Friends Uv Nature and Knowledge (F.U.N.K.) Festival, Bill Monroe Park, Bean Blossom, IN- 8/27 & 28
Folks far and wide have tried to pinpoint what it is about this thing we now call a scene, a tag that strengthens and limits it all at the same time but we’ll talk about that some other time. Why do people drive, fly, walk from all points only to be seeped in mud, to not sleep for two or three days, eat little and leave looking like a truck hit ’em? Because the same face that has a truck-hit look also sports a gleaming smile and a flash in the eye. It all comes down to a thing called energy.
It starts with the place. Bill Monroe Park has been a haven for bluegrass festivals for many years. F.U.N.K. was the first fest of its size at this place. It’s not just a campground, but a living creature with ravines, paths, creeks and hills. Close the eyes and you can feel the energy move around the grounds and trees. But before I even got that far, there was an ease to the guy taking tickets at the front gate that I haven’t seen or felt since camping near Deer Creek during Phish’s three show run in 2000.
Family Groove Company welcomed the weekend of F.U.N.K. with their practiced, imaginative tunes. They strutted their way through a few numbers, flexing a new appreciation for rock along with their danceable funk, and pumping a ton of energy into their straight-beat version of So What?’ It was then time to walk and enjoy these grounds.
Our campsite was in the woods in line with the left side of the main stage, so aside from chirping and leaves swaying, the fine grooves of Ray’s Music Exchange filtered through the trees to kick off Saturday. The beats kept jumping around from straight to swing to shuffle in a way where you didn’t pick up on the change right away. The dynamics were real tight, but they had a tendency to go off on a tangent that sounded really good, only they would swiftly jump back to what was being played before the any climax. No need to play it safe.
Next was a stop by the Monroe stage to hear Punsapaya. The two guitar bass and drums combo can only be pulled off as a jam thing with some serious playing, and they had moments. The band’s instrumentals had plenty of ferocity, especially from their bass player, but the singing songs needed some polishing. On the way to see hookah, a deluge drenched the camp right when the band was really taking off. Once the rain cleared, Mofro was next showing their use of noise as another instrument, as well as their simple takes on soul. Another notable group was Jassy Grazz, a group confident enough with dance music to pull a disco version of Closer,’ with a sax playing the piano part. Yet, they were able to play the second half of Dogs’ damn close to the original.
Keller Williams has really pushed his act mighty far lately. In honor of the festival dubbed funk, he brought exactly that. His dance grooves had more club feel, but with all natural sounds, making the drum beats with his mouth. In earlier shows, it always seemed he would just keep building and building and building andbut nowKeller takes little bits of his layers away and fills the space in differently, or drops whole new sections. He has had larger arsenals in the past, but his sound is much fuller with a simple set up. Plus he’s got that hammy “hey you like that joke?” thing going, playing Looks Like Rain,’ Box of Rain’ and Rainy Day’ all in a row, as the humidity rose, swallowing the stage and grounds in a colored fog. After wowing everyone who’s never seen a theremin used before, he welcomed Victor Wooten out to trade mean licks during Novelty Song,’ fitting nicely with the song’s line and focus on the bass.’ The energy was just right for a real explosion.
This festival was a realization after five years of talking and planning between Vic and Ian Goldberg, an alum of Vic’s Bass and Nature Campso in a few ways it was Vic’s fest. And he showed the crowd why during his Soul Circus set. On a given Wooten tour, the basic set rarely changes night to night, but the difference this time was the overwhelming energy going far beyond the acrobatics and showy stage stuff. This band, with three bassists (Vic, M.C. Divinity, Anthony Wellington), Regi The Teacher’ on guitar (worth five guitarists), Derico Watson on drums (pulling mean thunder along with solid backbone), Fututeman bringing his loco sounds and a raging keyboardist released the very essence of why they play music in the first place: to pump every bit of life they have out through their instruments into the crowd and the grounds. Rudy Wooten, the saxophonist, was the only Wooten brother I had never heard and the man plays as if he was born with a reed in his mouth. The anthem Higher Law’ had people losing minds. All of the solo spot lights had methods to their madness. Along with the funk, they gave a nod to real rock with many touches of Kashmir,’ as well as Fire’ and Purple Haze.’ A huge surprise happened when a skinny, long haired white kid named Robert Provine, winner of the Guitarmageddon contest as well as a student of Regi, came out and utterly destroyed his guitar. He played the thing like a line of Brazilian tambourim. F.U.N.K. fest had all the right things, a mystic place where the bands and crowd can really explode with the energy felt, and the willingness of the people there on all sides to put in their own energy.
It wouldn’t be funk if there was no hip hop, so Treologic lit up the Monroe stage for some late night bounce, proving once again the hip hop can be just as real a form of music as anything if the group just does it right. During their set, the drummer demolished the head of his snare drum. Now trust a drummer on this, that’s a hard fucking thing to do! Sticks will snap like dry twigs, stands will collapse, thrones will bend and even cymbals will crack. But to break a fucking _drum head_just believe me, it’s an insane thing to pull off. Sans snare, Treologic still kept the crowd reeling early into the morning.
The next day began with some swift and nasty bluegrass courtesy of Dread Clampitt, who wins the award for best band name of the weekend. After their warm up behind the Monroe stage (where we found Chuck Garvey looking on) a member of the band slipped in some mud and tore a huge chunk of skin from his leg. Staffers said his skin slipped off his leg as he tried to move determined to play the set. The band went on and rocked the stage.
One of the big influences on the festival was the nature elements from Vic’s Bass and Nature Camp. Clinics were held all through the two days at the porch stage on playing music, converting your car to run on vegetable oil, tracking and plants. It offered bizarre glimpses into a Camp that a select lucky few have been able to witness. In between the camping areas and the Monroe stage was a blind walk, where one walks a path guided only by a thin piece of yarn tied to the trees. One walk is on level ground, while another goes up and down a wooded hill. After slipping on the hill trail I discovered that digging your toes in the mud keeps you steady. The inspiration for the walk came from a new activity they tried at the bass camp where everyone’s basses are laid down in a room, and the people must find their bass blindfolded and without touching anything. They must find it by feel, just like the way people should play music. Over half the people found their basses.
Another tale involved communicating with a forest. Doniga Murdoch was fifteen when she took part in a game of stealth in a forest. The other players were military elite, Navy SEALS, special forces, some were even ninjas and martial arts masters. Each player was given five marbles, each representing a life. If another player saw you first, you would give that player a marble, and were out when all marbles were lost. At the end of the game this skinny teenage girl had everyone’s marbles. Murdoch had trained in tracking and was able to get at least a ten minute jump on someone approaching her, just by listening to the reactions of the birds around her in the trees.
With the dirty bayou toughness of Papa Mali flying through the trees, Jake Cinninger, Chuck Garvey and Regi Wooten commenced with the guitar clinic. Regi talked about playing the guitar like it was many other instruments, especially piano. All three agreed much can be done on the keys that can’t be done elsewhere, but Jake pointed out, You can’t do this (ripping bended chord) on the piano!’ Regi explained the hair ties on his guitar neck, which look deceptively similar to capos, are to mute the ring of his strings, making his guitar more percussive. Jake showed how he does relatively the same thing by pressing the ball of his palm against the strings near the bridge, the Bill Frisell technique. Garvey showed simple chord combinations for acoustic guitar.
After the clinics, it was time for a bit of the Futureman Project. Around Roy Wooten’s barrage of drums, touch boxes and turntables was a keyboard player, a percussionist and a guitarist, with sit ins from Rudy on alto sax and Robert Provine coming out gain to amaze everybody with his guitar madness. The band is a solid blend of organic and electric, without delving too much into one or the other, especially during a spaced out version of Superfly.’
For genuine funk, one needs horns. In came the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to get everyone warmed up for a very looong night. Bari saxophone madman Roger Lewis really stuck out on Fiya on the Bayou,’ and Dirty Old Man.’ But this band really is a whole unit. From Sammie Williams’ dancing legs to Gregory Davis’ duel rip of trumpet and flugelhorn, the band never ceases to rock a show with a simple repertoire, crafty tightness and huge energy.
After Dirty Doz, the pounding of Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band echoed through the trees and hills like some distant swamp ritual. Honestly, little can be said about a band with only an acoustic guitar, a simple drum kit and a washboard that pumps massive sound through these instruments. Peyton looks like a backwoods man who totes the Bible in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other, and the guitar slung across his back. They all play like they are possessed by each other, especially with how tightly they speed up and slow down together.
Futureman sat down on a full drum kit, with no digital pads and pumped out a mean primal beat, which sounded like a subconscious call for everyone to start moving. The percussion filled in whatever space was left, and one by one the stage filled. Rudy popped out of the shadows to wail on his sax. Vic and Regi came out ripping away, as did Jake. Dirty Dozen came out to blow away. Brad Myers and Nick Blasky from Ray’s were out as well. Provine snuck his way on to the stage, as did Kris Myers. The orgy ran through funk standards like Cissy Strut’ and Chameleon.’ During The Chicken,’ Ian Goldberg strapped on a four string himself and joined the fray, holding his own amidst some intimidating players. So much was going it was hard to hear it all, but they key is that the energy was there and it didn’t matter what came out clear or not. Everyone on or off stage felt it. And then the power died
First the lights flickered and shut off, then one by one all amplified instruments cut out leaving nothing but the drums and the horns, and this was the best part of the whole festival. For the music itself to go from a huge explosion clusterfuck, and be stripped down to nothing but the bare necessities reminded everyone the greatness in simple music. Besides, all it ever takes to get down are drums and horns! Dirty Doz with Rudy and Futureman and Terence Higgins from the Doz on drums kept it mean and nasty, until the drums faded away, and the horn players stepped out in front of the monitors on the stage and blasted the crowd with every chunk of life they had. So simple, such greatness.
About an hour lapsed and the lights were back on for Umphrey’s to pull some marathon playing like it was a late night set. Without falling into cover novelty, they mightily busted many from their original bag of tricks. Atmosfarag’ and Anchor Drops’ showed the warmer side, whereas 5th of Beethoven,’ Fussy Dutchmen,’ and JaJunk’ brought the rock fury out. The second set had a newer song Higgins’ which had touches of reggae to go with the odd-meter fills and rock outs. During a wild Jimmy Stewart,’ Nick and Brad from Ray’s came out to put Umphs to the test with some furious licks swapping back and forth. It seemed once they hit their highest level of energy it never dropped, soaring for two long sets.
Groovatron kept whoever still had any strength left moving strong to their odd mix of sounds. At past shows, it seemed the band would hit an interesting change, but switch so quickly you couldn’t savor where they just went. This time they stuck with good ideas for longer.
Wandering around the grounds, I found a set up with microphones and a pair of old congas deep into the wooded camping area. Folks wobbling around it said they had been playing all day on what they called the Dirt Stage.’ At the height of the jamming there, they had horns, drummers, many bass players, guitars and percussion. Such things only happen when all the right pieces of a festival fall into place: an amazing, hallowed site, musicians and fans alike feeling tons of energy and a real love for what’s happening at the fest. Kinda makes me feel like riverdancing