The Nelsonville Music Festival is a relative newcomer in the festival scene. It began in 2005 as a single-day event in downtown Nelsonville, Ohio and is organized by Stuart’s Opera House. In 2010, the event expanded to three days. This year’s festival was well curated with a focus on indie folk and alternative country, genres which fit well with the rolling hills and the small rough-hewn cabins that make up Robin’s Crossing.
My wife and I have been trying to hit one good festival a year and chose this one because we really wanted to see Shovels and Rope. Nelsonville seemed to be one of the few big events that they were scheduled for this year, plus it had the added bonus of the Dawes and Iron & Wine.
Unfortunately, we were not able to make it for the Thursday night kickoff event which featured Southeast Engine who released a very fine album called Canary last year. We also missed Those Darlins which about broke my heart but I started a new job last week and taking my first Friday off didn’t seem like the best way to make a good impression. Anyway, here’s a quick summary of the shows I did catch.
Iron & Wine. We rolled into town just as Iron & Wine was getting started. Sam Beam is a great songwriter… one of the best of his generation. He has a great voice and is a darn fine guitar player. But a rock star he is not. His new band sounded something like the Range a la Bruce Hornsby and the Range. They weren’t bad musicians, just a really bad fit. They amplified all of his weaknesses and drowned out all of his strengths. People were respectful — he is Sam Beam after all — but looking at Twitter afterwards, I don’t think I was the only one left feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Hunnabee and the Sandy Tar Boys. This was one of the first bands we saw Saturday morning. A group of five young bluegrass players out of Athens, Ohio that had the best group harmonies of the weekend. Good energy too. Look for a review of their self released album sometime soon here.
Jordan O’ Jordan. Jordan O’ Jordan was the first artist I got to see in the No-Fi Cabin venue, a 10′ x 14′ structure with just a handful of benches for seating. All No-Fi Cabin performers had to do their show without any sound support. What they lacked in volume, however, the performers made up with intimacy and sweetness. I was immediately taken in by Jordan’s storytelling and melodies. His music exists somewhere between the Decemberists and early Of Montreal when Of Montreal used to be a folk band.
Todd Burge. Todd Burge may look like a normal straight-laced gentlemen but when he starts singing, his underlying mischief immediately becomes apparent. He sang a series of songs about Harry Camping, the nutjob who said the world was going to end last year. This was another No-Fi Cabin show and Burge benefitted from the venue’s opportunity to engage with the small crowd by telling some of the song’s background stories.
Michael Hurley. Dude’s a legend but at 70 years old, you can’t expect him to rock out. Amazingly, though, he can still hit those high notes just like he could in the 60’s. On the downside, however, he didn’t do too much old stuff. You could feel the respect for this guy from the audience, which seemed to surprise Hurley. At one point, he said something like, “If you like listening me to so much, you should come to Portland. I play for hours.” Well, if he wears out his welcome in Portland, there seemed to plenty of Ohio folks who would gladly offer their spare bedroom.
Shovels & Rope. As I mentioned earlier, this is why we chose to come to Nelsonville. They’ve got to be one of the best kept secrets of the alternative country music scene. Composed of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, they recently changed their name to “Shovels and Rope” and have been touring relentlessly for the past couple of years. They’re absolutely phenomenal, the real deal, etc. Why they’re not as big as Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, or Fleet Foxes is one of those mysteries that makes me think I’m pretty out of touch with the rest of the world. Anyway, their last album (Shovels & Rope) came out in 2008 and got very little attention. Subsequent to that, they released an EP under Cary Ann Hearst’s name and one of the songs (Hells Bells) was featured in True Blood… the closest they’ve gotten to getting any mainstream attention. At Nelsonville, they were the only band that got to perform at all three venues and each show was fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I saw people have so much fun on stage and rock so hard. Cary Ann Hearst is full of southern charm and monkey business. Michael Trent is her straight man who can stick right with her as she tears the house down. They have a new album coming out July 31 called O’ Be Joyful. Definitely look for a review here. Some of the new stuff they were playing sounded at least as great as their earlier songs so watch out.
Andrew Bird. To be honest, the best part about seeing Andrew Bird was his soundcheck at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning where he was just fiddling around (both figuratively and literally) and singing snippets of songs, including a verse or two of the Handsome Family’s Too Much Wine. His Saturday night show was good too but by then, I was feeling old and tired.
Matt Bauer. Matt did a great set in the No-Fi Cabin. Unfortunately the main stage act was incredibly load and came close to overpowering Matt’s quiet playing but he never got distracted, lost his rhythm, or missed a note. Dude was like a rock. He did a great cover of the old Pretty Little Horses song and a mix of older and newer originals. Poplar Trees sounded particularly good.
Hayes Carll. When you’re at a festival, sometimes it’s just musical overload. You try to fold the time space continuum so you can see it all but eventually you have to attend to your bodily needs. As I was wondering around trying to take care of some of the necessities, I gave up seeing Hayes Carll. Luckily, though, he was at the main stage so even from a half mile away, I could hear him doing Another Like You, which sounded great.
The Tillers. Never heard of them until I saw them. Three guys who can bluegrass with the best of ’em. They shared one mic and sang about broken hearts and whiskey, mixing up traditional numbers with originals. Definitely a band I’ll come back to.
Hope for a Goldensummer. Another band I never heard of until I showed up at Nelsonville and looked at the schedule. Two sisters and a banjo player. Hell, what more do you need? Did I mention the banjo player occasionally used a violin bow? And it sounded good? It’s true. They also had beautiful harmonies that can only happen because of shared genes, funny between song banter and an accapella song where they kept time by doing a Miss Mary Mack-style clapping game, a spectacle which nearly made me lose my mind. I’m beginning to think that some people have brains divided into four sections and not two like the rest of us mortals.
Horse Feathers. I caught a few songs by Horse Feathers. They were going on about 30 minutes before the Dawes were starting so I didn’t stick around too long. They struck me as amazing musicians who can put on a heck of show. I was a bit worried because sometimes strings don’t work out well in a live setting. Either they seem too stiff and formal or they’re too subdued. Not so with the Horse Feathers. The three strings players gave it just the right amount of kick to keep the show hopping.
Dawes. Well shit. There’s not much I can say about the Dawes without sounding like an evangelical nutjob myself. I highly doubt that there’s a better live band right now. This is the third time I’ve seen them and each show has been one of the most memorable days of my whole year. If you like their albums, I would recommend you do whatever it takes to get your hiney in front of them because as good as their records are, they pale in comparison to the live experience.
And then we drove home and I went to work a few hours later. All-in-all, a great weekend at a well run event, a fact that was evidenced by the large number of musicians who mentioned on stage about how well they were treated. My experience as a concert goer was similar: the volunteers were helpful and kept the place looking good. April is promising to attend next year so keep your eye out for a Common Folk Music booth!
P.S. Happy Birthday Common Folk Music!