Thu, 08/06/2009 - 10:05 pm

For years, my friends have been telling me of a magical place: a music festival at a permanent facility with shaded campgrounds, flushing toilets, manageably small but big enough to rope in major talent, populated with friendly people.  This year, I finally made it out to this legendary event as a correspondent for GratefulWeb.com, and am happy to report that the rumors are true.  10,000 Lakes Music Festival ranks among the most convenient major-league music festivals I've ever attended.  Yeah, it had its problems (and I'll get to those).  But overall, the sixth year of 10KLF was a fabulous affair.  Here are my interpretive snippets from a lovely and seasonable weekend in the high latitudes of Minnesota's Soo Pass Ranch:

Wednesday, 22 July

What music festival starts on a Wednesday?  This weird move turned out to be a good one – everyone I talked to seemed to agree it felt like we got an extra day on both ends (getting out earlier than we're used to, and getting back at leisure without having to take off work on Monday).

Gomez opened the festival on the main stage with the funky, driving "Rex Kramer," which I heard from the North Entrance on my way in and catapulted me into a 100-yard dash.  Their set continued strong with old classics like "78 Stone Wobble," "Tijuana Lady," and "See The World" (which features one of my favorite of their lines:  "Fear – don't let it take you like it nearly took me!").  The mainstage's lower concrete audience area was still largely unpopulated, still a sea of concrete (the grassy spots were all further back).  But everyone there was enthusiastic, and seemed to be enjoying themselves (the lead guitarist decked out in a fuzzy hat that screamed, "I know you're on drugs!"), and saved the ultra-tasty acoustic guitar-and-synthesizer meltdown "Ruff Stuff" for last.  These British hybrid rockers put on a far better set than the one I saw at Wakarusa Festival in June (where they were stuck sipping up the slop as the festival's last act on Sunday, on their smallest stage), but having them kick off the action didn't feel quite right, either.

Another thing worth noting about Gomez's set is how ridiculously sunny it was.  For all that I'd heard of 10K's ultra-comfortable accommodations, I found it strange that the permanent main stage was set up facing North, so that even with Chuck Hugh's billboard-sized painted landscapes to either side it was almost impossible to escape from the intense sunlight.  Almost everything else was uppercase POSH all weekend, but I was scratching my head at such a silly and obvious oversight.  (For what it's worth, though, the grounds are twenty years older than 10K – the festival is hardly accountable.)

Widespread Panic headlined two nights this year, and after listening to their first set on Wednesday with a journalistic ear I have to give them credit.  It was a far better show than the last one I'd seen three years ago, after Jimmy Herring had been recruited as a replacement for the late Michael Houser and hadn't yet put a leash on his shredding.  I'm not terribly familiar with their specific songs, but thankfully happened to be camping with friends who were; they opened with a tasty "Old Neighborhood" and "Weight Of The World," followed soon after by ironic standby "Can't Get High."  Set two unfurled with slinky and shifting rolling rhythms before heating it up after a slow-cooking keyboard interlude, and the encore instrumental "Dark Day Program" (a grinding, overdriven waltz which, in its patient and repeating chord changes, was a welcome change of pace).  According to more knowledgeable sources, they were having trouble leading in and out of jams – and once I started listening, yeah, there seemed to be some awkward communication within the band.  But the good spirits of the audience were invulnerable, and I had to chalk some points back next to WSP in my mental spreadsheet.  At the least, few other bands have been working so hard for so long.

Kinetix, a disco jam rock quintet from Denver, has been a staple at 10K for five years now.  Their late-night set at The Barn (the festival's third-but-possibly-tastiest stage) made it clear why: their comfortability and confidence on stage, clever choice of covers ("Another Brick In The Wall," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "Sweet Emotion"), and great vibe all demonstrated this outfit to be the kind of guys who give a lot of attention to crowd-pleasing in particular.  They're a lopsided group – the keyboardist/lead singer practically carried the band on his back, the excellent lead guitarist whipped out his best licks when he wasn't on clock to solo, and the other guys' contributions were standard enough that on several occasions I caught myself playing "weak link" with them, trying to figure out how they could get the same punch from a quartet.  And I was seriously put off when they capped an awesome crescendo jam by endlessly repeating "It's time to get f*cked up!"  But then somebody would strike a heroic pose on top of one of the stage monitors while wailing, and I couldn't help but smile.  The music was certainly kinetic – predictable, but fun.  Definitely guys worth checking out, definitely worthy dance-party captains.

Afterwards, I headed over to the Saloon (a permanent, indoors festival stage??) to catch Carney – who, suiting their name, had a very raw and visceral, spooky thing going on.  They confidently caught the slop from the evening's other performances with a lot of violent atonal crescendoes and a lead singer with a hard-on for Drunk Jeff Buckley and The Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala.  Which worked.  And they gave it their all, sweating bullets and tying themselves up in cables until the festival shut off their power and they left in glowing indignance ("You can thank the club for turning off the amplifiers!").

One of the nicest things about 10KLF was the absence of sunrise sets.  After a summer of dawn-chasing music, getting to bed before 3 AM was a pleasant change of pace.  There was no wondering where I'd find the next day's dancing energy...

Check out more photos from the 2009 10KLF.

Tue, 08/11/2009 - 2:13 am

I started day two of 10K in utter relaxation, dozing late into the morning through a minute of light rain on the tent.  It was a music festival, after all, and the idyll didn't last long; the air was soon full of air horns and people yelling "Butt Sca-ratcherrrr!" (ah, the sounds of morning).  Overall, though, listening to the murmur of campers at Northwoods had a magical quality, a constant lone hand drummer in the distance, magical woodsy acoustics.  The morning was sunnier but still mostly overcast as I headed out to The Barn to catch Akron/Family...

Akron/Family – surprisingly indie for a festival like this one – was a great early afternoon set.  Constant change of genre was their forte, keeping the shady lawn of a few hundred jam babies rapt with curiosity.  Long ambient passages with plenty of cool secondary instruments (flute, bells, samplers, a tape recorder played through the bass pickup) twisted into explosions of noisy, almost tribal rock, heavy on the toms and feedback, knob twisting and screams.  Then, all of a sudden, we'd all be dancing to Graceland-esque afrobeat with the drummer on lead vocals, bass amps decorated by fabric that danced in the shuddering air, jungle noises and scratchy beats emanating from an 808.  The guitarist spent half of one song with a microphone hanging from his mouth.  Death metal tapered into folk-revival clapalongs with tambourine and harmonica...and they'd consistently bring back the dance at EXACTLY the right moment.  And they played the crowd, always waiting to ask for audience participation until it was really ripe; early on in their set when they told the seated audience, "You guys can stand up now," we all totally complied.  Dressed in geeksport chic – headbands and white undershirts, sweat slick hair – they lacked none of the swagger and posture that I've come to associate with indie, softspoken and warm-eyed.  It was my first time seeing them and my impression was that these guys in the same vein as, appealing to the same crowd as, but far more coherent than, Animal Collective.  Toward the end of their set the crowd thinned a bit, people leaving to get a good spot for Railroad Earth at the Field Stage.  As much as I enjoy Railroad, however, this seemed like a mistake.  Catch these guys if you can.

After Akron/Family, I stuck around at The Barn to paint onstage for Garaj Mahal.  Fronted by virtuoso music professors Fareed Haque on guitar and Kai Eckhart on bass, these guys are the only band on the scene cerebral enough to write a ten-minute-plus "through composition," silly enough to wear hilarious profane t-shirts on stage*, AND funky enough to keep everyone dancing through a flurry of time signature and tempo changes.  Modal, edgy, uptempo tunes reminded me somewhat of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, if that band were predisposed to ducking out of class from time to time and playing in seedy bars...soulful, soulful music.  It was so incredibly windy on stage that I had to hold my easel with one hand while painting with the other, but in spite of the complication I could scarcely contain my excitement about being on stage with a quartet of such master musicians (their new drummer can SING, and their keyboardist could run modulation-wet Moog circles around Particle's Steve Molitz).  For their encore (and 10K was unusually full of encores, for a festival), Kai Eckhart whipped out a brain-liquifying slap bass solo and Fareed played his unique sitar-guitar.  All told, a solid show...although my friends were convinced that they were acting too strangely to be their normal sober selves, you'd never have known from their playing.

(*Fareed's shirt was the cover of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs & Ham, only the title had been replaced so it looked like Sam was peering over at the food and wondering,  "What the f*ck is this sh*t, anyway?")

garaj-mahalMason Jennings played an early evening set on the Main Stage that, from where I listened in my Northwoods campsite, seemed perfect for the festival's rootsy vibe.  His steady, simple music sounded good from a distance, but it was so uniform from song to song that I had a hard time imagining how he would have kept my attention from closer up.

After dinner at camp, we trucked out to catch Wilco, whom I assume was responsible for all of the black-shirts, studs, and bangs indie-folk fashion I was seeing (just one more anomaly on the pile of this very atypical music festival).  They were surprisingly good – surprising to me, at least, because I'd only ever heard their albums, which failed to capture the intense energy of their live show.  From the press box up front where I got to shoot pics for the first three songs, it was easy to enjoy much harder rocking than I had expected.  Nels Cline's lead guitar was THUNDEROUS, launching every song – and although they slowed down for a while after the first few numbers, the band eventually built nearly every tune into something loud and profound.  By the end of their set, the energy was higher than ever.  My only complaint was how frontman Jeff Tweedy so ungraciously handled the audience's storm of glowsticks, first trying to get them to stop with humor ("You need those for the rest of the weekend - in this economy, you can't AFFORD to throw all those glowsticks."), then attempting to bargain ("If you stop throwing them now, we'll give them all back to you at the end of the show.")  His inability to take normal festival audience customs in stride was annoying...Jeff, if you're reading this, you play music festivals, dude!  Get over it.  That aside, everyone was in a great mood, the edginess of the first night had worn off and Wilco managed to coax them into the longest clapalong I'd ever seen.  From where I stood painting off to one side of the crowd down on the concrete, the mood was high and the fans were drunk on expensive beer.  Success!

After Wilco, I made a short stopover at the Art Barn, where nearly a dozen artists were working live and displaying their finished pieces.  There was blacklight painting, spin art, body painting...all weekend!  It was great to see the visual arts so well-accommodated there.  But at the time, I was simply looking for sanctuary from the freak storm that came out of nowhere to pelt us all with 40 mph winds and sheets of rain.  My friends and I ended up spending most of the night hiding in our tents and I missed Junior Brown and Atmosphere...although I have to say, kudos again to 10K for the diversity of their line-up, on par with coastal festivals like Coachella and All Points West.  Thanks to the storm, it was another fairly early night, and I woke up on Friday well-rested and psyched to see Everyone Orchestra...

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 4:26 am

One landmark gig at this year's 10KLF was Everyone Orchestra – a staple of this festival, playing their fifth consecutive year.  EO is an ever-changing super-group of musicians collected by conductor Matt Butler to jam on extended guided improvisations.  Using a dry erase board, Butler (looking sharp in a blue Hawaiian shirt and leopard print fedora) tells the band to "take it anywhere" or use "small punches," asks them if they're cool to start with a "disco [in] A," or tells saxist Dominic Lalli it's his turn to "rip heads off."  The whole thing is like watching a flock of birds in flight – rollicking heavy high-octane jams turn on a dime into sensuous marches, then repeating "1/2 step up" commands ratchet the ensemble into evermore intense wail-a-thons.  With three female vocalists (one on a five-string violin) and Steve Kimock soaring on electric guitar, the orchestra got pretty angelic at times.  I caught my first whiffs of burning sage as some itinerant soul blessed the audience, and was surprised by the first bubbles I'd seen all weekend.  Reed Mathis delivered his high-concept-but-still-funky-as-hell bass and Kimock's drummer son showed us all how hard a guy can rock out on his birthday.  And it IS the EVERYONE Orchestra, so Butler didn't fail to get and keep the crowd involved, jumping up and down with "YES!" on his dry-erase board, the whole event swaying to one giant breath.  He thanked the audience for participating – and temporarily gave the stage over to a rep from the Rex Foundation, who was raising money to buy instruments for schools.  Overall, one of the most feel-good, virtuosic, high-energy sets of the weekend.

Next on the Field Stage was Steve Kimock Crazy Engine, genre-hopping instrumental quartet with Melvin Seals of JGB on organ.  Kimock has a gift for nailing other people's guitar language, melodic fragments, and soloing styles, and this band felt like a guided tour through the various idioms of electric guitar jam music.  Afrobeat became dub became guitar ballad became 12 bar blues.  Many of the numbers borrowed tonality or attitude from other music to such an extent that they perched on a tribute; one slow roller late in the set wobbled between "Sexual Healing" and one of Mark Knopfler's tracks for the Local Hero soundtrack, without ever quite planting a foot in either.  It would have been a more delightful experience had the stage not been permanently positioned in full sunlight (a terrible, terrible oversight for the festival grounds architects), and in the late evening the entire band was hiding in a sliver of shade on the very back of the stage platform.  Consequently, they were hidden behind the speakers, invisible to anyone not directly in front of the stage – which was most of the crowd.  And the set was riddled with long, awkward, windy passages between songs...I'd be painting and realize, suddenly, that there was no music, and there hadn't been for a minute or two.  Otherwise, a solid performance from four highly competent players who could take the music wherever they wanted to go.

After painting all day in the sun, I couldn't dance fast enough to keep up with Trampled By Turtles, but it sounded good from camp.  My friends and I caught some relaxation at camp, during which time campground shenanigans provided us with cheap entertainment:  I saw two girls speeding on a wheeled cooler down the Northwoods avenue, laughing uproariously, and one of our neighbors walking from camp to camp offering people dubious licks from a seemingly-empty Pyrex tray.  After a few hours of this, we headed back out to the Saloon for Big Gigantic (a fabulously well-developed laptop/saxophone and drums project which, for the uninitiated, I highly recommend).  This summer has been their debutante's ball, and I was tickled to paint for Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken yet again for the fourth festival in a row.  From where I'd set up at the Saloon's front door to catch traffic with my art, Widespread Panic on the main stage downhill was a distant mess.  Looking out across the festival at that raging party was akin to watching a tornado tear past your town across the valley...huge, loud, and ominous, even from a safe distance.  Meanwhile in the Saloon, the normally demure Lalli was donning his kinda thuggy stage persona, too sweet-tempered to be convincing but getting an A for effort.  The crowd loved them.  I hope they'll be invited back.

The last show I caught on Friday was the Barn Stage late-night by Boombox – the weirdo disco tour of Memory Lane for which Grateful Dead lovechild Zion Rock Godchaux licks electric homages to numerous bands of yore on top of Russ Randolph's classy turntablism.  A killer lightshow by their newly-employed engineer, my friend JC, took the party to a whole new level, and there was a constant flow of crazy costumes and sweaty dilated smiles past my easel all night.  Quote of the night:  "If glitter is like herpes, then I LOVE HERPES!"  If that gives you an idea of how hairy a throwdown Boombox's shows can be...  And then, after the show, the night wound down with a stroll through Northwood's enchanted forest, ambling back to camp past the alluring sounds and lights of parties dotting the deeply sloping wooded terrain.

Check out more photos from the 2009 10KLF.

Wed, 08/12/2009 - 4:53 am

Quote of the day, heard while in the audience for the last few minutes of an enjoyable-but-forgettable set by Tea Leaf Green:

"They all died at 27 full of drugs and insane, so I made a conscious decision to make my role models change."

I was regularly surprised by the plain sincerity and easy common wisdom of the Minnesotans who filled 10KLF.  In contrast with the vibrant rowdiness of my more usual Colorado crew at Sonic Bloom Festival, or the strange brew of East Coast urban edginess and Appalachian nature worship that flavored Trinumeral Festival, 10KLF seemed populated by friendly and unassuming Midwesterners, generally more appreciative and unpretentious than I'm used to.  (Without knowing much about the Minnesota music scene, perhaps they're not quite as spoiled?)

The last day of 10KLF 2009 started with a long slow wait, as thousands of people ignored afternoon acts to down in front at the main stage for Umphrey's McGee and Dave Matthews Band.  Huge swaths of the lawn were fenced off even more elaborately than before to reserve a somewhat unbelievable variety of special passes.  Bands were hustling to get their last-minute interviews in backstage, where National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion Tim Clark was playing luxurious and intricate acoustic guitar for the lunching VIPs.  The Art Barn had finally flourished into a full-bore live creative orgy, spin art and topless body-painting and a line of locals at the nearby ATM to (hopefully) scoop up some of the frighteningly inexpensive artwork.  One vendor had a rock climbing wall set up with a fifty-dollar prize for scaling the hardest face.

There were so many things to distract me that I didn't make it to a single concert that day until Umphrey's McGee arrived to rock us all through the early evening.  It was my first time seeing this Chicago sextet, who hit hard straight out of the gate with their signature epic power-jams.  Lead guitarist Jake Cinninger, on a custom electric so cool I had to edit the schematics for my own fantasized signature instrument, spooled out Olympic riffs so rapidly that frontman Brendan Bayliss was wincing the entire show as if he was racing to keep up.  Keyboardist Joel Cummins smiled at the audience regularly through a program on non-stop rock which never quite careened into the more cerebral (and derivative) material which sometimes dominates the live recordings I've heard...overall, not an easy show to dance to but certainly a spectacle for anyone who doesn't mind just gaping slack-jawed at raw technical virtuosity.  Eventually, though, I lost interest.  Every one of their driving staccato dual guitar jams has the same heroic flavor, and it's easy to see how their brand of prog jam is so divisive among jam lovers.  (It must have to do with the brazen urgency stamped on all of the music that comes out of Chicago, the proud and ultra-dynamic presentation.)

That divisiveness ended up working in the favor of Paper Bird, friends of mine from Colorado whose bandstand re-enactment (complete with the potent stage presence of three lead female vocalists) found a PERFECT time slot against Umphrey's at the Saloon and caught just about everyone who didn't care for prog rock.  Which was more people than could fit in the modest venue.  Better than anything else they do, Paper Bird knows how to charm a crowd, and it was a treat to watch them win converts with their perfectly-executed formula of quaint familiarity and innocently predatory sex appeal.  (Vocalist Esme Patterson, smiling half-bashful into her handheld mic:  "We won't get mad at you if you wanna dance...")

Cutting out a few minutes early from Paper Bird, I made it back down to the main stage just in time to soak up the intense anticipation of the huge crowd waiting for Dave Matthews Band.  It'd been a while since I'd seen DMB, and the last few shows I had caught were less than inspiring.  And of course, since they only recently lost saxophonist and co-founder LeRoi Moore, I was expecting the band to still be sorting out new roles and responsibilities, finding a way to work in replacements Jeff Coffin on sax (of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones) and Rashawn Ross (of Soulive).  What I got instead was a far heavier, funkier, more aggressive band (fleshed out in no small part by bringing back Tim Reynolds on legendary electric guitar), with punchy new material and a more playful approach to older songs.  Carter Beauford was syncopating many of his standby drum parts for songs like "Ants Marching" and "Two Step," and new songs like "Why I Am" hit much harder than the album recordings.  The band also debuted a totally enjoyable cover of "Burning Down The House," and encored with a surprising mash-up of their standard "All Along The Watchtower" tribute with sections of "Stairway To Heaven."  And I appreciated how, with a band of that size on stage, each member was able to take a minute or two for a drink without any interruptions in the action.  Three hours, no set break, and only a fleeting tease of a pre-encore disappearance testified to the group's notable stamina.

My own stamina didn't hold quite as well, and against my better interests I opted out of catching Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings rock the Field Stage's last set.  Instead, I made it back to The Art Barn, where a kind of creative family had developed and I wanted to check in on everyone's work.  I highly encourage you to look up all of the artists in attendance that weekend, including Chuck Hues, Tatiana Katara, Ann Marie Misik, Micah Allie, Mitchel Wagner, Sam Staught, Ben Melesky, Shad Challis, Sean Doyle, Frenchy, and Clay Duval.  Visual art of all kinds was a major part of 10KLF and it wouldn't have been nearly as beautiful without them.

Getting out of the festival on Sunday morning was surprisingly easy, especially after the five-hour ordeal my friends and I had to endure while escaping the lots at Rothbury.  Other than poor sleep the night before from my neighbor's noisy friends (who were ultimately and thankfully removed by security), everything went off without a hitch and we were back in Kansas City in time for my buddies to drag themselves to work on Monday.  Many thanks to Grateful Web and Dave Weissman of 10KLF's PR for inviting me out as a correspondent...it's a one-of-a-kind festival with quirky Minnesota charm written all over its grounds, its staff and attendees, and its production, chock full of great music but not so densely scheduled that you'll kill yourself trying to see it all, temperate and accommodatingly small but still big enough to warrant the ticket price.  With any luck, I'll be back next year to report on another lovely weekend...

Check out more photos from the 2009 10KLF.

Thu, 11/05/2009 - 4:54 am

Legendary jazz-funk bassist Meshell Ndegeocello recently brought her band to Boulder Theater in support of her new album, Devil's Halo – a show totally unlike the one I expected (more on that in a minute).

It was a cold and overcast day, which in Boulder tends to seriously cut into ticket sales; but by the time local openers Sonnenblume got started, an enthusiastic but mellow audience filled half the theater.  Sonnenblume's reverb drenched, drony three-piece was straight out of the Lost In Translation soundtrack, the guitar's distorted atmospheres and the lead vox/bassist's nasal dreaminess uncannily reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine.  Solid drum fills rounded out a straightforward, but well-executed set...but one that seemed strangely incongruous for the funk show I was expecting.

However, Meshell Ndegeocello has made a career out of dodging expectations.  Standing defiantly in front of the microphone in a hunched sportcoat and effecting a geeky, if masculine, presence, Ndegeocello took rode her band through a far more hard-rocking and less booty-shaking set than her earlier work led me to anticipate.  For most of the night, she stayed fixed to the mic with a half-spoken alto voice strongly suggestive of Ani DiFranco while a hired gun took over bass-end responsibilities.  The DiFranco resemblance was also noted by my friends, who pointed out her punctuated hand gestures, her alternately romantic and activist lyrics ("Tell me:  Are you free?  Just tryin' to make that dollar."), the counterpoint of her assertive singing and between-song girly giggles, the intentional androgyny – her speaking voice was shockingly low...

Opening with high-tempo aggressive rock, the heat didn't stay on for long, and Ndegeocello's set soon tapered into heartbreak waltzes and buzzy, atonal pseudo-funky slam poem chariots.  She played bass for all of two minutes in the first six songs...and in spite of my respect for any artist who tries to redefine herself, I couldn't shake the puzzlement at seeing two bassists on stage at once, and only one playing at a time (When she took the seemingly-obligatory thirty seconds or so of bass at the end of every other song, the other guy just took a step back and muted his fretboard.  I've seen amazing things achieved with two bassists at once, and don't easily suffer a band's "tambourine player," so I couldn't help but wonder, "Can't she sing and play bass at the same time, like Erika Forster of Sonnenblume?  Her openers showed her up.")

In spite of my bemusement, the band and music were really quite good, and I'd have enjoyed the solid-but-unoriginal fuzzrock balladry if I hadn't come expecting her trademark virtuoso bass.  Her guitarist's over-the-top FX, and the wild grooves laid down by an eminently talented drummer and keyboardist, were captivating even when Ndegeocello's bassist demeanor didn't quite fill "front-man" boots.  The melodies orbited in small circles around Björkesque minor triads, the soulfulness was thick, and she was a gracious performer (thanking staff and openers, complimenting the town).  An hour into the show, I finally got my kicks when she and the guitarist let the rest of the band duck out and played a chill but painfully brief duet.

Then again, it was a $30 ticket, and the packed house that showed for the beginning of her set had thinned again to less than half by the time the show was over.  I got the feeling I wasn't the only one disappointed by Ndegeocello's decision not to merely take on additional responsibilities with her music, but drop the old ones.  My recommendation to anyone interested in Devil's Halo:  forget it's a Meshell Ndegeocello album, and you'll probably like it quite a bit.

Tue, 09/06/2011 - 3:09 pm