The Mid-Atlantic Music Experience, State Fair Event Ctr., Lewisburg, WV- 7/11-13
Would you like some gravy with your Disco Biscuits? The watchword for the weekend was "infrastructure" as the 1st Annual Mid-Atlantic Music Experience came to the State Fair Event Center in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Three days of fun in the sun came off without a hitch as 35 bands tore up the four stages at MidX. From the opening notes of Mood Cultivation Project to the final encore of Widespread Panic, fans were treated to an amazing weekend of phenomenal performances, air-tight grooves, and beautiful sunny skies.
It's always impressive to watch a concert site appear in the middle of nowhere, built from the dust of a family farm or carved into a clearing in the woods. But it's a different feeling entirely when a festival inhabits a pre-assembled site, in this case the local fairgrounds of a tiny West Virginia town. Thus it was possible, were one to have the predilection, to walk mere steps outside The New Deal's latenight set at 3 in the morning, sit yourself down on a barstool at Doug's Food Palace, and order up an obscene amount of delicious delectables. Of course the traditional festival fare was also available, but alongside Bearly Edible and the Irie Kitchen were the hot-fudge phantasms of Trudy's Dairy World and the carnivorous creations of Swanky Franky's. They say an army travels on its stomach, and this jamband junta of argonauts and audiophiles had plenty of ammunition for their travels.
While this was the inaugural edition of the Mid-Atlantic Music Experience, the organizers at Gamelan Productions have been running the renowned BerkFest in Massachusetts for six years now. They brought this experience to bear in creating a festival packed to the brim with great music in a setting which proved comfortable for all in attendance. The campsites were just a short walk away from the music and featured several beer and water stands sprinkled throughout. The campgrounds also hosted the Emerging Artists stage, where younger bands such as the McCloskey Brothers and Gomachi got to play based on votes tallied at the Mid-Atlantic website.
Mood Cultivation Project had the honor of opening the festival on Friday afternoon, pumping their blend of southern rock through the massive PA system. The main stage area featured plenty of space to spread out, with food and other vendors lined up against the back. The sound quality was crisp and clear all weekend, with nothing but green trees and mountain valleys to absorb the tones. Ubiquitone followed, digging their psychedelic roots into the Grandstand, otherwise known as the MidX side stage, with songs including "Coming for You" and "Good Road." Dancers had plenty of space in the open area up front, while those seeking to escape the sun could relax in the covered bleachers. Being able to watch the bands from a shaded spot was a nice touch, even in the pleasant mid-70s weather the Allegheny Mountains had welcomed us with. The sound quality on the side stage was equally impressive, with the soundman working overtime to maintain the level of quality despite the vast differences in instrumentation and philosophies of the various bands coming through.
The groovy sounds of Plaid Iguana Project and the wailing guitar soul of Moonshine Still inspired an influx of fans, as afternoon slowly drifted towards evening, and Rusted Root prepared to take the stage. Back on tour again after a few years off the road, they kicked right back into high gear, bursting into longtime favorite "Rain" as well as the title track to their album "Welcome to My Party." Drummer Jim Donovan also hosted a drum jam the next afternoon where dozens of audience members got to slam along in call-and-response and improv settings.
Indecision was next up on the side stage. Formed in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1984, they were a jamband before anyone knew what a jamband was. Despite performing only intermittently in past years they've been taking a more active role again lately, having also appeared at the Bonnaroo festival earlier in the summer. Their happy groove was back in action as they ripped through old classics such as "Humanoid Boogie" and new tunes including "Little Black Cat" before tearing through the audience with their expansive jamming on "Bible Salesman." Unlike many other festivals, where upon arrival and a cursory glance at the schedule fans realize conflicting stage schedules necessitate some tough choices, the MidX festival staggered the bands to all but eliminate overlaps. Thus it was indeed possible to see all of the bands at the festival, except of course for the Emerging Artists stage pumping away in the campgrounds all day long. Indecision had wrapped up the side stage for the day, and after their set the masses migrated towards the main stage.
Medeski, Martin & Wood helped the sun sink down as they erupted into what was probably the finest show this reviewer has ever seen them play. Balancing the perfect mix between zen noodlings and jazzfunk, their set saw John Medeski frantically flailing across an array of different keyboards, Chris Wood winding through wicked bass notes while sitting cross-legged on the floor, and Billy Martin positively pounding his drumset into submission. Wood's bass lines descended with the sun as they drifted into the title track to their latest album "Uninvisible." After seeing them with DJ Logic and many other special guests, it was a treat to see the raw trio again, and hear them mold and shape the music with just the three of them to fill up the space.
A brief intermission followed during the equipment switch, the first downtime since the music started almost 9 hours prior. Many fans used the opportunity for a quick walk back to the campsite to get their priorities in order for the headliner of the evening, a little band called moe. Along with Widespread Panic, moe. was the only other band playing two different days at MidX. While both sets featured stellar performances, this first show had the advantage of being both slightly longer, and also in the dark, where moe.'s light show and mind-expanding tendencies can bloom to full power. They opened like a spacejazz supernova, bending and curling notes together in a strange other-worldly display until they reached the familiar sounds and welcoming catchy twang of "Seat of My Pants." The crowd sang out in joy as moe. heralded the places "Where the freaks and the animals usually meet."
They followed with "Spaz Medicine" and then summed up the collective energy with the poignant lyrics of "Hi and Lo," "There's no stop and no start / It's forever they sing together / More than the sum of their parts." After proclaiming "We're moe. and we're too cute for words," they led into the sing-along chorus of "Happy Hour Hero" and the dark despair of "Shoot First." The mood continued as Michael Glabicki, vocalist and acoustic guitarist from Rusted Root, appeared onstage to lead moe. through their first ever rendition of Neil Young's powerfully sad classic "Powderfinger." The catchy opening bass line to "Kyle's Song" marked a return to the happy side of moe. Despite the upbeat, buoyant nature of the music, their lyrics often take on dark themes. This setlist included topics such as alcoholism, gunshots, car accidents and massive dehydration. A long extended jam on "Kids" led into "Water" which featured both Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier taking guitar solos at the same time, bouncing and bopping off each other's inspirations. Their seminal tune "Plane Crash" closed out the set with its rousing anthemic chorus of "All across the country / I get too fucking high." moe. is not necessarily known for their subtlety. They encored with the wonderfully strange lyrics and tight musical passages of "Spine of a Dog."
Normally a show is over after the headlining act plays. But since this is festival season, there were still two more bands to go. The MidX Late Night Theater was a large room that also hosted the Gonzo FilmFest during the day. Named in honor of renowned writer Hunter S. Thompson, movies including Widespread Panic's "The Earth Will Swallow You" were screened for fans needing a break from sun and music. Once the evening rolled around, the movie theater became hallowed musical ground, and at half past midnight salvation appeared in the form of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. "The band that time forgot" usually plays for so long they're encoring to the roadies for the following night's band. Their set at MidX was shorter than usual due to The New Deal being scheduled for a super-late-night set at 2 am. To make up for this, the Tiny Universe packed every minute full of the thickest, meatiest funk heard all weekend. Karl's smooth sax sounds and Brian Jordan's galloping guitar spun the room in circles as the entire crowd surged along with the music.
The New Deal inherited a somewhat exhausted audience, and realized that the only hope for their set was to plow forward with everything they had. Within minutes of hitting the stage, the audience was feeling the energy and pumping it back like it was mid-afternoon again. All fatigue now forgotten, these Canadian electrofunksters brought down huge, expanding jams, showering the audience with their instrumental prowess. Hours seemed to drift by as the crowd was lost in their spacey groove. Eventually, much nearer to daybreak than anyone wanted to admit, the show ebbed to a close, and fans stumbled back to their tents to fall asleep with toes still tapping. After all, despite the last 17 hours of music, this was only the first day.
Saturday morning got rolling with the rocking sounds of North Carolina's Waylandsphere on the main stage, followed by the Floridian flare of Tishamingo on the side stage. Topaz was next on the bill, laying into his trademark thick saxophone excursions. There's nothing like some deep funk to shake off the cobwebs of slumber. Topaz plays havoc with a writer's pronouns, however, because Topaz is both a man and a band. Well, whatever it is, Topaz got the crowd moving again, and was followed by one of the most unusual acts of the weekend on the side stage.
Echo is the latest project from New York-based singer Joy Askew and multi-instrumentalist Takuya Nakamura. Joined by a guitarist, the three musicians create a low-key yet burbling style of music that defies easy categorization. Joy has a classic sultry jazz tone to her voice. When mixed with Nakamura's synthesized drum & bass tracks and various avant-garde guitar grumblings, the sound that emerges is a sort of electro-groove hybrid. Roving through songs including "Starlight" and "It's a Beautiful Day," Echo treated their fans to a peek inside their universe of mixed cultures and varying influences.
Steel Pulse followed on the main stage, bringing a welcome blast of reggae to the West Virginia mountains. Celebrating their 25th year together, England's finest reggae ambassadors laid down some of their most beloved tunes for an eager audience. Their set included the classics "Rally 'Round the Flag," "Tight Rope," "State of Emergency," "Wild Goose Chase," and "Roller Skates." The lyrics of set closer "Chant a Psalm" encompass the worldwise optimism inherent in their recordings: "In your hands lie your destination / The book of true life you hold the key / Mystical powers to you unfold / Seek ye the half that has never been told." They returned to the stage for a long encore which included "Bodyguard" and "Earth Crisis," and then it was time for yet another MidX gearshift. Festival organizers certainly knew how to keep the audience on their toes, scheduling radically different acts right in a row, from the downtempo excursions of Echo to the rollicking reggae of Steel Pulse, and now the old-time slap-happy bluegrass of the Hackensaw Boys.
A brief summer rain sprinkle played right into their hands, as the covered bleachers on the side stage filled up with fans hoping to keep dry. By the time the sun came back out, however, the infectious music had done its work, and almost nobody left until the show was over. They ran through a raucous set which included "The Parking Lot Song" as the rainclouds lifted and the seven-member band raised the audience to a fever pitch. Although it was only 5 in the afternoon at this point, it was time once again for moe.
They opened up their second set of the weekend with "Not Coming Down" into "Wormwood." This led into "St. Augustine," which received additional rhythmic input from Rusted Roots' Jim Donovan. "32 Things" was up next and highlighted Rob Derhak's funky funky bass, as well as another bout of Garvey & Schnier's twin-guitar-solo attack. Brief teases of "King Tut" and "Salt Creek" helped take this version straight over the top. They closed out with a mammoth rendering of "Brent Black" into "Moth" into "Buster." The lyrics of "Moth" helped sum up the feelings for many in attendance: "She looped and swirled and dove and twirled / In a dance and celebration / We'd won the war of the kitchen screen door / And the gypsy's liberation / It was a big one – the victory / And the sun gave way to the moon / We got drunk and she thanked me / And then we drank all afternoon." Of course drinking in the sun all day isn't necessarily the best way to make it to the end of the latenight shows, but then again, maybe it is. Since it was a daytime set, there was no encore, but after two ferocious moe. shows in two days, none of the moe.rons seemed in the least bit disappointed.
Despite all the amazing music witnessed thus far, it could be said that the most popular band of the weekend, with 4 sets in their future, had yet to even make an appearance. But that was about to change. After a side stage set by West Virginia's own feelgood hipsters The Recipe, it was time to welcome Widespread Panic to the main stage. They seemed to soak up all of the energy that had been created throughout the weekend and immediately reflect it back onto the crowd. The set opened with the happy stomp of "Greta" and led into "Stomp," a Talking Heads song which was the first of many covers played throughout the weekend. This led into a seriously crunchy version of "Imitation Leather Shoes," which was followed by "Visiting Day" and the Jerry Joseph song "Climb to Safety." The band was firing on all cylinders at this point, with bassist Dave Schools flying across the fretboard and new guitarist George McConnell sculpting and coloring the music with his rabid guitar solos. "Meeting of the Waters," from their new album Ball, summed up the feeling: "They can seize us as we are now / Singin', dancin', in the small town / Celebrate the days into the night / Look at me with wild eyes." They wrapped up the first set with an explosive version of "Pleas" into "Flat Foot Flewzy."
The second set opened with the aptly titled Vic Chesnutt tune "Let's Get Down to Business" and led into "Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)" from their new album. "Pigeons" then set the tone for the rest of the set: "Well ease your body down / If you want to you can unhook your safety line / Well ease your body down / The grass all around us is just green and fine." Robert Johnson's classic "Me and the Devil Blues" was up next, followed by "Yard of Blonde Girls." Widespread then busted out a true rarity. "Ribs and Whiskey" has only been played a handful of times in their career, and this was only the second rendition since 1996. The dirty groove of War's "Low Rider," complete with "Tequila" tease, then led into "Papa's Home" which took us into "Drums." They emerged from the rhythmic rodeo with Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West" before closing out the set with one more tune from their new record "Papa Johnny Road."
The band had just unleashed one of the funkiest performances I'd ever witnessed by them. JoJo Hermann's keyboards and Sonny Ortiz' percussion have never sounded better or more tightly wound together. This band just keeps getting better as the years go by. They emerged from backstage to lay down two more cover songs for the encore. "Mr. Soul," a Neil Young tune he made famous with Buffalo Springfield, led into David Byrne's "City of Dreams." And with that, the night was over. Oh, except for one little thing: The Disco Biscuits!
The only word that can truly encapsulate Saturday's latenight show is "spectacle." The swirling lights, the driving beat, the pulsating energy of the MidX audience, it all conspired together to blast the Disco Biscuits into the next dimension. Bursting through songs including "Memphis" and "The Very Moon," they didn't stop until the birdies were waking up. Speaking of bands that keep getting better with age, Bisco barely resembles the band they were when they first started playing. They've practically invented their own form of music, chugging breathlessly through each passage. There are bands who build and build until they reach a peak, and then there's bands like the Disco Biscuits who just stay at the peak for the whole concert. Their latenight show was one huge display of raw energy, and whenever it seemed they had topped out they would simply throw another log on the cosmic fire and crank it up another notch. Needless to say, sleep was looking like not only a bad idea, but a truly insulting concept. Such are the thoughts that good men have while the Disco Biscuits are on stage.
Sunday morning came around with a vengeance. The only cure for this musical hangover was, of course, much more music. The side stage got rolling with the upbeat groove of Steel Pterodactyl, and then it was time to mosey on over to the main stage. "Wake up and get angry with Jerry Joseph!" was the call of the morning, as his band the Jackmormons ripped through a jamming set which included "Postcards" and "Good Sunday." Jerry tore up some vicious guitar solos on his way to a brief rendering of Tears for Fears' "Shout." Then it was back over to the side stage for the otherworldly groove of Particle. Seeing them at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon was definitely a strange experience – this is about the time their Saturday night shows usually end. But when they started playing, it might as well have been latenight all over again. They blasted and bucked their way through their driving instrumentals, landing at one point on a juicy blues groove which featured some amazing slide guitar work by Charlie Hitchcock. The pornfunk of "Axel F" from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack helped draw the set to a close, and led into another unusual MidX show.
Leftover Salmon and Cracker have been friends for a while now, even releasing an album together this year called "O Cracker, Where Art Thou?" The album runs through several Cracker classics, with a decidedly Salmon-esque spin. For their show together at MidX, they decided that Leftover would play a short set first, followed by Cracker, and then they would join forces for some jams at the end. Leftover took the stage like a band on a mission. They ripped through songs including "River's Rising," even throwing in a "Dazed and Confused" jam, before introducing Cracker to the stage. Guitarists David Lowery and Johnny Hickman burst forth with a great set, including "Mr. Wrong," "Victoria," and "Take the Skinheads Bowling." They even played "Pictures of Matchstick Men," a Status Quo cover song that Lowery's pre-Cracker band Camper Van Beethoven had a big hit with. The two bands then joined forces as one to spin through a few songs including "Eurotrash Girl" and "Get Off This." It was quite a successful collaboration, and hopefully more bands will be inspired to do creative things like this in the future.
All Mighty Senators were up next on the side stage. It's safe to say that any band whose lead singer plays a pink fur drumkit standing up, while wearing a pink fur vest and wig, is probably not going to hold back very much. They exploded into their own blend of funkrock, dazzling the crowd with their showmanship in songs including "Gloria" and their own bizarro version of "Rocky Top." A brief jam through "Turn On Your Lovelight," with their own lyrics on top, led into a call-and-response section with the fans: "Do you want the soul?" "You know that's right!"
Les Claypool's Frog Brigade appeared next on the main stage, and soared into their set with everything they had. Featuring Skerik on saxophone and Mike Dillon on percussion and vibes, this is one of the tightest units Claypool has put together yet. They ran through "Long in the Tooth" on their way into space for a cover of the Rolling Stones' "20,000 Light Years From Home," which featured Skerik losing his mind through his saxophone, apparently attempting to contact his home planet through the use of tones most humans can't normally hear. "D's Diner" and "Angry Young Man" led into the show-stopping "Whamola." Playing some sort of tall, thin, bendy thing that even Claypool doesn't know what to call, he slapped and banged at it with a bow and a distortion pedal, dancing around like a lunatic all the while. Skerik caught the bug and was trying to outfreak the master, while the band laid it on thick behind them. Claypool's current band is simply not to be missed.
The heavy metal jamming of Clutch wrapped up the side stage for the weekend, and led the crowd into one final performance. It had been a (very) long weekend, and there was only one band left who everyone wanted to see. It was time once again for Widespread Panic. As they came out on stage, lead singer John Bell picked up his acoustic guitar and grabbed a seat. Lead guitarist George McConnell did the same, and it was clear the crowd would be treated to an all acoustic first set. Unlike other bands, however, Widespread Panic playing acoustic doesn't mean they tone it down at all. In fact, the jams seemed just as thick, simply with a different flavor.
They opened with J.J. Cale's "Travelin' Light," whose apt lyrics summed up the situation: "Get on down to paradise / Maybe once, now maybe twice." They followed with "Makes Sense to Me," another song by their friends in Bloodkin. "I'm warmed up now," said JB as they eased into "Travelin' Man," whose lyrics also provided some appropriate perspectives: "Been feelin' alright / For a couple of days / Either in a fog / Or a sunny haze." The set rolled on with "Mercy" and "Henry Parsons Died," yet another Bloodkin tune. "Pilgrims" and "Bayou Lena" led into the crowd-pleasing Van Morrison cover "And it Stoned Me," and they wrapped up the first set with "All Time Low" and "Space Wrangler."
In between sets, a guitar autographed by John Bell was raffled off to benefit local music charities. Panic Fans for Food had also been collecting canned food throughout the weekend, adding a nice altruistic air to the festival. The second set found the boys back on their electric guitars, and they wasted no time, opening with "Give" and following with "Nebulous," "Love Tractor" and "Don't Wanna Lose You." Then it was time to really open things up. Drew Emmitt from Leftover Salmon appeared to add mandolin to a deep, dark 17-minute version of the Traffic classic "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." It was a brave choice adding mandolin to this type of song. Obviously it's not the kind of sound people are used to hearing mandolin associated with, but it meshed together perfectly. Emmitt's improvisatory instincts took over and the band got so down and dirty with this one it seemed they might never clean up. Emmitt stuck around for "Chunk of Coal" which then led into "Drums." Mike Dillon from Claypool's band appeared along with Tishamingo drummer Richard Proctor to thicken up the drum solo. They emerged unscathed from the percussive panache and drifted into "Daisy Mae" followed by the Firehose tune "Sometimes."
A light sprinkling had begun during the second set, just hard enough to warrant throwing on the raincoat for a few minutes. Sure enough, the very second I removed the raincoat the band launched into the set-closing "Chilly Water." For those of you who haven't experienced it, the tradition at Widespread shows is to throw all of your remaining bottled water up in the air at the beginning of this song. I am firmly in support of this tradition, even though I got more soaked in the first 60 seconds of this song than I had in half an hour of rainshowers. Jerry Joseph and his drummer Brad Rosen emerged to help out on this one, with Jerry sitting down behind the keyboards as the band wrapped up their 4th amazing set of the weekend. A bittersweet energy washed over the crowd as we waited for the encore. When you're in the middle of a scene this good, with this much energy, you simply don't ever want it to end. The band did their best to stretch things out, starting with "Down" and finishing things up with the irresistible groove of Muddy Waters' "Red Beans."
The first annual Mid-Atlantic Music Experience had now officially come to a close. I dare say this was one of the most successful first year festivals I'd ever heard of. The beautiful and accommodating festival grounds, the deliciously eclectic booking, and the over-the-top performances by some of the finest bands around combined to make it a truly amazing weekend for all those fortunate enough to attend. There were no lines for food, drinks or bathrooms, and no traffic getting in or out. The beer was cheap and plentiful (they even had beer stands inside the latenight theater). And the mayor of Lewisburg got on stage to personally invite everyone back next year. Now that's West Virginian hospitality.