With Norah Jones, Cat Power, Dr. Dog, Rae Sremmurd and more
Thursday to Saturday, Sept. 22-24, 2016
Denton had a lot of reasons to be excited about last weekend's Oaktopia. Now in its fourth year, the downtown festival has turned into one of the best in North Texas, and this year's lineup proved it. But, through no fault of Oaktopia, it was hard to shake some feelings of anxiety.
That's because there's been so much to worry about for folks in the Denton music scene this summer. Brows have been knit and hands have been wrung for months, so much so that a month ago almost exactly Chris Cotter, an Oaktopia staffer, organized a town hall discussion on the state of the scene.
In fact, tensions were high enough to give birth to a kind of anti-Oaktopia called Broketopia, which was also scheduled — quite pointedly — for this weekend, featuring bands which scorned or were otherwise turned away from Oaktopia.
Looking at Oaktopia’s bill of fare, it’s at least understandable where some of the anxiety came from. After all, Norah Jones, Beirut, Rae Sremmurd, Dr. Dog, Best Coast and Cat Power is a pretty substantial spread of major out-of-town talent (or pretty-much-mostly-out-of-town, in the case of Norah Jones) for a homegrown festival in its fourth year of existence.
Really, though, anyone who feels like Oaktopia is some insidious new corporate monster loping into town probably wasn’t there. As it turns out, Oaktopia wound up hitting a pretty miraculous sweet-spot between big-name acts and that homespun, overgrown-block-party feel.
If anything, the organizers’ ambition far outstripped their means. For one, there were way, way more events than any single human being could possibly hope to attend. Not only were the two main stages booked solid for Friday and Saturday, but the rest of the Downtown Square was, too, with eight or so bars and cafes featuring everything from local bands (Pearl Earl) to bizarre Hollywood cameos (Michael Pena and Danny Masterson as Grandpa vs. Prowler). As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a comedy festival, a video game tournament, an industry panel and a coffee tasting at locations strewn throughout downtown Denton.
The border between the festival proceedings and the town was so porous as to be almost nonexistent. The main stages could be both seen and heard from outside the bounds of Oak Street, which had been shut down for the occasion; determined individuals were able to not only wander under the nose of security into the festival area, but the VIP areas as well. There were multiple instances where the stage had to be cleared of enterprising concertgoers who had managed to crowd behind an act in the middle of a performance. Not an inconsiderable portion of Best Coast’s stage fog, for instance, might have actually been cigarette smoke from an opportunistic audience member.
All this made for a pretty great balance between festival atmosphere and a cozy, backyard feel. The whole square was charged with the festival goings-on, but no single venue was packed — not even the main stages, where only Beirut, Rae Sremmurd and Norah Jones were able to fill completely the area between the mixing tent and the front of the stage. Really, there wasn’t an act where one couldn’t edge their way to the front.
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This had a variable effect on the performances themselves. Wavves and Norah Jones, for instance, seemed to relish the lower-pressure experience. “I would play that song, but it's four chords and I can only play three — three’s my limit,” joked Wavves frontman Nathan Williams in response to a song request, right before accepting a mid-set drink refill from a stagehand.
Jones, whose Oaktopia set this weekend was her first Denton appearance since her days as a UNT student, seemed genuinely charmed by the strong homecoming vibe. She followed her performance of “Don’t Know Why” with unadulterated appreciation: “You sang along!” she enthused afterward. “People never sing along like that at my shows. It's fun!” Those words, along with her Gram Parsons cover, her performance of “Lonestar” and her cowboy boots, really gave the impression that she was as pleased to be there as her audience was to have her.
Some of the other acts, though, seemed to be aiming over the audience rather than to it. Dr. Dog, for instance (though, honestly, is there anything more Denton than the figure of Scott McMicken hacking on a cigarette while playing a Nord keyboard?) seemed, along with Beirut, to be slightly less engaged, though their performances had a hard-won, road-burnished sheen.
The only people who left Oaktopia unsatisfied — aside from those who had set up shop at the front of the stage in anticipation of Best Coast, only for a freak storm to delay her set — were probably those who purchased VIP tickets. The VIP area was rendered irrelevant by loose security and ample room; at one point on Friday, the only drink available to drink-ticket holders was an IPA; at another, there was no beer at all. But maybe that, more than anything, reveals the true spirit of Oaktopia: bringing good music to Denton, almost in spite of Oaktopia itself. As for Broketopia, well, it couldn’t exist without an Oaktopia to oppose.