What's left when the show is over..

Festival Preview: Wakarusa

You Really, Really Want to Be Here


For those who've never been, Waka (and it's companion festival in October, The Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival, or as it's been known in more recent years, The Yonder Mountain Harvest Festival) is a unique experience.

The Venue:
Unlike Bonnaroo and some of the other large festivals, which are held in essentially huge open fields in the middle of nowhere, Waka and Harvest are held on the top of a mountain in Arkansas.  And what a beautiful venue it is.  Lots of trees, hills and lush greenery abounds.

There's a couple small lakes on the property and an awesome waterfall a short hike away.  It's a fantastic location to hold a festie on.   Our first trip to "The Mountain" was for Harvest Fest, and it was a game changer.

Usually, when you pull into a festival at night the first thing you hear is seas of large generator's powering scads of pole lights in the camping areas.  Not at the mountain.  We pulled in, and it was dark, like really dark.  I remember asking a staffer where all the lights were, and he just smiled and told me if I got of my car for a second, it'd all make sense.  So I get out, and he says "look up"…

Wow.  I'd never seen so many stars in my life.  The site is first, up on a mountain, and second, quite a distance from any major city, and as a result, the night sky is ablaze with an insane amount of stars.  You can see the Milky Way with the bare eye, which for somebody who lives in the light and smog infested Dallas was something of a revelation.

Waka Midway at Night

The weather for the most part is really decent, considering the time of the year.  Yeah, it gets hot, but nothing like Bonnaroo where you can literally wring a stream of sweat out of your shirt just from the effort expended to get your tent set up.  And it gets a bit dusty (particularly in VIP camping and the areas around the Backwood stage), but again, nothing like Bonnaroo or Langerado where one can still cough up all kinds of nasty inhaled dust for weeks afterwards. 

Sometimes it rains, and one year it got particularly hairy the Wednesday night prior, but nothing like the deluge's that are common at Gathering of the Vibes, where you can be rudely awakened by a 5' wall of water that crashes up over the seawall into your tent at 4AM.

So in our book, Mulberry Mountain is probably one of the coolest places to hold a festie, right up there with Illinois' Nelson Ledge's Quarry Park.

Event Management:

There's a noticeably different feel to Waka (and Harvest) in terms of it's staffing and organization.  Pipeline (the folks behind the event) make a marked attempt to improve things every year.  They lean and adapt (which is more than I can say for several of the East Coast festivals where the same problems occurs year in and year out).  As the event has grown in size, like all festivals, they've had some learning curves.  Getting 20K+ people on and off a mountain top when the only way in and out are cutback laden 2 lane roads is a challenge no matter how one slices it.

And they've learned from this.  A few years ago the traffic snarl was pretty epic, and they've since moved to a 2 tier entry scheme where you get your wristbands at one location prior to getting to the venue, which makes for far shorter lines getting in.

There aren't any goon squads for security (anybody who was present at Vibes a few years ago can testify as to how well that doesn't work).  For the most part, it's extremely relaxed.  Everybody just gets along, and gets along well.

While you'll always get the occasional control issue laden work exchange security kid looking to get over on somebody, it's pretty rare at The Mountain.  There were some issues in the past where there had been a communication breakdown and some of the security folks were telling people they had to pour out their sealed water bottles prior to entering the venue (and this is just insane when it's hot out, it's begging to put folks into heat exhaustion), upon checking with the Waka staff that wasn't policy but rather some dumb kids taking it upon themselves to appear important or something.

I think to some extent the vibe at The Mountain is also a function of the attendee's as well though.

Most folks here are very thoughtful and courteous to each other (again, a marked contrast to some of the east coast festies), pick up after themselves, and look out for each other.

Dirtfoot's Scott Gerardy on Volunteer Trash Duty

One of my fondest memories from the first trip to Mulberry for Harvest a few years back was on Monday morning as we were packing up our site.  From across the field a couple guys come walking over pulling enormous trash bags and were just picking stuff up.  These weren't work exchange volunteers or even paid staff, but instead were none other than Scott Gerardy of Dirtfoot and a friend. Dirtfoot had played the previous day.  Only on the Mountain.

The Facilities:

I've been to a lot of festivals where the vendor food is pretty much the same stuff you see at state and county fairs.  Ok, but it wouldn't be my first choice, or maybe even the second.  No worries at Waka.  The vendor food is on the whole really good, reasonably priced, and in some cases, absolutely spectacular.  My personal fav is the guys with the stone oven pizza.  This stuff is absurdly good, and the guy with the Jerry Rolls does a band up job as well (check for the "Special Sauce").

There's showers available (for a modest fee), water available at several locations, and beer available for sale inside the stage areas as well.  The porta johns are clean and well maintained.   This is a stark contrast to some festies I've been to where after about the 3rd day too many people using way too much X has created an environment where you really wouldn't want to set foot in the can without a hazmat suit.

Similarly, its really nice to go to a festival and not have to attempt to sleep to the sounds of countless scores of nitrous tanks going off 24/7, or even worse, waking up to find that these asshats have set up shop right in your camp, and then crawling out of your tent to find an inches thick carpeting of spent balloons all over your campsite.  Thankfully, the Nitrous Mafia and all the crap that goes with it is a total non issue at Waka.  It simply doesn't exist.

There's some walking to be done, but nothing like the epic hikes back to your camp at a Langerado or Roo.  One can get from any stage to any other stage in a 5 minute or so walk, and if you camp at the main venue, the campsites aren't too much further than that.  We've never camped in the offsite campgrounds, but there are shuttles that will run you back and forth which work pretty well.  Additionally, if you're just too worn out and just don't want to make the walk at all, there's always Festie Cab,  Christopher Dee's outfit which will haul you and your party any place you need to go, and they're great folks to boot.

Mountain Sprout's Festival Opening Main Stage Set 2010

The Music:

Ultimately, this is what draws us to a festival in the first place.

Now, being a "sound guy" I'm a picky bastard about PA's for the most part.  I get positively ecstatic when I get a chance to hear a great set delivered over an Alcons line array.  So the rigs at Waka, while not bleeding edge state of the art are quite solid, the stage crews are extremely competent and for the most part the mixes are really good.

Now on to the lineups.  Waka, like most of the larger festivals these days, attempts to target multiple segments of the potential festival goer population.  However, unlike Roo, which has devolved into this huge list of "mega" acts simply to get as many people in the door as possible with no real sense of continuity to the lineup, Waka generally has an excellent but not overblown pool of stuff to choose from.  There's the Jammy stuff (Umphrey's, RRE, TLG, Keller and the like), a tip of the hat to the Dead crowd (Weir, Robinson and Greene (it'd be really cool to see Jackie do a set of his stuff), a pretty good sampling of the electronica genre, and quite a bit of Americana derived stuff (Emmiitt Nershi, Split Lip Rayfield, Travelin' McCoury's, Infamous Stringdusters).

For the first year at Waka, I tended to stick to the main two stages, mostly because I was already familiar with most of the bands playing those stages.

But perhaps the best thing about Waka (and this is even more so with Harvest) is the preponderance of smaller acts that are endemic to the region (Arkansas and Kansas).  And the region has a flavor unlike any other.  Bands like Split Lip, Dirtfoot, Mountain Sprout, The Ben Miller Band, Dumptruck Butterlips are names most likely unfamiliar to those who attend festies principally on either coast, but ones you really should add to your lexicon.

In our first trip to the Mountain several years ago, we'd never heard of any of these guys.  There was a point in the schedule where there were 3 bands I'd never heard.  I asked one of the kids working security if he was familiar with the bands to pick from, and his response (and this was echoed by the 4 other folks standing there) was "Sprout, a complete no brainer".  So we ventured back in the woods to the Backwoods stage to see what the deal was.

Boy were they right.  We were blown away.  Same thing with Ben Miller, Dirtfoot, hell, all of em in the genre.  There's a whole DIY feel to what these folks do that's unlike any thing else happening.  It's organic, it's honest, it's real, and the performances are superb.

At the time I hadn't discovered Winfield yet (despite The Greencards urging me to go for a good couple years at that point) so I was utterly clueless about just how musically potent this portion of the country is.

Ben Miller Band /w Tyrannosaurus Chicken's Epic 5 Hour Late Night Midway Set 2010

There's a particular magic that tends to happen on the Backwoods stage.  I've seen some really incredible sets there over the past few years.  Dan Tyminski sitting in the with Traveling McCoury's, Vince Herman sitting in with Elephant Revival, Dirtfoot's closing set from Harvest last year, the Ben Miller Band / Tyrannosaurus Chicken's epic 5 hour VERY early AM  jam on the Midway in 2010, Cornmeal's legendary 2AM set from at Harvest a couple years back, hell it just goes on and on and on.

So in short, if you haven't made a pilgrimage to "The Mountain" yet, you've done yourself a serious disservice.  You might wanna fix that.