Nick Tolford and Company (Jodi Miller photo)
As a Columbus resident, the first thing you notice at Nelsonville Fest is how many people you know. Robbins Crossing and the nearby campground are peppered with faces from Columbus, so much so that one music scene veteran mentioned she was seeing as many friends here as she does at ComFest.
The ComFest vibe was only amplified with acts like Mount Carmel and Nick Tolford and Company tearing it up alongside Athens bands (Whale Zombie, Duke Jr. and the Smokey Boots), idiosyncratic touring acts (Bomba Estereo, Justin Townes Earle) and geriatric living legends (George Jones). And though the main stage is as large and imposing as you'd expect from a big music festival, the secondary Porch Stage (literally the back porch of an old log cabin) and auxiliary No-Fi Cabin (a tiny room with no amplification) lent the performances an accessibility you won't find at any comparable event.
This first day of festivities was bountiful. A few highlights:
•The best bands were the Columbus bands. I may be biased, but I think the enthusiastic Porch Stage crowd would agree with me that Tolford and Mount Carmel stole the show Friday. Both were certainly more vibrant than ancient country icon George Jones, who was doing his best impression of a museum exhibit on the main stage during their sets. I once described retro fetishists Mount Carmel in similar terms, but their power trio blues rock felt far more electric than I remembered, forcing me to elevate my opinion. My biggest complaint was always that I felt like they were on autopilot, but last night's set kicked into overdrive at the start and never slowed down. The drumming in particular hit me like a million rocks careening down a mountainside, but the musicianship was spectacular across the board, something I can appreciate a lot more with that much energy pulsing through it. They even had long-haired preteens stage-diving. An hour before, Tolford and his talented cohorts effectively spread their rock 'n' soul gospel to loads of new converts. I noted that they might be the best band at this festival, something a Yo La Tengo fan doesn't say lightly. Tolford and Mount Carmel both return to the Porch Stage today; I suspect the masses will flock for a second helping.
Rocking out to Whale Zombie with conviction (Jodi Miller photo)
•I was also mighty impressed with the Athens bands I saw. Whale Zombie was a tornado of noise and melody with a little John Zorn sax tossed in for good measure. Their sonic bombardment was a fine antidote to the folk saturation that permeates this fest. Not that all the rootsy stuff was bad; fellow Athenians Duke Jr. and the Smokey Boots delivered twang without pretense, further proving that retro can be revelatory when you write some killer songs, arrange them beautifully and don't just sleepwalk through your show.
•I don't care for Justin Townes Earle's "bashful Southern boy in the big city" shtick, but he's a skilled songwriter and an expert performer. Would have liked to have seen him with a full band instead of one sidekick guitarist whose orgasmic facial expressions were more noticeable than his hot licks.
Octopus & Owl in the No-Fi Cabin (Jodi Miller photo)
•The No-Fi Cabin approximates a house show so effectively that I almost forgot there was a 5,000-person festival outside. I was only mildly stimulated by the Joanna Newsom-esque warblings of locals Octopus & Owl, but their set got a big boost just because the up-close-and-personal intimacy of a claustrophobic cabin lit by Christmas lights. Wish I would have caught the cabin sets by Athens experimenters Weedghost and buzzed-about garage rockers Drakkar Sauna. Definitely swinging by there again today.
•Bomba Estereo was a genius choice to close out the night. Their hybrid of dance, punk, hip-hop and Latin music was tailored for dancing in the dark. And as Robbins Crossing got its first precipitation dousing, the main stage grass turned into a rainy, sweaty nature disco.