Words: Robert Johnson
Live Images: Adam Gulledge
There is no better feeling than being proud of your hometown, and every year Music Midtown makes me proud to be an Atlanta resident. It has grown into the second largest music festival in the country, behind only the mighty New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Every year, promoters Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon bring a truly diverse collection of top-notch talent, which helps to compensate for the less-than-ideal site. A true city festival, Music Midtown incorporates some small parks, but most of the time you are hanging out in parking lots and closed-off streets.
In its ninth year, the festival provided many riches for the jam-minded, most of them at the Z93 stage. Friday was looking rough, with heavy thunderstorms earlier in the day. However, the storm cleared in the nick of time, and I ventured down towards the Z93 stage. Along the way, RANA, a band from New Jersey that was playing at the 96 Rock stage, pleasantly surprised me. As I walked up to the stage, they were in the midst of a thunderous Black Sabbath groove that rocked what is usually a softball field with pure bass power. The name of the song was apparently “I Wanna Rock,” or something like that, and it surely distinguished RANA as a band that likes the heavy side of things. Their next song was called “Skin and Bones” and featured haunting vocals and some really trippy guitar lines. "On and on and on" was used as an effectively hypnotic vocal refrain during the chorus.
And right away, there is the beauty of the festival scene: Seeing a band you've barely ever heard of and having them blow you away. RANA has good songs, solid vocals, and they can jam. "These guys obviously know what they're doing," I thought to myself as I walked towards the Z93 stage to see Robert Randolph.
As I approached the Z93 stage, I saw a nondescript white folding chair sitting in front of Robert Randolph's pedal steel guitar. It looked like the setup for a church dance, not a rock concert, and it was hard to believe that in just a few minutes Randolph would turn his pedal steel into a magic carpet as he guided the crowd through realms of funk, blues, gospel, and just good old-fashioned MUSIC.
Robert Randolph took the stage in a sharp black fedora and a New York Mets jersey, looking as if he had just walked out of a Run DMC video. A snappy bass solo from cousin Danyell opened up into a light jam with a jazz-fusion flavor. It was a very different style than the foot-stomping gospel of The Word, the super group featuring Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi All-Stars. Even so, it was a nice groove, and it was clear that everybody had come to play. Randolph's unique tone and passionate playing really made his pedal steel sing, and it was obvious from the start that he has that bond with his instrument that only the greatest musicians have. The organ player, John Ginty, also came out of the gate with a great solo, and Danyell showed great versatility, playing sometimes like a bassist, other times like a guitarist.
photo by dino perrucci
"This next song is called ‘The March,’" Robert Randolph announced in a Motown MC voice. "It has a dance that goes with it, called The March, that will make you feel so good inside." The joyful vibe of the song does make you feel good inside, I can testify, and in no time Randolph had most of the crowd doing the dance. "This is the march of universal love, this is the march of universal freedom," he said in his best preacher voice, and I was quickly impressed with the almost James Brown-esque sense of showmanship that Robert Randolph has. Here was this relatively unknown kid from New Jersey, and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.
As the jam came crashing to a close, a beautiful “Amazing Grace” jam developed that showcased the luminescent tone of the pedal steel guitar. The Family Band finished up with a straight-up, high-energy gospel number called “I Don't Know What You Came To Do.” The James Brown analogy became even more appropriate here, as Randolph's screaming vocals and wild dancing caused almost as much excitement as his inspired guitar playing. At one point he boldly told the crowd that if they weren't going to clap their hands and dance, they should leave and go to another stage. By the time it was all over, I was a confirmed fan, along with many others. Robert Randolph's music is fairly simple and unpolished, but it has so much heart and soul that those other things just don't matter.
War's performance on Friday night was quite possibly the highlight of the entire festival. They got things started with a couple of old hits, “Cisco Kid” and “Me and Baby Brother,” that showed why they are one of the archetypal bands in all American music. War's music is a uniquely American melting pot of sultry Latin percussion, urban street funk, and sweeping, Motown-style harmonies. It is pure party music, and it works well in a festival setting. Original member Lonnie Jordan serves as MC and bandleader, and he knows how to work a crowd.
A lush, epic version of “The World Is A Ghetto” was an early highlight of the set. The band used this poignant song to recreate the smoky vibe of a jazz club, no easy feat at an enormous festival. The song's socially conscious lyrics still ring true today, and it's melancholy mood was an interesting change of pace. Gypsy Man is a classic road song, and this version was energetic and got the crowd pumped up.
My all-time favorite deep cut from War is a fairly obscure disco-funk tune called “Galaxy.” I had never seen them play it before, and I didn't expect them to start now. Imagine a Deadhead hearing the opening notes of “Dark Star,” or a Phish fan hearing their first “Harpua,” and you will know how I felt when I first heard the relentless beat of “Galaxy” at Music Midtown. This version stretched out for some 10 minutes, with the band laying down some mind-bending intergalactic funk and turning the whole place into a dancing mob.
The big finish came with “Low Rider,” the one song that everybody goes to a War show to see. The sweet harmonica licks were delivered perfectly, the classic bass line was so funky you could practically see it in the air, and everyone was having a GOOD time. By the time the song finally ended, War had turned the crowd inside-out with a performance that couldn't be denied. Those of us who were veterans said "they can still do it!" while the newbies said "man, those guys are pretty good for being so old!"
I was hoping that Jethro Tull would live up to the level of the last two bands, but I was disappointed. They opened with the tricky 5/4 rhythm of “Living In The Past,” one of their oldest tunes, but one they have apparently added some new parts to. The tight arrangement of this song proved that intricate, demanding prog-rock is still alive and well, but it was a very mellow and detached sort of music without the direct emotional appeal of Robert Randolph or War.
They followed this up with “Cross Eyed Mary,” a lesser known track from the Aqualung album. It lacked the snarling menace of the original, and Ian Anderson just didn't seem that into it. Some considerable technical difficulties were undoubtedly frustrating and contributed to the problem, but Anderson's stage presence left a lot to be desired. He made little effort to connect with the crowd in any way, and this seemed a show aimed at the devoted fan with few concessions to the uninitiated.
Even so, as one of those devoted fans I was thrilled by a long version of “Thick As A Brick.” The closest Jethro Tull ever came to a rock opera, the pointed lyrics and lilting melody of this piece make it one of their best. At Music Midtown, they nailed all of the composed parts and played with vigor and style throughout. It was easily the highlight of their set for me.
A new song was played next, and it had a very heavy vibe. By this point, people were leaving the Z93 stage in droves, looking for something a little more uplifting. As a band, Jethro Tull is technically flawless, and their music is supremely well executed. However, on this day at least, they didn't connect enough with their audience.
Saturday, May 4th was an ugly, misbegotten nightmare of rain and mud, and those who stayed home were the lucky ones. The already-cramped site turned into a godforsaken beer-drenched mud pit as heavy storms dumped several inches of rain on the Atlanta area. I sat out the worst of the weather, but around 6 I decided to head down for Saturday night. By the time I got there, many of the citizens of Music Midtown had metamorphosed into drunken, deranged mud trolls, sliding around heedlessly in the mud. They were like characters out of Tolkien, I'm telling you!
The worst part was that the music wasn't that good either. Of A Revolution was the only band on Saturday that qualifies as a jam band, and I missed most of their set. What I did hear was good, but they didn't blow me away. I like their world music influence, but they're too safe. With their more radio-friendly sound, they might be the next Dave Matthews Band, but coming from me, that's not necessarily a good thing.
So I wandered around for a bit, looking for my good live music fix and not quite finding it. Eventually I ended up at the Fox 5 stage for some good old Cajun music. Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas fired up the crowd with some modernized zydeco-rock, and if Nathan isn't Buckwheat, I suppose you can't blame him for that. Rose Ledet followed with some honky-tonk piano and gutsy vocals, but I missed most of her set during a hellish wait for a porta-potty.
Geno Delafose and the French Rocking Boogie finally got my groove on with some great Cajun music that made me homesick for New Orleans, my former home. They were definitely the highlight on the Fox stage, cranking out pure energy and driving the crowd into a dancing frenzy. Just as the French Rocking Boogie was really living up to their name, I heard a familiar riff from a nearby stage...
Hey, wait a second! Is that “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” Being played by Stone Temple Pilots? This I have to see! It was a surprisingly respectable version, and really got a lot of people's attention. I probably should have stayed for their whole set, but wandered over to the V103 stage to see some of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
The problem with Earth, Wind, and Fire is that they are a very schizophrenic band. One minute they will be playing some super-funky dance machine like “Boogie Wonderland,” and the next they will bore you to tears with sappy ballads like “After The Love Has Gone.” They never really kept a groove going for more than a song or two, and I went back to STP…
…who were absolutely rocking the house when I got there! I don't know their songs too well, but they definitely finished with an explosive version of “Sex-Type Thing.” They really are a very impressive stadium rock band, even if their music is a little clichéd and formulaic. Scott Weiland is a great front man, and the guitar player is for real. They were really the only thing I saw Saturday that was worth leaving the house for.
I was sorry to miss Perpetual Groove on Sunday, but I was well in place by the time Lake Trout started at 2.
The Baltimore band got things rolling immediately with a dramatic, densely textured piece that reminded me of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd playing at a rave, complete with atmospheric sax riffs. A super-heavy drumbeat anchored the next tune, which seemed to be called “Say Something.” Falsetto vocals were interspersed with more careful layering, and it became obvious that there is a real sense of composition in Lake Trout's music, a feeling that somebody has put a lot of thought into arranging the various parts to achieve certain musical results.
The third track was another instrumental, but the flow of the song seemed to tell a story. After various excursions to different sonic landscapes, the band would always return to the same simple, haunting guitar riff. Just when you had forgotten about the original theme, it would pop up again from the most unlikely places.
Possibly the highlight of Lake Trout's set was a jam that featured some sick live-action break-beat drumming from Mike Lowry, reminiscent of Sector 9's Zach Velmer. Once again, they proved that they are willing to go All The Way Out There, a quality I admire in a band. Keening Middle Eastern flute licks lent an otherworldly sound to this jam, and screaming effects right out of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” further emphasized the Pink Floyd influence.
The ultimate effect of Lake Trout is something like that of a jam band crossed with a garage band. At times they sound more like Sonic Youth than they do like Phish, but open-minded jam fans will find a lot to like here. Guitarists Woody Ranere and Ed Harris work well together, bassist James Griffith is a maniac, and drummer Lowry holds the bottom down with Bonhamesque force. See them sometime and you will hear some of the most original music around.
The Disco Biscuits
Appropriately enough, The Disco Biscuits started off the set that would contain 4:20 with a relaxed and patient dub/reggae groove. After two days of terrible weather, this jam seemed to celebrate the gorgeous sunny afternoon. Knowing the Biscuits’ penchant for high-concept thought projects, this opening jam could have been intentionally geared for the occasion.
Phishy noodling opens up the next tune into a catchy, repetitive structure. The Biscuits are disciplined and precise on this one, executing convoluted arrangements with ease. Then they suddenly break into a uptempo runaway train jam that reveals their electronica influences for the first time. The jam finally peaks like a video game gone mad before settling back down into a peaceful reggae groove.
The next jam starts off down and dirty with a classic-rock jam that pleased the crowd. Soon, however, they detoured into a trancy ambient space before gradually building back up to a proper screaming peak. The Disco Biscuits are masters of two crucial jam techniques: moving back and forth between significantly different jams, and building a jam from nothing.
At times during this show, the Biscuits almost seemed like some great lost supergroup of the 70's back on a nostalgia tour, melding irresistible disco dance grooves with massive rock guitar courtesy of Jon Gutwillig. The undeniable raw power of their live show is something to see, and I felt that this large festival setting suited them much better than the tiny club I had seen them in previously.
Bassist Marc Brownstein showed the band's urban Northeast roots next, with some rap-rock vocals and thumping bass that got the party started, and then some. Brownstein was dropping serious bass bombs and rocking the mike like he was Adam Yauch or something, it really showed me another side of the band. I was almost expecting them to bust out “Sabotage!”
“Above The Waves,” the only song I really recognized, appeared next in a triumphant flourish, and the song's intricate changes, and Gutwillig's Trey-like tone, begged for the Phish comparison. Those who enjoy the careful architecture of songs like “Reba” and “You Enjoy Myself” will give the Disco Biscuits good marks for degree of difficulty. “Above The Waves” features several different interlocking sections, each with its own appeal. The final jam finished off with a Spanish flourish that reminded me of a great vintage 70's Dead jam.
It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed this show more than the other time I saw The Disco Biscuits. It is easy to fault them for sounding like Phish, but the comparison is a compliment, in my book. Their expertly crafted songs and stellar musicianship make them worthy, and I had newfound respect for them by the time their set ended.
Karl Denson has got soul, and he's superbad. This funk icon played for Lenny Kravitz for years and was a founding member of legendary funk revivalists the Greyboy All-Stars. Now he has his own groove on as the leader of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, arguable the best party funk band in ANY universe.
They opened up their Music Midtown set with a scorching version of “Family Tree” that gave everyone in the band a chance to shine. I am always as impressed with the band as I am with Karl when I see the Tiny Universe. Every player in the band deserves respect in their own right for the soul and taste with which they play.
“Nothing” featured an awesome guest appearance by Jeff Coffin of the Flecktones, who threw down a powerful sax solo over the relentless funk background provided by the Tiny Universe. It is always a great moment at a festival when different artists get to collaborate like this. The whole concept of the jam session seems to embody the festival spirit, and this was a good example. Coffin's full-throated sax tone combined with the rich funk of the band to create a truly massive wall of sound, and the crowd loved every second of it.
A futuristic space-funk groove followed, then some weird scat jazz which entered the realm of Zambiland. "This next song is a love song. This is about love at first sight," said Denson through the madness like some tweaked spoken word artist, as the band grew stronger and stranger behind him. Finally he picked up his sax for some free jazz exploration beyond the moons of Neptune. "Where is Jeff Coffin now," I was thinking. "He would LOVE this!"
And suddenly, we're back in old-school funk territory with a song that would sound right at home on a Great Funk Hits of the 70's album. The set concluded with a fired-up version of “So Satisfied,” which was appropriate to the occasion. This song featured a great ensemble jam with everybody on stage working together to create an unstoppable New Orleans funk/jazz sound. Missing Jazz Fest in New Orleans doesn’t hurt so badly when so many acts this weekend brought New Orleans to me.
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones
When I fought my way back to the Z93 stage after a beer and food run, Victor Wooten was showing his standard badass bass chops while Bela Fleck battled with sax man Jeff Coffin. Coffin has only been in the Flecktones for a few years, but he seems like a natural foil for Bela, and it’s hard to imagine the band without him. His eclectic sensibility and musical literacy allow him to follow Bela wherever he goes, no easy accomplishment. During this jam, he wowed the crowd by playing two horns at once, a trick that prompted Future Man to introduce him later in the set as “our one-man horn section.”
However good the rest of the band is, Bela is still the star of the show. His nimble fingers and restless mind make him one of the great improvisers of all time, and his songwriting and band leading skills are top-notch as well. He is so generous to his band, and allows them so much of the spotlight, that it can be easy to forget what an amazing musician Bela Fleck is. Then he will whip out a death-defying solo that stretches the boundaries and limitations of his instrument, and you remember why it’s his band.
“This is a brand new tune that we have been working on in the studio,” announced Bela as the band started off mellow and atmospheric before bursting into a radiant Middle Eastern jam. This is exactly the kind of music that most people would never think to play on banjo, but Bela made it work beautifully. The jam soon bottomed out into a great bass segment, with Victor Wooten moving mountains while Arabian spirals of music floated in the background. Then Bela took the controls once again as the band veered into a completely different jam, only to return to the Arabian theme for a majestic conclusion.
Next it was time for Bela to dazzle the crowd with some of the most amazing solo banjo I’ve ever heard. It sounded like a classical piece, although I couldn’t place it. The crowd showed appreciation for Fleck’s mastery by staying mostly quiet as the banjo darted through intricate, demanding riffs. When the song finally ended, the crowd exploded with enthusiastic applause.
“Sherpa,” a new Jeff Coffin tune, was next. It carried a deep reggae sound, which seemed to be the vibe of the day on Sunday. The jam in the middle got too “obscure” for a friend of mine, which is understandable given Coffin’s avant garde leanings. I just thought the weirdness made it that much more satisfying when the band returned to the reggae jam.
Future Man, the unusual character who plays the “SynthAxe Drumitar” for the Flecktones, took a vocal turn next as he led the band on a funky excursion that peaked with possibly the best jam of the whole day. The band worked the audience into a frenzy, reached a dizzying peak, and then jammed straight through to the other side as the crowd roared in approval. This was the kind of jam we all go to shows to see.
A fantastic version of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” capped off a really inspired performance by the Flecktones. This classic piece of Americana was given an unusual rendition, with Future Man taking an unusual scat/drum solo that was one of the weirdest and coolest things I have ever heard. The heart of the song was Bela in full solo flight, roaring through familiar bluegrass territory with the confidence of a true master. The big finish received a well-deserved ovation.
Journey > Bonnie Raitt
Of all things, I actually found myself enjoying some of Journey’s set at the 96 Rock stage. It sounds odd to say that “Separate Ways” rocked, but it did in a sort of cheesy arena-rock way. Neal Schon’s take on the Star Spangled Banner was no match for Hendrix, of course, but it was entertaining. It rapidly lost its appeal, though, and I was left anxiously awaiting Bonnie Raitt.
I had thought that Bonnie Raitt would deliver the perfect conclusion to a great day of music, but one of Music Midtown’s greatest weaknesses, sound overlap between different stages, caused terrible problems. Heavy New Orleans funk influenced one new song, which was written by Crescent City native Jon Cleary, Raitt’s keyboard player. He has his own band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen that you should check out when you get a chance. Unfortunately, this tune was one of very few highlights.
It was a shame that most of Raitt’s set was completely blown away by the MUCH louder Journey playing at the 96 Rock stage. “This song is dedicated to Journey,” Bonnie cracked at one point, visibly pissed off by the horrific overlap. The real crime is that Raitt’s voice sounded stronger than ever, her band was tight, and the material from her new album sounded great. She seems destined to become the sort of legendary artist who only gets better with age, and she deserves better than what she got on Sunday.
As good as Raitt was, however, the sound situation was totally unbearable, and I was wanting to hear Karl Denson play a special late night show for “The Dunhams,” a late night jamband show on Z93. I ended up leaving early, no offense to Raitt, who was wailing on slide guitar as I left.
Late Night at Jake’s Roadhouse
Karl Denson has become known as the King of Late Night for his party-till-dawn shows at Jazz Fest and High Sierra, and he had the honor of playing the only official post-Midtown show at a club called Jake's Roadhouse in Decatur. This is the weekly site of The Dunhams, and it was only fitting that a great day of music that was set up by Atlanta’s premier jamband patrons should end up on their home turf.
The Tiny Universe kicked off the show with a churning, relentless African groove that was probably the best thing they played all day. A hypnotic, repetitive guitar riff served as the center point of a furious and inspired jam that knocked my socks off. The band would occasionally stop with telepathic tightness, only to leap back into the groove, which flowed with the strength of a mighty river. “Front Money” was next, taking the band through some familiar funk/jazz territory, including some classic stone soul keyboard riffs a la Jimmy Smith or Art Neville.
A beautiful flute piece followed that was the equal of anything I heard from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson on Friday night. Karl Denson is not just a sax player, but also a truly multitalented individual who can do it all: gritty vocals, sax, flute, percussion, songwriting, etc. His versatility and work ethic make him the Warren Haynes of horns.
A dark, moody version of the Curtis Mayfield classic “Check Out Your Mind” came next, replete with spooky spy-movie guitar riffs. On this tune, Denson and company achieved something rare. They took a familiar song and played it in a completely different way, but still retained the heart and soul of the song. Guitarist Brian Jordan went wild with a great solo as he was driven along by the spookyfunky spy movie jam.
Next, another visit to the jazzy, funky terrain that Denson has made his own. His horn blended perfectly with Chris Littlefield’s trumpet on this one, creating some great harmonies. I suppose I should know the name of this familiar instrumental by now, but much like the Meters, the names of the songs are meaningless, it’s the funk that counts. Some call-and-response between Karl and the audience leads into the James Brown classic “I Got The Feeling,” followed by a solo that proves that Denson does “got the feeling.”
“You have just experienced a musical moment!” exclaims Jeff Dunham after the jam stops on a dime. After a brief commercial break for the radio broadcast, the band finishes up with “Got My Groove On,” on of the Tiny Universe’s signature songs. This silky, funkalicious jam showcases the soulful vocals, tight ensemble playing, and pure VIBE that makes a visit to the Tiny Universe such a rewarding experience. This may be the hottest version I’ve ever heard, with Denson emotionally thanking the crew at one point. “The hero of the night, Joseph on bass,” says Karl, talking about the KDTU soundman who sat in on bass when the original bass player had an emergency.
Much like The Disco Biscuits, this was the last show of a long tour for the Tiny Universe, and like the Biscuits they didn’t hold back anything during the last set of the tour. After introducing the band and crew, the final jam of the set went to the next level, and anybody who was there knows they saw something special.
Perpetual Groove was up next, but I was about to turn into a pumpkin and had to go home to face my Monday morning responsibilities in the “real world.” However, I kicked myself later when I heard that Jon and Marc from The Disco Biscuits showed up and jammed for a half hour! Then Perpetual Groove played into the wee hours, and word is that they were fantastic. Oh well, I guess that you can’t win ‘em all.
What can you say about such an incredible day of music?
I have been to many festivals, including 10 Jazz Fests, and this was one of the greatest days of music I have ever seen, bar none. Lake Trout established that they are a talented band with a unique sound, The Disco Biscuits totally won me over with a powerful set, Karl Denson was the man TWICE, Bela Fleck was better than I’ve ever seen him, and Bonnie Raitt was pure legend, despite the unfortunate Journey situation.
With any luck, next year the Dunham’s will get a stage for the entire weekend and be able to present an even deeper and stronger jamband lineup, if such a thing is possible. For at least one day, all the weather hassles and other shortcomings of Music Midtown were overshadowed by the sheer quality and quantity of music to be seen. Hats off to Jeff and Maria Dunham. God only knows where the jam scene in Atlanta would be without them. They certainly made me proud to be a citizen of Jam Nation with the awesome and diverse collection of talent they gathered together this year, and I will have many memories to tide me over until next time.
Words by Robert Johnson
Photos by Adam Gulledge