Nelsonville Music Festival 2022 – New Look, Same Feel

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fter a two year COVID prompted hiatus, Nelsonville Music Festival made its highly anticipated return to South-Eastern Ohio - bringing in tow it’s customary curated lineup of some of the best Indie, Americana, and World artists currently touring. With the the return came changes - a move from May to a new weekend - September 2nd through September 4th in 2022 - and a new festival site - Snow Fork Event Center - a former golf course, based on at least one remaining hole marker and ponds that obviously had been water hazards once upon a time - now reinventing itself as a new venue for regional festivals and events. The new site allowed plenty of room for four stages - the main Snow Fork Stage at the entrance of the festival, the close by Porch Stage and Pond Stage, and for those willing to take a short walk into the woods, the sublime Creek Stage that seemed to be an outgrowth of the encompassing trees.

But while there were changes, coming back to NMF felt like coming home; coming home to a music festival that has the vibe of an extended family gathering, albeit a family with members from around the country and around the world. I have never been to another fest of it’s size that feels so much like a labor of love first, and a money maker second. NMF is a presentation of Stuart’s Opera House, a non-profit historic theater and performing arts center in the heart of Nelsonville, and a sense of heart and community ring true throughout the festival.

Local residents have free entry, there are children activities and performances, regional vendors and artisans are well represented, local beers and ciders are the only options, and in this age of inflation, prices have remained low enough that it is possible to bring a family for a reasonable cost (most entrees were around $10 with cheaper options also available, 20 oz. bottles of soft drinks were only $3 at the G&J Pepsi stand, and craft beers were only $7 at the Jackie O’s beverage tent).

But, of course, we came for the music, and the music did not disappoint.

The Headliners

Japanese Breakfast (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

From the moment Japanese Breakfast exploded onto the stage with ‘Paprika’, their performance felt like a celebration and Michelle Zauner a jubilation – shining bright whether she was singing, playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards, banging the gong, or at one point harmonizing her vocals with the sax. She told us how excited she was to be at Nelsonville and to have a full set time to explore. “Festivals are like flirting while club shows are like being in a relationship. Tonight we get to show you all of our parts.” Their set included almost every song from their most recent album, Jubilee, as well as highlights from past albums and a cover of Boyish from Zauner’s previous group Little Big League.

Yo La Tengo (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Formed almost 40 years ago, and having a consistent line up for the last 30, it is amazing to see the amount of fervor still emitted by Yo La Tengo – Ira Kaplan in particular still plays his guitar with the youthful exuberance of a 22 year old despite being 65 years old, contorting and throwing himself about as he thrashed his instrument for the crowd. The band played songs from through their career, mostly playing to their fans with songs from the 90s but also mixing in several less familiar songs written in the last decade. The highlight for the band however, seemed to be when folk legend Michael Hurley joined them onstage for covers of three of his songs. Yo La Tengo showed no signs of slowing down, and looked ready for the next 40 years.

Angel Olsen (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

“Before the pandemic I hated touring, but now I love playing live after having to take time off. It took 10 years, but I finally enjoy it.” Angel Olsen’s new love of playing live was powerful – her confidence in front of the crowd was much different than the Angel I had first seen in 2016 – her voice sounded better than ever, resonating with an ethereal quality that sounded almost mystical at times. She also was having fun – at one point she answered an indecipherable call from audience with a “What did you say?” The voice answered back, “I WANT MORE!” “Well, shit! Okaaay… I feel like a cafeteria.” A few minutes later she told us that she want to try out a new song she had written last night, stopping everything to teach the band the chord progression, then launched into “Shut Up, Kiss Me” from her 2016 album ‘MY WOMAN’. I too wanted more, but was thankful for what I got.

Festival Discoveries

Mdou Moctar (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

If not for Nelsonville Music Festival, I am not sure how I would have found Mdou Moctar and his band, but I am grateful to NMF for introducing me to the Niger-born musician’s modern take on traditional Tuareg guitar music, alternately known as Desert Blues. The band’s meandering psychedelic rock permeated the festival grounds, creating an aural atmosphere that enchanted everyone who had stopped by to see what they were about. Some of the best and most passionate guitar rock I have heard in years and probably the best set I heard all weekend.

Madi Diaz (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

I don’t know how I have been missing out on Nashville based singer-songwriter Madi Diaz and her musical career that has spanned for over a decade and includes collaborations with Kesha and Miranda Lambert, tv soundtrack credits including Nashville, and appearances on national talk shows, but I plan on making up on it now that I have seen her live. Diaz took the stage alone, just her and a guitar and a soaring voice. I am not sure what trauma she has gone through – she refers to some songs as those that are pre the thing that happened – but she turns pain into power, and writes beautiful songs about ugly things. Her performances of ‘Crying in Public’, ‘Man in Me’, and ‘Woman in My Heart’ give us bittersweet glimpses into the psych of the artist and left me hungry for a deeper look. Madi Diaz commented that she is not used to being on such a big stage, but I am not sure how a smaller stage could bear the weight of her voice.

Automatic (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

I was ready not to like Automatic – they were 8 minutes late to the stage and then seemed to not have any urgency to take it one they arrived – but maybe they were having a bad day (they seemed to be having an argument onstage about the set list), or maybe the Los Angeles based New Wave Revival band was just nervous about being dropped on a stage in the middle of the day in a forest in SE Ohio. Whatever the problem, once Automatic got started they won me over and I was more than a bit enamored with their retro sound reminiscent of New Order, Joy Division, and Suicide, with a dash of the Go-Gos and touch of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs emotional detachment. The never seemed to be having much fun playing but I was having fun listening to them.

Other Notable Performances

Jorma Kaukonen (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Unfortunately, there were several cancellations for the festival, including a last minute one for headliner Lucinda Williams. Fortunately, NMF had a local friend available to help fill in. Jorma Kaukonen, former member of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, currently resides near the festival and agreed to perform on short notice – so we were treated to a musician who had played Woodstock (with Jefferson Airplane) playing for us here in Nelsonville. Kaukonen played the stage solo, just him, a guitar, and the mastery that comes from 60 plus years of honing your craft, providing us with an the acoustic blues set we didn’t know we wanted until it was right there before us. He started out with the blues standard, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’. A few minutes later he played ‘Hesitation Blues’, joking he was “always happy to get a request for a song that I can still remember how to play.” It was notable that Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo were sitting just off the stage, watching another musical legend do his thing.

Neko Case (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Acclaimed singer Neko Case created one of the most uncomfortable concert experiences I ever had a few years ago – threatening to end her performance at a Cincinnati theater after only a couple of songs if she saw another person take a photo of her, and warning us that we shouldn’t “poke the bear”. It went on longer than it should have and she couldn’t let it go, stopping her show a few more times to confront her audience about why she was in the right for her reaction and the vibe of the show soured and never recovered. At the time Neko was one of my favorite artists, ‘Middle Cyclone’ one of my favorite albums, and ‘The Next Time You Say Forever’ one of my favorite songs. 

Besides being one of the most stunning and powerful vocalists in music, she is also a brilliant and insightful lyricist. But after the tantrum she threw on stage, I was so hurt that one of my favorite artists would treat her fans that way that I effectively “broke up” with the artist as a fan, stopped listening to her records, and this was the first time seeing her live since the incident. Seeing Neko at a festival was like running into an ex at a party. But time must heal all wounds, because I found myself drawn to her performance, engaged by her vocals, and relieved that she was in a good mood and enjoying herself on stage – she was making jokes, smiling, laughing. I found myself softening and the resentment for something that had happened years ago fading away.

Blue Cactus (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Blue Cactus performed early on the first day of the festival and was the first act we arrived in time to see on Friday. Kinks were being worked out and the “Cosmic Americana” duo from Chapel Hill started off the set with a lot of feedback and without their vocals being miced. I was listening from the sound board and heard the engineer say, “Gonna just ride it out for this one.” Luckily he meant the song and not the set and the sound was fixed by the third song. Steph Stewert laughed it off, “I sang two songs only to us. I’ll make sure I sing the rest of the songs to all of you.” Dressed in coordinated white lace shirts, white denim pants, and cowboy boots, Stewart and partner Mario Arnez put on a interesting visual from the stage, but the longer they played the sweeter the sound and they set the mood for my first day at NMF.

Lung (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Cincinnati based experimental rock duo Lung returned to NMF and provided a serving of it’s grungy, dark and looming sound. It is incredible that drummer Daisy Caplan, formerly of Foxy Shazam, and electric cellist Kate Wakefield are able to create their incredibly full sounding music with just two musicians, but Wakefield uses her training as an classical opera singer to use her vocals as almost a third instrument. If you have not seen this band before, you need to make sure that you do.

Nick Tolford & Company brought keyboard driven, soul tinged Rock & Roll to the Porch Stage. One of the largest ensembles found on at the Porch Stage, the band featured Tolford on vocals and organ, a guitarist, bassist, drummer, and four background singers. The crowd was light for their performance but they played like it was a packed house, rewarding those who made their way over to a high energy show.

Another Cincinnati based band on the Porch Stage, The Ophelias, more than any other band over the weekend, seemed to have brought their own fan-base with them – unlike many other acts playing early in the day, as soon as The Ophelias to the stage, the audience stepped up and erased the open space between fan and artist. They were rewarded with an excellent set of pop soaked indie-rock, and were told “Haha, we’re going to get real sad, real fast, haha.” Despite the sad lyrics – one of their new unreleased songs was about medical trauma – the music remained upbeat and kept many of what looked like the youngest crowd of the day dancing.

Adia Victoria (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Adia Victoria took us on a trip through the Gothic South; singing us stories backed by her unique blend of folk, blues, country, rock, with elements of punk and soul fringing the edges. She told us that when she was 22 she got into the blues, listening to music by greats such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and noticed the theme of the mean woman that always seemed to be ruining their lives – and so she wrote the song ‘Mean Hearted Woman’ to let us know what had made them so mean in the first place. Her live performance was even more enjoyable than listening to her recordings – the last two having been produced by T Bone Burnett and Aaron Dessner of The National.

Oyo (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

Oyo started their early Sunday set off slow, the perfect pace for a crowd that had spent the last 3 days camping in the heat and the rain. Some of the audience swayed lightly to the music, others sat on lawn chairs or on blanketed ground while their children played in the dirt, all were trying to wake up as a guitar, mandolin, accordion, and banjo crowded around one standing mic – drum and standing bass rhythm section taking up room behind them – and played laid back roots music to ease them into the day, As the set progressed however, caution was thrown to the wind, the tempo picked up, and eventually half the crowd was on their feet dancing a jig.

S.G. Goodman (Brian Bruemmer, Rubatophoto.com)

S.G. Goodman was asked while on the Creek Stage how her creative journey had been going lately and she said it wasn’t. She explained that she had been on tour for over a year, most recently from a run playing with John Moreland, and her creative journey was non-existent because she had been in work mode. Before launching into her song Space and Time, one recently covered by Tyler Childers, she made sure to tell us, “I’m just here to say in front of God and everyone that I sing my song better than Tyler ever could”.

FULL GALLERY

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