Most people pick a rock festival on the basis of its headliners.
But for the Nelsonville Music Festival, the bands you’ve never heard of are reason enough to buy a ticket.
The rock fest in little old Nelsonville, just up the road from Athens, has established itself as the place to go to discover new bands.
The 15th iteration of NMF, which took place last weekend, was no exception.
Sure, the headliners are great and always on point for the indie and punk gathering that also has a soft spot for Americana. Rising country star Tyler Childers was Thursday’s prime attraction, the Breeders and The Oh Sees raged Friday, Death Cab for Cutie tugged at everyone’s heartstrings Saturday and the great Mavis Staples brought NMF to a close as Sunday’s featured act.
But a quartet of little-known but ferocious girl bands are what scorched a mark on my memory: The Coathangers, Bully, Death Valley Girls and The Nots.
Tim Peacock, who founded NMF in 2005, has been in charge of booking its bands since day one.
As the arbiter of the NMF sound, Peacock said booking incredible but under-the-radar acts is part of the grand design.
“I suppose this is somewhat intentional,” he said, “but mostly I just book artists that are current as well as artists that may have more of a legacy. I find that having a balance of these things appeals to my musical tastes and I am grateful that our attendees feel the same.”
Another aspect that sets NMF apart is that attendees often get two chances to see a band. This helps make schedule conflicts – when two bands you want to see are playing the same time slot but on different stages – a non-issue.
In some cases, it’s also a chance to see a band deconstruct its music. Some NMF acts complement their main performance with an additional acoustic set in the afternoon on one of the tiny stages at the edge of the grounds.
Nelsonville has been doing this for a while, but stepped it up this year, booking fewer bands but getting more to play two sets.
“I think it’s good for the artists, giving them more opportunity to connect with a new audience,” said Peacock, “and it’s also good for the audience, allowing more opportunities to discover someone new.”
Peacock said his goal is to create a lineup that is genre and gender diverse but with a thread of cohesiveness. He does it by poring over the 3,000 to 4,000 submissions he receives each year.
NMF definitely has musical cohesiveness, although Peacock modestly downplayed his role.
“There is so much great music out there, so it’s not that difficult to find 50 bands on one festival that are all really, really good,” he said. “Or is it?”
Well, maybe I’m biased because NMF’s musical tastes are in sync with my own. But yes, Tim, it’s kind of difficult. It’s no mean feat to give a festival such a well-defined and uniformly exquisite flavor, year after year.
Nelsonville is a four-day festival – a rarity for one so small. Thursday is always the slowest night at a four-day fest, but NMF tries extra hard to make it worth attending.
Thursdays, in fact, are usually my favorite night.
This year, country artist Tyler Childers and his band were an impressive draw that gave opening night a larger-than-usual attendance.
Childers was also a great example of how tomorrow’s stars can be discovered today at NMF: The Kentuckian played the festival’s free stage two years ago, before anyone had even heard of him.
Nelsonville Music Fest, by the way, typically draws 5,000 to 7,000 people Friday and Saturday, and slightly less Thursday and Sunday.
SPEAKING OF FESTIVALS
Pittsburgh’s smallish Thrival Music Festival will take place Sept. 20 at Schenley Plaza in the city’s Oakland section. Admission is free this year. Thrival announced its first round of bands Wednesday, and they include Buku, Beauty Slap and Title Town.
More acts will be announced in coming weeks.
Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator.