Loyal Earth Fest | 04.16-20 | St. Louis

Words by: Neil Salsich | Images by: Thomas Nagel

Loyal Earth Festival :: 04.16.09 – 04.20.09 :: The Old Rock House :: St. Louis, MO

Michael Kang with Particle
Loyal Earth 2009
St. Louis' Loyal Earth Festival made its debut this year, going above and beyond all expectations and delivering an extra-long weekend chock full of fantastic music from all over the country, spanning nearly every musical genre and every level of notoriety. Though heavy hitters Medeski Martin & Wood and Particle (featuring Michael Kang) topped the bill, along with rising stars Cornmeal and BoomBox, there was plenty of room for local Missouri bands to prove their worth alongside impressive up-and-comers from NYC to Seattle. Despite some unfortunate weather, the fledgling festival, which took place at the Old Rock House, a fabulous new downtown venue, certainly made a mark with its eclectic lineup, down to earth feel and unbeatable price (read: cheap as hell!).

The festival, spearheaded by local booking agency Loyal Family, aimed to pair a weekend of live music with local businesses and a mission of Earth awareness. While the emphasis was certainly on the music, there were some interesting opportunities for other activities, such as a free yoga tent as well as a booth where attendees could make their own Earth-conscious arts and crafts.

The first standout performance of the weekend came from the Springfield, IL band The Station. Their set was characterized by dissonant, jazzy melodies that would snap instantly into catchy choruses, with blazing guitar and sax work to top it off. Jam after jam peaked perfectly, with some pleasantly surprising excursions into trance territory a la The Disco Biscuits. The talent of lead axe man Kevin Leman was undeniable; he sounded conspicuously like a young Jimmy Herring, shredding through dissonant jazz scales but displaying a keen sense of ear-pleasing melody.

The Thursday night headliner, BoomBox - the super talented duo of DJ Russ Randolph and singer-guitarist Zion Godchaux - stepped up and kicked the weekend off appropriately, setting a high bar for all the acts to follow. They started with a number of new songs, presumably off their soon-to-be-released second album, but soon enough busted into some old favorites, wrangling some rock solid grooves and riding them to the ground, particularly on standout versions of "Stereo" and a set-closing "Mr. Boogie Man." In a musical culture where technical virtuosity is prevalent and almost demanded, BoomBox somehow manages to stand out. They aren't a flashy band by any standards, and perhaps that is their most endearing quality. Randolph's beats tap into subterranean grooves while Godchaux layers simple but tasty guitar work on top. The duo's music coupled with the idyllic setting made for quite a high, where listeners could lose themselves in the music or enjoy a drink on the outside patio under the lighted silhouette of the Arch with the glittering waters of the Mississippi not more than a few blocks away.

Loyal Earth Festival 2009
Friday brought with it not only a fantastic bluegrass/roots themed day of music but perfect weather to boot. Local St. Louis band The Northwoods were the first to play and the first to impress. As for the local bands that played throughout the weekend, these guys certainly took the cake. Surely the St. Louis scene has a bright future with bands like this one at the helm. I've yet to find a band that can pull off Crosby, Stills & Nash-style harmonies so genuinely - guitarists Jeremy Shanas and Elijah Palnik sang with pure sunshine. A cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" at the end of their set pointed to another obvious influence.

The crowd filled out a little as the evening's headliners, The Travelin' McCourys, took the stage. Despite no appearance by Tony Rice, who was billed to play, the Brothers McCoury (Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo) led a super tight band through a blazin' set of traditional bluegrass, with a bonus sit in by Cornmeal's Chris Nowak at the end. The McCoury's were truly a class act. Ronnie, dressed sharply in a black suit, hair slicked back, conjured up images of his famous father (Ronnie and Rob are sons of legendary bluegrass elder statesman Del McCoury). Rob was fierce on the "five-string flamethrower," as Ronnie joked, and particularly cool was when bass player Alan Bartram wowed the crowd with a spot-on version of Bill Monroe's "Rocky Road Blues."

Seattle troubadour Jason Webley played inside during the McCourys' set - there were two stages of music simultaneously, one indoors and one outdoors - and what a stark contrast! Upon walking inside after a set of traditional bluegrass, and hearing the line, "It's raining leprosy and acid," the crowd knew this would be something else entirely. Webley quickly won over any doubters with his wild stage antics and shockingly direct musical interaction with the crowd. Audience members couldn't help but crack up at Webley's hilarious songs about elephants and aardvarks, among other strange things.

Loyal Earth Festival 2009
With an entire day of music under their belts, the folks in attendance had no idea that the night was just getting started when Cornmeal took the stage for a late night show. All in all, Cornmeal delivered the goods with perhaps the best show of the entire weekend. The hours simply flew by as this unbelievably talented Chicago band treated the crowd to a set of the funkiest rocking bluegrass that's ever been played. From the moment they launched into the first song, they had the crowd dancing and they didn't let up until they walked off the stage. Who knew bluegrass could get down? The band relentlessly tore through number after number of lengthy jams that covered a tremendous range of emotion - anywhere from sweet to sassy to spooky - and ebbed and flowed with effortless precision. "Mole in the Ground" marked a crossroads where bluegrass and funk met, one place I'm sure many audience members never thought they'd witness. Guitarist Chris Nowak literally wailed; bassist Chris Ganji got down and dirty with some infectiously funky basslines; Allie Kral worked the crowd into a frenzy with her flying fiddle work; Wavy Dave Burlingame's banjo lines popped and plunked with lightning speed; and JP Nowak took it all to the next level with his drum kit. The obvious highlight was a beautiful rendition of "Rain Your Light." Somehow they took three of the most common chords in American music and made them sound completely original. This was truly the standout show of the weekend.

Day Three brought another ten hours of fantastic bands, starting with Chicago road warriors 56 Hope Road. Unfortunately, this was also the start of some rainy weather that plagued the festival for the rest of the weekend. The HipNecks, based in Columbia, MO, were the next shining stars, churning out a set of absolutely twangy, good old-fashioned American rock & roll - a sound that makes sense when you consider their name, a combination of "hippy" and "redneck." Their enthusiasm for their craft was obvious and infectious. Remember the name, because this band is going places. Springfield, MO's Speakeasy carried the torch with some shredding blues rock to tide the audience over until Particle took the stage.

Michael Kang with Particle
Loyal Earth 2009
This Particle show featured String Cheese Incident star Michael Kang, so fans were treated to a rare and slightly different side of the L.A. band's music. Keyboardist and lead man Steve Molitz was absolutely on point, displaying some serious chops as he led the band and audience through a number of substantial jams. Molitz' energy was explosive; on most songs he looked about to blast out of his seat. Eric Gould was an absolute monster on the bass, keeping his lines funky and adventuresome throughout a two set performance highlighted by a sprawling "Launchpad." Kang certainly brought some jazz to the trio, adding a certain something special on his trademark electric baritone mandolin. Throughout the performance, rain came down mercilessly but added to the energy by forcing everyone under the tent to enjoy the show. Though Particle's set was exhausting, any fans that were about to leave were lulled back inside by NYC's Break Science, a group with a rotating cast built around master drummer Adam Deitch. Deitch's skillful drumming propelled the music and kept the crowd on their feet until the night's end.

Though Sunday's weather was worse, with blankets of clouds, nearly constant rain and a biting chill, the music got even better. This was perhaps the festival's most anticipated day, as everyone was looking forward to MMW's headlining show that night. After local heroes FolknBluesGrass treated the crowd to an unplugged set of - their name says it all - folk, blues and bluegrass, Billy Martin, John Medeski and Chris Wood took to the stage amidst a raucous applause. Beginning with some seemingly chaotic and disheveled improv, the trio suddenly burst into form as "Flat Tires" began. Throughout the show, they swept through a plethora of styles and grooves, plunging into deep funk, orchestral anthems and sleepy acoustic jazz. "Cloud Wars" capped off the first set fittingly and baited the crowd as they waited for the second set, which kicked off with a slinky "Free Go Lily." The set list was heavy on the trio's new album, Radiolarians II, but featured numbers from all stages of the band's career. Set closer "Yeah" was a standout, subtly growing into a powerful, emotional jam that sounded different from anything they had played so far, as if The Arcade Fire or Death Cab for Cutie decided to form a jazz trio. The surprise encore of "Crosstown Traffic" brought the house down, electrifying the audience for the rest of the night.

Soon after, Fareed Haque and his Flat Earth Ensemble began to play inside. No one really knew what to expect as the band took the stage, but any doubts were put to rest once they started playing. Led by world famous jazz guitarist Haque, the group wowed the audience with a free flowing combination of every imaginable type of music - anywhere from blues to jazz to Indian classical music. Perfect keys work from Willerm Delisfort rivaled Haque's virtuosity while Subrata Bhattacharya supported the whole band with only a set of tabla drums. His playing was forceful and expressive and added a completely unique but welcome dynamic to the ensemble. The group was great, but the audience truly witnessed a moment of magic when, as the band broke into a slow blues, a festivalgoer with a harmonica began to play along in the audience; eventually he hopped onstage, grabbed a mic and proceeded to wail on the harp! The band rolled with it and the audience went nuts; it's not every day you get to see something that special.

Chicago's Future Rock ended the night, and though I was unable to attend Monday's shows from bands including EOTO and Pretty Lights, all reports indicate they capped the weekend fittingly.

As festival season rolls around, some feel overwhelmed as each one attempts to outdo the other, adding monstrous headliners and booking an endless list of well-known bands to trump the next guy, all with a ticket price guaranteed to dent most bank accounts. Small festivals like Loyal Earth offer a refreshing break from all that hype. Despite the lack of huge names, what struck me most about this festival was the incredible talent of nearly every band that played. Mark my words, great things lay ahead for many of these groups. The festival kept a low profile and had a distinctly relaxed feel. Loyal Family founder Josh Grigaitis commented on the happenstance formation of the weekend: "The festival grew all the way through the weekend. Originally it was just going to be Sunday and Monday, but once we booked BoomBox, and Cornmeal was coming in on Friday, and it even became possible to get Medeski, we were like, 'Holy shit.' We just sort of had to answer the calling."

Here's to hoping Loyal Earth heeds the call next year!

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[Published on: 5/1/09]

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