The Faithful Meet Their Waterloo Waterlog
It is wholly impossible to understate, and underestimate, the power of music. The courageous crowd who endured the off-and-on deluge at the Waterloo Concert Field mini-fest knows exactly what I mean. It was truly one of those "had to be there" experiences that succeeded in dampening a concert field but very little else.
The festival was, essentially, the bastard Son of Bonnaroo NE. After Superfly Entertainment dismantled plans for the would-be jam-fest (in light of Field Day's denied permit), many of the bands on the massive 'roo-NE bill were left with a decision – roam the East Coast in search of a venue, or take the night off.
The intrepid String Cheese Incident was one of the first to seize this opportunity, making good on their scarce metropolitan visit. And they couldn't, in good conscience, go it alone. So they invited a killer lineup of far-out bands for an all-day bacchanal in Wild West Jersey.
The laid-back lot began as a sun-drenched Shakedown Street but became just plain drenched as the afternoon rolled along. A small handful made a point of checking out the intriguing opener, Kaki King. Her fingers blazed across the frets of her full-sounding acoustic guitar. But as nice as it sounded, and as good as she is, something just wasn't quite right.
It was hard to know what exactly drew her ire – the small crowd or the threatening clouds approaching behind her. Either way, her aloha to our photographer, Tim McDonald, set the tone for her set. She was just getting rolling into her third tune when a soft, driving rain began to let loose. "You don't have to stick it out," King offered "but I’m going to keep playing anyway."
The few listeners that comprised her pocket-sized audience boogied for the shade tent before the real cloudburst. And when it finally did, her plug was pulled.
And then, like something out of a movie, Soulive emerged from a milky broth of sog and fog and began to tune themselves up. Right on cue the sun came out as the first notes of "One in Seven" came rump-shakin' through. Guitarist Eric Krasno and the brothers Evans (Alan, drums and Neal, keys) are just as cool as they wanna be. And they pulled their kinda cool off without the snazzy suits!
This talented trio also helped set a different tone for the rest of the day. Smiles grew all around as the crowd geared itself up to throw the collective hip into a deep and funky dip. Neal's juicy, bumpin' keys were complemented all the way through by Alan's drums. The duo forged a synergistic connection that only twin musicians could concoct.
This connection is a major reason that Kraz is so important to the overall Soulivibe. Dexterous peals from his Ibanez sliced through the electric pull of "Cash's Dream" to keep the crowd's flow a-go. And Alan obviously felt the crowd trying to get up for the show, but he could also feel the thick humidity dragging them all down; his sweaty T-shirt a dead giveaway. So he did what any good soul man should and forced them into action with a slightly less-than-energetic S-O-U-L-I-V-E chant.
A quick glance around the field revealed that some of those folks who never made it in (read: probably ducked into their cars for cover) were now making their way through the gates and welcoming the sunshine in. And as the crowd suddenly began to double, The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne patrolled the stage's wings, and even stepped out into the crowd to take part in the full Soulivibration.
As the trio's funky set wound up and down and attracted more and more people – civilian and musician alike – some looming clouds made their presence felt once again. But the sun kept on burning its way through, and the crowd gained more energy because of it. Obvious showers pending, Soulive made sure to finish its brief set on a high note with the hard-charging, jam-happy stylings of "Hurry Up... And Wait." As the last notes of Neal's organ pumped over the sound system, wispy sprinkles began to descend in a light, refreshing sun shower.
As the three guys walked off, Kaki King quickly followed on their heels to finish her truncated set. I was beginning to think this was a nice move – she could help us out all day with some sweet "hold music" for each set break.
This is the moment I realized that Kaki King is cursed.
King got no more than the first five chords off when the sky opened up and dumped bucket upon bucket of teeming mizzle. "I guess I just bring the rain" King sighed glumly. The distant thunder, flashes of lightning, and ominous black clouds sent the crowd into a tizzy. Some scrambled in their bags for ponchos, some threw off their tops to soak it all in, and the rest hustled for elbowroom back under the shade tent.
The Disco Biscuits
In light of the downpour The Disco Biscuits took their time setting up their gear. But the entertainment was far from stagnant as two un-harnessed stage riggers climbed up the side of the stage's scaffolding. The ballsy duo monkeyed around the top – nearly 50 feet up – pushing the canvas-covered canopy up in strategic spots to relieve the pressure of the collecting water.
The rain continued, of course, but this time it was delicate enough so as not to mar the Biscuits' set. Guitarist Jon Gutwillig helmed the quartet through "The Overture," which resembled something out of the wild, squealing, pre-94 Phish excursions. Screaming crescendos and low-down dirty bottoms went in a gleeful pattern that finally landed on the traditional "Saber Dance." The apropos reel seemed a trite commentary on those folks who were last seen running for cover. Even still, it instilled an overall glee in the onlookers, and was masterfully played.
With "Floes" and "Little Lai," the Biscuits were finally turning this day up a notch. Bassist Marc Brownstein's driving thumps and drummer Sam Altman's beat-break made for a tight-ass rhythm combo, allowing Gutwillig and keyboardist Aron Magner to force more people through the gates, feet happily dancing all the way. The up-tempo set came full circle as "House Dog Party Favor" blended right back into where they started: "The Overture."
Local Jersey-boy Gutwillig would later admit, "Yea, we really tried to get those happy tunes out so people could get into it. It was a bad day to try and play those long dark jams."
Indeed it was.
Medeski Martin & Wood
If any group can build on momentum, it is Medeski Martin & Wood. The trio entered the day as elder statesmen to the relatively young lineup, and showed everybody how it's gotta be done when the going gets tough. Their set was punctuated with an attitude that spoke volumes: when your slot comes early in the day, and your audience has been downtrodden by pissing rain and shitty humidity, you take the reins and let loose.
Keyboard-extraordinaire John Medeski raunched the crowd right back with some booty-groovin' vamps to kick the extended set off. Interestingly, the way-out vibe of the band's collective mindset was enhanced by The Flaming Lips' props set up on the stage's flanks. Giant balloons, blow-up robots, and various garden tools somehow worked for the legendary MMW set that was about to ensue.
Following some avant-percussion by drummer Billy Martin – which featured stuffed songbirds and tribal whistling – the ultra-rare "Undressed" found its way out of the hole. Led by Chris Wood's dexterous bass grooves and Medeski's swinging lead, most people had stopped dancing just to watch.
Another blast from Mother Nature's tears did very little to stop MMW's momentum, pulling song after song out of their deep canon. "Smoke" was an uplifting romp full of funk and Hammond B-3. The Booker T. and the MG's styling of the tune made me wonder why this band hasn't been used more as a backing group (since John Scofield's A Go-Go).
Wood's fat thumping through "Money Miserable" reminded me that their propensity for taking things out and stretching them as far as they can go has probably scared away most would-be front men. But not the Disco Biscuits' Jon Gutwillig, who felt he could do the trio some justice when he turned to me and said "What if I just went out there, plugged in, and ripped a mean guitar solo?" Even though he himself knew he wouldn't do it, I dared him anyway by reminding him that they do not have a guitarist and could probably stand to use one now and again.
The final tune emerged out of a long jam and it turned into a deep, sprawling, and altogether masterful version of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe." As it forced the maw into nothing more than pensive listeners Gutwillig was almost amusingly upset by the version. "Why are they playing this so slow and straight? When are they gonna break it down and throw in some weirdness?" And just like that, ten minutes passed through a sublimely moody stretch of music, and the trio disappeared to a rousing ovation.
The rain had taken a tumultuous turn for the worse at the end of MMW's set. But through it all, Tim and I were comfortably dry under the backstage mess tent. We got lucky of course, because Carrie Lombardi – the incredibly sweet and unendingly cool PR/Marketing mastermind behind all of Madison House's roster – had helped us out. It was hard to know if it was my soppy, unkempt look, or Tim's poncho-covered equipment bags that made her want to help us. It actually got so bad at one point, that the crew had sent rumbles of the possibility of canceling if the lightning kept up.
Admittedly, with that news, we felt a bit guilty being so dry and close to the action while everyone else waited for the rain to peter out. But we got over it pretty quickly by watching Billy Nershi interact with his enormous extended family from New Jersey. Their pride in sharing long neck Buds with Uncle Billy gave the saturated tent a nice, warm, down-home vibe.
The Flaming Lips
If there is one band on this bill that had the power to bring the sun, it is the hippie-happy cool of The Flaming Lips, recent jam-family adoptee. And they succeeded in bringing not just one, but TWO! Okay, sure. It was a couple poor saps jammed into blow-up sun costumes, but even still, it was a welcome sight. Coyne led each sun-ball to the front corners of the stage and pleaded for their applause.
Before a lick of music was played, Coyne acknowledged the crowd: "You guys are the toughest, the happiest, and the coolest crowd I've ever seen. The more it rains the more you go 'Fuck it! Fuck it!'" The reaction, even in the open-air venue, was downright deafening. Coyne, an under-appreciated rock 'n' roll visionary, is arguably the most compelling front man in rock. He has been for some time, but not until recently had his brainchild Lips even sniffed attention. Nobody has more fun entertaining than Coyne. And no other band has more toys to play with.
Granted, The Flaming Lips live show is just that: a show. It's more about having fun than it is about the music. But for those folks who actually listened to the tunes being rawked out by Stephen Drozd (resident musical genius), Michael Ivins (resident technical expert), and touring drummer Kliph, fully understand that this band can bring it.
Commencing with the group's biggest achievement since "She Don’t Use Jelly" (which was played to break up the set's Yoshimi theme), "Fight Test" was a nasty slice of psychedelia. Coyne and Ivins are non-stop balls of energy. The mad duo worked together to unleash bags of confetti, gargantuan balloons, and noises galore on its unsuspecting audience, who willingly soaked it all in.
The entire set was filled with all the best ditties from their breakthrough Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, too. The romantic and celestial "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1" bled into the futuristic airiness of "One More Robot." The aforementioned "Jelly" was a glorious psychdeli-punk romp held back into the pop world by Coyne's distinct mid-range falsetto.
The bright and sunny – and now commercial – "Do You Realize??" was an amazing send-off as bright stars poked through the sky. The experience was surreal and I can only hope someone with video captured that simultaneous moment.
The String Cheese Incident
The day's headlining hosts, The String Cheese Incident, took a real long time deciding when they should play through the now-torrid storm. Straight from their Horning's Hideout "A Living Dream Experience" in Oregon, the band dealt with the weather remarkably well. During MMW's set, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth had nonchalantly mentioned to bassist Keith Moseley: "Hey, Keith, did you hear what we're doing? We're just going to do one 2-hour set."
The Disco Biscuits' Jon Gutwillig and Marc Brownstein were hemming and hawing over whether or not they should stay for SCI's show, or if it would even materialize. When I notified them of my eavesdrop bit of news, it solidified their decision to try to see at least part of the show. But not before Brownstein became alarmed at the Incidental balls:
Marc Brownstein: Wow, they made that call, huh?
Me: Well, I'm not sure who made call, exactly...
MB: Man, that's going to piss some of those people off.
Me: You think so? I kinda think some people would be psyched; at least they get to get out of the rain.
MB: (seriously) I don't know. Cheese-heads are pretty maniacal about their Cheese. They'll definitely notice if they're being cheated a set.
All was not lost, however. The hearty throng of wet revelers wiped their brows, smiled, and chanted: "We want the Cheese! We want the Cheese!" until finally the band relented and slowly armed themselves with their respective instruments. And the monstrous set SCI played would forgive whomever it was who made that decision.
With the first frowsy notes of Hollingsworth's "BAM!" intro, no one attendee was thinking about anything other than the moment. As Nershi tore his pick into a Les Paul, I couldn't believe this sound the band was making. They have never sounded more rockin'. The interplay between Moseley and drummer Michael Travis provided a key sense of stability to the ferocious song.
From my vantage point, directly to Kyle's right, I can honestly tell you that Hollingsworth is the Big Cheese. Please don't get me wrong, they are all fine players, and wonderful musicians and songwriters, but when Kyle gets revved up, there ain't no holding the throttle back. He knows when to take over, when to let up, and when to rattle the audience to the core.
Given Hollingsworth's emergence as a pillar, it should be noted that this Incident was a fine specimen of just how well the Cheese members communicate through song – both to the audience, and with each other. "BAM!" eventually dwindled into Michael Kang's movin' and groovin' "Desert Dawn." The sunny pop romp has become one of the best tunes lately with its isla-reggae turns served perfectly after the raucous funk.
The best way for an improv band to get the crowd on its side is to bust out a choice cover. The Cheese's East Coast visits over the past year have been rife with Talking Heads covers. But none have been more appropriate than the colossal "Life During War Time" that served as a giant coda to the high-energy "Miss Brown's Teahouse." "Life" has been teased before in sporadic jams, but this was the first full bust-out. The crowd's response was euphoric. Kang and Hollingsworth had a few blips in the timing, but the quintet's energy was so high it hardly mattered.
The giant-sized encore was kicked off by a stand-alone "Black and White." Gorgeous instrumentation and dead-on harmonies found the band in top form. But ending the show with a "Don't Say" -> "Ring of Fire" two-headed monster was enough to satisfy even the most die-hard of scorekeepers.
Words by: Scott Caffrey
Images by: Tim McDonald
JamBase | East Coast
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