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The Story Behind the Setlist: Stick Figure at Shangri-La (2016)

In my room, I have two red binders full of setlists. When I page through them, I’m reminded of the shows I’ve seen around the country, and I’m filled with gratitude for these experiences. Here’s a new series of stories behind the setlists, starting with one of my all-time favorites…

For years, my Madison, Wisconsin hippie friends had been telling me to go to Shangri-La Festival in Clarks Grove, Minnesota. I would politely decline.

“But it’s not a reggae fest,” I’d say. As a die-hard reggae enthusiast, I felt the need to save my funds for only those types of excursions. In the Midwest, there are a lot of jam bands and festivals. It’s part of our sound. I do enjoy that music, but always felt more connected to the reggae scene on the coasts and therefore declined invitations to go to Shang with my friends who love jam music. But I admit I didn’t understand what it really was, and in 2016 I caved.

It was so much more. Looking at the Shang lineup, I saw that Stick Figure was the headliner. Whoa! This was a huge motivation. For me, 2016 was The Year of Stick Figure, when that music had come to the forefront of my listening rotation and my soul.

Seeing that Mike Love was playing, along with some of my Midwest favorites, Aaron Kamm & the One Drops (MO), Frogleg (MN)… plus my friends Spare Change Trio (WI), People Brothers Band (WI) and Earth to Clark (WI)… all signs were saying: GO TO SHANG.

Shang is organized by Wookiefoot, a Minnesota-based band that’s hard to describe. They have a fun, bouncy, jammy, reggae-infused, and at times even Irish-infused sound. And they don’t just play music—they put on a show. They have fire dancers. They have elaborate glow-in-the-dark stage scenery. They dress like they’ve just emerged from a funky Dr. Seuss book or a psychedelic spaceship. Their lyrics are conscious, and at times, they turn your brain inside out (“We may not have it all together / but together we have it all”). They create a special community. There are countless reasons why their fans love them.

The festival takes place at Harmony Park, a place that many people hold close to their hearts because of the conscious music festivals held there: Shang, Project Earth, and Revival. When you get there, people say, “Welcome home!”. After hours of driving through calm, rolling green and golden midwest farm fields, you reach lush property lined with trees and a lake. It’s truly beautiful.

When we arrived on Thursday for the pre-party, the camping was quickly filling up. The festival is small, with room for maybe a couple thousand people maximum. You get to know the other attendees and your camping neighbors. You don’t need to leave the campground to reach the two main stages: Everything’s all together.

The first night we were there, it rained. Hard. So the next day as we were laying out our items to dry, we realized this would be a very muddy weekend. We had to traverse a super muddy trail each time we left and returned to our campsite—but man, it was fun! My feet would sink into the soft mud, and each time I lifted them up to step forward, it made a “Schh-lurp! Schh-lurp!” sound. My flip-flop blew out right away. So at that point, I decided I was going to be barefoot for the weekend (and trust me, people offered me shoes, along with many other gifts!).  

At first, I wanted to save all my energy for Stick Figure Friday night. But each band that played before them really drew me in, and surprised me. In the Midwest, there’s a huge jam fusion going on. These bands integrate reggae, funk, and blues into epic compositions that take you to another level. It’s all roots, ya know?

Everything was wonderful. People were happy, people were letting their freak flags fly. This is the place where you can be yourself, you can cry because you’re so happy and there’s no need to explain it. As the sun started to dry the raindrops on the trees, there were rainbow prism beams of light all around.

The sun started setting and I marched to the main stage to stake out my prime spot for Stick Figure. I was rocking my KBong hat. Front and center. As the lights went on, the speakers began humming with epic sound, and my heart leaped in my chest. This was perfect.

Throughout Stick Figure’s performance, I felt one with the music. I was moving in perfect time with it—with my eyes closed, there was no separation. These are the kind of moments and feelings I live for. I turned around and all my friends were behind me. One of them patted my shoulder and gave me a look like: “We know. We know.”

“Shadow,” “Fire on the Horizon,” “Sound of the Sea”… we were in a dubby landscape of light and sound vibrations. It’s funny how sometimes when you see a band perform live, different songs come to the forefront of your attention and you leave with a new favorite. This happened for me with the song “Mind Block.” The pace of it, and everything about it was just so striking and dramatic right then. The sound was colorfully creeping through all the spaces of my mind and I was in the zone.

I cherish this memory. But l have to admit, it’s nice to get a little something physical to help remember the experience… so I asked for the setlist, and scored it! The thing I love most, is that the setlist is a little bit muddy

The next day, the music and the atmosphere of this festival never ceased to amaze me. There were so many amazing performances that weekend, and if I were to describe them all, this story would be a million words long. I had become a believer in Shang. I was a creature of Harmony Park. We were all a tribe, and still are. It’s hard to go back to the daily grind after all that, ya know? Some people don’t…

Check out the 2017 lineup here!


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Kayla joined Rootfire after following this music around the country for years. She has been hosting reggae radio shows in Madison since 2010. Her newest installment is '2 DUB', Saturday nights at 10pm on 89.9 WORT FM. She is the 4x winner of 'DJ of the Year' at the Madison Area Music Awards. You can follow her on social media at: @djkaylakush

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