Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Chad Smith
Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead IV :: 10.29.09-11.01.09 :: Evergreen Lodge :: Groveland, CA
More days than I care to admit, I find myself empathizing with the Devil, wondering if humanity is, at best, a flawed experiment run amuck. It's an unattractive perspective but one that's cropped up for me more and more in recent years as wars, tea-bagging, general pettiness, and greed whittle away at our shared humanity. But it takes only four days each Halloween weekend to bring me around to a considerably more copacetic, hopeful outlook. Turning off Highway 120 onto the ridiculously peaceful, verdant seven mile back road that leads to Evergreen Lodge and Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead music festival one feels some of the world's weight lift almost instantly. The air is moist and green flourishes wherever your eye falls. Take the road slow and drink it in and the last leg of one's journey works like an elixir absorbed through the skin. Where you are going is not the "real world" but a happy, highly musical oasis where palpable community, good will, and great times abound. Yes, this is a gathering of bands and fans, but if one fully launches themselves into the experience there's a chance at something hearteningly humanizing that goes well beyond a badass set or blinding solo, though Tortugas IV had both in abundance.
| Las Tortugas|
One of the striking differences about Tortugas versus most other festivals is how immediate the transformation from workaday existence to exuberant shindig takes place. Thursday here feels like a Saturday at most fests, as the first of many costumes emerges, twinkling lights are strung, pumpkins carved, and seals on whiskey bottles are broken as virtually everyone in attendance stretches out their arms to everyone they see. It may come off as some sort of bunk hippie claptrap but just being in this environment for a short while triggers off a wave of general niceness and hospitality that runs through attendees, performers, and the exceedingly gracious staff that worked their butts off all weekend so the rest of us could revel without a care. Nothing is too far away from anything else, and as you wander past cabins and tents towards the music frothing in the distance you'll likely be stopped by someone you don't know and offered a drink, some candy, or all sorts of amusements simply because they felt like being kind and they liked your smile.
And don't just trust me on this. Listen up to Tortugas IV guest of honor Bill Kreutzmann, he of the Grateful Dead, BK3, The Rhythm Devils and more, who performed a couple quite epic sets with pal Papa Mali but also sat in with headliners Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk and Umphrey's McGee, amongst others. The man was a drumming fool, in the best sense, enlivening everything he touched with both his huge, deeply underrated percussion chops and general fabulous energy. So, Bill, did you have a good time Tortugas?
| Bill Kreutzmann :: Las Tortugas|
"Are you kidding? I had a GREAT time. It feels like a party," says Kreutzmann by phone a few days after the event. "Festivals are really fun because I get to meet the fans. I really love talking to the people face-to-face and let them know I'm a real person and get to know what's on their minds and what they're thinking about musically."
Izabella :: 8:00-9:15 p.m. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
You couldn't pick a finer main stage opener than Izabella, a continually evolving Northern California unit that oozes positivity anchored to serious chops and strong songwriting. Archetypically "jam band" in nature, they encompass soul, rock, pop, and jazz as if all lived happily in one big bed. Yet, unlike many of their overly eclectic brethren, Izabella keeps refining their sound, which hums with ancestral echoes but ultimately carves their own path. "You all look pretty scary right now," remarked lead singer-guitarist-percussionist Brian Rogers, "and that's saying something coming from me." The lost Village Person, shirtless with a cowboy hat and feather boa, spoke the truth, as the first night's "Voodoo Circus" theme came to life with clown pants, duppy makeup, and other New Orleans/Ringling Brothers inspired touches. Izabella's set flowed so seamlessly that one wondered how they'd brought us from a slow prog ascent into country territory and out into full-on funk. There was a real "diamond in the back, sunroof top" feel to some sections, and their cover choices were sublime – a hallmark of Las Tortugas acts overall. Wilco's "Handshake Drug" rattled nicely and made Big Light groan because Izabella got to one of their picks first. Michael Jackson – a specter in many setlists – emerged with a solid rendition of "Billie Jean," and the set concluded with a way above-par stab at Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," complete with Wayne and Garth look-alikes rocking onstage with the band. In between originals like "Beauty In The Journey," a modern descendent of primo '70s Robin Trower, began our collective elevation in earnest.
Poor Man's Whiskey :: 9:15-10:15 p.m. :: Tuolumne Hall
If there's a band that loves getting onstage more than Poor Man's Whiskey I've never met them. Yet, that seemingly sloppy enthusiasm hides some serious players who actually approach their craft with an earnestness that's endearing. PMW picked up the "groove energy" put out by Izabella and rolled it in something gritty, pumping out their Whiskey-fied version of "Whipping Post" alongside their crowd-pleasing originals. For these guys rock and twang are Siamese twins, and their psychedelisized freak show slapped us around good.
| BAG of Trix :: Las Tortugas|
Nathan Moore :: 9:15-10:15 p.m. :: The Tavern
Moore was a blessed fixture at Tortugas all weekend, sitting atop tree stumps rolling smokes and dispensing gentle wisdom like the riverbank, backwoods Buddha many of us know him to be. He arrived with his voice a bit tattered, which gave his first performance in Evergreen's cozy bar a ragged, intense sweetness. He was bound and determined to give the people some songs and stories, and when Moore told us, "The world is really magic/ Nothing could be clearer," the words sunk deep, a truth penetrating past whatever rigmarole we still had clinging to us from our lives beyond the tall trees, clear moon-filled skies, and moist Yosemite air. Like every time I've seen him before, Moore reminded me of the acute power one man with a guitar and the right material can have.
BAG of Trix :: 10:15-11:45 p.m. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
Three-fourths of ALO - Dave Brogan, Steve Adams and Zach Gill - cemented the festival vibe with a set that overflowed with sunshine and melody. These dudes are just SO enjoyable to take in, and it extends beyond the well-played tunes to their basic personalities, which positively glow through the notes. Dressed in fuzzy, indistinctly animal outfits – except for Gill's obvious bunny hat – BAG were playful as pups armed with nasty piano stings, undulating bass, and lock-tight drumming. Drawing from their large ALO and solo catalogs, they swung like an alien piano/organ trio on a mission to sonically smooch everyone in the tent. I appreciate their fearlessness with covers because of the utter sincerity with which they render some genuinely unhip material. So, as Gill crooned Wang Chung's "Dance Hall Days," one truly felt compelled to "take your baby by the heel and do the next thing that you feel." Rarely are serious musicians this playful, and it's always a treat to see what they have up their sleeves.
New Monsoon :: 11:15-1:00 a.m. :: Tuolumne Hall
When one hasn't heard New Monsoon play in a while – and they're off the road a lot more of late – it's a lovely shock to hear their beautiful, wholly unique mélange. Regardless of the time between gigs, something special happens when they assemble, and that feeling was particularly strong this night. Able to be merciless or smooth, equally convincing at both, they merge carefully composed songs (with increasingly strong vocals) and genre-busting instrumentals without apology. In some ways NM asks a bit more than your average band of its listeners, but, as stunning renditions of originals like "The Other Side" or covers like Zeps' "Poor Tom" showed, surrendering to their current always takes you somewhere cool.
| Ivan Neville :: Las Tortugas|
Dumpstaphunk :: 1:00-2:30 a.m. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
There's a lot of kinds of funk out there, but if you love, if you crave the stuff that's sticky 'n' stanky, well, there's none better than Ivan Neville and his hard-nosed bunch. Decked out in robber masks, they launched into a ferocious performance that gathered up ALL the loose booty in a five-mile radius. On their best nights – and this was surely one of them - funk is a mission for this band, and their pursuit of it is exhilarating. If you were able to keep your limbs from flailing rhythmically during this set I'd suggest you pick up a defibrillator pronto. What further separates Dumpsta from the pack is how everything isn't bullet fast (or obviously derived from touchstones like Funkadelic, James Brown or Sly Stone), as exhibited by their molasses slow ease into a blinding cover of the Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil" highlighted by Ian Neville's jagged guitar cuts and the focused, endlessly exciting drumming of Raymond Weber. Their vocals, as a group, have matured, so it's not just Ivan rockin' the mic, and they've developed into excellent showmen, particularly the winking, leaping Tony Hall, who switched between bass and guitar with ease all evening. Towards the end of the set, they took us to church, Ivan exhorting us to gather up all the crap and trouble and worry and stress we'd brought into the woods with us and "put it in the dumpsta." It's a regular bit but there was a holy roller intensity here that made hundreds shout, "Put it in the dumpsta!" over and over and over in a way that really did liberate us.
Continue reading for Friday's coverage of Las Tortugas...