Suwannee Hulaween 2014

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[Words and photos by Adam Taylor]

The String Cheese Incident’s Suwannee Hulaween, which just celebrated the second year of its reincarnation after a few year hiatus, is held at one of the most beautiful and enchanting outdoor music parks in the country, The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (SOSMP). The home of festivals such as Wanee, Bear Creek, Aura, and The Purple Hatter’s Ball has a stunning landscape, with a mixture of grassy clearings spread out amongst a dense forest full of gargantuan Live Oak trees. The winding trails, and Spanish Moss draped over the trees, amplify the connection to nature you feel in this place, making the venue as central a piece of the festival experience as any of the music performed or friends made. Taking place over Halloween weekend, from October 30th through November 2nd in the wilderness of Northern Florida,  Suwannee Hulaween features an incredible seven sets of Cheese – three on Halloween night including a special theatrical cover set as well as two each other evening – in addition to a stellar, impeccably selected lineup of other acts, both in headliners and artists lower on the bill. Some of these included Beats Antique, Greensky Bluegrass, Keller Williams & Friends, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Shpongle, Thievery Corporation, Kung Fu, and Big Gigantic.

Photo by Josh Timmermans
Photo by Josh Timmermans

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Festival Experience

Aside from the non-stop music heard throughout the grounds, whether that be from a campsite, car stereo, or one of the stages, and the beautiful natural setting you find yourself immersed in, the weekend is non-stop stimulation.  Everywhere you turn, there is something competing for your attention: live artists, wildly dressed performers or crazy costumed fans .  From the Spirit Lake, which offers some incredible visual imagery, which even further transforms the landscape when the sun goes down, to simply walking around to check out how people have set up and Cheesified their campsites with spider webs, tapestries, inflatable furniture, light projections and more, there isn’t a dull moment, even when there are no artists performing on-stage. Even in while immersed in live music, the madness onstage can’t keep you from looking around at the effects of the lights on the mythical looking Oak trees, wandering over to the the live artists, or being drawn in by the hoopers, some in large groups, in total synchrony.

My journey to The Spirit of Suwannee involved planes, trains, and automobiles and began with waking up before the crack of dawn to catch the first flight out of Chicago to Atlanta. I rendezvoused with my crew of ATLiens before our road trip down to Live Oak, loading up on snacks and food at everyone’s favorite Wal-Mart in lovely Valdosta, GA. Seriously, after a 5-hour car ride with the promise of 7 sets of Cheese at the end of the tunnel, this South Georgia mecca of commerce felt like being in an episode of South Park.  We finally pulled into the park at dusk Thursday night to be greeted by beyond friendly and enthusiastic staff.  Since SOSMP is a park that is literally built for crowds and even more-so for music festivals, entry into the park is smooth and ticket issues, while rare, are quickly resolved.  The grounds are pretty spread out, yet incredibly easy to navigate, with easy to remember landmarks throughout: the Bat House, the Lake, the General Store, the disc golf course, the stables, and so on. One of the most unique parts of attending a festival at SOSMP is that open campfires are not prohibited.  Aside from this being a lifesaver given that the temperature dropped below freezing at night, who doesn’t like sitting around a fire, staring at the flames while reflecting on the face melt you just experienced and sipping on hot bourbon-cider? This goes on-and-on when it comes to things I love about this park, but you definitely get the picture by now.

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Thursday Pre-Party:

I’m a huge fan of the festival pre-party, and there was a great line-up of artists set to open the festival on Thursday night at the Amphitheater stage.  With acts like Particle, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Modern Measure, and MZG, the night could have easily been complete.  But the crowd wasn’t through yet, and neither was the music: we were treated to a 2-hour closing set from Electron, the all-star supergroup formed by Marc Brownstein, which also includes Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits, Mike Greenfield of Lotus, and Tom Hamilton of Brothers Past.  This was truly the highlight of the night for me. Brownie & Co. played to the energy in the crowd on this one, catering to emotions of excitement and gratification with everyone in attendance having made the journey from near and far to make the most of their Halloween weekend.  I feel like the set-list was also very well thought out, a sprinkling of DB tracks including ‘Home Again’ and ‘Confrontation’ and later a mesmerizing cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ to warm up the crowd on an extraordinarily chilly night in North Florida.

Bonus: Camping in the area behind the main stage, as we journeyed back from Electron, the SCI production team was testing the lighting rig for the nights ahead…sweet.

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Friday, October 31st

Friday, October 31st, Halloween Day, was one of the most picturesque days for camping and listening to music outside I’ve lived to experience.  Slightly cool weather, but warm in the sun, not a cloud in the sky – wary, but anxious festival-goers arriving in a steady stream of cars from all over – the knowledge that The String Cheese Incident, who many have not seen in so long, will be taking the stage that night for not one, not two, but three sets.  It was hard to even imagine that besides Cheese being the main course that evening, it was sandwiched between early sets by Greensky Bluegrass and Emancipator and late night sets by Beats Antique and Thievery Corporation, with a palate cleanser in the form of Simon Posford, AKA Shpongle, coming between Cheese sets one and two, as the production team prepared the stage for the special Halloween cover set.

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With so many of my favorite artists coming together in one night, in a place tied to so many memories with so many of my close friends, Friday of Hulaween was really one of those days that I felt like it was made for me.  Greensky’s matinee set was only made better by the fact that the band members were dressed as “Perfect Little Angels” – while there might be nothing funnier than seeing 5 grown men dressed up as angels on-stage, those that know Greensky were cracking up at the irony of the group’s costume choice. Emancipator’s set at the Amphitheater stage was something I had long looked forward to.  The past year I have crossed paths with Doug Appling’s musical ventures several times, but this was my first time seeing just violinist Ilya Goldberg and Appling up there without the Ensemble since Hulaween 2013.  He never disappoints, and with the fading sunlight popping through the moss-draped trees onto the transfixed and costumed crowd, I couldn’t help thinking how well planned this scheduling was with SCI coming up next.  Thinking ahead to the genius of Shpongle getting everyone moving for the Afterlife set as darkness creeps in, and to how nuts Beats Antique is going to be in this very location when 8,000 people stagger over after a heavy dose of Cheese.  A wave of excitement washes over me and I know it’s time to put my game face on.

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While that was my magical moment of the day, theres is nothing in the world like the first set of Cheese.  While this is not to say that Set Two: The Afterlife wasn’t one of the most ridiculously awesome musical experiences I have ever been a part of – I mean, The String Cheese Incident in elaborate costume playing songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ ‘Live and Let Die,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ and ‘Thriller?’ Plus pyrotechnics, horns, huge blowups skulls, Giant Michael Jackson, and confetti cannons? Pretty sure we’re painting a pretty clear picture here.  And I don’t want to put down any aspect of that third set, continuing the trend of the day, seemingly crafted for yours truly with an explosive rendition of “Rosie,” a personal top-choice, but SCI’s opening set just hit it for me in all the right places.  Something about sunset Cheese, the first of seven sets over the weekend of your favorite band and after such a long wait, truly put me in a state of total joy.  Opening with ‘Restless Wind’ and moving into ‘Joyful Sound,’ ending with ‘Valley of the Jig’ and ‘Can’t Wait Another Day,’ I was in bliss.  This feeling is the best in the world, and especially knowing that that was just one down with six more to go.

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Shpongle and Beats Antique, as expected, were in their best form, both with distinct world sounds.  Having attended the Creature Carnival Tour in Chicago a few weeks earlier, featuring Emancipator, Shpongle, and Beats Antique, I knew to expect a lot of theatrics from the latter, yes even more than we usually see from Zoe Jakes,  including a variety of dancers, masked drummers and performers, a giant inflatable Cyclops Kitty, wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube-people, and a hammering of psychedelic, mind bending visuals with Lafa Taylor actings as the ringleader of this midnight circus.  The Bassheads in the crowd definitely got their fix, opening with with Bassnectar’s remix of ‘Rustabout’ and dropping ‘Butterfly’ later in the set. This all after 3 sets of Cheese with still more to come.

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Thievery Corporation is always an eye opener, and Rob Garza’s brainchild always seems to entertain no matter the crowd or time of day.  Sticking to the theme of old world and ethnically influenced sound, the crowd arrives at the main stage to see Rob Myers center stage, sitting Indian Style on a couch with his Sitar.  For me, each time I see Thievery, I expect something exciting and different every time, between their middle eastern influence, affinity to acid jazz, and wide array of synthesizers. However one member of the collective I can never seem to take my eyes off of is bassist Ashish Vayas.  This guy, while obviously inexplicably talented as a musician, was simply born to be on stage.  A rowdy individual in his own right, he has a mop of wild long black hair, and as he constantly struts across the stage, he is interacting with all the other performers, making eye contact with members of the audience, energizing the crowd and his bandmates like it’s science.  Thievery played their well-known track ‘Lebanese Blonde’ as most would assume, but what I thought stood out during their set was the amount of reggae performed.  We are all fans of this genre, but for some reason, I feel it is the type of music I get to hear performed live the least for some reason.  After some exploring of the incredible Spirit Lake and a lap around the park, it was time to set up the campfire and make some much deserved grilled cheese sandwiches.

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Saturday, November 1st

While Friday was an epic marathon while at the same time felt surreal, the music lineup on Saturday was nothing short of stellar.  The temperature dropping significantly from the day before, with early afternoon sets by Bear Toe and Strung Like a Horse, and performances by Cope, The Heavy Pets, Nahko & Medicine for the People, and The Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise, Keller Williams, all coming before 6 pm, this was a day chock full of feel good sounds and rock & roll.  A celebratory feel was in the air as well, The Heavy Pets playing their 1,000th show ever, a huge milestone in quite a special setting. A personal highlight of the afternoon included seeing the Tampa-based jammers, Cope, for the first time with a unique sound that’s easy to get lost in.  The crowd was feeling it as well and it became an all out dance party.  There was certainly no disappointment in getting to see the Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise, Keller Williams, who opened with ‘Kidney in a Cooler’ and played a great rendition of ‘Scarlet Begonias,’ a great warm up for the main act of the night.

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Cheese killed it as always, with the first set featuring Keller Willams and Nicky Sanders in addition to songs like ‘Search,’ ‘Lost,’ and personal favorite knee-slapper, ‘Resume Man.’  The second set was even more of a journey, opening with ‘Let’s Go Outside’ and ‘Black Clouds,’ and getting more intense and hyper-sensory with ‘Sirens,’ ‘Live Oak Jam,’ and ‘ Rivertrance’ before a ‘BollyMunster’ encore.  How can you not be utterly out of breath after this? After taking this all in and letting my jaw rest on the floor for a while, it’s back to the Amphitheater stage for The New Deal, which is a nice little break before heading to either The Spirit Lake stage or Main Stage for Kung Fu or Big Gigantic respectively.  One of the few overlapping set-times of the weekend, I am still impressed by the planning and organization that went into this scheduling – Big G and Kung Fu attract very different factions from within Cheesehead Nation, so I don’t think this decision was very hard for anyone.  Big Gigantic played the same set they’ve played the 3 times I’ve seen them in the last 6 months, but it was nonetheless a huge party and everybody there had a blast, myself included.  Kung Fu on the other hand, was one of the most exciting sets of the weekend – I very much regret missing the first half of Kung Fu to catch a little Big G.

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And although Kung Fu absolutely blew my mind with so much craziness coming off that tiny stage, one set in particular stood out distinctly on Saturday and forever won my fandom: Conspirator.  I’ve always been a fan of Brownie, and I have long been a supporter of side projects, which allow artists to explore certain elements of the musical spectrum that may not be as acceptable to a widespread fanbase.  However,in the handful of times I’ve seen Conspirator, I have been left less than impressed and wanting more.  In previous experiences, either the sound was mixed poorly, the artists on stage did not have seem to have good chemistry, or the track selection felt simply monotonous and dull.  But this late afternoon timeslot, preceding the second night of an onslaught of Cheese as described above, was one of the high points of the festival for me.  The sound was mixed to perfection for this set, with the bass physically moving the crowd, but not in excess.  The synths and slight intricacies of the performance were heard loud and clear, and the lighting effects were the perfect compliment to the diminishing natural light disappearing through the trees.  Combine this with Dominic Lalli as well as drummer Jeremy Salken of Big Gigantic joining Conspirator on stage…game, set, match.  This brings up another one of my favorite elements of Hulaween, in that since it is a festival put on largely by The String Cheese Incident, you end up with artists who have a lot of history with one another, who are good friends, and have experience collaborating and improvising, both in a live setting and in a studio.  It gives the festival a vibe which shrinks the disparity between artist and fan, and making all in attendance feel a personal connection to the acts and brings the musicians down a notch from the celebrity treatment one might see at a massive, more commercialized fest.  For example, just minutes after finishing up Cheese set number 2 on Saturday night, percussionist Jason Hann could be seen throughout the park chatting with fans, taking selfies those who dared to ask, and taking in the magic at Spirit Lake.

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Sunday, November 2nd

The final day of the festival is always a little different in knowing that you have one more day to get your fill before leaving fantasyland for the real world.  The weather was cool and sunny, and Ghost Owl opened up the day before a beautiful set by Rising Appalachia, a quickly up-and-coming act led by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith.  Their music is a mixture of folk and soul, and they employ a variety of different world instruments, creating an incredibly unique sound.  This show was one the most impactful of the entire weekend, completely unexpected and moving.  The crowd was entirely captivated, entranced by the beauty emanating from the stage.  Their set flowed perfectly with songs like ‘Filthy Dirty South’ and ‘Medicine,’ both clear crowd pleasers.

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The day-party continued, with Dean Ween rocking out on the Amphitheater stage, getting everyone ready for the final two sets of The String Cheese Incident to come that evening. I’ve said it before, but one of the great things about Cheese is the evolution to what they are capable of now from their bluegrass roots, and it is truly incredible how they craft each set to showcase so many different talents and musical genres, while retaining that distinctive Cheesiness we all fell in love with. This final Incident at Suwannee Hulaween was definitely one to remember, opening up their first set with ‘Sometimes a River,’ and closing with ‘Round the Wheel,’ which hasn’t been played in at least a year.  The second Cheese set was killer as well, everyone in the crowd getting goofy with jam after jam: ‘Song in my Head’ > ‘This Must Be The Place’ > ‘On The Road’ > ‘Bumpin Reel’ > ‘Texas’ (encore).  And though there was more music to come that night, I just kept hoping that they would come back on stage for just one more.  People all over had the same sentiment, evident by the sporadic shouts of one last song requests: “Jellyfish!”, “Little Hands!”, “Lester!”

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With Cheese having ended, I was really looking forward to the rest of the evening, although slightly bummed about another one of the few set conflicts that weekend.  This time it was between EOTO on the Main Stage and Van Ghost at Spirit Lake, before the festival finale down at the good old Amphitheater Stage with our friends Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.  I knew I would be splitting time between both, but opted to stick around for EOTO first.  Unfortunately there were some hiccups getting Travis and Jason’s equipment working correctly and this delayed their start time a bit. Despite this, Hann was all smiles and the duo dropped serious some seriously freaky noises on the crowd.  It was definitely the crunch I was looking for all weekend, although I really was hoping they brought their lasers!  Oh well…no complaints from me – it was a fantastic display of musical talent, and a snapshot of what it really means to play to a crowd.  By the time I could peel myself away from EOTO to head to Van Ghost, there was just a little bit of time left in their set.  But I am really glad I made it for a few songs because Michael Harrison Berg was tearing it up on that packed in stage with our girl Jennifer Hartswick.  After this ended, all bodies converged upon the Amphitheater one last time for Joe Russo.  Man do I love these guys: there really is no music that brings about nostalgia like the Dead and I always cherish every note when I get to hear Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Closing out the festival, I saw several moments within the set when groups of people huddled together for group hugs, rows of the crowd putting all their arms around one another while swaying to the music, and so many happy couples.  Just so much love and happiness and good feelings set to an amazing soundtrack. A part of the night I will never forget is their rendition of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ which hits a sweet spot for me, in that way that cannot even be described in words.  From there they went into a crazy jam on ‘No Quarter’ then back into ‘Uncle John’s Band’ with ‘Franklin’s Tower’ to shut it down. It was a spectacular way to end the festival and the creatures of Suwannee Hulaween were in no way left unsatisfied.

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Biggest Musical Surprise

While Conspirator, Electron, Rising Appalachia, and Kung Fu were definitely some of the highlights of my weekend (aside from Cheese of course), there was a very special set played in the park that only those in proximity were lucky enough to experience.  With SOSMP so well equipped for large crowds and built for heavy duty camping, there are electrical hookups and water spouts at just every few yards in certain parts of the park.  Sitting around our fire listening to music in the wee hours of Halloween night, we start to hear some very powerful blues/folk rock coming from somewhere close by.  As a group of us grab our headlamps and venture out into the dark towards the sound, we come upon an impromptu concert, with 4 or 5 musicians playing, instruments loud and deep, hooked up to amplifiers, and a projector emitting bizarre visual imagery onto a screen and the trees surrounding the camp.  A crowd of 50 or so had gathered, huddled up to keep warm and sitting on the ground and the music was mysterious and beautiful.  The band, who we later found out was Bear Toe, had opted to camp with the fans instead of in the artist area or in a cabin and really connected with their crowd that night.  Scheduled to perform on Saturday at the Spirit Lake Stage, I really appreciated them having treated our little community to some bonus tunes.  There was something incredibly organic about this experience, and I can only hope to have more similar opportunities like this in the future.  Hats off to Bear Toe: certified.

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Spirit Lake

Spirit Lake, an adventure for the senses in 2013, was much improved and way more immersive this year.  From mystifying light projections, art installations, to the legendary Jelly Swing, you could entertain yourself forever in there.  The landscape morphed throughout the weekend with artists adding to it each day.  And with the Spirit Lake Stage right there, you could still enjoy late night live music while exploring all the different areas of the setup.  Many took refuge near the 20-foot tall Infinite Infant, famous from Burning Man which warmed all those gathered nearby with its frequent, and rhythmically released flames.  My favorite part of the Spirit Lake area this year was what was called the ‘Sonic Forest.’ In here, as you walk through a grid of metal poles, sounds are emitted from behind, in front, and to the sides of you.  It really confuses the senses, and you become utterly disoriented, trying to stay focused on where you are going.  The lights being projected onto the trees at Spirit Lake, most visible from across the water from the art installations, were mesmerizing as well, a perfect fusion of technology and nature.  Another breathtaking installment is tough to describe in words, but my best summary would be projections overlapping on paintings, to make these pieces of art seem almost lifelike.  I was very pleased with what the Spirit Lake experience had to offer this year, and hope that it continues to build upon itself as a Hulaween in the Swamp tradition.

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Photo by Josh Timmermans
Photo by Josh Timmermans

Let’s be honest.  No one goes to a music festival and has a bad time.  But there are those special weekends, when everything just seems to align perfectly.  A Halloween camping festival, located at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL, featuring The String Cheese Incident for seven whole sets: this is the type of festival where you leave feeling fulfilled and that by having now attended, it would be a travesty to miss one in the future.  I for one had the time of my life at Suwannee Hulaween 2014, made so many new friends and reconnected with so many others.  Growing up in Atlanta, the southern scene is one that I feel very comfortable with. Going to festivals in the south just has a slightly higher degree of laid-back, no rush, kind of vibe.  A goal I have set for my future self is to spend as many music weekends at SOSMP as possible, but I can wholeheartedly guarantee my attendance at Hulaween 2015.  See you in the Swamp!

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2014 Phases of the Moon Festival

[Words by Nathaniel Lutes | Photos by Joe Noel, Ashley Downing & Chris Monaghan]

The first annual Phases of the Moon Music and Arts Festival was certainly one for the books. The severe lack of preparation for the huge number of people descending upon Danville, IL for the weekend, coupled with heavy rains in the days leading up to the fest, resulted in the definition of clusterfuck at the entrance gates. I had the opportunity to ask festival goers all weekend long what their wait times were and many people reported wait times of 12 to 20 hours. I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty as my camping mate and I breezed right on through the gates at 10am on Thursday, and found a dry spot to camp fairly easily with almost no assistance or direction from festival staff.

Despite the lack of organization, it was clear the promoters were trying to do everything in their power to rectify the destroyed camping areas and music grounds. Helicopters hovered low over swampy fields to literally blow-dry the ground, perhaps acting as more of a display of “look how much money we’re spending trying to make this right” than a practical solution. Local contractors worked seemingly round-the-clock to lay tons and tons of mulch in the muddy concert areas, as it would’ve been impossible to stand, let alone dance. Due to the major setbacks abound, the concert areas didn’t open until about two hours past the scheduled time and all the artist’s sets were pushed back. Surprisingly as people starting finally trickling in attitudes were still positive, perhaps from the sheer relief people were feeling upon entry.

The first major act of the weekend that I caught was Galactic whose powerhouse funk set featured the amazing Maggie Koerner on vocals on a number of songs. What was disappointing however was the organ being used on stage, as I began to notice the keyboard player very visibly frustrated with the instrument he was playing. When I started to listen more carefully, I could hear the organ wavering in and out of tune, making it hard for me to ignore it the rest of the set. Stanton Moore and company played on like pros though and didn’t let the technical mishaps stop the funk. This wouldn’t be the last time that B3 organ would attempt to sabotage a band’s set that weekend…

Thursday night was my first real String Cheese Incident experience, which I definitely enjoyed, but still didn’t draw me in that much. I must admit that I was far more impressed earlier in the evening by Danville locals The James Jones Trio. This power-trio blues outfit stopped me in my tracks on my walk by to camp and kept me there for the rest of their set. Frontman James Jones ripped and shredded through solos with as much ferocity as Jake Cinninger with the attitude and power of Warren Haynes. A rock-solid rhythm section made this potent trio one of my most surprising and memorable sets of the weekend. Who knew that white boys from central Illinois could play the blues this well? The sheer power of what I’d heard drove me straight to the merch booth to buy their CD (disappointingly no where near the caliber of the live show).

Soulive’s late night set was certainly a heater, which was absolutely necessary as temperatures dropped into the low 40’s overnight. The main highlight for me from this set was the Beatles cover “Eleanor Rigby,” featuring a jazzy drum n’ bass arrangement that breathed new energy into a familiar song.
Friday started off right with Dumpstaphunk throwing it down on the New Moon stage. I was particularly excited for this set because it was my first opportunity to see new drummer Alvin Ford Jr. in action. He certainly didn’t disappoint one bit. The funk was being laid on as thick as ever, but once again that out-of-tune organ reared it’s ugly head just as it had during Galactic’s set on the same stage the night before. However, Ivan Neville quickly realized what was happening and handled it like a true professional by simply switching to a different keyboard and making it work for the rest of the set. At one particularly funky moment in the show he actually used the wildly wavering organ to his advantage to create an effect that made folks in the crowd make the “stank face.” Well played Ivan, well played.

Friday night presented another opportunity for me to give String Cheese a chance, but I must admit, I left about a third of the way through the set. It was cold, I wanted to save my energy for the remainder of the weekend, and we could hear everything on the Full Moon Stage pretty clearly from our campsite (I’m an Umphrey’s guy, what can I say?). Sadly, an unintended consequence of heading back to camp, I ended up sleeping through Monophonics and Kung Fu. Big mistake. I was going to have to make up for it the next day.

The first set that I caught on Saturday was Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, hailing all the way from California with their roots-y brand of rock and soul. Nicki’s voice was incredible, but I was particularly impressed with guitarist Deren Ney who displayed an array of chops ranging from country twang licks to full shred. I was glad to have the opportunity to hear the band in its full form, as I had only been familiar with their viral YouTube ‘Van Sessions.’ Definitely don’t miss an opportunity to see them live next time they’re in town.

My favorite set of the day, and most memorable perhaps the whole weekend arrived in the form of Leftover Salmon. This band had been on my radar for a long time, but I never really listened intently. With Salmon recently having added some fresh faces to the lineup, most notably drummer Alwyn Robinson and Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne, I was about to truly understand the meaning of “poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass.” My favorite song of the set was the title track from their most recent release Aquatic Hitchhiker that featured banjoist Andy Thorn. This version featured an expanded jam where each band member took an extended solo, ending with newcomer Alwyn Robinson showing every bit of his chops while still remaining locked in the groove. This band is sure to go to new heights with such a laser-focused energy and newer members making huge contributions. I already can’t wait for my next Salmon show and the release of their upcoming album High Country arriving November 28th.

The rest of the day was chock-full of phenomenal sets. Karl Denson, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Widespread Panic all delivered on levels that one would expect. Karl Denson’s set featured a cover of Cold War Kid’s “Hang Me Up to Dry” that got the entire crowd moving. One of the most powerful moments during Tedeschi Trucks’ set was when Susan was left alone of stage with her acoustic and delivered an absolutely heartwrenching soulful rendition of “Shelter” dedicated to their good friend the late Brian Farmer, longtime guitar tech to Warren Haynes. The listeners could feel an otherworldly presence inside the music and it was very clear what impact the loss had left. Widespread Panic was certainly a wild ride, but I took the opportunity to explore some of the installations scattered throughout the concert grounds. It was like a psychedelic playground at night and it became apparent that Phases of the Moon was a true music AND arts festival, both sides being represented equally. As I wandered the grounds, I happened to stop by the live painting area where Alex and Allyson Grey were working on special pieces for the festival. It was such an incredible experience to just stumble upon such legendary artists during Panic’s set. The Sanctuary was something special too, where festival-goers could retreat to get in touch with all things mind, body and spirit with classes and seminars taking place all weekend long.

Another pleasant surprise from the weekend was Steady Flow hailing from Peoria, IL. Right off the bat, I couldn’t help but think “Lettuce Jr.” because the bassist looked and dressed just like Eric “Jesus” Coomes, and their music sounded much within the same vein. But these kids (they all looked under legal drinking age) just completely destroyed the Town Square Stage. It didn’t take long for the crowd leaving Panic to congregate around these young musicians as they delivered one of the most high-energy sets I had yet to witness that weekend. Definitely keep an eye out for these up-and-comers, as I’m sure they’ll only get better with age and experience.

Musical favorites on Sunday included Robert Randolph & the Family Band, followed directly by Gov’t Mule. Randolph and Haynes are two of my favorite guitarists in the scene, so hearing their sets back to back was something special for me. Mule’s set was highlighted by a ridiculous cover of Zeppelin’s classic “No Quarter” as Warren ripped it to shreds the only way he can.

All in all, I have to give the Phases staff and production teams props even with all of the lack of cohesion in the beginning and all the setbacks to overcome. The promoters faced challenges that festivals still struggle to deal with even in their 10th year, so it must have been especially difficult on their maiden voyage. I’m certain that as the years go on this event will only get better and better. I already look forward to returning next year to this true “Fall Festival.”

FULL PHOTO GALLERY FROM —> JOE NOEL

FULL PHOTO GALLERY FROM —> ASHLEY DOWNING

FULL PHOTO GALLERY FROM —> CHRIS MONAGHAN

2014 Riot Fest

Rage in the rain during Slayer’s set on Friday

Well, Summer is officially over and Riot Fest kicked it in the ass on the way out the door. Only two weeks prior, the Sunday of North Coast Fest was brutally hot, a giant sweaty mess, but Riot Fest was all jackets & jeans with nighttime temps dropping firmly into the hoodie zone — which just goes to show you how fast the seasons change in Chicago. The final outdoor music festival of the year for Chicago was marked by a soaking wet & muddy Friday, the lingering effects from which hung around through the entire weekend and made Humboldt Park a mess. You know how some festivals end up defined more by shitty weather than anything else? Unfortunately, that’s where this year’s Riot Fest lands, marked with an asterisk on our festival accounting sheet as a ‘weather festival.’

About five seconds after this photo, the ‘heel’ grabbed that microphone and bounced it off his opponent’s face, at which point I fucking lost it.

But that’s not to say it didn’t have it’s glorious upsides. There’s no other music festival with the diversity of entertainment, from wrestling to the people watching to the carnival and everything in between, Riot Fest was a flurry of activity at every turn. At first I wanted to say it’s closer to Pitchfork than North Coast or Lolla, but after seeing a slew of rowdy mosh pits and an unending stream of crowd surfers at about 80% of the sets, it’s clear that Riot Fest is in a league of its own, even with the weather doing everything in its power to derail the festival on its first day.

Beautiful Humboldt Park. Not pictured: the clusterfuckery

While the festival as whole was a great experience, it had its share of major issues as well… and most of them centered around the poor layout of the stages in the space of the park. While Humboldt Park is the most interesting & scenic of the Chicago music festival parks, the way they placed the stages made very little sense. For one thing, there was no reason to use the “Main Entrance” unless you were picking up passes/credentials — the closest entertainment to this area was the zombie haunted house, which cost extra money and reportedly was pretty corny. Instead, this quarter of the park was a ghost town, while other areas were crowded well past the point of comfort. The northernmost area of the park was a ridiculous clusterfuck of the crowd from the Riot/Roots stage backing into the main foot traffic road/food vendor row. The peak crowding came during the Wu-Tang Clan/Flaming Lips segment on Saturday night, which basically turned into an butts-to-nuts cattle herd that took 15-25 minutes to traverse, easily among the worst crowding I’ve experienced at any event ever. The ridiculous rainstorm on Friday night presented a new set of shitty circumstances, but it just reinforced the half-cocked stage layout and made you wonder if the organizers have ever even heard of mulch before.

Andrew WK is a madman

Despite these issues, Riot Fest was a blast (mainly from the past). There was no shortage of nostalgia, and the good music far outweighed the bad. Though there was definitely some questionable music at Riot Fest, the beauty of this fest was that with seven stages, there was always at least three music choices in addition to the array of other entertainment. One of the primo spots in Humboldt was the wrestling ring, which provided some of the most hilarious shit I’ve ever seen at a festival. But naturally, the music was the bread & butter and there were a number of great sets every day of the fest. Seeing The Offspring play Smash from front to back made the 8-year-old me pee his pants. Seeing The Mighty Mighty Bosstones made the 9-year-old me freak out and the 28-year-old me remember that ska was actually pretty cool once upon a time. And, once again, Andrew WK was the embodiment of Riot Fest and had his mid-afternoon crowd on a constant diet of party and crowd surfing. But, at the end of the weekend, there were three sets that stood out from the pack, three sets that were so good they made the whole weekend a victory based on their merit alone. Riot Fest was a great event with lots of room to grow in this new location, but sets like these are what sets Riot Fest apart from the rest.

Bucket list shit

Slayer

Even though mother nature was pissing all over Riot Fest, Slayer proved why they are legends by shredding through a frigid rainstorm and bringing a little slice of Hell to Humboldt Park. The deluge of rain, in concert with the stage haze + light design, enveloped the Rise/Rebel stage area in a powerful way. The dark music and storm clouds came together to create a sense of treachery that is rare at a music festival. It was menacing in all the right ways. Even though the music itself was fairly sloppy (shredding with numb fingers must be really difficult), they reinforced their metal god status by bringing the heat thunder in freezing conditions. The end of the show brought this crazy energy when they faded into the mist surrounding us, only to re-emerge with the extended, haunting drum intro of “Raining Blood.” When the great hammer finally fell, this was probably the most raging moment of Chicago’s festival season. Slayer makes you wonder if all the EDM kids even know what true rage looks like.

Pure evil

Primus

Despite the inverted crucifixes & general Satanic overtones of Slayer’s set, the most truly evil sounds of the weekend came from Primus. If there’s any musician whose planet of origin likely is NOT Earth, it’s Les Claypool. The sounds he makes with his bass guitar just don’t sound terrestrial in any way. And neither did the drumming of Danny Carey, for that matter. The addition of his technical prowess added a new edge to Primus’ music that boggled my mind a number of times (the world needs more Danny Carey). But it was the jams that really made my brain flip — the way Claypool manhandles improvisation sections with bass leads is unlike anything else in rock. There were at least five stretches of dark, weird and unsettling segments of improvisation that seemed to perfectly summarize Riot Fest. Lurking around every corner of this set was a disturbingly psychedelic musical moment waiting to unfold.

More bucket list shit

Weezer

The final set of the weekend also ended up being the best. While nostalgia was certainly a primary reason why this Weezer set kicked so much ass, it was the way these guys rocked the fuck out that made it even more special. For being such an innocent & ‘soft around the edges’ type of band, Weezer’s live show was far more energetic and edgy that I could have anticipated. Make no mistake, Weezer is a bonafide rock powerhouse and they were the perfect band to close out Riot Fest. The thing that really struck me was the power of The Blue Album 20 years after its release. It’s easy to forget just how ubiquitous this album was in the 90’s, but with one hit song/huge piece of my childhood after another, it was obvious that this album might just be one of the best of my generation. It was a masterpiece in 1994 and in 2014 it still rang loud & true as a serious monument in rock history. As one of my personal most anticipated sets of Riot Fest, it was an amazing thing to have Weezer come through and totally destroy my expectations. Long live Weezer, and long live Riot Fest.

VIEW THE FULL PHOTO GALLERY HERE —> FLICKR

2014 North Coast Music Fest

[Words by Ashley Downing (AMD), Adam Taylor (AT), Lauren Spina (LS), and Frazier]

As the summer comes to a close and Labor Day weekend approaches, I look forward to Chicago’s biggest party of the year. Known as “Summer’s Last Stand,” North Coast Music Festival celebrates the end of the season with three days of non-stop music, giving us all one last outdoor extravaganza. Now in its 5th year, the event yet again featured a packed, eclectic musical lineup that offered everyone something to look forward to.

I moved to Chicago a few weeks before the first NCMF and I am thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to attend all of them. It is the highlight of my summer each year and it has been beautiful to watch the event grow. NCMF is a significant urban holiday in itself that transforms the entire city into a wild party that never stops… and for music junkies like me, it’s definitely the place to be. As a well-rounded event, it continues to stand out above the rest, making it one of the very best festivals that our city has to offer. (AMD)

NCMF has been the festival of choice for Soundfuse since day one. And because of that, we always end up with a bunch of people who want to help cover it. So this year the article is composed of input from four contributors (including myself) and to change things up we went for a bit of a ’roundtable’ style of review. The upside is not having to trudge through four chronological stories, but the downside is missing a whole bunch of awesome stuff that doesn’t quite make the highlight reel. So it goes. (Frazier)

Improvements from Past Years

NCMF has grown immensely over the last 5 years and I can honestly say the event has improved each time. Perhaps I just paid more attention to my surroundings this year, but I feel as if the festival incorporated more art of every kind in 2014. I thoroughly enjoyed observing the expanse of art around me and I had enjoyed taking part in some stunning interactive art installations. The lineup was exceptionally balanced this year, covering every style, variety and genre. Also, I thought the VIP set-up was top-notch this time, making all aspects of the festival comfortable and accessible. Although we cannot control it, the weather was another vast improvement to the festival in 2014. I must say, it is marvelous to get wild and rowdy at NCMF without having any rain/storms like the ones we have had to deal with in previous years! (AMD)

I can’t speak to last year, but I definitely saw a number of improvements compared to my last NCMF in 2012. Last go round, I found it very difficult to navigate around the festival – every walkway was bottlenecked at all times, making the short walk from stage to stage agonizing at times. This year, whether due to grounds expansion or simply better planning, I didn’t feel squished in and claustrophobic at every turn. (AT)

The major thing for me was the noticeable increase in personal space. Sure, at times I ran into extraordinarily crowded areas, but in general this year felt much more spacious. The added room at the South end of Union Park certainly helped, even if it wasn’t always as full as it could have been. And, at the risk of sounding like a spoiled rotten jerk… there were some major improvements this year that weren’t seen by general admission; the organizers identified and solved an issue or two behind the scenes in exceedingly smart ways. To say they feel comfortable at home in Union Park is an understatement – NCMF runs like a well-oiled NASA rocket at this point. (Frazier)

To Improve for Next Year

At times throughout the weekend there was a major sound-bleed issue between stages. There were moments when you could hear music from another nearby stage, interrupting and interfering with what you’re attempting to see. I hope there’s a way to fine tune this a little better in the future, but with the layout and setup of the festival and the stages, it’s going to be challenging to completely prevent this. Also, in the past, NCMF has had issues with not having enough water for the attendees. The problem has definitely improved over the past few years, but I still think they can do better. Hydration is very important. (AMD)

One thing that I think should be improved on for next year is the sound. It didn’t sound bad but it could sound better. Festival sound will never be heard as sharp as it would in a venue, but I found myself having trouble of hearing some stages even as I’m standing close to them, or being totally blown out by others. Not to mention the sound bleed covered basically the whole festival. Whether the problem is sound engineering, lack of speakers, microphone quality, or something else, I’ve just heard a lot better sound at other festivals. (LS)

A little on the petty side, but I have to complain about the drink ticket system. I want to gripe about this for a few reasons: not only did I have dozens of unusable tickets left over in pockets, shoes, and wallet by weekend’s end, but on top of the astounding $8 price tag for beer, the drink vendors almost guilted you into tipping them – IN CASH – every single time. While I empathize with them that everyone has to pay for drink tickets separately, which definitely hurts their tip intake, it was almost as terrible being harassed for tips as having no choice in beer except for Heineken and Dos Equis. And while I’m on it, where were all the craft brews? For a festival that prides itself in not being commercialized and dominated by sponsors, there should have been a better selection of local brews to choose from. (AT)

Not that this stands out amongst the city festivals, but at the end of every day Union Park was ridiculously trashed. This isn’t one side or the other’s fault, both the patrons and the festival are to blame for the generally piss poor level of green behavior. I hope in the future North Coast takes some strides to provide better labeled and more prominent recycling, compost, and trash areas — a few small steps could really help encourage everyone to take better care of the park. But at the end of the day… holy shit we are disgusting. There is simply no excuse for people to throw so much trash on the ground. It’s shameful and needs to improve approximately yesterday. (Frazier)

Biggest Surprise

Besides hearing a few of Wild Belle’s mainstream songs, I knew very little about this quartet and had never witnessed them live. I was not even aware they were from Chicago until I had the opportunity to see them at the festival. Having a glamourous indie-rock band like Wild Belle on the lineup really signifies just how eclectic NCMF’s lineup has become, and helps to erase the stigma it has nothing more to offer than electronic noise. Frontwomen Natalie Bergman has a versatile, sexy voice her commanding demeanor kept my attention during their whole performance. The core of Wild Belle’s music lies within strong songwriting that utilizes diverse musical styles along with fascinating lyrics. There is something about this group that almost feels mysterious. During their show they played some brand new material and each tune song a technique and approach that was different from the last. I sincerely cannot wait to see them again and hopefully its soon. (AMD)

STS9 CRUSHES with Alana Rocklin as their new bassist. Like any Tribe fan, Murph’s departure from the band came as a shock and I thought that was the end of the band. Once they announced that they would continue without him, I was eager to see how they would turn out. I’ve only heard good things about Alana but to witness the new STS9, in person, was what I had hoped for and much more. Alana’s insane talent brings a new invigorating sound to Tribe and I’m really lookingforward to the future of this band again. (LS)

I gotta say, Dopapod was one of the most rockin sets of music to ever be played at NCMF. It’s a serious misstep to pigeonhole these guys as just another jamband. They come at you from so many directions, with a jazzy undercurrent and metal overtones, in addition to their penchant for jams. By the end of their set the 847 Stage the crowd had gotten pretty thick and were extremely into the set. Dopapod’s been one of the hardest working bands for years, now they’re one of the best too. (Frazier)

Biggest Disappointment

The festival was crowded but that was to be expected. Other than that I was not disappointed by much else with the festival itself this year. Personally, my biggest disappointment this year was missing Little Dragon’s Swedish Synth-pop set on Saturday (due to unforeseen circumstances). I have wanted to see this group live for a very long time, and I missed their entire performance, which I heard was amazing. (AMD)

I hate to say that I was sorely disappointed with Griz’s set. I really dig his music, but I cannot feign enjoyment here. While the 630 stage was packed to the gills, I found it very surprising how much he played into the very young, primarily EDM-loving audience that dominated that side of the festival. I was happy to see live acts such as The Motet and Wild Belle play at this stage, but I was expecting a vibe comparable to Griz’s set at Lollapalooza last summer. In other words, I had hoped for much more of an electro-hip-hop funkadelic throwdown than a fist-pumping, somewhat trashy, big house music set. With that said, it was cool to see a guy who came onto the scene and attained success so quickly adapt to his crowd and show he could keep people moving and sweating no matter what. Everyone else was loving Griz that day, so my opinion is likely not shared by others. (AT)

It’s hard to sit here and hate on a Snoop Dogg set at my favorite Chicago festival… but I’m going to do it. This isn’t to say I didn’t rap along with most of the lyrics like a dweeb and enjoy the hell out of myself. But, in comparison with the other major rap/hip hop acts in recent years (Big Boi, Atmosphere, NAS, Wu-Tang Clan), this set fell way short. For one thing, he didn’t appear until fifteen minutes of intro music & hype had taken place, then he bailed fifteen minutes early to make way for some weakass walk-off music. Then, during the songs, it seemed as if he only rapped about half of his lyrics, leaning heavily on his army of hypemen and crowd interaction. It’s not like anyone expects some mind-boggling set from Snoop Dogg at this point, but he definitely put a few extra stamps on this set before he mailed it in. (Frazier)

3rd Favorite Set

With Saturday coming to an end, I ran back to the basketball court to catch The Nth Power on the 847 Stage, which was an enchantingly magical musical experience. The Nth Power never ceases to blow me away. They have a well-traveled sound that masterfully mixes funk, soul, jazz, rock and gospel together… creating something uniquely charming and rare. Every member of the band is a top notch musician on their own and together they are extraordinarily powerful. During their set, I was facinated by frontman Nick Cassarino… who is truely a wizard on guitar. This passionate band overflows with positivity when they play and they strive to touch your soul each time. (AMD)

As is NCMF tradition, Auto Body showed up and destroyed the place. I’ve never been one to shy away from my love for these guys, but this show definitely felt like one of the best I’ve seen from them. For one thing, they finally got a nighttime slot, which is key for this type of rage music. The best part was how much they shook up the setlist from previous sets. The new material from Too Late For Words obviously made a huge difference, however, the set just felt a whole lot more unpredictable than ever before. The cherry on top was the debut of a new track, which sounded sneakily like Thibault’s trademark banger “Air Jaws.” (Frazier)

2nd Favorite Set

I was mesmerized and impressed by The Motet’s midday show. This band is always on point and the infectious funk music they produce together is irresistible on every level. Once they began playing, I could not leave the show. Vocalist Jans Ingber was overflowing with pure energy that fully engaged every person in the crowd, especially at the end of the performance when they did a David Bowie cover. Dopapod played a bit later in the day on the 847 Stage, which is actually in the center of a basketball court. I could almost smell the rubber burning off of my shoes as I danced hard to their boundless improvisational music. They crushed it. You can hear so many influences and styles within their sound, it is alluring to hear how they fuse it all together. The music is in your face and it can be quite heavy, but is often also blended with melodic undertones and jams that keep you in the groove. (AMD)

If you could combine metal, soul, funk, electronic and jam with improvisation, it would create Dopapod. Their set at the 847 Stage on Saturday hit every spot I needed it to. You think it would be difficult to headbang to a song while getting low to the funk but the entire crowd seemed like they’ve been doing it since birth. It is always refreshing to see this genre-defying quartet live. Dopapod’s set ended, leaving me feeling fulfilled but craving more. (LS)

Checking out the Nth Power’s Saturday night set was one of those shows when you’re just like, damn… I cannot believe I have not seen them live before. Venturing over after only a few minutes of enduring Kid Cudi’s mediocre headlining set, I scooted right up to the front rail through the relatively porous crowd. All of the artists on stage appeared to be having an absolute blast and this rubbed off on the audience in a major way. This was one of those shows that was just unexpectedly fantastic. No need to drag it on – but that night the Nth Power became one of my favorite bands. (AT)

I knew The Motet was a great band — their opening set for Umphrey’s at Red Rocks this year blew me away — but I was simply unprepared for the stranglehold they’d have over me. Saturday was a busy day, to say the least. In fact, it was the single biggest photography day of my life, making it to twelve (12) photo pits from 1pm to 10pm. Yet, I somehow managed to stay completely locked into The Motet’s set for nearly the whole thing. I was at The Motet’s set for longer than any other set (aside from my #1) and I was in love with their undeniable funk energy. (Frazier)

1st Favorite Set

No doubt about it, the show I enjoyed the most at NCMF was Lettuce. This band is by far one of the best live bands out right now. Their progressive funk music is completely badass. As the seven piece band exploded onto the stage with contagious, in-your-face energy, drummer Adam Deitch fully fueled the set with his relentless rhythms. Every musician in the band is absolutely killer and helps to steer their music in new directions. It was a dance party of the best kind, completely fun and wildly invigorating. I could go on and on… (AMD)

The highlight of my weekend was catching The Motet get the funk down on the 630 Stage. Jans Ingber struts on stage and says, “This is the other kind of dance music.” Immediately after, the Colorado sextet started playing and the crowd turned into a dancing frenzy. The hour was filled with improvisational funky jams and an awesome cover of “Fame” by David Bowie. The Motet produces a soul-healing, exhilarating live show that everyone should have the pleasure of experiencing. (LS)

Bassnectar put on the one of the better festival sets I have seen of his yet. I am a total freak when it comes to Lorin Ashton’s brainchild, but usually do not expect this caliber of sound production at a festival. Bassnectar shows on tour are so meticulously planned, but I have to give it to North Coast and the Bassnectar team — the sound was on point and gave me the bass fix I’ve been craving for months. Not only was his sound production incredible, but the track selection was top-notch too. The first 15 or 20 minutes of the set were so deep and ethereal, it was almost as if the entire crowd started getting drowsy at the exact same time. But orchestrated so perfectly — right when it became almost too much to handle, he picked us up off the ground and blasted us into outer space. He continued to porpoise like this until the end of the set and even then the crowd had it in them to go another two hours. I also heard that Lorin’s crew was messing with the lights and sound for 10 hours the night before getting it just right. If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is. (AT)

The Nth Power is quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. Every time I see these guys I’m more impressed. They’re on a similar trajectory in my mind to bands like Snarky Puppy, Greensky Bluegrass, and White Denim. In other words: they blow my mind and only seem to get better with each show. There’s no doubt that this is a band full of incredible players, but when it comes down to it, lead guitarist/vocalist/extraordinarily dapper gentleman Nick Cassarino takes this band to the next level. This guy is legitimately one of the best guitarists around and his charisma & stage presence are the stuff of rockstardom. Yet, their music is as pure & unpretentious as it gets. It’s the kind of music that reaches down and grabs you right by the short hairs, it makes you feel all the feels. Despite the fact that this set was woefully under-attended, The Nth Power played as if there were thousands of people. This band is right on the outskirts of Blowupsville. (Frazier)

Best After-Party

The New Deal after party at Concord Music Hall was packed with a talented bill. Cosby Sweater started the night off by conducting their typical, wild, remix-infused dance party. The highlight of my entire night was when they played a mix of “The Linear” by Umphrey’s, I still can’t think about it without smiling. Felix Moreno from Future Rock and Thibault’s project Auto Body kept the energy awesomely high in the middle. Then The New Deal ended the night with their trademark live house/trance/dance sound with beats kicked down by new drummer Joel Stouffer. It’s great that after their two year break, The New Deal are back and playing as well as ever. (LS)

Now this is a tough one. How do you choose between having seen all your favorite musicians PLUS Talib Kweli perform for an intimate crowd on a yacht in the middle of Lake Michigan until 4 AM and seeing STS9 in their best form in years throw down a weekend finale at the House of Blues, my favorite large venue in the city. In the end, I’m going to have to say yacht party for a few reasons. First, this wasn’t your typical concert. As I stated above, it was a magnifacent setting regardless of the music. But add that to world class musicians like Nigel Hall, Adam Deitch, and Fareed Haque and something special is bound to happen. Second, NCMF is Chicago’s self-described “Summer’s Last Stand.” Seeing how we are wearing jackets already, this truly couldn’t been a more ideal final maritime throwdown. This is not to say that Tribe’s performance at HOB the next night was not jaw-dropping. Of the many times I have seen them perform, this is my first without Murph, and by far my favorite show yet. They are a band revitalized. The lighting, the sound, and the music were on point, and even though this was the perfect way to close out the entire weekend, at the end of the day it was just a sweet concert at a cool venue. But, the boat party tops the list, hands down. I’ve never experienced anything else like it. (AT)

There’s no debate to be had here. Not only was the FiyaWrapper/Otter Presents yacht party the best after-party, it was the best show of the entire weekend, and instantly one of the top five live music experiences of my life (no bullshit, no fluff). It was so good it took a solid two hours to stop physically buzzing and settle down after the show. It was so good I decided to head straight home and not taint the experience with any typical 5am after-after-party nonsense. It was a truly special experience that I needed to let properly soak into my soul. I was lucky enough to be kneeling between the performers and the audience for most of the second set, which featured Natalie Cressman, Jen Hartswick, Nicki Glaspie, Nick Cassarino, and a filthy horn section, in addition to the legend himself Talib Kweli.

To be in such close proximity to these insanely talented funk musicians all taking turns jamming, while laying down the perfect grooves for Talib Kweli’s lyrics & freestyle jaunts, was something I and many people at this show will never forget. What made this show next level special was the intense convergence of performer and audience energy, essentially a live music hurricane inside a yacht. There was raw fire in the eyes of the musicians like I’ve rarely seen before. Pure, intense, live improvisation ‘locked in’ looks on every player’s face. And every time I glanced back at the crowd everyone’s face looked all, “HOLY FUCK IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!?!” As the set went on the musicians noticed this more and the energy vortex just snowballed out of control.

Then the creme de le creme was the final song, Talib’s classic anthem “Get By,” which let every player shine at least once, featured a Talib freestyle that boggled my whole dome, and finished with a Cressman/Hartswick/Glaspie/Cassarino vocal harmony on the hook that nearly melted my heart and left me fighting back tears of music joy. This, like the handful of other concerts that have truly moved me, once again reinforced why the live music experience is so special. A show like this is more than music, and awesome people, and a yacht, and an incredible festival, and being in the greatest city in the world… it can transcend it all to touch the very essence of your human existence. With no other art form can the performers & audience interact to exponentially increase their energy to such a degree, to create something this much greater than the sum of its parts. This was one of those magical live music experiences that I’m honored to have witnessed, something so uniquely special that I’m positive I will never see anything quite like it again. (Frazier)

At the end of the day, this year more than ever proved that North Coast is the most diverse music festival in Chicago. Yes, unfortunately the crowd does resemble too much of the ‘Spring Awakening’ element, but the music offerings are anything but one-dimensional. On Saturday I witnessed two of the best festival funk sets I’ve EVER seen at a festival… wrap your head around that one for an “EDM festival.” The only stage that really ever got bogged down on the trashier side of electronic music was 630 Stage, which is a shame because that one’s always been my favorite and I barely spent any time there this year. But I digress… the point of this ham-handed conclusion is that North Coast as a whole has become anything but that. The lineup is a tightly-calibrated blend of genres and the entire experience has been fine-tuned to a degree where they feel like the most ‘settled-in’ festival at their given location. Sure, there are obviously some issues as mentioned above, but North Coast was once again the best rage weekend of the year in Chicago, and it’s not even really that close for 2014.

Conspirator at Boulevard Fest and Concord Music Hall

[Photos by Chris Monaghan]

I’ve seen (and covered) Conspirator quite a few times over the past couple of years. And from review to review a lot of it feels the same because, let’s be honest, Conspirator is historically known for being pretty stereotypical jamtronica. The evening started on the Saturday night of this year’s Boulevard Fest when Conspirator took the stage at the actual festival itself. Knowing I was going to be covering them for the late night at Concord later that evening, I decided to check out The Main Squeeze. But when they played two songs in a row that I hear EVERY TIME I see them, I decided to head over to Conspirator. Their set at the festival displayed a wider range of music brought forth from each member of the band. It was still Conspirator, but you could feel it from the energy in the crowd and on stage that some tweaks had been made to showcase more of what they all are capable of. It was a looser, less aggressive side of Conspirator that was a pleasant surprise.

The show at Concord continued to build on what they had started at Boulevard Fest but went even more aggressive. There were noticeable differences in the set than what one would typically expect to get from a Conspirator show. Michetti did his thing and shredded when necessary, but it by no means was overdone like I had seen so many times prior. There was a flow to the performance unlike I had ever experienced with them. The tempo wasn’t at that same old, consistent BPM from start to end. Instead, it was broken up perfectly between their normal approach, with funk, reggae, and some feel good soul type vibes. The genre grounds that they covered were a magnitude of the musical spectrum that delightedly surprised the crowd and was noticeable by the excited body language all throughout the night.

What supported this apparent shake up from the Conspirator norm was the obvious fact that the band has written new material. The evidence was laid out in front of us both at Boulevard Fest as well as at Concord. It had been long overdue for them to offer us more than what we were used to and the appreciation carried from the crowd up to the stage. A perfect example of this was Brownie’s smirk and head bobbing, consistent per the usual, but you could tell he was feeling the positive vibes emulating from each and every one of us.

We were even blessed to have a comedic like appearance from Umphrey’s McGee’s beloved keyboardist, Joel Cummins. During the middle of the set, Joel proceeded to jump the rail that separates the crowd area from the photo pit. Security, reacting as any member of a security team at a concert would, pretty much tackled Joel to the ground. It all happened very abruptly and the security team was also quick to pick up on what was going on but needless to say, the quirky shenanigans rioted the masses hysterically.

The show ended up surprising me on many levels. The material in regards to new songs as well as mixing up the tempo was by far what stood out the most. It was a fortunate pleasure to see Conspirator like this; a way in which I felt like when I saw them for the fist time. Social media in the days following the show was blowing up with praise for this event, and rightfully so. Even the Concord was pleasantly comfortable. It wasn’t the sweatbox it is known to be and there really was no line for entry as well as at the bar. The show was by far from sold out but it made the overall experience much better. We can hope for and most certainly expect Conspirator to keep charging from the rest of the year and on into 2015. Look forward to it.

Rubblebucket at Boulevard Fest

kal

[Photos by Monaghan Photography]

Sunday of Boulevard Festival was steamy. In fact, I spent a large portion of my early afternoon with a cold drink in my hand and my feet in a kiddie pool. By the time I finally made it to Logan Square, I was late and Rubblebucket had already started their set. Total FAIL on my end, but what I caught from this Brooklyn based ensemble was nothing short of impressive.

At first, I got as close as I could get to snap a photo but I eventually worked my way back out of the crowd in order to really appreciate the whole spectacle. Soaking up a Rubblebucket show is like watching a circus unfold right in front of you where the band executes a stimulating variety of maneuvers one song at a time. This obviously sets the stage for a wildly entertaining performance. When each band member wasn’t playing their featured instrument, they dabbled in accents like whistling and clapping for a layered presentation of sounds. Overall, this show had everything: a parachute that covered the crowd, confetti gun, strobes lights, and ridiculously dancable music that blared from the speakers. At one point Alex Toth mounted a fan’s shoulders with his trumpet in hand and together they ran under the parachute and through the crowd as he blew us away with a passionate solo, it was quite a scene.

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The humidity that lingered throughout the weekend finally began to lift as the Brooklyn based group continued to supply us with gems like “Came Out of a Lady” and “Triangular Daises.” These tunes regularly pop up during Rubblebucket shows and with good reason: they are beyond captivating to hear live! The whimsical sentiments almost make you feel like you’re a kid again. Combine that with the thickness of the humidity and suddenly Logan BLVD turned into a mystical fairyland where anything could happen.

Rubblebucket presented us with plenty of new material that night from their latest album, Survival Sounds. I guess you could say the show was actually a celebration because the new album was released the very next day. Their performance of “Carousal Ride,” the first single off the new album, featured a pink feathery character that resembled a sea urchin. The organism danced on stage next to lead singer Kalmia Traver as she belted out lyrics about the progression of life and realities of the human condition. Another new tune, “My Life,” washed over the street fest crowd with waves of melodies ridden by powerful vocals.

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Survival Sounds swept through Chicago that Sunday night like a tsunami tearing through a village. I was thrilled because this new material was the primary reason I felt compulsed to attend this show. I recently got a chance to talk with Kalmia Traver about Survival Sounds and she shared, “I am just really curious to see how the world receives this record. I know that we all love it and we are proud of it. We think we really went balls to the wall and it’s the best we could have done.” Rubblebucket has since released Survival Sounds and, I must say, it is a true work of art in an age of overproduced noise.

Instead of a proper encore, Rubblebucket closed the West Stage of BLVD Fest by rhythmically blowing their horns through the crowd as they marched down Logan BLVD to the merch booth. The band then dished out signed copies of the new album to any lucky fans that stuck around. Needless to say, I can’t wait to catch this act live again and again.

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Luckily, Rubblebucket will be coming back to Chicago for Halloween! Get your tix HERE.

Greensky Bluegrass at Boulevard Fest and Concord Music Hall

[Photos by Monaghan Photography]

Chicago street festivals have been a tradition for decades in The Windy City but it wasn’t until recently that these weekend events started to bring in one impressive line-up after the next. This year’s street fest season ended on a high note with The Boulevard festival in Logan Square

The first day of the fest was a sticky one. I headed there straight from work in order to catch a bit of singer/songwriter Chris Gelbuda‘s stripped down set at the West Stage. The day was restrained by a sweltering heat that grabbed Chicago unexpectedly in the midst of a mild Midwest summer. In between sets I sailed over to the other end of the BLVD where I found a picnic table and enjoyed some Latin music on the East Stage while I inhaled a couple empanadas and sipped on fruit filled sangria.

By the time Greensky Bluegrass took to the West Stage for their headlining set, Logan Blvd. was overflowing with people. Unfortunately, the closer I got to the stage, the less tolerable the heat became. I could practically see the steam rising off people’s skin as their sweat evaporated into the thick summer air. The Michigan based bluegrass group headlined Hoxeyville Music Festival just a week before followed by some raving reviews, but their set at The BLVD that night started off much slower than I had anticipated. It could have been the heat getting to my head but I found myself easily distracted from the music. I moved farther back under the trees where I couldn’t really see the whole stage but I could hear Greensky just fine. From here the set seemed to grow with energy with gems like “Handguns” and “Don’t Lie.” I socialized and danced and raged and before I knew it, the set was over!

When I finally reached Concord Music Hall later that night, the opening act had already finished their set and it wasn’t long before round #2 with Greensky. Right away, I couldn’t help notice the contrast between these two shows even though it was the same band, in the same city, on the same day. The Boulevard supplied a laid back neighborhood vibe with a sauna type mist that filled the air. It was quite a contrast when compared to the air conditioned club like feel of Concord Music Hall. There is always this feeling of exclusivity when I attend shows at this newer Chicago music venue. For this particular Greensky concert, the two side balconies were closed and the back was roped off for VIP’s. Therefore, everyone had filed onto the main floor area in front of the stage, condensing the our energy for a more intimate show feel.

Greensky Bluegrass kicked off their second show of the night with a Happy Birthday sing-a-long in honor of upright bass player, Mike Devol’s recent trip around the sun. But that wasn’t the only celebratory song of the night because Greensky was also in the thick of dropping a new album, If Sorrows Swim. Some of the album’s songs like “Windshield” were finally having their moment to shine in the spotlight. Greensky busted these out early in the set to let us know they weren’t fucking around, and the audience absolutely loved it!

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When the band journeyed into a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” you could feel the crowd’s investment quadruple in value. There is nothing like a perfect cover song to align a room’s frequency. But then, after getting our attention, Greensky chose to change the winds of their performance and bring us into uncharted territory.

This was a much different show than when I saw them at this very same venue last winter. In January, they were on this gnarly groove of hard hitting bluegrass with a distinct rockness to their sound. This time around their show came across much deeper, as if they were opening the gates of consciousness so rhythms could easily flow off the stage and into our earholes.

There was something dark about this set. As an avid music fan, I have come to appreciate when the darkness pops up during a live show. I can’t help but curiously soak it all in just to see where the moment might take us. It’s obviously a risky move and a much harder pitch to sell at a late night show. Yet, somehow, Greensky managed to tap into the human condition in a very encompassing way. With this approach, it was easy to get swept up in that moment, not in terms of furiously dancing around like a madman but in a way that makes you stand there completely still, lost in the thoughts the music evoked.

It’s truly remarkable when an all string band can evoke this type of experience with their music. The power Greensky produces live practically blows you away. Overall, the night solidified why this bluegrass band has come up so hard and fast within the live music scene these past few years. It’s clear they put on more than a show and offer a unique experience every time they take the stage. Check out Greensky’s new album, If Sorrows Swim HERE.

2014 Pitchfork Music Festival (Friday)

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Friday night’s headliner Beck

It’s about time that everyone stops lazily labeling Pitchfork a “hipster fest.” What does that even mean? It sure as hell isn’t the ‘hipster doofus’ of Kosmo Kramer anymore. Is it an ethos? A preference for stilted intellect? Horn rimmed glass and skinny jeans? It’s a worthless term in 2014. It means nothing. Aside from that, it’s simply not true. The truth is, I ran into quite a few people I knew at Pitchfork. It was full of people just… like… me. Pitchfork is an intelligent, forward-thinking music festival with a keen sense for music that lives on the leading edge. Right up my alley. Yet, why doesn’t this festival feel like all the others?

The issue with Pitchfork is that it’s a whole bunch of people watching a whole bunch of good live music, but it’s nowhere even close to a party. Typically with a gathering of about 30,000 people there’s a general sense of revelry — people come to get loose and have a great time. Hell, in Chicago there are street festivals every weekend with far fewer people that are much bigger parties. At Pitchfork, this sense of revelry is completely absent. People go to Pitchfork to be at Pitchfork. It’s not a party: a gathering, maybe, but more akin to a convention than anything.

And through no fault of the festival, this lingering lack of party energy manifests itself in an ugly way out in the crowd. In the one day I was at Pitchfork, I saw more festival patrons being assholes to other festival patrons than I have in the last year of music festivals combined. Pitchfork isn’t a party, but there are still nearly 30k people crammed into Union Park… which means that most people desperately cling to whatever small piece of personal space they can carve out, with little concern of being a complete jerk to someone else.

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Nonetheless, I had fun at Pitchfork this year. With the proper attitude, this much good music in one place is an undeniable good time. While navigating the crowds can be difficult, when you do finally find your spot, it’s not like anyone is going to bother you. Which is what happened when I found a nice shady spot to relax down at the corner stage for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. I thought, “Hey cool, the guy from Animal Collective, this should be interesting.” But it wasn’t. It was pretty goddamn awful, in fact. It was a whole bunch of noise with what looked to be about 150 people truly digging it and another couple thousand just there, breathing and standing there, possibly enjoying themselves but probably not. I was one of those people.

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After that I meandered over to the sad scene at main stage #2, where electronic music legend Giorgio Moroder was putting on a clinic… of why he never performs live sets like this anymore. The first half of his set was like the soundtrack from an early 90’s jazzercise video. It was embarrassingly corny. But the worst part was that the video screens kept showing Moroder’s face, with him clapping or awkwardly waving his arms, only they were overlaying these fractal animations on his face like he’s fucking Avicii. It was in incredibly poor taste. It looked horrendous and I almost felt bad for the guy, except for the fact that he was being paid ungodly amounts of money to be there and I was just some schmuck in the crowd. Thankfully, towards the end of the set he started to play some deeper cuts, a little taste of the disco-house thing he did before disco-house was even a thing. I have a ton of respect for Giorgio Moroder for laying the groundwork for modern electronic music, but this set left me with a very strange taste in my mouth and far less than impressed.

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Photo by Scott Drasler

Luckily, Beck was up next and that was the main reason I was at Pitchfork in the first place. I’d only seen Beck twice before this and both shows were exceptional, so expectations were high for this set… a little too high. While this show wasn’t really in the same ballpark as the shows I saw around eight years ago, it was still pretty damn cool. “Loser” was a great choice to play early in the set, it got nearly everyone engaged and the energy was as high as I’ve ever experienced out in the field at Pitchfork. People were loving it, and I was too. The musical highlight of the show came early in the set as well, in the unexpected form of “Get Real Paid.” It started off weird, extremely weird, in the best Beck way. But it eventually unfolded into a joyous, triumphant, guitar-fueled peak jam that instantly validated being there. All other moments aside, this song completely made my experience.

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But then, in a predictable move, Beck moved into a huge chunk of new material that instantly drained all of the energy out of Union Park. It’s that that his new album, Morning Phase, is terrible, it’s just meant to listen in headphones, or at least in the privacy of your home where bursting into angst-ridden tears is acceptable. It felt like a funeral procession rolled through Pitchfork for a solid 15 minutes and before I knew it I was yawning and wondering if the show would ever regain steam. Thankfully it did, with an ending combo of “Debra” and “Where It’s At.”

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I was fiending to hear “Debra,” and while it was a pretty half-assed effort in terms of Beck’s vocal efforts, it was that beautifully funky Midnite Vultures-era Beck I wanted to hear. And even if he couldn’t sing the song like he did when he wrote it, he showed that he still had a barrage of impressive dance moves. Then to end they played a cut up version of “Where It’s At” with a strange harmonica solo and some hilarious banter. I think he meant to sing the second verse to tie the song up, but he accidentally started to repeat the first verse and just rolled with it. It was an odd end to a somewhat odd music festival experience that ended up being a lot more fun than previous Pitchforks. It might not be a party, but their taste in music is going to keep me coming back for years to come.

2014 Down On The Farm Festival

Down On The Farm may have been the most intimate festival I have ever attended. Its laid back setup and stacked Midwest lineup fueled my desire to venture south of the city for a full day and night of live music. Located in the rolling fields of Manhattan, IL, this one day celebration was a refreshing grassroots effort to show the world that some music festivals still exist out there for bands that just jam.

I arrived at the farm just after Under the Willow took to the Barn Stage. There has been a lot of talk surrounding this folk band and it was easy to see why. The quartet consists of two beautiful ladies and two equally beautiful men and their beauty shines through every note they sing and play as if it were essential to their DNA. It was the perfect easy going set of music to greet me as I entered this quaint little festival. Down On The Farm was truly a local celebration of music with only a handful of vendors selling everything from t-shirts to hand made soap. If I had to guess, I would say there was probably around 500 people there total, which further added to the quaint feel of this fest. There were only two side-by-side stages converted from flat bed trucks where one stage would start up with music just as the other finished for a virtually gapless schedule the entire day.

Herbert Wiser was up next on the Field Stage but rainclouds began to hover above the farm and many folks stayed under their canopies until it passed. I decided to head back to my car and grab my tent so I could set it up before the ground got wet. I was delighted when I realized I could still hear the music from my campsite because that is something you rarely experience at large festivals these days. I decided to head back over to where all the action was going down just in time to catch Miles Over Mountains cover The Police’s “Walking on the Moon.” I was completely giddy hearing this because Umphrey’s McGee (my favorite band) had just busted out this rare cover at the Ravinia the night before and it is easily one of my favorite Police songs. All those awesome feelings from Friday’s UMshow came rushing back and I had a little dance party all to myself, though I am sure I wasn’t the only one who experienced this deja vu moment.

Needless to say, Miles Over Mountains has a new fan. This bluegrass string quartet produces a progressive twang that is both fresh and fun. The small crowd that gathered around the Barn Stage entertained themselves with sidewalk chalk as they listened to this bluegrass band tear it up. But the best part was realizing their initials spell M.O.M. and, I mean, how could you not love M.O.M.?!?!? Up next was a Chicago act called EGi. I had yet to experience them live and I must say, I was impressed. Their spaced out sound focused on exploration just like most young bands that still know how to have fun with their music. This open-minded jamming created some of the best moments of music magic that day. At one point, guitarist James Hernandez donned a black top-hat that made him look like Slash as EGi tore through a cover of Primus’ “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” – the crowd absolutely loved it.

Spread was the reason I decided to attend Down On The Farm and I have to admit, I am a bit biased when it comes to this band. Dave Petrizzo is a maniac on the guitar and got so lost in the music he barely opened his eyes long enough throughout the set for me to snap a proper picture. Their set was relaxed and fun with plenty of space to dance. In fact, their show produced some of the best dance moves I got to see all weekend. Well, at least during the day…

Around this time local police began posting up outside the gate, but they really didn’t bother anyone or attempt to shake anyone down. Therefore, it wasn’t to distracting from the overall festival experience. There was only one food vendor on site so I treated myself to a pulled pork sandwich, and the ladies working the booth also hooked me up with some free macaroni and cheese that totally hit the spot. I was strangely comfortable and felt very welcomed into this tight knit community. The quaint camping area was littered with apple trees and showcased stunning farm land views from every direction. It was quite a sight to behold.

The sun began to set as Thinner Teed eased us into the night with their harmonic grooves and sophisticated shredding. This set the tone for the rest of the night, which brought one great set of music after another. After The Diggity‘s funky dance party on the Barn Stage, fest headliners Soap finally took to the Field Stage for the first of two raging sets. You could tell that after all their hard work, Soap was definitely ready to party and they looked like they were having a BLAST up on stage. This is the golden age during this band’s lifetime where every member is locked into the music and comfortable enough to let things go off the rails. The sassy lyrics of “Love” eventually segued into “Feels Like the First Time” for a hot sexy tango of booty shaking and feet stomping. It was a total party.

Brainchild‘s set appropriately came at the peak of the night. This simplistic four piece unit is a band I’ve been seeing live for years. Their set was every bit the good time I have come to expect from this local Illinois act. The crowd was kicking up dust as if they were at a hoe down, complete with a cornstalk rage stick. And did I mention there was not a single DJ on the lineup? IndigoSun was probably the closest thing to EDM this fest had to offer. Needless to say, this Chicago based space team kicked the dance party up a notch so everyone could really start letting loose to some synthy explosions. Eventually, Kyle Liss came out from behind his keyboard nook, strapped on a keytar, and blew us all away. But for me personally, Steez was the highlight of my night with an epic dance party brought on by their cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Maybe it was the nostalgia of this particular song or maybe it was the fog that began to settle on the farm that made me feel like I was in a dreamland of sorts, it was all just too perfectly weird…and I loved it.

Down on the Farm is the kind of fest where performing musicians stick around and check out the rest of the lineup right alongside festival goers. Everything was loose and laid back with plenty of sit-ins and cross collaborations from the lineup. Miles Over Mountains mandolin player, Sean Shiel, joined Thinner Teed, and Noe Perez from EGi joined Brainchild. Jaik Willis even came out on the Barn Stage for a Michael Jackson super mix… but the best collaborations of the fest happened at the late night campfire jam session where members from almost every band on the lineup threw down one saucy tune after another. Early morning fog began to fills the spaces of our late night dance party, blanketing the whole farm and diffracting the lights in the eeriest way as the super group went into the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf.”

To summarize my experience at Down on the Farm, I would say it was definitely food for my festie soul. After previously attending three mega festivals this summer, I was in need for something much more laid back and easy going. And I must say, Soap sure knows how to throw one hell of a party!

View the full photo gallery here —> FLICKR

2014 Electric Forest Festival

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This was a completely new & different festival experience for me. After attending the past three Electric Forests as a member of the media, this year I was brought on board as a staff photographer for the Electricology team to document the collaborative work of the staff & festivalgoers to create one of the cleanest music festivals you will find anywhere. Heading into the festival I knew my work with the Electricology team was going to radically alter my festivaling script, but for some reason I thought I could keep them apart. The truth is that my work with Electricology and my overall festival experience are completely inseparable — this review wouldn’t be honest & fair without talking about the work. I might have seen far fewer sets than I normally do, but I got to see something completely new instead — I got to experience the inner workings of a music festival like never before. Working from about 10am to 7 pm each of the four days, I spent more time on golf carts over this weekend than the previous 10 years of my life combined. It might sound glamorous, but being on the move all day is pretty exhausting, and that’s before I even got into seeing music or partying.

But, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My weekend with Electricology was an enlightening and rewarding experience, and to a degree, far beyond what I could have expected. They invited me to photograph the work of the team, as well as capture how much work everyone attending the festival put in over the weekend — I was immersed in all things Electricology. Needless to say, I was blown away on both accounts. The tireless efforts of the staff & volunteers opened my eyes to how the cleanest music festival I’ve seen gets that way. But it was the effort of all the festival attendees that astounded me.

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First off… a little bit about Electricology. It’s an ingenious program that incentivizes festivalgoers to keep the festival green. For every ‘green’ deed performed, you got EcoPoints, which are basically raffle tickets for an array of prizes. It’s a win-win for everyone: people win free stuff all weekend and the festival stays clean. And the craziest part about the whole thing? IT WORKS. The more people pick up, the more chances they have to win, and the less the festival itself has to clean up. It’s the biggest no-brainer ever, which is why it’s so genius.

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Not only did I get to see the nitty-gritty contributions, like people strolling up to EcoZones with half a dozen bags of beer cans or a Ziploc full of thousands of cigarette butts, but also the overarching efforts and ‘big picture’ projects as well. Thanks to the work of the Electric Forest Plug-In Program, there were a couple of amazing events over the weekend that I was honored to witness. These things went above and beyond what normal festivals do in the name of greening and put a special emphasis on the Electricology program.

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The first of these events took place on Friday. The plan was simple: set up a piece of “decoy” garbage and the first person to pick it up and put it in a trash can was going to get a special reward. Led by the Plugin team + EF Queen of the Forest, Karleen, and her driver Derrick, we set-up the piece of garbage — a rolled up blue garbage bag — at the end of Shakedown outside the main festival entrance and waited. It didn’t take long for someone to pick up the trash and throw it away. The crew of about 15 people quickly descended on the girl, much to her surprise, and Derrick simply asked her, “Are you afraid of heights?” She said no and was whisked away on the Queen’s chariot/golf cart to an unknown destination… which ended up being a hot air balloon! From picking up a piece of trash to soaring over the festival in a balloon… this is the type of thing that can only happen at Electric Forest. Everyone involved in this stunt left feeling ecstatic, whether you were on the balloon or not.

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The next event was less of a surprise but no less amazing. The Ultimate Green Campsite Contest was announced before the festival and there were a number of groups who took it quite seriously. It was awesome to see the range of ideas and effort put into being the greenest crew at EF, and I was lucky enough to cruise around the entire GA campground and see the hard work in action. On Friday the finalists were narrowed down and on Saturday the winner was chosen. The top handful of groups were all spotless, they embodied the ethos of the program and all could have been winners in my estimation. But there was one group/campsite that stood out amongst the finalists… the Captain America team came armed with plenty of tricks up their sleeve, from homebrewed beer in repurposed containers, to solar-powered lights, to a recycling/compost station, to matching outfits and a song & dance number they performed for the judges, this team pulled out all the stops. It was awesome to see them showered in prizes, including hammocks, backpacks, water bottles, and tickets to next year’s festival — they truly deserved it all.

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But after those two amazing events, the cherry on top came on Sunday when the Electricology Leaderboard winner was announced. Over the course of the weekend, people had a choice what to do with their EcoPoints: they could enter them in smaller drawings for prizes, or collect them all over the entire festival to win a pair of VIP tickets to next year’s festival. The leaderboard was full of people with hundreds of EcoPoints — a monumental effort amidst a weekend of partying & general debauchery. I expected that the winner would end up with something like 700-800 points, which is a ton of work. But, shockingly, the winner ended up with over 1,100 EcoPoints. This girl did more work than probably anyone else at this festival, staff & crew included — racking up 1,100 points is a nearly unfathomable accomplishment. She earned those VIP tickets and then some! Oh yeah, and everyone else who made the Leaderboard finals (I think a total of 16 people) were rewarded with surprise side-stage VIP access for Cheese on Sunday night.

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To say that the Electricology program was a success this year would be a massive understatement. The whole team kicked serious amounts of ass to pull off all of these feats, and everyone who participated made it incredibly rewarding for the crew. This thing wouldn’t work without both sides doing their part, and it was almost like a competition to see who could kick more ass — the people or the festival. I’d say, despite the hard work of the staff & crew, the Captain Planet group and the Leaderboard Winner’s 1,100 points won the weekend. When the sun fell on Sunday night, I was completely overwhelmed by the efforts of everyone across the festival — I got a little emotional at one point Sunday evening trying to summarize the whole thing in my head. This whole side of my Electric Forest experience was an extremely special thing and I’m honored to have been a small part of it.

Continue on to page 2 for my review of the rest of the festival.

Festival Preview & Ticket Giveaway: Down on the Farm

Soap will be hosting their annual hometown throw-down, Down on the Farm, on Saturday July 26th in Manhattan, IL. The one day camping festival brings together the Midwest music community like no other for full day of jamming and overall good times.

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From folk to funk, the lineup offers something for everyone. This year fest’s headliners Soap will be joined by Steez, IndigoSun, and Brainchild along with many others on two stages. This type of event is a breath of fresh air for those of us overwhelmed by the megafests that have taken over the jam scene these last few years. Expect a relaxing, easy weekend where the booze and good times flow like the Kankakee River.

Down on the Farm offers a full day and night of music for just $25 in advance and then $30 on the day of the show! That includes camping AND a free Bloody Mary bar to kick off the day’s activities. With being just a short drive from Chicago, you really can’t go wrong!

Saturday, July 26th | The Farm

28041 S. Elevator Rd. Manhattan, IL 60442

All Ages | $25 in advance or $30 at the gate

Gates at 10:00am | Music starts at 1:00pm

Buy tickets here —> Tickets

 

2014 Summer Camp Music Festival: A Camper’s Perspective

[Photos by Victoria Zegler]

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While Soundfuse has cranked out multiple pieces on this year’s annual Summer Camp Music Festival, I’ve been taking my time in coming up with something different to contribute to one of our most discussed summer festivals. Why not cover it extensively though? It’s practically in our own backyard and always has one of the top lineups year in and year out; not to mention they have shown us here at Soundfuse much love over the years. But this one’s not going to be a standard festival review. We’ve had articles from the VIP perspective as well as from the actual artists themselves so far this year. This outlook, however, will be different. We’ll explore more of the average life of a S’camper and what it was like to attend my personal favorite festival of the entire summer.

This year the population of Summer Camp increased in a very noticeable way — noticeable to those who have been going for years, and maybe even somewhat surprising for those checking it out for the first time. Either way, everything seemed more magnified than other years. There were more vendors and rides, the mowing/clearing of the field area of camping went back farther, and the woods were plugged up more than Elvis after eating an entire block of cheese. The signs were there all around you that Summer Camp has become more prominent in the ever-expanding list of outdoor summer music festivals — it’s pure veteran status in a league full of rookies. I luckily made my home in the woods for this one, in a part of the all too limited available camping that is under any shade. On top of being in the woods, I was also pretty close to the Camping Stage so there was music wherever I was, available to me at any point of the day.

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THE CAMPING STAGE

Since I was stationed right by the Camping Stage I figured it would only be appropriate to dedicate some of this article to the music that was featured there throughout the weekend. I was able to catch a handful of performers while chilling at my campsite in between shows and packin’ up for the nighttime adventures. There was definitely a lot of talent showcased on the Camping Stage this year and it will almost definitely be uncovered, so here you go…(note: unfortunately all Camping Stage shows during Umphrey’s were missed, and there were some good ones).

The Heard, who I have seen a number of times had a great mid-day set on Saturday. This Chicago funk squad drew a good sized crowd for this specific stage’s limited viewing area and had all the surrounding camps grooving out as they sat in their lawn chairs and drank beer to try and recover from the night before. It was the perfect music for the perfect time, a kick-start for what would become night two of Summer Camp.

Sunday I caught two more Illinois bands where I didn’t know what to expect, yet didn’t want to miss. Spare Parts continues to elevate its game in every way. The talented trio brought on guest musicians and treated their spot on the Camping Stage as if they were close to the top of the bill of the entire festival. There’s always a positive energy and you can never go wrong with taking some time out of your day to hear Kevin Kozol on keys and Colin Scott on bass, who I think is one of the most underrated bassists in music.

Spread brought its classic sound as well. Dave Petrizzo is an absolute shredding beast on guitar and it wouldn’t sound the way it did if it weren’t for his band mates. They play their trancing progressive rock together perfectly and again, the timing was perfect as a lot of people were back at their campsite (if not at the show itself) and listening, as they got ready and regrouped for the night to follow. Briefly mentioned in the beginning of this segment, there were two sets during Umphrey’s I wish I had gotten to see: UV Hippo and The Manhattan Project. The old saying “you cant win ’em all” rings true once again, but I was definitely happy with the Camping Stage scheduling this year and glad I got to catch some shows out of convenience because it made them that much more enjoyable — being able to relax, take a break, and listen to great music at my campsite.

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TOP SHOW THAT WASN’T A HEADLINER

Hands down, without a doubt, the best show of the weekend that wasn’t one the top billed artists was The Motet. I am telling you right now I have not had so much fun at a show in quite some time. 2:00-4:00 am on Friday night/Saturday morning (however you wanna classify it) was a badass timeslot. A super late night two-hour set and the biggest dance party to hit the festival. It had caught everyone by surprise and in that moment, I think a lot of us left this world and partied in another realm. There is no one else to give credit to other than The Motet. It was funky, synthy, untzy, and lyrically beautiful all in one. As the set went on more and more people started filing in to see the spectacle that had made its way around the festival by word of mouth. People were literally freaking out and it… was… awesome.

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moe. & UMPHREY’S McGEE

For the two bands that put this weekend on every summer for the past 13 years (11 for Umphrey’s), something must be said. The most surprising thing about these two was how much I enjoyed moe. this year. I’m not a moe. hater by any means, but I have just never been able to really get into them. But this particular weekend I was really feeling what moe. was bringing to the table; I don’t know if it was because of their new album and I was being exposed to newer material or what, but I was impressed and really enjoyed the fact that I appreciated them more than I usually do at Scamp.

Umphrey’s McGee crushed it, just as they do every year. Now if you haven’t yet noticed, Umphrey’s is my shit, so of course I’m going to say they crushed, but they really did. My favorite set of the weekend was the first set on Friday night. This was the twilight set, the set at dusk when the crowd sees the sun setting off in the distance over the farmland that surrounds Three Sisters Park. This is also the first opportunity scampers get to see Umphrey’s and there is always a strong feeling of heavy anticipation spreading rapidly through the crowd. This is how you know you are about to experience something special. They opened with “Similar Skin,” the title track to their brand new album and right from there it was a rawk show… like we would get anything else?!

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 OVERALL CAMPING EXPERIENCE

After this year I will never camp in the woods again unless I have VIP. It was overwhelmingly crowded in there this time, almost like no one gave a shit about the people already settling in and just decided to toss their stuff practically on top of another’s and make it as compact and crowded in there as they could. It was virtually impossible to navigate through once you got off the main trails and it just wasn’t as pleasant as I have experienced every year in the past. The field, although exposed to the sun sooner than the woods, is where I will be in the following years. There is room to actually have room. Roaming space. Stretch space. Peace. All of that seems like a fair tradeoff to me. The vendors were pretty standard in comparison to other years as well as the art scene and little side entertainment projects. The weather was perfect but the dust was in full force this year. Again, I would take this over having to battle the elements in one way or another. There was no excessive heat and no torrential downpours this year, something that is a rarity at this particular festival.

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Summer Camp 2014 was, in my opinion, a great success. I had a great time with old friends and new and got to see the music I love at my favorite outdoor summer music festival. To some of us, Chillicothe is more than just a tiny town in rural central Illinois, it’s a place to look forward to visiting every year. That might sound strange to some people, but they just don’t know about the magic of Summer Camp.

Fiya Fest in New Orleans

[Words by Ashley Marie Downing | Photos and Video by Chris Monaghan]

For nearly two weeks each spring, New Orleans becomes the musical epicenter of the world during its annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. While the daytime festival is confined to the fairgrounds over the course of two weekends, the musical magic and energy can be found day and night throughout the entire city. There is something for everyone to enjoy, which is why music lovers and musicians flock to the Big Easy from all parts of the world to share this beautiful and uniquely special experience.

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Upon arriving to NOLA during Jazz Fest, it is as if you are sucked into a wild, never ending musical vortex that you cannot stop or control in any way. I am a music junkie, but nothing stirs me or gets my rocks off more than FUNK music. I gotta have that funk, and in my world: the funkier the music, the better. Since NOLA is known for its funk, I was certain that I’d be able to fully satisfy all my musical desires there.

On Friday, May 2nd I attended the second annual FIYA FEST, an utterly extraordinary event held at Mardi Gras World directly on the Mississippi River. I had been blessed with the opportunity to attend so many killer shows in NOLA, but this event was by far the highlight of my entire trip this year. It was a marvelous daytime festival featuring more than 95 outstanding musicians on three stages held at the same time the actual Jazz Fest was going on. The FIYA was blazing by the river all day and even with the main festival and countless other events going on around the city, crowds came out in large numbers to attend Fiya Fest 2014. The food and drinks were cheap and the weather was perfect. This was the second year Fiya Fest was held at the massive venue Mardi Gras World, but the first to use all of the outside area along the river as well as the indoor Mansion room, which gave everyone the ability to move around easily even when it got crowded.

Put on by NOLA natives Chris Rogers and Ryan Shapiro through their company Fiyawerx Productions, Fiya Fest was an incredible, eclectic mix of everything New Orleans. It gave you an up close glimpse into the heritage and culture that the Big Easy values so deeply through its music, food, art and culture (as well as its affinity for crawfish, which was boiled onsite all day long for everyone to enjoy). The primary goal Fiya Fest each year is to raise funds and awareness for The Roots of Music Foundation which teaches and empowers New Orleans’ youth through music education, academic support and mentorship. By attending the festival, everyone in attendance supported this wonderful program.

To be perfectly frank, the lineup that was assembled for Fiya Fest this year was nothing short of phenomenal. The musical roster they put together was not only overflowing with variety of well-known funk heavyweights, but also intriguing one of a kind collaboration. Between the main stage indoors (Flame Stage), the riverside stage outside (River Stage) and the intimate VIP stage located in the Mansion area,

The air was brimming excellent with music, and the pure funk goodness surrounding you from every stage was almost enough to overdose on. Even between sets, DJ Logic entertained the diverse crowd by doing his thing and spinning tunes.

There is one performance I can’t stop thinking about by a Chicago funk band called The Heard. This 7 piece band may be newer to the scene, but their charming, high energy set was tight and their 3 piece horn section was explosive. The Revivalists then took to the stage with numerous special guests and showcased how versatile the band really is. Frontman David Shaw is intoxicating on stage, which was amplified during their mid-day performance with a show-stopping cover The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” The Revivalists’ then created an amplified wall of sound when they ended their set with a total of 10 different horn players onstage.

The Headhunter’s Super Jam Set was one of my favorites, especially with the addition of Fred Wesley and Karl Denson. When GRITTS took the stage, they fully took over the Fest! Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel guitar and Ivan Neville on the keys. At one point during their set, special guest Corey Glover from Living Colour came onstage for Billy Preston’s, “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles.” No one in the crowd had expected this and everyone enjoyed the song by dancing and wildly singing along. The last performance at the outside River Stage was an energetic and intense rock Super-Jam hosted by Mike Dillion that set the crowd on Fiya. To cap off the event, indoor Flame Stage closed out the festival with legendary Maceo Parker jamming along with a heavy roster of special guests.

The VIP stage in the mansion was stunning, a gorgeous courtyard at twilight. There were trees alongside of stone pathways centering on a bubbling stream in that ran through length of the room. The stage provided intimate, up close and personal sets from Eric Lindell, Clint Maedgen, Marco Benevento, and David Shaw. All of the performances were touching, but when David Shaw’s covered The Bee Gees “To Love Somebody,” I was one of many in attendance who broke down into tears. After that, he was joined by young guitar guru Gary “TAZ” Niederauer for a blues jam that made everyone smile and that no one will forget.

Fiyawerx also had musicians floating in and out, performing all over the place and continuously sitting in on different sets. We call them ‘Artists at Large’ and they really fueled the Fiya all day, helping to propel the performances to new heights. Artists included: Cyril Neville, Corey Glover, Eric McFadden, Papa Mali, Billy Iuso and ten year old guitar wizard Gary “TAZ” Niederauer.

As Fiya Fest came to a triumphant close, Fiyawerx Productions hosted not one, but two after parties of their own that evening. One of which was a sold-out Riverboat show called Fiya Water II aboard the Creole Queen, which picked up ticket holders on the dock attached to festival venue Mardi Gras World. It was quite nice to be picked up directly from the fest for another Super-Jam on the water, and the evening was only just beginning…

To be honest, the entire day was a handsome musical experience that I will not soon forget. It was a great event that celebrated the NOLA cultural experience. This was only the second year for Fiya Fest, and I am fascinated to see what tricks they have in store for us at this charitable event next year. Until then, I will continue to anxiously await the wild ride that is New Orleans during Jazz Fest.

Festival Preview: 2014 Riverwest Music Festival

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With Wavefront on hiatus until 2015, Riverwest Music Festival has stepped up to fill a void for Midwest electronic music fans this year. And with a stellar lineup featuring the finest names in underground house and techno, as well as some EDM heavy-hitters, they aren’t skipping much of a beat either. Perhaps success of last year’s Labor Day festivities at Estate and Dolphin were the inspiration for all of this.

The festival will rest along Elston Ave. at Division St. and feature three stages, with one stage located on the rooftop of Estate Ultra Bar. There will be no VIP section, all concert-goers will congregate together.

The lineup features many familiar names from various genres. Tech House fans will enjoy sets from Guy Gerber, Lee Burridge, and Apollonia, while Deep House aficionados will be left with choices to make between Art Department, Jamie Jones, Thugfucker, Damian Lazarus, Visionquest, Three, Hot Since 82 and many more. Fans of Dubstep will also have Excision and Rusko in attendance. There are even some Progressive House/Big Room DJ’s like Steve Lawler and Morgan Page to round everything out. Overall, its a very strong, diverse lineup that stands out in the overall festival landscape.

DATES: Friday, July 4th thru Sunday July 6th

LOCATION: Elston Ave at Division St (attendees can use a $25 first-time credit with Uber)

DURATION: 11:00 AM until 10:30 PM

EVENT IS ALL AGES | $100 presales have sold out, next tier is $150

Purchase Tickets Here —> Eventbrite

What we really like about this lineup are the numerous acts you won’t catch at other US festivals this summer. After careful consideration, we came up with a list of 10 Can’t-Miss Acts, featuring rising underground stars and as well as obvious choices.

Innervisions (Dixon, Henrik Schwarz, Michael Gracioppo, Ten Walls)

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Unquestionably the hottest label in underground house and techno over the last few years, they are well-represented at Riverwest this year. We could spend this entire paragraph gabbing about label boss, RA #1 DJ of 2013, and deep house maestro Dixon, or even his equally talented sidekick Henrik Schwarz but rising label stars Michael Gracioppo and Ten Walls are not to be missed either; they will be making their Chicago debuts. Expect deep, emotional sets from all of these artists.

Deep Dish (Live)

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Making only their second Chicago appearance in the last decade, the duo of Sharam and Dubfire return as Deep Dish with a brand new live set. While each man has risen to new heights since their split in 2006, a reunion pretty much seemed inevitable at some point. Fans will enjoy the timeless, seminal late 90s/early 2000s house sound from this duo.

Loco Dice

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Tech House legend Loco Dice is a busy man between his intense touring schedule and summer stints in Ibiza, to managing his highly influential label Desolat; he is one of the most sought after DJs on the planet, and with good reason. A former hip hop DJ, his sound has evolved to encompass house, techno, and everything in between. Check him out and find out what all the fuss is about.

Marcel Dettman & Marcel Fengler

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Techno fans are drooling over both Berghain resident Marcel DJs being in the building at the same time. Dettmann and Fengler have both proven to be trusted techno curators over the last decade and provide the festival with some much needed bite. Expect their sets to be dark and weird in all the right ways.

DJ Koze

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Koze’s quirky personality always shines through on his mixes, his own productions, and his label Pampa’s output. The Hamburg-based DJ has gained considerable attention in recent years with stellar remixes for Matthew Herbert, Moderat, Mount Kimbie, and a warm reception from critics on his colorful LP Amygdala. But it has been a long journey for the German DJ/producer to attain his near-legendary status. His DJ sets are spoken of highly, much like everything else he does.

Bob Moses (Live)

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Bob Moses is a rising new group from Vancouver, but formed in New York City. These guys make catchy, hypnotic, trippy electronic house sounds, with melodies that won’t leave your head for days. Their sets encompass live vocals and instrumentation and truly pushes new boundaries every time they step on stage. This could end up being the best new act you discover at Riverwest.

Mind Against

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The Italian duo are new to the scene but they have already garnered acclaim from peers, critics, and fans alike. The group’s droning, thick metallic sound borders on the edge of house and techno, resulting in something very distinct and unique. Their debut set at Spybar last Winter was quite memorable to say the least. Another strong candidate for a breakout act.

Jimmy Edgar vs. Danny Daze

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After a slew of killer releases in its debut year, Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum’s new Ultramajic label has gained notoriety for its distinct blend of house, techno, and bass music. Danny Daze’s Silicon has proven to be one of the standout releases on it thus far as well. The b2b between these two gentlemen should have people talking afterwards.

DJ Tennis

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After a relatively late start to his career, Life and Death boss Tennis has made up for lost time with a solid rise in recent years, gaining respect from house purists across the planet. His label Life and Death may already have the “club anthem of the summer” on lock with Sailor & I – Turn Around (Âme remix), a track that won’t officially be released for another two weeks. Tennis always finds a way to deliver a satisfying performance in any setting, be sure to check him out.

Matt Tolfrey

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Leftroom label-boss Matt Tolfrey rounds out our list and there’s not much we can say that hasn’t already been said. Tolfrey is as knowledgable and thoughtful behind the decks as any person on this list, and he always manages to throw in plenty of curveballs to keep the audience on their toes. He is surely not to be missed.

Taste of Randolph Street Preview

The Taste of Randolph Street has been a West Loop tradition for the past 15 years and once again, this street fest of all street fests is busting out all the goods for it’s sweet 16 celebration!  This event captures Chicago’s eclectic culture from food to music and everything in between with a killer musical lineup featured on three separate stages and even better food scattered over six blocks on Randolph Street’s “Restaurant Row.”

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About 75k people are expected to swarm to the West Loop this weekend in the name of a good time. The extravaganza takes place over the course of three days from June 13th to the 15th and will feature some of the most choice food selections you have ever seen served at a street fest. After all, it is the Taste of Randolph Street. Proceeds will benefit the West Loop Community Organization, a group who strives to bring together and strengthen the neighborhood they live and work in. There is a suggested donation of $10 to get in each day, which is a complete steal.

With plenty of entertainment options for the whole family, it’s safe to say you can bring your mom to this one. This street fest boasts a creative lineup with some of the most interesting, up and coming acts out there; from the sounds of Lincoln Jesser to hard hitting indie rock bands like Delta Spirit. Needless to say, summer time in Chicago was made for dancing in the streets and this lineup will more than facilitate that notion.

People can start heading over to the fest after work on Friday or on Saturday and Sunday starting at 11am.  The Taste of Randolph Street will end at 10pm each night, but the fun doesn’t stop there! Official after parties will also be held at the City Winery Chicago and Bottom Lounge featuring acts like Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers and Dumpstaphunk, respectively.

2014 Summer Camp Music Festival Through the Eyes of Wyllys

[Words & Photos by Wyllys] 

After taking a year off of Summer Camp in 2013, I was very excited to get back to Three Sisters Park for my 8th time at the festival. It has become a part of me not only as an artist, but as a person as well. It’s a time of the year I always look forward to and have had the distinct honor of closing the festival down in the VIP tent since I started playing there in 2007. Some of my favorite memories include an incognito Keller Williams sit in during my set in 2008, The NY Hustler Ensemble with Bayliss in the Vibe Tent, and of course, the infamous closing set that I welcomed the sun with Jen and Natalie sitting in.

Enough with the memories of old. Let’s take a look at the newest cluster of Summer Camp memories from this year’s festivities.

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One of my favorite Scamp traditions is joining Waful at the lighting desk for Thursday night programming and general shit talking with the road crew. It’s always great to see the rig coming to life and progress over the next few nights. Waful is a monster of the industry and keeps evolving at a rapid rate. This is one of the looks from Thursday night.

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As mentioned, Thursday is the crew’s night to get everything prepped. This Thursday was extra “preppy” with the FOH Kraut Rock jam being sussed out from a technical perspective by both band and crew alike. This shot shows Jaco in his constant state of Jedi, testing the waters and tweaking things to lend suggestions to the crew as to how this will all go down. This is probably my favorite shot from this year.

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The anticipation of the first notes from Umphrey’s Mcgee at Scamp is palpable. This is the view from Ground Zero just before the lads graced the stage. Please notice only one asshole with a rage stick.

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After my set with Fade Runner (myself + Marcus Rezak) I hightailed it over to the VIP tent to catch Brownie, my brother in the trenches for many, many years, take the stage for one of his first DJ sets ever at a festival. I yucked it up with him on stage as he strolled through nu disco hits and discussed our distaste for “snapping to grid” functions. He is seen here emerging victorious from a mix and I can’t help but be reminded of how truly sincere and kind this guy is. Mad love, Marc.

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Saturday was my night off so I wanted to go support as much of my fam and extended fam as I could. First up was a visit to the VIP tent to see Cosby Sweater. I had heard so much about these guys and the tracks I heard online were great so it was awesome to see them turn it out in a relaxed atmosphere. This trio has unlimited potential and really has the core setup to compose some truly unique electronic music outside the realm of the dreaded “EDM” tag.

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That afternoon it was finally time to pop my Floozies cherry and sidestage was a veritable who’s who of up and coming electronic groups. Cherub, Break Science, and Gramatik were all in attendance for a set of music that was not without funky aspects, but way too much of a dubstep influence for me to care. They are going to blow up big this year and I wish them all the best, just too much womp for my taste. Seen here side stage is Adam Deitch sporting a shirt that I quite obviously loved, sporting his oft-seen game face.

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The sun setting on another glorious Saturday at Scamp.

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Finally it was time to set up for my closing set on Sunday. Since most of us know how it ended, I will focus only on the positive to say it ended on a very high note and it was an honor to have Nick Gerlach, D and Mike from Easy Riders, Borham from Break Science, Joel Cummins, Benny Bloom, and Roy Ponce sit in. None of it was planned and the energy built to a beautiful peak. Seen here is The Iron Sheik doll my boy Rodney gave me before the show. See you next year, kids

A Transcendent Experience at 2014 Summer Camp Music Festival

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[Photos by Dann Wunderlich]

It was the last night of Summer Camp and Umphrey’s McGee was throwing one hell of a late night party on the quaint stage in the fest’s red barn. Over the course of Memorial Day Weekend this band had already played six sets of music and this final performance would be their seventh, an unprecedented festival achievement for this grassroots band with humble Midwest beginnings. The weekend itself could not have been more perfect and the stars somehow aligned so that the weather, the music, and the vibe were exactly what everyone hoped it would be.

With a limited capacity in the barn’s confined quarters, tickets for the show sold out immediately after they went on sale. Therefore, the only way to really secure access to this special event was to upgrade to VIP. So the barn eventually filled with a special mix of Umphrey’s most passionate fans bubbling with anticipation as they awaited an intimate show featuring their favorite band. The air of the room grew thick with a musty haze of individuals who hadn’t showered in days, yet no one really seemed concerned, for the last day of a festival is often a great equalizer for all in attendance.

Finally, the sweet music of Umphrey’s McGee engulfed the barn, bringing an end to an already perfect weekend. Though billed as a late night, it was technically an early morning set that didn’t begin until about 2:30 AM on Memorial Day. After a steamy “Day Nurse,” Umphrey’s frontman, Brendan Bayliss, welcomed fiddle player Allie Kral onto the the stage for what would be one of the most memorable moments the fest has ever experienced.

Allie is a well known favorite at Summer Camp Music Festival. This darling fiddler was a member of the bluegrass band Cornmeal for over a decade until she decided to leave the group in order to pursue a career as a solo artist. She spent the past year travelling around the country, touring and sitting in with a variety of bands, along with participating in a number of one off shows along the way. Her triumphant return to Summer Camp this year as an “Artist at Large” was beyond impressive and included sit ins with moe., Floodwood, Greensky Bluegrass, Blues Traveler, Everyone Orchestra and Victor Wooten, just to name a few.

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This late night performance with Umphrey’s McGee was not Allie’s first experience joining the hard hitting progressive rockers. In fact, most die hard Umphrey’s fans would argue that her addition to the songs “1348” and “Hajimemashite” back in November of 2011 was one of the best Umphrey’s sit ins to date.

Therefore, when Allie stepped on stage that night, it was obvious that barn was about to experience something special. While both sweet and humble, this beautiful human was also blessed with a stellar sense of humor. As she took to her spot between Umphrey’s towering bassist, Ryan Stasik, and maniac guitarist, Jake Cinninger, the men noticed she slipped the strap of a purple bra over the end of her violin and all three chuckled as they watched it dangle from the scroll. This witty gesture poked fun at Umphrey’s rockstar novelties and signaled this chick was ready to hang with the men.

The room almost seemed giddy, for they knew what was to come: magic.

Allie plugged in and a song slowly began to take shape. “All my friends are here now, this is what we came to do…” Jake sweetly sang into his microphone. Everyone in the room had their eyes glued to the stage as tingles began to creep up their spines. “Gulf Stream” is a song often loathed by many die hard Umphrey’s fans. It’s repetitive, predictable progression is often seen as a waste of valuable concert time when Umphrey’s could be improvising and melting face. But this was different. The short repetitive lyrics, though elusive in their meaning, seemed completely appropriate given the circumstance and, somehow, Allie’s presence brought “Gulf Stream” full circle.

The song steadily began to pick up energy and grow into the sweetness of Allie’s notes as she swept her bow slowly across the patient strings of her violin. Every now and then she would look up, smile, and nod, knowing that this moment was meant to be. Everyone in the room aligned with her frequency as “Gulf Stream” began to take flight. This was the moment the weekend had been leading up to; the band knew it, lighting designer Jefferson Waful knew it, and the crowd of seasoned fans were shaking in anticipation.

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Allie faced Jake, ready to kick their musical conversation up a notch. After a few back and forth progressions Jake quickly turned to adjust one of the pedals by his feet, and then: nothing. He aggressively strummed a chord… still nothing. He looked down at his pedal, adjusted it with his foot, but then again: nothing happened.

The rest of the band kept playing, but their eyes began to widen with tension. The paradox of  the whole scene and “Gulf Stream’s” lyrics did not go unnoticed. The air grew awkward as Jake threw up both hands trying to get the attention from someone off to the side of the stage, motioning that something was wrong with his rig.

Bayliss took a step towards Allie, rhythmically strummed his guitar in an attempt to save the jam. But suddenly, Allie not only acknowledged his cue, she took a step forward and heroically began to dominated the stage with her violin. The whole room was in awe. With Jake still attempting to get juice, the band almost seemed lost, but like a butterfly taking flight Allie soared through a solo all on her own. She eventually dropped her head down, letting her hands and violin throw the room into that moment they had all been waiting for, that moment where you feel like you are exactly where you are supposed to be, a moment that entices a paradigm shift. “Gulf Stream” would never be the same.

When Allie finally lifted her head and noticed Jake was ready to join in the conversation, it was almost too late. This princess of the jam scene had now become queen. Politely, she welcomed Jake to the party and entertained a small jam which eventually peaked into a cover of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” but the transcendent experience was already solidified; it was the moment that jam fans live for.

The fact that this incident was so perfect, yet off the cuff, made it more special than anyone could have anticipated. Allie’s absence from the Chicago music scene over the past year was noticeable and her return, both to Summer Camp and to Umphrey’s McGee, was coveted by everyone in that barn. While only filling a small ten minute segment of that specific late night show, it was quite possibly the best 10 minutes of the weekend, a shining moment in Summer Camp history, to say the least.

Summer Camp’s Bass Workshop with Jesse Miller of Lotus

Musician workshops are a tradition at Summer Camp Music Festival. These intimate instructional sessions give artists an opportunity to both teach and demonstrate technique in front of festival goers who are eager to learn from their idols. In the past, the bass workshop has featured many notable artists and this year, with the help of Zachary Fleitz from the band Floodwood, Jesse Miller from Lotus gave an informative talk on his interpretation of the bass and how he uses the instrument when composing music.

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The multifaceted Lotus bassist began by defining himself as a musician: “I don’t really consider myself a very technical bass player, but it is an instrument that I play. I always thought of myself a little bit more of a composer but bass is obviously pretty key to any kind of composition and I think that really informs the way I play.” With that said, the stage was set for a more global approach to the bass workshop with Miller opening up about his process of composing and where the bass fits into the equation.

Miller shared that when he composes music, he usually writes for a variety of instruments and tends to prefer a more analog approach. When asked about composing music with a computer, Jesse pointed out a common roadblock producers often run into: replicating technically complex sounds with an actual instrument. “I appreciate a lot of electronic producers that write this really intricate stuff, but the idea of translating that to a live setting can sometimes go off the rails and it becomes something that is not as fun to play or listen to because it is extremely challenging to play live.” Therefore, Miller usually writes using whatever instrument he is writing for in order to consider the overall picture. He explained, “You always have to think about the tension of how difficult something is to play and how that is going to come through in the music.”

 

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The bulk of the workshop focused on the large, but often understated influence of the bass. “The power of the bass is having a bridge between the drums and any other lead instrument or harmonic instrument.” Miller then gave quite a few examples of how the bass can influence the harmony of a piece, explaining that, “The lowest note really dictates what the other notes mean, it sets the context.” This concept is very influential to how Miller plays the bass during a live show, “It is definitely something I am thinking about a lot when we are improvising and the only thing that is really established is a certain tempo and a certain key. You can kind of take it wherever you want, whether it is staying with just one chord and let other things develop around that or creating this kind of harmonic movement underneath that is really setting the stage for what everybody else is playing.”

“Rhythmically too,” he continued, “I am always thinking about accents. How does the bass fit in with the drums, especially the kick drum and the snare drum? Most genres are dictated by what the tempo is and where the accents fall. The bass is a huge part of that so just changing something slightly about how the bass falls in between the accents, like between the kick drum and the snare drum, can really change the feel.”

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Miller then touched on some of the challenges of working with the low notes produced by the bass and how using a pentatonic scale results in a more effective sound. With just five notes, this scale is more basic compared to the seven notes that create the diatonic scale. “For bass, this scale works really well because smaller intervals can create this muddy feel. When you have closer intervals, you want those to happen higher,” he pointed out, “and when you are playing things that are low, bigger intervals tend to work better.”

The workshop finished up with an open-ended jam session where people in the audience could ask questions and a few even came on stage for some one-on-one instruction. Jesse Miller’s approach to composing music, both with writing and improvising, shed light on what a band like Lotus is all about. Because of his background as a composer, it was easy to see how this group emulates the Gestalt principle where the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts and the bass is obviously an essential part of that equation. Needless to say, the bass workshop at Summer Camp this year was both informative and enlightening.

Top 5 Reasons Summer Camp 2014 was the Bee’s Knees

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A music festival is so much more than its lineup. While the headliners draw in the crowd, it’s the vibe of a fest that seals the deal for repeat customers. There will obviously be quite a few reviews on the outstanding musical performances that took place this year at Summer Camp Music Festival and I have to say that 2014 was overall the best year this grassroots festival has ever seen. But there were a few ingredients apart from the music that helped prove why this is one of the best fests out there.

Here are the top 5 reasons Summer Camp 2014 was the bee’s knees:

1) The Weather
After attending Summer Camp for over a decade now, I can honestly say that this year had the best weather the fest has ever experienced. With highs in the upper 70’s during the day and lower 50’s at night, the weather gods couldn’t have treated us any better. This all configured into a worry free atmosphere where sunscreen and sunglasses were Memorial Day Weekend’s only necessity. If you are unaware, Summer Camp is notorious for inclement weather. From tornado evacuations to triple digit temperatures, this festival has seen it all.  After last year’s monsoon flooding, many refused to return to Summer Camp and now they have to live with the regret of missing the best year the fest has ever seen.

2) Food Vendors
Three years ago I decided to stop bringing food to Summer Camp altogether because the vending at this festival is that good. Sure, I usually pack a few snacks to fuel me up between meals, but with most food stands open 24 hours a day and conveniently located throughout Three Sister’s Park, I’ve never run out of options for sustenance. The best part is Summer Camp has had the same vendors dishing out delicious goodness year after year. My top three favorite foods are Manolo’s Empanadas, Minglewood’s brick oven pizza, and the egg sandwiches at the Cracked food truck. All three of these food vendors offer some great meals for less than $10 and I know I’m not the only one that looks forward to eating their fantastic dishes every year. An honorable mention also has to go to Uncle Bob’s Ice Cream for making me feel like a kid every year.

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3) VIP Lounge
Ok so I know not every festival goer gets to experience the luxury of Summer Camp’s VIP Lounge but in all honesty, this upgrade to the music festival experience is really unbeatable and with cheap drinks served by fabulous bartenders, you really can’t go wrong. The minute you walk into the lounge you experience a very relaxed atmosphere with couches and intimate tables scattered under the large shaded tent. The VIP bar is probably the largest at the festival and regulars tend to establish themselves there fairly early in the weekend. But the best part of getting access to the VIP Lounge is the intimate shows put on by some of the most notable acts on the fest’s lineup. Everyone from Keller Williams to Cosby Sweater took over the intimate VIP stage this year, helping bring the tent’s exclusive vibe to a whole other level.

4) Make A Difference Area
Each music festival out there likes to boast their efforts of taking care of good old Mother Earth but I have never seen any take on this job quite like Summer Camp’s Make A Difference area. Located in the stretch of space between the Moonshine and Sunshine Stages, this umbrella of goodness covers everything from the fest’s Green Team to nonprofits. It even has it’s very own Soulshine tent with a live art gallery and an intimate stage that hosts notorious late night shows. Positive vibes from this area of Summer Camp spread throughout the rest of the fest faster than wook flu but I think the best part is the repeat offenders that volunteer their time and energy year after year to make the fest a catalyst for goodness. Needless to say, Summer Camp is inspiring festival goers to making a difference in a very real way.

5) Workshops
Summer Camp’s workshops are a magical place where talent meets teaching. These daily pow wows are held in the early afternoon at the Church and are probably one of the most unique ways to connect with festival musicians. Each workshop focuses on a specific instrument and brings together some of the lineup’s most talented musicians to help showcase and share insight into how they play. I was able to attend three workshops over the weekend that highlighted the bass, African drumming, and percussion. Each workshop featured a little bit of playing, some instruction, and plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

Bass Workshop at Summer Camp

These top five elements mentioned above are only a fraction of the reasons of why Summer Camp 2014 was great. Obviously, the music was pretty stellar this year too and we will have much more coming your way to highlight some stand out performances and maybe even a funny story or two, not to mention photo gallery after photo gallery of fabulous Summer Camp pictures. So stay tuned!