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Wakarusa music festival in the Ozarks is for the adventurous and well-prepared

Umphrey’s McGee, with Brendan Bayliss, is among the musical acts to perform at the Wakarusa festival near Ozark, Ark. It runs Thursday through Sunday.
Umphrey’s McGee, with Brendan Bayliss, is among the musical acts to perform at the Wakarusa festival near Ozark, Ark. It runs Thursday through Sunday. deulitt@kcstar.com

If you like big, outdoor music festivals, head to Wakarusa.

Since moving from near Lawrence to Ozark, Ark., in 2009, “Waka” has become one of the country’s best-loved festivals. Staged on a remote mountaintop about five hours south of Kansas City, the annual fete is famous for its picturesque setting, mellow vibe and unusually eclectic lineup.

Waka is also one of the last big independently owned festivals. Industry giants Live Nation and AEG Live now run most of the country’s major festivals, including Bonnaroo, Hangout, Coachella and Lollapalooza. Those mega-fests accordingly share an increasing corporate sameness, from artist lineups to food concessions. Waka, though, is still staged by locally based Pipeline Productions and has a much homier feel.

If you do make the trek to this year’s fest, which runs Thursday through Sunday, here’s what to keep in mind.

First, check the roads before leaving. A stretch of Arkansas 23 north of the festival site was recently closed by a landslide, meaning concert-goers must approach from the south. That could mean a longer drive and delays getting in.

Once you get there, have a schedule. People will tell you that the true joy of a music festival is wandering around aimlessly and discovering little-known acts on smaller stages. Those people are wrong. There’s a reason that certain bands are chosen to play the main stage. A few headliners you won’t want to miss include the Roots, Ben Harper, Young the Giant, Moon Taxi and Portugal The Man.

Then again you could go genre specific. Waka’s lineup lacks a true superstar headliner, but it makes up for it with more than 150 acts on six stages. You could spend the entire weekend gorging on a single genre.

If you like hip-hop, for instance, you can catch Chance the Rapper, ProbCause, Chali 2na and Dilated Peoples. If you like reggae, see Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution, Dirty Heads, Matisyahu, Roots of Rebellion and Stick Figure. If you are into the Grateful Dead, you can see tribute shows from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Forgotten Space and Play Dead, with the latter also holding a “Grateful Gospel” jam on Sunday morning.

If you hate jam bands, check out Umphrey’s McGee. Then catch the techno-bossa nova of Thievery Corporation, the trendy synth pop of Glass Animals, and MarchFourth!, the festival stalwarts who sound like John Philip Sousa on acid.

Music festivals also are not only about music. Waka will have a ton of art installations to explore, along with live painting and classes on such festival faves as fire performance and hula hoop. There’s also a pretty hiking trail that leads to a waterfall and some top-notch river swimming.

You should also set aside time to, like, sleep. And, though festivals mean camping, you don’t have to rough it. For a mere $14,995, you can rent the WakStar. A luxury tour bus that sleeps eight, WakStar comes with a private bathroom, leather couches and fully stocked refrigerator. It’s called “glamping,” short for glamorous camping, and it’s all the rage at festivals.

There’s an option for less wealthy glampers, too. For a few hundred bucks Waka will set up a big tent for you, allowing you to sleep on a real bed with sheets all weekend.

Fancy digs, however, will not protect you from bug bites and sunburn. Bring insect repellent and sunscreen. Baby wipes are another must, as showers can be hard to come by. Bring a flashlight, too, preferably a head lamp. The glow from your cellphone will be woefully inadequate when you drunkenly stumble though an open field at 3 a.m. looking for lost car keys.

Average June temperatures in Arkansas range from the mid-80s during the day to mid-60s at night. Ignore that, and prepare for weather from arctic to tropical. Also, no matter what the forecast says, pack for rain. Nobody has ever regretted having a poncho and an extra pair of clean, dry socks.

Bring ear plugs, too, not only for those nights when you find yourself six feet from a 50,000-watt amp but to help you sleep it off the next morning. Carry a big supply, because they will fall to the ground.

Grab a sleep mask, both to avoid being awakened at sunrise and to facilitate those badly needed midday naps. It’s absolutely baffling that so many otherwise well-equipped, experienced festival-goers consistently forgo such an inexpensive, lightweight and utterly vital little tool.

Finally, you must bring duct tape — for no specific reason. Bring a big roll, and you’ll find that uses for this near-miraculous substance will magically present themselves throughout the weekend.

Once you pack, relax. You are bound to forget something, and that’s OK. As long as you have your ticket and a good attitude, you’re sure to have a blast on the mountain.

Seriously though, trust us on the duct tape.

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