Column | The Nelsonville Spirit Follows Rock Festival to New Site

Nelsonville Music Festival organizers were faced with not only restarting the annual event after skipping the past two years because of the pandemic but moving it to a new location and on a different weekend.

The annual three-day rock fest has a reputation for finding the brightest new indie, punk and Americana acts and some of the most interesting established ones, and then letting them loose in a super-chill woodsy setting for a smallish audience of discerning music lovers.

This year’s circumstances posed an extra degree of difficulty. For the most part, the festival rose to the challenge.

NMF took place over Labor Day weekend at Snow Fork Events Center, which is nothing more than a clearing of undulating land in the middle of thick forest in the heart of Athens County, which is in rugged and sparsely populated southeastern Ohio. Years ago, the land was a golf course. Before that, it was a coal mine.

I’m a veteran of Nelsonville, having gone to the last five. In previous years, NMF took place in late May or early June on the campus of Hocking College in Nelsonville, which is about 10 miles west of Athens, home of Ohio University. The campus sits on the narrow strip of rare flat land that runs along the Hocking River.

Those who attended last weekend’s event at Snow Fork had to traverse some of the most remote land in the state. It’s reachable only through narrow and twisting backroads that meander up and down hills and through the occasional village. Even your GPS will be flummoxed.

It was that remoteness, however, that made the festival’s sense of place even stronger this year. It was kind of like finding Brigadoon.

Of course, not everything was great.

Labor Day weekend is inconvenient for a lot of people. And gray, drizzly weather put a damper on the middle part of the festival. Also, a few acts – Lucinda Williams, Dos Santos, Shannon and the Clams – had to cancel, which caused a reshuffling of the schedule and some lackluster stretches. 

But the Nelsonville spirit did prevail. It has a come-as-you-are attitude that matches its natural surroundings. Pretentious, it is not.

The remote setting – I crossed a covered bridge between our rented cabin and the festival site twice a day – made it seem all the more like a diamond in the rough.

The highlight came on the first night with a one-two punch of Japanese Breakfast and TEKE::TEKE that I’m still reeling from.

Nelsonville was in safe hands with Japanese Breakfast. The Grammy-nominated indie-pop band led by Michelle Zauner elevated what had been a lackluster start. The festival instantly dovetailed into a beautiful evening.

The band’s lush sound was befitting of Zauner, who danced across the stage with a microphone in one hand, bashing a gong with the other. She was like a woodland sprite in a sacred dance. It was a visual and aural treat.

Zauner grasped the specialness of the gathering, too, describing the setting as something Philip Roth would write a story about.

Owing to its Grammy recognition, the band suddenly finds itself in high demand for festival appearances. But it usually gets stuck with an early time slot, which means playing an abbreviated set.

As the headliner for Day One of Nelsonville, the band had a full 90 minutes to play, and luxuriated in it. The short sets, Zauner said, are like “flirting” with the crowd. “This is more like a relationship,” she said.

While the audience walked away in a state of bliss, nothing could have prepared it for what came next: Montreal-based ensemble TEKE::TEKE.

The seven-piece act takes traditional Japanese music and whirls it into something altogether new. TEKE::TEKE launched into its set at 11 p.m. and kept the audience in a wide-eyed frenzy for a solid hour – an electrifying Samurai attack that called to mind a ’70s-style action flick.

It’s a good thing Japanese Breakfast did not have to follow them.

There were other highlights over the remainder of the festival, including Automatic – an all-girl trio that made angular tunes that insinuated themselves in your ear without the benefit of a  guitar.

British jazz phenom Nubya Garcia was brilliant, and she provided a contrast with other Day Two acts Adia Victoria, who makes spooky Southern Gothic blues, and Town Mountain, with its Americana-bluegrass sound.

Off in the woods next to a babbling creek was a hidden stage in a clearing, where acoustic artists such as Myriam Gendron held court in a magical setting strung with tree lights.

Then there was festival favorites Dana. The avant-punk Columbus act was its chaotic and melodic self, and definitely had the only theremin – that’s the electronic instrument that lets you create sound waves out of thin air with your hands – on the premises.

Niger’s Mdou Moctar took his time during his set, building his extended – if not repetitious – jams into an audio landscape that reflected the dry and hidden beauty of his Saharan homeland. Clad in the colorful robe of a nomad, Moctar’s guitar work was mesmerizing.

There were other headliners, including the great Neko Case; fuzzy, low-fi stalwarts Yo La Tengo; and the country-tinged Angel Olsen.

As the music faded into the crickets and cicadas that rang through the forest, one question remained: Was the experiment a success? Will the festival return to Snow Fork next summer, and on Labor Day weekend?

Stay tuned.

Pictured at top: TEKE::TEKE performs at Nelsonville Music Festival last weekend.

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