By Coele Gaia
The 2nd-Annual Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival at Clinton Lake State Park in Lawrence, KS from June 16-19 splashed upon the sweet summer scene with an impressive line-up of improvisational talent. Awesome vibes flowed freely as campers set up tents in scenic grassy tree-lined fields only a brief walk away from the five stages and spacious Revival Tent. Laid-back Midwest hospitality seasoned a vibrant sense of exuberance as a burgeoning musical community gathered together in America’s heartland to celebrate the full-moon Summer Solstice.
Lawrence has historically served as a cultural crossroads and major hot spot for music, sports, politics and superior educational opportunities at the University of Kansas. The splendid college-friendly town is a major upbeat oasis and midpoint between the big cities of the east and the west coasts. Conceptually, Wakarusa resides in a very special realm of art over business and love of music over greed. Chief organizer Brett Mosiman’s vision proved true.
Through Internet promotion and community word-of-mouth, the popularity of the camp-fest scene is growing like Kansas wheat and harvesting an incredible crop of budding artists and inspired listeners. Creative crafts booths, festival food vendors and a variety of sponsors encircled the perimeter staging area. Park activities included disc golf, biking, hiking, swimming and watercrafting. A real-live carnival complete with a grand Ferris wheel was located adjacent to the concert grounds.
The Grateful Dead tribute band the Schwag was in kind form. Reggae funk jazzsters Perpetual Groove found a slick and tasty one as the sun melted into the distant horizon. ALO’s pop-funk psychedelia invigorated the cool evening air. Late-night trance, funk, reggae and tribal fusion greeted the rising sun. Day two awoke to a lightly-scattered cloudy sky that soon morphed into the omnipresent penetrating Kansas sun as campers awoke to an escalating 80-plus degree heat. Fortunately, the inviting cool, refreshing waters of Clinton Lake were not far away. High noon welcomed the deep, meditative roots-reggae of John Brown’s Body. From Detroit, Robert Bradley’s Black Water Surprise offered low-key, gritty blues-soul centered around Bradley’s unique reflective style. Energetic Hasidic reggae-fusion rapper Matisyahu performed with a rousing spirited blessing of Torah-infused food for the soul.
Chicago’s incendiary guitar driven Umphrey’s McGee delivered an explosive, shredding 90-minute metal-jazz set, solidifying their prog-rock credibility. Umphrey’s have ignited the festival circuit with an eclectic songwriting style reminiscent of moe. The second-night show at the Sundown Stage was ablaze as their amped-up celebrated guitar duo Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger ripped through a scorching set that included covers of “Billy Jean” and “Hey 19.” North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson sat in with Umphrey’s for an electrifying extended jam that closed out the set.
The swamp-sliding boogie sounds of the No Miss Allstars took on a grinding lean guitar expression that has placed the hard-touring roadrunners all over the map. Occasionally borrowing from the honed southern baked monumental Allmanesque riffs, the deep red-clay baked tunes, quirky lyrics and fun jams kept the get-down dancing scene hopping. Railroad Earth’s special blend of fiddle-inspired picking and grinning bluegrass drew an appreciative country crowd of footstompers to the Revival Tent.
Multiple shows by several artists on consecutive days provided ample opportunity to catch as much music as possible. Conspirator, a collaborative superstar band featuring Disco Biscuits Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner, and Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger, garnered rave reviews and defined an escalating side-project trend on the jamband scene.
Wakarusa headliner, Boulder’s String Cheese Incident, premiered several new songs from their just-released One Step Closer cd. “Black Clouds” floated into a superb first-time live “Drive.” “Black and White” segued into “Way Back Home.” “Lonesome Road Blues” drove right into the “Sometimes a River.” “Yo Se,” “It Is What It Is” and “Best Feeling” traveled full circle into “Outside and Inside.” A surprise encore of the legendary Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” blazed through the satiated audience.
Particle’s pyrotechnics lit up the midnight hour with an eclectic blend of stratospheric guitar effects, spacey keyboard electronica and driving percussive rhythms balanced on lightning quick tempo shifts. Having recently toured with the Grateful Dead’s drum icon Mickey Hart as Hydra, their musical weight has grown and positively matured. Ozomatli fused an encyclopedia of styles, shifting from salsafied reggae to rockin’ jazzy world beat. Talented and visually zany, the Ozomatli horn section later joined Particle in one of a myriad of creative collaborations throughout the festival. The trippy, magical late-night energy embraced San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green, as they kicked a rock-based high-flying jam into high gear.
Saturday offered the zydeco bluegrass stylings of Donna the Buffalo, Colorado power trio Rose Hill Drive and Jamie Masefield’s evolving Jazz Mandolin Project. Taking things to a another level, the electric Masefield’s mandolin merged with Umphrey’s Bayliss guitar in a brilliant note-for-note cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe carved out deep-funk grooves, sliding into a rootsy reggae or flying on a magic carpet toward the outskirts of infinity. Denson’s saxophone, flute and jazz-funk vocalizations allow for a wide-ranging song selection.
The undisputed king of the improvisational music scene is the masterful guitarist Warren Haynes. Renowned as the hardest-working musician on American soil, Haynes’ living rock myth remains unrivaled. Solid and soulful, his Gov’t Mule band has dramatically evolved and risen to major prominence. The super-tight quartet (original drummer Matt Abts, bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis) delivers masterful rock passages, jazzy interludes, ethereal psychedelic musings and fortified funkiness. Haynes continues to stay true to his homestyle roots and embraces the jam like no other. Power chords, crucial lyrics and interwoven soloing define the Mule train. Their early-evening set opened with a razor sharp “Blind Man In the Dark,” downshifting into an adventurous “All Along the Watchtower.” “I’ll Be the One” and “Game Face” flowed into a graceful nod to the Allmans’ winding “Mountain Jam.” The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” tripped into a ripping raga “Tomorow Never Knows.” “Little Toy Brain,” off of the recent Deja Voodoo cd led into Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” The Zep-influenced funk break “Lola Leave Your Light On” phased into a stormy “About to Rage.” The burning “Effigy” included a middle section of “Folsom County Blues.” “Thorazine Shuffle” ended the set. The double encore capped off an amazing Waka Mule jam with a Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” seemlessy melting into a rousing version of Haynes’ signature song, “Soulshine.”
Father’s Day Sunday got off to a rhythmic Earth dance with a high-noon drum circle. Performing with the Australian Aboriginal flag as a colorful backdrop, newcomer Xavier Rudd imported his eclectic one-man show to the curious Wakarusa crowd. Rudd’s musical concoction incorporates a subtle innate ability to play three distinctive instrumental (didgeridoo, percussion and djembe) and vocalizations simultaneously. Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” sparkled with dynamic harmonica colorings.
In the spacious Revival Tent, unique Hasidic rapper Matisyahu delivered myriad vocalizations infused with bright electric-rock progressions. Vibrant dancehall breaks punctuated the underlying spiritual message. The Samples’ ska-reggae mountain mellow vibe elicited a warm welcome back from a capacity crowd. Following the Samples Sun Down Stage set was Big Head Todd and the Monsters. “Sister Sweetly” caressed the lighter angelic sunshine vibe as did the tasty “Bittersweet.”
The classic southern-steeped Little Feat laid down a hot sun drenched set delighting those who’ve grown up hearing “Time Loves a Hero,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Willing” and other gems from the must-have live album, Waiting for Columbus. Nearly 30 years later, the songs remain fresh and vital.
New Orleans funk-fueled dance masters Galactic embraced the mystical groove wave into the final wee Waka hours. The tranquil full
moonbeams found the late night partiers loving the cool dank air. As a major Wakarusa sponsor, the microbrewers of the hearty Fat Tire beer, suggests, everyone should “follow your folly.” Wise advice for a midsummer’s night dream in the middle of Oz.