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Variety Show

By Josh Potter

Mountain Jam

Hunter 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.

Seeing the Cites

Duke Robillard Band

The 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 a drink.

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.

—Glenn Weiser


Long Time Coming

Photo: Julia Zave

We 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).

 

 

 

 

 


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