Laid-back night set tone at Nelsonville festival


What’s your best rock ’n’ roll day?

Mine was July 19, 2014, at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky.

That’s when i saw back-to-back-to-back-to-back, on the same stage, Brett Dennen, Jenny Lewis, the Replacements and Jack White. I was vaguely aware of the first two acts but had no idea how cool they were until I saw them live. The Replacements had been a bucket list item for me, and Jack White was in full rock god mode.

But rivaling that day is the foursome I saw one week ago today on the main stage at the Nelsonville Music Festival in southeast Ohio.

The four bands, in order, were Valley Queen, Big Thief, Parquet Courts and Conor Oberst. It was the first time I had seen any of them perform, and I had never even heard of California-based Valley Queen.

What made it even rarer was that this was a Thursday. Most festivals are three days and don’t even start until Friday. For the ones that go four days, Thursday always has the lowest attendance. It’s pretty much a shakedown day with a laid-back spirit. It’s not supposed to be the best day.

Nestled in the remote river town of Nelsonville and surrounded by lush Appalachian hills (but just 10 minutes from glorious Athens), everything about NMF is laid back, although the fest has a reputation for great acts.

Each day’s eclectic lineup didn’t always suit my fancy; for example, there is only so much goofiness I could take from Friday headliner They Might Be Giants.

But opening day was epic.

Valley Queen was the surprise that started the spree. The melodic indie act is led by frontwoman Natalie Carol, who has a voice like Frances Quinlan of Hopalong, but a little less deranged.

NPR darlings Big Thief followed with an intense and faithful re-creation of songs from its “Masterpiece” album, plus some new ones.

It doesn’t get more indie-rock than New York’s Parquet Courts, who delivered a blistering set with a sarcastic flair.

I cast a wide net when it comes to rock, but sometimes a great one like Conor Oberst slips through. Accompanied by the Felice Brothers, the act played as a grand unit, like a folky rock orchestra in which everyone’s part is integral.

With a penchant for lyricism that would make Red Wanting Blue fans ecstatic, and his famously trembling voice, Oberst got emotional and even political. It was powerful alright.

Nelsonville Music Festival brought other highlights and discoveries. Jenny Lewis, as always, was totally in command and flanked by the stunning Watson Twins on backup vocals.

Saturday headliner Ween was wild and weird. Akron-based soul man Wesley Bright and the Honey Tones had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, while Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings inspired a mosh pit.

I will also stay on the lookout for more from Brazil’s the Boogarins (the name is pronounced boo-GAR-ins, which is a South American flower, but apparently nobody told them how Americans are likely to say it), the Doors-ish Mr. Elevator, fiddler Sara Watkins, and percussion maniacs Brenda.

Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator.

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