Las Tortugas III | 10.30 – 11.02 | CA

Saturday, 11.01.08

Wisebird - Tugas '08
Once again, I found myself knocked out by the programming of this fest as the weekend arrived. Just as Hot Buttered's welcoming simmer had perfectly set off Friday, the jet stream blast of San Diego funkateers On The One launched Saturday on exactly the right foot. Energies perhaps flagging a touch after two days, the people needed a shot of Vitamin E and On The One surely provided it. They played with the manic energy of the '71 James Brown band (check out Love Power Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris 1971 to see what I mean), but not just one or two tunes but for the entire hour and change! I like a band that's dripping sweat by their second number. Featuring alumni of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and Giant People, On The One betters those outfits with their hard-edged tenacity and clarity of stroke. Drummer John Staten, saxophonist Jesse Molloy, bassist Andy Irvine and guitarist Pete Lombardo played with genre reviving passion, doing their ancestors like Lou Donaldson, Blue Mitchell, early Kool and the Gang, The Meters and other heavyweights proud. That they don't fully bow to tradition, throwing in curves like a Daft Punk tune sandwiched inside one of their originals, makes them all the more interesting.

Perhaps juiced by On The One, Melvin Seals' JGB played tough and soulful. Already armed with the nostalgia power of the Dead/Garcia catalog, they expanded past their usual pleasure buttons (of which there are many) to mine the organ chomp of Lonnie Smith and blues that brought one back to Topanga Canyon in the early '70s – gently psychedelic but still full of bite. Everyone in this group sings and plays with such natural oomph that when taken together it's like a tonic for whatever ails you. Dancing till my hair was damp, surrounded by smiling faces, I knew (and yes, I'm aware it's a cliché) that somewhere Jerry was smiling at how what he'd begun was evolving and continuing to delight Mother Earth's children.

In keeping with the night's "Naughty By Nature" theme, Wisebird performed in Tuolumne Hall wearing just underwear, dog tags and shoes. Lean, hairy honkies all, they strutted with the same toughness they had in their fatigues a few nights earlier but this time made room for some primo slow burners worthy of early Black Crowes. Dave Meservy has a rough croon akin to young Robert Palmer, lesser-known U.K. soul-blues-rock great Frankie Miller or even Ronnie Van Zant in "Simple Man" mode. Thus, it was the ballads that tore you up this time, even though they got folks reelin' and rockin', too. Playing in front of a backdrop of an arched back black cat set against a full moon (just one of the many thoughtful, lovely decorations around Las Tortugas this year; again, the work of many invisible hands that produced a fantastically layered experience), Wisebird mingled Chuck Berry with T Bone Walker, Savoy Brown with the Crowes, producing a tight shuffle that was never self-indulgent or stiff. This is rock 'n' roll you feel in your bones and I left this festival a genuine fan of what this Austin band does.

Torphy & Lebowitz - Big Light
In The Tavern Big Light played with thickness and purpose. Their wholly winning brand of pop-jam is mutable enough to adapt to different surroundings and Fred Torphy and his boys continue to show their acumen at reading a crowd. A stuffed bar on a Saturday night after Halloween? They played "Heavy" and kept it there in the red, pushing extra muscle out of every note, playing hard enough to get everyone - even that guy in the back of the room who started their set frowning - off. And good. They are so anxious to please that you'd have to be a big ol' grump to refuse their leap into your arms, and they were especially puppy-like in their shambling enthusiasm this evening.

Over at Tuolumne at the same time, Underground Orchestra had stilled the room to such a level that I wondered if they were actually playing. What I soon discovered was one of the finest cover executions of the weekend, namely a nice chunk of Pink Floyd's Animals bookended (of course) by the solo acoustic guitar of "Pigs On The Wing." Like some slow rolling railcar, Underground Orchestra found their place within the iconic material, furrowing out sunshine with a lightness of touch that truly impressed. It was something akin to hearing Dickey Betts jam with Gilmour, Waters, et al. Next to me, a Kermit puppet that I'd partied with the previous night sported a Yoda costume and bobbed his head as stonily as the rest of us in the room. After a few days one acclimated to the sight of human-banana hybrids, Muppets, Wonder Woman, bizarro Uncle Sams, Mae West look-alikes and more, more, more. It became one's norm and made me sigh a little upon leaving that the world outside Evergreen Lodge wasn't quite as colorful or loose.

Blue Turtle Seduction encapsulated the general largeness of the night in one of the most passionate, baldly emotional sets I've ever witnessed by them. Whatever was stoking their engine on Saturday, it produced an incredible intensity, especially in Jay Seals and mandolin/violin player Christian Zupancic, who both played with the clarity and flow of early Carlos Santana. And swept up in their onrush, the rest of the band dug out something deep and real from within, and then offered it to us without hesitation. The tunes were jam heavy, expansive and adventurous. One felt taken elsewhere if they surrendered to their music. Ritual as much as concert, this set stands as one of their best and a fine sign that one should never put too fine a point on any expectations with this band.

The rest of the night for me is a fine blur produced by ALO and Tea Leaf Green, who played back-to-back sets on the main stage. While it may seem a cop out to speak of these performances in generalities, sometimes one has to just to let the music take them, and each band, in their own way, expertly mixed top flight songwriting with unbelievably high musicianship and a willingness to go wherever each tune opened up to. Both groups were in best form and anxious to jam in the finest ways; picking up on newly revealed pockets within the familiar, teasing out all the goodness within their compositions and then finding themselves surprised at fresh avenues opening up in the moment. Parsing such live experiences is an exercise for critics and I, like most gathered at this festival, am a music lover of the first order. TLG and ALO gave us two barrels of the good stuff right in the kisser, potent audio buckshot that pierced us, knocked us back and reminded us why both bands have such apostolic followings. Well done, guys.

Continue reading for Sunday's coverage...

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