Higher Ground Music Festival, Sunshine Daydream Campground, Terra Alta, WV- 6/26-28
Sometimes it's about the music. Sometimes it's about the party. Sometimes it's about the vibe. This weekend at the Higher Ground Music Festival, it was ALL about the vibe. For those who turned out at Sunshine Daydream campground, the weekend was a return to the way a festival ought to be. Located just outside Terra Alta, West Virginia Terra Alta being latin for, you guessed it, "higher ground", the campground provided a picture perfect background for a weekend of sunshine, music, and more than anything else, a good vibe found nowhere else.
I headed out to Terra Alta to catch the opening festivities on Thursday night in the barn. The barn, which would function as the second stage the rest of the weekend, was packed with folks eager to get down. As I stepped into the crowded house and made my way towards the bar in the back, New York City's ulu was onstage funkin' it up. This big apple foursome gets into a hypnotic groove that grabs you and shows no signs of letting up. ulu is anchored by the punchy keyboards of Scott Chasolen with Aaron Gardner adding enticing saxophone lines to every jam. Beantown's Addison Groove Project took the stage next and continued the trend of ass-shaking funkiness with a jazzy jam sensibility. AGP bassist John Hall wasn't able due to make the show due to a medical emergency, but the band didn't let that stand in the way of delivering an entertaining and funky set. Rob Marscher held down most of the low-end duties, laying down the groove on one of his many keyboards. All told, with one hand behind it's back, the Groove Project still impressed this intrepid showgoer, providing an energetic set full of booty rockin' action.
The main event was up next, and Al and the Transamericans would play for over two and half hours straight, and would be my musical highlight for the whole weekend. From the opening notes of "Jambalaya" it was plenty obvious that these boys came to play. Consisting of Al and Vinnie from moe. along with pedal steel maestro Gordon Stone, bassist Erik Glockler of Strangefolk, and freebeerandchicken's Kirk Juhas on keys. All in all, they are a formidable quintet who deliver gusty roots rock with passion and oomph. The band's repertoire included classic covers, moe. tunes, and Transamericans originals. I was thrilled to hear "Guitar" and "Me and Pat and Bill and You", tunes dropped from the moe.'s rotation a long time ago, which are now breathed new life by an outfit that thrives on ripping up three-chord country rock and roll. Their covers were well picked, and well received, "Folsom Prison Blues", "Lay Down Sally", and "Dead Flowers" among them. The group's rendition of the Jayhawks' "I'd Run Away" paid a nod to one of the great roots rock records released, "Tomorrow the Green Grass", the Minnesota band's 1995 album. On moe. standards, such as "Mexico", "Waiting for the Punchline" and a super exploratory "St. Augustine", the Transams provided driving energy and countless reasons for the Thursday night crowd to pump their fists in the air. Though it's his name on the marquee (as if there was one on the barn), this is not Al Schnier's chance to hog the limelight. This band belongs as much to Gordon Stone as anyone, Stone providing lick after mind bending lick taking the Transams to many new and interesting places. Feeding on the vibe, and the campground namesake, Al and the boys busted out the Jerry hat for "Jack Straw". In the only bummer note of the weekend, the PA cut out during the middle of a snarling jam, leaving the audience only able to hear the stage amps and monitors. Full sound returned a minute of two later, but the jam had deflated. A reluctant "Me and My Uncle" was next, but Schnier needs to do some boning up on his Dead lyrics. As the hands of the clock inched towards three in the morn, Al and crew delivered up a couple of Transam tunes, including the clever "What the Hell Were You Thinking" before calling it a night. Many headed to their tents, and I to my car, making it back to Morgantown just around four. I had so much fun I could hardly believe that it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Friday morning came quick, and before I knew it I was on the rolling Preston County roads that blaze a trail up the mountain to Sunshine Daydream. I missed Jen Durkin's Bomb Squad, who from what everyone told me, woke the campground up in a big way. I checked out The Slip for awhile and the big sound that comes out of that trio impressed me. Guitarist Brad Barr utilized an arsenal of axes, starting the set out on a classical guitar before switching to one of many electric, Gibson hollow body, and Fender Stratocaster among them. The key to this band lies in the rhythm section of Marc Friedman on bass, and Andrew Barr on percussion that makes this band tick. They are honed in together at all times, and they provide the solid foundation for the guitar lines. This trio reminded me of MMW at times, especially in the way the rhythm section locks into a groove, and Brad Barr even manages to coax organesque sounds from his six string. Following the Slip, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band brought their horn-driven soul sounds to the stage next and delivered some grooves to encourage those in the stage area to get down. The Dirty Dozen sound rides on a funky rhythm, anchored by the low bleating tones of Julius McKee's sousaphone. The set included a feisty "Fire on the Bayou" and the entertaining "Who Called the Police?". Baritone saxman Roger Lewis is the group's stage leader, but he does little to draw the attention to himself, instead making sure the whole group gets in the mix. Efrem Towns laid down one be-bopping trumpet solo after another pushing the limit of sound to the max, horn lines shooting out in every direction.
Keller Williams, K-Dub, and his one-man band took to the stage next and began to go to work. His set built slowly, Keller sticking to the simplicity of the six string acoustic for the first few numbers, including the crowd pleasing "Stagger Lee," in which Williams practically acted out the tale, putting his hands to his face for his Delia impersonation, "buy me a gin fizz, love". Keller got right to work thumping away and looping to his hearts delight as he weaved through "Boob Job", "All Along the Watchtower" and "Breathe". He busted out the eight-string and started rapping about how he was just a poser, and the real master is Charlie Hunter, who we should all check out tomorrow. Duly noted. Loop after loop his set built with ferocity until it was a dizzying hodgepodge of sound on a jam that raged out of control. Time up, Williams bid the audience adieu, only to return for a set closing "Best Feeling" as the darkness of night had now completely enveloped the campground. DJ Logic began spinning his highly bootylicious beats, and many began to dance feverishly, in anticipation of the full-on throttling they were about to receive.
The Stanton Moore led his squad of New Orleans bad boys took the stage next, and from the opening notes of "Go-Go" it was evident that they were here to bring the heat. Efrem Towns emerged for the second tune, "Pocket Full of Sapp" and filled out the horn sound, complementing Galactic sax player Ben Ellman nicely. I wouldn't consider myself a Galactic fan, and after seeing them at All Good, I was kind of planning to hit it early if I wasn't down with what was going on. Instead, they delivered a set that absolutely raged at a temperature too high to measure for their fiery closing set. Houseman emerged to growl out some vocals for "Truth is Out" and "All Behind You Now", the later whipping the crowd into a frenzy. At some point, DJ Logic stepped up to his turntables and began adding his own slicing scratches to the funked out driving sound of a band on a mission. Towns re-emerged and took another intense trumpet solo, followed by Ellman, then to the delight of those already in the throes of stellar weekend, Keller Williams decides to join the fray providing a horn and guitar solo, all from his never-ending arsenal of vocal ticks. This exciting super-group' jammed for awhile, but the guests then went their separate ways reminding the audience what this was all about. It was that crazy Galactic beat that just grabs you and won't let you go, regardless if you have the will, desire, or energy to dance. Their set was a two-hour thunderstorm of dance music soaked up by an energized and excited audience getting down in the cool West Virginia night. Houseman returned with the group for their encore and let the audience know, with "Villified". Thinking the band was done the crowd howled for more and were leveled with the final combo of "Tiger Roll> Hang Nail" and "Shibuya". By the time the lights came up and roadies took to the stage the crowd dispersed. Some to their tents, others to check out the Ordinary Way and Virginia jamband with a dedicated campground following, who were playing to a packed barn. Me, I headed for my tent and called it a night. I had things to do tomorrow.
I awoke the next morning in a tent being rapidly heated by the morning sun. The sun bright, the sky was a crystal blue, the clouds huge and vibrant, and the entire rolling West Virginia countryside was laid out in splendid greenery, rich in rain this season. Sunshine Daydream was a thing to behold, the perfect festival, in the perfect venue, with perfect weather. As Topaz took to the stage, I checked out their funky sounds from afar, as I drank a pair of Yuenglings for breakfast and played croquet with my old friend Dov, who I hadn't seen in years. In a festival already overflowing with highpoints, it was the perfect way to spend the sunny afternoon. A long set break ensued as an eager audience waited patiently for the guitar wizardry of Charlie Hunter. After a frantic change-up of the stage set up, the band was off, Hunter holding down both the bass and guitar duties on his eight-string, accompanied by a drummer, and a multi-talented horn player who played tenor sax, baritone clarinet, and flute. Together the three danced melodies back and forth to the amazement of the crowd. Hunter provided the perfect relaxed groove for a beautiful afternoon. Near the end of his set I wandered over to the barn stage to catch the last half of a high-energy set from Charlottesville, Virginia's Man Mountain, Jr. This quintet is about all the jam a man can handle, riding high on the twin guitars of Tucker Rogers and Willie White leaving bassist BJ Pendleton to hold down a phat beat as well as vocal duties. If your looking for the jam, check out Man Mountain, Jr. If you're looking for the sacred steel, then check out Robert Randolph and the Family Band. And that I did.
Randolph and his familial ensemble have improved quickly in the short time they've been on the scene. Currently, they are out there delivering one of the most rock solid shows around. Randolph exudes pure energy and his band delivers it. Their set was fast paced and rolling from moment one. A couple of songs into the set Randolph and company invited Karl Denson, and Soulive's Eric Krasno to the stage. The now beefed band unleashed a searing instrumental version of the Zeppelin classic "Good Times Bad Times". As Krasno and Denson stole the show as they traded licks back and forth, a toothy smile flashing across the face of Randolph, who proved to be a gracious host. The guest players stayed on for the "Devil in Disguise > Purple Haze > Devil in Disguise" that followed, and by the time they their bows and left the family band to do their thing, Randolph's set a mere thirty minutes old, was already being talked about as the set of the weekend. They would continue to dazzle the crowd for over an hour longer with a set that included covers and originals. Their set culminated with Randolph inviting "all the ladies" onstage as he and his brethren tore through the aptly titled, "Shake Your Hips". By the time they exited to make way for another DJ Logic set, there were no hips left unshaken.
Soulive, the NYC funk soul trio featuring Eric Krasno and the Evans brothers, then preceded to kick my ass. Now, I don't mean that literally in the "dark New York city alleyway mugging" way, I mean it in the "I had never seen them and now I get the joke" way. This group never hesitates for a second as they delivered their unique brand of soulful funk. The lack of a bass guitar presence in this group never gets in the way for a second and instead of messing with the rhythm, it helps it. Each member is forced to carry the groove nearly as much as they get to solo, and the entire trio functions like one rhythm section locked tightly in on a beat so alive that it kicks at you. Their set dazzled all as the vibe just got cooler and cool, the afternoon sun now departed the stage lit expertly in purples and blues by Garbaz Graphics. Between the mind-blowing music on the ground and the incredible bowl of stars above, was a crowd caught in a great place. Their set climaxed with the encore, as the Evans brothers beckoned for Karl Denson from the stage, who was nowhere to be found. As the groove began to pick up Denson could be spotted sprinting up the stage ramp and dashing onto the stage as Soulive, as well as DJ Logic, dropped into "Do It Again", the crowd erupted and were throttled by their funk one last time..
It seemed that Logic was everywhere all weekend. Whether he was sitting in with people, or just meandering about, as he took his last turn on the tables for the weekend an excited crowd gathered and eagerly awaited the Tiny Universe. When Denson and crew emerged and dropped into "New York City" the show was off with the entire crowd gyrating in ways more suited for a house party than a West Virginia farm. Tiny Universe brings the party wherever they go, and this time Sunshine Daydream was no exception. As "I Might Have a Chance With You" morphed into a runaway mutant jam, I looked around at what may have been the perfect festival crowd. It wasn't too empty and it wasn't to full. After the weeklong mind-fuck of a festival that was Bonnaroo, it was the perfect palate cleanser. The perfect festival is a chance to stretch your legs, not pack it in. The campground is in trouble, and the upcoming Jerry Garcia Bash may be it's last, so I encourage anyone who wants to keep things going next year to come out in August. The vibe was just right, as Tiny Universe shifted gears into full on rock mode for "Manic Depression". Brian Jordan, whose guitar sound provides the slinky funk feel to most songs, even busted out the Gibson SG for this in your face tribute to Jimi. Sticking with the stage-sharing theme of the weekend Eric Krasno then emerged to bring his guitar sound to "Satisfied". Sometime near two in the morning the band delivered an intense closing combo of "Bag of Funk" and "Goldmine" before heading on their way. Some moved on to the barn, where Ithaca, New York's John Brown's Body was ringing in the late night with their reggae sound. I hauled my legs, which had been danced-out, back to the car, and home to my bed. In a summer full of uber-festivals, Higher Ground proved that you don't have to be big, to leave a big impression.
Aaron Hawley is so damn proud to be from West Virginia, you have no idea.