But the weather, like the music, went off without a hitch, as fans were treated to one of the most varied bills in the festival’s 22-year history.
Highlights included a spirited set from Forro in the Dark, capped with the chorus, “if you don’t like Bob Marley, you’d better stay away from me.” The Brazilian band played two sets, one on the main stage and another in the dance floor tent, attracting a large contingent of shaking bodies.
Gokh-Bi System, dressed in the traditional garb of their native Senegal, mixed Afro-pop with funk and soul. It was quite a different sound for an audience in years past more accustomed to folk and bluegrass, but they seemed to enjoy it.
Eilen Jewell and her band did double duty, performing as the gospel Sacred Shakers early in the day, and ending the night in the dance tent with a set that ended about 40 minutes after Williams.
Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys proved the biggest hit in the dance tent, with a barrio rockabilly sound that recalled Los Lobos and Eddie Cochrane. Big Sandy was also the busiest performer of the day, fronting a stripped-down “Little Sandy” group and doing guest vocals with gonzo guitarists Los Straitjackets on the main stage, in addition to an hour-long set with his own band.
Los Straitjackets combined Dick Dale-flavored surf music with tongue-in-cheek theatrics, wearing Mexican wrestling masks (recently popularized in the Jack Black movie, “Nacho Libre”) and using badly mangled Spanish to introduce their instrumental songs.
With Big Sandy, they played a rollicking, multilingual version of the Ernie K-Doe classic, “Mother In Law.”
Lucinda Williams’ set ranged across her last two albums, along with several unreleased songs (she has a new record due in the fall). She ended with a surprising cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which she called a “quintessential rock and roll song.”
Williams had the unenviable task of following Mavis Staples, who stole the show with a set that mixed powerful music with a social message underscored by current events and her own experiences living the changes that led to them.
She opened with a soulful cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the movement anthem, “Eyes on the Prize.”
She added her own lyrics to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” reminding the crowd of her experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles. Recalling her grandmother directing her to drink from a water fountain marked with a “colored only” sign, she sang, “Dr. King tore every one of those signs down, down in Mississippi.”
She touched on her appearance in the documentary “The Last Waltz,” performing “The Weight,” and name-checking the Band’s “Robertson, Danko, Garth, Manuel and Levon.”
But her set focused on soul and gospel, a church service of sorts in the middle of a sunny day. She choked with emotion while performing Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – a song he wrote after attending one of MLK’s sermons.
“If it weren’t for Dr. King, I wouldn’t be able to say, a black man is running for President of the United States,” said Staples through tears. The crowd was obviously with her – when Jim Olsen introduced her, he’d pretty much called the election for Obama – but it was nonetheless a stirring moment when she sang the song’s final line:
“I think I hear someone calling my name/saying further up the road things are gonna change.”
The thread of history stretched from the stage across the field, and not a soul there wondered how they’d managed to avoid the rain drenching everyone to the north, south, east and west of them.
It was that kind of day.