Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Nathan Kamsler
Operation: Adaptation :: 04.24 - 04.25 :: The Concord House :: Sullivan, WI
This is a great time to be a jamband fan, not so great a time to start a jamband. Sure, the market is hot, but let's face it: the scene is so clogged with sound-alike bands and copycats that it's rare to come across a new improvisational rock band that doesn't remind you of a half-dozen well-established artists. As fans, we can happily spread ourselves pretty thinly thanks to the proliferation of festivals and hone in on our particular tastes, but this leaves little room for young upstarts to rise above the vast sea of generic jamming even when they are doing something unique. Operation: Adaptation, now in its second year, is the perfect testing ground for the best of the Midwest to compete for discerning ears, and for fans to just bask in the festival vibe to start the season off. But the higher purpose here of environmental awareness, a cause that everyone has latched onto but that actually birthed this event, takes on a much more active role here than in any big-name fest anywhere; whereas the iconic superstars scramble to offset the massive energy drain they create, Op:Ad was actually power generated by the fans to create less waste to begin with. Once the human-powered model is perfected, it could lead to a future of virtually zero-pollution concerts powered entirely by infinitely renewable energy.
| Chicken Wire Empire :: Op:Ad 2009|
The festival's inaugural year was kissed by Mother Nature (a gesture of gratitude?); despite forecasts of rain, Sullivan, WI had sun and 70's all weekend. For 2009, campers were hopeful for another miracle, but this is Wisconsin. Beginning with outlandish 80-plus-degrees on Friday, things were off to a great start, perfect for this year's newly-added Campground Solar Stage; unfortunately, I couldn't make it in time to check out any of the outdoor performances. Op:Ad's main attractions play on two stages inside the Concord House, a reception hall/lodge just off I-94 in Sullivan. You can forget about traffic jams, cramped camping spaces, shady drug dealer posses, gaudy corporate advertising, overbearing security, and even the possibility of any of the main acts getting rained out; it's just the fans, here to have fun, the spirit of Bonnaroo without any of the aggravation. And three dollar bottles of Newcastle just can't be beat.
First up at the Electric Stage to give it a shot was the Twin Cities' Roster McCabe. The show centered around the considerable talents of singer/keyboardist Alex Steele, who brings a freaky, quasi-industrial edge to his synth sound that most jambands wouldn't touch. The group has its roots in Sublime-esque pop reggae and funk rock, but we were treated to some forays into electronica jamming as well, the inevitable splash of Bisco for the weekend. McCabe have all the motions down: the gear-switch, the space-out, the groove lock-in; they're just missing the subtlety of communication that only comes with time. Drummer Jeff Peterson has power but lacks finesse, making transitions too obvious, but that may be to the benefit of the band in the early going. Once they all learn to listen to each other a little more sharply, they will be a force to be reckoned with. It was a solid set to start the weekend for sure.
| Bryan Cherry :: Op:Ad 2009|
Bryan Cherry is one of Milwaukee's premier soul belters, and he appeared tonight on the Bike Stage with the Situation (alter ego of Bryan Cherry Band guitarist Sean Williamson, although this was a full band...), after a slight technical delay. The man certainly owns the stage, bringing a nice breath of electricity compared to last year's virtually all-acoustic output from the Bike Stage. Cherry is much more controlled on record, admittedly, but the energy is more palpable when you can watch him gettin' down. I could've used a bit more of that energy from Williamson, but overall this was a crack R&B outfit with the obvious hunger for bigger things.
It was really nice to see a much more energetic crowd on the spin bikes this year; the people pedaling them are literally powering the spectacle onstage. Dan Aukofer, one of the masterminds behind Power By The People (the organization responsible for the whole bike setup), said that this year's diorama is completely new and much more energy-efficient than the one unveiled at last year's shindig, but he's constantly working on ways to improve his system. "A lot of artists pay lip service to the whole 'green energy' idea, but this is an example of actually doing it," he says. While trendy "carbon credits" and planting trees don't actually cut down on fossil fuels being used, Aukofer's bikes harness the limitless horsepower of human ambition, completely free of the power grid. He feels that his system is just a tweak away from being able to efficiently power a much larger event, and he expects to have several more opportunities in the near future to perfect the idea. Based on my observations, if you could bottle the environmental passion contained in this one man, he could power a whole day of Lollapalooza all by himself. The sustainable future of our world will be facilitated by ideas from people like Dan.
Next up on the main stage was the Stubblefield/Adler Duo; it actually ended up being a trio with the addition of an unannounced guest saxophonist. With this performance, my love/hate relationship with Dave Adler swung decidedly to the sweeter side. The man is a master of improv without a doubt, but also an incurable ham, and the very cheese that has ruined Willy Porter shows for me was endearing in this setting; what makes him hokey as a sidekick comes off as charming in a bandleader. Having Clyde Stubblefield as your drummer doesn't hurt, either. Was the man born to jam, or just born to do absolutely whatever is called for with a drum skit? He was never flashy, just supremely commanding. The unknown sax man couldn't have had a whole lot of time to rehearse with the Duo, but he performed admirably, much more than just keeping up. His solo during "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was particularly invigorating. This set was one long jam; the music never stopped for a second, and even though it ran out of steam for the last fifteen minutes or so (after Adler asked if they were supposed to keep playing, go figure), it was just one of the most fun sets of the weekend.
| Stubblefield/Adler Duo :: Op:Ad 2009|
Next, for the second year in a row, Stealin' Strings played a bluegrassy set. Last year, I thought it was because the Bike Stage couldn't handle the full onslaught of SS's electric set, but this year I know better. I anticipate Pert' Near Sandstone's set tomorrow will make this hour of generic jamgrass superfluous, so knowing what these guys are capable of, I wonder why they choose not to show themselves at this fest. It was okay, but not even as good as '08, and while a lot of fans probably view it as a special treat, I know that the Strings could blow away most of the bands here if they really let loose, so I felt slighted again.
Chinese Fingertrap announced its dissolution last year, so it was a surprise to see the band announced as a headliner again this year. Sax player and head honcho of Operation: Adaptation, Nathan Kamsler, warns fans not to get their hopes up. "The band is pretty much going to make Operation: Adaptation our only show each year," he says. "Everyone's still great friends and we have a blast playing together but with everything going on in everyone's lives, we'll probably just make it an annual thing." Maybe the break brought renewed vitality to the band, because I'd felt that CFT's fest-closing set in '08 dragged a bit. Tonight's show seemed more concise yet more exploratory, and the energy was high. The band is surely the Late For The Future-era Galactic surrogate for the Midwest, complete with the occasional-vocalist motif, and while they're not breaking any ground, they're up there having a blast and getting the crowd into a real groove. The biggest problem was that drummer Cody Schleicher not only occupied the space where Clyde Stubblefield had just sat, he also can't compete with Galactic's Stanton Moore (few can). Consequently, the straightforward grooves left me craving a bit more dynamic. Still, vocalist Alyssa Voelker was always a welcome presence (particularly on the spooky staple "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys"), Kamsler was undeniable throughout the set, equal parts melodic and manic, and bassist B-Bone creaks some mean moodscapes all around and in between jams. Overall, pretty impressive for a once-a-year escapade.
| Chinese Fingertrap :: Op:Ad 2009|
Saturday morning, a part of me was very happy that I hadn't camped. I had a forty-five minute drive one way, but camping in the rain is only fun the first few times. Still, that noonish drive got pretty intense, but the downpour proved to have presumably unanticipated benefits for the bands inside the Concord House (not to mention the vendors). While in 2008, there might've been a handful of spectators for the earliest sets on Saturday, the house was already pretty packed for Sean Shiel's set around 1:00. The unabashed Keller Williams stand-in was the perfect warm-up artist, as well as an ideal backdrop for the vital hula hoop scene, which included at least one real artist this year; she briefly took over the main floor in front of the bikes and got the kind of attention you're just not going to achieve at a big-name fest. Sheil himself is a crowd-pleaser, wowing us with Phish's "The Inlaw Josie Wales," and refreshingly acknowledging the sincerest form of flattery with Williams' "Freeker By The Speaker." I hadn't seen Sheil since Op:Ad '08, but the man has progressed; as it turned out, though, not quite enough for the "most improved" award...
| Op:Ad 2009|
It doesn't go to Cosmic Railroad either. This band is the reliable Dead/Allman mash-up of the Midwest. I can say that there were some very competent, even enjoyable, jams, but they didn't make the band any less painfully similar to a hundred others. The lush sound of the room and the sheer density of the three-guitar swath produced some nostalgic thrills from a time before I'd already heard dozens of jams just like every one heard here. None of the guitarists achieved any sort of distinction, although Pete Rallo came closest as he led the most notable jam during "All He Had." This is the pickle countless bands find themselves in, but the crowd was surely appreciative, leading me to believe that if I could shut off my brain, close my eyes, and drink the generic cola, I'm sure it would begin to taste just like Pepsi. Nothing wrong with that.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this year's lineup was a virtual repeat of last year, but missing my two favorite acts from '08, Groovatron and Family Groove Company. What we did get, though, was a brand new side project: the duo of FGC keyboardist Jordan Wilkow and FGC drummer Mattias Blanck, dubbed Women's Downhill. Stylistically, the music was mainly the jazz/jamrock fusion of FGC, just without any aspirations beyond fun. The set was a superbly-played, rollicking great time. Both musicians just cruised breakneck through the set, with the exception of the out-of-place cover of "After The Gold Rush." It was the perfect soundtrack for my stationary bike ride, and probably the most downright joyous set of the weekend.
| Heatbox powering Bike Stage|
Up next was LaCrosse's Shoeless Revolution, featuring singing drummer Reed Grimm, who turned out to be one of the better singers and drummers of the weekend. The set got hotter and hotter as it progressed, the tight three-piece horn section cooking up some decent ska flavor, splicing it with spicy N'awlins groove that morphed into some serious keyboard-versus-guitar action, rising to a fever pitch, then crashing to a sudden end. This is a band that knows how to end a song at its climax, never letting a jam peter out. SR brings an almost Chicago-like synergy between horns and rock, never laying the funk on too thick, just some great arrangements and superb ensemble playing. The show-stopper was "Repeat," just an excellent song, and there was even a sax/trumpet duel from amidst the crowd for the finale that left a brief Beefheart aftertaste. It was a marvelous set, the high point of the weekend for me.
I'm not going to say a lot about the Super Duper Jam, that growing festival cliché that sometimes works and definitely didn't here. Featuring members of Stealin' Strings, Fat Maw Rooney and others, the utter lack of ambition as the group moseyed through predictable mellow covers was a good excuse to grab a bite to eat. The inclusion of Danny Miller on harmonica, who'd been scheduled to play the rained-out Solar Stage, provided a couple of good moments, but overall it was a breather in preparation for Steez. This Mad City band has built up an impressive following in four years, and one immediately-apparent reason was bassist Chris Sell, who didn't necessarily dominate the band but he was a potent presence, bringing true melody and character to his rhythmic mission. The interplay between guitarist Steve Neary and saxophonist Andrzej Benkowski was the crux of the band's inspired blend of funk, rock and spooky exploration. The key to multi-phasic jams is the element of surprise coupled with spontaneous composition, and this group possesses the intuition and the communication skills to make the shit work, no doubt about it.
I was poised to seek refuge from Heatbox's set; I'd walked out on him last year after witnessing several minutes of completely amateurish goofing off. This year, he gets the "most improved" award by a long shot. A truly fresh breath of hip-hop amidst an almost oppressively Caucasian weekend, Heatbox's set was unrecognizable from last year's attempt; 100% better on the singing, beatboxing and production fronts. I particularly enjoyed the hit of Warren G and the "Thank you for the Jack & Coke" jam, but the whole thing was a blast.
| Pert' Near Sandstone :: Op:Ad 2009|
It did feel a bit odd going from this to Willy Porter's P.A.B. trio; weirder still when we saw the Star Trek episode projected on a small screen behind Porter, Adler, and Biff Blumfumgagne; truly bizarre when they actually started playing. I hadn't seen Biff since his days in Willy's superb band back in the mid-90's, when he was a dynamo on the fiddle and a focal point of the show. If you've followed Porter's career at all, you know he's going to throw some curveballs... but I never saw this coming. For one thing, Biff spent most of the night on electric guitar, and to be honest, wasn't really much of a presence, except for brief, otherworldly spasms of sound. They ran through spacey, disjointed versions of Porter tunes and long, amorphous jams, punctuated by Adler's cheesy interludes, which were a distraction here unlike the night before, but at least he provided some energy. The proceedings didn't come off as very well-rehearsed, and while the set was mildly interesting just for being so different, I still can't really figure out what these three were going for, but I don't think they achieved it. The effect was of a feature-length Porter/Adler inside joke that Biff just wasn't in on. I don't see much future in it.
Pert' Near Sandstone was the surprise (to me) hit of Op:Ad '08; they packed more energy into their brief afternoon set than almost any other act of the weekend. The group has grown in stature since then, but this year’s set was too spread out to pack nearly the punch. Constant broken strings didn't help matters, either; there were lengthy pauses between practically every song, making it tough to get any real momentum going. That said, there was plenty of great bluegrass here; highlights included the brilliant "Just One Day," an impromptu "Super Mario Bros." medley (in honor of the painted backdrop on the stage), and set-closer "Stay All Night." Excellent musicianship as always, just poor pacing.
It all seemed to have flown by as the final set of the weekend began. Fat Maw Rooney is the undisputed jamband champion of the Milwaukee area, and while the band draws from the Dead, a hint of bluegrass and plenty of white-boy funk (omnipresent this weekend), it owes as much to The Black Crowes as anything else. While certainly derivative, the band was actually one of the earliest purveyors of the southern-rock-meets-War trend; FMR has just toiled in relative obscurity until recently. The band just exudes goodwill, and not only from the stage; in addition to curating Op:Ad, the group is well-known for its various charitable and environmental causes. Onstage, what Fat Maw lacks in dynamic power, it makes up for with sheer likability. Plenty of booze-soaked imagery ("Love & Whiskey"), rambling jams ("Disjunkt"), and requisite folksy covers ("West L.A. Fadeaway," "Into The Mystic"), but nothing that will freak you out.
One thing that sets the group apart from the vast majority of even the big-name jambands is the soulful, The Band) play it as a wallowing dirge, FMR's rendition was refreshingly sped-up and uplifting, a great ending to the set. The encore rendition of "Into The Mystic" was a dirge, but they followed it up with the polyrhythmic workout "Traveler" to bring the weekend to a close in fine fashion. After a relatively laid-back set, this was the exclamation point that had been missing. The band could use some more standout songs like this one, but it's always prudent to end on the highest note possible.
| Fat Maw Rooney :: Op:Ad 2009|
When all was said and done, I realized I'd discovered enough considerable new talent to make me not miss last year's highlights at all, and the overall improvement from returning artists made this year even better. The only real complaint I had was the food: last year's Totally Baked Pizza featured way better quality and much more reasonable prices, while this year's catering was more like overpriced carnival fare. The good news was that even with the state of the economy and the lack of bigger names, attendance was up from roughly 650 to 1,000, and all things considered, it's easy to see why. If you're looking to have an incredibly cheap (early-bird tickets were only thirty bucks, folks), hassle-free weekend in a smoke-free, comfortable lodge, staffed by friendly people, and you want to further the cause of truly sustainable energy, this is your destination.
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