Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead III :: 10.30.08 – 11.02.08 :: Evergreen Lodge :: Groveland, CA
The sound I carry home with me from Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead III, the reverberation captured in memory's locket, is laughter. The easy peel of people truly at ease, unguardedly happy and blissfully free is a rare sound, and one that echoed from pre-music Thursday afternoon on through a Sunday sanctified with revels, hard work, showmanship and, above all, sweet music poured out with humility, skill and deep passion. Let's be honest, music festivals are a dime a dozen and often amount to little more than a few stages, some kegs and a loud PA. What emerged in the third year of this Blue Turtle Seduction hosted gathering near Yosemite was a bucolic lil' slice of life – something too dear to last more than a few days but positively intoxicating while in existence. Tortugas is a festival designed by and for festivarians – a safe, contained world where music is treasured and showcased, where both musicians and audience are valued and allowed space to, as the program encouraged, "freak freely."
|Las Tortugas 2008 :: Groveland, CA|
Driving into the woods, one hits a place where cell phones cut out and most markers of the bullet fast 21st century world slip away. Pulling off the highway onto the rugged seven-mile back road that leads to Evergreen Lodge, one truly enters a different world, a pleasant sort of dislocation. Pulling up to the log adorned cabins, one feels they've arrived at a pastoral trading post for weirdoes and ramblers, long hairs and moonshiners. Despite being Federal land, one picks up on a delightful outsider-ness at Evergreen, and one quickly wonders why many haven't picked up on this phenomenal gem amongst the tall trees. With clean, warm cabins with hot showers, a general store with long hours and good espresso drinks, a full bar and restaurant, a cozy fireplace warmed lounge with free long distance and Internet access, as well as three lovingly decorated, acoustically great, centrally located stages and easy pathways everywhere, it's not hard to fall in love with the place.
As much as the music, the environment played a major factor in setting a self-contained mood, a shared community dedicated to good times accessed through sound waves, dance and a neighborly spirit that'd bring a grin to Andy Griffith's face. Everywhere people tacked up Christmas lights and laid out Halloween decorations, offered sniffs of this and tastes of that to strangers, stuffed bellies into spandex and painted their faces. Even in the earliest hours of the festival, one sensed a collective rush to create a unified, electrified experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the elaborate setups one encounters at High Sierra, and frankly this felt better, perhaps because of its smaller size, indoor plumbing, real beds and other small but significant differences. While a new tradition, Las Tortugas has all the makings of an annual event that folks will mark on the calendar in permanent ink.
A few minutes of Poor Man's Whiskey's fest opening set erased any weekday feeling. Blasting out fiddle sawing, rusty trumpet quacking and guitars shivering, they announced the ferocity and unreal musicianship that would mark the entire weekend. While often tagged a bluegrass or string band, Poor Man's energy was pure rock 'n' roll – the '50s variety, full of danger and sex and barely controlled fire. The packed Tuolumne Hall, the medium sized indoor stage, shook, assess and elbows flying, as Whiskey poured on coal, showing no signs of slowing. Dressed in ad hoc Guns n' Roses costumes in honor of the evening's "Welcome To The Jungle" theme (which also brought out an alarming number of anthropomorphic fur hats and leopard print fabric), PMW sang about being "P.M.S. (Pretty Much Screwed)" and settled a welcoming arm around everyone. The distant flickers of the Dave Stein Bubhub coming from The Tavern, the smaller indoor stage, seemed to be doing their wooing with jammy intensity, fueled heavily by ever-dexterous keyboardist Jordan Feinstein, who cropped up in different aggregates all weekend. By 9 p.m. on a Thursday, surrounded by lions and tigers and bears, one felt full flung into the festival experience.
|Josh Brough - Poor Man's Whiskey|
Those needing a final shove needed only to plant themselves at The Mother Hips' main stage (The Terrapin Big Top Tent) christening set. Starting late due to Tim Bluhm's traffic woes, they showed no dust, no hesitation with a selection of comfortable favorites played with grit and Cheshire smiles. Every now and again I think they realize they're an American rock great, and that surfaces in muscular, sensuous playing like this performance. I doubt they'd ever admit it consciously but something in their bodies takes over and they fly with the kind of rough boy grace one associates with early '70s Stones, Bon Scott-era AC/DC or Muswell Hillbillies period Kinks. Starting with "Honeydew" and then swiftly into "Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear," they had people dancing on the walkways, slipping high fives to plush paws and sharing smokes and slack jaws with passersby. As a longtime Hips devotee, it's always a kick to watch first timers or the largely uninitiated get bowled over by this band. Everywhere my eye turned, I found people getting switched on, which in turn fueled the sets to come this evening and thereafter. Something within the intensity of this first night lit a flame that no band seemed anxious to extinguish. Thus, the performances from the start were marked with a driven focus, a need to go just a bit further than the norm, deliver something special to add to the specialness unfolding around them.
"If you don't tell me what you want/ I can't give it to you," howled Bluhm as Greg Loiacono bent strings in ways that merged Zappa technicality with Mick Taylor dirt diggin'. Ever present, rummaging around our frames and slapping our behinds, was Paul Hoaglin's bass. Hunched over and hidden beneath an old man mask that made him look like a hill dwarf from Lord of the Rings with a sparkling white axe, Hoaglin goosed his bandmates continuously, driving drummer John Hofer to dig out some of the toughest playing I've heard from him this year. A positively trippy "Figure 11" and a "Two Queens" with a rock candy jam inside were but two of many highlights.
|Tim Bluhm - The Mother Hips|
Never one to offer audiences a breather, Monophonics, looking like they'd raided the Art Ensemble of Chicago's closet and make-up drawer, funneled nasty strangeness into funky frames after the Hips. Monophonics have clearly studied up on their James Brown but don't genuflect to any orthodoxy. Like the best funk units, they go by feel, and in Tuolumne Hall theirs was a sweaty, grabby sort of Braille read. One felt them, shining out from a central chakra, limbs illuminated with youth and raw gusto. In their eyes shined a single message: "I'm gonna get some." How you define "some" may vary wildly but the sheer lust of their playing was undeniable and intensely palpable.
Back on the main stage, Hot Buttered Rum emerged in basketball gear to the Harlem Globetrotters theme, shuckin' & jivin' in all their buttermilk whiteness. Then, incongruously, the trill of flute reminiscent of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (which also echoed in the stunning, humidly permeating bass work of Bryan Horne). Beyond being a band built around strings, there's no category that really suits them. Sure, the deliriously appropriate "Sweet Honey Fountain" that soon followed could be categorized bluegrass in the early sections, a descendent of Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe, but the exploratory tail section has all the swoop of '60s modal jazz, a child of Impulse Records Coltrane far more than mountain music. Even when they talked about "rambling" they did so with the swing of hot jazz instead of country. It is their contradictions and juxtapositions, including a drum kit that now sits onstage ready for occasional poundings as the spirit moves them, that define HBR. The set rolled with lock tight harmonies, electric banjo, graceful fingerpicking powered originals and smile bombs like the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" (done in coked-up '76 style) and The Beatles' "I've Got A Feeling," though this cover did make me feel for those sleeping in tents, exposed to the rains that stayed with us most of the festival. I poured whiskey into a tiny, drowned hood rat to heat her bones as HBR sang about wet dreams and good times.
More so than any other fest I've attended, folks seemed to look out for one another, and like the musical spirit of the weekend, the more you cared, the more you extended yourself, the more you saw others doing the same. Still twittering with pre-election jitters, fully aware of the coldness America is capable of, I was reminded at Las Tortugas – reminded by the shaggiest, most seemingly nare-do-wells – that it doesn't take much to uplift your brothers and sisters. Sure, this is a write-up of a music festival, but for me, and not a few others I encountered on both sides of the stage at Tortugas, music is the key that unlocks everything else. Why then not social progress and flashes of random kindness triggered by an experience designed to elicit joy and togetherness?
Knowing there'd be multiple chances to catch Blue Turtle, I hung on the porch outside The Tavern for Austin's Wisebird. I rolled up to find piano and organ swirling along a chooglin' boogie worthy of ol' Lowell George and early Little Feat, all hips and dips and just a little bit bad. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they played with the intensity of men who'd just arrived from being "in country," a strength and meanness needed for survival pumped into exceedingly pure rock 'n' roll, driven by drummer-singer Dave Meservy, guitarist Will Webster and the blazingly great keys of Trevor Nealon. One could lazily say they sound like the Allman Brothers but more accurately they're the children of Leon Russell and Freddie King, real blues and blood soaked barrooms surfacing in their heavy notes. A comely tweaker skipped past me and said, "Can you believe it's just four guys making that fucking sound?" From the mouths of babes.
I'll admit it, I'm kind of an ALO neophyte, and it's only in the past year of that band's near dormancy that I've really come to know the playing of guitarist Dan Lebowitz and bassist Steve Adams as they've gigged around the Bay Area. So, I wasn't fully prepared for Lebo and Friends' late night set to be so freakin' roadhouse tough. With Lebowitz way out front on electric, pedal steel and other guitars, one heard the DNA of Albert King, The Doors and Canned Heat throb in this band's veins. Prodded with intense filigree by Feinstein on keys, they took a crosscut saw to rock 'n' roll, imbuing even the instrumentals with strong legs and a mildly ornery character. There's sometimes a tendency towards melodic sugar in ALO and it was keen to watch Lebo drive the boys into gnarly territory, culminating in a mind-blowing sit-in by Tim and Nicki Bluhm on Neil Young's "Down By The River." This cover had all the floating corpses and aching sentiment of Young's original delivered in a sweet 'n' sour way that rivaled Crazy Horse at their very best, Lebo and Tim Bluhm striking sparks as their guitars swung at one another, not so much seeking union as heartfelt sensation and release. Oh, Lebo did dabble in cheeriness, too, especially a great reading of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."
Continue reading for Friday's coverage...