Summer Camp, Three Sister’s Park, Lake Chilicothe, IL- 5/27-29
Never in my life have I associated Memorial Day weekend with NASCAR, but while living in the Midwest with trifling funds, to catch the Black Crowes before July, then the Indy 500 it is. The band has torn it up all over lately, so the we were pretty sure there had to be people there other than crazed drunken folks we call 'mricans. But…we were those other people.
The Indy Motor Speedway allows you to bring as much booze as you can carry, and the showgoers pushed it far. Despite bleary-eyed stumblers falling over their own boxes of Coors, punching outbreaks and the girls getting way more adulation for flashing breasts than the band, the Crowes rammed their way through a mean greatest hits set. Jealous Again,' Remedy' and Twice as Hard' brought the sheer blues fury out of the group. She Talks to Angels' heart baring soul sounded fresh. The band was not fazed in the slightest by the fiendish crowd, and has made it clear this return is with reason. The Black Crowes have put the past behind and are blazing ahead. They remember the joy of playing real music, regardless of how awful outside forces at work might be.
Anyway, that's why I missed the first day of Summer Camp.
Arriving early Saturday to Lake Chilicothe, we were greeted by the tasteful funk of Chicago's Family Groove Company. The quartet is a microcosm for what a band must do to sound memorable: play as one. F.G.C. made playing together sound and look as simple as it's said. The group tastefully unleashed high energy funk, rock and soul, driving the surrounding crowd at the Camping Stage to kick up huge dust clouds. Family Groove's sound came from years of studying music, followed by more years of unlearning and making rules of their own. You gotta know the rules to break 'em. They ended their early afternoon set with a mean funk take on New Speedway Boogie,' a trick they also pull with old Motown and jazz standards. Musicians and fans alike couldn't get enough of Janis Wallin's simple, meaningful bass playing. They set a high bar for band togetherness for the rest of the festival.
On the way to the main stage, Hot Buttered Rum String Band serenaded our walk with a sly take on the Dukes of Hazard theme song. A band can't bullshit Waylon Jennings and Hot Buttered Rum played it as genuinely as such a tune can be played. Michael Franti and Spearhead's set was my first experience hearing and seeing the group. All the half assed fucks who compare Franti to Ben Harper can take a flying leap off a tall cliff. The band plays mean, bluesy Telecaster rock as well as they do warm island grooves. Their reggae and acoustic tunes have heart, and each player in the band stands out, unlike many So and So and the Band groups. Bassist Carl Young sang a sweet What a Wonderful World.' Champaign-Urbana's chief Brazilian percussion sensei Chad Dunn from Fotomana (played earlier that day on the Camping Stage), came out to tear up the congas. The set ended with Franti assuring the crowd that, "This is the best summer of your lives!"
Ah, Umphrey's! These Midwestern jokers play evil music, are unconcerned with the frowns they get from the crowd when they don't stick to jumpy happy and change time signatures, keys and genre within a blink of an eye. Starting off with some creepy funk of Great American' and rocked their way towards a mean, raucous Bottom Half.' Lately it's been tickling to hear folks say Umphs' improvs are unfocused and disjointed when at the height of a rock freak out, one hand signal from Jake Cinninger and the band quieted down to morph the sound into the driving 80s feel of Believe the Lie.' The song built up with the feeling they would do a quick change into something totally different, rather they held out the intensity with glorious tension. It's pointless to try to second guess Umphrey's. The rest of the set showed some warm spacey sides of the band, a bit of disco, plenty of fierce rocking and a cover of Black Water' after teasing it earlier in the set.
A much needed break was needed. Not to mention some serious picking by the Hackensaw Boys on the Sunrise Stage. The smaller stages represented a lot of legit bluegrass. Upon returning to the Main Stage for moe., we came across a bizarre awesome mid set show by the Phoenix Firedancers taking glo paint and torches to a strange level. moe returned with Wind it Up.' This set showed their ability to stretch far away from the original song, and sometimes each other while playing, but then come right back together to raise everybody up. Dr. Graffenberg' and Buster' had them pulling many tricks as well.
Sunday started a little slow. But, when the clouds rolled in and a bit of rain came down, our campsite was packed up in minutes. Last year, tornados tore Summer Camp apart, so we weren't taking any chances. But, we weren't going to leave so easily either. On the way to the parking lot, Alan Vasquez was picking furiously at his guitar over an array of drum and bass sounds he constructed with loop pedals. He delves into dance beats and soundscape trickery, but without all that he plays mean as can be.
Oteil Burbridge is the man. Make sure you all know this. One can become accustomed to even a virtuoso's wizardry if the player tends use similar patterns. But not the Egyptian. Oteil and the Peacemakers keep getting better and better. The band kicked Sunday off right enough to clear away the rain with smooth, odd metered funk, swinging shuffle, southern soul and rock. This is truly a band that plays as one. While a solo went on, the other players interacted and moved with the solo, keeping the background just as interesting as what's out front. Matt Slocum on keys shined bright in this set, with his fingers dancing across his set up. The chemistry between Oteil and Chris Fryar on drums is a show of its own, as they traded off nicely back and forth, filling deep rhythm patterns. People should know every facet of Mark Kimbrell's totally bitching guitar playing. His solos and complements added ferocity to the balance of the many furies at work with the Peacemakers. Paul Henson added a simple touch with his vocals, making all the playing come a little closer to Earth. I could have gone home right then and there, but they did play a late night hours later.
Another sacred Summer Camp tradition are clinics, which I chose over most of Jazz Mandolin Project's set, as they too were to play a late night. Before leaving, they busted a warm Tommorow' from Annie.
The bass clinic is a hardcore highlight of this fest, always with a chance to hear Oteil's wisdom of music. Rob Derhak is another frequent bass tutor on hand, ah but this year's faculty also included Victor Wooten. Vic is well known even outside the realm of the music geek, and he uses his influence well to inspire folks in many subjective ways. Upon entering, he talked about using the thumb as a pick, saying the most important aspect of the playing is how sounds, so if the thumb makes it sound right, go for it. While demonstrating thumb picking, Derhak hits the bass real hard which brought Oteil to a great point about intensity levels.
"If it's hard all the time, it ain't hard."
All the players agreed that the technique of playing should get to the point where one does not think about the technique, but instead draws from emotion. Victor stuck around long after he was supposed to leave to go play on the main stage with the Soul Circus to emphasize the dire need for people to be unique in everything they do, and to not stick so rigidly to what has been done before. After Vic left, Oteil went back to emotion."I can't imagine someone playing the same way after they got divorced," said Oteil. "The deepest stuff I write is when I feel the shitiest!"
The crowd chuckled, but then Oteil showed everyone exactly what he meant. He strummed a few chords, with sparse plucks all perfectly in harmony with each other, making a pleasant sound.
"But that's not really how I feel," Oteil said.
He then played a similar pattern of notes, all taken up a half step to give this grating, sharp slice to each note.
"Now that's how I feel!"
After the clinic Oteil and I walked to the red barn from a little white church chapel. A band I played in opened up for the Peacemakers in November, so he asked if I was still up on my playing. I looked down and shook my head, sadly admitting that I had not been playing much lately.
"Man, I always feel like that," he said. WHAT?! Man plays for thirty years, tours with the Allman Bros, could challenge Warren Haynes to a marathon sit-in challenge and then says some shit like that! One of many reasons why Oteil's the man.
In more displays of arrogance absence, during Wooten's set with his large Soul Circus band he shouted out to the crowd…
"Did you all see Oteil and the Peacemakers today? That man is the baddest bass player on the planet!"
Wooten's set had the feel of a virtuoso party. The clean tones and upbeat rhythms got the crowd moving again as by now the sun was truly out. Just when things were getting too comfortably pretty, MC Divinity came out to rap over some nasty thick funk on a tune called Higher Love.' The band with three bass players, Regi Wooten on many guitar acrobatics, Futureman on a little effects box, a keyboardist and a mean drummer stretched the jam into a rockin Fire' by Hendrix and Kashmir.' Folks have said Victor is great, except when he's on his own tour he hardly ever plays like a real bass player. During one of the last songs, two ballet dancers came out to move to the music, and Vic held that pocket like he'd be dead if he let loose.
With some needed rest it was time for some more moe. The set had quality points, but it didn't have the sheer fury of the night before. Nevertheless, they again did a fine job of starting off tight and precise, spacing off into odd places, and then coming back on the one to blast out an end to long tunes. Head' got the addled crowd real nuts. Plane Crash' had the solid presence of Theresa Andersson ripping out a sweet and mean violin solo. At the end, moe. and the crowd all spent whatever energy was left on a raucous Rebubula.' A wave and a bow, and moe. left the tired crowd to trudge through Three Sisters Park towards the red barn for some Jazz Mandolin Project and Oteil and the Peacemakers.
Your humble narrator had to take a brief leg rest before heading into the Jazz Mandolin sauna in the Red Barn. JMP keeps pushing it, making it exciting as hell to see them as you really never know what you'll get. That night they were all about a well-oiled, tasteful party. Tunes like At the Pershing' and "The Country Open,' had a freaky, dark twinge to them fitting the psychosis of a late night set. The creepy, dancing feel spread throughout the steamy barn. Last February, Jamie Masefield and I talked about the whole sit in aspect of the jam show. He said it can be real overrated and doesn't always work, since the real chemistry is there between people who have played together long enough to feel how each other plays. That said, JMP had the best sit in moment of the whole weekend when Theresa Andersson came by to add to the mystic feel of the set. Aside from trading eerie notes back and forth with Masefield and Scott Richie, the bass player, she put her violin down to sing entrancing waves of Gypsy sounds over the dark waves of madness put forth by JMP. It's nice to still feel your jaw drop at a show.
Waiting for Oteil and the Peacemakers was an obstruction all its own. Hanging onto the stage rail, I heard James Brown saying through the P.A. "Feet don't fail me now!" No shit James! If you only knew…
No band in the world can do anything better than giving seasoned show goers something they have never seen before. Oteil and the Peacemakers brought the sneaking, sneering fiend out of their music during their late set following JMP. Maintaining the ghostly feel the band went to off-beat funk to lay out a nice backdrop while the players took a few solos. Mark Kimbrell once again stood out as a vicious guitarist with an evident maturity. The song smoothed down to Get Ready,' with Chris Fryar taking a chance on a shuffle beat to carry the rest of the song. Oteil scatting in the same tone of his bass is nothing new, but he pulled combinations not of this Earth. I admit I don't have the words to describe the patterns he matched up with his hands and voice during this scary mad set. The ballad No More Doubts,' had the band sending out the feeling of painful yet necessary longing in their sound, especially with Paul Henson belting the words with all strength he had so late in the festival. Matt Slocum led with his keys and took the band to a random polyrhythm feel. The encore started with a jumpy church song with Henson running around like a possessed believer. Soon it became Manic Depression,' for a blistering closing to one of the best sets I've seen by one of the best bands I've seen. God bless Oteil and the Peacemakers and hasta la vista Summer Camp 05!