Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Chad Smith
Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead V :: 10.28.10-10.31.10 :: Evergreen Lodge :: Groveland, CA
We are pulled through this life by small miracles. One needn't be religious or even spiritual to understand this. The muck of bosses, bills and bullshit we trudge through would be simply unbearable if not for the oases along our trek. For several years, a nigh-perfect music festival in the lush Yosemite woods has proven such a blessed respite for a growing tribe, and the fifth anniversary installment was far & away the finest outing yet, one of those small miracles that makes all the weary miles fade and invigorates us for the rocky road ahead.
|Las Tortugas V by Chad Smith|
Las Tortugas V, like previous outings, miniaturized and refined all the best aspects of a festival, throwing an incredible four-day party with an extraordinary soundtrack. While other fests may have bigger names and carnival rides, Tortugas focuses on serious musicians who overflow with passion and heartfelt artistry. This is a showcase for some of the best music coming out of California today paired with kindred spirits from around the country, a place where veterans embarking on a new thang (7 Walkers), utter pros seeking one of the most engaged, joyful audiences they've ever encountered (Yonder Mountain String Band), workingman's lifers (The Mother Hips, ALO, Cornmeal) and crazy talented comers (Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Antioquia, Big Light, Pimps of Joytime) mingle. A feeling of creative freedom and smiling connection with all the things that originally got these players into the music game floats in the air.
And this palpable, happy charge buzzes in equal amplitude from the attendees. Perhaps more than any other festival I've experienced, Tortugas creates a beautiful crucible that burns hot and bright because EVERYONE throws a pinch or two into the pot (Jam Cruise is the only thing that compares, though each gathering is singular & beautifully strange in its own way, and something any serious music geek should experience at least once, like Glastonbury, Bonnaroo and a handful of others). With most folks bringing different costumes every day and an all-in enthusiasm that hums loudly before the first set kicks off, Tortugans are a rare breed. The near total absence of thievery, sketchiness and rudeness common at most music fests immediately sets Tortugas apart in a big way. It's not to say that everyone is cool but un-cool moments are quickly defused, and there's so much obvious love and care bouncing around the tents and trees that even grumps inclined to kick up dust are charmed into grinning contentment. The depth of conversation and generally open-handed attitude that abounds at Tortugas is a glimpse of our better angels, the way the world might be if we shared our bounty and lived with less fear and worry.
If this seems like an overreach for a music festival it isn't. Las Tortugas is a playground for music loving people with an amiable synergy that relaxes muscles, eases minds and lifts spirits. Scoff if you must – modern cynicism is hard to shake – but four years running I've witnessed this vibe grow & grow & grow, seeing it put the zap – in the best way – on the heads of first timers that leaves them pleasantly shaken by weekend's end. It is why the vets scheme all year long on how we might delight others, tickling fancies and pricking up ears in any way we can dream up, and then sharing that dream with anyone willing to jump through the looking glass with us.
Nestled in one of the most unique, idyllic settings in the United States (Evergreen Lodge), Las Tortugas situates about a 1000 people in a world apart and lets them share in a fully communal shindig. Each year a couple tunes spring into my head during the course of my wooded walks, a few lines that repeat like mantras as I gather up as much Tortugas mojo as I can before heading homeward. This year it was these verses from Jackson Browne's "Farther On" and the Grateful Dead's "The Music Never Stopped."
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
|Las Tortugas V by Chad Smith|
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I'd heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there's a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs
Still I look for the beauty in songs
To fill my head and lead me on
There's a band out on the highway.
They're high-steppin' into town.
They're a rainbow full of sound.
It's fireworks, calliopes and clowns
And everybody was dancing, drink hoisting blurs of color and laughter that convinced one that the world might not be so bloody awful after all.
What follows are some musical highlights, pointers towards sweet new bands, and a whole bunch of great pictures from Chad Smith, heavy on Tortugans and their mirthful ways. Even if every band isn't mentioned it's important to point out that EVERY band that graced a stage at Tortugas V was the real deal, dedicated craftsmen born to meld melody and verse. Where one might wonder at other fests why a band made the lineup, Tortugas only presents quality, ranging from the newly born to the well-seasoned. It's a formula that's generated a lot of connections between the bands, resulting in some of the finest sit-ins one can find in the festival world. The sense that we're ALL in this together – both for this weekend and in a much larger sense – is inescapable on both sides of the stage at Tortugas.
Continue reading for Thursday highlights...
See the full gallery for Thursday here
Theme: Gypsy Circus
1. Lebo :: 2:15-3:30 am. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
|Lebo by Chad Smith|
With a shortened introductory day, it wasn't hard to stay up for the first rousing late night set in what turned out to be Tortugas' finest night owl programming to date. As usual, Thursday felt like a Saturday here, and ALO's guitar shredder and a special rhythm section were the flaming cherry atop everything. Flowing loose 'n' heavy, Dan Lebowitz, playing a hollow-body electric instead of his usual axe, gave us a commanding showcase that reaffirmed his place amongst today's very best guitarists. Backed by ALO bandmate Dave Brogan (drums) and Tracorum's jaw-dropping rhythm section, Ian Herman (drums) and Mark Calderon (bass), Lebo stirred up his own Band of Gypsys roar, jamming with impunity and instigating some of the fiercest rhythm work heard all fest. Lebo's versatility as a singer also shown through, and the obvious camaraderie these guys displayed made for some of the least predictable, most immediate music I've heard from any of them.
2. Poor Man's Whiskey :: 9:15-10:30 pm :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
PMW pulled off a real neat trick: Playing the iconic, deeply held music of Old & In The Way - an obvious root source for their music – while authoritatively putting their own stamp on the material. For one thing, bassist Aspen holds his own against John Kahn's original bass work, and he's got a whole new sonic range to explore with drummer George Smeltz, bringing a whole new beat to things. As great as the musicians were in Old & In The Way, they weren't exactly forthcoming performers. By contrast, PMW boasts two natural born rock stars in multi-instrumentalist/singers Eli Jebidiah and Josh Brough, who have that thing that gets everyone in the room off. Ably goosed by guitar-mandolin whiz Jason Beard, the boys made the well-tread newly furrowed and showed once again that Poor Man's Whiskey is one of the premiere country-rock outfits today, a wild bunch that could have handily shared bills with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Goose Creek Symphony and Garcia and his picking pals.
3. Cornmeal :: 11:45 pm-1:00 am.:: Terrapin Big Top Stage
|Allie Kral by Chad Smith|
I like when Chicago's Cornmeal get weird and they certainly did on this inaugural eve. There's no doubting their hard strummin' might – bluegrass doesn't get more blue or grassy – but like a lot of quality acts lumped into the string band basket, Cornmeal have a LOT more variety in their Crayon box, and they didn't hesitate to color outside the lines at Tortugas. Especially impressive was their ability to move from incredibly melodic strains to downright psychedelic runs, each feeling a part of the other instead of bordered off segments. The many raised glasses and elevated bonhomie in the tent spoke to their pronounced ability to lift heels, and the whole lot of them is goddamn charming as hell. Extra gold stars for ever-compelling violinist Allie Kral, who seemed possessed in a lovely way at several junctures, and dead-on-it drummer JP Nowak. Also, I'm kind of in love with their easy flowing songwriting and the entire delivery and style of banjoist-singer Wavy Dave Burlingame after this set.
Ones To Watch
Jack Grace Band
Full of good time, bohemian energy of the sort Tom Waits left behind when he grabbed a bullhorn, Grace and his slinky compatriots are a bar band in the archetypal sense, specializing in Latin tinged, gold standard song craft instead of by-the-numbers boogie, but still perfect for tossing back a few. First band to play the Tuolumne Hall and one I came home anxious to explore further.
Dead Winter Carpenters
With members of Montana Slim, it's no surprise these cats 'n' kittens twang a bit, but they do so very winningly, and while their set on Thursday was appropriately uptempo, their recent self-titled debut shows a knack for slower, more meditative fare. They're still getting their feet fully under them but there's already some very appealing things happening in this band.
Continue reading for Friday highlights...
See the full gallery for Friday here
Theme: Decade Dance (retro looks from TV, history, etc.)
1. ALO :: 2:00-4:00 am. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
|ALO & Friends by Chad Smith|
What other band could meld Steely Dan's "Reelin' In The Years" with snippets of The Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" with the whole panoply of pop past & future sandwiched in between? Dressed in the outfits from the Man of the World photo/video shoot, ALO lived up to every part of their name at this dawn chasing performance. In fact, keyboardist-singer Zach Gill even got so in touch with his animal side that he started talking to the stuffed birds on the branches decorating the stage late in the set. When these boys are on – and believe you me, this was as ON as I've ever seen them – music feels alive and organic, something to be touched and tasted, savored and slathered all over. That its also incredibly tuneful and you can dance to it speaks to their great talent and dedication to making even outside-the-norm music conform to something more sophisticated and thoughtful. After spending the better part of the summer and fall opening up for pal Jack Johnson, ALO played like men balling without a condom for the first time in a LONG time – liberated beasts whose bite set a good many of us free, too.
2. New Monsoon :: 6:15-7:30 pm. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
For a band that doesn't play out that much anymore, New Monsoon commanded the stage like utter professionals. There's so much damn talent in this quintet that it remains shocking to me that more people don't know and adore them. But regardless of stardom, San Francisco's New Monsoon demonstrated how adept they are at commingling styles and giving all of them rock 'n' roll oomph in this early evening set. Filled with rhythm and force, their mix of originals and tasty covers (and a whole lot more well-picked, well-executed covers on Saturday from ZZ Top and more) goes down so smoothly that the many hours of woodshedding and sweat that lay before each performance are invisible. What we got at both sets this Tortugas was a band fully in control of their instruments and material, able to knock it out with aplomb at a moment's notice. Drinking in electric guitarist Jeff Miller - long a personal favorite – renewed my desire to see him form a Derek & The Dominoes tribute band since he's one of the few axe slingers who could generate the same guitar magic as Clapton at his inarguable peak.
3. Pimps of Joytime :: 8:45-10:00 pm. :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
|Pimps of Joytime by Chad Smith|
Dressed as ragtag cowpokes, the Pimps offered a master class in funk and its roots, showing equal flair for gutbucket blues, silky soul and myriad other variations on what seem like overplayed, boring forms in lesser hands. This band knows groove, way down in their bones, and they move with harnessed power and abundant natural charisma. Every single time I see the Pimps I like them WAY better. Shooting straight, I haven't been this wholly charmed by a band in the funk-rock vein since I first saw Prince back in the day. Only Seattle's Staxx Brothers are competing in the same arena, and rather than play favorites, I'll just say that anyone who likes to get more than knee-deep as they howl about atomic dogs and funky drummers should get familiar with both. Quickly.
4. Antioquia :: 10:15-11:45 pm. :: The Tavern
With the propulsive energy of Remain In Light Talking Heads and political dance-mindedness of The Clash, SF's Antioquia turned heads in their Tortugas debut. Admittedly, it wasn't just their reach-out-and-grab-ya sound alone that did the job. The band set a new fest record for the most exposed flesh by dressing as the cock-socked Red Hot Chili Peppers with lead singer Maddy Streicek dolled up like an actual chili pepper. In their veins flows the sticky stuff that agitated early Brian Eno, the initial wave of jazz-fusion cats, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band and similar inspired wackos. In so many ways, this set showed that Antioquia is exposed, fearless and free of boundaries, and they've got the chops to back up the bravado with substance and style.
Continue reading for Saturday highlights...
See the full gallery for Saturday here
Theme: Monsters vs. Aliens
1. 7 Walkers :: 4:00-7:15 am :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
Bill Kreutzmann returned to Tortugas with his new labor of love, 7 Walkers. Hitting the stage in the middle of the night and playing till well after sunrise, Billy, Papa Mali, George Porter, Jr. and Matt Hubbard took us into the thickest, headiest swampland, brimming over with bayou shuffles, primal rock, psychedelic sparks and other rich, earthy textures. The only break any of them had during this three-hour-plus journey - and if you took the whole trip you really felt like you'd conquered a major peak - was when Papa and Matt paired off for some harmonica pierced deep blues and tender balladry followed by a bass-drums conversation between Bill and George. Each is a marvel in their own right but the chemistry in 7 Walkers just bowled folks over during this set, where they offered almost all of their fabulous self-titled debut, Dead & New Orleans chestnuts and fat-free jams that pounced and tore at one like a hungry gator. 7 Walkers feels vibrantly alert, alive in all the ways that count, and this only seems like the beginning of more and better music to come. [The band killed it again on Sunday night, only 13 hours after this set, where they leaned more heavily on Dead tunes like "I Know You Rider" and a great "Sugaree" with George on lead vocals. What's so cool about this band is how the familiar numbers feel freshly washed and ready to be pushed into service in the way they handle them. The final encore of "Iko Iko" lit up the tent with a light that comes from within, steering our ragged conga line into folklore and festivity with sure hands and hearts.].
|Bill Kreutzmann by Chad Smith|
2. Guitarmageddon:: 3:00-4:15 pm :: Terrapin Big Top Stage
Under the new leadership of PMW's Eli Jebidiah, this starts-over-the-top celebration of shred science topped themselves with this Prince themed set. Any serious fan of His Purple Mounted Majesty would have stumbled away grinning ear-to-ear after this display that launched with a sizzling reading of "Let's Go Crazy" but then weaved into killer recent tunes ("Chelsea Rogers," "Musicology," "Guitar"), the infamous Black Album ("Rockhard in a Funky Place") and the choicest medley ever ("Raspberry Beret > Kiss > Sexy MF > Little Red Corvette > 1999"). The core band consisted of Eli (guitar, vocals), absolutely stunning heavy hitter Daria Johnson (drums, vocals), bassist Mark Calderon (doing some primo tough-funk bass faces), Tracorum keyboardist Fletcher Nielsen (the "Doctor" suited up in scrubs!) and guitar marvel Sean Leahy, who also summoned up a host of voices to fill different Prince-ly holes. Guest six-stringers included former Guitarmageddon leader Josh Clark (TLG), NM's Jeff Miller, Newfangled Wasteland's Chris Haugen, Tracorum's Louis XIV-attired Derek Brooker and Big Light's Jeremy Korpas, with each cameo suiting the songs to a tee and showing off how much amp-rattling guitar talent resides in Northern California today. The material was well rehearsed but not so much so that flashes of inspiration didn't prevail. The whole gliding, intoxicating set ended in Gold Experience standout "Endorphinmachine." Let's hope that tapers were active during this one because the Minneapolis faithful just gotta hear this performance. One of the absolute best times all weekend.
3. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers :: 4:15-5:15 pm :: Tuolumne Hall
It's a blast to watch an audience be warmed by Nicki and her gifted Gramblers. It starts slow, the potency of their songwriting and their leader's obvious vocal pow scooping one up, pulling them in close, and whispering sweet, softly wise things in their ears. Once snuggled in, well, they've got you and good. Bluhm is a throwback to classics like Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and other strong women who carved their place in the largely male rock game. She's a far cry from the manufactured divas and half-talents that pass for "female artists" in the mainstream today, and it's her abiding quality, natural gifts and good instincts for collaborators that are making her an artist to watch VERY closely. The new songs from her forthcoming sophomore album were uniformly excellent, and as ever guitarist Deren Ney is a haunting knockout, especially when he works a slide. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers are the full package, and they left Tortugas with a LOT of new fans this year.
|Nicki Bluhm by Chad Smith|
4. Sean Leahy Trio :: 12:00-1:45 pm :: The Tavern
Leahy may be one of THE best guitar players you've never heard. His cult amongst Northern Cali musicians and serious music nuts is well established, but it probably wouldn't have taken more than a single tune at this blazing trio set to win over almost anyone with a six-string boner. Lean, fast and highly interactive, Leahy's trio consists of himself on electric guitar and lead vocals with Tortugas all-star Mark Calderon on bass (only ALO/Big Light bassist Steve Adams worked as many sets) and drummer Daria Johnson, equally fantabulous here as her Guitarmageddon stint earlier in the day. The gal is a real talent and a show unto herself – just watch her face if you want a whole movie to accompany the music. Blues, classic rock, fleet-fingered jazz and more were explored in this set, and all of it packed with thick, ropy muscle. When Leahy lets go and trusts in his abilities, as he did here, he's positively superhuman and a joy to watch. Johnson and Calderon are perfect foils, and they even made time for a brief M80 Mailbox cameo, a Leahy project with Dave Brogan and Josh Clark, that included a bruising cover of Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name Of."
Ones To Watch
Five Eyed Hand
The Tavern seemed wonderfully afloat when this SF unit unleashed their energetic, free flowing music on Saturday night. For sure there's a foundation of rock 'n' roll but things sizzle and switch around with the technically possessed feel of Weather Report taken down to "Shakedown Street." Mix in the phased dynamics of Bill Frisell, the swerving violin of Mahavishnu and more than a dollop of quality space rock and you're getting closer to the ballpark. Five Eyed Hand showed being hard to place is a virtue, and jam kids looking to do some traveling between their ears should definitely investigate their self-titled album and fine live show.
Continue reading for Sunday highlights...
See the full gallery for Sunday here
Theme: The Masquerade Ball - Halloween
1. The Mother Hips :: 5:30-7:00 pm.:: Terrapin Big Top Stage
Having seen a ludicrous number of Hips shows (quickly approaching triple digits and spread over the group's entire history), it's heartening and more than a little shocking that these guys can still completely blow me away. That's what happened at this late afternoon set that began with a surprising cover of "Long Black Veil" and seemed like it was going to be one of the band's cozier, country-tinged daytime sets ("Whiskey On A Southbound," "Later Days"). Then, they took a wide left turn with a stunning reading of "Young Charles Ives," fired up the over-thrusters and charged into the unknown, unleashing all the brilliance they possess in a rock show that knocked far more than me back on our heels. Other highlights included "October Teen," "Chum" and "Precious Opal," but for sheer audacity and skill it's hard to beat the rush from "Mission In Vain" into Grateful Dead classic "The Other One," which the Hips made their own, layering on hard guitar and limber rhythms in a way that nailed the original and infused it with newness. After The Mother Hips recent barnburner at The Fillmore, it's clear this band is on a very nice tear right now – one more reason to fully commit to one of America's best bands, as if folks really needed more inducements with the Hips!
|The Mother Hips by Chad Smith|
2. Yonder Mountain String Band :: 11:00 pm-12:45 am.:: Terrapin Big Top Stage
A couple things struck me quite poignantly at this Yonder performance: 1) What a massively satisfying sound, and 2) how little this music relates to bluegrass despite the stupid label they've been given. For just four guys, playing rather quietly, YMSB generates voluminous waves of music, each player accenting and commenting on the lead lines in a clever, unobtrusive way that nonetheless supports the main thrust at all times. In about two hours, one heard echoes of small group jazz from the 20s/30s, 60s modal exploration, hardcore traditional folk, good ol' fashioned rock, early country music and some of the free-ranging stylistics Oregon introduced to acoustic music.
There was none of the showy, dick measuring, spotlight grabbing qualities one finds in most actual bluegrass bands, and even when they took solos, they didn't go on endlessly or freeze out what everyone else was doing. Where at times I've found some of Yonder's selections a little jokey, today's YMSB came off as relatively serious and considered, but not too much so. There's no being overly stuffy when you've got a natural born court jester like Jeff Austin dancing on the needle's head, and though a touch jet-lagged, Austin didn't disappoint. He makes everyone feel welcome and serves as the chief ambassador to Yonder Mountain, though never staying so long in the foreground that the other three guys are overshadowed. Like most aspects of their music, there's a hearty balance that's refreshing and worthy of a lot of respect and genuine enthusiasm.
|Yonder Mountain String Band by Chad Smith|
And jeezus can these guys play! As pickers, each is a blast and perfectly attuned to their brethren. A delight in all ways and one of the best closing night exclamation points ever at Tortugas.
3. Tracorum :: 12:45-1:45 am.:: Tuolumne Hall
Sometimes we listen to music without really hearing it. However, when we're ready to open up and experience a thing as it truly is, well, it can feel like a baptism. Such was my experience with Tracorum on Sunday night. Having enjoyed them at previous Tortugas, this time I got it in a huge way. What they do is rock 'n' roll but done so fundamentally right it makes you want to kiss them when they power down their instruments. This night, as the festival raged like we'd never seen before on a Sunday eve, Tracorum embodied our collective high spirits and unspoken ache at this experience coming to a close and put those elements to work in some of the best boogie-minded, straight-great rock heard all weekend. Comparisons to The Band and studio aces The Wrecking Crew flitted through my brain as I danced to the heart of this fleeting makeshift town next to my loose-limbed sisters and brothers. Every aspect was right on the money and every man showed himself a massive talent on their respective instruments, pouring soul into every note, their conviction becoming our own. While they display a lighter hand and more Latin-y hips on their new album, The Lesson, live this band exudes legend-making magic.
4. Big Light :: 12:45-2:00 pm.:: Tuolumne Hall
Big Light belongs on big stages. They are rapidly outgrowing small spaces, pushing their already appealing material into skyward reaching constructs that need room to breath and cavort. A modern rock band to be sure, Big Light betters the majority of the Pitchfork darlings by being able to deliver in a salacious, snarling way live, which is exactly how they charged at folks on this afternoon. A guest turn from Izabella keyboardist Jeff Coleman stirred up the best "Panther" to date, and nothing else was less than excellent. An ever-forward arching NEED to be better is what's fueling Big Light's rapid growth. Seeing them onstage in a set like this is to watch evolution take place in real time. It's exciting and more than a little fun to behold. Based on showings like this, only expect more and finer music from this quartet in the future.
Ones To Watch
Gaffney is a real emerging talent, filling The Tavern with songs that were easy to like but filled with nuances that make you want to hear them again right away. She's got an instantly likeable voice that's only growing more subtle and powerful the longer she plies her craft. She's surrounded herself with top-notch players and keeps adding interesting material to her songbook. So, in short, there's nothing not to dig about this Bay Area lady.
A Beck cover band is a clever idea. Better still is a Beck cover band that plays nearly unrecognizable versions of Beck's tunes. Dave Brogan, Chris Haugen, Steve Adams and TLG's Trevor Garrod hit a sublime groove in their Sunday night set, showing that the longer they toy with these mutations the more they become their own. Said it before but it bears repeating: Festival bookers need to pay attention to this band.
The Hydrodynamics are the new project of former Blue Turtle Seduction chief songwriter/singer/guitarist Jay Seals. While his old band gave folks warm fuzzies in their festival one-off reunion, it's clear this is where Seals' heart is. Filled with hooky, bouncing melodies and abundant female energy, The Hydrodynamics were a touch ragged in their Tortugas debut but it was still evident that this is catchy stuff, pulling from the pop side of The Clash and marrying it to smoother vibes. A young band worth putting on your radar.
There's no real way to say goodbye to Las Tortugas. Life over these four days is so wonderfully intense and happy that disconnecting from it and returning to time sheets and business calls is inevitably a shock to the system. Still, it's incredible that Tortugas exists at all. What one finds at Tortugas is the sheer capacity for human beings to share and cavort is FAR greater than we might imagine. This feeling stays with us if we're conscious about it and nestle away a portion in our breast for the long haul that awaits us beyond Evergreen Lodge. Everywhere one turns at Tortugas is evidence of human ingenuity and compassion delivered with melody and harmony. If you didn't get kissed, bear hugged or otherwise lovingly groped it's because you didn't open your arms. But, as we revel, we're given chances for revelation, too, and these deeper currents make Tortugas more than just a good time. The idea that we might be better citizens of the world – more loving neighbors, more welcoming strangers – is writ large at Las Tortugas, interwoven with the notes hanging in the air, ephemeral but real all the same.
Continue reading for Thursday/Friday pictures...
Continue reading for Saturday pictures...
Continue reading for Sunday pictures...
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