After staying up all night Wednesday, Thursday night's sleep was much needed and lasted a long time. So, I confess to listening to my first Friday show from my tent. It was Big Smith, a longtime favorite self-described "hillbilly rock" band from southern Missouri. Big Smith always draws a crowd - and keep everyone's toes tapping - with their awesome harmonies, up-beat original tunes and off-beat lyrics (one of their most popular songs is "12-Inch, 3-Speed Oscillating Fan"). Big Smith took the Main Stage at noon, which some of the band's members had told me was quite the accomplishment for them. I trust they sounded as good up close as they did from my tent in the Main Stage camping area.
|The Heavy Pets :: Wakarusa 2009|
Around 2 p.m., The Heavy Pets took the stage at the Outpost Tent. This lively and playful jam band was on its second Waka gig, and its booking manager Alex Evangelist told me the band had a great time this year. "The new location was much more appropriate. The people flow was positive and the scheduling was perfect," Evangelist said. "There was a strong common vibe, and the crowd made every show its own." The Heavy Pets, with recent addition Felix Pastorius on bass, clearly had been saving up their energy for Waka after traveling 24 hours from a gig in Florida to get there, and the crowd was appreciative at Friday's set. From the opening "Help Me Help You" to the closing song, "Bibbles," The Heavy Pets were impressive.
Next on the Main Stage was Sly & Robbie, who described themselves as a "bushwhack reggae" band. I'm not sure what that means, but to me, Sly & Robbie sounded like Jamaican funk-meets-reggae. And they had a trombone that blew it out. Some songs sounded very reggae, some sounded like New Orleans funk that had been transplanted to the Islands a few years back. Some sounded like a mixture. Others had an almost Latin American backbeat. The percussion (that's Sly) was impressive and persistent on every song, and Robbie's bass lines drove the beat while lifting your feet. I can see now why Sly & Robbie are such a big deal among the U.K. and Jamaican reggae/dancehall set, and have been for decades.
By the time I got to Les Claypool he had already taken the stage. Upon arrival I was told I'd just missed him performing in a chimpanzee mask. Big surprise there. Claypool's on stage antics are well documented and probably draw as many onlookers to his shows as his music does. He didn't let us down, musically or otherwise. He wore a couple of masks, he danced like a robot, and he showed us why he's a world-class rock bassist. Sans mask (part of the time anyway) and wearing a three-piece suit, bowtie and top hat, he transitioned with ease between playing lead, harmony, melody and solo, and he covers so much on the bass that his band doesn't even need another guitar. Really. It's pretty amazing to witness.
|Les Claypool :: Wakarusa 2009|
On the Main Stage at 8:30 p.m., Yonder came back with more. I gotta say, the crowd energy was not the same being in a wide open space this time instead of under a tent. It definitely felt different. For some bands, I have found that having a ceiling to bounce some of that energy and sound back down to the crowd definitely increases the potency of the show. Such is the case with Yonder. However, that said, Yonder did not seem to notice this on Friday night. No, sir! These four guys from Colorado were dead set on ripping us off some licks, roof or no!
So, even though we were outdoors, in the midst of a cool spring evening in the Ozark Mountains, we felt like we were watching our friends (albeit, well-stocked with musical equipment) play on their front porch, except there was nothing laid-back about it when Jeff Austin tore into his mandolin in the middle of a cover of the Talking Heads' "Girlfriend Is Better." And when they went into a freakin' rocking version of "Follow Me Down To The Riverside" no one was sitting still - least of all Yonder's guitarist Adam Aijala, who showed off his complex picking skills during that song. Then it was Austin's time to shine again during "Kentucky Mandolin," which delighted us by including a brief reference to the "Sesame Street" theme song. Awesome fun!
|Jeff Austin - YMSB :: Wakarusa 2009|
Next, STS9 drew the biggest crowd yet at its 10:45 p.m. show on Friday night at the Main Stage. It took me a long time, and I had to attend several live performances, to even begin to "get" STS9. The dub-breakbeat-psychedelic jam band builds small, repetitive parts upon one another inside a musical structure that's both simple and complex, all at once. It's extremely danceable and very tranceable, as the 8,000-plus people there that night will attest, and it's perfect for a light show extravaganza – another tool STS9 skillfully uses to build small parts into large, texturally rich compositions. In a word: Astounding! The band started out playing some of its original grooves, and gradually, over a two hour period, worked its way into the newest album. The set went beyond its allotted time, not surprisingly, and the crowd went nuts at the encore - though it had been nuts, with true glow-stick throwing frenzy.
Come to think of it, it perhaps was the glow-stick wars that helped make STS9 the most exciting show thus far. For my friend's young daughter, it definitely was the glow-stick wars and the amazing light show that accompanied STS9's set. That, and the band's cool and crazy costumes, made the show seem like the most energetic I'd ever attended, and my friend and his daughter agreed. And it was outdoors! No roof in sight! Blowing my previously stated theory out of the water. Go figure...
|STS9 :: Wakarusa 2009|
After the sensory overload that was STS9, I was grateful for the cool air on the walk over to Galactic's late night set in the Revival Tent. But it didn't take long for Galactic's grooves to grab me and get me back into a dancing mood. The horns ruled, especially on the title track to the band's latest CD, From the Corner to the Block. But really, it didn't matter what Galactic played because they played everything so well, and with so much funk and so much attitude that everything from hip-hop beats to polkas was keeping the tent full of people on their feet. Seriously. It was a hoot!
Meanwhile, over at the Outpost Stage, EOTO, which consists of String Cheese Incident members Jason Hann and Michael Travis - was impressing a techno-loving crowd with its "live dub-step, live electro, live house" music. EOTO is really something to watch. The pair uses instruments as well as computer equipment to throw out some crazy beats and licks, dub themselves, play over themselves, layer on special effects, then mix in a tiny bit of some familiar lick or lyrics from some popular dance tune, and it's great, improvised dance music. It's fun and fascinating, and, not surprisingly, the Outpost folks ate it up.
Continue reading for the rest of our Wakarusa coverage...