Nelsonville Music Festival 2014: Review + Photo Gallery
Just outside of Athens, Ohio, a small city in Southeastern Ohio that plays home to Ohio University, is the town of Nelsonville. Like many Appalachian towns, Nelsonville’s fledgling days were supported by the booming coal and clay industry, but the area would quickly grow into a destination point between Columbus and Athens thanks to the Hocking Valley Railway. Through the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s, the arts began to flourish in the community, thanks in part to many groups including Stuart’s Opera House, the organization that has been putting on the Nelsonville Music Festival (May 29th – June 1st, 2014) for the past ten years.
Stuart’s remains as one of the only operating opera houses in the entire state of Ohio and annually holds more than seventy events, drawing guests from all around the region. Past performers at the building, originally built in the 1870’s, include Arcade Fire, The Avett Brothers, Leo Kottke, Steve Earl, Robert Earl Keen, and so many more.
Since its formation in 2005, the Nelsonville Music Festival has grown to one of the most beloved music events in the Midwest by both fans and performers alike. Held on the grounds of Hocking College, they’ve hosted an impressive resume of acts including John Prine, Wilco, Iron and Wine, The Flaming Lips, George Jones, and many, many more. For their tenth year, the team behind the Festival made sure no amenity was left out. Despite the ten hour drive from Macon, I was thrilled to be able to attend for the first time since discovering the festival in 2011.
The Hocking College campus is set in lush valley leading up to the Hocking River; it makes for a beautiful site. Camping is located only a short walk from the Festival grounds and sites allowed ample room for guests to set up and enjoy themselves without dealing with the confinement that comes with larger fests.
We arrived in Athens early Thursday afternoon and enjoyed a meal at local eatery/brewery, Jackie O’s, before making the short drive to Nelsonville. After checking in and getting the site set up, it was time to wander! Throughout the Festival grounds, cabins from the historic village of Robbins Crossing dot the landscape and provide for shade and a unique setting for live performances, including a “No-Fi Cabin” and the “Gladden House Sessions”, a recorded live performance hosted by local radio stations.
Food, drink, and art vendors are a commodity at festivals and Nelsonville played host to a variety of them; from PBR to Jackie O’s and Great Lakes (area craft beer), to booths from restaurants in the surrounding area and craft vendors from around Appalachia.
Charles Walker & the Dynamites were the first act of the Festival we managed to see. The Nashville-based soul showman made his goal for the evening clear; to spread love among the people watching and hope they take that love with them when they leave. Walker has had an impressive career to date, despite not having the large social media or online presence that most bands hold so important. He’s opened for Dave Matthews, Band of Horses, and toured to just about every corner of the country, yet he was sharing his evening with the few hundred people that gather to watch his set. You’ve got to love a man that can smile evening when he sings a sad song.
Next up was Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls. The band put on an incredible performance, playing through numbers from their recent album, Tape Deck Heart, as well as fan favorites from earlier albums. A high point of the night came when Turner invited a guest in the front row on-stage to perform a harmonica solo (they exist) and the guy nailed it perfectly! You could tell he was a bit stunned after the song was over and embraced the fan before he exited the stage.
I was happy to see the Southern music represented so well throughout the weekend, but having two Alabama-based acts close out the first night of the Festival was a real treat. Jason Isbell and company closed down the Main Stage with a set that was both tear jerking and foot stomping. Between numbers from his days with Drive-By Truckers, to selections from Southerneastern, stories were told and drinks were shared (by the audience).
Birmingham-soul magnates St. Paul & the Broken Bones brought the night of music to a roaring end with their 50’s and 60’s inspired sound. If you haven’t treated yourself to their incredible debut, Half the City, make it the next album you buy. An encore performance of “Try a Little Tenderness” set the tone for the rest of the evening as crowds filed back to the campsite.
Nelsonville, like many boutique festivals, emphasizes entertainment for people of all ages, not just the beer-guzzling, neon-wearing college kids on Summer break (there really weren’t many, if any of those types there anyway). A large section of the Festival ground is dedicated to activities of young children and their families and it was buzzing with activity every time we passed.
Another important aspect of the Festival is their mission at being a “Zero Waste” event, one that has zero waste throughout the entire weekend. Partnering with Rural Action, the Nelsonville team (and guests) were able to recycle more than 95% of the waste that was produced over the four days. I’ve never seen a volunteer group so dedicated to the event that they’re representing. Recycle and compost containers were dotted throughout the site and volunteers were combing through trash cans to make sure every bit of reusable waste was accounted for. The volunteers at Nelsonville deserve immense credit. You hear it a lot, but only because it’s true, events like this would not be possible without the people that put in hours of their time for nothing more than a chance to see some live music and make a difference.
Day two started out a bit slower than we had liked (long night), but before long we were moving and enjoyed sets from The Tillers and Lily and Madeleine (who we interviewed prior to their set), along with my personal favorite set of the weekend, a sweat and beer soaked hour plus with Shakey Graves. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist calls Austin home, but has been spending the past year or so on the road. Accompanied by one of the best slide guitarists I’ve ever seen or heard and a drummer, his dark and soulful songs led the audience on a journey that was as much basement rock and roll as it was one-man blues.
Sets from Kurt Vile and Dinosaur JR closed out the first full day of music and walking back to the campsite, it was clear how much people love and care about this event. I rarely see people go out of their way to pick up trash, especially at a festival, but this was common place here. There’s a strong sense of mutual respect at Nelsonville.
Day three of Nelsonville started early with an afternoon set from Saintseneca, a Columbus-based folk act that’s gained national attention since signing to Anti Records. I had only become familiar with their music a few weeks before, but I did recognize a number of songs from their recent album including “Happy Alone”, a beautiful folk-pop single that has a way of getting stuck in your head.
Throughout the rest of the day, we moved between the stages, vendors, and campsite and made new friends. The large crowd that gathered for Lucius, a New York-based band that was asked to return from the 2013 Festival, was eager to dance and the band obliged. I highly recommend adding their albums to your collection.
Saturday was definitely the busiest day of the Festival. Lines of cars streamed into what campsites were left and the day parking filled up quickly. To celebrate their tenth year, Nelsonville invited back The Avett Brothers to headline, along with a beautiful support set from The Head and the Heart. Whether intentional or not, I thought it was great that this year’s Festival featured a few key bands from last year’s MPMF in Cincinnati (THATH, Dinosaur JR, Kurt Vile).
The Avett Brothers were in high spirits and the crowd was delighted at their enthusiasm. Those gentlemen are not only amazing songwriters, but top notch musicians and performers.
Alas, the final day of Nelsonville came but spirits were high as Nelsonville favorites, Shovels and Rope, would be closing out the Main Stage. We meandered around the ground for the early part of the day, enjoying sets from Michael Hurley and Hiss Golden Messenger, before heading to the Main Stage to see country legend Ray Wylie Hubbard and his band. For full disclosure, I hadn’t really listened to his music prior to the weekend. He’s been one of those “you really should check him out” type of acts for me for a long time and I quickly learned why. Hubbard performed with great panache, weaving spoken stories and songs together and leaving little downtime between each number.
Then came Valerie June. A joyful aura sounded her as she made her way onstage and warmed the crowd up with a few stories in her twangy drawl. She echoed the sentiment that Charles Walker displayed in his performance, that you can sing a blues song and smile because you’re singing about something that has already happened and you’ve got the world in front of you. Switching between an array of instruments, she had the crowd in love with her after only a song or two. We have a big feature on her coming up in the next few days so make sure to check it out.
And finally, the pride of Charleston, South Carolina and far beyond, Shovels and Rope, took the stage to a roaring crowd. They were introduce by Tim Peacock, Director of Stuart’s Opera House and Founder of Nelsonville Music Festival, who preluded his introduction with a heartfelt thank you to the staff, partners, artists, volunteers, and guests that made ten years of music at Nelsonville a reality.
Cary Ann and Michael (Shovels and Rope) are charmers, and charm they did. The crowd eagerly sang back words to favorites from O’ Be Joyful and more. Stuart’s have hosted the band many times over the years and the love was there. I can’t count the times that one of them took time to thank everyone involved and each time it was clear they meant every single word.
As the sun set behind the Main Stage and people begin to file out, the only question on my mind was “How are they going to top this next year?”. Regardless of where you live, if you have the resources and time to make it to Nelsonville over the next few years, I encourage you to. It is an atmosphere unlike any I’ve experienced at a festival and you’ll assuredly meet some of the kindest people on the face of the Earth. I’ll see you there next year!
photos by Hannah Cook