Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

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By Joel Francis

This weekend marks the first time Wakarusa will not be held at Clinton Lake near Lawrence, Kan. After establishing itself as a second-tier destination festival in 2004, Wakarusa has moved to Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark.

The Daily Record covered the previous four incarnations of Wakarusa. Join us now in a look back at the festival.

2005 – Wakarusa grows in its second year, offering what may be its greatest lineup to date, including Son Volt, Wilco, Neko Case, Calexico, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, String Cheese Incident and a then-unknown Matisyahu. Promoters are rewarded with a turnout of about 15,000 fans each day, doubling the inaugural turnout. Read more Wakarusa 2005 festival coverage.

2006 – The third annual Wakarusa Music Festival gets off to a sour start when music fans are greeted with highway patrol drug checks near Clinton Lake. “Narcarusa” is further sullied when it is revealed police strategically placed infrared cameras around the festival grounds to catch drug activity. Despite these setbacks, the festival once again reaches its 15,000-fan daily capacity and features the Flaming Lips, Les Claypool, P-Funk sideman Bernie Worrell, Gov’t Mule, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and back-to-back sets by Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Read more Wakarusa 2006 festival coverage.

2007 – Security is toned-down, but Mother Nature rages with hard winds on Friday and Sunday rain during the fourth Wakarusa. Crowds are down to 12,000 fans each day, which might be a reflection of the festival’s most mediocre lineup. Michael Franti and Spearhead close out the festival and the lineup also includes Be Good Tanyas, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Widespread Panic and Ben Harper. Read more Wakarusa 2007 festival coverage.

2008 – Heavy rains capsize Wakarusa’s final festival to date at Clinton Lake. The downpour ends Friday’s sets prematurely and the swamp left inside most concert tents force fans to abandon shoes at the perimeter or in the muck. Further disappointment hits when Bettye LaVette, Dweezil Zappa and Emmylou Harris cancel performances. An return engagement with the Flaming Lips in addition to sets by Old 97s, Ben Folds, Alejandro Escovedo, members of the Meters, Ozomatli and a Friday afternoon infusion of hip hop from Blackalicious and Arrested Development still leave fans with plenty to love. Read more Wakarusa 2008 festival coverage.

Claypool hits the jackpot on casino debut

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

A sold-out and animated crowd renewed Les Claypool’s faith Monday night at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge.

“I’ve never played a casino before,” Claypool confessed to the crowd toward the end of his set. “I was thinking ‘What’s next, is Claypool going to be playing Branson?’”

Judging from their response, most of the crowd would have been more than happy to travel the three hours to see the bass-playing legend. Claypool’s done quite well following his eclectic muse for the past 20 years, and it saw him through this betting-hall debut.

For a shade over two hours Claypool led his quartet – drummer Paulo Baldi, Skerik on saxophone and sometime Malachy Papers collaborator Mike Dillon on percussion – through a bizarre but upbeat mélange of prog funk free jazz.

That looks like a head-scratcher on paper, but it works surprisingly well in concert. Each player has a well-defined role and knows how to walk the line between the experimental and excruciating. The result may not be for the uninitiated, but it is more accessible than imagined.

The quartet hit their stride with the third song, “David Makalaster.” The band stretched the song to nearly 10 minutes, with each instrument adding new textures and layers.

In a way, this was the template of the night. Claypool would narrate a couple verses of a song and then the group would explore every nook and cranny of what it had to offer. While this is the province of many a jam band – and no doubt there were many jam fans present – Claypool has enough variance in his catalog that the songs never felt  the same.

The credit for this goes to the drummers. Their propulsive interplay kept the group moving forward and made the explorations hypnotic, not repetitive. The light-speed synergy between the two percussionists, who were briefly joined by a third, unnamed guest, created the illusion of an invading drum corp. Drum solos are usually the time for a beer or bathroom run, but when Claypool ceded the stage to the percussion, it drew the biggest cheers of the night.

Claypool keep the songbook focused on his most recent efforts with the Frog Brigade and his 2006 solo album, “Of Whales and Woe.” Set closer “D’s Diner” flirted with hip-hop, and Claypool returned for an unaccompanied stroll through Primus’ “American Life.” When the full band returned for a Black Sabbath cover Claypool bypassed “N.I.B.,” which Primus covered several years ago, in favor of “Electric Funeral.”

Claypool has made a career of blending the disparate. He’s wise and faithful enough to know better than to pander to new fans, but he does know how to make the existing ones very happy. Even if it means playing a casino.