The hippies are coming 

One the Midwest’s biggest music and camping festivals heads south.

click to enlarge HEADLINING WAKARUSA: The Black Crowes.
  • HEADLINING WAKARUSA: The Black Crowes.

It's not the second coming of Woodstock. It's not Bonaroo. But in the first weekend of June, the largest group of people to convene for a multi-day festival in Arkansas, at least in recent memory, will scale Mulberry Mountain outside of Ozark for the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 are expected to catch around 75 bands over four days, June 4-7. Some you've probably heard of — the Black Crowes, Gov't Mule, G. Love and the Special Sauce. And some probably not so much — STS9, Matisyahu, Yonder Mountain String Band — but who enjoy fervent followings.

Most any genre you could imagine is represented in the line-up, but amidst the diversity emerge common bonds. Like a reliance on long, improvised instrumentals. Like a lyrical focus on spirituality or ecology. Like evocative names — Perpetual Groove, Digable Planets, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad.

Maybe you guessed: It's hippie music. You know, the crowd who lives for jam bands — pot, patchouli, dreadlocks, hemp necklaces, a large variety of sport sandals.

Promoter Brett Mosiman brings the festival to Mulberry Mountain after five years in the Clinton Lake State Park just outside of Lawrence, Kan. (“Wakarusa” is a Native American word meaning “ass deep.” It's also the name of the river that created the park's lake.) After last year's event, Mosiman accused the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks of bigotry. He claimed Wakarusa endured far greater costs, restrictions and scrutiny than the Country Stampede, a larger country music festival held in nearby Manhattan in another state park.

“You can say cowboys are cool and hippies drool, but not if you're behind the state seal of Kansas,” he told KTKA 49, channeling Jesse Jackson. “It is profiling, it is discrimination, it is like saying the black kids can't use the pool.”

Today, Mosiman is more even-toned. All he'll say is that he had issues with the state park, and he's leaving Kansas for “greener pastures.”

That's probably a good way to describe Mulberry Mountain. The privately owned 650-acre resort sits amidst the rolling Ozark Mountains 16 miles off  I-40. On the mountaintop are large campgrounds, cabins, a lodge, a convention center and a permanent stage that opens to a 400-acre amphitheater. Trails lead to creeks and waterfalls and the Ozark Mountain Highlands Trail. Four “mini-lakes” are stocked with fish. A disc golf course is soon to be added, said Dewey Patton, whose family purchased the mountain resort four years ago.

Festival organizers also plan to bring a giant Ferris wheel and offer hot air balloon rides.

Despite appearances, Mosiman says that the festival's demographic is broad. “We thought we'd be dealing mostly with 20- to 25-year-old college students. But in reality we get a lot of families, a lot of empty nesters and some kids. It's a cool cross section.”

In years past, people from all 50 states and several foreign countries have attended. Mosiman says ticket sales so far have been good. “One of the unexpected byproducts of our move is Arkansas has been extremely welcoming and hospitable. They love our line-up. Sales are ahead of last year even with the economy.”

The city of Ozark, just a few miles south of the resort, which is on the Pig Trail, Highway 23, hopes to see a boost from the festival. “We are thrilled. We are over the rainbow about Wakarusa,” says Susan McIlroy-Stokes, director of the Ozark area Chamber of Commerce. “It will be great for the area. A lot of people know about wine country. But this will bring a whole new group of folks to the area. Anything that comes from this will be good.”

For the unconvinced, Mosiman has his pitch pretty much down pat. “It's a four-day dream vacation. With four stages in a spectacular setting. For the price of a bad hotel room in Chicago or Atlanta, you get a whole week vacation with world-class entertainment from early in the morning to early in the morning.”

For people who aren't keen on four days of nearly nonstop music or have jobs or families and can't get away, Mosiman will soon offer weekend and single tickets. At press time, only full event and Saturday passes were available. Full event tickets are $119 until March 27 or until that allotment sells out; then the price increases. Various camping options, from $29 to $79 are available. To avoid service charges and online fees, Mosiman directs local customers to regional box offices at Sticky Fingerz and George's in Fayetteville. Or you can go to www.wakarusa.com.

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