Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, Great Barrington, MA- 8/9-11
Man, what a weekend. And you wont believe it, but "it" happened to me
again. I had an epiphany. And not just any epiphany, I had the
epiphany…. again. The one that led all of us down this road of live
music, touring, and concert festivals that we’ve devoted our lives to.
It was about 1:00 in the afternoon on Saturday and I was laying out in the
sun over by the Hillside stage where the sweet sounds of The Motet were
filling the air. My eyes were shut, I was getting some sun, and I suddenly
thought to myself, "I would rather be doing NOTHING in the whole world than
doing this right now." And that was it. In that moment, I was reminded why
I love music so much. I looked around and there were hundreds of people
dancing and talking and playing Frisbee and every one of them was listening
to this great music. And the kicker was, that no matter what any one was
doing, they stopped it to applaud the band in between every song, proving
that they were completely in tune with the music. And that’s how it was the
entire weekend. The weather was incredible but the crowd was even better.
I arrived at "Berkfest" about 9:15 in the morning on Friday to find a line
two hours long to get on the buses, one of the unavoidable problems when you
do not camp by your car. The weather was amazing, as it was going to be
throughout the entire weekend, but still nobody wants to wait two hours in
line. By the time I arrived at the Mountain, about a ten minute bus ride
from the parking lot, and set up my campsite in "Hoo-Ville" (one of several
camp sites to choose from), it was already 12:00. Still this was fine because no
music started until then, so my friends and I worked our way over to catch
The Motet, the first band to play on the main stage. There were only a
handful of people there at this point, maybe fifty, so we just sat down and
listened for about an hour, at which time I noticed my right arm was
completely covered in ants, which doesn’t sound half as gross as it actually
was. The band clearly was hindered by the fact that there wasn’t a lot of
people watching them, however they would more than make up for it on
Saturday with one of the better sets of music during the weekend.
I managed to get over to the Hillside stage at this point, which was about a
five minute walk to the right and behind the main stage. In order to get
to the Hillside stage, you have to pass through the vending area which also
included a mist tent. The food offered at Berkfest this year was as diverse
as any festival, with egg rolls, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and locally made
ravioli being a few of the choices, with, of course, the ubiquitous grilled
cheese. At the Hillside stage, Sound of Urchin were churning out loud rock,
which at that point, was a little too heavy for me so I headed back to the
main stage to get my first taste of Railroad Earth. Railroad Earth was
perfect. Nice, easy, acoustically driven music at 1:45 in the afternoon (it
was HOT at this point) to appease the crowd. More people had worked their
way over from the various campsites so the amount of people at this point
numbered in the low hundreds and they all were enjoying Railroad Earth and
many joined the band when they played again later on the Hillside Stage.
Jaime Janover followed, serving as "tweener" before Anitbalas went on.
However, ten minutes into his half hour set, it was clear he was no
filler. He plays an eighty-five string "Hammered Dulcimer", which is
played in similar fashion to someone who was playing a xylophone. He
attracted quite a crowd to the left side of the main stage where he was
played. People seemed mesmerized by what he was capable of doing.
He would later give a lesson over in the food area which attracted dozens of
people who wanted to see more of him.
Next, Antibalas quite simply rocked Berkfest. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing
these guys before, however it was clear they were all excited to be there and they funked it out leaving
everyone that I spoke with quite angry they hadn’t seen the band earlier.
The same comments can be made about Topaz would played the side stage and
showed everyone why he’s one of the best "up and coming" artists on the
scene. Back on the main stage, The Slip and Karsh Kale (pronounced Kursh
Kay-Lay), both played solid sets, however Sound Tribe Sector 9’s 7:00-8:30
set was as good as I’ve heard the band play. I haven’t always been happy
with the band in the past, but on this night they showed me and many others
why they are so highly regarded by so many people. At many festivals in
this country, with the set they played they could’ve been the night’s
headliner, however at Berkfest we had one more band to go.
I skipped Bullfrog the night before which enabled me to be up at 6:00 in the
morning on Saturday. I spend the next two hours playing the guitar with a
real nice bunch of kids from all over the country, discussing what music we
were each going to see that day. Not one of us had the same itinerary,
which again is what makes festivals so great.
The first band I saw was Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, who were put in the
worst time slot for their type of music. They play a challenging, eclectic style of
free-form jazz and when you add in the fact that it was 11:30 in the morning, I really don’t
think the crowd "got it". That being said, their set was quite enjoyable,
and it clear they are three very talented individuals, especially Reed
Mathis on bass.
Afterwards, I made my way over to the Hillside Stage, the whole time knowing that the next eleven
hours would be, quite possibly, the best eleven hours of music I’ve ever
seen. And you know what? Nobody disappointed. First up was my second dose
of The Motet which was far and away better than the first, as I stated
earlier. Their set went long thanks to a guest appearance by Fuzz from DBB,
and ended in an onstage drum circle which worked itself offstage, into the
crowd and out into the small field in front of the sundeck stage (the third
and smallest stage) where everyone was going nuts (a la Trey at Radio City
The weather remained gorgeous and everyone was having a blast when
Al and the Transamericans took the stage. At this point, Al is capable of
doing almost anything he wants, and the Transamericans is one of his many
side projects. This band which includes Erik Glockler of Strangefolk on bass, performs a
mixture of originals, covers and moe. songs, the latter of which elicited
the biggest reaction from the crowd. I also checked out some
Robert Randolph to find Eric Krasno from Soulive sitting in for the
remainder of the set, including the now regular cover of Sly Stone’s "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)."
The next two bands I intended on seeing were without question the whole
reason I was here at Berkfest. First up, on the hillside stage was Garaj
Mahal, an all-star jazz/fusion band featuring Fareed Haque on guitar, Kai
Eckhardt on bass, Alan Hertz on drums and Erik Levy on keys. If their names
are unfamiliar to you, a little research will show the all-star list of
musicians each has played with. Together, they form a monster band in the
style of many of the jazz/fusion pioneers from the 70s. While I certainly
wouldn’t call them a "jamband" they are quite the innovators, improvising as
they go, but never abandoning the structure of the song. Kai’s bass playing
alone, often overshadowed by Fareed’s near god-like guitar playing, was worth
the cost of the whole festival. With each song I shook my head in disbelief
over what was being done on stage. Fareed and Kai’s knowledge of their respective instruments in awe-inspiring. Their understanding of chordal textures and all the theory behind it is apparent and they move through chord changes with an effortless grace
that makes me about as jealous as I’ve ever been.
By the time their set had ended, I was completely floored, however I still had plenty of energy left
for The New Deal. I walked right up to the stage and actually had a conversation with Dan
Kurtz (bass) before the set started. That’s how empty is was as The New
Deal’s set got underway. However, by the end of the set, things would be
much different. The first fifteen minutes of the band’s set was plagued by
horrible sound problems. I was in the front row and it was so bad, I moved
back to be parallel with the soundboard, where it was only slightly better.
Dan’s bass was inaudible and Darren Shearer cymbal’s were non-existent.
However, sixteen minutes in, things were taken up a notch. Obviously the
band realized when the sound had been fixed because it was like a light
switch had been turned on. The bands improvisational skills are top notch
and they showcased them throughout the hour and a half set. However, it was
at 8:15, when the band went seamless into "Technobeam" that the crowd
really, truly recognized what was going on and they lost it. I’ve only seen
a crowd goes as absolutely ballistic in an unrestrained frenzy similar to
this one other time: When Phish played "Sabotage" to encore at the
Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1998. The New Deal, in the span of less than two
hours, established themselves to a whole crowd of people, most of which had
never seen the band before, but likely won’t miss them again.
After two peak musical experiences, I was pretty exhausted, but had no time
to rest as I split the rest of the night between Reid Genauer and Soulive.
Both were excellent, the former featuring a sit in by Erik Glockler for
several Strangefolk songs, the latter being cut off at exactly 11:00 much to
the very vocal dismay of drummer Alan Evans. My lack of a detailed
description of these two bands says less about their sets than it does about
the immense quality of the two prior ones.
For the late night shows, al.one drew quite a crowd, despite the fact that
many people hadn’t seen him in this incarnation before. His music really
inspires some, while at the same time, displeasing others as "computer-made"
music. But any which way you look at his set, it was hot in the upper
lodge. And it only got hotter as STS9 began their highly anticipated late
night set. All day I was trying to figure out exactly how 10,000 people
were going to fit into a tiny space and it became quickly apparent that most
everyone would stay outside the lodge where it was significantly cooler.
This whole day was much of a blur. I saw very little music, but managed to
help at least three separate groups of people pack up their gear. Sunday is
the day all festivalgoers despise, as much of everyone’s entire morning is
spent taking down tents and going back and forth to the car. I contemplated
quitting my job at least ten times before 12:00, however better judgment
won out and I’m here Monday morning. Addison Groove had, in my opinion, the
best slot of the whole festival as they were not opposed by any huge names
on the main stage, and they took advantage of the slot by playing a
fantastic set of music to the largest crowd the Hillside Stage would see all
weekend. Their brand of funk wins people over every time they play, and
they will surely be playing some larger venues after a stellar set of music
in front of a very large crowd.
By this point, I’d fallen victim to every sun and heat inflicted problem in
the book. Three straight days of cloudless sun had left me a shell of who I
was coming in, although I do have a great tan. The weekend was fantastic
all around. The music, the whole reason, we were there, was exceptional
with scattered moments of true greatness. The people who attended made up
the most considerate and enjoyable crowd I’ve even been to a music event
with. Everyone was in such high sprits all weekend, proving yet again, that
we can get together in large numbers and have little to no problems
whatsoever. Maybe, just maybe, other festivals should take notice.