story and photos by Michelle Parks
Editor’s note: In addition to this advance story, The City Wire will beginning Monday post through Thursday the “72C” (Seven to See)– a list of the seven must-see bands during the four days of the festival. Get updates and photos from the festival by following Michelle on Twitter: @CityWireWaka
Wakarusa comes just once a year, but Brett Mosiman spends all the time in between planning for the next one.
The four-day music festival, now in its 11th year, is nestled on Mulberry Mountain in the Ozarks and just north of Ozark on Arkansas 23. It moved here six years ago after its start in Kansas, where it outgrew its location. Every year, since the arrival of the festival in Arkansas, its organizers have worked to make it bigger and better — more successful for both the musicians and the fans.
Mosiman, festival director, said as soon as one festival ends, he spends the summer and fall booking musicians for the following year. In the winter, he moves into marketing the event and selling tickets. By spring, he’s well into handling event logistics. After all, each weekend in late spring, he and a crew of many others build a small city in a remote location on a mountain by a river, complete with roads, infrastructure, sewage and security, plus food and drink vendors and lots of performances and other activities.
“All the smiling faces and shaking booties make it all worthwhile,” Mosiman said.
Even all that planning couldn’t have prepared organizers for the rain, and the eventual seas of mud, that mired the event last year. The ground was unusually saturated for spring, he said, and then it rained nearly every day leading up to the festival, which started at the end of May. Organizers even closed the box offices early because the roads were getting impassable and the rainfall was making some campgrounds unusable.
“It was a constant struggle to keep the festival going, and the staff and crew did an absolutely amazing job,” Mosiman said. “(The weather) was near biblical, and the fans were just completely incredible.”
Indeed, most fans stuck it out, and the rain and severe weather turned into sunny skies by Saturday and Sunday. Since last year, multiple drainage and road projects have happened at the site, which will help this outdoor festival better weather what comes its way.
Last year, the 10th anniversary of the event, saw the largest attendance — more than 23,000 folks. This year is expected to be about the same, Mosiman said. There will be some 30 food and drink vendors and nearly 100 other vendors offering arts, crafts, clothing and other goods. About 1,000 volunteers also will be on hand to help make it all happen.
This year, organizers also are offering several new ways to experience the festival. For one, the “glamping” package is a glamorous way to camp. Located within the VIP and general camping areas, these tents are already set up, ready to be inhabited for a few days. They offer beds or cots, plus privacy and personal space.
The WakStar tour bus package provides a furnished tour bus for up to 10 guests, who’ll be comfortable in rain or shine, with heating and air conditioning. It also has a fully stocked refrigerator (with food and drink of your choice), plus a microwave and sink, private bathroom, beds with linens, television, DVD and stereo system.
The Riverside camping venue, the most affordable option, now allows early arrival for campers at 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 4. There will also be vendors and a music stage along the Mulberry River, and campers there have easy access to floating and swimming.
NEW IN 2014
An artistic director was hired this year to coordinate many activities for folks for the down times between seeing music performances, eating and hanging out at campsites. There will be artistic environments, collective napping spots, circus performers, stilt walkers, illuminated sculptures, graft art walls, interactive domes, a slackline park (with instructional workshops), and daily hoop workshops.
"There's a lot to do when you're not watching music," Mosiman said.
Organizers also continue to focus on social media as a way to reach out to fans and to connect them with musicians. The festival’s Facebook page is up to more than 148,000 likes — a 37% increase from last year. The number of Twitter followers also is up to more than 21,100 — a 66% annual increase. And, the number of Instagram followers increased by about 260%, up to more than 8,700. This year’s official hashtag is #waka2014.
Still, the music remains the main draw of this festival, and lining up the acts is a big priority. There are several returning acts this year, including Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and The String Cheese Incident.
"Wakarusa also specializes in trying to introduce you to tomorrow's superstars today," Mosiman said. Some of those from recent years have included Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, and Pretty Lights.
Some acts new to the festival this year include Walk Off the Earth, J Roddy Walston and the Business, Cherub, The Floozies, Dr. Dog, and Nahko and Medicine for the People.
"Sometimes, I'm most excited for those younger bands I haven't seen before," Mosiman said.
With some 130 bands on six stages over four days, there's a lot to see and hear at this year’s festival. Some of the band names are similar to each other: The Werks / The Weeks, The Dirty Creek Bandits / The Dirty Guv’nahs, Moon Hooch / Moon Taxi, Wookiefoot / Dirtfoot. So, make sure you're clear on who you want to see when scanning the festival schedule. Also, many of the acts will perform multiple sets. Over the next few days, we'll offer our recommendations of the "72C" on each festival day.
One of those is Moon Hooch, a three-piece group that will play the festival for the first time this year. The members, Mike Wilbur, Wenzl McGowen and James Muschler, met while they were students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. McGowen said they were an unlikely group of guys to meet, recalling that he didn't get along with Wilbur at first. Now, they spend much of their time together, writing and rehearsing music and touring.
The three men, now all in their mid-20s, had been in various bands before, but nothing that was a long-term commitment. McGowen and Wilbur, who both play saxophone, wrote a saxophone song based on the concept of electronic music.
In summer 2010, after going to bartending school but getting no bartending jobs, they took to the streets with their music. They played their music in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — "busking," performing in a public place for tips.
They continued to perform publically, getting run out of subway stations. At one performance, the crowd asked what their name was. Muschler shouted that it was Moon Juice. After an internet search, they realized that name was taken, so they consulted a thesaurus and changed it to Moon Hooch.
The musicians use their experience, knowledge and technical skills as jazz musicians to create a connection with their audience, McGowen said. They mix their variety of musical backgrounds to produce synthetic sounds with their acoustic instruments, with McGowen and Wilbur on sax and Muschler on drums.
In the beginning, they were struggling to emulate the sounds of techno music, which is exactly precise because it's created by computers. Jazz music is inherently more sloppy.
"We spent thousands of hours just playing with a metronome and trying to get rid of the human fallacy," McGowen said.
Once they honed the rhythmic intricacies and precision of the music, they were able to focus instead on expressing themselves and sharing their energy with the audience.
The band is looking forward to connecting with the fans at Wakarusa. Having played other festivals, they find that living in a tent for several days on a chunk of land with thousands of other people just naturally connects everyone and encourages free expression — as opposed to the isolation that cities can create among their inhabitants.
"I love the fact that music festivals have such different infrastructures than cities," McGowen said. "I think you give the tribal connection that lives within all of us a chance to blossom."
Moon Hooch released their self-titled debut album last summer, and it debuted at No. 18 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. McGowen said that the band's live show is now so much different than the performance on their album.
"I think we have matured a lot and have a bigger sound without giving up our originality," he said.
McGowen also plays the contrabass saxophone now, which offers a low, rich sound. The band's next album, "This is Cave Music," is slated for release in September and offers their evolved sound. "It's like house music, but it's more wild, more natural, more jagged," he said.