When Wakarusa announced it would not be returning to its magical setting nestled in the Arkansas Ozarks, attendees were filled with as many questions as they were with shock and dismay. Why would a landmark festival gathering be coming to an abrupt halt during its prime? Was the production company behind Wakarusa facing legal and financial troubles? Would there ever be another chance to return Mulberry Mountain?
That was 2015, and as answers have since become woefully clear, there remained a glimmer of hope for Wakarusa attendees. Thankfully for them, a humble grassroots festival out of Stroud, Oklahoma made the key business decision to pick up the reins. After two years of steadily growing attendance, and building a Midwest festival following akin to the Wakarusa crowd, the folks at Backwoods Music Festival took a year off to regroup, reorganize, and prepare for their debut at Mulberry Mountain — a lush landscape filled with scenic 360-degree views of sprawling Southern mountains, waterfall trails around every bend, and rich spirits.
With headliners STS9, GRiZ, and The Floozies gracing the 2018 bill, Backwoods was rich with the authentic energy of Wakarusa in its early infancy. Interesting enough, attendees even went as far as to fondly dub the festival “Backarusa” and “Wakawoods” throughout the weekend. The festival subsumed a relaxed, familial vibe that welcomed Backwoods and Wakarusa veterans alike — as well as many newcomers — into a melting pot of live interactive art installations, roaming performers, and one-of-a-kind stage designs.
Fresh off last weekend’s conclusion, we’ve compiled a few reasons why Backwoods should be on your festival bucket list.
1. The stages
After making the shift from a Labor Day festival to a spring time event, Backwoods selected April 20th-23rd for their coveted weekend slot; and with April showers come May flowers. Despite pouring rain conditions halfway through the weekend, the stages held up supremely well during this rain or shine event.
The festival’s main stage, dubbed The Motherland, was a tree house of fun and flow arts as performers moved across four different platforms perched atop the stage’s front end. GRiZ delivered a polarizing Friday night performance; Sound Tribe Sector 9 went for an extended 2-hour set in the rain, playing much of their Universe Inside album; and, perhaps most notably, was the closing Sunday night performance from The Floozies duo, who got their very start on Mulberry Mountain. In addition to the headliners, the Motherland stage served as a “Who’s Who” of heavy bass and jamtronica, boasting stand-out sets from Papadosio, Figure, Snails, Space Jesus, Emancipator, Sunsquabi, and a special farewell set from Zoogma.
Perhaps Backwoods’ most intriguing stage was the Globe Theater, which hosted a uniquely curated list of folk, bluegrass, rock, and electronica acts. Adorned with charming, Shakespearean-inspired woodwork, the stage was hand-crafted by a DIY troop of artists and builders belonging to The Imagination Nation. Upon entry, performers acted as gatekeepers into the humble abode, asking each attendee to solve a short riddle. Those who solved the puzzle were then invited backstage to co-mingle in a secret speakeasy, complete with a bevy of prohibition era characters and a flapper bartender serving complimentary Old Fashioned cocktails. From this point, a back trail opened up into the woods leading to the Space Station, which hosted the Untz traveling bass stage.
The Space Station sat at the foot of a steep, grassy hill to host the festival’s most underground and experimental bass music acts. Erected as a psychedelic pyramid lined by subwoofers along its base, artists like Yheti and Jade Cicada could be seen demolishing the decks from inside the structure’s peak point. ThazDope Records also hosted late night sets — with a roster of impressive free form bass music artists in APLSOZ, beardthug, Brainrack, Cut Rugs, and more — as attendees lined the hill in their tree hung hammocks enjoying sets until the wee sunrise hours.
2. The vendors and live art installations
The DIY ethos was alive and thriving at Backwoods 2018. Upon roaming through the shady forest camp grounds, attendees could stumble upon a psychedelic playground with live interactive art experiences, live painters and graffiti artists, and tents filled with canvases for sale.
This space also housed the many consciousness-raising activities and sacred healing workshops throughout the weekend, including several forms of yoga, aerial and flow arts, sound therapy, and guided meditations. Take a short walk over the vendor row, where famous smells from the Grilled Cheese Incident (a Forest favorite) consumed the senses, as attendees shopped at all the popular festival apparel companies.
3. The grounds
As any Mulberry veteran would tell you, the weather conditions on the mountain are not for the faint of heart. Past Wakarusa events included tornado warning conditions and mud up to the ankles and shins. While Backwoods enjoyed two full days of sunshine, with torrential downpour beginning late Saturday evening, it became quickly apparent that roughing the cold wilderness conditions was apart of the late night fun. Attendees pulled out the ponchos and stomped around in their sponge-soaked footwear without an ounce of care.
For the outdoor gurus, attendees could lace up their hiking boots and take the hour-long trek down the mountain to spend time at multiple waterfall stops. Along the way, it was not uncommon to find selenite clusters hiding in the dirt or quartz pieces floating down the river bed. With such a supremely beautiful landscape, and not nearly enough time to explore every nook and crany of the mountain, attendees could opt in for helicopter tours with aerial views of the festival and scenic detours into the foothills to view the mountain’s many majestic waterfalls.
Upon departure from the festival grounds, taking the 30-minute drive winding down two-lane mountain roads, life begins to slow down and one is filled with the overwhelming sense of hope and gratitude instilled by Mulberry. If not for the expertly-curated line-up of top-notch national, regional, and local acts, Backwoods is one festival you experience for the spirit of the mountain. As the festival grows from it’s infancy, do not be surprised at seeing some colossal headliners in the years to come.
Featured photo: Jamie Seed. Additional photo credits: Sergio Zuniga, Phil Clarkin, Braden James, Aaron Bradley, & Live Edits Lab.