Best of Times, Worst of Times
It’s hard to put into words the excitement I was feeling leading up to the Zoophorus Music Festival in Whistler, BC. After a great summer chock full of camping, hiking, backpacking, and seeing tons of live shows, I really didn’t want it all to end. What better way to keep the summer vibe flowing than with a music festival held among the jagged high peaks of beautiful Whistler? Well, I discovered that a better way to spend the Labor Day weekend might have been to just keep my ass where it was in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself as that part of the story comes much later. So take a trip back into the past with me now to Labor Day weekend 2003 in the Pacific Northwest.
It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend and I was getting really psyched for our trip to the Great White North. With the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle and a Labor Day celebration including some great bands taking place right here in Portland, I was hoping that I had made the right decision to trek all the way up to Whistler for the Zoophorus Festival. It seemed like a no-brainer. Instead of dealing with thousands of people at Bumbershoot or only seeing two or three bands in Portland, Zoophorus promised amazing scenery, a mellow vibe, and some of my favorite bands including Dr. Didg, Global Funk Council, Garaj Mahal and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. And to start things off with a bang, my wife and I were heading to Seattle Friday night to see Garaj Mahal play at the Ballard Firehouse before jetting the rest of the way up to Whistler the next day.
We arrived in Seattle with plenty of time to spare. The opening band, Jam on White Bread, was playing on stage. It was getting late so I was hoping they were almost finished, but they played until well after 11:00pm. We would be staying in Bellingham, WA with a random guy I met in a jamband forum after the show and he asked if we could get there by 2:30am so he could get some sleep. So when Garaj Mahal finally took the stage at midnight, I was a bit antsy. I knew we needed to leave by 1:00am to accommodate are very gracious stranger-host in Bellingham. The fifty-five minutes of Garaj Mahal we saw that night were incredible. It had been close to a year since I had seen them and they had improved measurably. They played a version of "Poodle Factory" that had a lightning fast, breakneck pace that was nearly incomprehensible. How can they play and sing that riff so quickly? But time flew quickly and, in what seemed like no time at all, we had to venture north to Bellingham to enjoy the kindness of a stranger.
Once in Bellingham we had to rap on the door for a few minutes before our host let us inside the quaint little home. There were two leather couches right there in the living room and he told us we could sleep on them. Nice! But after only a few hours of uneasy shuteye, we woke up and were introduced to our host’s wife and daughter who were both very nice and warm to us. They made us some espresso and we chatted about past Dead shows attended, the scene in Bellingham, and anything else that came to mind. They informed us that the drive to Whistler from Bellingham would take about two and a half hours depending on the border traffic. With that knowledge in mind, we headed north and left our hosts around 10:30am so that we wouldn’t miss too much of the festival slated to start around noon.
The border was packed with throngs of cars ever so slowly edging their way through the border crossing. We spent a good forty-five minutes before finally arriving at the front of the line. The guard woman took our identification and asked a few simple questions like where were we going, how long were we staying, etc. When she finally handed back our ID, she asked us one parting question. "Do you carry a gun?" I did a double take and said, "What? A gun? Um, no." It seemed like that question was from out of left field and should have been one of the first questions she asked us. At any rate, the actual interrogation part of the border crossing was quick and painless. We steered the car through the uprights and began driving across the Canadian soil for the first time in our lives. We were excited. Sleepy, but excited.
We drove for about thirty minutes until we hit major traffic. Getting around the enormous city of Vancouver was going to be a lengthy process. By the time we got past it and traffic started moving freely once again, we had already spent close to two and half hours in the car. To compound the frustration, the speed limits are very slow in Canada. Eighty kilometers per hour may sound fast, but it’s actually very slow. By this time we were close to starving (we expected to be in Whistler by then) so we stopped at a quaint little restaurant and enjoyed a tasty meal of eggs and breakfast meat. We jumped back into the car and were immediately annoyed with the stack of traffic we encountered. Cars were moving very slowly along the winding mountainous roads. The clock kept ticking
and I kept thinking about how I was missing more and more of the festival I had invested so much time and money to witness. When we were about forty kilometers away, the traffic stopped. We crept along for close to forty minutes until things moved again. We didn’t see it, but apparently the traffic back up was due to a large accident on the perilous roads. I was among some of the most beautiful mountainous scenery in the world, but all I could think was that I needed to get out of that damn car.
The total driving time from Bellingham to Whistler ended up taking just over four hours. That’s not too bad of a drive if you are mentally prepared for it. But after driving three hours to Seattle the night before and dancing for that set, driving an hour and half to Bellingham in the middle of the night, and catching only a few hours of sleep on a foreign sleeping surface, it seemed like an eternity. We arrived at our hotel at 3:00pm, three solid hours after the start of the festival, and checked in. Finding the festival grounds wasn’t too difficult and we were at the will call line requesting our tickets in no time. After being fitted with our wristbands, I asked whether or not Garaj Mahal had played yet and they told me that yes, they had already played. Damn! Then they informed us that Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe would not be there because Karl forgot his ID and was not allowed to cross the border. Great! Just great. We were told that a "superjam" would take place instead of the KDTU set. I figured that could mean bonus Garaj Mahal, so while understandably upset, I was not totally devastated.
We walked into the tiny little fenced in yard "festival grounds" right next to the Boot Pub. It was a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the low 70’s. We found a shady grassy spot and laid down to maybe grab a few winks when the next act thundered on stage, a hip-hop group from Vancouver called Sweatshop Union. At this point I thought I might blow a gasket. Too much driving, not enough sleep, no Karl D. and now hip-hop blasting at me? Come on. But the rhymes were very socially conscious and they seemed like good guys. I was surprised to find myself actually enjoying their set. At this point I saw some cops walking around the grounds but noticed no one hiding or putting away their puffables and glass pieces. That’s right, pot is decriminalized here! It was a great thing to see.
After Sweatshop Union’s set, the emcee informed us that a powerjam would take the place of Karl Denson’s set and that it was coming up next. During the break I realized that we were sitting right next to the Boot Pub where the late night Garaj Mahal show would take place later that night. Why not go in and get a tasty beverage? So we headed inside and ordered a few rounds of jack-n-cokes and were feeling warm and fuzzy in no time. When we got out and back over to the festival, the superjam had just taken place. This was such a stellar set of music. Members of Global Funk Council, all of Garaj Mahal, Dr. Didg, all of Sweatshop Union, and percussionist Pepe Danza joined forces to play a phenomenal set of afternoon music in place of Karl’s set. They played mostly Garaj Mahal songs, but they also did a good amount of freeform jamming. Sweatshop Union added some rhymes every now and then while the musicians just went off. Josh Suhrheinrich of Global Funk shredded some nice solos on guitar and Pepe Danza pounded away on various percussion instruments. Kai had some awesome solos and Alan Hertz is one of the meanest drummers on the planet. It was a long powerful set of music that certainly made me the happiest I had been all day. My wife and I danced among the freaky folks with smiles plastered on our weary, slightly buzzed faces.
After that we decided to forego the De La Soul headlining set and head back to the hotel for some food and an invigorating shower. We ate a hearty seafood dinner that was most delicious before freshening up and heading back over to the Boot Pub to see Garaj Mahal. We arrived and Global Funk Council took the stage and played a solid opening set of funky grooves for about an hour. The small bar was impressively packed with music loving freaks of all shapes and sizes. One thing that struck me immediately was that while no one smoked cigarettes, plenty of people were smoking marijuana. Oh yeah, that decriminalization thing again. When I walked out back in between sets I saw people going outside to smoke cigarettes while most people stayed inside to smoke pot. I couldn’t help but think that this is the way it should be everywhere and how stupid America’s harsh pot laws really are. There were no kids here, just responsible adults who could make an informed decision on their own without some intrusive government trying to legislate private personal behavior.
The Garaj Mahal show that followed was nothing short of mind blowing. Everyone in attendance was totally tuned into what the band was doing and even the mellowest of tunes received loud and gracious applause from the attentive crowd. It was easy to see how much the band was enjoying the warm reception. Fareed Haque reeled off buttery-fast solo after solo, stretching the limits of what constitutes a guitar solo.
Kai Echardt was tapping and slapping during his solos while playing inventive perky bass lines during the meat of the tunes. Eric Levy on keyboards and organ was as impressive as ever. He has such a great style that grooves so hard and fits in perfectly with this band. His Chicago persona exudes a gritty hardness that adds an interesting element to the band. And who could forget Alan Hertz on the drums? Pepe Danza sat in on percussion for most of the second set, but it was all eyes on Hertz as he pounded away on his drum set. The way the stage was set up, Alan was directly on the edge of it and people could really watch how he played from up close. There was a group of us standing within inches of Alan just behind him dropping our jaws at his amazing technique. Even Pepe Danza on percussion lost his place once or twice trying to follow the complicated beats of some of the Garaj Mahal tunes.
My wife drive my drunk ass back to the hotel after the show where we slept like two gigantic redwood logs. After all that driving, dancing, and drinking, a good night’s sleep was not only needed, it was unstoppable. Our drive home took almost two and half hours less than our drive to Whistler. One the way home we felt gypped by the lack of Karl Denson when his band was one of the main draws for us. But the organizers reacted quickly enough to create the powerjam set that saved the weekend in my eyes. I still felt like the ratio of driving, hassle, and money spent to music was not as high as preferred, but I didn’t feel totally pimped. I would definitely go back to a Zoophorus Festival in the future…I would just probably fly to Vancouver and rent a car the next time.
It was amazing how much more we enjoyed the drive home to Portland. With no time line, added hours, or the thought of losing money already spent, it whizzed right by. On our way out we marveled at the beautiful scenery that waited for us around every S-curve. It was hard to believe we didn’t appreciate the wondrous surroundings whatsoever on the drive there. Everywhere we looked there were snow-capped peaks, green forested hills, and endless blue skies. And to top it all off, we even made it home in time to make
it over to the Greyboy Allstars reunion show at the Oregon Zoo where I finally got my Karl Denson fix. The next day I spoke with various friends and related our story of trial and eventual musical triumph to them when I received a final kick in the teeth. A friend who stayed in Portland for the weekend told me of his Friday night of music. For five bucks he went to the Waterfront Park downtown and witnessed an hour plus set by the Derek Trucks Band, a set by the Blind Boy of Alabama, and a long set by North Mississippi All-Stars that included Derek Trucks as a guest on guitar for nearly the entire set. I really didn’t need that salt thrown into my open wounds, but shit happens, I guess. It was a tale of two weekends, the weekend that might have been and the one that was. And it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…