The doctors are in: Wakarusa music festival to welcome Tuscaloosa student band The Doctors and the Lawyers

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Francie Johnson

The String Cheese Incident. Bassnectar. The Flaming Lips. The Doctors and The Lawyers. All four of these bands will perform at this year’s Wakarusa Music Festival, an annual four-day event held in Ozark, Ark. One of them, though, is not quite like the others.

The Doctors and The Lawyers, composed of five University of Alabama students, has joined The Avett Brothers, Slightly Stoopid, Mumford & Sons and more on the long list of bands who have graced Wakarusa’s official lineup.

“Our drummer [Jordan Kumler] and I went to Wakarusa last year,” said lead vocalist Evan Brooks, a senior majoring in financial planning. “The whole time, we were just like, ‘What if we played here? What do we need to do to play here next year?’”

Their answer soon came in the form of the Waka Winter Classic, a national competition designed to send bands to Wakarusa. Beginning in early January, the Waka Winter Classic tour hosted “battle of the bands”-esque competitions in 16 cities nationwide. An audience vote in each location decided which bands would perform at the 2014 Wakarusa Music Festival.

(See also “Rockin’ the Haus: Local artists create underground music scene“)

The Doctors and The Lawyers were the second out of five bands to perform Thursday, taking the stage after Birmingham-based True Blue. Following their set was Huntsville-based Post War, Decatur-based The Wheelers and Tuscaloosa-based Mother Funk.

“Because we were going second, I don’t know whether we had an advantage or disadvantage,” Brooks said. “There weren’t as many people at that point as there were towards the end of the night. But it was good because we kinda got it out of the way so we could watch everybody else.”

The Doctors and The Lawyers’s night began at about 4:30 p.m., when they arrived at Workplay to unload their equipment and complete a quick sound check. A few hours later, they took the stage in front of a crowd of about 60 people.

“I was excited [to go on],” said Kumler, a junior majoring in chemical engineering. “I was ready to get it over with, really. We had been practicing for a month and a half straight, just those songs.”

The band played a set of five original songs, including new releases “Heavy Breathing,” “Daria” and the soon-to-be-released “Callin’ Me.”

“We thought they’d be the most Waka-friendly,” Kumler said. “They’d match the best. They’re more jam-y than our other songs.”

To create a more Wakarusa jam-band vibe, the group played all five songs without pausing, seamlessly blending them into one continuous composition.

“We didn’t stop and then start a new song. We just went into another song,” Brooks said. “You can’t do that unless the song is in a similar key or makes sense musically to do that. We had to figure out little interludes to play in between the songs to make them fit together, like a giant puzzle.”

Brooks said performing the five songs continuously helped keep the audience engaged with the band’s music.

“There’s no space for [the audience] to stop and think,” Brooks said. “Right before they have their first thought, you’ve got another good song coming right in, and they don’t have time to question it. It just keeps you in the groove. I love it when bands do that.”

Due to a storm that hit northern Alabama on Thursday night, the crowd during The Doctors and The Lawyers’s set was smaller than anticipated.

“Literally right when we got off stage, the biggest part of [our] crowd arrived,” Brooks said. “So that was kind of a bummer, because we would have played for a much bigger crowd had the weather not set everybody back. It was good, though. Everybody I talked to said that was the best we’ve ever sounded.”

After a few nerve-wracking hours of listening to the other bands’ sets, the time arose for The Doctors and The Lawyers to learn their fate. The five sat together at a table, the announcer’s words dragging on. “And the band that will be representing Birmingham…”

Kumler said after watching the other bands perform, he hadn’t expected to win the contest, but they did. The announcer proclaimed The Doctors and The Lawyers winners of the coveted spot at Wakarusa.

“I was overwhelmed,” Kumler said. “I was shaking. I couldn’t even think about it.”

(See also “Local bands vie for a shot at Wakarusa“)

In a few short months, The Doctors and The Lawyers will perform on Wakarusa’s Backwoods Stage, the same stage that hosted The Lumineers just two years ago. The band will also have the opportunity to perform an additional set on a brand new stage being built this summer, the Riverside Stage.

Performing at a festival like Wakarusa will expose The Doctors and The Lawyers to a larger and more receptive audience than the ones they play for in the Tuscaloosa bar scene.

“You’re playing for a bunch of people who came to hear music,” Brooks said. “You’re not playing for people who came to a bar to get drunk, and there just happens to be a good band playing.”

Besides performing at the Wakarusa, all five band members will receive artist passes, allowing them the opportunity to make valuable contacts in the music industry. Additionally, adding a performance at Wakarusa to the band’s resume could lead to future dates at other music festivals.

“Bands now, especially bands that are trying to get started, have to tour tirelessly,” Brooks said. “That’s the only way to make any money or make a name for yourself. You’re not gonna make much money selling songs on iTunes, so you pretty much just have to keep touring all the time.”

They realized how a Wakarusa performance could transform a band’s career, after listening to the set of 2013 Waka Winter Classic winner The Magic Beans at last year’s festival.

“One of my buddies kinda followed [The Magic Beans] before we got there, and they had 200 likes on Facebook,” Brooks said. “Then the weekend after they played at Wakarusa, they had 10,000 likes. Seriously what it can do for you is just mind-blowing. All you have to do is just put on a show that people want to hear.”

The band hasn’t yet set foot on stage at the festival, but Brooks and Kumler said they’re already looking ahead at the years to come.

“We’re gonna practice harder than we even did for the tryouts,” Brooks said. “The goal is to be invited back [next year]. When we get there, we’re gonna literally play every opportunity we get. We’re gonna try to volunteer and be helpful and positive so we’ll get invited back.”

The Doctors and The Lawyers will perform at the 2014 Wakarusa Music Festival, which takes place June 5-8 in Ozark, Ark. For more information, including ticket prices and the full lineup, visit wakarusa.com.

(See also “Festivals bring variety to every stage“)