Nelsonville Music Festival as Utopic Springtime Community

Kurt Vile and his hair rock out at NMF.
"Seriously, festivals are not always this good!" Josiah Johnson of The Head and the Heart joyously told the crowd of several thousand on the third night of the Nelsonville Music Festival. The sun was setting and as we all seemed to take a simultaneous gulp of our microbrews and look around at one another, we couldn't help but completely understand what he was getting at.


We're sort of getting all our stuff together outside the car in the parking lot - press IDs, camera equipment, notebooks, pens, cash, 1970s-era Scene trucker hat - and we're commenting on how beautiful the weather is. This is how each day began at NMF last weekend. Last year, NMF was subject to a torrential Southeast Ohio thunderstorm, which ended Mavis Staples' set prematurely (though not before she brought Jeff Tweedy out for a fine rendition of "The Weight") and caused a general sense of chaos beneath the beer tent and, as noted empirically at the time, all sorts of weird goings-on in the portable restrooms scattered about the festival grounds. Seriously, at one point we encountered a family that had set up all their things and, in a fit of despair over the thunderstorm's strength, decided to live out the rest of their days in an oversized, ADA-compliant port-o-potty.

But today it's really pretty out here in bucolic, forested Nelsonville, Ohio.

It's mid-afternoon and people are drifting in and out of the grounds. Some return to tents in the nearby camping area, and others settle back in their cars and head elsewhere. They may return for more music later; the mood is unquestionably casual.

We're in line now and we join everyone in viewing the mural painted by NMF attendees in 2012. Near the end of the line a woman is frozen in place, arm in the air like she was going to throw her plastic bottle into the trash. She's reading about the festival's approach to environmental conservation and she decides to toss the plastic bottle in the box labelled "RECYCLING," which box boasts a picture of a plastic bottle. But she was reading that printed-out conservation thing for a really long time, even drawing in other people curious about what was so fascinating to her, and it all sort of proved that NMF is capable of driving people to be a bit more aware of the world around them, even if only for a few days.

Press check-in was ridiculously simple, and we head in and immediately toward the beer-ticket-purchasing line. $1 = one ticket, and four tickets = a light domestic, and six tickets = a craft brewski along the lines of Commodore Perry or Athens County's own Jackie's O's Brewery's finest. So par for the course, as far as festie brew economics.

As we wander through the throng toward the art vendors in the back, we take in all there is to see before us. NMF is a visual feast, and weird things were happening all over the place.

We see a woman selling handmade tiaras. We see a giant lamprey floating in mid-air with wind-chime skeletal underbelly exposed to yipping children. We see people throwing a hat like it's a frisbee. We see two police officers who refuse to dance to the music. We see one of those police officers actually snarl at the request. We see a lady with a fish head. We see a man taking a nap in the grass and then waking up to find himself in the middle of a roving game of tag. We see a man's eyes water and blink uncontrollably because the smell of some of these port-o-potties is just deadly. We see Will Ferrell's doppelganger (note the brow, we say). We see more cameras tucked into the pockets of denim overalls than we would have thought possible had we been asked prior to all of this. We see another couple point out the Will Ferrell situation to each other. We see a man who somehow had two beards.

All these children are gathering around near this area of the NMF grounds we later dub "The Fairy Vale" and they're putting on masks and really intensely colorful hat-type things and they seem to be getting into parade position. This is the Honey for the Heart Puppet Company's presence. They're assembling a truly wild visual display. We're told that in the parade business this is called "the stepping-off point" and that we should move off to the side if we don't want to be, like, trampled by this huge blue monster on wheels (it's a wagon decorated to look like a huge bug, I think, and there seem to be children literally lying in wait inside the bug's thorax and there's an older man grabbing the handle of the wagon and puuulllllling it into the masses who are all slow to make way for the procession). Massive jellyfish and lampreys and seahorses loom. This is one hell of a parade.

Much of what you do at music festivals is idly take in all of the surroundings and every now and then wander into a concert or eat some food or lie down on the grass and watch clouds pass by or flip through the handbill. There's an enjoyable lack of imposition at music festivals. You can do any one of these thousands of options before you or you can feel free to do nothing at all. NMF caters to all whims.

The grounds are divided seamlessly into several major areas: the main stage, the porch stage, the lo-fi cabin, the children's area, the vendors (food and art, etc.) and the Fairy Vale (our term), which includes a nicely wooded area and a bunch of neon-lit cabins where you could sit on the porch and hang out for a bit.

Each year, NMF spotlights a wide swath of local, regional and national bands and artists. Like the best festivals, the only through-line among all the musicians on the bill is a sort of je ne sais quoi - something identifiable only as "this is good music." With three significant areas for live music, everyone mostly freely ebbs and flows around the place, checking out whatever band happens to be lighting up this stage or that one at the moment. (Musical highlights included Kurt Vile and The Head and the Heart; the Avett Brothers were less than thrilling; from what I could gather by standing on the porch outside, Pokey LaFarge's lo-fi cabin set was awesome).

What we took away after seeing all of the above and listening to terrific music and drinking great beer is that NMF is an idyllic slice of Ohio countryside rife with ACTION in all directions. It's the perfect place to participate in and observe pure fun.

This year's installment - fish head lady and all - was the 10th annual.

It would be impossible to recommend the 11th annual highly enough. We'll see you next year.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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