Our Unwavering Love for Backwoods at Mulberry Mountain

Backwoods at Mulberry Mountain closed its gates Monday afternoon after a weekend filled with sunshine, love, relaxation, music, art, dance, and a touch of tragedy. The festival welcomed a plethora of talented musicians, artists, teachers, and performers. Headlining the festival was Rezz, Umphrey’s McGee, Space Jesus, Lettuce and more. The weather was beautiful and the vibes were unlike any festival we’ve attended this year.

While the festival was held at the same venue as the late Wakarusa, Backwoods no longer lives in its shadow. The festival has grown its own following and family of attendees. This year had more stages, more local acts, a huge workshop schedule, great vibes, and never-ending dance parties. Several families attended the festival, and the next generation of festival attendees met new people and got to better understand the festival vibe.

Stages

The stages at Backwoods remained mainly the same as last year, with the addition of the Counter Kulture Stage in the campground and an upgrade of the new Aqua Station Stage in the forest valley. Each stage had its own personality. The Motherland (Main) Stage took on the look of something out of Super Mario with giant inflated crystals on either side of the stage. Performers stood on platforms adjacent to the Motherland and took turns showing off their skills. This year’s performers were often part of troupes and traveling groups and they worked well in teams. Beyond the crowd at the Motherland were live artists who worked on pieces all weekend, selling them as they finished. A giant inflatable can of local beer showcased the bar area and a ping-pong table was even brought out in the beautiful weather.

The Globe Theater had a similar personality as it always has at Backwoods. Fully enclosed and made from found objects, the Globe contained the secret Speakeasy in the back where people could trade for some tasty kombucha or more. A theater seating arrangement of couches at the entrance to the Globe allowed for a comfortable spot to chill in the shade while watching new music (although, we did hear that the white couch to the left smelled a bit like feet.)

The Aqua Station was the place for flow arts and wobbles as several DJs took to the uniquely decorated stage to show off their favorite bass tunes. The Station was at the bottom of a hill and in the forest. Many brought seating and hammocks and watched their friends dance and flow.

The Counter Kulture stage resembled a pirate ship and also showcased a plethora of local and national DJs. The stage was located in the campground and brought many to the open field for some sun. Each stage was never overcrowded and all had room to dance.

Workshops & Art

The extensive workshop schedule at Backwoods allowed for an entire lineup of learning and health. From 8 AM to 8 PM, yoga, meditation, and informative sessions took over a section of the forest and helped many wake up, wind down, and learn something new. Each instructor understood the variety of their students’ abilities as well as their environment. Students were able to come and go as they pleased, as with any stage at a festival. However, most were content with staying an entire class for the full experience. Those who observed from the background usually took a spot in the next session as each instructor was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Backwoods provided a unique experience in adding this extensive of a workshop lineup and we very much enjoyed it.

The art installations at Backwoods were abundant, interactive, and helped create an environment. The Complimentary Bar allowed attendees to step behind the pine and tell everyone how awesome they are. There were several beautiful places to sit and chat with new and old friends and even a “Frick Frack”/Blackjack table where attendees could bet and trade knickknacks of varying values. A festival would just be a tent city and some stages without art and the art at Backwoods suited Mulberry Mountain very well.

Music

The music at Backwoods was a bit all over the place and we loved it. The festival included several jam bands, “jamtronica,” string and bluegrass bands, and a heavy electronic backdrop that never left the Aqua Station or Counter Kulture stages. The festival’s variety brought a diverse group of people to the festival, all with good intentions and hearts open. The most popular shirt at the festival read “Hug Dealer” which flawlessly described the vibes at Backwoods.

On Friday, the Motherland stage brought the likes of EOTO, Lettuce and Umphrey’s McGee, an hours-long jam session that ran into the next until the late hours of the night. All 3 acts brought their A game and it was great planning to have all 3 of them play on the same night. Saturday brought more variety with local favorites Arkansauce bringing the strings and variety. A hard-hitting set from Rezz closed out the Motherland and was a much-anticipated set of the weekend. Space Jesus played 2 sets with his second one getting weird at the Aqua Station. He played what he wanted and his ultimate fans loved it all.

Smaller unofficial stages brought an open mic vibe for those who simply wanted to play and jam with others. These stages lasted into the morning and brought a unique set of characters such as “Paige” and “Bear” who played a unique song about Satanic chickens that only a handful heard but all enjoyed.

The music on Sunday was cut short, but those who played did an amazing job. The Motherland Stage saw an awesome set from The Infamous Stringdusters before the infamous storm came and the future bass lovers heard a great set from PLS&TY before shutting down for the rest of the festival.

 

The Storm

Sunday brought a severe thunderstorm to Mulberry Mountain, which came very quickly in the evening hours. Following the amazing performance by the Infamous Stringdusters, the production team came to the microphone to inform everyone to head back to their campsites and prepare for the storm. Not 30 seconds later, high winds hit the mountain and a little bit of panic set in as attendees rushed to get their campsites and vendor tents ready for the rain. The storm brought heavy rain, flash flooding, and high winds. Following the storm, the festival opened back up only to shut down again due to tragedy. The famous helicopter (which had given many happy attendees rides throughout the years) had gone down. The music and lights from the stages interfered with the search efforts to find each passenger and the police ordered the festival to shut down until everyone was found.

There was a large amount of misinformation, rumor, and uncertainty, but the attendees of Backwoods remained calm and understanding during the search. A couple of campsite stages such as the Wook Patrol tent held a quiet open mic so that the music could continue into the morning hours. Several people brought their lights, instruments, flow toys, and even fire toys to the party and there was a small sense of home among the confusion and sadness. Some were frustrated that artists such as Zeds Dead and Boogie T never took the stage. Most were understanding that safety was more important.

Festival organizers released an official statement following the tragedy stating:

“Today, our hearts rest with our three team members, friends, and family of ours, who passed yesterday. These three individuals were incredibly hard working and loved by our festival community and wanted to continuously improve the experience for you, as well as others who attended every year. The fourth individual who was involved in the helicopter crash was a beloved Backwoods attendee, and thankfully, we have the report from the local Sherrif, is now stable and on the road to recovery after an intense rescue effort last night. We thank you for understanding that we were unable to run the stages with lights and lasers during the air rescue which ensued late into the night, or sound due to radio interference. Call your loved ones today, and please tell them you love them. ♥️”

After a festival, many are tired, sad, and generally grumpy. They must return to normal life after living in a festival community and that can be very hard. With that being said, there were several angry and spiteful comments spoken about Backwoods. From the production to security and beyond, gripes came flowing in following the tragedy. Fingers were pointed and blame became the natural reaction. However, several people were quick to defend the festival and its organizers. We can never predict what Mother Nature will do or how she will affect an outdoor event such as Backwoods. No one had any intention of putting festival attendees or its staff in danger. We cannot point fingers in a time of tragedy, for it takes away from the lives lost and only creates more tragedy within our inner selves. At this point, we can only grieve and know what we all can do to prevent terrible events in the future.

No matter how negative the comments against Backwoods, the unbreakable love and loyalty for the festival, and Mulberry Mountain, much outweigh the trolls. Many were quick to remind those that the weather was beautiful before the storm. The music was unique and exactly what attendees asked for. The workshops helped many learn, unwind, and heal. The art was interactive and beautiful. The performances were impressive. The vibes were welcoming and positive. The mountain was beautiful, and so were the hearts of so many in attendance. Never have we seen such a welcoming family than at Backwoods. We are eagerly hoping to hear that Backwoods will return for years to come.

 

Ashley Cizek

Went to school at UW-Madison, graduating with a BA in psychology. I hula-hoop, I write, I enjoy sunlight.

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