Something in the air: Valley of the Vapors Festival fills Hot Springs with music — and love — from all over


Photographs by Nikki Dawes

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Valley of the Vapors Illustration

For the 14th straight year, a few of the bands making the trek to and from the sprawling South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, will stop in Hot Springs to play an event that's just a little more intimate but no less loved.

The Valley of the Vapors Festival kicks off Friday, with bands playing at Low Key Arts, Maxine's, Adair Park and secret sites around town. Among the outfits set to appear are blues rock duo Larkin Poe, Brooklyn post-punks Oneida, Ed Schrader's Music Beat, rapper Juiceboxxx, Lung, Suburban Living, New Orleans trombone/drum duo Roar!, Philadelphia art rockers Grandchildren, naughty country-folk duo Birdcloud and many more.

The festival is produced by Low Key Arts, the Hot Springs nonprofit also responsible for the Hot Water Hills Festival, among other events.

"It was designed to catch all the bands going to and from South by Southwest," says Bobby Missile, Low Key Arts artistic director and VOV talent booker. "Basically, every band in the world that's buzzing is trying to get to Austin to play that festival."

Those same bands also book tours around the area to help finance their Austin trip and this is the music festival niche into which VOV has carved for itself.

"It's very convenient timing," Missile says. "We have the pick of the litter, and all these bands will reach out to us, especially since we've been around so long and are so well established. We get to pick and choose all these great touring bands coming through Arkansas looking for a place to play."


As for this year's roster of some 40 acts, "there are no dull moments," says

Missile, who started helping with booking the festival in 2006, took over booking duties four years ago and has been Low Key Arts' artistic director for two years. "One of our headliners is Larkin Poe, two sisters who are like a rock band with a country edge. They were just on Conan not too long ago. They're going to be massive."

The group, featuring Georgia natives Rebecca and Megan Lovell, will play at 9 p.m. March 20 at the Low Key Arts venue.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is Ed Schrader and Devlin Rice of the Baltimore-based garage rock duo Ed Schrader's Music Beat, whose latest album, Riddles, was released earlier this month. They'll perform at 10 p.m. Monday at Low Key Arts.

"One guy plays bass and one guy plays just a floor tom and sings," Missile says. "You would think that not a lot of music would come from that, but they prove otherwise."

Moaning, the Los-Angeles-based trio whose self-titled debut was just released on Sub Pop, brings its moody, atmospheric alt-rock to a 10 p.m. Sunday set at Low Key Arts.

"They're an-up-and coming band," Missile says. "Their songs are absolutely great."

14th Valley of the Vapors Festival

Various times Friday-March 20 at Hot Springs venues (Low Key Arts, 118 Arbor St.; Maxine’s, 700 Central Ave.; Kenneth Adair Memorial Park, 354 Central Ave.)

Admission: $10 day pass; $40 festival pass

(501) 282-9057


He's particularly jazzed about the Ontario band Frigs, whose dark post-punk bristles with a fuzzed-out intensity.

"I've never really heard anything quite like them before, and I'm extremely excited to bring that sound here to Hot Springs," he says.

Frigs, whose debut LP, Basic Behaviour, was just released on the Arts & Crafts label, will perform at 10 p.m. Saturday at Low Key.

Sonny Kay, the new executive director of Low Key Arts, is stoked for Oneida's 11 p.m. set Monday at the Low Key venue.

"They've been around about 15 years and I've never seen them play," he says. "It's really exciting for me to have the chance to do that here."

Oneida's latest, Romance, finds the band dabbling in psychedelia, deep grooves and minimalist krautrock.

Arkansas-based acts Dylan Earl, Or, White Mansion and Landrest are also scheduled to play.

Throughout the festival, there will be secret shows each day at 6 p.m., with a band performing at a random location. The spot will be announced through the VOV social media outlets and, Missile says, these places can definitely be beyond the rock show norm: "One year we had one in school bus, one year there was one in a barber shop. They're always a lot of fun."

Along with all the music, a poetry workshop with Seth Pennington of Little Rock is set for 2 p.m. Sunday at SQZBX, 236 Ouachita, Ave.


The festival isn't just a valley full of underground sounds for music fans, it's also a treat for the bands, many of whom were not aware of Hot Springs' charms.

"We've got this amazing, beautiful city here, and every single band that's ever come through finds Hot Springs to be the most unique and wonderful place to play," Missile says.

The volunteer-run Valley of the Vapors also has a more laid-back atmosphere than the nonstop hustle of SXSW, where hundreds of bands are clamoring for attention.

Aleks Martray and his band, Grandchildren, will close VOV with a 10:15 p.m. show March 20. It will be the group's eighth appearance at what he says is the band's favorite festival.

"VOV is one of the few festivals we've been to where it is 100 percent about the music, the artists and the audience," Martray says via email. "That might sound obvious, but it's really rare. And after being on the road for weeks at commercial industry festivals like SXSW, its so refreshing to come to a place like Hot Springs where there is so much love for music, people and family."

Says Missile of the onslaught of musicians coming to town: "They come here and there's no rush. It's a stress-free and relaxing festival for them, and everybody here just appreciates them coming to town."

Martray can vouch for that: "As VOV artists, we're treated like family, so it always feels like a homecoming and reminds us why we do what we do, to connect with people. This translates to incredible performances, because the artists are so relieved to be in such a comforting, familial and genuinely enthusiastic environment."

That family vibe often comes in the form of volunteers who "adopt" bands during the festival.

Amelia Houser is a Hot Springs artist and Low Key Arts board member. She's also VOV's Adopt-A-Band coordinator.

"It's a unique thing we do to make the bands feel welcome," she says. "We pamper them a little. The community here likes to get involved with the bands. They get excited every year for VOV.

"It's like Christmas for hipsters."

Adopting a band, she says, can involve creating care packages or even putting them up while they're in town.

Volunteers can screen YouTube videos of bands at vallyofthevapors.com and pick one they like. It's like going to the shelter to find a pet, except with guitars and drums, and they don't stay very long.

For bands she adopts, Houser may refurbish an old suitcase and fill it with bottles of Mountain Valley Spring Water, Hot Springs crystals, playing cards and toys to help pass the time on the road.

"I reach out to the band before they get here -- and we recommend this -- and ask if they like sweet or salty snacks, what drinks they like, or if they like whiskey or rum," she says, adding it's also good to suss out if there are any vegans or vegetarians in the band.

Even the simplest of personal touches can mean a lot to a road-weary group, such as a homemade meal or sweets.

"One year someone made Rice Krispie Treats for their band and the band was tickled to death," Houser says. "They'd been eating road food and hadn't had anything homemade."

Another side of adopting is hosting the musicians.

"Bands are always looking for somewhere to sleep other than in their van," says Houser, who is hosting Minneapolis musicians Devata Daun and c.Kostra. "If you host them as well, it cuts down on their road expenses."

For Martray, he and the other Grandchildren are just ready to play and hang out with their buddies in Hot Springs.

"When we played last year, hearing the crowd singing along to lyrics from our first album [Everlasting] really hit me emotionally," he says. "There were requests for songs I could barely remember how to play. It was a moment where I realized how much a part of the festival and community we had become and I was so grateful."


Larkin Poe will play March 20 at Low Key Arts during the Valley of the Vapors Festival. + Enlarge

Style on 03/13/2018

Log in to comment