Feature: Nelsonville Music Festival, An Authentic Experience
By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director
Friends, festival culture is upon us; for better or for worse, every mid-sized city in every mid-sized state is almost guaranteed to have a festival to its name. From Bonnaroo to Shrekfest everyone seems to be cashing in on Coachella crazed kids. Whether this is a positive or negative is entirely dependent on whom you ask. What is certain though, is the authenticity of the Nelsonville Music Festival. With helpful volunteers, smiling local vendors, genuine people and big bands, NMF brings authenticity to an otherwise commercial scene.
No festival is complete without a killer staff, and NMF had that covered. Upon entry, I was greeted by an array of smiling faces. In a failing attempt to get the entry-wristband on, I was swarmed by 3 separate workers, all kindly offering to help, and wish me on my way. They seemed genuinely happy to be working, rather than just clocking in the hours to get the discounted entry fee.
Food and artisan vendors lined the converted parking lot and dirt paths. Athens County favorites such as Donkey Coffee and Jackie O’s brought a familiar, homey taste, out-of-towners like Late Night Slice showed off why they’re known as hometown favorites.
Trash and recycling bags were scattered about with volunteers waiting to enthusiastically preach the wonders of zero-waste, and which bin your greasy pizza plate should go in. The zero-waste initiative only adds to the woodsy-vibe of the event. Stages were located in boxcars and on cabin steps; gravel trails lead festival-goers into tree-covered shopping areas, where any imaginable knick-knack was sure to be stocked by a barefooted dealer with a wide-grin smile.
What’s even more welcoming, was the age difference among festival-goers. Little kids to older-locals are scattered amongst the expected youths. And that's a great thing, because it means a larger portion of festival-goers are innocently there, not taking part in illegal activities. It’s no surprise drug culture often flourishes in the festival scene; ever since the legendary, drug-heavy, festivals such as Woodstock and Monterey Pop, it’s almost viewed as “part of the experience”. Unfortunately, this creates a sometimes fatal environment, which turns away large portions of the population, who would otherwise love to partake in what the festivals are all about: the music. Now, this is by no means true of every festival but it is undeniably true, especially when cases of overdosing are rising in the scene.
Luckily though, besides the rare whiff of weed and Mac DeMarco stripping down to his boxers, Nelsonville was a family-friendly event. Seeing kids dancing and blowing bubbles, or watching elderly patrons sitting back in their chairs, cheering for younger acts, only added to the magic. There was even a handicap area located in the back section of main stages, prompting audience members to stay seated, so everyone could have a great view of the action.
Now, let's get down to brass tax. For the smaller size of the festival, Nelsonville staffers have done a wonderful job attracting world-renowned artists in years past, such as: The Flaming Lips, The Avett Brothers, St. Vincent, Dinosaur Jr., and more. 2016 was no exception. Not only did huge names such as Randy Newman, Mac DeMarco, Courtney Barnett, and The Tallest Man on Earth attend, along with smaller acts, they delivered.
Kicking off the weekend, Courtney Barnett packed the Main Stage and tore through a variety of old and new songs. Barnett mostly played songs off her latest release, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. The live versions of those beloved tunes had the cleanliness associated with the recorded versions, but packed additional intensity, leaving the crowd talking about it until the next morning.
Day 2 was perhaps the most stacked day of the festival, featuring BADBADNOTGOOD, Angel Olsen, Fruit Bats, Joan Shelley, and Mac DeMarco. Originally, Gary Clark Jr. was scheduled to close out the evening, but due to personal issues was not able to attend. Fortunately, the sheer amount of talent on day 2 made Clark’s absence bearable. Highlights of the day included Angel Olsen’s melancholy, afternoon set and DeMarco’s wild performance, which included a near-thirty minute encore of Metallica’s "Enter Sandman".
Days 3 and 4 were plagued with rain, but after the scorching heat and cicada screaming first two days, it didn’t seem too amiss. In fact, the rain even added to the atmosphere of quieter artists like Joan Shelley and The Tallest Man on Earth.
As the festival came to a close, the rain clouds started getting darker and the rain slowly intensified. Fittingly enough, those same raindrops helped mask the tears being shed by every audience member watching Randy Newman finish out the festival.
Despite all the praise, Nelsonville does have its fair share of problems. The festival is incredibly small. To see everything would take under 10 minutes; this may not be a problem for some, but if you plan on camping for the full duration, it can be pretty monotonous. Nextly, If you’re in search of genre diversity, Nelsonville may not be for you. Comprised mainly of folk/alternative artists, other genres such as hip-hop, EDM, and heavier bands are scarcely included.
With that being said, Nelsonville stands as breath of fresh air compared to some of the other major festivals. If you can get past the slightly steep ticket price and mainly folk-filled lineup, then a hippie paradise awaits.
(All photos by JC Griffith)