All Good Festival
by Lee Abraham
With skin pink from an extended weekend of sun, two sisters hug, wrapped in each others arms, head on each others shoulder, swaying slowly as they savor a final moment together while tents, coolers and backpacks are being loaded around them. Its Sunday morning and the sun is up. Around 4,000 like minded folks had just experienced a wonderful weekend of music and camping, and the serene, communal buzz lingers even as the long road home begins.
Wilmers Park, home of the 2nd annual All Good Festival is an ideal venue for small to mid size, multi-day events. Situated on over 80 rural acres of tall trees and rolling greens, Wilmers Park has been played by John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix among countless others since its development in the 1950's. Most recently, Wilmers Park has been the home base for a raging Spring and Summer festival scene that was typified by this year's All Good Festival.
The force behind the scene is Tim Walther and his partner Junipa, of Walther Productions. Both are astute young business people with an ear for killer jams and an affinity for funny party hats. This year's festival was well run, and credit goes to the entire Walther Production team. By midday Friday, people were arriving and the tent city was beginning to form as vendors were staking out their turf.
At about 5pm Bobby Lee Rodgers from Boston was the first of fifteen bands, kicking off the weekend of music with a spirited set of bluesy, polyrhythmic grooves. Native out of New York City picked up on the polyrhythmic theme with their worldly beat, blending Latin tinged influences, funk and percussion. Although the crowd was still thin, the festival was off to a good start, Bobby Lee and Native were both superb! The Recipe from West Virginia was next up and by this time the crowd was beginning to fill in. Many of the people there were Recipe fans, singing along to this band's thoughtfully crafted songs. The dancing was energized by smiles and extra-terrestrial grooves beaming from onstage, this set had the comfortable feel of an intimate family affair.
The pace between bands was brisk, due a well managed stage that was large enough to be split down the middle, enabling a band to perform on one side while the other side of the stage was either being broken down or set up. This system worked well and didn't cause any distractions from the performances. Headliners were given the full stage, complete with a psychedelically hypnotic backdrop, so after the indies did their thing, there was about an hour break before Gov't Mule was up.
Power trios have a time-honored tradition of ear splitting volume, screaming guitar solos, thunderous bass lines and an avalanche of pounding drums. Gov't Mule filled that bill, and like Cream, Mountain and ZZ Top before them, the Mule succeeds in creating a full, compelling sound with just three guys. Gov't Mule can also get groovy, occasionally mixing in a jazz riff, space jam or traditional blues and folk feel to stretch the limits of the classic power trio lineup. Warren Haynes (guitar and vocals) and Allen Woody (bass) both earned reputations as fret monsters during their extended gig with the Allman Brothers Band and their chemistry with Matt Abts on drums make this six legged music machine a bone shaker and/or mind blower, take your choice.
Wilmers Park was still reverberating from Gov't Mule's blistering performance when Zero began their set to close out the first afternoon of music. Mesmerizing the crowd with their funky grooves and melodic jamming, Zero succeeded in transforming the carry-over energy from the Mule into an extended journey of music and spirit. Stars twinkled and good vibes flowed as a few thousand brothers and sisters celebrated and danced to Zero's multi-layered and heart-felt jams. Steve Kimock and his legendary bay area buddies worked their magic with a fluid chemistry, melting time with fiery grooves that had the crowd wiggling, bopping and rocking steady. The fun had to come to an end at some point though, and as Zero left the stage the crowd showed its appreciation with a prolonged, thunderous ovation.
After the show, drum circles pulsed around campfires as the tent village settled into its first night. Campside kitchens, cold beer-for-a-buck coolers and other bootleg vendors also emerged under the cover of dark. Prior to sunrise, cows at various points along the park's perimeter serenaded the campers with a loud and boisterous chorus of pre-dawn moo's. Impossible to say if the herd was inspired by the beat of the drums and energy of the festival or if they were simply keeping each other awake, on the alert for a much-feared spree of cow tipping. In any case, it was a chuckle generator for the rest of the weekend, MOOOO!!
The rising sun on Saturday morning found a few folks still awake from last night's party, however most greeted the new day wiping sleep from their eyes, emerging from tents with energy renewed for the upcoming marathon of sun and music. Vehicles began to trickle into the park soon after sunrise and the crowd continued to build throughout the day. Vendors served up hot coffee and breakfast as frisbees were tossed while the scene slowly began to take shape.
Baaba Seth from Virginia took the stage at high noon, absolutely scorching through their set with distinctive, passionate vocals, scintillating saxophone solos and a potent dose of deeply spiritual percussion. Although it's pointless to compare one band to another, safe to say that nobody put on a better show all weekend, Baaba Seth was fantastic! Equal to the daunting task of following Baaba Seth's intensity, Percy Hill from New Hampshire, spun a captivating web of seamlessly woven jams, quickly putting their own very impressive spin on the vibe with spellbinding improvisational interactions. Each of the band members are highly skilled players and have plenty of freedom in the arrangements to explore a wide array influences. The result is the synergy of a sophisticated, distinctive sound all their own. They are also cool cats on stage and had a lot of fans in attendance.
As the sun climbed, the heat rose, but unlike the day before, there was less cloud cover to keep the burn factor down. Baltimore's Jook jammed hard with horns blaring and keyboards wailing, doing their best to entice dancers out of the Rain Tent, away from the Water Truck and into the heat of the midday sun. Same with the Kelly Bell Band, which is also from Maryland, they used their crowd pleasing brand of "fat blues" to battle the elements.
At 4:20, Juggling Suns from New Jersey lit up the stage with a smoking set of their fantabulous mind-altering originals. Always a dance magnet, the Jugglers sparked a raging shake-yer-bones scene in spite of the sweltering heat. There were actually a couple of guys near the front of the stage tossing around bowling pins, performing complex team juggling techniques. The combination of surrealistically cool visual stimuli and a rousing set that included several newer tunes made this Juggling Suns performance one of the weekend's standouts.
The sun was still strong as Blue Miracle got aggressive with the buzz, pounding out an edgy sound that has made this band a top draw in the New York area. Moon Boot Lover from Woodstock, New York, took the festivities into a funkier groove, displaying a captivating and playful stage presence that made for lots of fun interactions between the band and the crowd. Not to be outdone, Lake Trout from Baltimore closed out the indie portion of the afternoon with yet another excellent set of original music. Local favorites, the Trout cooked up a funky blend of soul and hip-hop influenced jazz that was super smooth and oh-so-tasty. Lake Trout had a huge following in attendance and it's easy to see why they have become one of the hottest bands east of the Mississippi.
Once again, during the course of the late afternoon, the sun and moon did their daily waltz, trading places in the sky as the crowd's anticipation rose with the evening stars. Throughout the weekend conversation buzzed around the final two headliners, John Scofield and Jazz Is Dead. Everyone knew it was going to be good. With a broad smile and relaxed vibe, Scofield greeted the crowd and then led his band through innovative instrumental jams that sparkled with brilliant musicianship.
Although Scofield has been a legend since playing guitar with Miles Davis years ago, many in the crowd had just recently heard of him by way of his new album which features Medeski, Martin and Wood as his back up band. In a show of respect for his less known touring band of Larry Golding, Bill Stewart and James Genus, Scofield made it a point to introduce everybody twice, beaming with pride and joy in the process.
The enthusiastic crowd packed tight in front of the stage as Scofield's music moved into the same spiritual terrain pioneered by Zero the night before. Beautifully articulated melodies woven through a skintight fabric of boppin' fusion entrained the crowds' consciousness onto a wavelength which transcends day-to-day time and space reality. This was the sort of communal bliss experience that is the most addictive aspect of the festival experience.
Jazz Is Dead was a much anticipated capper to the festivities and the virtuoso quartet put their chops to work with extended jazz stylings that were at times faithful to the Dead's material, other times experimental. Whether improvising in new directions or laying down the Dead's patented jams, Billy Cobham on drums, Alphonso Johnson on bass, T. Lavitz on keyboards and Jimmy Herring on guitar were on fire from the get go. Absent were the stage clearing solos that were used earlier in the tour to showcase each of the players individual chops, which were awe inspiring but worked against the flow of the music. After all, the kids just wanna dance, and Jazz Is Dead complied with stellar, jam-oriented versions of a bunch of Dead classics. Scarlet Begonias, Terrapin Station and Dark Star were all extended jams par excellence!
Early in the set Scofield joined the jazz men onstage and traded licks with Jimmy Herring as the jam got hot and funky. This was a moment that many had hoped would happen and Scofield's electricity onstage did not disappoint. With the exception of Jazz Is Dead, all of the bands focused on original material, however many gave a nod to this scene's Grateful Dead roots with their own rendition of a Dead classic. Several Beatles tunes were also covered during the weekend, as were a handful of others from a variety of artists, some more obvious than others. Zero's coverage of the Temptation's, "Papa Was Rolling Stone," was probably the furthest genre stretch of the weekend, but the band played the bojangles out of it and the crowd loved the surprise dose of soul.
Referring to the people assembled for this weekend of camping and music as a "crowd," doesn't convey the sense of community and irie vibes that had mushroomed over the course of the weekend. Indeed, this was a tribal gathering of an extended family, a beautifully vibrant scene of old friends, some meeting for the first time, and of strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand, to laugh and to dance. After Garcia's death, the big questions were "what would be next," "where would the energy go," "who would make the music," and ultimately, "what would happen to the scene?" The answer is now clear, and it's All Good. See you at the next festival!