There was a bit of confusion when we made our inaugural ascent to the grounds at Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, AR. It was profoundly hot and humid, we had driven 10 hours a day for the past two days, and our crew of Montana Family had grown to a staggering 22 people in the process. For the band and many of our crew, it was our first Wakarusa ever, so we wanted to do it right. Jason, our Waka veteran, helped make sense of it all so that eventually, everyone got in the gates together to camp as a tribe.
Once inside, the band separated from the crew to go find artist camping, trailer parking, credentials, and the stage we would be playing for the pre-party that night. We hustled to set up our camp so we could grab a bite in the main lodge before our set. When we first got the stage a kick ass Nashville band called Koa was playing some soulful horn-infused rock to kick off the day.
This was of course only Wednesday, technically day one of our five-day festival experience.
We were up next, second of three bands on one of two active stages that night. In typical festival fashion, we showed up early and started setting up our gear side stage so the change over would be lightning fast. Just as we suspected, the stage crew was a well-oiled machine, and before we could blink, we were on stage, set up, sound checked, and ready to shred. We had written a fiery set list for our only nighttime set of the festival (and first of two sets with our two-piece horn section), and let it rip as the sun set and the crowds came streaming in. We played really well, and by the end of "Pinnacle" two thirds of the way through our set, the roar from the crowd was deafening. It sure was a surreal way to kick off the weekend!
Our next set was in the afternoon the following day on the second largest stage on the grounds. The Revival Tent, as it's known, would come to host bands we've admired for many years, so it felt crazy that we were invited to play that same stage on our first outing. In the spirit of throwing down as hard as they would, we crafted our strongest 90 minute set, featuring zero repeat songs from the previous day's performance, and got to work slamming water and trying to stay cool in the 90 degree heat. Go time rolled around and we piece our stage together as quickly as ever. The amount of space up there was enormous, and a far cry larger than the stages we're used to playing on. The heat made it's mark on the midday set but didn't dampen the intensity of our effort or the spirit of those in attendance. Once again, the Montana Family was there in force to support, along with a few hundred other festival goers scattered about under the tent, just trying to stay out of the oppressive heat.
Talk about heat! Amidst the temperature, I had neglected to eat lunch, and that lack of fuel weighed on my ability to concentrate and execute as well as I have come to expect from myself. It's one of those things that was (hopefully) more apparent to me and the band than to the crowd, but in the middle of our longest set on our largest stage of the weekend, I felt it as one of those learning moments I would remember from "my first Wakarusa." One of those moments where I promised myself I would never make that mistake again.
With our first two out of three sets in the books, we returned to the regular daily regimen of trying to stay hydrated and cool so we could make it through the three remaining days on the Mountain. Somewhere along the line, one of us located the artist lounge and we realized that there was more to this whole "festival band" thing than we first knew. Air conditioning, bathrooms, showers, shade, cold water and beer? Hey, we could get used to this.
Midday on Friday, we made our way out of the main venue and down to the Riverside Stage, where we would play our final set the next day. This section of the festival was a whole new world in and of itself, complete with camping, facilities, and a shuttle to traffic festival goers up to the main venue and back. It was its own little outpost, with the stage facing the beautiful green body of flowing water known as the Mulberry River. When we arrived there were a few hundred people out there enjoying its ice cold relief from the intense Arkansas sun. Needless to say, we were excited to play our final set in such a laid back setting where we could really let it all hang out.
The rest of the day flew by as we skipped from stage to stage watching some of our favorite bands, catching up with old friends, and making many new ones. Despite the desire to party all night and see all the incredible talent, we were finally figuring out that we had to get to bed at a reasonable hour because the morning sun would sweat us out of our tents by 8am.
Saturday rolled around and the hot, clear weather had turned to spotty cloud cover. The forecast was threatening thunderstorms in the afternoon and we were crossing our fingers that our last set wouldn't be the victim of Mother Nature's whim. After all, we had lucked out immensely thus far. The entire region had been storming and flooding for two or three weeks prior, and while some of the grounds were a little soggy, there was hardly a sign of Mother Nature's wrath all weekend. As we made our way down to the Riverside Stage for our final set, the clouds rolled in. Thunder began to boom in the distance, and our fears were becoming closer to reality. With the threat of lightning, the operations staff had chosen to evacuate everyone from the beach only two hours before our set. As we came rolling in to set up and sound check, we witnessed the exodus of thousands of people that would have otherwise been our audience. We reached the stage to park and to our surprise, sitting there defiantly undeterred by staff or weather, was our Montana Family. What a welcomed sight to see.
After a little waiting around, the weather cleared in plenty of time for us to set up and get ready to play. The stage staff bumped set break music as loudly as they could to try to coax people back from the campsite and the line for the shuttle, but to little avail. As it happened, we ended up playing a great set to just our Montana Family plus a few dozen others. We even had a special guest, Alex Steele, formerly of Roster McCabe, come up and sit in on Jamiroquai's "Black Capricorn Day," which was a great tune we hadn't played for some time.
In an effort to return the favor and loyalty our friends had shown us by sticking it out to see all three of our sets, we crammed all 20+ people into the van and trailer to avoid the immensely long shuttle line, and made our way back up the mountain to the main venue. Our sets were done, and we spent Saturday night celebrating a successful first Wakarusa.
On Sunday, we ran around to catch the last of the bands we wanted to see before splitting early to get a jump on the travel back to Montana. After a brief sleep over at Cousin Ryan's house and a straight shot 24-hour drive back to Bozeman, we're all home safe and sound, resting up for this weekend's outing to Contour Music Festival in Jackson Hole, WY. Can't wait!