The juxtaposition of a skinny jeans-wearing bespectacled hipster and a dreadlocked and tie dye-sporting hippie is just about the perfect representation of the first-ever Nateva Festival, held last weekend at the Oxford Fairgrounds. Forty bands in four days, and an average of 10,000 people per day, many of whom camped out on festival grounds, establishing a small city for the Fourth of July weekend.
That mix of indie rock and jam band establishes Nateva as a unique creature in the summer festival circuit, which generally skews almost entirely towards bands on the jammier side of things. While a token alternative or indie band may be thrown into the mix, few other festivals boast such indie rock luminaries as the Flaming Lips and Grizzly Bear.
That harmonious mix of hippie and hipster wasn’t quite realized — for every low-key Grizzly Bear fan there were five rapturous attendees there to see Further, featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. The musical pickings were spectacular. A Thursday preview night showcased Lettuce, Lotus and Maine band Gypsy Tailwind, followed by the first of three jam-packed days. Friday brought everyone from jam band hero Keller Williams, who later performed with Friday headliner moe, to Dover-Foxcroft originating alt-country band the Mallett Brothers.
Maine bands were well represented at the festival — Portland indie rockers Brenda kicked off Saturday’s festivities, followed by Rustic Overtones. The Port City Music Hall Stage, located in a large barn on the fairgrounds, hosted the Bangor-based groove purveyors Mudseason, who brought a special horn section to flesh out their Nateva performance. Let’s hope that future festivals continue to support Maine artists, and give them the chance to rub elbows with big-name bands.
Reports were resoundingly positive for the Friday night performance from moe, who brought the three decades of musical skill and their trademark intense, muscular technicality to their show. Saturday boasted the most indiecentric lineup, including southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers and the uniquely rocking trio the Crash Kings.
She & Him, featuring guitarist and songwriter M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel, played breezy, charming pop, akin to the softer side of Wilco and 1970’s AM Gold. Grizzly Bear’s cerebral yet mesmerizing indie rock seemed to divide the crowd, as it’s slower pace drove away some folks eager to get their groove on (or to eat dinner). Grizzly Bear fans stayed to bask in the dreamy experimental glow.
A wildly funky Saturday night set came from from Sound Tribe Sector 9, who play unbelievably precise live electronic music. Think of them as Steely Dan, if they’d grown up listening to techno and hip-hop instead of jazz and funk. The night ended with a truly mind-blowing performance from the Flaming Lips, who brought countless explosions of confetti, guys in bear suits, fog cannons, strobe lights, laser hands, gongs and a psychedelic video installation to the stage. The music matched it all perfectly, with torrents of distorted guitar matched with sweet, tuneful melodies and an uplifting message of peace, love and harmony. The Flaming Lips bridge the gap between hippie and hipster.
Sunday brought such crowd favorites as Zappa Plays Zappa, featuring Dweezil Zappa playing his father’s music, and George Clinton and P-Funk All Stars, who are as funky as you would undoubtedly expect. Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, two blues stars, performed before Further took the stage for an epic four-hour set. The last time the Grateful Dead played in Maine was at the Oxford Race Track in the 1980s, so it was a bit of a homecoming for Maine-based Dead fans. Fifteen years after the band ended, anything Dead-related still can pull a huge crowd, as evidenced by the number of day passes sold for Sunday.
Special kudos must be given to whoever designed the sound for Nateva. It was very clean and very loud — and yet, standing 15 feet from the main stage speakers, one could still hear their companions speak. The distribution of campers and vendors, all of whom were strewn lazily about the fairgrounds, gave the place a ram-shackle feel. The crowd was mostly well-behaved, and reports from Oxford police said 34 arrests were made over the weekend, mostly drug-related. Little could be done about the steaming hot weather on Saturday and Sunday, obviously, but ample water was provided for festival-goers. Being sweaty was part of the experience.
Crowd control in and out of the main stage area was pretty good, though bottlenecks occurred before and after popular bands were slated to perform and a Friday night traffic jam raised the ire of festival-goers. According to Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, the porta potties were more than acceptable for use.
It’s about time northern New England had a summer festival of this kind. That it’s in Maine is even better, and if its first year is any indication, the Nateva Festival is here to stay.