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Nelsonville Music Festival Review

May 20, 2010
By Justin McIntosh

I go to music festivals for several reasons, but the greatest of which — and, really, the best part about music in general — is the revelation. That moment when a band not previously on your radar becomes your favorite band of all-time, like forever.

That is why the Nelsonville Music Festival, from which I just returned late Sunday, is now my favorite music festival of all-time, like forever.

The beauty of the festival is its unique size, which perfectly allows you to set about making a horde of discoveries over a three-day weekend.

The festival is large enough to attract acts like Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson and yet small enough that a bulk of the lineup is comprised of Ohio-based acts, mostly from Athens and Columbus. Then there are a dozen or so mid-size indies from across the country, all of brilliant quality.

Getting to the three stages is just a short jaunt as well, meaning you’re rarely worn out from a sun-soaked day of brews and tunes. Meaning you have the energy to listen to just about every band in attendance. Which I did.

So, without further adu, here’s my list of revelations from the Nelsonville Music Festival:

Size matters.

The first time I saw former Avett Brothers label mate Samantha Crain was when she opened for the rising trio in Huntington a few years ago. I was less than impressed and something about her whole vibe turned me off.

In Nelsonville, she blew me away.

Her first appearance at the festival was on the main stage Friday. I warmed up to her a little here, but it wasn’t until she performed at the No-Fi stage that my heart and soul expanded to a size large enough to swallow the world.

A large part of this is due to the No-Fi stage being one of the coolest places I’ve ever watched a performance.

Set inside a log-cabin-like, small, one-room school house with wooden church pews as seats, the No-Fi stage often overflowed with listeners, some of whom crammed onto empty floor spots and porches and leaned into open-air windows just to catch these intimate shows.

Samantha Crain performed hers, largely unaccompanied, sitting cross-legged on an oval carpet placed in the middle of the stage. Unadorned with mics or amplifiers, Crain knocked out the audience with her smooth playing and natural singing. Here’s the antithesis of Taylor Swift, I thought to myself, in all the good ways.

There’s also no better marketing than meeting your fans.

My favorite band of the festival was, easily, Givers. This afro-beat, psych-folk band was infectious, joyful, fun and good, really good. And yet, the moment I met co-band leader Teddy Samson (look for an interview soon) at the merchandise tent, was the moment my relationship with the band was cemented. There’s just something about shaking hands with someone.

I also coined the term SSILF, as in Soul Singer I’d Like … you get the picture. And had you watched Sharon Jones strut across stage like a cross between James Brown and Tina Turner, you’d feel the same too.

She even gave a 15-year-old guitarist with Billy Shaver the night of his life as she gave him hands-on instructions in the art of seduction.

I learned sometimes the best thing you can say about seeing a legend in person is that you saw them, even though you had hoped to witness a little of what made them a legend.

Granted Loretta Lynn’s been through some days and had her share of health problems recently, but her short set was cut even shorter when the legend elected to sing only three or four songs and leave the rest to her back-up performers.

I spent the time wishing Willie Nelson was back again this year.

I learned that selling a band short just before they go on stage, just because they formed out of a movie is to dismiss too casually the power and magnetism the band showed during that movie.

The Swell Season flew my past my admittedly too low expectation.

Quite a few days, prior to my festival attendance, I felt as though Woody Pines was everywhere. He showed why during the festival, appearing on the Main Stage twice, at the No-Fi Stage and the Back Porch Stage once. Not to mention his late night/early morning, impromptu jam with still partying camping revelers.

None of this neat little narrative includes bands like Those Darlins, Moon High, Alwood Sisters, Bear & Flower that I loved immensely.

Or how great 99.9 percent of my fellow campers were.

Or how refreshing it was as a meatless eater to have two different food vendors tell me they had run out of vegetarian food and would be bringing tons more next time.

Or how you really, truly, honestly should have been there.



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