15,000 expected as fest gets off to colorful start

'Like summer camp for adults'

A young woman directing traffic into Clinton Lake State Park on Thursday afternoon stopped her work suddenly, lifted her T-shirt and exposed her bare chest to the stream of oncoming cars.

Welcome to the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival, a four-day extravaganza of dancing hippies, Frisbee golf, dreadlocks, Grateful Dead paraphernalia and – oh yeah – music.

“It’s like summer camp for adults!” yelled Daniel Boone Daniel, singer for the Deep Fried Pickle Project, one of the first bands to take the stage at midafternoon Thursday.

As many as 15,000 music fans are expected for the event, which will feature up to 90 bands – including Wilco, Big Head Todd and the String Cheese Incident – performing on six stages. That big a crowd hadn’t materialized by midafternoon Thursday, but it seemed likely to develop, as a long line of vehicles packed with camping gear continued to enter the park throughout the day.

“It’s going pretty good,” said Brett Mosiman, one of the festival organizers. “There was a big crowd at 8 this morning. It took awhile to get them in, but we’ve got things flowing pretty well.”

He didn’t have an estimate on how many people had arrived, but said: “The campground people told us the campgrounds were filling up like crazy.”

Traveling community

A walk through the campgrounds revealed license plates from North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Many of the concertgoers were arriving from the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, a similar event last weekend in Tennessee.

“I like to go where people are having fun and listen to some great music,” said Austin Koontz, a bearded 25-year-old from New Mexico who said he was attending his seventh festival since March. “If you’re in one town, you don’t get to jump in the pool of good music. Here you’ve got everybody you want to see, except for the Dead.”

Koontz said he could afford to attend so many festivals because panhandling had been quite lucrative.

“You fly a sign when you go through major cities, and people will help out,” he said. “You go fly a sign on a major corner, you can make $200, $300 in a couple of hours. That’s a whole paycheck for some people.”

If anybody resents that, he said, it’s because they’re chained to their own materialism.

“They don’t have the will power, the determination to say : I don’t need all that,” Koontz said.

Not that capitalism wasn’t prominent at the festival. ATM machines were brought to the campgrounds so concertgoers could get the cash needed to buy the clothes, jewelry, DVDs, art and food from stands set up near the performance stages.

Jayme Glusman, a Floridian, was selling “100% Righteous Juice” and “Seitan Kabobs” at his Vegetarian Oasis food stand. He said the business was partly an opportunity to make money, partly an opportunity to be part of the traveling festival community.

“Vegetarian food doesn’t sell as well as other foods,” he said, “but I like the love.”

Grateful Dead

The shadow of the Grateful Dead – the ’60s-era jam band that continues to inspire cultlike devotion among its fans despite singer Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 – loomed large over Wakarusa. The first band to draw a bursting crowd to its stage was The Schwag, a Dead tribute band. Vendors sold quilts and stained glass emblazoned with the Dead’s skull-and-lightning logo.

“I think it’s so awesome that, since Jerry’s death, the jam band thing has branched out,” said Kelly Etner, a North Carolinian who was selling the stained glass. “Festivals are stronger than ever, and Grateful Dead merchandise is hotter than ever. It’s awesome the energy is still there.”

Energy and, on occasion, illicit substances. A reporter wandering among tents, carrying a notebook and wearing casual business clothes, was asked a couple of times if he was a federal narcotics agent. After a denial was offered, one young man offered up a sweet-smelling pipe.

The marijuana was apparently affecting his athletic skills, because the young man reported he had lost several Frisbees in a stand of trees near his camp site.

“The Frisbee golf is good,” he said, “but don’t lose your (expletive) disk in the forest.”

The festival continues through Sunday.