-A Psychedelic Celebration of Life, Music and Bitter Medicine
By Lee Abraham
"I believe that music is a way to plug the mind and spirit into God's creative force," says Steve McCoy, Soul Festival's guitarist and lead singer. "It's a spiritual thing and a source of healing to people who use it as such."
Although Soul Festival's new CD ~Piquant Viaticum~ isn't necessarily ~about~ music and healing, it is a "concept" album in the sense that Soul Festival ~itself~ is a concept. Every aspect of the album, from the songs to the artwork, shines a light on the band's holistic approach to making music.
That holistic approach evolved from an original five piece, three-guitar army, to the band's current incarnation as a psychedelic power trio. The first big change came when one of the guitar players, Mike Carpenter, put down his axe to handle the band's sound and increasingly sophisticated multi-media experience and light show.
The quartet phase peaked in '95. People are still talking about Soul Festival's New Years Eve show at Favorites that year. Working with film projectors, slides, videos and an array of lighting effects like a sound engineer mixes tracks on a recording studio console, Carpenter transformed the experience into a sensory explosion. Although he eventually got out the music game entirely, Carpenter's intensity and wacky brand of creativity is forever imbedded in Soul Festival lore.
"I remember one time he came to this studio we were playing at with this trash bag full of old science film splices," recalls Eric "Boone" Dale, the band's drummer, grinning as he shakes his head. "It was literally a full big green garbage bag, and he was like "yeah, this is the shit I'm gonna put together!" imitating a wild-eyed, raving mad scientist clutching imaginary lengths of film in both hands. The McCoy boys bust-out laughing at the impersonation.
In addition to a sense of humor, Soul Festival has a sense of adventure. Onstage, the fires of creativity burn through multi-media experimentation and extended improvisational jamming. Offstage, the band frequently ventures beyond the glow of pulsing neon to the rock & roll litmus test known as "the road."
"I like to travel," says Steve, "and I'd like to see this develop to the point to where it can take us to places where we haven't been, but are places we want to be."
"Its great playing to somebody that knows all your songs and can sing along to them," continues Steve, "but there's another feeling that's equally good playing to someone who's never seen you before."
The band photo on the CD's inside front cover was taken while touring Colorado in April of '96, unwittingly foreshadowing the next step in Soul Festival's evolution. At that time, the band was still a four-piece which included Evan McDonnell on guitar, who later went on to form his current band, "Ethernet." Soul Festival had just completed their Rocky Mountain tour and was ready to return home.
"We woke up in the morning and Mike and Evan had already taken off at like 8am because they saw snow flurries and they were out of there," says Steve. "The three of us just had a good old time … we stopped in Zion at sunset on the way back and it just so happened to be us three when we took the picture. And as it works out, that's what you're left with."
As it works out, that's plenty. All three remaining members are prolific songwriters and after having played together for so long, the band can choose from a list of over 100 originals at any give time.
Regardless of the song being played, Soul Festival's sound is anchored by Steve's younger brother Matt on bass. Incorporating influences from Jane's Addiction, Rush's Geddy Lee and Bela Fleck's bass player extraordinare, Victor Wooten, McCoy enjoys the playing in a trio configuration. .
"Geddy gave me inspiration when I had none," says Matt. "but Victor makes me want to take my playing to the next level. The open spaces of only three instruments gives me a lot of opportunity to find that next level."
On drums, Boone is a veteran of the rock and roll wars, playing in bands since his early teens, while listening to bands like the Stones, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. Also capable on guitar, Boone is a naturally gifted musician and has even been known to sing a lead vocal when the mood strikes him.
Although Soul Festival is a collaborative effort, Steve McCoy is its visionary and driving force. He grew up listening to Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles and Aerosmith among others. From there McCoy explored the tie-dyed universe of the Grateful Dead, and in time, current "jam band" supreme, Phish. These days he's listening to alot of jazz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane in particular. When his schedule allows, the elder McCoy sits-in as a guest guitarist with local Grateful Dead cover band, August West.
Although they individually draw upon influences from across the musical spectrum, Soul Festival's members share a perception of being active participants in an "art-is-life" continuum. Manifesting itself in everything the bands does, that seamless inter-relatedness of their lives and music has its own mythology, complete with heroes and villains, as well as its own spirituality and deeply woven symbolism. Everything means something at the Festival, and some things can mean anything.
"Piquant' means something bitter or sour tasting," explains Matt. "'Viaticum' is a Eucharist given to the dead or the dying, like a sacrament, and sometimes that's what out music is. Occasionally it's bitter medicine, but that's only part of what we do."
When talking about stylistic diversity, each of the band members cite Phish, the current jam band supreme, as a source of inspiration.
"It's the peaks and valleys of how they put together a show that makes it an emotional roller coaster." says Matt, "Even though there's a lot of styles, there's a certain ebb and flow. That's what we did on this album."
"I think we had in our minds 'variety,' going into the studio," says Steve. "We feel that in any one show or any one recording or anytime you get us in one situation, we're oftentimes only covering an aspect of all the different things that we always seem to become."
Self-described as "Modern Fusion," Soul Festival's diversified sound blends elements of reggae, be-bop, swing, classic rock and psychedelia. At times, they crank out an aggressive, heavy vibe, ala Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden. That occasional darkness provides a potent and purposeful contrast to the joyful and positive grooves which predominate the Festival's material.
Recorded over a six-week period beginning on the winter solstice, Piquant Viaticum began as a "live in studio" session that was "built track by track" to achieve the richly textured feel the band was after.
Not only did they know what the record should sound like, they knew what they wanted it to ~look~ like. The CD's front cover by Tommy Straus, a longtime friend and the band's flyer artist, is an illustration of "Soul Fester," their comic book character alter-ego, as he is being rousted from bed by a belligerent, sausage chewing, pipe smoking, "Mr. Ugly." In the picture, Mr. Ugly is offering Fester an already bitten cookie.
"Soul Fester is always in ~some~ situation," says Matt as his band mates chuckle recalling a variety of X-rated and James Bond style adventures they've put Fester through. "He's like a balance in the universe kind of guy, he's got that yin/yang thing goin'. Sort of good ~and~ evil."
The inside cover is a black and white ink drawing by Steve that also depicts one character offering something to another. This time it's a winged angel pouring an elixir down the throat of a skeleton, stiffly horizontal in rigor mortis. Like its illustrator, the image is intense, complex and carefully detailed.
The artwork's images have specific meaning to the band, same with each song's lyrics,
but there is also an intentional degree of abstraction in everything Soul Festival does. Like a crystal catching and bending light, what you see depends on your perspective.
"You can listen for wisdom that's crying out, speaking to you directly," says Steve. "It's not even what I wrote in it. I wrote some symbols and then the person can reflect into their mind and into their heart to heal themselves anyway they want to, because that's what it's really about. We're playing music to feel better."