Simplicity, Style & Grace : All Good Fest celebrates 15 years

p1010599_2_.jpgCelebrating a fifteenth anniversary in any field is an achievement, but in the musical, and moreover festival, industry it is an even more impressive feat.  But for All Good Music Festival, it has not just been about sustenance. It has been about sustained growth through an inspired model of simplicity wherein all musical acts play in seamless order on side by side stages, ensuring its attendees the easy opportunity to see every performer on the bill. Though it means fewer bands, the festival goers who have made this a perennially growing affair seem to appreciate the surety of seeing their favorite band without the hassle of running from stage to stage across vast grounds.
Over the course of its tenure and while following a straight line of growth that many fortune 500 companies would envy, All Good has watched worthy competitors including 10klf, Rothbury, Langerado, Mile High and numerous others unfortunately fall by the wayside. This year’s crowd was a testament to the love this event has garnered over its lifespan, and was easily the largest crowd ever seen at an All Good Festival.

 

 

The small mining city that plays host to the event, Masontown, WV, (population 700) becomes neighbors to an overnight Oz, a lush emerald city of trees and scenic vistas with the sole purpose of rocking all day and night.  If you think about, it would be like going to sleep one night and waking up to find that someone built a small metropolitan city consisting of nothing but freaks and hippies next door. But with all of this said, Lydia Main, mayor of Masontown and prominent business owner in the small community, could not be any happier about the budding relationship between the festival and her city. On Friday, Main took the stage not only to introduce Warren Haynes Band but to thank all who came to her city… and could not have been more joyous in her delivery.

 

Thursday

The long snaking country roads into the festival were filled with RV’s, buses and cars filled with patrons who were excited to get in and catch acts like Furthur and Primus as well as the host of other bands that made up the 2011 edition of the party.

p1019994_2_copy.jpgAs the grounds filled up quickly, the people spilled out of their vehicles and hastily erected a sprawling tent megalopolis, turning the rolling mountainside into a third world worthy view of multi-colored canvas and nylon shanties and easy ups of every shape and size. Shortly thereafter, the initial trek began – past the vendors and Ferris wheel, chairs and blankets in tow – to snag good spots on the mountainside for the fun to come from this year’s cavalcade of stars.

San Francisco’s bluegrass/rock hybrid Hot Buttered Rum started the weekend off right with their feel good songs that washed over the crowd like a refreshing wave of welcoming positive energy. The side stage was owned by DJ Who, taking time off covering first base to drop the bass, bringing a percussionist and dancers to enliven the night, during the intermission between each of the opening night’s main stage acts.

Up next was another band that straddles genres, Beats Antique. Blending a rich, gypsy flavored world music sound with the stunning visuals of front woman Zoe Jakes’ hypnotic dancing and fiery drumming, Beats brought the total show package and provided testament as to why they are finding their name on bills that range from Wakarusa to Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits.

Having taken some time off awhile back to reshape his band and write some new tunes, the John Butler Trio roared into the festival as many fans’ surprise set of the evening.  Though it is not safe to refer to this ensemble as a “sleeper” due to the gigantic fan base that the Trio claims worldwide, it did seem that many in the largely jam-oriented crowd were taken aback by the set. Taking his sound in a decidely more spacious direction, Butler amazed the crowd with his guitar pyrotechnics and dense jams. Highlighted by a 12 minute solo-instrumental that followed “Jenny” and a 20 minute extended percussive jam infused offering  of “Funky Tonight,” Butler and his trio also demonstrated just the type of seasoned performers that they are by playing into the audience’s collective hand and thereby making the collective audience putty in theirs.

 

Friday

hotcha_1.jpgThe sun coming up over the mountains worked better than any alarm clock ever could, and the smiling faces milling about the vendors for coffee and breakfast knew that they were scant hours away from a full day of rocking. Early morning yoga sessions helped some work out the kinks and many took advantage of the natural beauty to take some time for sightseeing hikes. It all turned serious when the first bands of the day, The Recipe and Dangermuffin took the third stage. Set half a mile behind the main stages, the Grassroots stage was host to bands early in the day before the main area got going, and also featured workshops and special acoustic performances from bands like moe. and Greensky Bluegrass, in addition to their main stage duties.

Upstate New York’s Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad started the day off with a mélange of influences – from reggae to punk – that was a wakeup call to the slow risers out in their tents to get up and get going.

The Infamous Stringdusters followed on the main stage; gathering in traditional bluegrass manner, blending their voices and instruments physically and inciting a bit of a hoedown out in the crowd.

that_one_guy_1.jpgIn one of the more dramatic musical shifts of the entire weekend, the recognized master of his instrument (mainly due to his being the designer of it and possessor of the only one in existence), That One Guy brought out his Magic Pipe, and formed sonic structures unheard of anywhere else. With silly songs about Mars and a wink and a smile, That One Guy brought an unmatched energy to the All Good masses.

There was only one act who would cause a disruption in All Good’s seamless sets claim to fame, Furthur. Let’s face it, when you are forefathers of the primary genre represented, you get a pass, and the wait also served as further catalyst for the anxious anticipation of the set that many had at the top of their list.

When Furthur finally did take the stage, it was to an uproarious welcome. One of the few drawbacks to continuous consecutive acts is the lack of quality sound check time, and for acknowledged masters of their instruments, a moment of fine tuning was to be expected. Welcoming others to a “live sound check,” veteran of a thousand psychic wars, Bob Weir, assumed the leadership role in what is likely to be the final incarnation of that most seminal of improvisational acts, The Grateful Dead.

This newest incarnation, Furthur, have added a handful of new songs (with lyricist Robert Hunter) that contribute to one of the most venerated song catalogs in history. Yet, as has always been the case since that fateful day, there is something missing from the sound. In previous attempts at continuing on, Phil Lesh and Weir, in some cases joined by the percussive duo of Mickey Hart *Rhythm Devils) and Bill Kreutzmann (7 Walkers) seemed to run from the sound they lost, bringing in guitarists like Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring and Steve Kimock to fill the shoes left sitting alone on the rug, stage left.

In this latest ensemble, they have stated that they are taking things “furthur” but have actually done more embracing of the original sound by bringing in arguably the finest choice to continue the sound of the late Garcia, with (former DSO “Jerry”) John Kadlecik whose mimicry and comfort within the works and sound of Jerry is spot on and somewhat eerie… though on this night, Kadlecik seemed to hold back, seeming to look to Weir for pre-approval for everything that he was even thinking about doing.

furthur_1.jpgThe renditions were singular and with the most widely known and distinct players to grace the All Good 2011 stages, the sound was true enough, the echoes were strong enough and the music that has given chills to generations of music fans caused near similar moments of chills… but with a sad and somehow forlorn feel.

The crowd was a mixture of ages with youngsters catching their first taste of the sound and people who had spent a large part of their lives engaged in this ritual for decades.  This build up, this massive momentum behind them should certainly assure certain gravity to any moment these two men play these songs together. But even that can fall short somehow, possibly under the weight of expectations.

Festivals are a conglomeration of acts, and not all are there for all bands, as the crowd in an auditorium filled with fans specifically there to see one act is.

The songs played were well loved, minus perhaps an oft dismissed jingle “Corrina,” but somehow the chemistry seemed lost before you got halfway up the hill.

The first set closing guest turn that featured an ambling outro jam to “Viola Lee Blues” morphed into a joyous organ and guitar trade off as guest Warren Haynes steered a sky high plateau of a jam for “Turn On Your Love Light” that brought southern soul to the mix. The huge organ riffs that mixed with the aforementioned incendiary guitar licks provided a wild close to the first set.

p1010987_copy.jpgThe crowd then had its first calm moment, a purposeful break in the schedule where bathroom runs and quiet moments were hampered by the sheer volume of people in the concert area.

The second set opened with one of their most widely known tunes, “Truckin'” and the crowd quickly found their feet. The dedicated mainly packed the front, but the new straining eyes next to the smiling squeezed shut ones faded as you got further from the stage and the aforementioned slowly fell to distracted and anxious partiers…  upon whom the more cerebral and extended jams were lost.

There were moments of peaks, especially a rallying point of a Beatles cover, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” that roused the hill from its disaffected slumber in spite of Weir’s subpar lyrical offering of “Standing On The Moon” (that has been rearranged with incomprehensibly bad timing changes), but their near a cappella “And We Bid You Goodnight” seemed almost a lullaby that was followed immediately by explosions in the sky and tactical nuclear warfare in the form of a bombastic set by the aptly named Big Gigantic.

Scheduling flaw? Maybe, but the transformation in the crowd was an awesome but strange thing to see, showing the distinct differences in the audience. What was a group of tranquil relaxing folks suddenly became a bouncing day-glow army of an infinite armament of light up toys and flashing lights. The Colorado duo of Dominic Lalli on Sax and digital instrumentation and live beats provided by drummer Jeremy Salken defied their laid back mountain roots in an explosion of thrashing drums, hard driven saxophone and a crowd moving spark. It truly was a sight to behold. There were arms up as far as the eye could see, all flailing to the beats of Big Gigantic that lived up to their name and provided a razor’s edge lead in for the big late night close, Umphrey’s McGee.

Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee have proven themselves mainstays on the mainstage over recent years with dense, dynamic songwriting that is their hallmark that never fails to set smiles in stone across a sea of faces.  While at times polarizing, on this night it was impossible to catch even a glimpse of an unhappy face.

 

Saturday

Fresh but not crisp, the crowd returned come daylight for a new days worth of exploration, with the one man heroics of the always smiling Zach Deputy and the roots and zydeco styling of Donna the Buffalo.

marco_benevento_1.jpgMarco Benevento brought his showy organ and keyboard skill to his set with his Trio, alternately playing to the crowd’s hearts with his music and their sense of fun with a large bag of goodies that he tossed to the crowd.  Florida’s native son and standard bearer and native son J.J.Grey and Mofro hit their mark perfectly, singing songs of personal truth and blues in the afternoon sunshine to a warm and receptive crowd.  The singularity and true musical voice of these bands did more than inspire however, their purity of purpose served as a harsh light for the afternoon’s only true misfire, Rebelution.

After seeing masters of their craft do what they do, the simplicity of the band Rebelution was far too apparent.  Playing vapid songs and pandering to the crowd, the band’s only saving grace was the intermittent bursts of saxophone goodness provided by Khris Royal  (Runnin’ Pardners, Dark Matter) whose very presence lent the band some credibility. But, the remaining actual members quickly squandered the credibility gift from Royal with bland songs and generic sound that came complete with overdone effect-laden vocals that mistook the massive gathering that All Good ensures for people who would gobble up whatever sound they were thrown… wrong.

p1010408_copy.jpgAs almost an answer to Rebelution’s  tweeny set of faux reggae, The Rex Jam, a benefit set for The Rex Foundation gave Matt Butler his second opportunity of the weekend to gather an Everyone Orchestra and raise a bit of cash for an area high school’s music program. Leading members of moe., Greensky Bluegrass, Benevento, Zach Deputy and more followed Butler’s every urging, even working in shout out to the charity itself, with Jennifer Hartswick’s repeated cooing of the “Rex Jam” title. This cool burst of originality and musicianship got the crowd going and there are few bands better suited to building a crowd’s nascent energy than the Yonder Mountain String Band.

It’s near impossible to talk of a live Yonder show without focusing on rubber faced front man Jeff Austin’s blend of mandolin supremacy and bubbling personality. All four players are truly a unit, firing up-tempo, jamming bluegrass numbers that ignited the crowd off the stage like rockets from a bottle. This day, playing in front of a glorious setting sun directly behind them was a rare occasion of a perfect fit of sound and setting with Yonder taking the baton being passed from band to band and stage to stage and covering quite a bit of distance.

Orgone, a funk collective from Los Angeles, recently switched front women – adding Niki J Crawford to replace Fanny Franklin. There was much interest in whether the band could continue to build on their massive upswing following Franklin’s departure.  Proving the doubters wrong, they in fact seemed even more soulful and groovy, and the crowd bumped and swayed in joyful response.

rob_and_al.jpgFollowing their third stage acoustic treat, jam band statesmen moe. took the main stage and made it their own. Armed with a  setlist that spanned their entire career and was sure to please diehards and neophytes alike. From the opening strains of “Buster” to the freshly minted “Billy Goat” and a “Don’t Fuck with Flo” that seriously caused concern that bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak was somehow damaging internal organs with his massive delivery of the chorus, the set proved why moe. has been able to hang for as long as they have.

After a guitar duel between Al Schnier’s providing of a heavenly counterpoint to ChuckGarvey’s satanic majesty, a sky high crowd turned to their right to catch Papadosio setting the night alight with their jamtronica sound.  Helping build the vibe on the hill to a fever pitch, it was time for the second headliner to do what they do, what only Jay Lane, Larry “Ler” LaLonde and Les Claypool can do…deliver an epic Primus show.

Primus has followed their own path, a mixture of oddity and awesome that has endured for twenty plus years.  Bassist and front man Claypool may have slowed down a step or two physically from those earliest of days, but his mind seems to have sped up.  Drummer Jay Lane, who left the previous day’s headliner, Furthur, to return to Primus for this tour and to the studio (for the forthcoming Green Naugahyde) while LaLonde made his first visit to Marvin’s Mountaintop, an opportunity of which he made the most.

p1019931.jpgWhile urging Ler to take it all in, the far off fire dancers filled the sky with billowing blasts of flame, a physical manifestation of the metaphorical heat the band brought to the night. Teasing the new album with a new track or two interspersed with genuine classics.  “American Life,” “Tommy The Cat” and “Jerry was a Race Car Driver” resounded not just throughout the mountains but in the hearts of the fans, and the set closer, “Harold On The Rocks” gave Les another chance to warn the crowd to party, but to be sure and keep one eye on the limits of sanity.  Good advice.

In the afterglow, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played a bridging set, leaning heavily on up-tempo danceable numbers.  His short set didn’t really give him a chance to lead his band through their usual funky paces so he decided instead to provide a proper bridge to the evening’s close, Pretty Lights.

DJs have long employed light shows and distractions to spruce up their sets, and no one does it better than Pretty lights.  Atop a stage set of stylized lit up rooftops rivaling the finest Broadway production, Pretty Lights was a mixture of that and a mélange of beats and scratches… one man against an entire crowd of trance-driven dancing lunatics.  It was a battle he had fought before, and as in previous winning efforts, a sea of pumping arms and rage made his streak remain unabated.

 

Sunday

greensky_bluegrass_1.jpgA shell shocked and slow moving crowd rose on the final day, wandering the fest and in some cases making early exits.  The All Mighty Senators started out the day with a slightly generic, but simple, enjoyable opening to the day for all the early risers.  By 1 pm the crowd had thickened out to hear Michigan natives Greensky Bluegrass bring the authentic Bluegrass perfection that they are known for.  Lead vocalist and mandolinist Paul Hoffman has a million dollar voice, passionate and imploring, perfectly suited for a band with the strongest story telling songs of any working today.  The bands true strength is their song craft, and their newest work is their finest to date.  Songs “Jaywalking” and “All Four” easily stood up to their renditions of standards like “White Freightliner Blues” and showcased the bands solidity as a unit.

With a round of authentic reggae, Toots and The Maytals brought the spirit of the islands to the mountains of West Virginia, thumping and pumping the crowd into a pleased submission.

Closing out the day in an early fashion, Dark Star Orchestra showed that there is room for more than one band on a bill playing the same music, though it did seem odd to close the weekend with idolaters to a throne that even the kings can’t seem to truly rule from any longer. In another twist, the set from DSO was much more fluid and danceable than was the one from their big-league source of inspiration.

Upon the closing of DSO’s ripping rendition of “Tangled Up in Blue,” the event came to a close and festival patrons made the always tough walk back to their tents and towards reentering the world of reality.  But  they did so with a solid wind at their back, courtesy of All Good.

While the festival has some decisions to make about crowd size, logistics and sonic flow, its core concept remained strong and the gradually building vibe from set to set was still a wonder to behold and a joy of which to be a part. If looking at the past is the most certain way to predict the future, it is safe to say that the few concerns that All Good faces will be addressed with all of the professionalism that has caused the event to be the resounding year in and year out event that it has grown to be.

 


Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from The Fest By Rex Thomson & David Shehi

 

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