Big cities, including here in Washington, DC, are guaranteed to have certain things, like diverse people and famous landmarks, or tiny apartments and high drink prices. Generally we collectively embrace and endure these things to be near the culture, the hustle and bustle. But there is another culture in the rural areas of America that can be just as stimulating, and I was exposed to it full force from May 13th-15th at the Nelsonville Music Festival.
Tucked away in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, Nelsonville is the kind of small town that would make very little impression on your memory as you passed through it to somewhere else you wanted to be. But during this three-day music festival, the combination of newer, hip music acts and staple alt-country artists would have made any passer-by’s head turn. The line-up included, but was not limited to, Justin Townes Earle, Wanda Jackson, Yo La Tengo, Neko Case and George Jones, with The Flaming Lips for the main headlining performance.
Dressed like a well-meaning southern gentleman in straight, clean slacks, a collared shirt, pressed suit jacket and bow tie, Justin Townes Earle mopped sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief on Friday night as he crooned to the crowd the tracks from his 2010 album Harlem River Blues.
“I’m a hard dog to keep under the porch,” Earle sweetly slurred to the crowd in his Tennessee accent. His songs reflect this wandering state of mind, as they often embrace moving on and being on the road. But with an apartment in Manhattan, Earle also knows the place that he calls home, and he played and discussed the many songs on this album that talk about New York.
Most touching was his performance of “One More Night in Brooklyn,” a song that describes Earle’s eager anticipation to move out of his less than desirable apartment in Brooklyn and into one he now enjoys much more in Manhattan, an experience anyone who has lived in any large city over a long period of time certainly understands.
By Saturday a large amount of rain had fallen, turning the outdoor festival into a sopping mud pit. But this did not deter audiences, for as Saturday night came around, a crowd of hundreds gathered to watch perform a now festival band legend, The Flaming Lips.
“We have been here since early this morning and I have had a chance to walk around,” said lead singer Wayne Coyne. “We have played a lot of festivals, and we are usually the biggest freaks there. But here, we fit right in. I wish we could stick around tonight and hang out with you guys in a tree or something,” Coyne said with a giggle in his voice.
The crowd roared, happy to have gained Coyne’s approval. He made it clear that he sought theirs as well, as The Lips gave the same enthusiasm to this crowd of a few hundred as they normally would to throngs of thousands.
Complete with full light show and LED screens, back-up dancers, and the infamous hamster ball Wayne surfs the crowd in, the band pulled out all the stops. And the audience gave back all that they could; even from the back of the horde I was drenched from the rain, as well as covered in a thick layer of mud and confetti. I can’t even imagine what those in the front of the audience looked like at the end of that show.
In addition to these epic evening acts on the main stage, two smaller spaces, the Back Porch Stage and the No-Fi Cabin, allowed smaller groups and acoustic artists to perform their music for earnest crowds that were eager to listen. One endearing example were Bruce and Gay Dalzell, a graying couple whose years living in Southeastern Ohio playing music together have made them effortlessly happy. “My, we haven’t played this song in over thirty years,” Gay kept saying, as the couple took us audience members down their musical memory lane. Alternating singing and utilizing small percussion instruments and modified folk guitars and harps effectively conveyed the duo’s full pastoral sound.
As the music festival trend continues to grow and album sales continue to decline, tours become a band’s main source of income and venues tend to exhaust audiences with bands that had no say in deciding to play there. They often hurry through their set so that they can get back in their trailers and move on to the next gig. Especially in bigger cities, band turnover is high. But try to make your way out of a club and into a small town some time soon; you never know what amazing musical gem is tucked away in the back room of a bar, waiting for you to hear it.