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Vegoose 2007 Three of a Different Kind

Desert Turntables and Jamband Musings in the Middle of the Field

The third Vegoose Festival held over Halloween weekend in Las Vegas was an eclectic assortment of audio and visual offerings during a key transitional period in music. In the past, one traveled to festivals to get a sense of community along with a great lineup of bands and the opportunity to see something new. Vegoose Mach 3 delivered on that live music creed but did so in a fashion that seemed more akin to the warped middle of the field Sin City legend than any electronica, indie rock or hippie love fest template.

With a bill that featured Daft Punk, Gogol Bordello, STS9, Cypress Hill, M.I.A., the Shins, Queens of the Stone Age, Rage Against the Machine and a quintet of jamband veteransALO, Robert Randolph, Michael Franti, Umphrey’s McGee and moe.one felt at home and perversely alienated from the banquet. If anything, the communal vibe was replaced by a more explicit curiosity as to how this bill was going to play out. None of the bands were huge headliners but there was enough interest in most of the marquee names to attract a similar crowd turnout to its 2006 brethren. And it was with that sense of “what the heck? STS9 playing at the same time as heavy rock leviathans Mastodon and on a stage right next to them?” that I also felt that the festival somehow managed to juggle this cross mix of entertainment without too much of a mental gear shift.

Friday – October 26 Thievery in the moe. Republic Corporation

The festival proper began on Friday night and immediately symbolized how the next 50+ hours would pan out. Thievery Corporation was due to hit the House of Blues stage at midnight but chose to arrive at 1am instead, which would have been fine but I also wanted to catch moe. at the Joint so timing is critical in these matters. The hour delay was acceptable once TC hit the stage as their army of knob twisters, drum machines, rotating female singers and cool lounge dance music went over very well with the packed crowd. The band would later put on another display of psychedelic velvet cocktail music in a Sunday afternoon setting but the late night atmosphere at the House of Blues appeared to be a much better surreal environment to catch the Washington D.C. group.

Timing is criticalthree words in the third year of Vegoose that are always important at festivals but especially so this year. After an hour of the TC house music on acid imagery, I drove down the street to catch moe. at the Joint. As soon as I walked through the doors, moe. hit the stage for the second set of their late night gig and all seemed right with the world. Then againit already seemed like some rich exotic dream. Wasn’t I just at a very exclusive and hipster Thievery Corporation show where a post-TRL Carson Daly was hobnobbing with the out-of-town heady fans while the floor was filled with a dancing mob of Sin City tourists? Yes, indeed, I was. moe. second set was for the hardcore jamband fan and featured long exploratory adventures with a huge highlight appearing out of a drum solothe Grateful Dead’s “The Other One,” a song and a band that was never shy about surreal environments. Later, Chuck Garvey teased Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It On Home” before moe. headed down their own jam avenues.

Saturday October 27 “Now go get your shoeshine box.”

Battles began my day and they are a sort of allstar hardcore/metal supergroup but labels aside, the band plays a very interesting mix of abstract hard rock that could take the legions far into the stratosphere if the band settles down into structured songwriting. Definitely a band to watch. Lupe Fiasco includes some soul, hip-hop and an MC and two turntables and you can include that description for many of the acts that were presented on Saturday. I think the turntable, MC, Apple computer versus guitar and drums ratio was 2 to 1 in some sort of weird post-record label (PRL?) frontier. If Sunday was going to a mix of jam and very hard rock then Saturday would be the day where Turntable is King.

Blonde Redhead are a band that is probably far more at home in a theatre setting with their very cool blend of Sonic Youth meets Stereolab variety. The band appeared willing to tackle the festival challenge but I’m not sure if this was the right venue for their subtle mixture of sublime chaos. However, they are a band that can write a memorable tune. STS9 went over very well as their sound continues to evolve with sampled electronica mixed into a cool, dance-heavy lounge package. The deep afternoon grooves transcended the afternoon setting and would have been a masterpiece set if it wasn’t for the bizarre decibels coming from the nearby Double Down Stage featuring Mastodon.

Mastodon delivers brainiac metalheck, they covered Melville’s Moby Dick on a recent albumcomplete with a goat god backdrop lest you forget their metaphysical influences. I actually thought they were quite good but had a devil of a time detangling the sounds coming from STS9’s Jokers Wild Stage and the Mastodon onslaught. Perhaps the stages were too close together or it was one of those “best laid plans of mice and promoter” trips that went array. One thing was for surefor writers looking for a symbolic event to nail down a feature thesis, *THIS WAS IT*STS9 fighting to be heard over the Satanic Rawk shooting out from the next-door neighbor’s house. Welcome to the 21st Century.

The crowd was buzzing around as the strange dichotomy of STS9’s excellent set playing right next to Mastodon’s thunderous stage served as a reminder that 2007 has endured a deep musical transitional period. Heck, the musicians got involved with that sentiment, too. “Welcome to an afternoon of guitar tuning,” quipped Mastodon’s rhythm guitarist. I jot down a note “What’s the deal with the long lines for the House of Axe?” Reminiscent of the festival-length long ass snake crawl line that sat outside the Jazz tent at Bonnaroo in June, there was a lengthy strand of festival goers waiting for the 3-D haunted house. Suffice to sayI waited until the line was down to about ten people (sorry, I never stand in any line at a festival as I just don’t want to miss something) and the house was in 3-D and was visually stimulating but didn’t appear haunted. Either that or all of the pale faced ghosts were outside. Not sure. Speaking ofthe Michael Jackson cat (dudenot an actual feline, silly literal reader) in the Impersonator’s Cafas a strange highlight as he didn’t appear to be so much receiving MJ signals from sort of cosmic 80s musical time machine as hydroplaning on a karaoke surfboard over his entire wacked-out persona. Weird yet good and appropriate for a city that doesn’t separate the wax from the flesh.

Atmosphere was a trip of another variety. Minnesota hip-hop? Absolutely. Midwestern rap? Sure, why notcomplete with a shout out for the rarely seen desert clouds on a beautiful pre-sunset Vegas afternoon. [Author’s Note: D vu? Perhaps. Those last four sentences were my favorite summary contribution to the Golden Goose, the daily onsite newspaper, and if you’re going to steal in Vegas, steal from yourself.] Atmosphere served as a very entertaining appetizer for the heavyweights of old school in-your-damn-face rap with the appearance of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill on adjoining stages. Suffice to saytheir sets were loud, familiar hook-laden, crowd-friendly and downright odd because why were they both playing at the same time on different stages?

Then againracing between the two areas gave one a sense of strong cultural history as both acts have not only paved many roads but also consolidated much of what was excellent about their genregiving a strong, articulated political voice back to the people and making them dance their asses off all at the same time. Cypress Hill’s setwhere grammar is optionaltook place on a set that featured the massive skeleton king in a blue and white robe with a gold crowd while sitting in a matching gold and red throne. They also bitchslapped their own brand of Saturday’s de rigueur turntable mixing.

Public Enemy was all positive rage and transcendent goosebumps as soon as they kicked into “Welcome to the Terrordome.” If you can’t get into this kind of music, you really need to check your pulse. PE had a full band and Chuck D as the master of ceremonies before a determined and focused (apparently, not always the case with this music icon and VH-1 reality show heavyweight) Flavor Flav hit the stage to share in shouts, exhortations, chants, cheerleading and Old Testament monologues that were surprisingly very effective. The Enemy have not dated in one way, shape or form and their performance proved that the key is TO WRITE GOOD SONGS, PEOPLE. “Fight the Power” from the landmark album, Fear of a Black Planet closed the show and left quite a lasting impression during a day of turntables, heavy rock and old school showmanship.

The Red Sox were making a mockery of the Fall Classic in the Sports Lounge in Game 3 at Coors Field in Colorado as their empire-building quest continuedtwo series wins in four years is a strong caseand proof positive that if you think your site editor isn’t at a locationwell, think again. If the Red Sox are on, BUDNICK IN DA HOUSE, BRAH!

The Shins were also on top of their game and offered a warm, powerful set that has appeared to evolve as the band continues its quest to fill arenas in that currently rock-oriented vacated role. M.I.A. is a very exotic transcontinental turntable dance party with a lead singer from Sri Lanka who eventually invites the crowd up on stage. Stage doesn’t collapse and the entire gig was a firm reminder that in a live setting, the wall between performers and audience should never be upthat two-way energy is central to the performance and the band delivered a powerful funky reminder of that fact. The coda included a bulging stage filled with crowd members, a massive percussion assault and the trippy feeling that we were about to see a crushing disaster. Thankfully, no.

The rest of the evening obviously featured headliners but also another wonderfully opposing view of what live music could beon one hand, you had Iggy & the Stooges presenting a full run through of their class album Fun House and the Queens of the Stone Age pummeling the masses with their hard rock and on the other handor the other deal from another entirely different deckyou got Thievery Corporation with its hip lounge shadings before the main event of all Aud/Vis Main Events, Daft Punk bludgeoned heavy disco electronica brainnoodlery at a high three-figure decibel range.

To be sure, Daft Punk was the main attraction and took their Saturday headliner/last act on the bill status very seriously as the famous French duo who playwait for itturntables, computers, keyboards and preprogrammed samplesappeared atop a pyramid and gave a truly mindbending feast for eyes and ears as the light show was neo-Floydian and the sublime electronica was bereft of its usual stuck-in-the-same-lousy-groove funk. There wasn’t a hint of flab in their set and they could have continued all night as the audience was united as one for probably the only time during this entertaining yet challenging weekend of diverse bands.

After all of the day’s events with MCs, turntables, drum machines and people rapping about Dick Cheney’s dental records, Umphrey’s McGee at the House of Blues was a very welcome reminder that when one comes to a festival, one should bring the long, sweet jam, as well. As the now decade-old band (has it been that long, already?) has done on numerous occasions from Manchester to Amsterdam and back, again, the men from the Windy City offered a crowd-pleasing performance of old favorites and new adventurous voyages. David Murphy from STS9 replaced Ryan Stasik on bass on “Dump City” and proved to be a welcome addition after his own excellent set earlier in the day.

Umphrey’s McGee appears on the cusp on some sort of long overdue but well-earned greatness. One can only hope that all of their work in the studio and on stage will be consolidated into a second decade of success on another level. And on that long and lengthy well-played and celebratory notethe band all died’ at the end of their two-set gig at the 4am mark while collapsing on stage (kudos to Brendan Bayliss for managing to grab his beer bottle from his amp while laying on the stage during his prone death scene). We all went back to sleep it off until the sun came out, againwhich was in a mere two hours or so. What, me sleep? Yes. Yes, indeed.

Sunday October 28 “Quid, Me Jaman?”

Umphrey’s McGee signaled the segue into the jam during the late night Saturday festivities and Sunday’s schedule included a quintet of stellar jam veterans. ALO began the jam-dominated Snake Eyes Stage day in full pirate/Halloween regalia and delivered their set in character“We are the Pirates of Rock” complete with arrghs and rrrrhss (yes, I wrote those grunts down) and pirate lyrics with lusty double entendre lyricsbooty, taboot. They played a very tight, controlled and exhilarating set of strong material while making a valid claim for the Band to Continue to Watch in 2008 crown. Do it.

Robert Randolph offered a great afternoon set which was abbreviated at 60 minutes instead of the planned 90 minutes for reasons that escape me. When The Police ended their Bonnaroo gig way too early back in June, I understood because that group includes Sting and he isn’t the brightest bulb in the festival chandelier. However, Randolph cutting out early? Suffice to say, his brand of church meets the streets via very strong lap steel guitar is always welcome, especially on a very warm, sunny afternoon. Jason Crosby on keyboards was also a nice standout as the band rode the wave through a sweet passage that included covers of “Poison” and “Purple Haze” filtered into the Randolph prism.

Umphrey’s followed and played a set of progressive jam that featured a very nice closing sequence of “Alex’s House>Mulche’s Odyssey” that went over very well. They even threw in a Halloween reference with “Wizard Burial Ground,” which would come into further play when the band hit Colorado on October 31 and encored with the number in their first themed performance in four years. Meanwhile, Michael Franti and Spearhead did what they do best when they are in their festival elementget everyone up on their feet dancing, having fun and “HOWYAFEELIN!” without a bummer in sight. Franti continues to be a big presence on the global scene and he didn’t miss a beat in Vegas as he continues his tractor beam-like hold on large crowds. He also rolled out his familiar medleya sweet cocktail of Marley and Frantiwhich delivered the high charm factor.

moe. closed out the stage for the day with another focused set of jamband favorites that had them gleefully pushing the boundaries of where a group can take improvisation. If you didn’t feel the band pushing you to groove along with them then you either had a really bad hangover or were still dead from the night before. Alas, I was neither and was very happy to have seen moe. twice in their rare visits to the Left Coast region of America. All in all, the band’s Vegas appearances were a very solid reminder that as they continue on their own journey, their music continues to endure because a) the music is challenging, b) the sound is consistently evolving and c) they ROCK, stupid.

Titan Jamband Champs asidethe day also featured another grab bags of the beautifully
weirdmultiple rappers, early afternoon salsa with rumba party music via a set from Ghostface Killah and the Rhythm Roots Allstarsto the killer dance floor motif currently preferred by Infected Mushroom in an incendiary performance that towered over Saturday’s similar performances.

Muse was a real eye-opener as I had initially pegged them as mini-indie rock vets from the UK and boy, was I wrongwrongwrong. Take equal parts Kinks, add in a dash of old school Oasis bluster and slam in some heavy U2esque hard, aggressive arena rock and you havenext to Daft Punkthe perfect example of how much you need to act like a headliner at every gig if you want to be a headliner at every gig. Very strong performance by some cats not willing to allow the moment to passand that is the difference between a live show and one where the sounds are pre-selected. Nuff said on dat, stewdunces.

Ohand the drummer wore a Spider-man outfit which covered that base, too.

BasesSox are up 2-0 in the fifth inning of Game 4 of of a seven game series (uhno) and I can hear the screams from South Boston (and parts of Rhode Island) from the Sports Lounge. You can’t shake an old turntable without hitting someone in a Boston Red Sox jersey and ye smells a bit of bandwagon rape and pillage in Sin City

Unkle offered yet another feast of keyboards, computers, guitar>bass>drums with electronic dance pop rock but they also indicated a keen willingness to step outside of that well-honed box and venture into the sacred of land of loose acid rock mind trips. I actually think that if they refined and perfected their loose bag of demented influences that the band could be quite a presence on the live stage. Definitely a minor breakout performance for Vegoose and hopes are high that the band can channel its trance-like vibe into something curiously addictive for the masses.

Rage Against the Machine served as Sunday’s closing headliner and like Daft Punk, the band knew who everyone had come to see. Unlike the French electronica superstars, the Machine is all sweat, passion and unexpected moments of opportunity that one finds at the best live events. The band’s recent reunion was welcome, especially during times of a) HOPEFULLY, political upheaval and b) a musical stagnation that threatens to push music to the periphery of not only American but international culture. Playing live is something that is not going to become an unfashionable artifact. However, it is a shame if the simple fact that one can literally get any music at the touch of one’s fingers for FREE replaces the notion that said acquisition is the equivalent to a band playing with all of its seasoned resources during a real time event. Hence, the power of the festival and the power of a band like Rage Against the Machine to create a very tangible link and buzz that surround the audience long before they even hit the stage.

The third (I hesitate to write annual because one never knows about such things) Vegoose Festival was a success despite its strange reliance on bands that offered similar music while battling bands that tear it down old school hard rock style. In the end, the live experience was delivered on an audio/visual level that continues to challenge the fan without appearing to be too contrived in a very contrived settingVegas ain’t subtle nor should it besee Hunter S. Thompson’s literary study for further proof. What was odd was skipping from Thievery Corporation to moe. on the first night and realizing that as things change in our modern culture, one needs to focus on what isn’t necessarily being presentedcan groups without a damn thing in common, not even the same time zone, co-exist on some level, let alone the same bill? Sure but it is a question that needs to be asked in our new century about numerous aspects of our evolving cultural, economic and political landscape, as well.

_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com

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