"Dude, I can't believe I didn't bring a sweater."
There are two truths inherent to spring music festivals: 1) It always rains. 2) Hippies don't dress well for the cold.
And the third, which doesn't even need to be mentioned, is the tunes are always mighty fine. So it was at the All Good Music and Camping Festival last weekend in lovely Terra Alta, West Virginia. It rained. It poured. It snowed. But it rocked. Music festivals are living organisms, brief lifetimes. The All Good had the trimmings of the mini-epic. There was drama, hijinx, and even downright tomfoolery. Yep, you heard it. But the centerpiece of all that is the music, and more importantly, the musicians. 'Cause that's what festivals reaffirm: people. The Peeps. Bros. Sistahs! You can sit at home with a pair of head thumpers stuck to your ears for months - shit - years, on end, and be happy as a boogey-woogey clam. But the experience of close-up and personal, the watching of the fingers and feet and fret, it's like voodoo. And that's what you get at the festival: non-stop live music, stacked up like a living breathing session of your favorite set lists. Once you're there, you remember that for those few magical days the music is so close you can touch it.
But that's only just the beginning. There's also the food.
And brews. And more sinister things, like leaky tents and side-hill campsites and the last beer. And the weather...
Sunshine Daydream Campground (Trip's Farm) sits atop a broad mound of a mountain at around 2600 ft., in the sleepy little town of Terra Alta. That's "high ground" in French, I suppose. It was up there, accessed by a windy little side road with old farms and deep deciduous forest bejeweled in wild rhododendron. The last touches of the tropics that die just below the Mason Dixon line imparted the unmistakable whiff of abandon that you just don't find in the North. Nestled into a bucolic valley with perhaps three other houses in view, the campgrounds straddled a broad hillside and eased gently down towards a brook, apparently one of the upper tributaries of the Youghiogheny River, legendary river to the boating clan. The 43-acre farm, mostly open rolling fields of hay edged in pine forest, is owned by Trip (aka Kevin McClenny). Trip was living the good life out towards DC, hosting small festivals in the town of Potomac, when he decided that he wanted to try and "make a go of it" full-time. So he headed for the hills, and established a thriving music-oriented gathering place. The All Good Festival is promoter Tim Walther's flagship event, and while it was Walther Production's second gig at Sunshine Daydream, it was the All Good's debut there, and the venue seemed ideal.
Thursday evening was warm and sunny, in typical, misleading fashion. It was the eve of the lamb: complacency in dress and choice of campsite reigned. As I was settling into camp, Gary Greenberg rolled up in a golf cart and introduced himself. A psychology professor at Connecticut College and freelance writer, he was on assignment for Rolling Stone to cover, purportedly, the more logistical side of the festival and the culture of improvisational-oriented music. Now, I've heard whispers in the wind to the tune of "this is the year of the summer jam-oriented music festival," and it's true there's been a recent, rapid speciation and population explosion. But whether the summer of 2002 is the start of some renaissance in musical culture, or rather the commercial peak of a slowly building frenzy, I don't know, but the fact that a mass media mag was out there chronicling the physiology of the whole affair is telling. In addition, the presence of a VH-1 film crew, lurking about the backstage filming a pilot for some type of "road rules meets jambands" game show (which is basically how I heard it described) is also a curious - some would say ominous -signal that improvisational music is shattering its demographic. Whatever the hell that means. What it means to you and me is that the hills are alive this summer. That's right dawg- tons of music. So let's get on with it.
Adjacent to Tripp's farm house is the barn, which served as the late-night music satellite venue. The barn, in case you're wondering, is a barn. It's not a poser, shoes-off-at-the-door kind of barn. It's an old, weathered hulk, surrounded by tractors and piles of equipment and all the random trappings of a working piece of land. Inside is dark and dusty, walls adorned with trippy knick-knacks, old music flyers, velvet posters, and tie-dyed tapestries. On one side is the stage, opposite that against the back wall is a long bar and swag table for shoppers. At stage left is a giant wall hanging of Jerry Garcia, benevolent in gaze. On the roof is a rack of lights made from coffee cans, and a disco ball without a full skin of mirrors hangs down. Unassuming. Some would say cozy. But once a band takes the stage and the lights kick on, it's a Technicolor hoedown that gets going in there.
As I was wrestling my nylon palace into place, the first barn band, Plaid Iguana Project, took the stage. A regular fixture at the Sunshine Daydreams barn, "Ain't Wasting Time No More" was the first jangle to come through the stacks, and kicked off a monstrous barrage of choice cuts that would last three days all told. What follows is an incomplete collection of highlights and moments. Peruse at will.
Second band in the barn, the Ordinary Way is from Fairfax, VA, and they rip. And you probably haven't heard of them yet: Austin Mendenhall on guitar and mandolin. Gordon Sterling on guitar and vocals, Fabienne Gustave on vocals, Chris Stringfellow on bass, Robin Bolt on drums, Ryan Lieonardo on percussion, Jesse Hooper on keys, and special guest Origin on the djembe and freestyle vox and rhymes. They cranked out one of my favorite performances the whole weekend. They sculpt a rich, soaring sound: a glory soulfunk vibe with arena-rock guitar hero antics thrown in on top of bottomless dub-bass. Overseeded with ethereal keys, laced gently amidst the fury like a soft rain on a lava bed, this STUFF can take you higher. Believe you me, they've got the mojo.
Next up was the OM Trio from San Francisco. Talk about stage presence. They slam-dangled their way through a jazz-backed buffet of everything from funk to trip disco, up and down the scales on a wild journey of the organic digital variety. The crowd, enrapt, clung to every note like leaves on the wind, and I don't think I've ever seen such a tight syncopation between bodies and music. They bill themselves as "elevator music for headbangers," and the label seemed appropriate as they unleashed a heavy-duty gothic-organ anthem that was one part horror show and three parts bad-ass-groove. They closed off their set with a rousing instrumental cover of "Paradise City," but don't tell me nobody was shouting the words. By the time they exited stage right the barn was near full and buzzing.
Barn beer policy
The bar was in the back. Policy: pay ten bucks for a cup and keep it full for the night. I'd call that a deal, and I slurped away at the back of the barn like a barley-starved hummingbird until Ulu arrived and blew the roof a little higher.
Ulu, from New York City, opened with little snippets of 42nd St. and proceeded into an hour of luscious compositions. Call it schronk-funk jazz or fusion or whatever the hell you want, the quartet has a growing cult following and rightfully so. Dazzling changes and a tight horn section powered the ship, which careened off into nether regions of diverse psychesonic lineages. At points the keys got a little too carnivally for this kid, but just when I thought my head would pop they'd pull out of the cacophony and back onto the fat track. For me the most memorable moments of their set were conjured by Aaron Gardener's flute solos: loon-like, mesmerizing, the pairing of smoky reeds and dusty barn was perfect, like truffles with a fine Burgundy. It was at such times that the oft-repeated and never-clichéd mantra for the weekend was repeated: It's aaall good!
The barn closer that night was the The Bomb Squad, but the eleven hour drive from Boston and prospect of two more solid days of bumping and grinding conspired to force me into retirement, and so headed back into base tent for a little nap, to the soundtrack of Jen Durkin and company tearing the barn to pieces.
"Keep moving! You can't park there! All the way to the other gate! Keep moving! You can't park there!" - Jay the righteous parking dude.
Somewhere during the first night it started to rain. Hard. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. I awoke to the steady drone of engines and drizzle, as an early morning swarm of newcomers was filing out into field to stake their claim of wet Sunshine Daydream turf. While the whole affair proceeded fairly peaceably, there were more than a few drivers infected with the SUV mentality, and a portion of these decided to carve out little fiefdoms in restricted, sensitive areas of hill and dale. Not very prudent. Jay was there all day, at the hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill on the side campground, keeping the peace. It was the beginning of a grand assault: Sunshine Daydreams campgrounds vs. the automobile. The full ramifications of the battle would not be known until the next morning, when the dawn revealed a fantastic spectacle of machine against nature, of prudence overcome by desperation and moisture. But on that Friday morning, the rain was merely an inconvenience and there were two full days of music on the horizon.
The Sugar Shack
The Sugar Shack was the morning savior. Run by Tom and John from Pittsford, VT, the shack doled out life-saving coffee and French toast slathered with banana and real Vermont maple syrup. The joint always had a line, and Tom and John were unflappably affable, even during the darkest moments of deluge. I grew to love that little stand. You could even do shots of syrup, and more than a few patrons tipped back little cups of golden-amber goodness before diving into their sticky toast piles.
A couple of awnings down, the Bearly Edible crew was cranking out their infamous one dollar grilled cheeses to an enthusiastic crowd, and they managed to maintain a steady stream of customers the whole weekend. Between there and the BBQ pit at the other end of the food stands there were French bread pizza joints, Cajun, Greek Pitas, roll-ups, and even a sushi stand. No ahi or himachi on hand, however, but lots of rice with veggie rolls. What, can't afford sushi? No worries, just hit up the wireless ATM.
As the campgrounds filled up the vending booths started getting busy. The collection of twenty-some odd tents peddled the usual and the eclectic, and all the goods were carefully screened for quality. Glassware, hula-hoops, and hoodies competed with arts and crafts and musical instruments. There was even a body-piercing and tattoo parlor, but I didn't see anyone getting holes punched into their extremities. Around the campgrounds people huddled under tarps, cooked, smoked, and forged new friendships with neighbors. Inclement weather always fosters a spirit of good will, and so it was. Smiles and hellos abounded, and the southern hospitality cut the damp chill. Bonfires were started up at strategic points, and folks huddled around for warmth. Soon, the main stage was ready and the tunes got rolling again.
Townhall opened the main stage, and they sounded good from up on the hill. It was still the hour of recreation, and the midfield behind the sound tent was full of flying Frisbees and footballs, chicks on motor scooters, and general random activity. Next up was Entrain, from Martha's Vineyard. Now, for those of you who might not know it, the Vineyard is an order or two more diverse culturally, socially, ethnically, topographically, and ecologically than its blue-blooded Island cousin Nantucket. So it should come as no surprise that Entrain carries a world-beat, brassy Latin vibe as well as any East coast Island community band out there. Well, it came as somewhat of a surprise, but a pleasant one. You'd swear they were from Panama or something. The horns, the drums - Lord, the drums!
Sam Holmstock on and Klem Klimek on the horns (and percussion) are largely responsible for Entrain's butt-shaking disposition. Now, throw them into Vinyl - no, not the back seat of a Dodge Duster, the band - and you've got a Afro-funk-Latin jam par excellence. Vinyl, Sam, and Klem. Blasting gritty tropical notes all over a dark damp hilltop in West Virginia. Hoodies flying everywhere. Colored lights glittering off golden brass. You get the picture. Aaaall good!
Somewhere during the set break between Vinyl and Sam Bush it started to drizzle again. People were scattering all over the joint, grabbing up dry clothing and bits of shelter and the odd rain garment. The vibe started picking up in that unmistakable manner when the weather turns mean. There was urgency in the air, and a feckless abandon. Weather schmeather, you gotta live for those moments of impending intensity. The festival was in full throttle, mud was deepening, and Sam Bush was about to take the stage. I sloshed back to the tent to grab more raingear, and passed through a gauntlet of amusing vignettes, the best of which was Tripp, trademark grin plastered across his face, ripping around in a bobcat, spreading gravel on the mud bath and singing, "thank God I'm a country boy." At that moment I realized that the soul of the All Good had fully taken shape. It was gonna' be a wet and wild child.
Now, the All Good is a mutt. I mean that in the best way- it's a mosaic of many tribes (the largest of which would be the young, long-haired variety), loosely connected through the genus of good time pickin' and grinnin'. The presence of Sam Bush may have seemed incongruous to outsiders, but to many festival connoisseurs, Sam is the man, and he can cross genres as well as any. Sure, he teases the cheese on occasion, and Saturday was no exception, as he took to the stage in a gaudy green short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with a big screen-printed "Sounds" logo across the front. The guy's got good kitsch sense. There's no denying, however, that Sam Bush can steal a show, and that's just what he did. Highlights included the opening grassy treatment of Marley's “Jamming,” and proceeded into giddy covers of Prince's “1999,” then right into “Celebration Time” and a ensuing medley of favorites. But the high point of the set, and possibly the festival, was “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” Bearing slight resemblance to anything acoustic, the rendition was born of electricity and power, and tore down the house. It was a pure cover, almost exactly like the Stones' version but with full-throttle mandolin. As the water poured from the sky, the line that goes "And I howled, at my ma in a driving rain!" energized that rain-soaked crowd of revelers with an ecstasy that can only be felt in a sublime musical climax. Um. It was good.
The closer that night was the Dark Star Orchestra. Maybe it was the cooling of the firebrand after Sam Bush wrapped up. Maybe it was just the sideways rain that continued to pelt the shrinking crowd with unabated fury. It wasn't the roses, though, that left me little less than inspired. DSO skillfully recreated May 17, 1978 at the Uptown Theater in Chicago, piling through the soggy first set with finesse: Half Step> Franklin's, Me & My Uncle> Big River, Roses, L. L. Rain, Tennessee Jed, Lazy Lightning> Supplication. Donna was resplendent under the warm lights as stagehands furiously squeegeed the edges of the stage, and the Franklin's was exquisite, but I retired during the long set break, almost hypothermic. Were it not for the sputtering fire near the food stands I think I would have damn near frozen to death on my way back to the tent. Like so many others that night that couldn't manage to squeeze themselves into the overflowing barn, there I stayed, in the bag, dry and secure, listening to the All Mighty Senators rocking out and coyote-howls erupting in waves from all corners of the campground. At points the wind was so strong I thought I'd lose the tent, and the last thing I remember, at 4:45, was the Senators closing down the barn with a cover of "Feel Like Making Love."
Saturday morning brought carnage. The full effect of two days of heavy rains and cold temperatures had taken its toll, and there was a mass exodus of sorts underway. Any car that could free itself from the mud was making a break for the gate, and it wasn't pretty. Everywhere you looked there were abandoned vehicles or people pushing and pulling. It made for spectacular photographic potential, however, and was a source of great amusement for this reviewer. From one hillside, cars were careening down with speed in order to plow through the giant puddle blocking their route from cold misery to dry freedom. In another lot a local boy was yanking sticker-studded sedans from the muck with a massive one-ton pickup. It was like Woodstock meets tractor pull at a refugee camp. Those who had come prepared, which appeared to be a distinct minority, were fine. But for those who were not - and I'm talking about lots of people that didn't even have shoes on - the morning was less than a joy.
Walther's crew, Tripp's crew, the security crew (there were a lot of different crews working this one- perhaps too many) were all performing quiet, unseen acts of heroism to provide warmth and comfort. Tim's business partner, Junipa Contento, bought $1000 worth of blankets and socks, and purchased emergency blankets and gloves at a nearby Wal-mart. 14 cords of firewood were secured for a massive necklace of much-needed bonfires. Tales of adversity filtered through camp: apparently, the large population of campers positioned above the stage on the gentle hill had been completely inundated throughout the night by a creeping wall of water. Those in the bottom of the holler were ejected from their tents like rodents from flooding holes, and wandered about shell-shocked. The line at the Sugar Shack was long, but Tom and John were carrying on like it was a sunny afternoon in the park.
It was hard to ignore the Woodstockian undertones, especially when the folks at Bearly Edible declared "The grilled cheeses are free!" Once word got round camp that the dollar sandwiches were now fair game, the cloud lifted. It was a turning point, and a brightness ensued. The rain held off for most of the day, and a sense of expectation was renewed. For those who stayed, the day held magic.
Hot reggae with a side of rap? You got it. Teased a little riff recently pirated by Dr. Dre, and smoked the crowd down.
RE is easily one of my favorite new bands. They create a bluegrass sound that is so pure and clean it almost hurts. Stunning and spare like cold water, interlaced with the warm vocals and guitar work of Todd Schaeffer (of From Good Homes fame), embellished with a filigree of mandolin, violin, dobro, drums, and stand up bass, each tune rises slowly, imperceptibly, until it is a rushing torrent of sound. But why ruin it with words - if you haven't heard them yet, you're in for a treat. They played some cuts off their first album, the Black Bear Sessions, including the infectious "Head," but a good portion of the set was devoted to their upcoming release, Bird in a House. If music is nectar, RE is a giant honeysuckle blossom.
John Scofield Band
You know where this is going. Scofield! While maybe not the last word in jams that the name implies, Scofield and company impressed me away with their combination of inner-shaking string wrenching and command of technical, electronically-influenced sound, which was tastefully executed over jazz bedrock. But what blew me away even more was the talent of the other three musicians currently in the Scofield Band lineup: Adam Deitch on drums, Jesse Murphy on bass, and Avi Bortnick on rhythm guitar and samples. Bortnick was white hot, and Scofield graciously handed him the sweet spot on many occasions. Hailing originally from Israel, he laid down a constant, furious techno-funky rhythm blitz on the Strat that was crazy clean and fast. All through the set the groove would slide from Scofield to Avi to Deitch to Murphy, and each musician would work black magic on the output. Add mesmerizing sample and the backwards, devil-inspired guitar effects on some of Scofield's meatier solos and I was thinking that this may be, indeed, the überjam. Über the top, that is.
"You're the man, Keller!" I'm not sure how many times I heard this shouted during his set, but it was a lot. I have to admit, I've always regarded the virtuoso warily, fearing unnecessary gimmick. But now I realize my ignorance: Keller Williams is a supreme creative and technical talent. Duh. But I'll still maintain that while his loop antics are a hell of a lot of fun, I really dig his straight-ahead songwriting and one-guitar tunes. They're pure like fresh linen. And like his sound, he pours out the good vibe in surprising proportion to his numbers.
7:45: Starting to snow. Crowd loves it.
7:46: Snow turns to rain.
"High on the mountaintop" opened, and from there it was all gravy, including an “Out in the Woods> Coal Tattoo” and “Ask the Fish” run with Dr. Didg that was pure abandon. Does anyone exhibit and translate abandon better than Leftover Salmon? Shit no. At one point early on in the set, an eager dude came to the front of the stage holding out the moonshine jar (with peaches). After a few minutes of yelling and gesticulating, Vince finally caught sight of the offering and came over for the prize, to the cheers and hoots of the tight gaggle pressed against the trampled snow fence barrier. Then, with typical Salmonosity, he popped the lid and took a good swallow. And the crowd goes wild. Back in the bus, mando/fiddle/vox lead Drew Emmit proclaimed, "That was the coldest show we've probably ever done." Considering they make their home in Colorado and have been playing high-altitude spring festivals for years, it was quite a statement. But you never would have known their fingers were frozen.
To proclaim a distinct headliner from a lineup such as the All Good produced is a risky business, but moe. provided the power and glory as expected. The one previous live moe. experience I had, at the Worcester Palladium last year, left me wanting more along the lines of clean sounds. Whatever it was, I wasn't hearing the intricacy of melody and instrumentation that are redolent on their studio work. That was not the case this time around. John Scofield joined them for the set opener on “Moth” and a "new Chuck tune" and helped deliver the competing festival highlight to “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” Dude, like, it was awesome. From in the crowd, the battle-axes were spread out from left to right: Chuck Garvey, John Scofield, Al Schnier. It was a headliner worthy duel that ensued, a fret board odyssey of finesse and speed. At one point Scofield and Garvey were locked in a lick trading that redefined my definition of the guitar jam, while off to the side Schnier tore away at the Gibson during breaks from the keys. The laid-back vibe that Rob Derhak produces on the bass allows moe. to really open it up without being overbearing, Jim Loughlin adds great textural background on percussion, and Vinnie Amico holds the focus on drums with a loose intensity. moe., live, has a ton of personality.
Somewhere in the middle of moe.'s set a dangerous spectacle unfolded. An attractive young woman that may have had a few too many Scooby snacks decided she was going to climb the front left stage tower and make a break for the tent top.
Pop quiz: what's a festival crew's worst nightmare?
Answer: A whacked-out chick trying to climb a stage tower in the rain during a set climax?
For a few breathless minutes the crowd looked on, frozen helplessly, while Dan Flick, the stage manager, and a few other stage hands executed a brilliant, albeit somewhat terrifying, rescue. As they were delicately wrestling said climber from the metal, Al Schnier finally realized what was going on in his corner and promptly pulled the plug on the soundtrack to disaster. When the crew finally dragged the drama kitten down to earth, to the applause of all in attendance, she proceeded to kick and scream at her captors like some enraged alley cat. Once again, hats off to the crew for their unwavering professionalism and grace under pressure. It turns out that our climber is also a dancer in her spare time, which would explain the theatrical flair that she exhibited. Few were impressed, however, and count on increased distance between crowd and stage for next year. Thanks, girl. It was hands down the stupidest thing I've seen anyone attempt in a long while.
The rest of the set went down smooth, punctuated by highs and mediums: “Okayalright,” “Shoot First,” “Not Coming Down,” “Kyle > Timmy Tucker.” Encore – “The Weight.”
As soon as amps were off the masses swarmed the barn, where Dr. Didg was engaged in heady aboriginal acoustic electronic experimentation. It was already packed, as swarm met with swarm and mingled in the warmth. For those last hours the beer and music flowed, (until the beer ran out) and it was...well, you know.
The next morning a quiet chaos still lingered. It was cool, but dry. Tim Walther was running around paying farmers to extract festival attendant's cars from the mud. All told, Walther Productions paid for around 460 cars to get towed out. Tripp was busy trying to keep festival attendants' cars out of a neighbor's tree farm, where they had apparently done a considerable amount of damage (let's just say that there are a few neighbors that aren't as excited about festivals at Sunshine Daydream as the rest of us). Volunteers were finally relaxing, a little glassy eyed, but grinning. The stage was gone, a trampled patch of mud and straw marking its former position. People were packing up and moving on, back to their homes and jobs, back to their workdays. Goodbyes, emails, phone numbers were traded. The organism was retiring back into itself, the blossom was dropping its petals for fruit, and the seed for next year was already forming. The music had won, as it always does. On my way out, I ran into all the same people I'd been running into all weekend. Ed Gralla the farmer from Virginia, who was there with his wife and two sons, both glassblowers. Sunshine, who was there with her daughter and grandson. Andrew Stewart, aspiring music photographer, who had arrived in two school buses with about twenty of his friends from the DC environs. Paisley and Rainbow, and their twelve-year old daughter Katrina, the aspiring music writer and interviewer extraordinaire. The extended family was dispersing.
Jay was still at the hairpin with his five-leaved spectacles on, diligently directing traffic out. Driving away, gathering clouds overcame the weak sun of the morning, and a light snow began to fall from the sweet sky above the West Virginia hills.
Weather schmeather, I'm coming back.
JamBase Boston Correspondent - On Location
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