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.
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