Langerado: ‘Just A Music Festival’
“At least they’re not too deep,” I thought as I stared down into the murky, bubbling marshes of south Florida after the plane jumped hard enough to spill a little of my five dollar (cash only!) drink onto my tray table. Upon further reflection I thought better of it, wishing we were thirty miles further east with a nice soft cushion of warm subtropical ocean below us, but I hadn’t come for the beach. I had just left 70 degree temperatures in Virginia, so the late morning sunshine and humidity that seeped through the pressure seals of the cabin weren’t too much of a shock. Besides, I was already in my cargo shorts and flip-flops, happy to have occasion to don my summer festival gear for the first time.
Two weeks later, I’d be bundled up in a stocking cap and thermal socks again as the last of winter’s cold spells descended upon the Tidewater, but for the time being, my mind’s eye couldn’t see beyond Monday morning. In just four years, the Langerado Music Festival had become one of the few left that inspired nary a negative remark from my musical acquaintances. Stepping into the Ft. Lauderdale sun amidst scantily clad sorority girls and not a few fellow festival-goers was like walking through the doors of a time machine and finding myself in the middle of June 1997. Langerado truly is the start of the festival season, and this year’s edition will be hard to top.
My weekend compatriot stepped off the shuttle bus an hour later, and after a little trouble at the Avis counter, we loaded up the trunk of our Saturn Vue, engulfed ourselves in the new car smell and promptly got lost on our way to the hotel. After fifteen busy signals and six gas stations, we finally made our way into room 226 and laid ourselves out for a preparatory power nap before the Friday evening “Soundcheck” at Markham Park just five miles down the road.
A sparsely filled and sketch-free lot where Frisbees flew and beer flowed delayed our entrance, but though I missed Theresa Anderson’s set, I got my fair share of Americana from Hot Buttered Rum. Although some is better than others, bluegrass is bluegrass: regardless of where you might hear it, it still sounds like home. The Colorado quintet brought my beloved mountains down to the Everglades, and as the acoustic warmth replaced that of the sun now ironically setting behind the Sunrise stage, I dropped my burdens and took a rest on the still pristine grass.
Empirical festival law states that attention spans shrink in direct proportion to the number of stages, and when I had had my fill of Appalachian innocence, Buckethead’s wicked blend of heavy metal and B-movie horror schtick was the perfect foil. The surreality of watching a grown man in a white mask with a KFC bucket on his head play with both a guitar and Barbie dolls would be entertainment enough, but the chicken-hearted one’s sick speed metal riffs and pounding technocore beats make his show a truly jarring experience. With all the goofy sci-fi gore, I imagined a nine year-old guitar savant beneath the mask, able to communicate only through Slayer riffs, but fortunate enough to have the entire stage as his toybox.
My own toybox filled to overflowing as the Buckethead set closed and I was forced to pick between the melodic indie instrumentalism of the Benevento-Russo Duo and the emo-hippie jams of Perpetual Groove. While the Duo paints lush sonic landscapes that leave room for listeners to insert their own emotions onto the canvas, Perpetual Groove’s existential lyrics and more conscious use of tension and release are tighter and less open to interpretation. But they both create big sounds, and I wondered at the logic of scheduling them opposite each other. Life’s full of tough choices, but with most of the weekend’s crowd still on the road somewhere, the sparsely populated grounds allowed ample space to wander between the Swamp Tent and Sunrise Stage, so I was happy to be presented with option d) “all of the above.”
After banging and blipping through “Sunny Song” and others from the brilliant Best Reason to Buy the Sun, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo worked out a few more obscure tunes, one of which found the beatmaster trading in his crashing sticks for a more subdued acoustic guitar, but as the set closed, they returned to their familiar formula of epic melodies and improvisational accents as Russo pounded Benevento’s gurgling keyboard stream into a thousand tiny droplets, a few of which fell on a short tease of Wilco’s “Muzzle of Bees.”
Meanwhile, Perpetual Groove started in on their distinct nu-jam, propelled by guitarist Brock Butler’s Trey-esque tone and soaring sustain. There’s a fine line between improvisation and repetition, and P-Groove bobs and weaves around it like a microbus on the interstate at 3 a.m., but as “Only Always” soared into orbit around ten minutes, not a soul was still in the all but hometown crowd. As the lights rose and fell, the energy under the Swamp Tent built in stages, and by the time Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt” oozed overhead, a rock break was due. The unabashedly emo-esque lyrics of “It Begins Where It Ends” walked another fine line between sincerity and clichbut as Butler led his bandmates into the closing “Speed Queen,” the crowd wept for the bleeding hearts on stage, only to be shoved into a rage by a solid encore of “Bulls on Parade.”
Empty lots mean easy exits, but directionally challenged males means late arrivals, so though I was disappointed to miss Rose Hill Drive, I was happy to wade through the packed crowd and get a spot in front of the Culture Room’s stage-right speakers: the Drive-By Truckers should be experienced at maximum volume, hearing loss be damned. They’ve been called America’s Greatest Rock Band more than a few times, and their live show never fails to defend the title.
The Truckers’ three-tongued guitar beast feeds on the crowd, and though this one was tame at the start, a little whiskey and a lot of rock soon got fists pumping. Opening with Mike Cooley’s “Zip City,” the Truckers took a while to warm up through their new single “Feb 14,” Jason Isbell’s rocker “Never Gonna Change” and Patterson Hood’s everyman lament, “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” but a take on “Rebel,” dutifully credited to Florida’s own Tom Petty, readied the crowd for Isbell’s “Easy on Yourself,” the heaviest tune on the upcoming A Blessing and a Curse.
Isbell, Hood and Cooley traded blues-rock riffs on the Stonesy “Aftermath,” but it was the vindicated rage of “Sinkhole” and beauty of “Outfit” that finally filled the belly of the beast. More than a mutual Skynyrdophilia connects the Truckers with the late Warren Zevon, but their cover of “Play It All Night Long” cemented the bond.
The closer, Hood’s “Lookout Mountain,” left the crowd hungry for more rock, but the long encore started soft, as bassist Shonna Tucker guided her boys through Hood’s “Goodbye,” and Isbell serenaded the crowd on “Goddamn Lonely Love.” After Hood’s bizarre tale of a mother’s resurrection on “18 Wheels of Love,” the three-guitar attack went into full rock assault. They returned to the Skynyrd myth on “Get On the Plane” and “Let There Be Rock” before welcoming the guitarist from openers Radio on the power chord blitzkrieg of “People Who Died” and the pissed-off white trash punk lament of “Buttholeville,” leaving my cohort and me to stumble out into the warm Florida Friday night with pounding heads and satisfied hearts, doubtful of our long-term stamina, but assured of our commitment to get more of whatever that wasafter a solid night’s rest.
After the first night’s feast, it was easy to lay fat and happy in our clean, soft hotel beds long after the sun had risen, but the sound of spring breaking females outside our window eventually aroused us to coffee and a smoke on the balcony. Another longer-than-expected trip to the beer aisle and a longer wait on the winding roads into Markham Park delayed our entry, and the beckoning festival vibe was in full swing as we hurried over the slightly rutted grass to the front gates where security consisted of a friendly hello and a passing glance into our bags.
Starting where I had left off, I high-stepped it back to the Swamp Tent, where the professional efficiency of Langerado dashed my hopes for the once ubiquitous tardiness of the hippie festival. I approached an empty stage where I had hoped to find Lotus closing out their day-opening set, and grabbed a spot on the rail for the indie-rock atmospherics of Lake Trout. Though the Baltimore quintet’s change in direction seems to have alienated some of their once rabid jamfans, a few forward-thinking connoisseurs made sure to get up close and personal. After flailing and banging through the skull-crushing electro-rock of “Bully,” bassist James Griffith sat down with his baritone guitar for the calmer quiet of “Not Them, You,” building up to Sonic Youth noise before crashing into the older “Bliss.” Old-school fans were treated to the modified electro-groove and industrial Ministry clatter of “Let Me Show You What I’m Used To” > “Stigmata,” but Lake Trout closed its set firmly in the present on “Pill.”
As I wandered the grounds with open ears waiting for my second Truckers helping, my first epiphany came from the Everglades Stage, where Kinky’s blend of worldwide dance grooves and hardcore techno moved the still-yawning crowd to pogoing hysterics. My personal biases eventually got the better of me, though, as my feet moved towards the Sunrise Stage, where a set of tired repeats from the previous night chastened me to trust my ears. Even at their worst, the Truckers are still the best rock and roll band around, but eventually I had seen enough and huffed it back to the Swamp Tent, where RJD2 bled his Horror out onto vinyl and sent heavy beats and screaming sirens into the corners of the grounds.
Two crowds mingled between the Sunrise and Sunset stages: those anticipating Umphrey’s McGee got some pre-set positive vibrations from Michael Franti and Spearhead, and Umphrey’s returned the favor afterwards. Burning Spear showed the Langerado throngs who really is the most magnetic rastaman, though, preaching over his band’s slow roots reggae while weirdo pop eclecticists Brazilian Girls rocked blue feather boas and exotic street beats in the Swamp.
Though blues rock got top billing at this year’s Langerado (Ben Harper Saturday, Black Crowes Sunday), two of the must-see sets came from the festival’s ambitious pairing of jamband mainstays and indie giants. Few shows are as anticipated as a Flaming Lips concert: rather than springs, pulleys and pyrotechnics, however, the Lips’ DIY aesthetic found them on the stage putting the finishing touches on sound glitches and spectacle enhancers. As the nervous energy built, Wayne Coyne rode the wave, urging the crowd on before finally emerging from the sky in a giant plastic bubble and surfing over the crowd and onto the stage as his bandmates’ extended intro eventually dropped into the joyful glory of “Race for the Prize.”
Amidst “Bohemian Rhapsody” karaoke, fake blood from a “Gash,” nun puppets singing “Yoshimi,” and a none-too-subtle, politically charged “War Pigs,” the Lips found time to preview “Free Radicals” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” from their guitar-leaning At War with the Mystics due out in about a month. No one with a spark of childhood still left in his heart could walk away from a Flaming Lips show without a smile temporary-tattooed onto his face, and it seems that the old Dead adage has found a new home in the new millennium: “There is nothing in the world like a Flaming Lips concert.”
The only down note, in fact, was my surety that nothing else that night could possibly touch what I had just witnessed. In the Swamp Tent, the Disco Biscuits broke in their new drummer, Allen Aucoin, who kept up through a seemingly interminable “I-Man,” wading through several flavors of jam, as well as “Cyclone,” before falling back into itself. Though Aucoin filled the spot admirably, his steady trance thump lacked the playful intricacies of the former Sam Altman, and it may be a while before he finds his niche in the band’s trancefusion style.
As I admired Ben Harper’s conscious stew of blues, rock and reggae from several hundred yards back at the merch tent waiting for Brad, I finally took a breath and appreciated what I’d witnessed. With two sets from Umphrey’s McGee still to go, we both counted our losses and our blessings and headed for the turnstiles, hoping to beat the traffic that was sure to dwarf last night’s exodus.
If I had one complaint about the entire weekend, it would be the utter chaos of the post-show Saturday night lot traffic. While we were apparently lucky to have only waited two hours, our good fortune didn’t ease the pain of missing the first set at Revolution, which was overflowing by the time we arrived to catch the last few measures of “Bridgeless.”
Considering the monumental triumph of mind over sleep deprivation the Chicago jam heroes were in the midst of accomplishing, however, we had little to complain about. After finishing a milestone show at the Chicago Theater the night before and playing a mid-day set at Langerado, Umphrey’s McGee still had the stamina to work late into the night at the outdoor club, only to jump the pond for club dates in Europe two days later. There’s a reason Umphrey’s McGee is blowing up, and it’s not just their water-tight licks.
The second half at Revolution was a virtually non-stop affair, with “Nothing Too Fancy” Big Mac-ing a “Push the Pig” sandwich that brought the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein out for a “Jazz Odyssey” before revisiting the two bands’ Jam Cruise collaborations on “Another Brick in the Wall.” After Ryan Stasik returned to reclaim the bass, Jon Gutwillig commandeered Brendan Bayliss’s PRS to spar through a jam with Jake Cinninger until Bayliss took back both his guitar and the set to take a brief break and return to “Push the Pig.” “Resolution” and “Norwegian Wood” also duked it out before a long “Jimmy Stewart” fed the crowd’s jam jones. They nailed A Flock of Seagull’s “I Ran” before segueing back into “Nothing Too Fancy,” and a tight but short “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” could be forgiven considering the band’s impending travel plans.
Another late night assured another late morning, but with plenty of good music left to see, we eventually found the energy to motivate, and though I was disappointed to miss Brothers Past, whose album, This Feeling’s Called Goodbye, was one of the best of 2005, I took comfort in knowing that we’d be there for their late night opening slot at the Culture Room (little did I know). We did, however, make it in time to get a proper Sunday Florida sermon from Mofro and the new-look JJ Grey, whose shorn locks and trimmed beard seemed to hint at a departure for the erstwhile “Dirtfloorcracker.” Grey & Co. cleaned up their dirty swamp funk with a three-piece horn section, suggesting a move towards a poppier everyman blues that was fully present on “Brighter Days.”
After bathing in muddy, swamp funk, my ears perked up to the Latin Devo techno pop of Los Amigos Invisibles, but it wasn’t enough to deter me from my favorite weekend spot, where Kid Koala was cutting up beautiful jazz pop under the tent. While his breaks and scratches sliced up the words, they weren’t enough to kill the songbird or its song, which drifted out on a light breeze over the awestruck crowd. The Kid’s billowy atmospheres were just quiet enough to hypnotize, and as he left the stage, I stayed behind to await Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whom I had been looking forward to since the Langerado line-up was announced months before.
Others apparently shared my anticipation as the Swamp Tent was packed full even early in the day. Proving that the fringes of pop culture is a fun place to be, CYHSY partied through most of its brilliant debut, inspiring the crowd to do exactly as its name suggests. Hand claps bounced off the canvas tent roof as the band shuffled through its Talking Heads meets Violent Femmes repertoire, dancing like children and smiling in spite of themselves on “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” “Is This Love?” and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood.” They blasted through the album opener that bears their name, commanding you to do what you’ve been doing all alongclap your hands! say yeah!and closing the set with one of the festival’s most transcendent moments, Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
My plan all along had been to camp out for Wilco, but even from a hundred yards away, the bluesy gospel funk of Robert Randolph and the Family Band couldn’t be denied. My neighbors at the foot of the Sunset Stage felt it, too, and cheered as loudly as their counterparts at the Sunrise Stage as Randolph’s pedal steel took a “Push It/Funky Cold Medina” medley to church and screamed through “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” A raved-up “War Pigs,” sent a twinge of regret through us, but as Wilco took the stage, our diligence was vindicated.
Looking fat, happy, and every bit the elder rock statesman he’s become, Jeff Tweedy played the role of the wise professor, opening with Woody Guthrie’s “Airline Plane” as airport traffic came and went miles behind the stage. After a reworked “Kingpin” got down and dirty, Dr. Tweedy’s brief lecture on rock star/audience etiquette got a good chuckle from the adoring crowd, and “Handshake Drugs” proved that people who take drugs like singing along with songs about taking drugs. “Shot in the Arm” highlighted the distinguishing grey hairs sprouting up in Tweedy’s muddled mane, and noise-wiz Nels Cline elicited a huge sound from the huge band, now bloated to six pieces.
But if Wilco has become Tweedy’s self-indulgence, at least it’s a vice he has control of. The opening quiet of “At Least That’s What You Said” ballooned into rusty metal machine music, only to be polished on “Hell is Chrome.” The female contingent swooned to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” before Cline afforded himself his own luxuries, then proved that he really is capable of anything, playing the perfect honkytonk lead on “Forget the Flowers.” “Heavy Metal Drummer” paid tribute to the beginning of summer, and “Monday” closed the set with arena rock fitting a band that has become larger than itself.
As on the previous night, I was left with all my wishes fulfilled, but there was still plenty left to enjoy. After the Black Crowes’ opening numbers, I took one last stroll to my favorite spot, where the Secret Machines built their melodic noise rock to huge, cathartic walls of sound, giving me one more secret to take home. When the lights went down in the Swamp Tent, I moseyed back to seventh grade, when the Black Crowes were the only band on MTV that had much to do with my life. Though my pre-adolescent disillusionment had starting veering into heavy metal, songs like “Hard to Handle,” “Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again,” and “Twice as Hard” still made a lot more sense than bullet-fast power chords and machine gun drums, and as “Remedy” closed out the weekend, I couldn’t help but smile at how Langerado had managed to bring it all full circlenot just the weekend, but music in general.
Making our way out of the parking lot, it became clear that we weren’t going to make it to the Culture Room in time for Brothers Past’s opening set, and accepting the reality that had now forced itself upon us, Brad and I both admitted that a few hours of sleep would serve well for our return to life as normal on Tuesday. I don’t even remember hitting the pillow.
As I choked down my breakfast of greasy, overpriced airport fast food, I found my own sentiments echoed in South Florida’s Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald newspapers. At the press conference, Langerado cofounder Ethan Schwartz commented that “Jambands opened my ears to so many different styles of music, and I think at a certain point, [Langerado cofounder] Mark [Brown] and I just wanted to have a music festival. Not a jamband festival, not a metal festival, not a rap festival. Just a music festival.” As the jamband scene continues to grow both out and up, it has begun to consume itself, proving that man cannot live on jam alone.
Those that grew out of the late Dead and Phish scenes are aging into their thirties, forties, and even fifties, but it’s the younger contingent that is fueling the turnaround. They’re the ones without kids. They’re the ones with time to read magazines. They’re the ones with disposable income and enough vacation days to fly or drive to Florida from Ohio, Iowa, Maine and California. And most importantly, they’re the ones with the intelligenceboth musical and generalto know that a rich musical experience, by necessity, must be varied and diverse.
Of course, there are still the eighteen year-olds that make up such a hugeand vitalpart of this scene. These are the kids that are still defining their tastes, and the fun, adventurous spirit of jambandstheir willingness to walk the tightropeis exactly what will eventually bring these kids around to the song craft of Wilco and the ecstatic abandon of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, as much from their desire to grow beyond their confines as the very passion they have for jambands.
This year’s Bonnaroo line-up reflects that maturity more than any other festival, though some would say it’s lost touch with its roots. Several of my more indie-averse friends would probably like to have a few words with the folks at Superfly and AC Entertainment. Langerado, on the other hand, seems to be the first festival to have truly made peace with itself, accepting its own tastes that some elitists might consider embarrassing, but welcoming those same naysayers into the festival fold. If I had to choose a side, I’d go with Florida over Tennessee any day. Besides, the weather’s nicer and I can take a shower.