Las Tortugas III | 10.30 – 11.02 | CA

Friday, 10.31.08

Las Tortugas 2008 :: Groveland, CA
Friday morning I woke early and walked the grounds. I began to sing Three Dog Night's "Shambala," quietly under my breath, more a prayer than anything I cared to share with others:

Wash away my troubles, wash away my pain
With the rain in Shambala
Wash away my sorrow, wash away my shame
With the rain in Shambala

Ah, ooh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Everyone is helpful, everyone is kind
On the road to Shambala
Everyone is lucky, everyone is so kind
On the road to Shambala

There's a naiveté I nurse that says we really could make the world an amazing place if we were just a little nicer to each other, a little more respectful, a little more wide open to joy and pleasure. Thanks to the work of many hands, Las Tortugas began and remained a place where one had the chance to live out this theory accompanied by a shifting, always stellar soundtrack. Beyond individual band/set descriptions it's worth highlighting that this festival's lineup was driven by a real love of music and people who play it well. While one act might not have been your cup of tea, there was no denying that everyone onstage could play their ass off and approached their craft with seriousness and pure talent. No one was booked because of a hit single, label pressure or any of the other myriad x-factors that often fuel festival programming. A strong bond of camaraderie already existed between many bands but it didn't take long before the newcomers were being asked to sit-in. Call it a blanket of overlapping pleasures, and it felt great wrapped around our ears.

The bonding began early most days, while waiting in long lines for the breakfast buffet with the early risers and those still buzzing from the late night sets. The players mingled with the attendees, and conversations ranged from discussions of specific moments from the night before to Sarah Palin's presidential worthiness to rambling, blissed out sighing over steaming coffee. The line between performer and spectator was generally blurry here. It also helped energy levels and general enthusiasm to start music on the full days at 4 p.m., which allowed the late night partiers to rest through daylight or gave the fully ambulatory time to hike, fish and otherwise enjoy being in such a lovely setting.

Hot Buttered Rum - Las Tortugas '08
Hot Buttered Rum got Day Two hopping with banjo pluck and a certain irrepressible dosie-doe that turned us into kissing cousins in a square dance called by genuine oddballs. They tapped the grime of old 78 records, vaudeville and much more in a swirl that truly fit All Hallows' Eve, even dipping into an instrumental one could imagine cartoon skeletons doing a production number to. As with Thursday, their set construction, tone, etc. were pitch perfect, an exact and accurate read of the audience and their needs, and a testament to their growing panache as showmen.

Guitarmageddon oddly let HBR's bounce slip a bit in their slow rise to hesher heaven. Led by Tea Leaf Green's six-stringer Josh Clark, this occasional band delights in tasty guitar solos and Camaro shakin' anthems. This set included Curtis Mayfield's "Freddy's Dead," Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper" and an absolutely monstrous assault on CSNY's "Ohio" that bettered any version I've heard the original foursome pull out. Aided by a banging, watertight rhythm section and fellow guitarists Lebo and Sean Leahy, Clark ultimately turned things up to "11" and tapped that spine like we know he can.

The second installment of The Mother Hips was more focused, more psychedelic, more obscure, more a lot of things. I wouldn't call it better but surely a denser offering that put their left foot in our ass and kicked us out a "Third Floor Story" that unleashed light in the main tent. There was something so solid, so enduringly right about each note played, each song offered up. Words fail even as the feeling remains, but in many ways the Hips showed everyone how this rock thing should be done in every fundamental way.

Guitarmageddon - Las Tortugas '08
With Poor Man's Whiskey picking with goose grease speed and abandon in The Tavern, I sauntered over for a second dose of Lebo and Friends. Without putting too fine a point on it, Dan Lebowitz is a serious motherfucker, a masterful musician perhaps on the order of one of my personal musical heroes, Bill Frisell. The feeling and dexterity of his playing this set cemented him as one of my personal faves from a Bay Area crammed with incredible players. And the company he keeps did a fine job of holding their own, too, especially a frisky Josh Clark on a sweller-than-swell cover of Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like A Rock."

Blue Turtle Seduction, often a bit overshadowed by better known acts at their own festival, offered up a stunning main stage set that put them shoulder to shoulder with anyone here. Charging out with a pleasantly snarky bit of sing-song rhyming about misconceptions, they found growl and brisling tension inside their folk-punk-funk sound. Electric guitarist Jay Seals poured molten heat into the proceedings, keeping things from ever shifting far from a hard rockin' vibe, pushing in voice and instrument inspired covers like The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" (given heady, crowd pleasing skank in its set closing spot) and a truly amazing run through Joe Strummer's "Get Down Moses," which had a Krautrock space excursion devoid of any dub sleepiness, all prickly and cosmic and downright cool. And this band is cool in their own quiet, largely unheralded way. Blue Turtle proved they are a magnificent party band for smart kids with unbound tastes, mashing sock hop dancers with hip-hop flavors, power chord monsters with bohemian drinking tunes. They inspired a need to raise a glass in good cheer, a yo-ho-ho that fit the general celebratory mood well. And their own wide-rangedness was indicative of the general genre bursting of the fest lineup; these are not bands that take well to constrictions and keep finding new ways to expand rather than solidify any boundaries.

Blue Turtle Seduction - Las Tortugas '08
Perhaps the most audacious gambit on Halloween at Las Tortugas goes to Izabella and their Soul Train themed dance party. Beneath an archway of the show's distinctive logo, dressed in threads that'd make the Ohio Players' Sugarfoot smile approvingly, Izabella cranked out beautifully executed covers of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," Michael's "Billy Jean," Brother Marvin's "Sexual Healing," Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman," Chic's immortal "Le Freak," Ginuwine's "Pony," Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher" and even "Rapper's Delight." What doubly impressed was how they put their own pleasantly noodle-y stamp on these established classics. Each guy has such personality as players that even working well tread material their own spark still emerged. Izabella is nearly always a good time but this was a grand one, aided terrifically by the horny horns of the Monophonics.

Having freaked it pretty good in my '70s Elvis jumpsuit at Izabella's set, I felt the flame in my jack-o-lantern fizzle out. For me, Halloween was over and the distant sounds of giddy folks at the late night sets from Tea Leaf Green and Monophonics rocked me to sleep, secure others would dance in a new dawn whilst I snuggled beneath the covers, saturated with happy sounds and weary in the best of ways.

Continue reading for Saturday's coverage...

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