This cover from last weekend’s Highberry Festival of Blind Melon’s “No Rain” by Saturday evening headliner Yonder Mountain String Band could not have been a more appropriate tune for not only the festivalgoers, but also for the 680-acre mountaintop ranch where it was held, Mulberry Mountain Lodge north of Ozark on the Pig Trail/Highway 23.
Why? Because Mother Nature seems to strongly dislike Mulberry Mountain. Or maybe it’s the festivalgoers – those who come to “live for live music” and camp with their friends and families at what feels like the peak of the Ozarks’ magnificence – whom she actually disdains.
Either way, Mother Nature’s disfavor has certainly demanded some attention over the last several years, as the music fans who’ve converged there several times a year for the near-decade have repeatedly been rained out. We’ve seen storms upon storms, some with lightning displays and fog the likes of which you can’t imagine; tropical-storm-force rain and winds that sent tents and canopies flying across the tops of other tents and vehicles; tornado watches and, some years, tornado warnings – with at least one touchdown nearby – and, yes, even a hurricane. (It was Ike; it rained and rained and rained that weekend, and then on Saturday evening, the finale of the fall Harvest Festival, the storm’s high, persistent winds arrived, blew campers over and felled trees, with, ultimately, the enormous concert tent eventually being lifted off its foundation, just as the storm caused the final performance to be cut short).
Yes, over the years, Mother Nature has made sure to flex her muscles anytime she had a captive audience on Mulberry Mountain, and over the years – especially since the “Awakalypse of 2013” – the weather there has, as you might imagine, developed a reputation for disrupting festival after festival. And, alas, amid financial difficulties in recent years by previous festival organizers there, Pipeline Productions, both of Mulberry Mountain’s main annual events – Wakarusa and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival – were canceled over the past year. Other recent festivals and concerts scheduled to take place there also have been been canceled or short-lived.
So this year, in the absence of Wakarusa, which was held every June for the last seven years at Mulberry Mountain, a much smaller festival typically held nearby called Highberry decided to roll the dice and expand its operations, moving from its former home at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the Mulberry River at the bottom of Mulberry Mountain to the gorgeous property at the top of the crest. It wasn’t just weather they were gambling with, though; it was to immediately be, no doubt, a much larger financial, booking and staffing operation to manage for organizer Jon Walker of Deadhead Productions, based in Eureka Springs.
In years past, Wakarusa has brought more than 20,000 people to Mulberry Mountain, and the Main Stage field was so full of tents they reached the entrance at the top of the hill and spread into other areas of the property across the highway.
Lots of Mulberry Mountain regulars – campers and music fans from around the state and region who have loved that sacred spot for years – have lamented online and off how large the crowds there have grown. Mostly, we’ve lamented that the music didn’t always stay true to the festival’s roots – to our roots, to the region’s and/or the festivals’ own musical heritage. Instead of focusing on jam band music and bluegrass/Americana, as Wakarusa and YMSB Harvest Festival originally did, Waka in particular became a young person’s four-day EDM rave, and less a good place to take your music-loving family.
Highberry promised to take Mulberry Mountain back to its origins: jam band festival styles of music (read = most any good music you’ll never hear on commercial radio) – organized by a group dubbed Deadhead Productions. Highberry organizers also promised to keep it family friendly, expand it to include a bigger emphasis on healthy, sustainable lifestyles and activities (i.e. yoga), include more children’s activities, and include more exhibits and installations around the festival created by more local artists. Lastly, they vowed to keep the festival small, avoiding growing too quickly, and in doing so, also avoiding many of the problems that come with larger fests. That alone impressed me enough to attend this recent Highberry.
I was also, however, keeping a close eye on the weather forecast – just like every other Mulberry Mountain veteran and Highberry fan, I imagine. The forecast literally went from storms all day every day for the entire Fourth weekend (this forecast posted about a week prior) to sunshine every day and no rain at all (this forecast posted a few days prior and even up through Thursday afternoon), to actually developing into a mix of all of it – from purely sunny days to partly-cloudy-scattered-storm days to pounding-rain-for-hours-and-
Now, am I glad I went? You betcha. Despite the rain, and the mud I got all over and inside my (borrowed) brand new tent, it was a great weekend. I could have stayed another day or two had the weather and my aging, aching back allowed. Many of the nearly 4,000 attendees have made similar comments on the festival’s Facebook page in the last few days since leaving the mountain.
The music, for one thing, was solid: always entertaining and consistently top-quality in both showmanship and musicianship. The lineup was diverse, with nearly all the scheduled acts – including over a dozen well-known national festival headliners and jamband-world playmakers – performing on the Main Stage. So the walking area was much, much smaller than a larger festival would be, and therefore the walking to and from the concerts was much less tiresome. (And, might I add, it was a lot easier for genre-divided couples and friend-groups to decide which act to see, when there’s only one to choose from.) Headliners included the aforementioned Yonder Mountain String Band, The Jeff Austin Band, Keller Williams, Papadosio, TAUK, Wookiefoot, Cornmeal, That 1 Guy and Kung Fu, among others.
The sets from the weekend that got the best reviews from friends and online fans alike were, without a doubt, Buckethead on Thursday night, Papadosio late Friday evening, Cornmeal on Saturday afternoon, Yonder and TAUK on Saturday night, and Jeff Austin Band, Keller Williams and Forgotten Space Sunday (the latter playing under the tent in a raging rainstorm until 4:30 a.m. to an enthusiastic if smaller audience).
The spirit of togetherness was evident everywhere. I was hardly there ten minutes before relative strangers camping next to me had put my tent up and driven in the stakes for me. Likewise, I saw folks helping out strangers everywhere I looked, from putting up tents and the like, to folks providing free bottles of water and offers of shade to others who looked like they’d drank and danced a little too hard in the hot sun. In fact, the festival’s staff reported afterward that they hardly had much clean-up to do, because Highberry patrons blew other Mulberry Mountain festivalgoers away when it came to how well they picked up after themselves.
The biggest proof of this different kind of atmosphere may have been how organizers reacted to incoming storms on Sunday. They did not merely cancel performances when bad storms were about to roll in; other festivals held there were terrible about canceling shows with no warning or announcement to anyone, whenever bad weather was coming, then backing up without notice as well, leaving many acts performing to absolutely no one because everyone, hiding from the storms at their campsites, thought the shows were still called off. Instead, Highberry staff decided at the last minute to move Keller Williams’ set to the large tent housing the “Imagination Station” kids’ and activities area. With zero stage, electricity, sound system or anything set up, a team of volunteers – some on the festival event staff and many not – jumped in to swiftly create a stage area with fabulous sound so the show could go on despite the threat of dangerous weather. And even though the rain held off throughout Keller’s set, he brought the thunder and lightning with him, musically speaking. The packed house clearly appreciated the efforts of the staff and the star alike.
A similar thing occurred when Dirtfoot’s storied Saturday morning Chompdown performance needed a sound system set up in the middle of nowhere, quickly, after an overnight rainfall had ended. A team of folks quietly and quickly made it happen, with electrical hookups and adapters and whatnot all appearing as needed out of nowhere, seemingly. And everyone “chomped down” on potluck breakfast in the woods, to the backdrop of a short but lively Dirtfoot performance, whose main stage performance included a photobomb from a dinosaur:
These were the moments – some musical, some just magical – that made up Highberry 2016. The cameraderie between strangers and old friends, the staff’s organization and teamwork, the high level of talent on stage at all times – all coming together in between Mother Nature’s fits to throw a helluva Fourth of July festival party on Mulberry Mountain. It was, indeed, a resounding success.