Goose On The Lake | 06.04-06.05 | Kentucky

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Mareo Speedwagon

Goose On The Lake Festival :: 06.04.10-06.05.10 :: Settle Lake :: Allegre, KY

Goose Creek's Charlie Gearheart
Most festivals are pleasant distractions from our normal life, opportunities to check out multiple bands, get a little loaded, dance some and then depart with a commemorative t-shirt. But some fests are experiences that strike to the core of us, reminding us what's good about human beings, especially creative ones that make the air vibrate with song. Goose On The Lake offered two days where kindness and happiness reigned and our better angels winged carefree and delighted.

Very quietly, this small gathering on a private farm in rural Kentucky has evolved into one of the coolest secrets in the summer festival season. Built around an annual celebration of country rock pioneers Goose Creek Symphony, this is a place where real musicians find audiences receptive and attentive to whatever is dished out because it's done with real heart, blister- won skill and raw talent. And beyond the offerings onstage, Goose On The Lake had the chillest, wonderfully mature group of freak flag waving free spirits you'd ever want to find. Taken together, the music, bucolic setting and primo companionship carved out a little piece of heaven on earth.

Lloyd Settle
"I have the same dream all the old hippies have. I'm just doing something about it," said Lloyd Settle, the host to Goose On The Lake along with Donna Settle, two of most hospitable folks on the planet. Weeks of land clearing and organizing go into making their farm ready for the 800 or so folks that roll in during the first weekend in June.

This year marked the fest's 15th year, and Goose Creek Symphony's 40th anniversary as a band. Diehards who've been rolling on the Creek since the early '70s mingled with youngsters who likely picked up on them from their parents or perhaps one of the many shout outs from heavily influenced descendents like Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, String Cheese Incident, Uncle Tupelo, Great American Taxi and many, many others. Goose Creek gives more codified critics' darlings Gram Parsons and The Byrds a run for their money in terms of originality, vision and plain old execution. In their early days they opened for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Cheech & Chong and other '70s luminaries, but despite denting the charts a few times, Goose Creek has remained largely a cult affair, though a fierce, exceedingly dedicated cult that includes numerous top flight musicians like Sam Bush, Vince Herman and Tim Carbone. There's a strong sense of family and instant fellowship at the Lake simply because of the band that serves as its foundation. Super cool things tend to beget more super cool, copacetic things, and Goose Creek is as copacetic and super cool as they come – survivors and innovators to this day, music makers driven first by the music in their blood and everything else secondary behind it.

Benny Skyn
Music began on Friday afternoon with serious singer-songwriter find Benny Skyn. Standing solo with an electric guitar, a tough life written large in his body, Skyn has the lilt of vintage John Prine and the punkish feel of early Billy Bragg. Within a couple numbers it became obvious that he's one of the most quotable, memorable lyricist to come along in a spell, dishing out doozies like, "All those intelligent things that you said won't get this trash out of my head," and telling black edged tales of men who get mean when you won't take a sip of their liquor while thanking the Lord for the hard times (and meaning it, too). Skyn is a songwriter's songwriter like Kristofferson or as he himself noted, "Singing songs written by Jesus and Tom T. Hall. Did you ever hear a Tom T. Hall song? It might make you wanna write a song, too." Listening to Skyn made me want to pick up a guitar and find a song to thank him for the purity and grit of what he does.

Nashville's The 5 Tones threw down a hard blues-rock gauntlet next, and the juxtaposition, like many this weekend, was sharp and exciting. There's not a lot of acts on the bill but the quality of each cracks like a whip, drawing one's attention quickly and continually rewarding it. Musicians are appreciated at Goose On The Lake, and that simple fact seemed to bring out the best in each performer. The sweat plastered t-shirts and contorted faces of The 5 Tones spoke volumes about the trio's dedication to get right down to the ground water in their genre, digging ferociously with tangy harp, slicing guitar and a rhythm section that just didn't quit. The encore cover of the North Mississippi Allstars' "Po' Black Maddie" is another clue to their sound, but these guys take it all the way out, separating themselves a good distance from the many who toy around in these dark waters. Kindred contemporaries include Super 400 and Rose Hill Drive, and as the next performer noted during their set, "They've got a Robin Trower Bridge of Sighs thing going on." All good stuff and reasons to keep an ear bent towards The 5 Tones.

Dave Gleason
Dave Gleason and The Golden Cadillacs nailed the California country rock sound with an inviting personality and perfect ear for ancestors ripe for resurrection. They've got real affection for Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan and "those strange but great Waylon Jennings records." Few have a mastery of this genre like Gleason, who really groks country's full sweep from oldies like Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell to modern greats like Dwight Yoakam and Rodney Crowell and everything in between. Suited up and looking like the full pros they are, this band slathered raw rock 'n' roll all over twangy-ass country and the mixture is just fuckin' delightful. Seriously, if you're having a bad time listening to these quality weepies and boot-scootin' jumpers then you might want to drink more…or less…or something. Gleason sings with one of the most naturally appealing voices to emerge in the past decade, and the tear in his beer seems genuine. He feels this music in a way most of Nashville has forgotten, and one can feel the difference as his music washes over you.

Friday evening's Goose Creek Symphony set was a hopping hodgepodge of deep album cuts and rarely played numbers, with most of the heavy hittin' fan favorites saved for Saturday night. Friday was for connoisseurs, and as a 25-year hardcore listener seeing them play live for the very first time I was in hog heaven. That word 'heaven' keeps popping up simply because it hangs close to this gathering. Perhaps others' vision of paradise is different than my own, but outside of the sweltering, hellishly humid southern heat, this is a pretty nice approximation of what at least one corner of heaven looks like in my mind. And you couldn't ask for a much better soundtrack than the Goose, who started off with a patient, phenomenal reading of "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad," which like many songs other bands have popularized sounds utterly new in their hands.

Goose Creek Symphony
"Think I'll let my hair grow long, think I'll grow a beard/ Think I'll go out and smoke some pot and start acting weird/ 'Cause I've always been a leader/ I ain't ever been no backseater/ I'll do anything but cut off my peter/ 'cause I want to be a rock 'n' roll star." Thus begins "Number One Gravy Band," one of many devastatingly enjoyable pieces trotted out this night.

What's stunning is the band's leader and chief songwriter Charlie Gearheart - as big and amazing a character as ever breathed life into this stupid, angry, rough world – is in his seventies and fellow original member/co-founder Paul "Pearl" Stradlin is no spring chicken either. The rest of the band is a mix of ages, some quite young, but all stellar players with clear dedication to knocking this music into the cosmos. Yet, Stradlin and Gearheart pitched in as hard as anyone, and neither this set nor Saturday's were short affairs. They all seem powered by this music, which similarly eases invigorating sap into the listener. Folks looked positively lit up across the lawn as night fell, sunburnt flesh cooling as Goose Creek's energy moved along the grass and into our limbs. Sure, strong corn liquor and pleasant smells in the air didn't hurt, but the key ingredient was the songs and their sublime performances – subtlety is a huge factor in Goose Creek's appeal and longevity. Gearheart declared near the end, "We'll end early enough for folks to get back to their tent and get some." Afterwards, Lloyd announced, "If you think music can't free people then take another puff!"

Backstage View by Dennis Cook
Saturday, the smell of KP's Smokehouse filtered into the far reaches of the farm, luring one in like a cartoon hound lifted off the ground by the smell of food. Pulled pork sandwiches, rib eyes on a bun, bologna sandwiches and more fed the masses, and all served with a big smile. One rarely failed to make a new friend or grow to adore the proprietors a little more each time they ponied up to their table to slather on finger lickin' sauces on meat that made me glad to be an omnivore. And the warmth and grinning sweetness of KP's extended to the merch folks, security staff and everyone else charged with keeping this enterprise moving. Really, just about the kindest, nicest folks I've ever encountered at a fest anywhere; absolutely on par with my West Coast fave, Las Tortugas.

Many people floated on the large, private lake during the afternoon, paddling around and sharing brews and laughter on the water. Long before music started up again with two more fantastic sets by Benny Skyn and Dave Gleason and his boys, laughter and gently splashing water provided a charming backdrop to relaxin' in the shade.

Frank Hudson
What drew a number of folks into the sunshine was the vintage acoustic snap of Mr. Frank Hudson, a renowned guitar picker who played with the likes of Merle Travis and learned his craft from the same old soul that taught Chet Atkins how to play. Mr. Hudson is pure class and was kind enough to let me sit at his heel earlier in the day before his set while he explained some of the nuances and history of the southern guitar style he practices. And he even offered me a pull from his small bottle of Old No. 7. Like I said, pure class. His set was like a great living jukebox full of wonderful songs like "Sunday Morning Coming Down." It's a deceptively simple thing he does, but the way he provides rhythm for his lead lines, in a sense accompanying himself and easing into songs with weathered grace is a wonderful thing to behold. Add in his seasoned stage patter – "Can you hear me? If you can hear me I'm playing too loud" – and Hudson proved a total crowd charmer and deservedly so.

Paul Burch & The WPA Ball Club were another surprise winner following Hudson, bringing in oodles of swing into country, folk and jazz inflected songs that touched on both American and English traditional music and then snatched it by the arm into modernity. Accordion, fiddle and Burch's guitar danced continually, creating a much fuller sound than one might expect from a trio. With an inviting voice and a big songbook full of quality material, Burch and the WPA evoked the past in a way that makes it new.

Wanda Jackson
They were followed by a short set from Nashville's Heath Haynes & The Hi-Dollars, who took us back to '50s ground zero rock with real aplomb. A blur of happy energy, they came on with an 88-key, unruly guitar assault anchored by a rhythm section so tight it wouldn't leak a drop. Bar band staples like "That's All Right, Mama" and "Six Days On The Road" bucked with life when they played 'em, and then they transformed into the backing band for Saturday's other headliner, Wanda Jackson.

"Keep listening and eventually we'll play one you like," the vintage rock queen declared, and they pretty much walked the line throughout their enjoyable, oldies rich set. Jackson arrived in the 1950s with one of the most distinctive voices to ever hit rock 'n' roll, and she's largely maintained it, though it sometimes took a bit to warm up or cracked occasionally. So be it; she's rock royalty and still offered up good times decked out in the most fringe I've ever seen on one shirt and a simply classic wig. When she let out a still-girlish squeal on monsters like "Fujiyama Mama" and "Riot In Cell Block No. 9" it raised your pulse a bit and reminded one how essential sex is to rock, which oddly didn't jar against the welcome gospel pieces and Jesus-saved-me rap also included in her set.

The main attraction for most, based solely on the sheer numbers on the lawn and their hooting enthusiasm, was Goose Creek's fest closing set. Without exaggeration, this performance ranked with the best I've seen by any band, every bit the equal to the transcendent experiences I've had with the Grateful Dead, Radiohead, The Black Crowes and other giants. What Goose Creek share with this bunch is the same undeniable originality, sheer talent and resounding conviction. One can play music to entertain and shake a coin out of folks' pockets, but for some it's a calling and a privilege to get up on stages and make music. A strong sense of ritual infused this show, with sage burning and a low, percussion driven 'ohm' building into the first song proper, a stunning reading of "These Hills" from 2002's I Don't Know album followed by their theme song, "Welcome To Goose Creek." In just two numbers one was struck by a sound forged over a lifetime, a music born from craggy, private places but delivered in a way that makes people dance away their troubles and rejoice in the now.

Goose Creek Symphony
The sensation of being present at a real happening only intensified as the set continued. "It looks like a good night out there. Might as well be," quipped Gearheart, a master of verbal sleight of hand peppered with wisdom you can use. And all six guys up there with him exuded the same heartfelt dedication to creating something good and useful and sweet for folks. By set's end I was certain that Goose Creek Symphony ranks amongst the best outfits rock has ever given us. They've got the chops, diversity and songbook to rival the mighty Grateful Dead, plus their harmonies are way better and they're a whole lot less self-important about what they do (especially these days). 'Down to earth' is a common expression but this bunch really is earthy and blue collar as a tattered, beloved pair of Levi's. But they're also pretty goddamn brainy and culturally savvy, and there are sections that nail some of the same magic one finds in The Beatles or Pink Floyd - two obvious influences that Goose Creek weaves into their own music masterfully, as in the Wish You Were Here like rendition of "I Don't Know" this night. The Goose can also get funky as fuck, and the low end generally swerves and pops with an unpredictable but right on time cadence. And somehow the fiddle fits into all of it. That's a neat trick.

Watching the sweaty, dazed young faces along the rail it was clear this isn't some nostalgia kick. This music has the power to directly connect to real music people, the sort open to the kind of blackly humorous, intricately woven yet rowdily delivered music that Goose Creek Symphony lays down. There were plenty of gray hairs like myself - freakin' as well as our bodies allow - but the younger fans reveal the huge potential for this music to light up myriad lives. It's right in front of us, waiting to lift your heels and twist your brain. And thankfully so is Goose On The Lake. Here's to Year 16 in 2011 and many more for Goose Creek themselves.

See many more pics from this wonderful festival here.

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[Published on: 6/21/10]

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