Concert Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2008)

Above: The Flaming Lips “Race for the Prize” at Wakarusa 2008.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Arrested Development – Friday afternoon, Revival Tent

The sound of Arrested Development warming up was funky enough to send a crowd scrambling to the Revival Tent and its ankle-deep mud, but the group had trouble keeping them there.

The group’s Afrocentric rap harks back to De La Soul’s daisy age and capped a three-act run of hip hop in the Revival Tent, including Blackalicous and Del tha Funky Homosapien. Their low-key approach had difficulty translating to the half-populated tent, but part of the problem could have been the 15-plus years since the band last hit the area.

Flanked by two vocalists and backed by a guitarist, DJ and rhythm section, MC Speech warmed the crowd up on a couple newer numbers before heating the crowd up with “Fishin’ 4 Religion” and a spirited gospel arrangement of “Tennessee.”

Fans who weathered the bass solo were treated to a karaoke romp through “Billie Jean” and a full-band cover of “Redemption Song.”

Although the set’s energy lagged at times, the greatest hits still sounded, well, great. “Mr. Wendall” is still as fun and timely as it was nearly 20 years ago. The closing one-two of “Mama’s Always Onstage” and “People Everyday” had a sea of smiling faces hoping it wouldn’t be another half-generation until the next show.

Flaming Lips – Friday night, Sun Down Stage

The Flaming Lips performed nearly the same show at their Wakarusa debut two years ago. Damn if it didn’t work just as well the second time.

Flanked by a horde of Teletubbies, the band took the stage as front man Wayne Coyne rolled over the crowd in a giant hamster ball. “Race for the Prize” kicked off the night as confetti, streamers and smoke snowed over the crowd.

It would be easy to get lost in the spectacle of a Flaming Lips concert and forget about the band onstage if the music wasn’t so good. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” rocked so hard that Coyne himself called it “glorious.” The group funneled their anger and passion for a better America after the November elections into a devastating version of “The W.A.N.D.” that was prefaced by an anti-war airing of “Taps.”

The quartet also got some help from their fans. Coyne encouraged the crowd to get naked during their cover of “The Song Remains the Same” and a half dozen women jumped onstage and took him up on the offer. Spontaneous fireworks from the back of the lawn punctuated the trippy “Pompeii am Gotterdamerung” and heightened the atmosphere of “Vein of Stars.”

The night ended with “Do You Realize.” A million pieces of yellow and orange confetti falling from the sky created a nice cinematic moment that made the song sound even more majestic than usual.

Set List: Race for the Prize/Free Radicals/The Song Remains the Same/Fight Test/Mountain Side/Vein of Stars/Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (pt. 1)/Pompeii am Gotterdamerung/The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song/Taps->The WAND/She Don’t Use Jelly/(encore:) Do You Realize

“Christmas On Mars” – Friday night, the Flaming Lips tent

The chance to catch a band-hosted screening of the Flaming Lips’ seven-years-in-the-making movie “Christmas on Mars” overpowered the need for sleep for many Wakarusa campers.

Shortly after the Lips’ spectacular set on the Sun Down Stage, 200 fans lucky enough to snag a free ticket earlier in the evening were ushered into the band’s large “Eat Your Own Spaceship” tent. Inside, it felt a lot like summer camp. Everyone sat on long wooded benches and roadies handed out popcorn.

After a short personal introduction from lead Lip Wayne Coyne and a longer recorded interview, the film finally started around 1 a.m.

The movie follows the descent of paranoia and psychosis on a crew of astronauts in their Martian space station on Christmas Eve. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd plays the main astronaut while Coyne portrays an emerald-hued, antennae-sporting Martian who swallows an asteroid, is detained by the space crew and then forced into the role of Santa Claus.

The results are pretty much what you’d expect from a group with no acting or screenwriting background, paying for their production as they go. Fans started sneaking out almost as soon as the rock-show volume movie started. When I finally succumbed an hour into the movie a herd of fans were seated on the ground outside the tent for the next showing. Live and learn.

Ozomatli – Saturday afternoon, Sun Down Stage

Listening to Ozomatli is like flipping through a National Geographic. The L.A.-based band deftly mixes traditional South American music with African rhythms, hip hop, rock and a splash of Indian raga.

Opening with consecutive songs in Spanish could be an obstacle for some bands, but Ozomatli’s groove needs no translation. Although a moderate crowd had gathered on the lawn in anticipation of the set, each song saw more arms raised as the multitude grew.

The septet kept the energy high for all of its 90-minute set, from the Indian-influenced improvisation on “Believe” to the straight hip hop of “City of Angels” and vibrant African rhythms of “Como Ves.”

Ozomatli is not only proficient with different styles of music, but its members all play more than one instrument. This broadens their palate even further. The clarinet solo introducing gave “Cumbia de los Muertos” a Yiddish flavor, while the horns on “Magnolia Soul” added a New Orleans feel.

The appearance of Tre Hardson, aka Slimkid3 of the Pharcyde, who has been touring with the band since last winter, was an unexpected treat. He led the band through a great cover of “Passing Me By” that drew big cheers from the crowd.

Porter Batiste Stolze – Saturday afternoon, Sun Up Stage

Porter Batiste Stolze was more than 30 minutes into their set when Ozomatli wrapped up. I entered just in time to hear the band roll into a faithful cover of “Like A Rolling Stone” with a sidestepping backbeat that definitely gave the drummer some.

In front of me a father and son stood with their arms on each other’s shoulders, belting out every word with absolute delight. Proud mom looked on, her face radiant.

The Dylan cover gave way to the booty-shaking, Bo Diddley beat of “Not Fade Away,” which, in turn, fed into “Little Liza Jane.” No matter how many gnarled honky tonk guitar licks Brian Stolze threw at his band mates, George Porter, Jr.’s bass kept things funky while drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. shuffled the beat like a Vegas card dealer.

The New Orleans-based trio honed their chops together as in-demand session musicians, and worked Art Neville as three-fourths the Funky Meters until 2005. PBS’ three-part harmonies and musical sensibilities sounds like The Band filtered through Kool and the Gang and given a late-night run on Bourbon Street. They touched on nearly every style of American music in the half hour I heard, and could groove on them all.

Jennie Arnau – Sunday morning, Sun Up Stage

From a distance, Jennie Arnau sounds a lot like Kathleen Edwards. Both have mournful country vocals supported by muscular rock hooks. Up close, however, Arnau’s alt-country sound is less plaintive than Edwards and owes as much to Fleetwood Mac as it does to Emmylou Harris.

Backed by a four-piece band, the blonde South Carolinian performed four songs from her latest album, “Mt. Pleasant,” and one song from each of her last three.

While Arnau’s “Float On” is not a Modest Mouse cover, its buoyant melody should please fans of Edwards, Neko Case and Caitlin Cary. Set closer “You’re Not Alone” is the type of song that Sheryl Crow should be doing. It ended the show on a strong note.

While late morning, closing day festival gigs are never coveted, the two dozen folks who showed up for Arnau’s set seemed genuinely appreciative of the music and pleased by the 45 minute performance that held nothing back. Hopefully Arnau will be invited back at a better time slot and in front of the bigger audience she deserves.

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk – Sunday afternoon, Sun Down Stage

Dumpstaphunk know how to ride a groove and aren’t afraid to hop on at a moment’s notice with several hundred hip-shaking hitchhikers in tow.

Opening with the aptly titled instrumental “Stinky,” the band quickly drew a dancing crowd to the lawn in front of the stage. By the time their hour-long set reached its midpoint the congregation had easily doubled.

With staccato riffs from his Hammond organ, Ivan Neville led the quintet through songs like “Shake It Off” and “Ugly Truth” that sounded like a streamlined, less bizarre P-Funk.

While vocal responsibilities shifted, they were always soulful. Between songs, Tony Hall would sometimes abandon fellow guitarist and Ivan’s cousin Ian Neville, and drop one string and several octaves to add another bass guitar and even more bottom to the sound.

Dumpstaphunk aired their views on the handling of their native New Orleans in “Meanwhile.” Easily the most fun Hurricane Katrina protest song to date, the band’s philosophy was summarized with the chorus “might as well have a good time/it might be the last time.”

Although, many of its members have worked with Ivan Neville’s father Aaron and the Neville Brothers, Dumpstaphunk is firmly rooted on The Meters side of the family tree.

Keep Reading:

Wakarusa Music Festival (2007)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)