Music » Wayward Son

What's the matter with Wakarusa?

This four-day, jam-band-and-Wilco-fan fest offers more than meets the tie-dye-blinded eye.


I never thought I'd say this, but Wakarusa is going to kick ass this year.

I had written off the four-day music festival (six-day if you count all the prefestival concerts) as nothing more than playtime for the kind of people who are unable to contribute to civilization's progress but make up for it by ridding their diet of meat, stocking their cupboard with locally grown chickpeas, refusing to sully the waters of the Earth with their body funk, blaming everything on the Man and desperately trying to prove that it's acceptable for a white guy to grow dreadlocks. (I, on the other hand, prefer to deal with my own ineffectuality by medicating myself into a passive state with a cheeseburger, a six-pack and Elimidate.)

But as the festival materialized this year, it was surprising to see that a few tantalizing, big-name nonhippie acts were coming -- namely Wilco, Son Volt, Calexico and Neko Case. But who's interested in blowing a big wad of cash to drive out to Clinton Lake State Park and sleep in a tent (or hide in one, breathing through a wet towel whenever a yellow haze of patchouli and body odor descends upon the campground) just to see a few decent bands -- especially when there's no way in hell that two of them are going to emerge from the event as a resurrected Uncle Tupelo?

The near-certainty that Jay and Jeff won't be making amends clearly hasn't stifled ticket sales. According to festival organizer Brett Mosiman, who owns the Bottleneck and the Lawrence-based concert-promotion company Pipeline Productions, sales have already doubled over last year.

The other numbers are pretty impressive, too. In Wakarusa's second year, Mosiman says, its budget has crossed the million-dollar mark, attracting buyers from all 50 states and several foreign countries for its recycled-paper tickets. He expects a total of 60,000 people -- not all of whom will be hippies -- attended by a crew of 600 workers, volunteers, technicians, security guards, videographers and the like. All this on 800 acres next to a lake, with multiple campgrounds, stages and showers. Don't forget the 60-plus bands.

"We hope to make it into Kansas' third- or fourth-biggest city in a few years," Mosiman says. Of course, that'd be a city built and dismantled in two weeks, one that rocks way harder than Topeka ever will. Mosiman also predicts that in a few years, his festival will be a bigger boon to the local economy than the Big 12 Tournament.

But will any of this put the Native American term for ass-deep on the tongues of the nation's summer concert watchers alongside the other two high-profile festivals, Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Coachella in Southern California? Wakarusa at least has its cousins beat as far as location goes -- Bonnaroo takes place on a farm, and Coachella sets up on a polo field in the desert. As for cleanliness and comfort, no one respects Mother Nature and her children like the hippies -- Mosiman claims that last year, campers asked organizers for extra trash and recycling bags.

He has even added a secluded family camping area with concerts and activities to distract the kids while their parents get stoned and boogie to Hasidic reggae upstart Matisyahu (who will be keeping the Sabbath in his tent from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).

Speaking of nonmainstream lifestyles, Wakarusa's biggest draws are still the jam bands, including headliner String Cheese Incident, which is scheduled to play a total of four stringy, cheesy hours. Add to that the shirtless groove stylings of Umphrey's McGee, Ozomatli, Shanti Groove and Green Lemon -- to name a few -- plus all the bluegrass bands that represent a terrifying new phase of the jam phenomenon, and we're looking at a 150-megaton noodlin' bomb.

But purely as a music festival, Wakarusa is for real now. Tens of thousands are coming this year, and even more will come in 2006. They'll come for the music, the fellowship and the reasonably priced Colorado ales that sponsor the shindig, and they'll drive in from Maine and California, regardless of whether the most intimidating clerk at their hometown independent record store gives the Wak her stamp of approval or a scornful snort.

"We feel like we've really connected to the fans," Mosiman says. "Probably within a week of last year, we had 1,200 comments on our online service about what their [attendees'] experience was, what they'd like to see next year. We read every single e-mail. The fans sense it. They feel it's their festival."

But is it Kansas City's festival?

"One of my disappointments is that we have sold probably less than 20 percent of our tickets in Lawrence and Kansas City and 80 percent of our tickets outside our radius," he says. "We really want the KC and Topeka market to find out what everybody else across the country realizes -- that this is a stellar event."

Mosiman thinks that one reason for the low local turnout may be that most people view camping festivals as vacations -- and who wants to go on holiday in his own backyard? To counteract this effect, Wakarusa offers $50 day passes and $75 Saturday-and-Sunday-only tickets.

Nothing would get the locals out as well as a truly diverse bill. But the day-pass (read: local) crowd will no doubt improve as Mosiman continues to diversify the lineup. He says he'll probably never book aggressive heavy-metal bands, but he plans to net more reggae (not so good), hip-hop (better) and alternative (best) acts.

Granted, $50 might be too much for folks who just want to see a media darling band like Wilco (which hasn't played the area in four years, according to Mosiman), but the money they'll save on parking and beer -- on top of the priceless opportunities to people-watch -- certainly makes the deal a bit more tempting.

And if you're looking to start up a mandolin jam session at 3 a.m. Sunday, don't come to my tent.

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