Summer Camp | 05.21 - 05.24 | Illinois

Saturday :: 05.23.09

Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
The heat in the tent got me up pretty early Saturday morning. It was so nice not to ever end up waiting more than five minutes in line for ice (or any vendor, for that matter), to be able to run back to camp at any point and not have to miss a set, to pretty much go anywhere with a beverage in hand and not be asked to guzzle it or toss it. The grounds were getting pretty dusty, though, as I headed to the Moonshine Stage at noon for Secret Chiefs 3. After an extended soundcheck, the band reemerged in their trademark black cloaks, and I was shocked to see original drummer Danny Heifetz behind the kit! Also, new to the lineup was bassist Toby Driver. The crowd was sparse but awestruck as the band absolutely nailed an unbelievable set of its trademark hodgepodge of Middle-Eastern folk spliced with metal, surf and sweeping ambience. New arrangements of "The 3" and "Vajra" particularly showcased Heifetz's ludicrous prowess and the awesome power of the band as a whole. Trey Spruance was a magician on both guitar and electric saz, playing off Timb Harris' violin on an extended "Zulfikar" to truly momentous effect. As the set rushed to its climax, the thin clouds above began a short, welcome downpour. It might seem ridiculous in print but the whole proceedings felt like a ritual, and when "Renunciation" was finished I doubted I'd see anything that would quite compare for the rest of the weekend.

The rest of the day was not terribly eventful for this scribe. The only real highlight prior to the title bout was Les Claypool's set, which opened strong with "Up On The Roof" and closed with an exuberant yet heavy "Booneville Stomp" jam and "Fisticuffs," during which Les busted out one of the most memorable bass solos I've heard him play in years. I have to admit that purely in this context, Sam Bass comes off like he's trying to be the Skerik of cellists, but that doesn't take away from his talent or his obvious camaraderie with Claypool. The set felt a bit rushed, but it was a rush all the same, the new songs (particularly "Booneville" and "Mushroom Men") really coming into their own as vehicles.

Les Claypool :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
Umphrey's opened the battle with another excellent set, complete with a Claypool cameo on Whamola during "Mulche's Odyssey" to end the set. After years of watching this band evolve, it wasn't until this set that I recognized the beginnings of a truly distinctive jam swell, guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger in battle mode, surging in a technical frenzy while becoming progressively chaotic, yet never letting things fall apart. The prog and jam band personalities of UM are simultaneously becoming more individually unique yet symbiotically distinctive, and the growth of the band is almost blatant every time I see them live. Either the band is on a major hot streak or I've just been hitting the right shows, but this night proved a revelation.

moe. started strong with "Wind It Up" and a consistently interesting "Okayalright" with a triumphant return, but the set began to sink into repetitive jamming after this point. Admittedly, almost anything would seem repetitive following UM, who for better or worse, caters to an increasingly ADD world, while moe. demands more patience from its audience. But moe. is one of the first bands to inject a modern-prog sensibility into the jam scene while retaining the laid-back whimsy of The Dead, and the group's first set relied too much on mellow good will to stand out over Umphrey's ballistic attack.

Umphrey's McGee :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
UM's second set opened with fireworks and "1348;" there was enough energy here for a whole set by most bands. Little did I know that this was about to become by far the heaviest set of music I'd ever seen at a jam band festival. The truth is, for many years I've dreamed of seeing a band combine true improvisational exploration with actual heavy metal, but I didn't realize to what extent it is already happening. This was my first experience with "The Floor" or the "Sad But True/Clint Eastwood" mashup, and by set-closer "Miss Tinkle's Overture" I was absolutely blown away. But, none of this prepared me for the encore. A thrilling "Cemetery Walk" led to "Wizard Burial Ground" in an honest-to-God thrash, ending the show with more fireworks blasting, literally and figuratively, from the direction of the stage. I can't think about this set in any terms other than legendary. It was an even-if-all-the-shirts-suck-I'm-buying-one set, and a turning point in my appreciation for the band.

It was hopeless for moe. to try and top this, but the band was clearly pulling out all the stops, particularly guitarist Al Schnier. "The Road" started things off with a hot jam, and "One Of These Days" was a very welcome spooky, spacey blast. So, why did it have to devolve into a dull bass solo? "Ricky Marten" was magnificent, and Schnier absolutely poured every ounce of himself into "Lazarus," even though the jam extended a few minutes past its prime. Not coincidentally, the band embraced a relative heaviness to cap the set, particularly with a scorching "Tailspin" encore. There's no doubt that UM's road to success was partially paved by moe., and in the end I was left feeling grateful for the chance to be present for what seemed like a passing of the baton.

Sexy Bitches :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
I am a Big Lebowski fan, and I can honestly say that Family Groove Company pulled off a really enjoyable, campy set, complete with costumes, movie clips and the essential songs from the soundtrack, including CCR's "Lookin' Out My Back Door," Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Just Dropped In," Santana's "Oye Como Va" and The Eagles' "Hotel California" sung in Spanish. But as fun as the show was, it allowed me to put my finger on what has been bugging me about this band: this sort of campy display suits the band well, except for guitarist Adam Lewis. It's not that the rest of the band can't hack it as serious musicians, but Lewis projects a totally different intensity from the other three members, and he really seemed out of place up there in his Walter costume, even though his playing was great. I just fear that the differences in attitude could be holding them all back from reaching the next level as a band and as individuals.

One thing Summer Camp lacks is the potential for the truly monstrous, epic late-nighter since every set is relegated to an hour or so, which obviously allows for more artists to have a go, but it also leaves time for fatigue to set in during the lull between sets. I really had planned on powering through the Sexy Bitches, but even before they started, I was literally nodding off out of sheer exhaustion, and while I can appreciate Keller Williams' desire to experiment with the band format, he has thus far bored me to tears both with WMDs and this new supergroup, featuring Schnier and Rob Derhak from moe. and Joel Cummins from UM. Maybe the set heated up in the end (although not according to anyone I talked to), but it was doing me no good, so I bailed.

Al Schnier - moe. :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Continue reading for Sunday coverage of Summer Camp...

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