Music festivals come in all shapes, sizes and genres, but, in the end, there are really only two types; the musical buffet, where the patron is free to choose their own experience from the vast and varied menu of bands, and the guided musical menu, where the promoter sets out the courses and the patron selects the ones to partake and those to forego. The All Good Music Festival (and campout) is decidedly the latter and the festival goers flocked to central Ohio and gluttonously devoured the delicious fare set out by “chef” Tim Walther. And with a side-by-side stage setup that allowed for continuous music (stopped only by a couple of brief changeover delays that plague all festivals) the weekend was a non-stop feast.
Thursday’s “pre-party” menu opened with a stellar set from John Scofield’s Uberjam Band who were promoting their recent release “Uberjam Deaux.” Scofield laid down tasty licks as band mates Adam Deitch and Andy Hess laid the foundation and rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick provided that added amount of spice to make the set pop with flavor. As an appetizer, it set a very high bar for the rest of the weekend.
The menu turned more exotic with the too brief, but tasty, set from Toubab Krewe, before a set from festival staple Papadosio was served. It seems like Papadosio is at every festival, every year and this set, while good, lacked that extra punch that has made them festival favorites nationwide. Next up were Lettuce who dosed out ample servings of funk drizzled soul. About halfway through the set, Nigel Hall abandoned his organ to focus on his vocals and to this ear that was a bit of a mistake. It is not that Hall lacks the skills of a font man (he has that in spades), but it is his organ work that gives the band such a full-bodied sound and its absence lessens their sound.
The final mainstage performer of the evening was Yonder Mountain String Band who played their set on the eve of their own Northwest String Summit. The Boulder quartet delivered a trademark set of traditional bluegrass laced with an ample amount of jamgrass that had a multitude of female railrats reward Jeff Austin with topless appreciation and offers of undying love. Their encore of “Two Hits (and the Joint turned Brown)” was most appropriate as the band certainly left the audience in a pleasantly peaceful reverie. The desert course for the evening was a set from Beats Antique, a band that augments their worldly dance beats with the visual treat of dancer extraordinaire Zoe Jakes. While the trio enthralled the late night crowd the after effects of a seven hour drive drew me inexorably to my campsite (which, fortunately, was situated in listening proximity to the stages) for a night cap with friends.
I chose to forego the two course musical breakfast of Fear Nuttin and Reverand Peyton’s Big Damn Band in favor of an actual breakfast at the campsite, but both made a nice accompaniment to our bacon and eggs. Kung Fu were first up on the second stage and the Connecticut quintet, who I first saw at last year’s festival, assaulted the early risers with a raging funkathon that energized the crowd like that extra shot of espresso in your morning coffee. Next up were Bright Light Social Hour who made very little of an impression on me but that could be because of the distraction of the oncoming black streak in the sky. After all, it wouldn’t be a 2013 music festival without some sort of rain delay, this one actually necessitating that all festival goers vacate the concert area and return to their cars for fear of lightning strikes.
The ensuing deluge was intense but brief and served to both keep the dust down and break the previously oppressive heat. Communication to our campsite was spotty so we missed the update as to the set times (no acts were to be cut or shortened) so it took a while for me to realize that the extraordinary sounds that we thought were coming over the PA were actually the sonic musings of Matt Butler and his Everyone Orchestra and that the music had resumed. It is always a treat to see Butler gymnastically coax improvised musical magic from his assemblage of festival musicians but this time I only got to see the final few moments. My disappointment, which was after all my own fault, was soothed by the realization that Butler would lead the Rex Jam the following day.
Next up were Dark Star Orchestra, perhaps the country’s finest Grateful Dead tribute band. With band alum John Kadlicek now playing with Saturday night’s headliner Furthur, DSO offered up an acoustic set which made the two day experience reminiscent of the Dead’s legendary three set shows (an acoustic set followed by two electric sets). The post rain gremlins played some havoc with both the front of house sound and Jeff Mattison’s guitar hookup but in true Deadesque tradition the band soldiered on while the fixes were being made and by the time everything was back to normal vocalist Lisa Mackey had launched into a raucous version of “You Ain’t Woman Enough” that had the distaff crowd in a tizzy and set the party tone for the rest of the evening.
Next up were The Stepkids, a three piece band out of Connecticut with whom I was unfamiliar, but after their performance (and that of Kung Fu) I am now convinced there is something special in the water in the Nutmeg state. With a song catalogue dramatically influenced by the pop-rock of the sixties, most notably their emphatic falsetto harmonies, and included a spot-on cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” this band was a revelation and left me wanting a longer set.
But all such desires were quickly extinguished when Leftover Salmon took to the mainstage. Festival favorite Vince Herman’s vocals were sandwiched between the fiery picking of Drew Emmet’s mandolin and Andy Thorn’s banjo and made for an ample mid-day musical meal. But it was the band’s beautiful take on the Thorn’s tune, with the atmospherically appropriate title, “Light Behind the Rain” that was one of the weekend’s true moments of absolute magic and left the audience enraptured. The positive vibrations continued with the set from Nahko & Medicine for the People, a band I had heard good things about, but had never seen. With lyrics that evoke Marleyesque themes, an instrumentality that seems to draw from Hank Williams, the Ramones and Paul Simon in equal measures, and a stage energy that is reminiscent of Michael Franti this band was a true revelation and are a perfect addition to the summer festival circuit.
Next up on the main stage was the John Butler Trio, another band that I had never seen but had heard good things about. However, unlike Nahko, this band’s set did not settle well in my ears. Perhaps it was the result of high expectations but this set was the only real disappointment of the weekend. However it should be noted that the response generated from the audience, especially the women when the band played “Zebra”, it would seem that my view of the set was in the distinct minority.
In contrast, the too-brief set offered by Chicago based Digital Tape Machine was one of the best of the weekend. Known by most as an EDM side project for Joel Cummins (keys) and Kris Myers (drums) from Umphrey’s McGee, this band has evolved into a musical force in their own right by creating a lush, layered, almost orchestral take on the dance party but with a distinct rock and roll overtone that is evidenced on their recent album “Be Here Now!”. Their tunes seem to start with a simple hook, often from the keyboard of Joe Hettinga (from Strange Arrangement), before being rounded out by Cummins’ virtuosic Moog stylings, the beats, scratches and mic skills of DJ My Boy Elroy (from Liquid Soul), a propulsive rhythm section of Myers and bassist Bryan Doherty (who recently filled in for Umphrey’s bassist Ryan Stasik at Camp Bisco when Stasik’s wife went into labor), classy fills from keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Dan Rucinski and the dexterous shredding of guitar savant Marcus Rezak. This is a band poised to dominate the late-night (or, truth be told, late-late-late night) dance party scene for years to come.
Primus was next and, in true Primus form, they “sucked.” This is a band that has long been on my list of groups that I admire for their musical chops, respect for their desire to push musical boundaries, and understand how so many claim them as a favorite, but they simply do not trigger the pleasure center in my brain. But Claypool and company did serve as a perfect backdrop for one of my favorite festival activities, the hunt for light-hoopers to photograph. My hunt proved fruitful as I trolled the usual spots and found the normal array of hoops, poi and lighted gloves. In the distance, I noticed one of those special small whirls that are rare to see, a hooper that seemed to never lose control – the perfect subject. My approach to the subject was extremely strange because as I got closer she seemed to defy the laws of physics because despite my getting nearer to her, she remained a small whirl and still in masterful control of her blinking ring including a rope skipping move that few hoopers can accomplish. It was only when I got within ten feet of the subject did I finally understand the trick that my mind had undergone. I had assumed that such a talented light hooper had to be a member of one of the various troops of festival performers only to be shocked to discover that the mesmerizing light that had drawn me half way across the venue was not being generated by a festival veteran but by a precocious six year old girl named Addy. While I doubt I will ever be a true Primus fan, they are now an integral part of a memory that I will cherish forever.
On my trip into the venue, I had noticed a crew setting up fireworks in the field across the pond from my campsite. I inquired when the show was to begin and learned they were to accompany the set by The Bridge. With their set time approaching I chose to forego the music in favor of an up-close experience (the fire marshal asked me to move back twice) and was rewarded with an intense pyrotechnic display. The proximity of my campsite and friends kept me away from STS9’s set (as well as the realization that I expect to see them multiple times in the next month as they tour with Umphrey’s McGee) but I was told by several people, both devoted Tribe fans and newbies, that their set was very good.
My plan was to make it into the concert venue in time to see the African Showboyz, but this plan was foiled by my campmates who continued to make delicious food (more bacon was involved), so I did not actually get into the venue until UV Hippo’s set began. It was a somewhat unusual experience to see them in the sunlight as this is another band that seems to be regularly booked into a late night set, but the Michigan band offered up one of their trademark sets of jamtronica that has made them festival favorites throughout the Midwest.
The first time I saw Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue was four or five years ago as they were playing a mid-afternoon set at a street fair in Chicago. Their timeslot seemed to indicate that were simply filler but I was drawn by their Crescent City heritage and was rewarded with a wonderful set of funky goodness that told me that Troy Andrews and his musical entourage were a band that I was destined to see again. Unfortunately, in the intervening years it seemed that there was always something conflicting with any of their shows that I might have attended. But their All Good set not only reaffirmed my first impression, but actually sold them short, as they have developed into one of the best bands going and have been established as inheritors of the great NOLA musical legacy of bands like the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and Galactic. Andrews led his troupe through a funky, soul-laced set that set the crowd abuzz. In his role as bandleader, he darted from member to member, as they soloed, to coax that little extra out of them with his fervent cheerleading. As a soloist he excelled and he toyed with the crowd as he explored the wide range of his city’s musical history including a show stopping version of the classic “St James’ Infirmary” that featured the incendiary guitar work of Pete Murano to compliment Andrews’ soulful vocals. This might just have been the best set of the weekend.
Having missed the previous day’s Everyone Orchestra set, nothing was going to keep me from the Rex Jam. The Rex Jam gets its name from the Grateful Dead’s charitable arm, the Rex Foundation, which has a long tradition of promoting music education for children. In this spirit, volunteers collected donations for the local school music program while Matt Butler conducted his diverse crew of musicians. I have to assume, as often as Butler does this, that there have to be “off” nights, but I have yet to see one. The too-brief set featured only three musical segments as Butler scrawled simple notes (“Music is Love” “Reggae” and “Beauty C”) on his dry erase boards as a prompt and then guided his group on a wonderful musical adventure.
Next to take the mainstage were Grace Potter & the Nocturnals who delivered the sexiest set of the weekend. Clad in a revealing white dress that resembled a loosely tied bathrobe, Potter had the undivided attention of the masculine element of the crowd (especially those of us in the photo pit who got a “better” show than most). But this set was about far more than Potter’s feminine wiles, as she demonstrated her ample chops on both organ and guitar along with her emotional vocals, as she led her crew through a raucous set of bluesy rock and roll. But the highlight of the set (and perhaps the weekend) was when she was joined onstage by Bob Weir for a joyful version of the Dead classic “Friend of the Devil” that left the crowd in rapt awe.
As sprinkles returned, the Infamous Stringdusters took to the side stage. This is an infuriating band in my eyes because they are so talented musically and write beautifully jam ready bluegrass tunes, the exact things that draw me to bands like Stringcheese, Yonder, Cornmeal and Greensky, but they seem reluctant to completely let loose and expand their musical envelope. Their set was certainly not bad, but, as always, left me thinking that it could and should have been so much more.
Without a doubt, the tie-dyed-in-the-wool deadhead in me had been looking forward to Furthur’s set more than any other during the weekend. While, for obvious reasons, this is far from the band that I fell in love with so many years ago, it is always a treat to hear my favorite musical canon being played by those who know it best. The band drew up a titanic setlist that included extended jammy versions of early classics “(That’s it for) The Other One,” “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” that allowed guitarist John Kadlicek to deftly weave musical spells reminiscent of the man in whose shadow he will always remain, but with a fresh vibrancy that would, no doubt, have brought a grin to that man’s face. Grace Potter, now dressed in a sexy black mini-dress, joined the band for an epic old-school version of “(Turn on Your) Lovelight,” lending a Joplin-esque feel to Pigpen’s vocal part. After a brief reminder from Phil Lesh about the importance of organ donation, the set concluded with a slow, sweet version of “Brokedown Palace” that was beautifully poignant.
As fireworks burst into the sky, Ohio’s own The Werks delivered a proggy set of dance-rock worthy of the pyrothechnic background. This is a band that has developed a growing and devoted following due to their ability to instantly energize their audience with a creative synthesis of psychedelia, electronica and metal. Their short but excellent set left me in eager anticipation of September when I will be returning to the same venue and get a larger dose of the band at the Werk-Out Music Festival. I am not an aficionado of dj’s. To me they offer little in terms of a live performance and as such I usually skip them, so I stayed in a backstage hideaway when Pretty Lights hit the stage. From that perspective he provided a nice musical backdrop for a post-show hang with friends.
Sunday brunch was served by New Orleans based The Revivalists. I had seen front man David Shaw when he toured recently with Galactic, but this was my first time seeing him in his natural setting. Shaw’s charismatic presence and soulful voice had the early risers spellbound as the band delivered a nice set of bluesy soul. I have spent much of the time since I left Ohio trying to figure out how to describe the next act that hit the stage, the Marchfourth Marching Band. They are a musical/visual stew of a circus, football half-time show, New Orleans funeral, burlesque show and pride parade that seamlessly meld together to form a psychedelic jazz/disco experience. They defy the traditional marching band creed by employing both an electric bass and guitar along with the more traditional brass and marching drums to create the perfect musical pairing for the burlesque circus that included the burlesque performers doing pole dances on poles that were being held by stilt-walkers (who earlier performed dance moves that would challenge the earth bound let alone someone on stilts). It is this kind of set that makes a music festival special.
Most Midwest music fans have encountered the non-stop musical force that is The Ragbirds. With an abundance of energy Erin Zindle leads her “five boy” cavalcade hither and yon as they exhibit their pan-global musical influences that Zindle highlights with her sweet voice and multi-instrumentality. On some tunes it might be violin, or mandolin, or accordion, or banjo, or djembe. It seems like every time I see this band she has mastered a new instrument. But on this occasion, the pace was a little slower and the instrumentality was limited to the violin (and a drum), of course this might have had something to do with Zindle being eight months pregnant (the blame for which she kiddingly cast upon percussionist/husband Randall Moore). With uncle to be TJ Zindle shouldering a heavier load on guitar, the band from Ann Arbor delivered a beautiful set despite the limitations caused by impending motherhood.
With a seven hour drive on the near horizon, the set from the North Mississippi All-Stars was destined to be my last of the weekend. The trio always delivers an energetic set of electrified hill-country blues and this was no exception. With a set that featured all three members playing guitar, bass and drums at various points and with guitarist Luther Dickinson showing off a guitar crafted from a cigar box and another from a tin can, not to forget Cody Dickinson’s electric washboard solo, this was a fun conclusion to a wonderful weekend that left me both completely sated and looking forward to Tim Walther’s next musical menu.