June 13, 2019 by Jay Minkin
Attending the Nelsonville Music Festival has been in the works for a couple of years. My child Seed Minkin, who attended Ohio University in nearby Athens, Ohio, has been raving about the experience and kept asking when I was going to make it. The threads of fostering friendships and community remained strong after they moved to San Francisco prompting an annual return to the legendary “dumpster” camp site on the festival grounds at Hocking College. With 2019 being a year of historic milestones (turning 60 and getting my ear pierced is an entire chapter), I decided to pull the trigger early on to make this a Father/Child feel good moment.
Another major part of the experience was spending time with Seed’s partner Sam Raridon who also made the cross country flight to Ohio for NMF15. Although “Dad and The Queers” weren’t scheduled to perform, our presence was welcomed and embraced by all the wonderful people who made up “dumpster site 4 life”.
Ah, but we’ll leave camping to the youngins as I partnered up with my friend and noted photographer Amos Perrine with a three room suite at The Little B in downtown Nelsonville across the street from Stuart’s Opera House, who throws this party. It was nice to take advantage of the bike path that connected the town to the festival and have a watering hole at the campground.
The cool, overcast day gave way to high heat by the time 4:00pm rolled around to welcome Hubby Jenkins at the Boxcar stage. Jenkins blends historical African American roots stories with mojo-free banjo and guitar picking songs that makes him such a special performer. After taking a stroll to check out the layout of the performance stages, I made my way over to get a prime spot by the front rail for Town Mountain from Asheville, NC. The crowd really erupted during the song “Down Low” from their album New Freedom Blues released last October. Next up was Todd Snider who makes playing in front of a large crowd very intimate. Accompanied on stage with his dog Cowboy Jim, Snider intertwined stories between “Can’t Complain”, “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern”, “Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican”, “D B Cooper”, “Looking For A Job”, and “Alright Guy”. After a Taco Bell drive thru rap, Snider peeled off “Stuck On the Corner”, “Beer Run”, “Play A Train Song”, “Enjoy Yourself” (dedicated to Leon Redbone), “Statistician’s Blues”, “Like A Force of Nature”, and closing with “Easy Money”.
Thursday night’s headliner Tyler Childers still does his own sound check, although that may change after the release of Country Squire in August. The band came out hot with “Born Again” and played through their set without much banter. Many folks in the crowd were wearing single day wristbands, purposefully coming to hear the up and coming outlaw country star. Highlights included a string of songs “Feathered Indians”, “Whitehouse Road”, “Purgatory”, and “Honkey Tonk Flame” before closing with solo acoustic rendition of “Nose on the Grindstone” and “Lady May”.
Friday morning began with breakfast and coffee at Fullbrooks Café, then catching a portion of the avant-pop trio WYD playing on the Porch stage. Songs like “wtf” and “wyd” caught my ear by singer/guitarist Carly Fratianne, Maddy Clampa on keyboards/backing vocals, and percussionist Courtney Hall. The Boxcar stage featured Nashville’s Sierra Ferrell and some olde- tyme music to begin the afternoon with several songs off her Washington By The Sea album.
There were a few artists I had on my radar prior to attending and one showcase I was looking forward to was seeing Molly Burch in the No-Fi cabin. With no amplifiers or microphones in a tiny house cabin, capacity was just enough people to fill four rows of wooden benches. Standing room consisted of peering in through the windows and doorways. Burch’s angel voice was accompanied by Dailey Toliver on acoustic guitar along with Luke Norton playing the old upright piano in the cabin. Her short but memorable set included “I Adore you”, “First Flower”, “Wild”, “To The Boys”, “Please Be Mine”, and “Every Little Thing”.
No sense leaving this beautiful space as Hubby Jenkins was scheduled to perform next. Little did the audience know that Jenkins would be entertaining us with passages from an original Grey Castle Press version of The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard. The “choose your own adventure” series was a childhood passion of Jenkins and he routinely scavenges the used book stores as he travels looking for stories from this series. So between songs, Jenkins would read a portion of the book where the audience had to decide what path to take. The crowd was so appreciative that Jenkins did an encore singing his Mom’s favorite song “Lost Gander” and then led a sing-a-long playing the bones with “Moses, Moses, Don’t Get Lost”.
The No-Fi space was so inviting I stuck around for a third showcase, this time featuring WYD whom I saw earlier in the day. Clampa met Fratianne by accident as separate artists and after a few months went by was asked to track some piano for a new song Carly was recording. The session led to a partnership and with the addition of Hall became a rock band. It was great seeing the artists conform some of their songs to the intimate No-Fi space as Clampa played the upright piano and Hall used a Timpani Mallet on a large drum head. The emotions expressed by Fratianne during the short set were heartfelt and the band was taken back by the roaring response of the crowd.
Steve Poltz was playing several times during NMF15, but can you imagine seeing him in the small confines of the No-Fi cabin? Well, Friday’s wake-up set was entertaining beyond expectations. Accompanied by Anthony Da Costa on guitar, Poltz opened with his one-of-a-kind smile and energy singing “Born In A Band”. Next Poltz sang “98 pounder” while blending stories about the Rugburns, kilts, and Palm Springs high school. A new catchy song, “Aw, Whatever” was followed by the hilarious children’s fable “Sewing Machine”. With the crowd going crazy, Poltz closed his set covering “Truckin’”
The only performance space I hadn’t checked out was the Gladden House back porch, so I made sure I arrived early for a “secret special guest” showcase. Playing the main stage later in prime time, Mandolin Orange walked out the back of the cabin to a roar of applause. Led by singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz, their gorgeous set included “Lonesome Whistle”, ‘Lonely All The Time”, the John Harper classic “Buried in a Cape”, “Blue Ruin”, and “Hard Travelin’”.
By now it was time to find a nice spot on the hill at the Boxcar stage for the sweet singer/songwriter Laura Gibson. Standing off to the side with her electric piano, highlights included “Not Harmless”, “Performers” and “Domestication”. After a little pick-me-up at the Donkey coffee tent, I made my way over to the main stage for Australia’s Julia Jacklin who opened with “Body” from the brand new Crushing album. Next, Jacklin’s dreamy vocals began singing “Eastwick” on her guitar before the song explodes with the force of her fabulous backing band. The band was just jelling through “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” and wowed the crowd with “Turn Me Down”. What should be the next radio single, “Head Alone” infused a chorus saying “I don’t want to be touched all the time/ I raised my body up to be mine”. After closing with the jangly “Pressure to Party”, I wasn’t the only one disappointed rushing to the merch tent to find that no vinyl copies of the new record were available.
I was told by photographer Chad Cochran not to miss The War & Treaty performing around dinner time on the main stage, and boy was he spot on. Michael Trotter and partner Tanya Trotter played to the photographers and crowd with a rousing high energy rockin’ R&B review. Opening with “Take Me In” and “All I Wanna Do”, they included a little medley of Stevie, Aretha, and The Temptations. Next came the emotional “Can I Get a Witness” with members of the band taking turns soloing before the pair of singers led a second line to honor Dr. John with a snippet of “When The Saints Go Marching In”. Some heavy spoken words by Michael about love, the human race, mental health and reaching out for help led up to a tearful “If It’s in Your Heart”. The band just blew the audience away closing with “Down to the River” and definitely deserved a prime time showcase placement.
Sunday morning we had time for one more showcase before departing NMF15 and our sights were set to see The Huntress & Holder of Hands. Another electric band having to conform to the intimate unplugged setting within the No-Fi cabin, MorganEve Swain and her ensemble brought the best and most unexpected performance of the weekend. With Swain on violin/guitar/vocals, she was joined by Emily Dix Thomas on cello/harmony, Liz Isenberg upright bass/harmony, Rachel Blumberg percussion, and Chris Sadlers electric bass. They were taken back by the experience of never playing an acoustic show before. Opening acapella with “Shadow of the Hunted” before adding instrumentation, the acoustics were gorgeous within the cabin. Other songs from the band’s Avalon album included “Call To Arms”, “Kingdom”, and climaxed with “Creatures in Flight”. Sitting next to me, New acquaintances Shiloh and Tay Tay along with Seed and Sam were moved to emotional tears following the standing ovation set.
With that, it was time to head back to dumpster camp and say our good byes. Fostering friendships is a big part of attending multi-day music festivals, so attending NMF was more than just about the music. NMF prides itself for Zero Waste with over a 90% diversion rate on both the festival grounds and campsite area. Being a father to a non-binary child, maybe in some way I helped bring a sense of hope to those that have communication and acceptance barriers between themselves and their families. In closing, NMF was more than just a music festival. It was about community, unwavering love, and the ties that bind us all.