Counting the churches along the back roads of Hawking Hills gives you the impression that you are traveling to the most holy music festival on earth. That is certainly not the case, but something about the campground and the area in front of the main stage seems reverent. It is not gospel. It is folk music and the fans that flock to the small town of Nelsonville one hour from Columbus and two-and-a-half hours from Cincinnati admire folk’s intimate lyrics and ethereal harmonies enough to sleep on the ground and stand out in the sun for four miraculous days. Not one person there would rather be anywhere else.
The festival was a family event. There were puppets and games for the children, music for the adults, and good food and drink for everyone in between. Rural Action, an Ohio non-profit, handled all of the composting and recycling, a trend that fortunately is picking up at music festivals throughout the country. But in the shadows of the pristine hills of Nelsonville, the sustainable practices take on an extra importance.
Preserving the festival grounds was the collective goal of all the campers and concert-goers. When we drove into the college campus where the festival was held, we were handed a black bag for trash and a clear bag for recyclables. When we left, the clear bags being collected outnumbered the black bags ten-to-one.
An emphasis on sustainability is not the festival’s only contribution to the local community. The festival is run by Stuart’s Opera House, a local theater that has been in Nelsonville for more than 75 years. Profits from the festival go to funding local arts programs. The presence of local artists is felt throughout the festival, from dynamic ten-foot puppets for children to local handmade jewelry stands.
Thursday the festival kicked off with highlights focusing around Frank Turner and Jason Isbell, but on Friday we walked into the festival with just enough time to crowd around a small cabin to hear Shakey Graves (of Spy Kids fame) play an acoustic set. The cabin seated no more than 25 people, but triple that amount swarmed around the windows and the doors to listen and maybe even catch a glimpse of the performance. A particularly agile fan hung from the rafters for most of the set. By the end the cabin was filled with cheers and about half of the crowd lined up for pictures with Mr. Graves; A good start to the weekend.
After Shakey, we made our way to the main stage as Kurt Vile & The Violators were making their way off stage. The Violators led into Dinosaur Jr. The crowd was a little older than expected, but they seemed energized. The Men closed on the Porch Stage. It was exactly like it sounds; a big porch surrounded by slightly smaller porches. The atmosphere was intimate and energetic.
Kurt Vile & The Violators
The night was not over with the performances. The twenty-somethings in the campground amassed for square dancing. Most people had no idea how to square dance, which made it more entertaining for the people who did not even try. After the square dancing, the crowd broke and went to their campsites. At every site there was a fire and at every fire was a guitar. Some of the more ambitious campers brought a ukulele as well. A guitar around a campfire never inspires much confidence in the performer, but these makeshift bands were not singing out of pretention or self-grandeur. They were singing the songs of the bands at the show and most were singing out of respect and admiration for the performers they had come to see.
Strolling through the festival in the morning before the first bands were even sound-checking, you got a sense of the spirit of the festival. There was a tent full of giant, hand-made puppets that would later be paraded through the grounds by a long line of children ages three and up. There was corn hole and yoga. Local vendors and food trucks surrounded the festival grounds. My personal favorite was Jenis Brewery, which had a dark IPA that rivaled some of the best craft brews in the country. Nothing upstaged the performers, but there were plenty of distractions.
Saturday touted recognizable names like Saintseneca, Pokey LaFarge, and Lucius, but the surprise of the whole weekend was Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites. The lead singer was the probable lovechild of James Brown and Sharon Jones, a natural performer with a rare, engrossing energy.
Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites
The Head & the Heart and The Avett Brothers were the capstone performers of the weekend, and no one was disappointed. If I started a religion, Emotionalism and I and Love and You would be my book of hymns. Since I first saw The Avett Brothers play in a small church outside of Lansing, Michigan, I’ve watched them live nine times and every time was worth the trip, wherever that was. This time was no different and their new music was just as great as the old. After a long day on our feet out in the sun, we were worried we could not make it to the end of the show, but after an hour-and-a-half every person in the crowd would have gone back and done it all again just for a second encore.
The Avett Brothers
The campground coalesced into another dance party around midnight. When a well-dressed man began surfing across the top of the crowd, we were sure he was on the cusp of falling. When he finally did, we were surprised to see the lead singer from Saintseneca. Band members and fans enjoyed each others company throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning.
Sunday began with an early morning dip in the Hocking River which ran along the back side of the camp grounds. Children and adults congregated at the river throughout the weekend and enjoyed playing games and cooling off. In the far distance, we could hear the sound checks for the final bands of the Nelsonville Music Festival. The most notable performer on Sunday was Michael Hurley, an older gentleman who was said to have been performing at the Nelsonville Music Festival for years. He was admired as a poet and a mainstay at the festival. We sat under a tree, escaping from the hot sun and soaked in the strum of his guitar, all the while looking forward to what NMF 2015 had to offer.
By FestPop Staff Writers, Zack Hohl & Carolyn Kelly