The good with the bad at Loki

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Something can be said for spending a fall weekend of music in the mountains of North Carolina. You first conjure up images of multi-colored leaves fluttering to the ground, cool mornings, and morning dew. You envision being surrounded by fall hues, good vibes, and great music. With the 2008 Loki Music Festival came all the imagery of a fall southern festival along with the aural bliss of a musical extravaganza. 

With a lineup that included performances by George Clinton, Robert Walter, Jeff Sipe, PBS, Papa Mali, The Roots, Tim Reynolds, and other top shelf artists; and with a lofty ticket price, the promise of a mystery headliner led the average ticket holder to believe someone REALLY big was going to be playing. This simply did not happen. At Loki we enjoyed a weekend of solid performances but nothing like what we expected…at a high-ticket price. Loki, for the money was a good festival, just not great.

No matter how many festivals I attend at Deerfields’s, a private camping and music facility tucked away in the mountains near Asheville, NC, my spirit is always lifted as our vehicle pulls into the site. There’s something indescribably magical about the venue that leaves a person feeling refreshed and rejuvenated after a weekend of high caliber music, sleepless nights and spirited kinship. For the most part Loki was a pleasant experience. The music was excellent and the vibe was… well low key. It did however have it’s shortcomings such as disorganization and a schedule that may has well not existed. 

Attendance was around 2,000 people, possibly peaking at 2,500 patrons, at a venue that comfortably holds 4,000. On this weekend car camping was not allowed, resulting in everyone having to shuttle fall/winter camping gear by bus and box van to the festival site. Some patrons complained that they would have gladly purchased the usual car camping pass so they could bring more warm clothing and other warming comforts from home. Patrons who had arrived prior to gates opening on Friday were frustrated that music was being missed due to lengthy wait times for the shuttle. With a fall festival set in the mountains, prone to inclement weather, one would have to question the decision to not sell car camping passes… or to at least to not make them available late in the game.

Weeks before the event, Cake was added to the lineup of solid but not necessarily headline performers, leaving us all too assume Cake was our Mystery Headliner, creating excitement for the festival and a stir in the live music community. Only days before the festival, Cake was dropped from the lineup, disappointing many who had purchased tickets after the announcement. Leading up to the event and during the weekend of music there was a sense that we had been duped by the shenanigans of the Mystery Headliner.

One would have to question the risk to be taken by choosing to make a game of the ever so important festival headliner. To schedule an outdoor event in the mountains, but not allow a revenue maker such as car camping, seems like risky business. In many ways Loki was an attempt to step outside the box, to organize a festival that doesn’t mimic others, and for that organizers have to be applauded. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out as planned.

Friday

loki08-2.jpg As with most first year festivals, there was an obvious lack of organization when it came to checking in.  The volunteers (the few they had) were checking in to an over-staffed empty line while patrons, guests, and press spent nearly an hour waiting in their own line before taking their places in a third line to shuttle gear to the site. With the gates opening at 10:00 am and music starting at 10:45 am, the parking area was riddled with frustrated patrons and guests.

Fortunately, the magic of Deerfields trumps a little inconvenience. As we walked the grounds looking for friends and the perfect piece of real estate, I was impressed with the decorations and upgrades to the site by Loki staff and volunteers. Large canvas banners with beautiful fall-colored imagery, hung on each side of the stages; at the pond stage the sound board was moved to the top of the hill with a covered deck for the technicians. A backstage area was built directly behind the stage offering performers and guests an overlook of one of the two Deerfields ponds.

Moving along to the Main Stage the soundboard was located only forty feet from the stage, clearly an attempt to keep the festival intimate and low key. A tall pole was erected behind the soundboard with canvas decorations radiating out to form an airy circus tent. At night this was lit by monstrous black lights, transforming the daytime Loki into a dance party at night. Deerfields looked wonderful.

Another upgrade organizers should be commended on is the VIP lounge behind the Main Stage. Stairs were built for the festival running from the back stage area to a tent on the opposite side of a creek. The lounge housed plenty of comfortable couches and the usual hospitality accoutrements served up in gourmet fashion. Hospitality at Loki was about as good as it gets anywhere.

As we walked the venue, the sounds of Robert Walter Trio beckoned those who had already set up their camps. The organist has a reputation as one of America’s heaviest jazz-funk crossovers, and on this day, with Johnny Vidacovich (drums) and James Singleton (bass,) Loki was the perfect place to showcase music from their latest release, Cure All. As the main amphitheatre began filling with dancing bodies, Karl Denson took the stage to finish the set with the trio. Beginning a weekend filled with all star appearances and sit-ins, Denson’s tenor sax echoed through the valley as attendees began asking each other, "Is Karl D our Mystery Headliner?"

loki08-4.jpgFriday’s lineup found festivalgoers raving about an early set by Col. Bruce & The Quark Alliance. The main stage crowd was pumped up after Bonarama‘s horn driven set capped off by a wicked version of Black Sabbath’s "War Pigs."

Lacking any pomp or circumstance, Karl Denson appeared on stage with relative unknowns as the Mystery Headliners, causing all press to scamper for names of the other musicians…to no avail It was a tight set and thoroughly enjoyable but not what many considered appropriate as a big surprise. Karl Denson with three unknown hired guns that performed a lack luster set… They were good but certainly not what the Mystery Headliner was built up to be.

Friday continued into the evening with a light rain falling. The rain was only a minor inconvenience with strong performances by The Roots, Acoustic Syndicate and a smoking hot set by ProJECT PERCoLAToR on the pond stage.

ProJECT PERCoLAToR is the latest from Jim Weider, the guitar player who replaced Robbie Robertson when The Band reformed in 1985. They featured the always-impressive Rodney Holmes on drums, causing young Loki attendees to ask, "Who is that guy? He’s an octopus!" A roar of approval came when the first notes came from Weider’s guitar for a reggae-style version of The Weight, later leading to a face melting ten-minute drum solo from Holmes.

loki08-7.jpgBig Ole Nasty Getdown (BONG) featuring George Clinton, Ralph Rodenberry and an entourage of all-stars from Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Dumpstaphunk, Derek Trucks Band, Sci-Fi, The Lee Boys, Galactic, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and others should have been one of the highlights of the weekend. It simply wasn’t. The talent was thick on stage but, as with many all-star jams, there was no continuity to the show. The music was sloppy at times but the crowd showed respect for the legend and an appreciation for the star-studded lineup’s 90-minute set.

As the rain continued to fall, Loki Friday night continued to burn. Discussions Saturday morning would eventually come around to New York City’s Lettuce. Lettuce is Eric Krasno (guitar), Erick Coomes (bass), Adam Deitch (drums), Adam Smirnoff (guitar) Neal Evans (keyboards), Ryan Zoidis (Sax), Sam Kininger (Sax), Rashwn Ross (trumpet), and Nigel Hall (vocals). Their brand of funky jazz moved the Loki crowd into forgetting that the rain was now coming down harder.  Many retreated to their tents, listening intently to every note. Each member of Lettuce, a cast of all-stars originating from the classrooms of Berklee School of Music, bring influences to the overall sound of Lettuce. With Lettuce on stage the Mills River Valley was permeated with thick hooks and powerful grooves, diving head first into old school and coming out with the new. Lettuce is a band most music lover’s can experience and feel they just didn’t get enough.{mospagebreak}

Saturday

After a Friday of rain, we awoke Saturday with a chill in the air but a bright sun warming our souls. Morning coffee conversation was engulfed with praise for Lettuce and the disappointment with the Mystery Headliner and BONG but soon turned to the incredible lineup for the day with most anticipation being for Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, PBS, and the Saturday headliner’s Toubab Krewe. A Singer/Songwriters Circle took place at the main stage on Saturday morning, pulling campers from their tents who were ready to continue the weekend of great music and good vibes.

loki08-5.jpgSaturday "church" was held at the pond stage with Florida’s The Lee Boys and their noon set. Their gospel fused jams along with the unmistakable sound of the pedal steel guitar, leaves fluttering from the heavens, and rays of light piercing through the trees made for one of the most inspiring sets of the weekend. Even though sound problems plagued their set, that didn’t seem to phase The Lee’s or the Loki crowd a bit. Dancing was abundant. Hands were held to the sky in bliss as the crowd gathered to see what all the hollering was about. Whereas there were only a dozen people at the beginning of The Lee Boys’ set, by the end, they had the full attention of a large congregation at the pond stage.

After the Lee’s Saturday gospel lifted our spirits to a higher place, Tim Reynolds Trio (TR3) took the main stage for another smoking hot Loki performance. The TR3 performance helped the crowd shake any remaining cobwebs from the festivities of the previous night. Their brand of psychedelic rock and Reynolds’s guitar virtuosity mixed covers with TR3 originals and had the early afternoon crowd in amazement. Early in their set, a Yoda doll, and later a stuffed gorilla, were placed in front of Reynolds by a photographer, inspiring the guitarist to don a set of pink antennae’s which only added to the spaciness of his solos during "Wild Country," "Industrial Complex," and later during the Led Zeppelin standard "Whole Lotta Love."

loki08-8.jpgFeeling the need for some foot stomping, I made my way back to the pond stage for a taste of Hackensaw Boys. I had never seen them before but heard great things from a young man who insisted I sit down with him, perched up against a log, to partake in the show together. He explained that Hackensaw Boys were one of the reasons he was at Loki and raved about their brand of alternative bluegrass. I was not disappointed in the young man’s recommendation or his ability to describe what the Hackensaw Boys bring to a stage. Utilizing instruments from the 30’s such as acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and tin cans, Hackensaw Boys bring a sound that’s interlaced with the old and the new and fit nicely into the vibe of Loki. The foot stomping of Four (fiddle) is simply infectious and their three and four part harmonies bring a chill and a warmth at the same time. This was one of my favorite sets from the weekend.

Heading back to the main stage, PBS had already taken the stage with a large crowd before them. George Porter, Jr (bass)., Russell Batiste, Jr. (drums), and Brian Stoltz are the real deal when it comes to New Orleans funk. On this day there was an energy between the three that was obvious from up front and equally obvious from the back. The eyes of Porter, Jr. and Stoltz locked into each other, their fingers doing the same. Their presence gave the impression that PBS was there to steal the show.

loki08-9.jpgI’ve seen PBS in the past, always walking away in awe of the legends but on this day there was a little something extra from them. They played with a fervor of much younger musicians and it had me in awe. Mixing old and new, covers and originals, such as "All We Wanna Do," "Ouw," and a funkified cover of Bob Dylans’ "Like A Rolling Stone," the trio brought it thick and nasty from the get go. Midway through the set Porter, Jr. broke a bass string. After a stagehand indicated that he didn’t know how to change the string, Porter, Jr. retreated to the sidestage area. A few moments later he returned to the stage with his infectious smile and newly strung bass guitar. It was interesting to see a legend not only willing but fully capable of changing his strings midway through a performance.

Saturday continued with strong sets and appreciative crowds. There was no weakness in the lineup on Saturday. Josh Phillips sitting in with Strut was a treat and a heck of a good time. Phillip’s seems able to take the stage with anyone and leave people begging for more. Peruvian Pedicurists featuring Col. Bruce Hampton, Papa Mali, Ralph Rodenberry, members of Toubab Krewe, and others, played a solid set but left me yearning for more of what Col. Bruce had cooked up the day before on the pond stage.

loki08-12.jpgI heard good things about Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and was excited about catching them at Loki. Perhaps it was the fact that the bar was getting set higher and higher with each performance, or perhaps I was beginning to tire or had other expectations, but Antibalas did very little for me. They use afro-beat as a foundation, woven with latin, jazz, classical, funk and soul. This is usually a combination that grabs me and won’t let me go but on this night I was not impressed. It was good but not great, and possibly more suited to the clubs of New York than to festivals in the mountains.

The Antibalas set kicked off the costume ball which may have lead to my own distraction from the Antibalas performance. There was a girl dressed in a beautiful peacock costume, a baby dressed as Curious George (her father as Man In The Yellow Hat), a plethora of pimps and ‘hoes, aliens, freaks of all types, and a very unique Mr. Peanut costume… exact in all detail from the paper mache’ peanut to the top hat, monocle, and cane. Somehow he was able to nimbly maneuver his bulky costume as he staggered and danced throughout Deerfields all night long.

As Antibalas finished their set on the main stage, a flock of people began congregating in front of the pond stage for Suenalo, an eight-piece latin/funk/afro-beat/jazz/hip hop ensemble from Miami, FL. Suenalo had what I felt Antibalas was missing… the undivided attention of everyone at the stage. From the first notes, the hill was packed with dancing bodies. I had one young lady dance her way towards me to say, "It’s infectious. I can’t stop (dancing) if I tried." Suenalo’s Cuban flavor, catchy hooks, steel drums, infectious grooves, and rapping of MC Amin De Jesus brought a multi-cultured flair to Loki that had everyone dancing, hopping, and screaming for more. Props to the Loki organizers for placing Suenalo in front of Saturday night headliner, Toubab Krewe… they were the perfect warm up for the dance party/freakfest that was about to ensue.

There was an unmistakable buzz in the air as the sound technicians and production crew tweaked the sound of each Toubab instrument to perfection. With each instrument they sound checked, another roar came from the crowd. Black light shone upon what appeared to be interesting artwork by day, but by night was neon glow fun. Everywhere you looked was black light adding to the party atmosphere of the costume ball.

loki08-1.jpgWhen Toubab Krewe finally walked onto stage, a thunderous roar came from the crowd. Opening with "Summertime," the hometown boys set the tone earlier… that they were going to prove they’re worthiness of a Saturday headline slot. The freakfest was on! While some choose to dance in one place, bobbing their heads or wiggling their bottoms, still others dashed around the amphitheatre throwing their hands in the air or skanking to Toubab’s multi dimensional sounds. Toubab fuses West African and American influences into beats similar to those of 60’s surf music. Toubab Krewe had the Loki crowd at it’s peak in energy and in attendance. Thoughout their set the set, Toubab mixed older tunes such as "Maliba" and "51 Foot Ladder" along with new material like "Area Code." The sound crew has to be commended for capturing the eclectic style of Toubab Krewe perfectly while pushing enough bass into our chests to force an involuntary dance frenzy. The 90-minute set concluded with an excellent version of "Nirvana The Buffalo" and an encore of "Petit Amadeus," a newer percussion piece. There was only one complaint about the set… it needed to be longer.

Physically spent, and with temperatures dropping, I moved on to my campsite for another layer of clothing and to warm my bones. Curled up in my sleeping bag, I was soon pulled out of my tent by the hip-hop and break beats of DJ Equal. Relocated from Asheville, NC to New York City, DJ Equal keeps the bass heavy and mixes old with new. A highlight was his own take on The Ramone’s "I Wanna Be Sedated," forcing all of us willing to brave cold temperatures to sing "Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours ago, oh, oh. I Wanna Be Sedated! DJ Equal was well worth coming out of a warm tent for.

Returning to my tent I began slipping into much needed sleep when Sci-Fi took the stage. From my tent I listened to what was THE best I had ever heard Sci-Fi sound! The Wilmington, NC trio brought a guitar player to Loki leading me to lay awake locked into their psychedelic jazz-fusion with full attention and considerable appreciation. Their intricate melodies make you want to dance but at the same time command you to remain still so you can fully appreciate the complexity of their instrumentals. The late night Loki crowd must have been hearing the same thing I was, as with each break in the music was a roar of approval from beside my tent. This young band continues to build momentum in the Southeast. This set in particular should launch them towards increased late night popularity.{mospagebreak}

Sunday

It’s become a bit of a tradition at Deerfields for Larry Keel and Natural Bridge to close out festivities. For many of us it seemed odd to have Keel and Natural Bridge play on a Sunday morning but at Loki it was the perfect slot. From a deep sleep I arose to Keel beckoning, "Grab your corn liquor and get on down here." Groggy from the dance party of the night before, I quickly dressed and headed to the main stage where another 100 people had also followed Larry’s instructions.

loki08-10.jpgOpting for nourishment instead of libations, I grabbed breakfast, sat down with a hot cup of coffee, and took in what I felt was a beautiful start to the final day of Loki. Keel and Natural Bridge played a beautiful version of fan favorite, "They," along with a Beatles cover, "With A Little Help From My Friends," and other folk and bluegrass tunes such as "Diamond," "Velma," "Stone Walls & Steel Bars," and "Simple Man." LK&NB closed out their thoroughly enjoyable 90-minute set with "Bitten By A Snake." Excellent breakfast set. Thanks Loki!

With the end of the Keel and Natural Bridge set also came the end of Sunday’s lineup being on schedule. The Shane Pruitt Band played over thirty minutes past their allotted time, causing the rest of the music on Sunday to fall behind, with each performance pushing the schedule further and further back. Fortunately Pruitt, now calling Spartanburg, SC home, gave Loki a solid dose of blues guitar virtuosity. At least it was good enough to make us forgive that his long set would later cause more established performers to greatly shorten their sets. His 120-minute marathon set was highlighted by a special guest appearance by Sunday headliner Papa Mali who was clearly the busiest musician at Loki, performing with the Singer/Songwriters Circle, Peruvian Pedicurists, Everyone Orchestra, Shane Pruitt Band, and later with JJ Grey and Mofro prior to his own set.

loki08-11.jpgAs Sunday moved forward there was a buzz of anticipation for Everyone Orchestra featuring Jon Fishman on drums. The buzz was unwarranted as this was not one of the best Everyone Orchestra performances I’ve seen. Matt Butler dashed from one side of the stage to the next, prompting the crowd with cue cards to laugh, jump, and smile but the music coming from the stage did little to motivate the Loki crowd into following Butler’s commands. The music was uninspiring. Members of The Quark Alliance, Toubab Krewe, PBS, Lee Boys, and Barrel House Mamas joined Fishman and Butler on stage for this particular Everyone Orchestra but EO seems better suited for an evening set than an afternoon set. Everyone Orchestra can be a lot of fun in a Saturday night party environment, but on a Sunday afternoon, when a festival lacks the energy of the previous days, one is less interested in audience participation and more interested in settling in to their captain’s chair with a cold beverage.

Later on Suday, Toots and The Maytals picked energy levels up with a solid performance by the Ska and Reggae legends. Their sound is a unique blend of ska, reggae, gospel, rock, and soul. At Loki their sound and performance brought life to the otherwise lethargic Sunday crowd.

Next on the main stage was JJ Grey & Mofro. Grey’s beautiful and complex songs are thought provoking, political and personal. Their tunes are bluesy, funky, soulful and solid. On this night JJ commanded the stage like the seasoned performer he is while Mofro supplied the canvas for Grey to paint his pictures. Late in their set Grey called upon Papa Mali’s guitar work on "Ho Cake" and the keyboard mastery of Marco Benevento to sit in on "Lochloosa" to close the set. Solid JJ Grey set but unfortunately he also ran past his scheduled time.

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Originally scheduled to take the stage at 9:15, Woody Wood & HollyWood Red fell victim to a weekend of music that was rarely on schedule. WW&HR didn’t begin until almost 11:00 pm. How unfortunate because their set of guitar driven rock-n-roll would have brought excitement to an evening of music that was less than memorable. Asked to cut his set short, Wood announced that those of us still in attendance needed to rush back to the main stage for a few minutes of Papa Mali.

loki08-13.jpgAs we arrived at the main stage we were informed that a midnight curfew equated to only a single song from Papa Mali, the evening’s final and most anticipated act. The festival closer, Papa Mali, appeared frustrated as he stood just a few feet off stage. Organizers apologized but explained that they were unaware of the curfew until only a few moments before. Papa Mali took the stage in unceremonious fashion, expressing his own apologies and frustrations… only able to play a single song, "Deliah’s Gone," through amplification.

As the true professional Papa Mali is, he invited everyone to pack closely towards the stage for an acoustic set that included appearances by Jason Flournoy (Keel & Natural Bridge), Jonathan Scales (Toubab Krewe), Eric Bolivar (Bonarama), and Luke Quaranta (Toubab Crewe). The 90-minute set was intimate, but after such a great weekend of music, it was a disappointing ending to an otherwise excellent musical experience.

written by chris@carolinalivemusic.net

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