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Columns > Rob Johnson - Hittin The Note

Published: 2007/08/02
by Rob Johnson

RRE, D.U.M.B. and 10KLF

Here is the latest column from from Hittin’ The Note staffer (and longtime writer) Rob Johnson. Special thanks, once again, to HTN editor John Lynskey

This column will focus heavily on the recent 10,000 Lakes Festival, but first a few quick hits on some other live music experiences from the past month.

Something special happened at the Variety Playhouse on June 22nd, and I think you should know about it. I’ve always enjoyed Railroad Earth, but I’m not the biggest bluegrass fan, and I never thought I’d consider them one of the greatest bands on Earth. However, after this show, I have no choice but to acknowledge them as one of the most powerful musical forces around.

As with any truly great band, it all starts with the songs, and Todd Sheaffer can be seriously mentioned as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. This show featured classics like “Seven Storey Mountain” and “Like A Buddha,” but also showcased brand new tunes like “For Love” and “Peace On Earth.” At one point I remarked to a friend that these tunes are like timeless, ancient folk songs, except for the fact that Sheaffer is cranking them out right now, in the present tense, one after another, with no sign of the well running dry.

Of course, the other component of a great live band is musicianship and improvisation, and Railroad Earth has both qualities in abundance. The deep jams on “Warhead Boogie” and “Like A Buddha” showed just how psychedelic an acoustic band can get, while “Peace On Earth” bristled with energy and bluegrass tempo. Tim Carbone on violin is a master musician who kills me every time, but John Skehan and the multi-talented Andy Goessling take a back seat to nobody.

The interaction between band and audience is always part of a great show, and this crowd brought their A game as well. “This is going to be a dance contest,” Carbone announced at one point. “Railroad Earth vs. the Variety Theater.” Sheaffer quickly chimed in with mock seriousness “Tim, it’s the Variety Playhouse. Looks like Railroad Earth is off to a rough start.” The best part of this contest was that everybody won.

This band has no weaknesses, and the energy in the Variety was through the roof by the end of the show. It is just a matter of time before RRE dominates the jamgrass section of the jamband scene. Get on the train now, or kick yourself years from now when they are playing arenas for not taking the opportunity to see them in a small, intimate venue like the Variety.

On a less inspiring note, I also attended one of the co-bill “D.U.M.B” shows with the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey’s McGee at the Masquerade Music Park in Atlanta. Bisco came on first, and while there were some enjoyable moments, there is a fine line between “trancey” and “repetitive.” I found many of their jams to be similar, but occasionally they would hit a nice groove, as they did on “Go.”

In fairness, I don’t think even the biggest Bisco fans would say they are a band best enjoyed sober in the afternoon sun. As party music, it obviously works, and their fans were really digging it. However, I definitely felt like I was missing something. Overall, a good show, but it didn’t make me into a big Bisco fan.

Umphrey’s McGee on the other hand, I just don’t like. There is no way to sugar coat it, no reason to beat around the bush, they aren’t my thing. They are talented musicians, they have chops, and there is no denying the craftsmanship of their music. However, I kept thinking of the Pantera album title Vulgar Display Of Power as a description for their sound. Ironically, given their metallic tendencies, they might see that as a compliment. Technically impressive? Yes, sure. Did it move me on an emotional or spiritual level? Not even a little bit.

Of course, the world of music is very subjective, and I had to remind myself that most Umphrey’s fans would probably have been bored to tears by the Railroad Earth show that moved me to the depths of my soul. They probably would have considered the hippie sentiments of “Peace On Earth” and “For Love” hokey, where I thought they were profound and right on the money. It’s a good thing there are so many different kinds of music, that way there is something for everybody, right?

I would love to tell you all about Thursday’s bands at the 10,000 Lakes Festival. I’d love to share with you how Zappa Plays Zappa honored the legacy of one of America’s most unique and talented composers. I’d even love to be able to tell you that I gave Bisco and Umphrey’s another chance, and they blew me away, and now I get it.

If you would like to know why I can’t do that, please call the Air Tran airlines Customer Service line and ask them about their policy of overbooking flights.

So on to Friday, when weekend traffic leaving Minneapolis meant I just barely arrived in time for String Cheese Incident. Better late than never, as this was by far the best incident I’ve ever witnessed.

Given their impending hiatus/breakup/whatever, I was very curious to see if there were any signs of tension among the band members. I was happy to see that the band seemed to be enjoying themselves, and there were no bad vibes on stage. If anything, the impending end of the road (at least for now) appeared to have a liberating effect on the band. They seemed to be living firmly in the now, savoring every second of playing together, because they all knew it might not happen again.

The opening “Outside Inside” jam showed real fire and good interplay between members, with Michael Kang cracking a wide smile when Bill Nershi played some sweet electric guitar riffs. The first set also featured another SCI staple, the title song of their first album Born On The Wrong Planet, and a little bit of everything from bluegrass (“Remington Ride”) to Latin (“Yo Se”) to jazz (a funky version of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Chameleon”). By the time the set ended with “Close Your Eyes” the band had whipped the partisan crowd into a frenzy, and the energy was so thick you could taste it.

After a setbreak, Nershi exclaimed “This weather is fantastic!” before launching into “Restless Wind.” Especially since Billy is the one who precipitated the band’s break, it was good to see him genuinely enjoying himself. Michael Kang, who played great throughout the show, was featured on his tune “Darkness Falls” and ripped up the violin on “Bumpin’ Reel.” The former was especially appropriate with the north country sun just dipping below the horizon when the song was played at around 10 PM.

The second set high another level after a drum break, with Nershi’s Honkytonk Homeslice partner Scott Law adding tasty guitar riffs to “San Jose.” The band kept the momentum rolling with a long, powerful sequence that ran like this: “Joyful Sound>Rollover>Na Melody>Rollover.” This was easily the most entertaining 30 minutes of music I’ve seen the band play, and the crowd was caught up in a tidal wave of energy, with spontaneous roars erupting from the audience during every peak.

I’ve never been the biggest SCI fan, but they seem to be going out on a high note. There was an obvious joy in their performance that was infectious. The Talking Heads classic “Na Melody” was a great choice, and summed up the feelings of many in the audience with lyrics like this:

The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing
It was totally appropriate that the double encore ended with another SCI classic, “On The Road.” Cheese fans may be lamenting the fact that the band is actually leaving the road, at least for now, but the ones at 10KLF saw the band at their very best, winning over a large festival crowd with sheer positivity and stellar musicianship.

Saturday was a full day of music, and more than made up for my transportation difficulties. Keller Williams kicked off the festivities on the Main Stage, but from where I stand, his charm is wearing off. The mark of a great song is that the more you hear it, the more you like it, but tunes like “Freeker By the Speaker” seem fluffier and more insubstantial each time I hear them.

Little Feat, on the other hand, was a great afternoon treat. They kicked off their set with an epic “Dixie Chicken>Tennessee Jed>Hoy Hoy>Dixie Chicken” sandwich jam that showed that these musical legends still have it, nearly 40 years after Lowell George was kicked out of Zappa’s band for partying too hard. Ironically, their version of “Tennessee Jed” may have been stronger than the version Ratdog played later in the day.

Now it was time for a fantastic run of music that started with Gov’t Mule at 6 PM and continued until the Lee Boys shut it down at 3 AM. Any festival would be proud to present such a great run of music, and 10KLF should pat themselves on the back for their strong Saturday lineup.

Mule started off in a reggae mood, with a 1-2 punch of “Hammer and Nails” and “Time To Confess.” The island flavor in their music has grown exponentially over the past few years, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I love the reggae, don’t get me wrong, but I count on Warren and the boys for a fix of hard rockin’ jams.

I got it when they launched into a downright vicious version of “Thorazine Shuffle” that pinned the crowd’s ears back with raw power. Allen Woody was surely smiling down from above on this jam. “Patchwork Quilt” was totally appropriate, since there were many Deadheads in the audience getting warmed up for Ratdog, and there is no better way to endear yourself to a group of Deadheads than playing a song about Jerry.

The set reached a whole new level when Derek Trucks joined the Mule for a scorching hot version of “32-20 Blues.” It was a treat to see Derek and Warren trading licks outside the context of the Allman Brothers Band, two of the best guitarists in the world today pushing each other higher and higher until it seemed that the crowd would explode. “Derek Trucks!,” Warren exclaimed after the song was over, before offering some wise advice. “He’s playing a late night show tonight, don’t miss it.”

“Streamline Woman” is one of the heaviest tunes from High and Mighty, the most recent Mule disc, and it rocked with a strong Zeppelin flavor. “Unring The Bell” is another one from the new album, and continued the strong reggae vibe that had been present throughout the set. Warren tossed in a sly “Shakedown Street” tease at the end, in case anybody had forgotten that Bob Weir was up next.

“Blind Man in the Dark” was another classic from the Woody days, and Warren pummeled his vintage Gibson Firebird into submission with great riff after great riff. The band truly earned an encore, a predictable “Soulshine” that saw a smiling Warren flashing the peace sign to the assembled throngs. Towards the end of the song he threw in a slow-motion “Jessica” tease that was a nice touch, and the Mule left the stage in triumph.

There is no denying the shadow the Grateful Dead cast over the jam scene, even today, and it was obvious that many of the people at 10KLF were there to see Weird Bob. Ratdog’s set kicked off with a strong “Help On The Way>Skipknot!” combo, but where you would expect “Frankin’s Tower” to follow, they dropped into “Liberty” instead. The rest of the first set proceeded in a similar fashion, with strong song choices like “Cassidy” and “Bird Song” that seemed promising, but seemed unfinished and failed to deliver. After the second set, of course, it would all make sense. The set did end on a high note, with a high-energy version of “Big Railroad Blues” that benefited from Warren’s ripping slide work.

After a setbreak came the second set, which was truly powerful and made up for any possible shortcomings in the first. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was inspirational, with Bobby’s best vocal performance of the evening. More than just about anybody else in jamland, Weir embraces his role as oracle/shaman, and his delivery of the apocalyptic Dylan classic was on the money. “I’ll shout from the mountain so all souls can see it,” Bobby sang passionately, and isn’t that the purpose of art in general?

The Miles Davis classic “Milestones” added some jazz flavor, but the real main event of the RatDog show (or the whole weekend, depending on who you ask) was a spectacular, long-form version of “Terrapin Station.” Arguably the most majestic tune in the whole Dead songbook, this brought the crowd to a state of ecstasy. The band sounded full and strong, Weir’s vocals were spot on, and you have to love hearing the lyrics “The spiral light of Venus /rising first and shining best/On, from the Northwest corner/Of a brand new crescent moon” as Venus and a crescent moon both rose behind the Main Stage.

Keller Williams joined the band for the rest of the second set, which was one big payoff after another, taking all the musical tension that was floating around in the air from the unresolved first set jams and resolving it into one neat package of musical release. “Bird Song” and “Cassidy” finally got finished properly, and “One More Saturday Night” on a Saturday is always a good choice, and got the crowd rocking.

“Franklin’s Tower” for the encore wrapped up another loose end from the first set, and “US Blues” was a crowd pleaser that sent everybody away happy. There was a lot of thought put into this setlist, and the second set delivered the goods. It wasn’t quite the Dead, but it was a good show, and the Deadheads in the audience got their fix.

After a very well-done, professional fireworks display, the audience simply had to turn around and walk up the hill to see the Derek Trucks Band, and anyone who didn’t missed the best set of the festival. Many fans know Derek through his work with the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton, but this was a pure dose of the world’s greatest slide guitar player playing with his own band, and he created plenty of fireworks of his own on his trademark red Gibson SG.

After starting in an R&B mode with “Blind, Crippled and Crazy” and “I Wish I Knew,” the band sunk their teeth into the meaty blues of “Crow Jane” with a vengeance. Singer Mike Mattison has patiently waited in the wings much of the summer as the band toured with Derek’s wife Susan Tedeschi, who took most of the vocals on the Soul Stew Revival tour, but here he was busting loose with gritty, bluesy wailing.

“Sahib Teri Bandi” and “Maki Madni” are two traditional Qawwali tunes popularized by the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but Derek has turned them into an Eastern medley that has become one of his signatures. This rendition was a psychedelic vortex, full of whirling dervish intensity, impossibly delicate microtones and banshee screams of guitar transcendence. Anybody who didn’t know what Derek was capable of in the context of his own band was now duly educated.

After that world music excursion, the blues classic “Leaving Trunk” was the perfect change of pace, and Derek’s slide was like a chainsaw on barbed wire. No other young guitarist plays the blues with such authenticity, while still firmly placing his individual stamp on each note. “All I Do” was the only DTB original played at this show, but it was a doozy, allowing Mike’s vocals to shine before it descended into a swirling 7/4 jam that lit the crowd up.

“My Favorite Things” has become another DTB staple, and this version may be a new high-water mark for the band. Ratdog and SCI may have tipped their hat to the jazz genre, but this wasn’t just a jamband pretending to play jazz, or trying to play jazz. This was Jazz with a capital J, performed by a band that knows what it is all about, and it was an amazing performance. Derek was pulling tones out of his guitar that were nothing less than otherworldly, and Kofi Burbridge took an excellent, adventurous piano solo.

The King Curtis classic “Soul Serenade” dripped with deep soul, with Derek testifying on guitar and Mike putting every drop of energy into each word. By this point the band had the crowd in the palm of their hand, and they could do no wrong. “Feel So Bad” built up momentum like a runaway train, careening to a tight stop on a dime.

The band brought out Derek’s younger brother Duane on drums for the next few songs, with drummer Yonrico Scott humorously announcing “He’s 18 and legal, ladies, and he likes pina coladas.” The Allman Brothers classic “Stand Back” got the crowd moving and featured some of Derek’s best playing, at one point breaking down to a brotherly duet between Duane and Derek. “For My Brother” was appropriate, given Duane’s presence, and a red-hot exchange of riffs between Derek and Kofi that was the highlight of the whole festival. These two great musicians pushed each other to stratospheric heights, and the crowd responded with a roar.

“Up Above My Head” had a strong gospel flavor, and the band took the crowd to church on this number. My Superlative Thesaurus is running low on ways to describe Derek’s playing, but all I can say is seek out the recording of this show. The three T’stone, taste and techniquewere in ample evidence in Derek’s playing. Any guitarists watching this show probably walked away thinking one of two things: Either “I need to practice more” or “I need to give up playing guitar entirely.”

When the band launched into “Key to the Highway” for the encore, a guy next to me cracked “I’ll bet you he doesn’t take a raging guitar solo.” Let’s just say that he lost his bet before the song was even halfway over. Wow is all that can be said.

After DTB finished up, it was over to the cozy Saloon Stage, a full-blown bar/club right in the middle of the festival grounds. This is a good idea, and the Lee Boys sanctified the building with their hard-hitting “Sacred Steel”-influenced music. “This is how we do it EVERY Sunday morning,” they proudly proclaimed at one point.

Since the last time I saw the Lee Boys, they have started incorporating other musical styles into the mix, and with interesting results. It was unusual to see this church-bred group flashing “metal horns” in the air during one particularly heavy jam.

Even so, the highest points were Sacred Steel classics like “Without God” and “Joyful Sounds,” two tunes from The Word CD that many associate with Robert Randolph. Pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier can rightly be compared with Randolph, and may even be the better musician of the two. Their set went right up to 3 AM, finishing with an original tune called “Can You Feel The Music?” that had the crowd literally jumping for joy and clapping in time to the music. Big props to the Lee Boys for ending the festival in style.

The hardest thing for any festival to do is create that unique vibe that only the best fests seem to produce, and 10KLF definitely has the vibe in spades. 10KLF wasn’t just a good music festival, it was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended. Band after band commented on how much they enjoyed playing there, and I can see why. I know I’m planning on going back next year, and you should too.

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