Driving northbound late on an August Thursday evening through "The Blackout," a feeling of escapism came over us. We pushed along the darkened highways. Our festival forecasts evolved each from a different place, the culmination of a whirlwind summer circus for one of us; it was the dawn of an autumn of the same adventurous spirit for the other. After a sound sleep on a Western Mass dairy farm followed by a country breakfast refueling, we arrived in Great Barrington for the 6th annual Berkshire Mountain Music Festival.
We set up camp in a choice shaded area filled with trees and surrounded by interesting cohabitants, particularly the prankster hula hoop troupe and the boozy BoSox fan with a jersey emblazoned "Claypool" across the shoulders. This year, the theme of the coordinated camping and festival setup was old-school board games: we were squatted in "Operation," the foreboding Berkfest shady-town could be found between "Chutes and Ladders" and on "Battleship Blvd." The geography was akin to each Berkfest in years past, and many food and craft vendors returned to further a familiar atmosphere.
Just as we'd finished getting things together The Slip took the stage and I hurried to get a dosage of the proper Berkfest vibrations...
The Slip began our Berkfest with a scorching mid-afternoon set, chock full of rock and roll bombast. Poignant song placement, interesting string tones from the Barr brothers, and Mr. Marc Friedman holding it down, and playing up high. As people filed in, and the temperature rose mightily, Berkfest's prodigal sons unleashed a furiously serious serenade. The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" encored their awesome set.
The Steve Kimock Band delivered a mesmerizing, though sometimes dopey, sometimes electric set; it was fueled this eve not by the bandleader, but instead by his machine-gun funk-brother of a skinsman, Rodney Holmes. Lately, SKB's performances have left a little to be desired, this one was in essence saved and spiced up by Holmes and pianist Peter Applebaum. As the sun began to dive-bomb towards the foothills, SKB took the rapidly increasing attendance on a fusion-drenched ride.
Jennifer Hartswick Band blessed the Hillside Stage (sight of several weekend highlights) with a sultry set full of slick funk, mountain flavored R&B, and some truly choice covers in the sweltering heat. Applebaum raced over to blow his horn with fellow Trey Band conspirators Dave Grippo, Russ Lawton, Andy Moroz, and Ray Paczkowski, though the feeling here was equally relaxed but the songs were not improvised. Hartswick's jazz vocals dominated a few originals, bust-outs included Bill Withers's classic "Use Me," an old Chicago 17 jam, and one of my favorite Stevie Wonder joints "You Haven't Done Nuthin'." Much as I enjoyed Jennifer's TAB crew, a star of this enormous band (something like 9 players) was clearly Burlington's genre bouncing six string guitar assassin known as "Morpheous" in some circles for his slaytanic sonic inspiration. The guitarist is an innovator who miraculously sounds nothing like Trey (despite the similar fertile breeding grounds.) His legal name is apparently David Diamond, and dude needs to don some shades real quick-like, his future is bling.
Toronto's The New Deal was mid-set by the time JHB concluded, and the now-large and bouncing crowd was gza-jumpin' to the breakbeats. Though their performances are often very similar, TND more than make up for it in frenetic energy. Analoged-out and full of kick drum, the band's set of familiar tunes from their debut were spliced with some new songs they claim will be on the next disc. Perfect sonic concoctions for the dusk-nightfall onset, TND got people real psyched for the fest, vibes were flowing properly.
Despite the night of breeze and beauty, NYC groovers Medeski Martin & Wood were unable to capitalize on the chronic vibe. Their meandering set was plagued by sound problems that hampered Chris Wood's upright, a general lack of direction, and just about everybody including the band themselves knew they were capable of so much more. It seemed as if their minds might have been elsewhere. The final half hour finally brought the freak out of the trio and they caught some ill grooves, but soon their allotted time was over.
Late night all weekend, along with the lodge performances that ran until 2am, VIP campers, artists, and staff were treated to a disco party in the Austin Powers themed hospitality tent. DJ Motion Potion could be found playing CD's over a booming sound system all night until 4am, with revelers getting groovy till the break of day. Plenty of Red Hook flowing, good vibes present and a whole lotta rump shaking going on! The song selection was all over the place, completing the eclectic gathering of nocturnal ravers.
Colorado's The Motet began Friday's late night shenanigans in the lower lodge. Their sound has evolved with the additions of saxophonist Cheme Gastellum and bass wunderkind Garret Sayers, and this night's dance-off was accented by an electro-disco kick that is today's Motet. Things got real hot as the Afro-crunk blast continued for nearly ninety sweat drenched minutes, and then Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey took the stage to complete the mission, with a little help from The Slip's Brad Barr. Always bringing a different musical personality to mold appropriately to the situation, JFJO busted skulls with carnival boom-bap form the planet Necro via Michigan.
Saturday morning brought with it the promise of sun-fueled blossoming energies and a blessedly packed bill of performers. Glistening in the heat of the encasing Berkshires and the shining with the glory of summer, the Berkfest massive was treated to a wondrous day of music and cultural interaction. The pendulum swung deep in both directions throughout the festival. The days were filled with positively charged energies feeding from music and people, and the late night wooded areas pulsated with evil, born from bad drugs, negativity and priorities gone awry.
The Charlie Hunter Trio began our day in lovely fashion. The sweet 8-string melodies rang out as the beautiful weather and energy bloomed. Hunter and saxophonist John Ellis danced atop the morning glory, with guest vocalist Dean Bowman bringing gospel-tinged lyrics atop the sedated jams.
Boulder's Latin kings Cabaret Diosa got things heated up over at the Hillside stage during the hottest and most uncomfortable part of the afternoon, and Kaki King kept it real with her patented delicate acoustic metal, which was unfortunately cut short for Berkfest favorites Addison Groove Project.
Addison Groove Project welcomed guest bassists Brian Connell and Garret Sayers onstage during their raging mid-afternoon Hillside set, mixing old funk numbers with their broadening new catalogue. Many in the crowd were indeed thinking of ailing bass player John Hall, whose presence was more than missed, but his cohorts, led by born rock star (keyboardist) Rob Marscher, had just about everybody jumpin' to the funkiness.
Meanwhile, Burlington's Concentric put on a progressive house, breakbeat showcase in the upper lodge, bringing a hard driving and interesting electronica.
The MOFRO performance late Saturday afternoon was full of blues-soaked grittiness from these Florida boys. Enigmatic front man J.J. brought his drawl and ball to the Northeast, taking cats to school through rugged lyric and dirty harp, and the band behind him impressed many seeing them for the first time. Cheme and Galatic's Tim Raines joined in for some celebration, which only served to build the anticipation for southern-bred partners in crime Galactic.
With a set that highlighted new songs from their long awaited album Ruckus, Galactic delivered a harder edged brand of NOLA crunk than we are used to. The seeds were planted on last year's Freezestyle tour, however now their electro-funk b-boy grease has a distinctively darker, urban edge, probably the result of their working with Dan "The Automator" Nakamura on their recent record. On prominent display were drummer Stanton Moore's relentless bass drum and syncopated dynamics, and keyboard wizard Rich Vogel's layers of analog funnel cake, Galactic channels Afrika Bambaataa, with a little chunky-ass hollow body from Raines and jailhouse love jones from Houseman to complete the gumbo.
The Flaming Lips psychedelic rock show closed Saturday night's main stage festivities, complete with a visual accompaniment. A large screen projected a myriad of images while large animals and characters pranced around the stage along to the strange melodic bipolar pop of the Lips.
The secret is out; peoples know the deal, at least as far as the Russo/Benevento Duo is concerned. Their brief but raging late night set in the upper lodge just served to solidify their rep as the next big thing, and brought them a huge crowd for Sunday's afternoon showcase. With guest spots from JFJO's Brian Haas as well as NYC brother Sam Kinninger, the Duo took it out a little but always kept it on a tight leash. Each time I have the pleasure of seeing these guys perform, when I exit I feel incredible. This evening, the Duo set the stage for a sick Slip late set.
The Slip took care of business to a packed and sweaty lodge with a wide open performance that counted Africa, Middle East, Bay Area, a couple of NYC boroughs, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, London, Outer Space, Cyberspace, and of course Rhode Island, in it's sonic geography.
The other late night show got off to a good start with some promiscuous drum and bass from Moonraker, however problems arose during Particle's extremely crowded set. The power mysteriously went out, eerily coincidental given what was going on out there in "society." But don't count out the "Particle People," and a very dedicated and resourceful group of fans. The band's manager banged a gong and the masses followed suit, marching to the beat of their own... locker. People pounded on anything around, and a very loud "percussion" circle ensued, diverting the disappointment of the aborted Particle performance.
Saturday night after the incredible late sets, curiosity and a lust for danger got the best of us and we wandered into the darker side of town, the woods, where the majority of the festival camping was located and in essence, the "belly of the beast." No Berkfest review would be fair or complete without at least a mention of the depravity that existed deep into the realms of "Wookie World" (as we affectionately dubbed it). As cagey fest vets we were able to derive some comedy from the Mobb Deep song unfolding before our eyes, but not everybody was so lucky. I heard many a horror story throughout the weekend, tales of the darkness beyond. As the greater Berkfest contingent slept, the proverbial freaks did indeed come out at night.
Sunday brought the obligatory Berkfest rains, as well as many of the festival's hottest performances. The customary Sunday afternoon exodus never materialized, due to the strength of the final day's bill. The activism was alive in the form of the Conscious Alliance collecting food as well as the Rock the Vote soldiers on the prowl registering would-be non-voters. Most impressive was Natalie, holding it down for the legendary Mother Jones magazine, kicking knowledge to anybody who would listen as well as many who wouldn’t. As it poured off and on throughout the day, the brilliant line-up coupled with the audience’s collectively unfazed attitude towards the wookies and the rain, made for a pretty proper sendoff as the music took the mind.
Sluggish and battle worn, I slept in Sunday morning, and missed a few choice performers, particularly Alvin Youngblood Hart. Brooklyn's afro-beat doctors Antibalas were my first act of the day. Through the rain they delivered truth, promise, spirit, life, reality, pain, suffering, contemplation, peace, and understanding through polyrhythmic rhyme and reason. The large band is a pleasure to watch perform, as each member does a small yet integral part in creating the multifaceted sound that is afro-beat. Like Charlie Hunter a day earlier, Antibalas was the perfect soundtrack for rise and shine, though Sunday 'twas rain.
Unfortunately, said rain became rather oppressive, and not enough people got to see the wonder that is the Cuban Free Jazz Project. Spearheaded by jazz legends in drummer Bob Gullotti and pianist Tony Perez, the virtuoso within this band is remarkable. CFJP was downright impressive and inspired, playing Latin-tinged exquisite jazz from a late '60s, early '70s Miles Davis perspective.
Ithaca's resident reggae revelers John Brown's Body dropped a positively charged set complete with a rousing ska horn section in proper suits, and a sick riddim' section with thumping dub-tronics. Dancers braved a driving rain to skank along to the righteous roots vibes, culminating in a smoking version of their 1996 classic "All Time." STS9's Zach Velmer got involved in the percussion side of things during the irie JBB set.
As a reprieve from the wetness as well as a special treat, The Slip teamed up with Marco Benevento on Hammond B3 for an hour of Zeppelin, fatback jazzy rare groove, and some sedated rock balladry to a packed upper lodge. These old friends were having as much fun as the audience, reconnecting in such blissful fashion in familiar territory. The music conveyed such sentiment. Meanwhile, Warren Haynes performed solo acoustic on the main stage, mixing faithful covers with songs from his recently released solo debut.
As the rain teased the massive with outbursts spliced with lulls and even brief sun, the festival entered its stretch run. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey blessed those who persevered with an obtuse set of free jazz, groove workouts, and atypical JFJO tangents. The controlled talents of drummer Jason Smart were exemplary, as both pianist Haas and bassist extraordinaire William Reed Mathis tempted the ship to the wayward seas and Smart steered toward safety. Haas humbly invited legends Gullotti and Perez onstage. The ensuing twenty minutes of jazz liberation stands alongside the fourth set at Limestone as the finest improvised music I had the pleasure of bearing witness to all summer. Haas mentioned how Gullotti's presence had shaken him up, but all it did was make him melodica-happy, and the "Vernal Equinox" that followed was its own distinctive beast that day.
The Russo/Benevento Duo performed a showcase late Sunday afternoon, consisting of the typical solid-as-a-rock Knitting Factory Tap Room steez. Opening with the blazing original "Darts," and winding and weaving its way through the city downtown and racing through the block of Duo covers (Led Zep, Nirvana, Paul Simon etc.) that started their now-exploding phenomenon, the secret is no longer quiet as kept. For better or worse, they have added the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" to the catalogue. However, like the homey D.O.C. says, "no one can do it better," and as far as Marco and Joe are concerned, he's right on the money. This showcase did exactly that, look for big things in the immediate future. The same can be said for Sam Kinninger's sparsely attended but still downright nasty set late in the afternoon.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 played a relatively standard set for this summer, but they hover well above their contemporaries. Berkfest was just an example of how ahead their game is, and the rain held up so the STS9 crew could deliver the goods. Song and emotion; in the form of ethereal drum and bass, thumping boom bap, serene melody, lush soundscapes, lusting downtempo, and a amalgam of many sounds and spirits. All of the above accented by the immense strength of the band, the mind-blowing drummer/programmer/sickass Velmer. A floral arranger visually enhanced the experience by strategically placing flowers around the stage as the band created tension and released it gracefully.
The Greyboy Allstars were trendsetters, and many jazzy jambands today try to create what they did so effortlessly just a few years ago. Though this was billed as the reunion, there had been some other GBA shows, this performance closing Berkfest was one of a few during their brief run. Keyboardist Robert Walter, clad in a hunter green Pigpen hoodie, led the charge, volleying with both Karl Denson and Elgin Park who could have had the most fun and ripped the swingin'est lick all weekend. The amount of fun these guys were having was evident, smiles abound, fast paced grooves and a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Opening with Jack McDuff's "Duffin Around," mixing Grant Green's "Flood in Franklin Park," Kool and the Gang's "Let the Music Take Your Mind" (with a new vocal arrangement) with originals like "Volcanic Acne" and "Quantico, Va.", the GBA was just starting to lay waste to today's pretenders when the typical Berkfest ball dropping occurred. Time had been mismanaged throughout the day, and the set would have to be cut short. A festival organizer was thoroughly booed when delivering the news.
After the unfortunate premature ending to the GBA set, we headed over to the VIP tent for the proper ending to another great Berkfest. Along the with the peculiarly interesting and funky DJ Motion Potion selections, Mister Rourke, who had sat in mightily with his man Sam Kinninger earlier in the day, arrived with his Technics and the party got jumping. For the third night after a rain soaked day, people were getting down and dirty! Maybe because many of the revelers were staff and indeed thankfully letting loose now that the fest was over, the party just got hotter and swankier as the evening wore on. The dancing at this disco-tent was some of the nastiest I have seen this side of JazzFest. In retrospect, the final three hours at Berkfest were as enjoyable as any. Escaping "The Blackout," and gallivanting into the mountains, the woods, the trees, to a music festival founded on a broad spectrum of music and community, one filled with people, song, spirits, life, and even wookies, made Berkfest a perfect end-of-summer experience, and one I hope to have again.
Words by: Brian Getz
Images by: Jaci Downs
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