BIG Summer Classic, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY- 7/21
“How You Feelin?”
I’m not feeling much like a music journalist’ today and, when it comes to reviewing the BIG Summer Classic, I think that’s a good thing. It’s not because the seven-hour, six- band bill didn’t offer its share of tight performances and exciting collaborations—-in fact most of the day’s performers arrived at Prospect Park in particularly fine form. It’s just that the BIG Summer Classic really wasn’t so much about presenting isolated music as it was about creating a musical environment, one reminiscent of the H.O.R.D.E tours of yesteryear.
Though it’s important to critique any concert as a unique work of art, it’s also essential to observe the BIG Summer Classic within its context. The twelve city BIG Summer Classic arrived at a unique time in jam-nation’s history, the first summer that two of the scene’s biggest draws, Phish and the Dead, were completely absent from the amphitheater circuit and Widespread Panic, by and large, avoided the northeast. Arriving on the heels of the likeminded Zooma tour’s cancellation, and partway through an already overcrowded festival season, the BIG Summer Classic carried the burden of being the torchbearer of an endangered tour culture’—- a thermometer keeping tabs on the traveling festival’s future. With the added pressure of a sluggish economy, a horrendous war, and an increased negativity within the scene in general, any promoter would rightfully be a bit squeamish about putting on a midweek, full-day festival in the heart of an overheated city.
So, it was sad, but expected, when exactly one week before the BIG Summer Classic’s scheduled Coney Island date, the festival was relocated to Brooklyn’s more intimate Prospect Park. Despite being downsized, both the festival’s performers and attendees seemed to take the move in stride, since, in certain ways, Prospect Park’s dome-shaped bandshell was a more fitting environment —-one of the few New York location’s that can capture BIG Summer Classic’s picnic in the park feel, BBQs, sandlots and all.
It is also interesting to note that the BIG Summer Classic’s Brooklyn offering arrived exactly four years and one day after String Cheese Incident’s last outdoor New York City performance. The quickest Central Park SummerStage sellout of 2001, this high-profile gig found String Cheese Incident nearing the peak of its first summit, quickly outpacing its peers and jumping to the front of the jamband pack. An energetic two-set show, featuring a cameo from a then unknown steel pedal guitarist named Robert Randolph, String Cheese reportedly left 1,000 fans outside the gates and gave many more an enticing taste of the Incident’s capabilities. A lot has changed in those four years, both in and out of the scene, and many of those changes manifested themselves into three-dimensional forms at the BIG Summer Classic. Many of the same faces showed up wearing different personas, those of professional musicians, writers and scenesters (let us here tip our hat to Freak-in director Stephan the Hooper). Different concerns also weighed on the aging crowd’s mind, including the loaded question, “Was it worth taking a day off from work midweek for a single-day festival.” By and large the answer seemed to be “yes,” though many a fan’s reasoning seemed more tied to the festival’s relaxed feel than any particular band’s musical prowess. In fact, festival mastermind Madison House seemed to consciously offer such distractions in the guises of face painted clowns, hula-hoops, parades, port-a-potty stunts and other freaky trips that would have made Jerry Garcia proud and the Merry Pranksters smile (Grateful Dead and occasional String Cheese lyricist John Barlow could be seen wondering throughout the park)
Lounging between acts in a shady spot near the Relix tent, I bumped into an old friend of mine that I only seem to see now and again at shows. We talked for just long enough to make me feel at home, but not long enough for me to remember that I only really knew him from bumping into him at shows over the years. Sometime ago that set-break bond blossomed into a friendship—-perhaps the ultimate sign of a successful show. But, before I had time to get lost in Wonder Years-style introspection, my attention was diverted by another old friend who seemed so spun hed totally missed Keller Williams getting offstage before Yonder Mountain String Band’s set, but I guess wasn’t spun enough to forget that Keller actually offered an interlocking set in lieu of a set break. Another couple I bumped into showed me pictures from their recent trip to the Greyfox Music Festival. I began to wonder if they would have discovered American roots music if it wasn’t for bands like String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.
Despite their varied sounds, each of the traveling festival’s acts seemed comfortable in their skin, a sign of how wide the scene’s borders have become. New Monsoon opened the day’s festivities with an abbreviated set highlighted by a reading of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” Umphrey’s McGee walked away with another few recruits in their growing army running through a particularly tight version of “Anchor Drops.” Likewise, Michael Franti and Spearhead’s newest material contained enough reggae soul to convert skeptics once lost on his political flavored hip hop. Yonder Mountain String Band and Keller Williams united their sets into one seamless entity, using Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” as a bridge between their individual performances. Yonder Mountain also stretched the notion of traditional bluegrass with its haunting version of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.” String Cheese Incident continued the soul searching mission it began with One Step Closer, working a number of its newest compositions before inviting Franti and Umphrey’s McGee’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger onstage for a lively cover of “No Sleep til' Brooklyn”—- complete with tree-clad dancers. A version of onetime show stopper “Rollover” found the group dipping into particularly deep psychedelic waters, with Michael Kang re-proving his abilities as a mandolin disguised axe-man.
But, even for a reputed setlist geek like myself, it really didn’t matter so much that Jeff Austin sat in with Keller Williams or Carl Young jammed with Umphrey’s McGee. It didn’t even matter that String Cheese Incident broke out “No Sleep til' Brooklyn” for the first time in almost four years or according to some reports Umphrey’s McGee went six shows without repeating a song. What did matter is that Michael Franti asked the crowd “How you feelin?” 37 times and that, between acts, a troupe of costume-clad hula- hoopers destroyed a seemingly innocent port-a-potty in the name of art. Not because I’m a jaded jamband fan but because you could sense how much fun each of the performers were having onstage together, and that loose energy seemed to soak into concertgoer’s pores. Like friends enjoying a jamband mixer, one could watch performers clique if the entire tour was being filmed for an episode of the Real Word: Shakedown.
A few days later Franti told me that he once heard of a drinking game based on the number of times he asked “How you feelin?” Perhaps jam-nation’s most serious political activist, Franti, would have every right to scowl at such fans, confirmation that the jam scene is indeed apathetic to larger world concerns. But, instead of being angry, Franti just smiled and joked, “so when I got onstage that day I just screamed How you feelin’ as many times as I could.” He’s right—-music doesn’t have to take itself so seriously to remain memorable. In fact, sometimes it’s not even the music which turns a concert into a classic.