Mountain, May 30
Introductory caveat: It’s a ridiculous endeavor to even attempt
to sum up a three-day music festival featuring four stages,
39 acts, and a whole host of secondary attractions. Ever since
the first Bonnaroo festival in 2002 (which is probably a better
benchmark of the modern festival era than any of the latter
Woodstock incarnations), organizers of these events have made
it their goal to throw the biggest, most diverse, sense-saturating
experiences possible. This means that the variety of acts
has ballooned to a point of physical impossibility for the
showgoer, and thus the “experience” is subjectively shaped
by what one can attend between sleep, eating, and whatever
else one needs to do to stay alive in a tent. This particular
“review” becomes increasingly ridiculous given a second caveat:
I attended only on the second day and missed the acts for
which I was most enthused (Marco Benevento, Girl Talk, Eric
Krasno, and Karl Denson).
Unlike the festival’s older siblings, which might place Tom
Petty and Tool or Radiohead and Willie Nelson back-to-back,
Mountain Jam tries, at least, for some stylistic continuity.
Warren Haynes co-presents the event and, naturally, his two
primary gigs (the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule) headline.
The scene is, therefore, geared toward big guitar rock and
Southern blues sensibilities, but open to more peculiar collaborations.
As soon as I entered the festival grounds on Saturday, the
crowd was buzzing about George Porter (of the Meters) having
joined Gov’t Mule the night before and Haynes having sat in
on Eric Krasno’s 1 AM set. Onstage, however, was Brett Dennen,
a West Coast songwriter who pairs Michael Franti’s unflagging
positivity with Jack Johnson’s lilting acoustica. In short,
sunshine music for a sunshine slot.
Situated in front of Hunter Mountain’s base lodge, the festival’s
two primary stages stood side-by-side such that one band could
be setting up while the other finished performing and the
crowd could remain parked on the sloping ski trail without
having to migrate. After Dennen, the Lee Boys played a set
of upbeat gospel, and then rock band Gomez took the stage.
It was a fairly unremarkable set, except for the massive volume
the PA could crank all the way up the mountain. By some strange
stroke of physics, the sound actually seemed louder the farther
one climbed (or proceeded by way of chairlift).
The strangest (and therefore most compelling) sequence of
the day came from the Hold Steady and the Gene Ween Band.
Amid a scene that thrives on timeless charm and an almost
nostalgic positivity, the Hold Steady’s wry sarcasm and self-aware
stage antics sparked a mini-exodus from the hillside. To the
band’s credit, the show was energized and engaging, but without
the reciprocity this kind of band needs, I couldn’t help but
think that their sweaty cleverness was better suited to a
sticky bar than a sunny field. Things turned a little awkward
when frontman Craig Finn sarcastically addressed the taper
section and prodded the crowd with drug innuendo.
This attempt to half get away with half-mocking the audience
continued with Gene Ween, whose deranged rock pastiches predate
Tenacious D by a long shot. For all the humorous antagonism
(seriously, who else could sing the chorus “It freaks me out
how much you fucking suck” to a field full of hippies), Ween’s
backing band of Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz and Scott Metzger
carried the day, skipping from faux-reggae into a carnival
version of “Mr. Sandman.” Ween’s sharpest critique, though,
came in the form of a mock-metal opus, levied, it seemed,
at the following act . . .
Coheed and Cambria, whose overwrought set sounded, at their
best, a bit like the Mars Volta and, at their worst, like
a Rush cover band. It’s the addition of bands like this that
have come to mystify festivalgoers lately, as they seem to
exemplify a bigger-is-better formula that effectively contradicts
moments of real innovation and experimentation that these
events should be good for. John Medeski was the casualty,
in this case, as his droning harmonium/melodica solo set was
all but drowned out on a smaller side stage.
I’ve left little space to mention Gov’t Mule, but that’s probably
OK. Mule fans know what to expect, and Haynes is one of the
most consistent, hard-working musicians in the blues-rock
idiom, so, as far as chainsaw guitar riffs go, Haynes doesn’t
disappoint. The only real surprise was “When Doves Cry,” complete
with a solo Prince would be proud of.
In “sum”: There are few finer joys than listening to rock
& roll in the sun on the side of a mountain, but the spectacle
has become plural, and any festival experience is going to
depend on what you’re lucky enough to catch.
Duke Robillard Band
LInda, May 29
Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Benny
Goodman, the Chicago clarinet whiz and bandleader who was
largely responsible for the birth of swing in 1935 and the
subsequent marriage of jazz and American popular music for
decade thereafter. In the 1940s, swing influenced the sound
of the blues’ first electric lead guitarist, T-Bone Walker.
Of all the six-string slingers performing today, nobody has
preserved T-Bone’s legacy more faithfully than Roomful of
Blues alumnus Duke Robillard, who played a polished passel
of jumping tunes at the Linda on the eve of Goodman’s centenary.
Robillard’s jazz-inflected show was a welcome changeup from
the usual Chicago-style blues (T-Bone Walker was from Kansas
City, where swing held sway rather than the Delta sound),
and featured the flashy fretwork that the 60-year old Rhode
Island native has been known for since 1967, when he co-founded
Roomful of Blues with pianist John Copley. Even though Robillard
seemed a somewhat unschooled guitarist in that his fingering
technique was very limited, he never ran dry of ideas, and
his timing was killer. His gravelly, gritty baritone singing
recalled that of Louis Armstrong, but, like Satchmo, he lacked
range and his voice had little resonance.
That mattered little, though. Sporting a 1950s style two-tone
bowling shirt and black slacks, Robillard led his quite tight
band, consisting of Doug James on sax, Bruce Bears on keyboards,
Mark Tiexeira on drums, and Brad Hallen on bass, onstage and
launched into his 90-minute set. He opened with “Swinging
With Lucy Mae,” a spiffy midtempo 12-bar-blues shuffle. 6th
and 9th chords swirled around, the baritone sax and the guitar
grunted out punchy riffs in unison over the keyboard’s Hammond
B-3 sound before Duke Robillard quoted Duke Ellington in his
solo, and when I closed my eyes I was in a 1950s bar, stealing
glances at a woman in a slinky dress sitting at the other
end, smoking a cigarette and wishing I’d offer to buy her
Further down the setlist, Robillard introduced what he called
his theme song, a ditty typical of the evening’s less than
weighty lyrical fare entitled “I May Be Ugly, But I Know How
to Cook.” On “The Memphis Grind,” an instrumental bracketed
with twangy bass-string riffs reminiscent of Link Wray, Bears
took a dazzling, mercurial keyboard solo full of fast runs
and funky rhythms. The band closed with “Going to California,”
a spooky minor-key tune that ended campily with another quote,
this time the slow chords of the James Bond theme.
can’t be the only ones who have noticed that Southern California
punk-rock bands tend to have an alarming rate of longevity.
Case in point: No Use for a Name (at Valentine’s, June 1).