Critics pick can’t-miss Wakarusa acts

It’s easy to feel a little lost in the ocean of people, bands and hysteria that populates Wakarusa. If you’re worried about swimming with the musical minnows, here are a few of today’s big fish to stick by:

John Brown’s Body: Though this scorching band is not from Lawrence, it musters all of the fire, passion and wild-eyed enthusiasm as its local heretic namesake did. Hailed as the “best American reggae act,” JBB has been given its own signature style called “future roots.” The eight-member group rocks a heavy groove that is as irresistible as abolition. Sharing ground with style elements of Steel Pulse, The Clash and Massive Attack, John Brown’s Body could easily convert the festivarian crowds to its cause, but its peace and love message won’t likely incite any raids on Missouri.

¢ 11:30 a.m. today, Campground stage; 6:25 p.m., Friday, Revival tent

The Gourds: Austin’s Gourds are a good-time alt-country band with a boatload of goofy covers and some even better originals. The group’s fluke-hit cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” was both a blessing and curse for a veteran band, whose talents reach far deeper than ironic covers of mainstream rap songs. What it did prove, however, is that The Gourds will go to extremes to entertain their audiences – an attribute that presumably scored them a slot at this year’s festival.

¢ 2 p.m. today, Sun Down stage; 1 p.m., Saturday, Campground stage

Son Volt: Gravel-voiced singer/songwriter Jay Farrar recently reassembled his hard-rocking Son Volt outfit after a four-year hiatus (during which he recorded two excellent solo records). The former Uncle Tupelo frontman combines the narrative storytelling of Woody Guthrie with heavy doses of electric and steel guitar to create a singular sound within the nebulous rock landscape. Regarded as a father of the “alt-county” genre in many respects, Farrar is also one of its most consistently interesting innovators.

¢ 3:10 p.m. today, Sun Down stage

Calexico: The pride of Tucson, Ariz., is the ever-eclectic Calexico. Is it a rock band? A mariachi band? An Ennio Morricone tribute band? Actually, the answer is all of the above. Songwriter Joey Burns and drummer/percussionist John Convertino form the core of a group that also includes horns, accordion, pedal steel and your typical rock band stuff. The well-oiled unit is more than capable of bringing the rock, but don’t be surprised if they unhinge the swanky Latin beats for the festival stage.

¢ 4 p.m. today, Sun Up stage; 10:05 p.m., Friday, Revival tent

Railroad Earth: Easily mistaken for a bluegrass outfit on account of frequent appearances at events like The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Railroad Earth is actually an acoustic rock band that incorporates mandolin, banjo and violin. Singer/songwriter Todd Sheaffer has an easygoing tenor that could give Don Henley fits, with songs that could hang with Cat Stevens’ and/or James Taylor’s finest. If an overdose of jam leaves you wanting for songcraft, check out Railroad Earth and find your way.

¢ 8:05 p.m. today, Revival tent

Ozomatli: Globalization may have hurt the working class, but it’s been good to Ozomatli. The L.A.-based ensemble is best known as a Latin rock/hip-hop hybrid, but the band’s distaste for conventions is illustrated by its long list of collaborators, which includes Cut Chemist, salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, gypsy violinist Les Yeux Noir and even The Prague Symphony. The group’s live show bounces from Latin rock to hip-hop to funk – always a block party of the highest order.

¢ 9 p.m. today, Sun Up stage; 2:15 a.m., Saturday morning, Revival tent

The String Cheese Incident: – Those on a String Cheese diet can indulge in either of two performances this weekend, where the Incident will be delighting fans with its versatile sound. The 5-piece band is called rock, but has a definite “jammy” feel. String Cheese is versatile, however, due to a surplus of technical facility and a sensitive good taste; the act rocks just as hard when playing acoustic as when plugged in. Featuring a violin, piano, accordion and mandolin in addition to the usual array, the band rarely fails to please with its signature grooving sound.

¢ 10 p.m. today, Sun Down stage; 12 a.m., Sunday morning, Revival tent