Not Exactly All Good: 12th Annual Festival Offers Good Tunes, Not So Good Vibes

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“I ain’t shittin’ ya,” howled Grace Potter from the main stage at the 12th annual All Good Music Festival, during her Friday evening performance with her band the Nocturnals.  “We’re happy to fucking be here. It was hard to get here, but it’s all good.” She wasn’t the only one to make the obvious one-liner over the course of weekend.

But while there are many good things about the annual event, there are not quite enough to warrant the moniker. This year’s edition featured, as always, beautiful vistas from which to take in a wide range of musical delicacies that consisted almost entirely of jam bands, including representatives of the Big Three—Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh & Friends), Phish (Mike Gordon) and Widespread Panic—as well as the brightest up and coming acts like Tea Leaf Green and Perpetual Groove. But while the setting and the music were outstanding, organizational aspects and the overall atmosphere left a lot to be desired.

Indeed, the site of the festival is rather difficult to reach. Nestled in the mountains of Northwest West Virginia close to the Pennsylvania state line, Marvin’s Mountaintop, near Morgantown, is a stunning location for a weekend of camping and freaking freely. To get there, one has to climb tiny, winding mountain roads under a canopy of trees alongside rambling rivers and through tiny mining towns. Traveling these narrow roads underscores the remoteness of this place, and serves as an enchantment ritual to let your brain know that you about to enter a different world.  The main stage sits at the bottom allgood08_1.jpgof a not-so-gently steeping mountain, with a second stage adjacent to it for performances in between the big-name acts. Campsites spread from this nexus like tendrils, up and down the mountainside, into valleys and alongside creek beds. A third, Ropeadope Records-sponsored stage and a wide-open vending scene (both sanctioned and non-sanctioned) is stationed outside of the main concert area, among the campsites.  All of this makes the physical scope of the event stretch out over a large area.  It’s so much area that it’s not quite practical to staff it all, and as such the festival necessarily takes on a free-for-all tone. The laissez-faire attitude permeates all aspects of the event, from general atmosphere to organizational aspects. This is a good thing when it comes to appreciating the value of being left to ones own devices to have a good time, but not so good when it comes to other more practical concerns. Like, say, sanitation. Despite the best efforts of the Clean Vibes crew, the concert grounds were frequently filthy; overflowing portable toilets and a lack of accessible free, clean water only added to the less-than-ideal conditions.

The attitude permeated the crowd too, with some folks taking the everything-goes aspect to the extreme. Roaming entrepreneurs openly marketed a cornucopia of mind altering and mood-enhancing products. One man’s marketing message was simplified into a single word—“everything.” Perhaps these indulgences were to help get one’s mind off of the sanitary conditions (or perhaps played a part in leading to them). Possibly the industry was in collusion with a booming glow stick market. With glow stick stands and a superhero costume-making workshop, All Good fans take mayhem and shenanigans to an absurd level of devotion. Wild costumes, and none at all, were the norm. While fun and freaky, these antics seemed to often take precedence over the music for many fans. With more than 10,000 people on hand making this gathering the size of a town, there are bound to be some sketchy neighborhoods, but the claustrophobic nature of being in a gulley made it sometimes seem like you were always watching your back.

All Join In

However, at a music festival, it’s all about the music, right? Right? From a music standpoint, All Good was rife with solid performances from some great acts. With other festival branching out to appeal to more  mainstream audiences, All Good remains at its core a festival for jam bands and their fans, and is unabashed in promoting it as such. It serves as a great place then for a full weekend of jam band heavyweights.

Thursday night kicked off the festivities for early arrivers with a few performances on the Ropeadope Stage by Perpetual Groove (with new keyboardist John Hruby), Brazilian Girls and The Join—a rotating lineup consisting of drummer Darren Shearer and keyboardist Jamie Shields of the New Deal paired with various artists depending on where the show takes place.  For this incarnation, they were joined by The Duo—Marco Benevento and Joe Russo.  The Ropeadope Stage is a haven in the snaky and dusty campground areas. Situated on a hill (of course), it is a welcome respite from the bustling energy of “Shakedown Street,” which at All Good is an actual, named, gravel road with official and non-official vendors.  While these shows were announced and scheduled, the remainder of the weekend’s lineup was assembled on the fly, with workshops and performances taking place throughout the weekend. This weekend included stints by the Wood Brothers, Blue Method and Mike Gordon, among others.{mospagebreak}

The festival proper kicked off on Friday with The Wood Brothers on the main stage. The first day on the main stage would play host to a range of styles, providing an eclectic official start to the weekend.

The Avett Brothers brought their punked-up thrash-grass to the swelling crowds, highlighting a few songs from their forthcoming sophomore CD, including a tune called “Murder In The City.”  Murder ballads seem to fit well with this group, but this one pleaded against it, the protagonist urging that his death in the city not be avenged.

allgood08_2.jpg One of the great aspects of All Good is the centralization of the acts. While the camping area covers a lot of ground, the two main stages are side-by-side.  This allows anyone in the proper position to merely face a little bit to the right to take in a performance on the Magic Hat stage adjacent to the main stage.  It gives the more up and coming bands a lot of exposure, even though their sets are sometimes limited to as short as 20 minutes. 

It also gives the audience a chance to hear a lot of acts they might otherwise miss.  Live music beats the hell out of recorded tunes played over the P.A. any day of the week. And not having to run from stage to stage certainly helps rest the legs of those who might have already hiked miles to get to the main concert area.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band wasn’t the first band to play on the Magic Hat but they were the first ones to truly win over the crowd.  They squeezed in a 20 minute set between the Avetts and Grace Potter that wowed the crowd with a bluesy mix of old-time music emanating from a not-so-big band—just three people. Apparently, the “big” in their title refers only to their sound.

allgood08_3.jpgPotter’s rock-n-soul swagger greased the now-sweaty crowd enjoying temperatures in the upper 80s and bright blue skies, while the All Mighty Senators kept the energy high for Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood. Guitarist John Scofield melds perfectly whenever he plays with MMW, like a grown-back tentacle giving an organism new reach. Their heavy-propellant jazz funk was at times dazzling and stupefying. But the one tune that was the most jaw-dropping was the mellowest of their set, and even calmed down this rowdy crowd to a state of rapt attention. A tender and meandering take on the Beatles’ “Julia” showcased John Scofield teasing and toying with the melody, embellishing upon it with graceful improvisational runs that ably served the beauty of the tune.

Comfortably Numb

With former Phil & Friends guitarists John Scofield and Warren Haynes playing before and after Mr. Lesh and company, one could reasonably expect a guest performance. But oddly, given the usual camaraderie of this musical community, there were no surprise guest performances on the first day of the fest. Instead, it seemed Lesh, sporting a nifty new bass with illuminated fret markings, intended to showcase his most recent group of Friends by including songs by guitarist Jackie Greene (“Gone Wanderin’”) and keyboardist Steve Moltiz (Particle’s “Elevator”) among a smattering of Grateful Dead tunes and a choice cover of the Beatles “Revolution.”

allgood08_4.jpgThis particular group has been getting better, as Phil’s bands seem to do, but this night was hit or miss. Jackie Greene continues to be impressive in the vocal department by providing his own vocal interpretation of classic tunes from the Dead canon, rather than trying to ape the inflections of the original vocalists. He nailed “Loser” and the “Feel Like A Stranger” opener. That tune was followed by the all too rare “’Til The Morning Comes” with Theresa Williams joining in on vocals, as she did throughout the night on several songs. The first set was short, and ended with a loose but truncated “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad.”

The second set charged out with a raunchy takes on “The Golden Road” and “Viola Lee Blues” before melding into a “New Potato Caboose” that unfortunately suffered from clunky transitions in this otherwise intricate tune. “Revolution” got the band back on track and it was followed by the electro-funk of “Elevator,” which seemed a sign of support from Lesh to Molitz. The energy produced by the high-octane tune was not carried over into anything else, though the groove the band cooked up shows promise for melding into more Dead-like realms. “Jack Straw” and a standard take on “Not Fade Away” closed the set, and “Brokedown Palace” with Theresa Williams was a nice encore.

Despite the uneven nature of the set, Phil & Friends was a treat, the spaces between the songs and the various improvisations like tasting a glass of wine—subtle hints of melody and undertones of various flavors that lead to a complex flavor, sometimes more interesting and complex than others, but always enjoyable.

allgood08_5.jpg With the second stage so close to the main stage, one has to wonder if the music being played during the main stage setup influences the setlist of the band about to take the main stage. Gov’t Mule’s set, billed as a “late-night” as it wasn’t scheduled to start until 2 A.M., followed Phil & Friends on the main stage, but during the break the reggae sounds of Soja on the Magic Hat stage filled the concert field, and one could imagine Warren Haynes backstage assembling his setlist and have to wonder if it would lead to Mule playing some of their more reggae-influenced selections. That didn’t really come to pass though. Instead, they played a set peppered with covers, leaning heavily on the ballads that lasted until after five in the morning.

Sound problems plagued them at first, with the entire band taking the stage and then leaving without playing, until they finally started the show 30 minutes late. It was an uncharacteristic delay in the stage schedule, which otherwise ran very smoothly all weekend. They started strong with “Grinning In Your Face” and “Blind Man in The Dark” before a taste of reggae with “Unring The Bell.” They plowed through the set in workmanlike fashion until they reached the dark and atmospheric “No Quarter,” which kicked off the night of many covers. “One,” “Wild Horses,” and “Creep” would come later before closing the set with a pummeling version of “Mule.”

For the encore, Haynes came out singing “Comfortably Numb” and it seemed as though the covers would continue, but it proved to be another one of his fake-outs as the band launched into “Soulshine.”  Today’s Mule seems to revel in the ballads as much as anything these days and though it’s as standard as a glow-stick war at a hippie festival, “Soulshine” served the crowd a healthy dose of optimism and a fitting way to end the first full day.{mospagebreak}

Do You Know What It Means?

Saturday started with a bang just six hours later. The second day had a decidedly southern flavor to it, with New Orleans’ Eric Lindell kicking things off with his soul-blues stew and Outformation ripping through their zambified southern rock set. The day would also see sets from Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Soul Stew Revival, Scrapomatic and of course, headliner Widespread Panic.

allgood08_10.jpg Lindell started at 11:30 and coaxed the crowds out of their tents and onto the concert field with a feel-good set that started with a lazy but funky take on “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” tailor-made for the Wake ‘n Bake crowd. Backed only by drums and bass, he ripped through selections from his two CDs, closing with the funkified “Save Our City” that included lyrical nods to “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” It was just a 45-minute set, but there’s nothing like some Crescent City soul to let you know the party is on.

A group of devoted fans greeted Outformation with a giant Outformation flag, held up high a few rows from the stage. The Atlanta quintet put in an impressive set that showcased their improvisatory skills and some of their trademark tunes, including spirited versions of “90,” “Titles of Movies” and “Carnac” that had guitarist Sam Holt reaching for the stratosphere with extended solos. They closed with the rowdy Charlie Daniels cover “Sweet Louisiana.” 

Even on the main stage, many of the bands during the daytime were limited to sets of an hour or shorter, but these truncated sets seemed to be a positive influence rather than a hindrance. Having such a limited time seems to require that a band cut the fat and put their best foot forward. Tea Leaf Green certainly did that with their hour-long set. Lead singer Trevor Garrod took the stage with camera in hand, snapping photos of the crowd before launching into “Slept Through Saturday” and “Sex In the ‘70s.” Their fluid set snaked from song to song, featuring “Red Ribbons” and “Keepin The Faith” from their forthcoming CD, Raise The Tent and included a cover of the Doors’ “Five To One” with guitarist Josh Clark on vocals whipping the crowd into a frenzy with the “get together one more time” lyric.

allgood08_9.jpg Phish bassist Mike Gordon also has a new album coming out soon, The Green Sparrow, and has recently embarked on a tour with a new band. His set at All Good was one of the first shows with this new group, which consists of  Scott Murawski  (Max Creek) on guitar, Tom Cleary on keyboards, Todd Isler on drums and Craig Myers on percussion. As it’s a new band with a new repertoire, he debuted a few tunes from Sparrow. The band started with “Further Down” and “Crumblin’ Bones,” the former a typically goofy but infectious Gordo tune, the latter also a whimsical groove sung by Cleary.

For the third tune, the first performance of “Radar Blip” from Sparrow, Gordon introduced an audience participation game. He told a long story about the song and taking different paths than you normally take, then provided the instruction. The experiment, as he called it, was to let the “audience play the band.” To do that, he instructed, the audience would raise their left hand when they wanted the keyboardist to lead the jam, their right hand when they wanted Gordon to lead the band, both hands for the keyboardist, both hands pumping for the drummer and both hands waving for the percussionist. After a short practice session with the crowd, Gordon encouraged everyone to use the “group mind” to make it a success and told them he would cue them when it was time. The time came, Mike signaled the crowd, and the band went into a jam.

It was mayhem at first, everyone just raising their hands and fist-pumping with no collective tendencies. Mike would scan the crowd to try to find a pattern, and would nod at the person he thought the crowd was indicating. After a while, the crowd did start working together, a little bit. It was goofy and silly and fun and funky—just what you would expect from Mike Gordon. They then went back into the song proper. The set also included Phish’s “Meat” and a spot-on set-closing version of the Beatles’ “She Said” causing at least one performer to wonder if they were blasting Beatles albums backstage or what?

Give Up To Me Your Energy

allgood08_7.jpg After more than a decade as a one-man band, Keller Williams is now making his best music with a band that actually consists of other musicians. Now billed as Keller Williams with Mosely, Droll, Sipe (as opposed to the WMD’s moniker they used last year) this group offers deeply funky grooves, wild improvisation and the perfect complement to Keller’s tunes and approach.  It’s finally a fully-formed Keller experience. Guitarist Gibb Droll contributes wizardly lead guitar backed by soulful rhythms laid down by Keith Moseley and human octopus Jeff “Apt. Q-258” Sipe.  Keller fills in all the gaps with his frenzied playing and vocal acrobatics, corralling the energy emanating from this extremely talented band. “Give up to me your energy, I want to subscribe to your vibe” sang Keller, and the crowd willingly and blissfully complied.

Their take on “Dancin’ In The Streets” was propelled by Moseley’s simple but bouncy disco groove that made the “Disco Dead” version seem tame, though Droll’s breakdown owed heavily to the Dead’s interpretation. Their set was fun, mesmerizing and jaw-dropping. This particular group is already fantastic and if these guys decide to stick together, they could scale some even more amazing heights.

Widespread Panic anchored the All Good Festival for the first time this year, and naturally held down the prime Saturday night headlining spot. By the time their set time came around, the concert field, and hill, had reached the fullest point of the weekend. All the way up the mountainside, festivarians were camped out with blankets and lawn chairs, sometimes supporting themselves on the steep slopes with walking sticks.  Panic revels in these situations, and seems to be the go-to headliner for festivals all over the country. They’ve already played the main stages at Jazz Fest, Bonnaroo and Rothbury this year, and have scheduled spots on the bill for Jazz Aspen and Outside Lands.

allgood08_6.jpg The crowd was primed and the band started their set with the yowl of Sunny Ortiz’ didgeridoo as if it was an incantation before launching into “Papa Legba.” They worked through a pair of high energy but otherwise unremarkably played tunes (“Space Wrangler” and “Blackout”) that gave the crowd what they wanted—danceable grooves and affirmative sing-along lyrics—before bringing out some guests. Longtime friends and frequent collaborators Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, who had performed earlier in the day with their Soul Stew Revival, joined the band for what were some of the first guest appearances of the weekend, returning the favor of hosting Panic’s Jimmy Herring in their set earlier in the day.

If anybody has made a habit of inviting friends to the stage, it’s the always-hospitable hosts of Widespread Panic. Trucks has joined the band many times on many tunes, notably versions of “Mercy,” “Stop-Go” and a multitude of others. Tedeschi, too has sat in with the band, most famously on a rendition of “Little Wing.”  But Widespread Panic chose to highlight one of their newer tunes, the throwback soul of “Angels on High.” The sweeping scope of the tune seemed tailor made for Tedeschi’s vocal style, but this take was a bit of a trainwreck.  She didn’t seem to know any of the words, and no one in the band seemed to have considered how to accommodate their guests. 

allgood08_8.jpgSome technical difficulties apparently got in the way too. “Ribs & Whiskey” followed, and Trucks remained on stage while Tedeschi left.  The technical problems remained, but seemed to get worked out eventually, with John Bell, Jimmy Herring and Trucks engaged in a furious guitar trio jam that found Trucks leaning into the already-slide heavy tune and playing off of Bell’s slide licks.  Bell would later thank Trucks for playing the “notes between the notes.”

The band then went back into dance mode with “Greta” and “Solid Rock” before they really hit their stride with a segment of old school tunes. The sequence of “I’m Not Alone”> “Impossible”> “Drums” > “Maggot Brain”> “Chilly Water” was blistering, barbaric Panic that could have come from 15 years prior.

At Bonnaroo, there was a small sign to the left of Dave Schools, off to the side of the stage that simply said “More Sabbath.” Perhaps it was an urging from crew members, but by All Good the band seemed to have noticed it. The leadup into “Maggot Brain” included many subtle hints and teases at the song “Black Sabbath” and later Schools and Herring played briefly with the “War Pigs” riff.  With the wily atmosphere and the sometimes claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in a mountain, the Sabbath teases provided what was the seemingly and long overdue hint at the ominous and dark atmosphere that shadowed the festival.

But it didn’t last long.  “Pilgrims” was nice and easy. Then, it was back to the good times dance party Widespread Panic, the “Widespread” part of the equation, full of hugging and dancing and glowstick throwing with “Ride Me High” and “Climb To Safety.”  They ended with “Henry Parsons Died.”  In proper fashion, they closed with a solid encore of the heartrending “Don’t Be Denied” followed by the semi-rocking “Goin’ Out West” but the meat of the set was long since past. The nearly always reliable Widespread Panic did what they are expected to do.

The next day, the leaving day, featured a much brighter tone—Railroad Earth’s happy go lucky whimsications, Michael Franti’s positive vibrations.  The All Good Music Festival, 12th Edition, was over. The mayhem subsided. With a great setting and a great lineup, one can only hope that a slight bit more preparation would benefit this festival greatly, truly making it all good.

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