Tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is the tiny city of Nelsonville, Ohio, a former coal mining town that’s quaint, cozy and charming. Beyond the town, rumbling trucks labor away at a bypass for U.S. Route 33, which will allow travelers to speed past the city, causing one to wonder if, one day, Nelsonville will go the route of Radiator Springs in Disney’s “Cars” franchise.
But if the small community continues to put on the Nelsonville Music Festival, its annual celebration of music and culture both local and not-so-local, don’t bet on Nelsonville going quiet anytime soon. It’s one of the best-kept secrets of the U.S. music festival circuit.
Knowns and unknowns collided at the ninth-annual festival, which ran over four days (May 30-June 2) for the first time. Beloved heavy hitters Wilco and Cat Power delighted adoring audiences at the main stage, while the smaller Porch Stage (which, sadly, no longer sits atop an actual back porch) showcased up-and-comers like Field Report and Catherine MacLellan, entertaining old fans while converting new ones.
But to attain a Shangri-La of live music, one must sometimes wade through the mud — literally — to reach it. Heavy rains and storms threatened the show Friday and Saturday nights, causing a scene of festivalgoers scrambling to salvage campsites and ducking for cover to avoid imposing lightning strikes. A Saturday night set by Mavis Staples, which featured a guest spot from Wilco frontman/Staples producer Jeff Tweedy, was a casualty of the foul weather, rendering the R&B heavyweight’s show criminally short. Though the storms later subsided, Staples did not return.
Against a backdrop of occasionally flashing skies, the passing storms still in the distance, Tweedy reemerged with the rest of Wilco for an hour-and-a-half headlining set full of familiar favorites from the six-piece’s storied discography. Tweedy, armed with an assortment of guitars, hunched over his microphone, delivering along with his cohorts a wide-ranging, but well-rounded performance that started with the easy-going “Forget the Flowers,” roared forward with the one-two punch of “Poor Places” and “Art of Almost,” ascended to the stars via Nels Cline’s wailing guitar lines and “Impossible Germany” solo shred, and finished accompanied by earlier act Calexico (“Walexico,” Tweedy donned them) for a finale of “California Stars” and crowd-pleasing “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” cut “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
Though evening headlining sets from Cat Power and John Prine pleased crowds with respective sets of indie rock and country-folk, those who attended the Thursday night kick-off were treated to a blistering hour with acclaimed gypsy punks Gogol Bordello. Frontman/madman Eugene Hutz careened across stage, inciting mass singalongs of hits like “Wonderlust King” and “Start Wearing Purple” while his motley crew of fellow bandmates played on and on and on.
Beyond the two larger stages, placed in the far corner of the festival grounds, sits the No-Fi Cabin, an impeccably old building that embodies much of Nelsonville’s charm. Instead, Nelsonville utilizes the cabin as a fully acoustic performance space, containing room for about 25-30 audience members, often packed in like sardines, while others hang about on the fringes of the cabin, poking through open windows and doors, hoping to catch a glimpse, or at least the sound, of each performer.
Boston folksters David Wax Museum rolled into town Sunday after an all-night drive from Nashville and descended upon the cabin, the four-piece showcasing its penchant for southwest-flavored rhythms and sounds. Frontman David Wax stepped through the audience through the cabin, eventually walking outside and around its perimeter, his bandmates following, while singing, playing and attempting not to trip over various festivalgoers. The band later played a mid-afternoon main stage set that incited toe-tapping dancing to “Yes Maria Yes” and “Harder Before it Gets Easier.”
Though the fest has strayed slightly from its folkier roots, artists like Brooklyn’s Olentangy John still reign supreme within the confines of the No-Fi Cabin, during which John, playing with two others as a threesome, delighted Saturday evening crowds with mesmerizing banjo and mandolin picking on bluegrass standards like “Wayfaring Stranger” and original tune “Daniel.” John, who once resided in the area, received his stage name from local music legend Chris Biester, who at that moment was in the midst of a rollicking rock set fronting local supergroup County Pharoahs. Adam Remnant, another local better-known, added an intimate Friday night set of new originals and tracks from his usual band, Southeast Engine.
Other highlights included reggae-flavored dance-poppers Wild Belle’s pre-Gogol sway, Los Hacheros’ infectious Latin rhythms, the lilting, Celtic-ish Francis James Child ballads of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer and William Tyler’s meandering, alt-country/folk soundscapes, played on the guitar, the whole guitar and nothing but the guitar.
All the while, the festival continued its green tendencies, with eco-friendly facts posted around the grounds. Local vendors displayed various wares and items for consumption, including rising local brewery Jackie O’s and its popular Starbrick Brown ale brewed specially for the festival. Meanwhile, the Bindlestiff Family Kirkus delighted crowds young and old with dazzling acrobatics throughout Saturday, with a kids harmonica workshop from West Virginia singer-songwriter Todd Burge and kid-tailored sets from local acts Biester and Emily Prince entertaining the little ones.