Wakarusa isn’t the biggest festival I’ve been to. They don’t get the A list headliners of Bonnaroo or the media coverage of Coachella. They can’t boast about the bustling city life of San Francisco like Outside Lands or the shady woodlands of Rothbury like Electric Forest, but what Waka may lack in its outward appearance, it makes up for in its truly magical personality. I’m talking about an open minded festival that implicitly values extreme self-expression and creativity. A festival which schedules music of all genres that can be appreciated by both festival veteran and first timer.

Incredible performance and inspired artistry flow not only off of every stage but from every corner of the festival grounds and its inhabitants. Musicians, painters, sculptors, fire dancers, hula-hoopers, poi-spinners, and even just some genuinely entertaining and funny people are everywhere on Mulberry Mountain, and they deserve as much or more of the credit for the success of Wakarusa over the nine years of its existence as do the organizers and performers who are paid to be there.

This years festival did have its ups and downs. The weather wasn’t always agreeable, the stage schedule was often delayed, and the lines to get in seemed to grow longer everyday, but the Waka spirit lived on as strong as it ever has and I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of it. The weekend did start on a bit of a rough note. Heavy rain early Thursday morning made getting camp set up a bit of a challenge for many, but once the music began and the sun came out, many of the early frustrations were forgotten. I started my day with a fantastic set from New Monsoon in the Revival Tent. I walked in just in time to hear an awesome rendition of ‘Eyes of the World’ and I eagerly joined the sing-a-long from the photo pit. I recognized Dan Lebowitz (ALO) standing in on the 6-string acoustic, contributing his own virtuosity to an already stellar group of performers. I later heard Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth say at a press conference that New Monsoons regular guitarist, Jeff Miller, had been “in the hospital with his mother” and that “[he] (Tim) would be joining the band for their second set.” For me it was the first of many solid examples of the strong relationships between bands on the festival circuit and I was inspired to see such camaraderie and support result in such beautiful collaborations.

I crossed the fairgrounds briefly to catch the rockin’ and rollin’ resonating guitar of Nathaniel Rateliff but was compelled to leave to peruse the rest of the festival grounds. The smell of vegetarian stir-fry and curry chicken gyros quickly grabbed my attention but I was easily distracted by the print t-shirts, silk screen posters, and furry light-up hoods across the way. Pipes, grinders, patches, stickers, skateboards, jewelry and light toys were all also available as well as some really cool guitar picks made of polished stone and some equally sick paintings by artists from all across the country. As I slowly made my way into the main stage area for ALO, I noticed huge smiles growing on near everyones face as the warm afternoon sun peaked out from behind a cloud. Strangers greeted strangers with a friendly “Waka-waka!” as they lounged on the wooden benches under a large pink tent topped with a disco ball while ALO took the stage and started to play. Zach Gill’s velvety voice enhanced the warming effect of the sunshine and his soulful keys provided the soundtrack for hula-hooping, poi spinning, and just good old fashioned dancing. The crowd went wild as the band broke into the opening riff of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and later in the set, Jackie Robinson joined the group on harmonica for a few songs. By the end, even those who clearly were not familiar with ALO were attempting to fake their way through the lyrics of ‘Maria’ which despite their inaccuracy, demonstrated just how captivating a live ALO show can really be.

Railroad Earth took the main stage next and though their set was off to a fantastic start, I chose to move back up to the Revival Tent for a personal favorite of mine, Rubblebucket. Lead singer and saxophonist Kalmia Travers oozed an almost Madonna like quality, belting lyrics over the precise horn playing of band leader and trumpet player Alex Toth. Dancers dressed in what looked like giant silk pillowcases moved frantically around the stage as ‘Came Out of a Lady’ kept the crowd dancing hard through it’s somewhat odd time signature.

After a brief stop to refill water bottles, it was off to see Govinda on the satellite stage. Due to some delay, the set was starting late so we were able to catch the very end of electro rockers Lance Herbstrong and I was quickly upset we hadn’t made it to see more. The crowd was going crazy as Peter DiStefano shredded the electric guitar to some heavy, almost metal-like beats before he bowed and left the audience clearly wanting more.

The set change was quick and Govinda started to lay down some chilled out grooves with a heavy bass line, attempting to keep the crowd on their toes. His electric violin provided the smooth ambience over the driving synth and drum lines which had the audience captivated. Dancers, LED hula hoopers, and fire spinners made their way on and off the stage making the visual performance as interesting as the auditory experience and the decision to leave was not reached easily.

As I made my way back up to the main venue to see the Weir, Robinson, and Greene Acoustic Trio, I could hear ‘Uncle John’s Band’ echoing over the campgrounds from the main stage speakers. Patrons sitting at their tents and waiting in line faintly hummed along as the sounds of the Grateful Dead seemed to echo from the past and I’ll admit it put a bit of a lump in my throat. The three extremely virtuosic performers created a rich and layered sounds that filled the stage with energy, a feat which is not easily accomplished with only three musicians on acoustic guitars.

As the set came to a close, the venue continued to fill with fans eagerly anticipating the heavy hitting set of the evenings headliner, Pretty Lights. The house music over the set change was Beastie Boys as giant inflatable beach balls were flung wildly around the main stage crowd. Inflatable sex-dolls, pirates, dinosaurs, birthday cakes, aliens, and pretty much anything else you can think of that could be made inflatable joined the mix as the massive stage set was assembled and the crowd got ready to get down. The set was fairly typical of Pretty Lights, with no new songs I could discern, however the audience had grown a little more than rowdy and the always stunning production dazzled even the most sober of viewers.

The late night continued with one of many ‘buzz bands’ of the festival Quixotic. I can’t really describe enough details to do their set justice but I will say it was a jaw-dropping mixture of rhythmic, jungle-like beats, precise choreography, captivating special effects, and stunts which drew oohs and awes from an almost over-stimulated crowd.

I capped off the evening with a stunning laser show from Boulder natives Savoy but found myself lying on the ground near the back, contemplating my exhaustion, and attempting to prepare for three more days in festiland.

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Read on for my notes and photos from Friday…