitar Company) were the means of channeling out mind-melting garage rock with shades of metal that are otherworldly.
Oh Sees were to finish the warm, Nelsonville Friday summer night. Performing on the main stage, their arrival followed an astounding performance by The Breeders.
Oh yes, The Breeders rightfully set the tone, mixing in newer material with the 90s anthems from their classic album Last Splash. The nostalgia among long-time fans during their set was heavier than the humidity that blanketed the festival grounds.
It took several minutes to get the sound check just right for the Oh Sees, especially in regards to Dwyer’s microphone. An impromptu jam sesh had the horde pressing up against the barricade, practically salivating for the bombardment of distortion from their electric commander. I was also overwhelmed with anticipation.
When it started, it showed no mercy.
The mosh pit was summoned within a blink of an eye. As I tried to desperately capture footage, elbows and shoulders ricocheted off of my back. I dropped my notebook for just a moment and the pages were barely intact. If I had acted any later, it would have been imprinted within the grass. Business cards that I collected from past interviews could not be salvaged and for someone like me, who is sentimental, that sucked but it’s the price you pay when you’re witnessing one of the best live acts.
“The Dream”, “Toe Cutter/Thumb Buster”, “Sentient Oona”, “Tidal Wave”, “I Come From the Mountain, Sticky Hulks”; they all wreaked havoc. Feet were lifted off of the ground, as attendees crowd surfed while others attempted to climb over the barricade, much to the dismay of security. Sensing the energy, Dwyer decided to level the playing field, or in this case, the connection between the artist and fans.
“You guys can come on stage for this one. Just don’t knock anything over,” Dwyer said.
I was skeptical, did his word override the rules? I quickly found out that they did, as one by one, fans climbed the barricade and leaned their bodies forward to climb unto the stage. No security intervention. What in the hell was I was waiting for? I clutched my camera to my side and enacted the same maneuver. On stage, along with everyone else, I jumped, screamed, and shook my head until it felt as though my hair would fall out. I paused and looked out into the turbulent sea, the tides crashing. I felt a great sense of triumphant joy reign over, as my fantasy of being a rockstar came to life for one song, for one priceless moment.
Towards the end of our limited invitation, we all sat in a circle, instructed by Dwyer. Capitalizing on the moment, I put my camera to work and recorded the best footage that I got all weekend. When it was over and I was off stage, taking my place in the crowd, I was utterly speechless. I can’t say the same for the guy who got tackled by a security guard while on stage. I wasn’t quite sure if he was tampering with equipment or attempting to crash into people, but it was stifled.
A damn good closer and it was only one great set out of so many that were showcased during the 15th anniversary of the Nelsonville Music Festival. Stuart’s Opera House knows how to put an event together, but then again, doing it for 15 years is bound to produce great results.
After arriving at the campground on Thursday with my good friend, Noah Tropf, I couldn’t wait to explore the area. Tropf was serving as my personal, old reliable, photographer for the festival. In the bigger picture, we were both serving Black Squirrel Radio. Of course, we first had to take an hour to set up an eight-person tent. An eight-person tent for two people doesn’t sound quite right. However, having no tent of my own (my family isn’t one for camping), I can’t complain. Having plenty of room isn’t a bad thing.
The first act that I saw was The National Reserve, a blues/southern rock group based out of New York, performing on the free Boxcar stage. This was the only free stage, open to anyone. The audience was spread out upon a grass hill with vendors behind them, the boxcar stage in front and behind the stage; a train. The train became a treasured refuge for the stage crew and artists to hang out and escape the scorching heat.
Lead singer and guitarist, Sean Walsh, kept a back and forth discourse with the audience. He shared a great revelation in his life, which was the day when music and work morphed into one entity. After a shoutout to all of the “horrible bosses” that Walsh once had to deal with, the band dished out a booming cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”. Following this was their rendition of “California” off of The Reserve’s record Easy Does It. Full of gritty blues licks, bottleneck guitar playing, and sharp solos, it was hard to believe that the set was free. We like things that free but when they also kick ass, then we’ve stumbled upon a true rarity.
We made our way inside, through the straw entrance tunnel which was illuminated by several lights and backed by cricket sound effects come night. The volunteers checked our wristbands and gave us the okay, as the volunteers in the parking lot for media/vendors already checked Tropf’s camera bag. As Todd Snider performed on the main stage, I decided to check out the porch stage.
I still wasn’t sure which artists were okay with pictures and video. A spreadsheet, which was subject to change, was provided prior to the show which clarified the requests made by each artist. Snider was game for everything but the photo pit rotation had already run its course and it looked like a hassle to weave in and out of the vast crowd in order to find a good spot.
The decision to flock towards the porch stage was a rewarding one, as I bared witness to one of the most dynamic acts of the weekend, Orkesta Mendoza. A richly fused, Latin band based out of Tucson, Arizona. I say richly fused because they showcased the flavor of Latin music, gave way for jazz, and even delivered a marvelous cover of the George Harrison penned “Within You, Without You.”
Sergio Mendoza is great, but I found myself floored by the moves of Salvador Duran. Grey hair and up there in age, his dancing and movements were fluid as hell. I’d even argue that he moves better than I do, but that isn’t saying much. What I am to dancing is the same as what JaMarcus Russell is to the NFL quarterback position. The cadence of Latin percussion does something for the soul, it’s seductive and full of liveliness.
Even if you aren’t fluent in Spanish, the lyrics caress the ears because of how smooth it sounds. It also reminds me of how lazy I am, given the fact that I went through two years of Spanish in high school. More crucial, is the fact that Spanish is the native tongue of my father and I’m still not fluent in it. Don’t even get me started on the wave of embarrassment that comes when I talk to my cousins and uncles.
Closing out Thursday, I didn’t get to see much of Tyler Childers’ set as it conflicted with Okestra. Still, I could see the warm reception to the bluegrass/folk remedy. Plenty of people were singing along and swaying with happiness. Young children were hoisted on their parents’ shoulders, the best seat in the house.
My eyes came into contact with a sideshow that consisted of one drunken fool and two security guards. Behind a security guard, who was keeping watch of the photo pit, this plastered fella conducted an animated air hump session. Foreshadowing in my book, since the drunken fool hopped into the photo pit and sprinted towards the stage as though he were a WWE wrestler. He did a good job of evading one guard but once back up came, he surrendered to his circumstances.
The early-afternoon of Friday saw heavy traffic at the festival skate ramp as professional skater, Kristian Svitak, had plenty of tricks to offer. Older skaters and younger skaters cheered each other on, gave advice for improvement and were mutually linked by the chase for the thrill. Meanwhile, attendees were painting the walls of the skate ramp. Vibrant faces, symbols, and messages were encrypted on the wood. A pink tombstone read “Kill Your TV.”
Away from the ramp, down the train tracks to the Boxcar stage, Sierra Ferrell sang with angelic prowess. An all acoustic set consisting of her and Tom Riggs radiated good spirits. Ferrell being extremely charming, won plenty of hearts. Carrying the Nashville spirit, her jangly tunes were a treat for the ears. Also true to the Tennessee spirit, a Dolly Parton cover.
Past the porch stage, was the bustling activity of gift shops, whether it be the tie-dye shirt stand or the cabin-porch record shop that also carried 8-tracks. In this square was also the No-Fi cabin which featured light, acoustic-based sets. Spectators were seated in the cabin, right up in front of the musicians for an intimate performance. Strange inflatables resembling owls and octopuses lingered in trees and on roofs, along with several multi-colored streamers. Come nightfall, this psychedelic shanty town would turn into a glistening jewel from the colored lights.
After a quick visit to the press cabin, already occupied by other reporters and photographers, with one of them wearing a Cleveland Scene lanyard, we got a taste of Radattack. The high energy, punk-influenced group from Columbus, Ohio was boisterous. Living up to the power pop reputation, their renditions of “Archie Gets Laid”, “Hong Kong Action Cinema” and “Bye Bye High School” sought to push the boundaries. Working on all cylinders, they were a well-oiled, noise making machine with catchy arrangements.
Another tight-knit unit was discovered on the main stage on Saturday, as The War & Treaty brought a lot of soul mixed with a bit of country to the atmosphere. The lovebird duo of Micheal and Tanya Trotter was as beautiful to watch as it was to hear. Locked hands, leaning up against one another, their voices roared in unison. “Down To The River”, the title track from their 2017 EP, was explosive. Micheal Trotter went beyond just introducing the backing band, as he allowed each member to play a solo on their respective instruments. A saxophone solo, a guitar solo, a drum solo, a keyboard solo, a trumpet solo, a bass solo, a drum solo and a vocal solo by Tanya Trotter. Together, all of these components resulted in a rich sound. Separately, each component flexed its strength and showed what it brought to the table.
Of course, on Saturday evening, Death Cab for Cutie essentially took over all of Hocking College. Everyone and their mother flocked to the main stage for Death Cab, excited to hear the vivid songwriting of principle lyricist Ben Gibbard and the array of sounds that Death Cab can eloquently pull off. Unfortunately, I could not stay for the entirety of their set nor did I experience the festivities of Sunday. Tropf and I were being called home early.
The campground nights were in a league of their own. Every night, live music could be seen at the Campground Tent. These were neat shows for people who were looking to continue the party. Even during the day, portable speakers and car radios blared all over the tent commune. Some people were grilling, some people were polishing off beers, some people were playing cornhole and others were getting ready to doze off in hammocks. Towering trees watched over, completely surrounding us.
There were late nights for me and leg shaking waits to use the porta-potties in my vicinity, which were a tough go if they hadn’t been cleaned out yet.
Yes, I was covering an event but I also needed to soak in the fun. I had to be attentive to all the details. I had to have those 2 a.m. discussions with our campground neighbor about the egregious inconsistencies within Weezer’s discography, as Tropf is struggling to maintain consciousness due to the onset of immense tiredness.
It was apart of the experience, part of the joys that turn into sweet memories. For NMF being my first festival, I couldn’t be any more grateful. Sure, Tropf’s bumper was almost ripped off due to a nasty turn while returning to the campground and access to extensive media coverage was shaky for a college radio student, but that’s ok. (Tropf may feel a bit different)
The sights of people enjoying themselves in rural southeast Ohio, full of luscious green hills that complimented the vibrant festival grounds was the only reassurance that I needed. The fire performer, the kid being coached on the skate ramp, the people painting, kids kicking around a ball on available grass; these were the smaller details. These activities accompanied the tears, laughs, united singing and applause that stemmed from the music.
After all, it was music that brought everyone together. It always has. It always will. A monumental human invention that continually serves as a cornerstone of society and gives rise to endless emotions, endless possibilities. It’s breathtaking to see it work its magic for an entire weekend and as I stated earlier, it is what makes life worth living. Burdens are stripped, and the moment is to be in your possession and mine.