Words by: Dennis Cook
Las Tortugas II :: 10.27.07 & 10.28.07 :: Evergreen Lodge :: Yosemite, CA
We can all be together, forever and ever
When we make it to the promised land
In this world, we only catch glimpses of paradise. In the here and now, we only get fleeting flashes of a fully blessed existence but it's enough to make us chase that promise in whatever ways we can. On some level, when we pack up our cars with costumes, snacks and booze to head for a music festival we're acting on faith that we'll see this bright ribbon of promise unfurl. Removed from jobs and chores, we access parts of ourselves that out of necessity must remain tucked away during the working week. Dropped into a different, freedom infused context, moving with contented intoxication, we open up to joy and laughter, welcoming epiphanies, hugging complete strangers and feeling suddenly that the world's a touch brighter.
| Costume Contest - Las Tortugas II by Susan J. Weiand|
The second annual Las Tortugas - Dance of the Dead more than lived up to this innocent hope for pleasure and fresh experiences. Not unlike a miniature version of High Sierra, Las Tortugas – named in honor of festival hosts Blue Turtle Seduction - offered nearly round-the-clock amusement and an overriding sense of comradery that one would have to consciously resist in order to have a bad time. Held at one of California's great unsung venues, the Evergreen Lodge, it instantly had a leg up on the competition. Nestled in the middle of nowhere amongst tall trees and winding roads, Evergreen Lodge has well appointed cabins, tent camping, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, a general store and plenty of electricity to keep things going right up until the morning dew settles. One hesitates to use the word "oasis" but this locale was a significant part of Las Tortugas, where one wanted for nothing during their stay.
The program guide encouragingly announced, "We are thrilled to have you join us for this voyage. Feel free to freak freely. Be kind and have the time of your lives!" Though things had been rolling hard by all reports since Thursday night and a raucous late night set from ALO, I didn't arrive until Saturday afternoon. I stepped out into the temperate woodland air and immediately heard sweet string music flowing from the Big Top Terrapin Stage, one of three stages rounded out by medium size Tuloumne Hall and the barroom Tavern Stage. While most small festivals often have rinky dink sound systems and lighting gear, Las Tortugas was pro all the way and outside of a few late starts, largely caused by the swerving trek to the venue for musicians, everything ran like clockwork. While it may seem a small thing to some, the lack of interruption to one's party flow is crucial in achieving these glimpses of the Promised Land.
| Steve Adams - ALO :: Las Tortugas II|
By Susan J. Weiand
Speaking in broad terms, none of the bands here fit into neat, easily saleable categories. One would be hard pressed to say with certainty where their albums would be filed in a record store but that's not how musicians hear music, where rock, blues, jazz, etc. are one huge tapestry they're free to pull strands from. This wide-open sonic perspective begins with Blue Turtle Seduction, who conjured the flavors of Manu Chao, The Clash and The Specials on Saturday night only to come on like a good String Cheese or Yonder show at their festival closing Sunday late night. One picked up on this same sort of restless creativity in SF's Izabella, Florida's Buffalo Strange and many others. The musicianship was uniformly solid and your feet picked up on something buoyant and life affirming almost every set. The more cynical out there might lump many of the acts into the "hippie jam band" category but given as open a mind as the performers one quickly picked up on more than that backhanded description belies.
Now, to some of the standout musical moments from this weekend:
-Tea Leaf Green's roaring, hard edged Saturday late night set dipped deep into darkness and funky snarl, the notes dripping with pheromones and sweet sweat. Several times guitarist Josh Clark took the reins and brought down the hard rock hammer, singing choice he-man lines like, "You're an evil bitch but you taste so good." It was quality naughty fun to see TLG slather on power chord ugliness. Bonus points for funk-a-riffic guest spots from Sean Leahy and The Ritual's top hat sportin' keyboard maestro Jordan Feinstein.
| TLG w/ Feinstein - Las Tortugas II by Josh Miller|
-New Monsoon's Sunday night performance ranks amongst their very best and showcased the hungry focus and jaw dropping musical acumen at work in the new five-piece configuration. Opening with "Greenhouse" then swooping into "Help On The Way" > "Slipknot" instantly sent sparks flying. No nostalgia exercise, the heavy smack of "Slipknot" was driven at every loop by electric guitarist Jeff Miller, who continually reminded us what a goddamn tasty picker he was both on Sunday and their late night set Saturday. The New Monsoon of today forces us to go back to the instinctive openness rock & roll once demanded in the late '60s and early '70s, where all tangents are fair game as long as they've still got rock balls swinging them forward. Nice Rocky and Bullwinkle themed costumes on Saturday, too. And their Saturday encore of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" accomplished the rare feat of sounding nothing like Neil, especially the Freddie King pre-dawn electric blues flavor Miller gave the intro.
-While it's the crisp, tough horn section that first snapped us to attention with SF's Monophonics it was the rough rock thread underneath that kept many of us planted during their multiple sets. Besides the usual funk foundations of The JB Horns, Stax/Volt, et al. these guys are also reminiscent of Chicago when late guitarist Terry Kath was driving them in the early '70s. Natural born showmen, the Monophonics showed a nice bit of range with their lightly gospel inflected Sunday performance. Tight, bold and eager for your approval, the Monophonics bear watching, especially if groove is your thing.
| Monophonics - Las Tortugas II by Susan J. Weiand|
-Greensky Bluegrass had all the warmth and chops of better known string acts like Hot Buttered Rum and Chatham County Line but managed to differentiate themselves with their choice of material, seamless transitions and nicely melancholy originals. Greensky was able take covers as diverse as Prince's "When Doves Cry" and Pink Floyd's "Time" and remove any jokiness, diving down to the heart of the tunes to mine all the heartache and pathos. The looks of steely determination on their faces, especially when the changes came fast and furious, spoke of men dedicated to their craft. And it's always a good sign when violinist Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth likes a band well enough to guest on their records, as he does on Greensky's latest, Tuesday Letter.
-Speaking of Pink Floyd, unconsciously they became the cover tune choice this weekend with New Monsoon nailing a massive, emotionally pulsating "Echoes," Tea Leaf smacking around the security guard blowjob anthem "Young Lust" and Buffalo Strange's Sunday set opening "Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2," which resonates painfully in brain dead 2007 America.
| Bo Carper - New Monsoon - Las Tortugas II by Susan J. Weiand|
-Coming all the way from St. Petersburg, Florida, Buffalo Strange combined strong vocals, funky flute and a muscular rhythm team to create a winning mixture of bar band boogie, roots reggae, bubbling jazz and classic rock a la pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers. If you walked into a club where they were laying it down you'd smile. Able to incite an audience to sing about what a beautiful world it is (despite all the evidence to the contrary) speaks to their positivity and ability to get it across to others. For the music dorks out there, a number of sections in their Sunday set reminded me in a great way of lost '70s rock-jazz fusioners Mark-Almond.
-Tea Leaf moptop Trevor Garrod started Sunday off with a solo afternoon display that was positively shiver inducing. Echoing Rufus Wainwright and the early Rod Stewart of "Mandolin Wind," Garrod sat alone at the piano, breaking our hearts in the nicest way with his sad, skyward leaning ditties. He's such a different creature outside of TLG, revealing genuine depths that suggest we're only just now seeing what this gifted player is capable of. The crowd sat penitent as kindergartners at story time, hushed except for the explosive applause at the finish of each tune. He wears his heart and innards on the outside in this setting, and thankfully all involved in the exchange appreciated the delicacy and beauty of the moment.
-What a pleasant surprise the Jerry Garcia Band's late Sunday afternoon set turned out to be. Until you're shuffling along, it's easy to forget the core level satisfaction of Garcia marvels like "Mission In The Rain." Led by the great, round mound of divine organ sound Melvin Seals, these self-proclaimed "keepers of the flame" delivered a vibrant, infectious set full of dancey-dance energy that gave everyone still at Las Tortugas the push we needed for the rest of the night. The rhythm team of Martin Holland and David Kemper drove everything with power and precision, shining brightly on a "Mystery Train" that rivaled The Band's best-ever version. Singer-guitarist Stu Allen has the unenviable position of filling in for Jerry Garcia on two fronts. He nailed those roles without being a mere replication. When he opens his mouth a sound very similar to Garcia comes out and his playing is clearly influenced by the bearded one but what makes it work so well is Allen's ability to constantly hit the right emotional timbre. And there's no band that wouldn't benefit from a pair of mocha songbirds like the ones in JGB. What a lucky tambourine to hit those hips!
| Christian Zupanic - BTS|
Las Tortugas II by J. Miller
-Other small delights: The two mariachis from Poor Man's Whiskey who stayed in character all weekend. They may have smelled like a hobo screwed a burro but they made my weekend in many ways. And the musician find of the weekend was superlative inducing bassist Jeroen Van Niel of SF jam band Tracorum, who continually made hardened festivarians like myself stand slackjawed at his four-string wizardry.
Blue Turtle Seduction throws a hell of a party, and the spirit of the whole thing begins with them. Both sets I saw were as diverse, technically savvy and pumpingly engaging as anything out there. From their frequent costume changes to the swerving, breeze blown nature of their compositions, it's clear they want to entertain folks. It's only a complete lack of familiarity with their catalog that keeps me from saying much more. The fact that things were still going strong at midnight on Sunday when they took the main stage to close out the festival speaks to the deep affection of their fans. And de facto MC for the weekend guitarist Jay Seals is one of the most musically literate, no bullshit guys I've ever sat down with. If only a fraction of the enthusiasm and enormous range of sounds in our conversations makes it onto the stage then folks are in for a treat. It might not be an easy sell being that diverse, giving lead instrumental spots to violin and harmonica and viewing Manu Chao, particularly his first group Mano Negra, as primary influences, but BTS tours like possessed men (Sunday was their 156 show of 2007) and the dividend of that single-minded kind of work is a following that's only going to grow.
Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead is a wonderful little festival, one that I'll return to next year and the ones that follow. We have a dearth of band curated festivals on the West Coast, no moe.downs or Camp Biscos to look forward to. Blue Turtle has found a glorious spot for what one hopes becomes a real tradition in the days ahead, a respite from the daily grind that renews and delights in many, many ways.
This world is not our home
We are only passing through
Our trail is all made up
Way beyond the blue
(Opening and closing quotes from Charles Johnson's "My Brothers and Sisters," the Garcia Band staple.)
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