Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, Great Barrington, MA- 8/9-11
The thing about Berkfest is that to understand Berkfest, to really know Berkfest, to feel what Berkfest is all about, you have to know The Slip. The truly mind-bending trio embodies the philosophy and ideals of the jam scene with their intensely personal, wildly exploratory compositions and emphasis on free form improvisation. But more than that, they also sparkle with polished pop hooks and a fair dose of the rhythmic boogie- that surface shine that has drawn legions of fans to any number of jambands, whether the bands like the title or not. Indeed The Slip, rather than being an archetypal jamband, actually encompass the entire broad scope of genres and styles that fall under the title, while tirelessly forging new sounds and expanding musical boundaries in a way that only they can.
And that is what Berkfest is about- covering the full scope of the jam world and emphasizing that that is new and fresh and innovative. It’s not a festival for Dead cover bands, it’s for looking forward and breaking new ground. It perennially features the hottest bands from all genres and the best upcoming bands, not to mention some of the best sets of the summer. And of course The Slip, without fail, offer at least one of those sets. Their 2001 marathon at the Hillside Stage on Saturday night not only kept half the festival away from moe.’s performance, but has since tore through the music trading community, winning countless accolades as the best of the fest. The trio had two sets this year, the first on Friday afternoon on the Main Stage and the second on Saturday evening at the Hillside Stage. At that second set, in front of a crowd that sprawled up the ski slope, a crowd that challenged its minds, ears and dancing feet, guitarist Brad Barr finished up by thanking the crowd "for coming out to see this set when there are so many choices."
Rather than running around from act to act in a festival frenzy, I spent the weekend checking out only full sets. Friday afternoon brought Topaz to the Hillside Stage, minus Squantch, who was down with pneumonia. Those unfamiliar with New York’s groove hounds may not have noticed his absence too keenly, but those more familiar with the band were saddened by his absence. Many of Topaz’s horn arrangements have intricate layers of sax and trombone, and as such Topaz himself was not able to simply play Squantch’s parts. Instead there were moments of dead leads where a trombone blast would have been, followed by Topaz riding in on his line. Again, sometimes it worked well, but other times it was awkward. The bandleader left the stage for an extended rhythm section work out mid set. Those four perform dance music as Tortured Soul, and it was an excellent opportunity for them to get down, and a good use of set time. Also noteworthy is the new stage line-up that places drummer Christian Ulrich up front with his band mates- it helps emphasize the layers of sound that are Topaz’s trademark.
Moving to the Main Stage, Sector 9 returned to Berkfest, thrilling the mountains and all their little dancers with the cosmic trance groove. The band sounded crisp and clean, as did most Main Stage acts- the new sound system was LOUD- and they took advantage of the dusky time to tap into the vibe. The set included some familiar material such as Circus, and extended guest appearances from tabla toting DJ, Karsh Kale, and a vocalist whose mournful dirge like wailings pushed the music to yet another level. Karsh slides into Sector 9’s sound so well it’s as if he was meant to be there. He is unafraid of attacking an idea, and equally unafraid dropping out of the mix when it’s appropriate- and he has the technical skill to play at the blinding speed of his impromptu band mates. As the night wore on, and the guests disappeared, the band’s energy only increased, the vibro bass roaring up the valley and winning huge cheers. Someone said, "Look how popular they are," scanning the shaking crowd. Listen to why. For a closer, a blissful rendition of the short composition Life’s Sweet Breath, complete with a fire dancing couple on-stage, spinning and whirling and casting the energy out one last time.
While Karl Denson followed Sector 9, Aaron Katz Band closed out the Hillside Stage with a power set. Leaving most of the ballads behind, Aaron led his group through a number of rockers, new and old. A guest guitarist from the old New Hampshire funk unit Vitamin C joined for a couple tunes, helping to push the band to its most instrumentally varied set to date. Aaron’s skill with composition and lyrics is unquestionable, but the band, which celebrated its first anniversary at Berkfest, has relied heavily on those compositions. As they’ve settled into the material, they’ve begun to stretch out the instrumental passages, and this set offered some wonderful jamming. The band is able to stir up as much energy by cutting loose as they are by clinging to the sharp bends and dips of their compositions. The set ended with the pairing of Simplest Warrior and Faith, two of the strongest tunes from the band’s debut release, and two tunes that have developed into show stoppers. Put them back to back, and you’ve got an explosive combination.
Saturday afternoon included a great performance by Garaj Mahal, potentially the best set of the weekend. Leaving behind a harried performance opening for SKB on Thursday in New Jersey, the California quartet assaulted and soothed and shocked and thrilled a crowd baking away in the afternoon sun. At times they sculpted smooth funk grooves, offered socially conscious lyrics or spiraled off in Zappa-esque fits of frenzy. The band’s reputation is quickly spreading through the music community, riding on the strength of the individual musicians and their smiling interactions. GM was followed by the aforementioned set from The Slip, and Reid Genauer closed out the Hillside Stage. Over on the Main Stage, however, the coveted Saturday night spot went to Soulive, who just three years ago had the opening spot on the festival. Unfortunately, as was the case in 2001, the set was flawed with technical problems right from the start. The mix was off and Neal’s organ was in and out, and beyond that the trio was just too loose on the opening Cash’s Dream. Sam joined for 1 in 7, but the music started to happen during Hurry Up, Sam slaying the crowd with a long solo decorated only by Al’s sparse beats. Kraz was up off his stool and dancing hard to his old friend, and the vibe was right. But Al busted the head of his snare, and after holding it aloft, he tossed it aside. That really broke the drum, so they couldn’t just fix the head; they had to find a whole new drum. The pause went on and on, and the band was getting edgy, Eric even taking the mic for a minute to thank to the crowd. He and Neal should have handed over a jam of some sort, but instead there was just an awkward pause. This sort of thing can kill a Soulive set, (it’s happened before) but that wasn’t the case here. Once they were situated, the Soulive horns joined for Cannonball, Ryan soaring on a long solo down front, followed by a pair of dance tunes with guest vocalist N’Dambi. The early problems could have been forgotten after that amazingly tight Flurries, Kraz up and dancing again as Sam worked out, and a nice Bridge to Bama with Mister Rourke, but the set closed with the ugliest moment in Soulive and Berkfest history. After plowing through the varied passages of Tuesday Night Squad, Sam and Neal were alone on stage for a back and forth when snap they were unplugged. The crowd was stunned, but even more so when Al grabbed the microphone, shouting "This is the motherfucker who pulled the plug- you don’t ever do that to anybody!" Certainly it was a huge insult, especially since Reid’s set, with guests Al Schnier, Erik from Strangefolk and Gordon Stone could still be heard across the way, but Al didn’t handle it well either; he could’ve brushed it off like a rock star. The sound man tried to explain that the police had threatened them the night before, that they might lose the site, but pulling the plug was poor form. If it was so serious a situation, it should’ve been made clear to the band before they began. After all, there is a long standing relationship between Soulive and Gamelan. Just an ugly, ugly moment.
Sunday was a new day, though, and the best day of the fest. From a little after 3 PM to 11 PM, the Main Stage offered nothing but instrumental music, and the people loved it and that is really something special. SKB gave a solid showing in the scorching afternoon heat. Opening with a loping You Are the One, the band seemed to be suffering from the heat as much as the crowd was. By the end of the show, Alphonso looked wilted and Steve’s face was bright red. Highlights included an excellent Samba, Mitch offering a variety of sounds and styles throughout the first section, and Steve slicing through thickening sounds in the second. This band changes in subtle ways on each mini tour, and on this four date outing their sound was warm and full (as opposed to the aggressive rocking of April’s tour). Also noteworthy was Elmer’s Revenge, the aggressive, maniacal composition forcing even the shade lurkers into the sun. At both the beginning and end of the set, Logic was onstage with a huge grin, like he wanted to join the fun, but Steve didn’t seem to notice.
In a nice gesture, there was a set of silence in honor of Mikey Houser before Project Logic, and Logic began his show by dedicating it to Mikey. This line-up has been together for quite a while, and they’ve coalesced into a truly excellent unit. Casey is at the forefront more and more with long, textured sax solos, and the rhythm pair of Stephan and Lamont cut deep, sharp grooves. The Project played a lot of familiar material, including Michelle and Cars, Trucks and Busses, but ended the show with a suite of techno inspired jams that shook the hill. The sun was setting and people were up and dancing as Casey and Mike traded licks and spun and wove their keys from across the stage, Logic dropping in colors and washes. The final song tapped into the latent vibe of Berkfest. Butternut is a basin more than a hill, and the music seems to pool and linger in there, so that while Soulive was rocking out, The Slip was still in the air; while Kimock played, Fareed’s thousand notes were still racing about. As the Project finished, Sector 9 was right there in the sound, Lamont even grinding out a swollen, driving bass line to fuel the groove.
Next up, part two of the MMW family reunion, the John Scofield Band had a short hour and twenty minute set. Andy Hess had bass duties, and his presence was clearly felt. Jesse Murphy had a real jazz man’s approach to the instrument, and kept the rhythm free and loose for the past couple years, but Hess is a much more solid, grounded bassist. The music, then, was heavily based in beats, and even more of a dance groove than album Uberjam. The songs were drawn mostly from that album, including a nice opening Acidhead, Snap, Crackle and Pop (which featured a particularly fine winding road passage that offered sublime glimpses at every turn, but never a full vista), the atmospheric Tomorrow Land, and a closing Uberjam > Monster Booty. The final tune is a great ass shaker, but is spoiled time and again by Deitch’s hokey rap- that just has to go. Right in the middle of the set, however, was a long, wondrous Jungle Fiction. Sco tours on albums, but some material perseveres, tunes like Chichon, and Jeep on 35, and of course, Jungle Fiction. While it appears on Uberjam, it has been in rotation since 1999 and is a great indicator of where the guitarist has been and where he is headed. His ascending leads were clean and bright, leaping from ledge to ledge, racing up a waterfall of sound. At one point the movement threatened to unwind as Avi challenged Sco with rhythmically placed samples. Sco responded by peeling out screechy lines, but then brought it home shiny and bright. It’s wonderful to watch this band perform. They don’t line up and face the crowd; they huddled and lean in toward each other, the music benefits from that attention.
By the time MMW hit the stage many had left, and many of those remaining were on music overload. But the trio would not let anyone go quietly. They exploded into Sequel to open, laying out the superfunk and pulling people to their feet like raising the dead. While it is always fun to see young bands feel their way around fusion grooves, testing out ideas and styles, to see the masters is to see music personified. Throughout the set, Sco and Logic and a host of other musicians were gathered on the back of the stage to see and hear the gods at play. While I’ve only seen MMW fewer than a dozen times, this was far and beyond anything in my experience. Sco joined for a long, wild Hottentot, with an extended end section, he and Medeski riffing on the theme into a free form, loud version of The Dropper, with Logic also joining the fun. The full MMW family band was in full bloom. After Sco left the set closed, appropriately enough with Uninvisible- a great way to end yet another Berkfest. As in the past, there was amazing music, "so many choices," as Brad said, at every turn, and this time no one complained of rain. They complained of dust instead.