Written by Bill Whiting
The 2011 Nelsonville Music Festival was held in the rolling landscapes of Nelsonville, Ohio on May 13-15, 2011 on the campus grounds of Hocking College, located within a couple of miles reach of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. A younger, largely volunteer driven festival in the making, Nelsonville was put on through the college’s greater entertainment organization, Stuart’s Opera House, which has hosted many top of the line artists, such as Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams and Dr. John.
The festival kicked off on a high note on Friday, with riveting sets by Nick Tolford and Justin Townes Earle. Country icon George Jones spent the early hours of the evening swapping tales of life on the road, joking with the senior set that filed in to see him, and punctuating the back end of his gig with well known hell raising anthems like “White Lightning.” Columbus, Ohio’s Mount Carmel proved to be most impressive, putting on a leaden rock trio experience on the smaller sided “Porch Stage.” The trio of Matthew and Patrick Reed along with Kevin Shubak regaled a small crowd with pumped up barnstorming riffs, and power chords that recalled the heyday of ’60’s and ’70’s blues/rock pioneers Humble Pie, Savoy Brown and Grand Funk Railroad. Bomba Estereo rounded out Friday’s lineup, engaging a tightly compressed crowd with propulsive electronic beats led by singer Liliana Saumet. An expansive array of tents hawked wares by local artisans, and festival cuisine was provided along the food court next to the beer garden.
The Saturday morning sun popped in amongst the clouds, and a well attended yoga session ensued on the grounds adjacent to the Porch Stage. As the Flaming Lips crew assembled their massive stage setup, Michael Hurley played acoustic folk tales to a hushed gathering, sitting in the quiet grass. The Black Swans started their galvanizing set on the main stage, building each crescendo rounded composition to a layered, transfixing peak. Cleveland, Ohio’s avant garde punk high priestess, Baby Dee, was easily the brightest shining star of Nelsonville, and she created an entire world on piano with chirps, screeches, and robustly inspired sing-a-longs. As Albany, New York’s Sgt. Dunbar & The Hobo Banned wooed the denizens on the lawn in front of the Porch Stage, the rains set in. Coming out of the rain, Chicago’s finest marching rock and roll band, Mucca Pazza, stormed the main stage and instantly found new converts to their European brigade type style, replete with cheerleaders and pom poms. Arty alt rock gods Yo La Tengo sizzled through the prime time slot with a searing feedback and distortion flavored show, amusing onlookers as they abusively threw their guitars about with Sonic Youth colored fury.
But, Saturday night at Nelsonville was all about Oklahoma City’s favorite sons, The Flaming Lips, and they did not disappoint, putting on a two hour extravaganza full of confetti, psychedelic visual imagery, and the under the big top antics of lead singer Wayne Coyne, who crowd surfed in an inflatable ball, piggy backed atop a costumed bear, and sang while projecting randomly toward the fans in the field with giant laser beamed hands. Beyond all that, the Lips had incredible songs, like “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and the twilight’s biggest party compositions, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt.1.” Coyne was the effervescent ring master to a ritualistic, revolving cycle of sensory overloaded theatrics. When The Flaming Lips out Floyded even Pink Floyd on “Pompeii AM Gotterdammerung” from the LP, At War With The Mystics, the rain came back with a vengeance. Encoring with “Race for the Prize” from their award winning project, The Soft Bulletin and “Do You Realize?,” The Flaming Lips left their mark on Nelsonville, and vowed to return in the near future as they took their unique, futuresque circus to the next town on the festival tour calendar. Heavy downpours washed out Nelsonville’s tent city and the fields in front of all the stages overnight.
Looking like a biblical mudpit on a Sunday morning, the Nelsonville main stage held mass with songwriter Amanda Anne Platt and The Honeycutters, as the duo kept the devoted early birds swooning with expertly delivered balladry, meant to warm the surrounding cold air. Doug Paisley and folk chanteuse Cheyenne Marie Mize connected with the building Sunday throng, taking each number and adding unyieldy and jangling improvisational acoustic jams to heighten their afternoon coffee house session. Yet, it was Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine that stole the Sunday spotlight away from rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, and adult oriented radio icon Neko Case. Beginning with “The Laugh of Recognition,” lead vocalist Karin Bergquist and keyboardist, husband Linford Detweiler overwhelmed Nelsonville’s soundsystem with the echoing beauty of their shimmering jewel of an album, The Long Surrender. Pulling out all the stops during a too briefly scheduled hour long timed set, Over The Rhine lifted up the ethereal spritual soul of the Sunday festival confines with gorgeously winding cascades down into the peaceful valleys of “Rave On,” and the openly humanistic portraits inherent inside of the revelatory “All My Favorite People.” It was a performance for the ages. Just like a burgeoning Coachella inside the wooded hillsides of southeastern Ohio, the Nelsonville Music festival has consistently delivered with it’s organic tapestry of nature, rich homegrown artistry and eclectic musical lineups. It leaves one in eager anticipation of it’s return in 2012.