At last year’s Rothbury Festival, I was just getting ready to call it a night – at about 3:30 am or so – when a nitrous seller rolled up in front of my campsite. Within minutes the ground was littered with balloons, people were sitting on my car and fishing out in the middle of my campsite, and I did what I could to get the douche to move along sooner than later. As a recent article in the Village Voice described, nitrous seems to be a bane of our scene – well, not so much nitrous as the organized criminals known as the nitrous mafia. That article mentioned numerous times the All Good festival and some of the crazy antics of the notorious nitrous sellers. I tried not to have any expectations and only bring an open mind to the festival, but images of getting shanked in the lot by a deranged hillbilly-hippie or a recently-parolled nitrous goon somehow kept popping up in my mind.
Days 1 & 2 – Who’s Grateful?
Day 1 – Throwdown Thursday
My wife and I drove from our home outside Detroit to Ohio on Wednesday night and then woke up the following morning to make the rest of the 6-plus hour in eager anticipation. Watching the car’s thermometer climb past 94 degrees, we arrived in Morgantown, West Virginia early on Thursday afternoon. After the drive through the bucolic rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania and northern WV, we welcomed the chance to stretch our legs before getting back in the car for the several mile drive up to Marvin’s Mountain, the site of the 2010 All Good Festival.
It was just a quick jaunt on the interstate, and then back to side roads before we hit the line of cars crawling ant-like up and down hills and around bends. As we joined the queue of vehicles making the trek, the woods rose up on either side of the occasionally-paved, and mostly severely-potholed road. I could hardly see into the woods, so thick they were with summer vegetation, and lush from all of the recent rains.
I knew that driving in during prime hours on All Good’s “Throwdown Thursday” would entail a bit of a wait in the car, and we passed the time listening to a recent Furthur show from their last tour. As we slowly made our way up the mountain, I started getting impatient, with memories of the 16-hour wait in the car from the inaugural Bonnaroo Festival eight years ago. After four hours in the car we came to a complete stop, hopped out, and chatted up the other festival-goers who got out of their own cars. Forty-five minutes later, the line started back up. Eventually, about five hours after getting into the line of cars, we were finally in the festival.
Arriving at the main gates, we tried to secure a reasonable campsite suitably close for lugging my camera gear – but we were denied and turned around to take our chances with the masses. Finally, after some smooth talking – and a little begging - I was able to get festival security to let us into the Big Meadow campground where we found a great spot amidst the tents and cars of others who’d arrived that morning. The first day of any festival is always a little confusing and potentially trying, but the traffic clusterfuck should have been anticipated and planned for bit better after the promoters sold out of the 4-day passes – particularly when there were relatively empty production and alternative roads that were passable.
As soon as we parked the car, figured out the best arrangement of shade, tent, and car in the space we had, we started setting it all up. A Hare Krishna came by in the middle to give us a Bhagavad Gita, but I was too hot, sweaty and pissy to give him more than a cursory – “sorry, man.” The guy who followed offering headies and molly got the same reception. I badly needed a beer, some shade, some good music and a bit of relaxation, but that all still had to wait.
After setting up the most basic elements of our campsite, and leaving my poor wife to put the rest of it all together, I realized I’d already missed most of Thursday’s opening act, Donna Jean and would need to hurry to get down across the massive ravine that separated my campground from the main festival area. I turned around to see the sun hanging low in the sky, an orange orb suspended over the hazy Cumberland hills. Rather than kill myself to rush to the stage, I climbed up the hill above the campground, sat down, and just relaxed for the first time that weekend.
I sat overlooking the valley below, and almost immediately found myself engaged in a nice chat with a likeminded fan. Sitting there, trying to take it all in, I felt the tension from the car fade and a smile slowly found my face. The festival site seemed to be mostly filled in, and as far as I could see around any reasonably flat area was dense with tents and cars. I snapped a few shots of the sunset before heading down to the festival area.
The All Good Fest is situated at Marvin’s Mountaintop and takes advantage of a natural amphitheater formed from a large, grassy hill behind a large, open area just right for dancing. Although the hill is a little steep, and potentially treacherous following a rainstorm, most people couldn’t help but boogie, albeit a bit more cautiously. Facing the hill were the two stages – the main Dragon Stage and the smaller Crane Stage just yards away. Unlike most music festivals where one has to carefully plan out the schedule (and I always gripe about conflicts between favorite artists performing simultaneously at different stages), the All Good festival is all good. That is, All Good’s two adjacent stages ensures that there’s always music but no overlapping sets.
Having run myself ragged last year at Rothbury trying to do it all – this was a more than welcome change. The notion that I’d be able to both photograph and actually enjoy the music I was covering was another welcome difference. There was also a much smaller Campground Stage that featured lesser known roots artists – so there was some potential for conflict and running around (not that I’d really have it any other way), but truly minimal in comparison to just about every other major fest I’d been to.
Disappointed that I’d missed Donna Jean, I checked out Fort Knox Five . I found out early on that Throwdown Thursday lived up to its name, as the crowd members grooved to the beats, even in the still-oppressive heat. Things had cooled off a bit afterward when Dark Star Orchestra took the stage. Jeff Mattson, DSO’s new permanent ‘Jerry’ had big shoes to fill when Jon Kadlecik left to join Furthur and I was eager to hear what he brought to the table.
Although Dark Star Orchestra is known for re-creating complete Grateful Dead shows, lately they’ve been creating their own sets with well-received results. Their Thursday night set at All Good opened with a hot Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain going into a tight performance of Feel Like a Stranger – Mattson, Rob Koritz and company proved that DSO was going as strong as ever despite the lineup change. Other notables in the set included as good a version of Eyes of the World as I’d ever heard, as well as China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider and a ridiculously fun St. Stephen > William Tell Bridge > The Eleven > Not Fade Away.
Following DSO was the Canadian acid jazz-meets-livetronica trio The New Deal who took to the Dragon stage for a late night set. As the super-heavy bass emanated from the speakers, courtesy of bassist Dan Kurtz, the audience transformed from Grateful mode to a hard-groovin dance. The pace of feet stomping the ground picked up as glowsticks flew and fists pumped at the air in time with the beat.
Much beloved by fans of the jamtronica genre, tND has played mostly festivals over the past few years, forgoing the rigors of many jam bands who tour incessantly. Unlike many festivals where late night sets are left to smaller stages, it was hard to tell it was a late night set without looking at a clock as the concert bowl stayed packed. The party raged on as Darren Shearer’s drum beats pulsed and Jamie Shields’ keys painted sonic textures that swept over the crowd and out into the nighttime hills dense with All Good camp sites. After the first hour of their set, I felt my feet and eyelids getting progressively heavier and decided to call it a night. As I climbed into my tent for a few precious hours of sleep (or the ‘festie-five’ as some know it), I knew that the best was still yet to come.
Day 2 – Friday
After launching the 2010 All Good Fest with a night of hot music on Throwdown Thursday, Friday morning brought my good friends Greensky Bluegrass to the Campground Stage for a 10:30AM set in the mid-morning sun. Cooler than the scorching heat of the previous day, the forecast called for rain but that morning there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Greensky played to a reasonably-sized crowd of several hundred folks in the earliest festival set I’ve ever attended. Hoopers hips waggled and children ran through the crowed as mandolin player and vocalist Paul Hoffman led the band in their instant classic Old Barns, while Anders Beck’s dobro wound and bent the notes around like a kid on a McDonald’s Playland slide. One of the few conflicts of the weekend, I ditched out on my pals to run down to the Dragon stage to catch a few songs of Baltimore’s up-and-coming jam band The Bridge.
One of my favorite aspects of music festivals is having opportunities to experience new bands and music. I hadn’t seen or heard The Bridge before, but I was anything but disappointed. I’m a big fan of jam bands that incorporate novel combinations of instruments, and as Patrick Rainey’s alto sax and Mark Brown’s keys melded with Kenny Liner’s mandolin, a new word kept popping in my head ‘sunkgrass’ – their unique combo of soul, funk and bluegrass. After just a few songs, I raced back up the campground hill to catch a bit of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad – another band that I hadn’t seen before but who I was eager to see (even if based on their name alone!) When I arrived, the audience around the Campground stage had filled in with more late-risers, all of whom seemed enthusiastic at GPGDS’s dub sound, somewhat reminiscent of Sublime in their combination of dub reggae and rock.
At that point, the day started getting a bit warmer, but still cool. After a brief refueling stop at the campsite, I headed back to the concert bowl to catch San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green. I’ve been seeing these guys since 2002, and they’ve never let me down. Quintessentially a jam band, TLG comprises Trevor Garrod’s sweet vocals and raucous keyboard work, Josh Clark’s intensely driven electric guitar, Reed Mathis’ truly impressive bass playing and Scott Rager’s always-on kit drumming. That day, however, drummer Rob McMillian was behind the kit due to Rager’s unfortunately sprained ankle.
Playing songs spanning their career including Ride Together and Can’t Get High, All Good unofficial artist-at-large Jennifer Hartswick joined the boys for a smoking version of Georgie P. Around then, rain clouds stealthily moved in overhead, shrouding the sun, before opening up on the crowd. It wasn’t a torrential downpour, but enough to cool us down and get us all a little wet.
I braved the rain to see a few songs from another highly-recommended act I’d never seen before, the Pimps of Joytime whose funky beats, horns, and electric guitar made for great mid-day dance music, no matter what cards the weather dealt. After seeing them at All Good, I know I gotta have me some more of that “Janxta Funk.” After The Pimps, Femi Kuti and company marched out onto the Dragon Stage, replete with dancers, horn and percussion sections. Native-Nigerian Femi Kuti and the Positive Force brought a righteous message of social justice encased in afrobeat goodness. As the dancers twirled, booty-shakin and playing percussion instruments, the horn players blasted the air and Kuti alternated playing keys and alto sax. I don’t think I was the only one in the crowd who could palpably feel the Positive Force he brought to the hills of West Virginia.
Matt Butler conducted the Everyone Orchestra on the Crane Stage, featuring Reed Mathis on bass, Trevor Garrod on keys, Jen Hartswick on trumpet and Allie Kral on fiddle. Always one of my favorites at any festival, the Everyone Orchestra epitomizes impromptu collaboration, improvisation and great musicianship. As Butler held out cards for the audience to scream along with, he wrote instructions to the musicians on a small whiteboard. The organized yet organic jam session made good use of Hartswick’s trumpet and soulful vocals, which contrasted beautifully with Kral’s fiddle, each supported by Mathis’ bass lines.
After an all-too-short set by the Everyone Orchestra, I caught the first couple of songs from Old Crow Medicine Show before needing another respite from the rain. Unfortunately, the rain just kept coming and I took the time to check back in at my campsite and find some dry clothes to put on. During that time I missed sets by Dr. Didg and Umphrey’s McGee, both of which I heard were solid performances from friends and fellow photogs.
Kicking myself for missing all of Umphrey’s, I made sure to be back at the stages for Cornmeal’s 45-minute set. The five-piece, Chicago-based band may have its roots in Americana bluegrass, but their use of percussion and psychedelic jam influences make them another stand out act for me. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m practically in love with Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral whose improvisation and vocals are both plenty impressive. Dave Burlingame’s electric banjo also contributes to the band’s sometimes spacey, but down-home-feeling tunes.
Up next was festival headliner Furthur – the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead led by bassist Phil Lesh and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. For those not familiar, the word “Furthur” was the destination sign on the Merry Prankster’s (in)famous Magic Bus for Ken Kesey’s acid tests in the ‘60s, for which the Grateful Dead were the house band. Now the word conjures up images of a newer stage in evolution for the music that has inspired so many for the past 40+ years.
With former-Dark Star Orchestra singer and guitarist John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia role, the band was certainly not just another Dead cover band. I’ve been a huge fan of drummer Joe Russo, formerly/sometimes of the Duo, since I first saw him play with Robert Walter’s 20th Congress in 2003. A truly impressive musician, Russo’s jazz drumming is often far more subtle than audible over the rest of Furthur – somebody really needs to start a “Turn Joe Up!” movement. I’ll sign that petition any day.
I had been looking forward to seeing Furthur since I’d initially heard about the band, and All Good was my first chance to catch them live. I was a little reluctant because Phil’s vocals aren’t great, and I don’t love some of Bobby’s vocal stylings for some of my favorite Jerry tunes (e.g., Friend of the Devil, Days Between). Even at the very beginning on Friday, Kadlecik’s playing and singing really blew me away. From the first time I ever heard him with Dark Star Orchestra, I’ve always been a fan. Seeing him with our mutual musical heroes was truly special.
At one point, I couldn’t help but reflect on my perception of the band as a passage of spirit and music from one generation to the next. As Phil and Bobby sang and played with their much younger band mates, it seemed as if they were passing the torch to Russo, Chimenti and Kadlecik in particular, who musically embodies Jerry Garcia’s spirit. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t the only one having that thought as moments later I heard the 20-somethings behind me giving voice to that same sentiment.
The All Good set included both old standards like the opening After Midnight and newer tunes penned by long-time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, including the new Phil tune Colors of the Rain, and the little-played Just a Little Light from the Dead’s Arista Years. As the notes of Estimated Prophet rang out the audience was seriously grooving, and the photo pit was a giant party of photographers and musicians from the other bands. At one point I looked over to see Dave Bruzza, Mike Devol, and Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass and Josh Clark from Tea Leaf Green who were standing near the edge of the pit, smiling ear to ear, enthralled by the action on stage.
Estimated was followed by a Just a Little Light that brought the energy down just a bit as most of the audience was less familiar with it, but seemed receptive, nonetheless. Without going through the entire set list, I’ll just say that it was pretty spectacular – with the new and previously lesser-played songs, I didn’t feel like I was watching a Dead cover band. I was watching . . . something new. I felt like I really got the whole idea there, and could practically see Bobby and Phil having a conversation about the need to take it Furthur. Other highlights for me included mostly numbers that were both appropriate for the location and occasion (Looks Like Rain, Tennessee Jed, Brown Eyed Women).
Furthur’s performance of Terrapin Station sticks in my mind as the pinnacle of the show – a truly excellent performance. Terrapin’s brilliance was rivaled only by the phenomenal playing and harmonies of Attics of My Life, a song that holds a special place for me. One particlarly weird part was when Furthur played Scarlet > Fire, which Dark Star Orchestra had covered just the night before. I love the songs, but that’s just the risk of two bands playing from the same catalog, and I’d have rather heard another two songs that hadn’t been played the prior night.
After Phil’s obligatory Donor Rap, the band encored with Cumberland Blues, also performed by DSO the previous night. Furthur’s final song of the encore was a sweet version of Ripple the beginning of which was unfortunately drowned out by the fireworks launched from behind the stage. Thankfully, the fireworks only lasted a short bit and the rest of the song was a great treat.
Just after Furthur took their bows and played the encores, Bassnectar came out on the Crane stage and the whole place erupted in glowsticks that rained down from the hill and across the ‘floor.’ By then, the super-heavy thudding bass was more than I’d bargained for and I took my leave, still hearing the set across the ravine at my camp. I stayed and listened to the set in the distance, followed by a final late night set by jamtronica wonderkinds Lotus.
By that point I was more interested in hanging out than dancing and Lotus provided a nice soundtrack to the discussions around the campsite. By 4AM or so, I felt the call of my sleeping bag and knew I still had plenty more bands to see and music to hear on Saturday. As I closed my eyes, a mashup of bluegrass, electronica and Dead music played in my head, and I knew that morning daylight would be coming soon.
Check back later this week for Andrew’s thoughts and photos from days three and four of the 2010 All Good Music Festival.