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McDowell Mountain Music Festival, Scottsdale, AZ 4/25 & 26

Friday, April 25

That sound you’re hearing isn’t another colossal dust storm to interrupt the festival, which is what happened last year. It is the echo of what you should be hearinga huge round table of fine live music that shares only one thing in common: it’s the songs, stupid. And lots of themand make them really good and NOT something that has been heard ad nauseam via the radio, T.V., or at your root canal, while sitting in a dentist chair betwixt knives, mouthwash and the James Taylor deep album cuts. And this festival has another special quality, as well. In the last four years, the Festival has donated over $240,000 to local children’s charities with a goal to donate over $150,000 this year to the Festival’s charity beneficiaries, Phoenix Day and Golden Gate Community Center.

Friday’s feast included a wide variety of music from a diverse and weird cross section of what makes music that draws outside the lines of the contemporary format so appealing. One could bounce over to the gangly gaggle of drum circles on the REMO stage, take in some heady homegrown acoustic in the Fender tent by way of a sharp duo called The Latter, climb into the backseat of the Americana ride known as Truckers on Speed on the ultra hip Creamy Radio stage, or, oh yeah, lest we forget, sample some Main Stage rawk featuring 2007 Jammy Award co-hosts Warren Haynes and Grace Potter.

Weird? Wellit is weird to see everything happen on schedulefor the most part; let’s not split aging ponytail hairsin tune, with a proper mix and rotating in such a way thatfoot blister or not (no comment)one could take in a week’s worth of really good music while getting a fairly decent workout. And walking in circles has so many different meanings, but it definitely falls into a surreal positive slant when you’re cutting through the grass to catch sweet soul music funneled through the sax of Steve Reynold’s band, or planting the chair for an hour’s worth of tantalizing Cajun subdudes. And for what it’s worthwhen was the last time you were able to hear a lead guitarist make cricket sounds on the microphone while another dude whipped his accordion around the stage while orchestrating the whole wonderful scene like an ersatz Bernstein on a Bourbon St. binge?

Dialing it back. Truckers on Speed. (Wellmaybe..that should read dialing it forward’ in their case.) Two acoustic guitarists, electric bassist, one percussionist, some really ripped jeans and a sound that was melodically hip and perfect for the fading afternoon. Yeah, they made me type “ripped jeans” like that is apropos of something, I guess, but what really matters is the band or the main songwriter or the Trucker with the Best Speed can write a hook. A good hook. With or without said speed (or a de rigueur 18-wheeler, for that matter). Songs like (I think) “So Far Gone” and “You Only Hurt the Ones You Truly Love” left such a lasting memory that I am forced to write them down and ponder the very nature of their witty and antagonistic pathos-riddled tunefulness. Or something beat, world weary, or Crit Lit 101-tried and true like that.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals made their second appearance at the festival after last year’s triumphant debut. Quite frankly, leaving the frozen tundra, otherwise known as Vermont, for the warmer confines of anywhere above 52 degrees may have also been a huge appeal. It also helped that the Arizona crowd was excited, receptive and drawn to the magnetized tractor beam of Potter’s ultra sexy charisma. (And, bloody elltry reading that last sentence without being weirded-out by the Harry Potter implications.) Potter & the Nocturnals played an assortment of cuts from Nothing But the Water and This is Somewhere with an emphasis on the latter release from 2007 as the songs have already developed into live staples in a rich blues-y rock framework that can jam quite wellespecially Scott Tournet on lead guitar who escalates the tempo quite rapidly.

It also also (and also) helped quite a bit when Grace Potter spent over an hour greeting peeps and signing CDs, shirts, posters and human body parts for the various sun dry desert denizens who patiently waited in a half-mile long line outside the Merch tent, post-Nocturnal (welllate afternoon) performance. To her credit, she endured the whole exhausting ordeal (to you and me NON-STARSwell, O.K. to you), with a huge smile and hug for every fan, making me think that Potter will probably be a fantastically mammoth star sometime soon. Either that or Arizona just has decently great taste, natch. Perhaps, more telling, she also recorded a new song “Sugar”debuted yesterdayat Sun Studios in Memphis, linking her with a heavy Elvis Presliad bag of stout creativity.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band didn’t look like any family you and I have, either, but that is the world I live inthe glorious patchwork quilt art form known as jamband music. I write about these gloriously eclectic-y and improv-y folks 24/7 as they play their 90-minute, multiple sets in environments that include old school smoky (still legal in some off-the-map southern states) bars, ancient theatres, hockey arenas, and their real home away from home, the Summer Festival Stage. It is on this festie stage in which Randolph truly comes alive and the reception he received coupled with his obvious glee to be offering a truly unique artistic experience spoke volumes.

Fact is Randolphan occasional member of The Word, voted Best Jamband in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, their Best of 2008 Listis a fantastic lap pedal steel guitarist who fronts a crack band of rockers who are just as comfortable covering the cosmically-beautiful strands of Jimi Hendrix“Voodoo Chile”as they are mastering the grooves of the cosmically-FUBAR’d career owned by one Michael “King of Oops” Jackson“Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” And they did start something, literallythere was something smoking down stage right near Randolph at set’s end, but, alas, it just looked like some wayward glowstick stuck in a bit of harmless electrical wiring on stage, misbegotten and probably thrown from some parallel universe where Phish still exists.

Gov’t Mule, of course, is fronted by another Rolling Stone-lauded chaplead guitarist, vocalist and the Hardest Working Man in Show Jamness, Warren Haynes, was selected as the 23rd Best Guitarist of All Time. Haynes created a fairly ingenious setlist by starting the show off with several down tempo songs that emphasized slow melodies morphing into escalating guitar solos that would snap and arc back to the hook of the song. Opening with a poignant “Hammer & Nails” and later cascading into a rich “Sco-Mule” with “Smoke on the Water” and “Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” teases, fading into a sweet reading of “Lay Your Burden Down.” “Hunger Strike>Dear Mr. Fantasy>Hunger Strike” was a textbook example of controlled restraint and dynamics.

The early peak of the show was hit when the Mule segued into Led Zeppelin’s version of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” However, that was soon followed by an emotional “Take Me to the River,” which had Grace Potter on vocals and Nocturnals guitarist Scott Tournet on guitar for a great reading of the Al Green classic. During the encore, Randolph brought his lap pedal steel guitar back on stage as Haynes and the Mule stomped their way through a gloriously extended version of “Soulshine,” capping the first day of strong music at the fifth annual McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” was the early peak, indeedechoes of the Mule and John Paul Jones and a fantastic sonic storm at Bonnaroo in 2007 during numerous Zeppelin covers. And I can’t. Quit, that is. Saturday saw me back at the festival, jumping from the drum circles to the Creamy Radio stage catching more fine Arizona amped-down acoustic sets, and, oh yeah, the beloved Main Stage to see local jamband heroesand former Relix On the Vergersthe Mojo Farmers, New Jersey road dawgs, Blues Traveler, and, for triplet’s sake, a gig featuring a mge rios known as the John Butler Trio.

Saturday, April 26

Here Comes the Sun. Day 2 of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival brought the slightly hot vibes in more ways than one as continental drift from various locales slammed home another excellent day of music in Scottsdale. Whereas yesterday’s events contained an intriguing mixture of new and veteran voices, Saturday delivered a far more diverse lineup as the festival kicked into a much higher gear and fulfilled its promise.

Local flavors, Florida (down in the moody everglades) colors, West Africa (by way of North Carolina, taboot) world beats, and Jamaican (Bob Godhead disciples, mon) rastaMarleyian head trips were featured on the Main Stage, but there was a few surprising turns on the Creamy Radio acoustic stage that also filled out a bill that wasn’t lacking in either unplugged electricity or heated playing.

Did I mention the sun, and did I reference the Beatles at the top of all of this? True on both and the latter reference can also be used for the opening locals, Peppermint James on the main stage as they explored the Fab Four plus a wide range of other influences, including a little bit of the Wailers, who would follow later in the afternoon. Mojo Farmers, a veteran Tempe jamband that knows how to take over a stage and get the crowd dancing and head-bobbin’ followed and they continue to produce music that defies simple genrefication. Suffice to say that they rock, jam and crowd please in equal measures, and served as a full opening course of music coupled with Peppermint James.

The Creamy Radio acoustic stage also offered its fair share of local music, including Junk Ditch Road who immediately followed the raucous Mojo Farmers set with their own brand of rowdy, feel-good jamgrass vibes for the sunning peeps. Pleasant is as pleasant does and the festival environment seemed like an ideal spot to catch these bluegrassians.

And they also served as a strangely appropriate opener for those Asheville cats who have spent an awful lot of time in West Africa soaking up the music and ancient culture.Toubab Kreweindeed, a truly original mashup of the Dark Continent with West Coast America, and that continental drift theme somehow feeling appropriate, againplay heavy roots music with an assortment of ancient African instruments and more modern axe toolsgeetar and bass, digand percussion, as well. Some of the hooks contained within the music are truly old, like thousands of years old old. However, the band mixes that up with an appetizing blend of hard rock and jam influences that give the Krewe their real original streak. They also indicated that a second album following on the heels of the critically acclaimed self-titled 2005 debut was due to be released this fall so hopes are high that the band continues on their admirable journey combining their diverse and various influences. Traveling quite a bit helps feed the muse, too, I suppose. The band was on stage a mere 12 hours after finishing an L.A. gig, and here they were in a desert of another kind, doin’ time with the AZ fest peeps.

JJ Grey & MOFRO shot the whole geographic-map-gone-insane milieu with another round of grand HAWT weather tunesmith. Hailing from the Florida everglades (I imagine there is some land involved and one isn’t literally in the everglades, per se), the band’s swampy, horns-driven, deep-in-the-Bayou (suddenly we’ve drifted back to New Orleans from Florida) rock n’ soul proved to be ideal for the late afternoon festitude. And that indefinable sound from Grey & MOFRO paralleled in a beautifully strange way the previous day’s performance by the subdudes. Consequently, one was redrawing the map of MMMF influences and noticing some interesting linkslike the fact that the Wailers followed after numerous bands had done a sort of musical head nod to their weighty reggae influence.

Yesh, but we’re getting ahead of jahselves. Breadwinners hit the Creamy Radio stage prior to the Rastafarian’s Main Stage gig, and served as a peak performance (at least until Dorsey came out later in the evening). The winners play deep old country bluegrass music with a mere hint of sublime folk musicacoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and standup bass. Yep, instruments make sense for that genre. They can play really fast without a hitch but the Breadwinners also can skip right back to the vocal verses while navigating some fairly cool little key note gear shiftsincluding, fer example, a very cool slow waltz version of an original called “Johnny C.” This take along with a heady cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor” sealed a pretty sweet deal on a good little set by these local trad bluegrass yokels.

The Wailers buzzed through their setalong with the boisterous crowdand ran through numerous Marley favorites. The bandlike the festival, itselfwas a mixture of veteran players and new superstahs and they hit their joint-hoppin’ stride with a powerful quartet of classic chestnuts “Stir It Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Get Up Stand Up,” and “Is This Love.” And these tunes have been played so darn much over the last 30 years that one normally races to an exit but, come onthese were THE WAILERS and, in their hands, they managed to breathe new, fresh air into the tired lungs of those jowly warhorses.

Blues Traveler have aged in a dignified manner, which is to say that they rock hard, jam a little bit, play their instruments with veteran and excellent aplomb and John Popperleaner and more focused than ever beforeis still singing and playing his harp better than any ten people you can name. Their set went over well with thewell-juiced crowd. They are currently recording tracks for a new album but the old favorites continue to endure as the band was a well-honed machine throughout with equal measures of hard blues mixed with classic rock flourishes and tension-and-release jams that often feature Popper with his back to the audience as he re-energizes via a quick cigarette and a pull from his ever-present loving cup. Highlights included a standout sequence of “Amber Awaits>Love & Greed>(and appropriately) “The Mountains Win Again” and “Freedom>Run-Around>Freedom.”

My only complaint was that the band favored numerous songs over any sort of extensive jamming, which equated them to a version of the Rolling Stones in a way, but that may be more their way after all of these years, especially at a festival where fans are more than willing to eat up the banquet of songs BT did offer. Wellold school classifications, wishful thinking and Stones’ references aside, BT played a very solid set of hip shakers.

Dorsey closed the Creamy Radio stage with a low-key unplugged performance that had dozens buying their debut at five bucks a pop like a mad group of Xmas shoppers. (HeyI bought one too.) Let’s do the torn n’ frayed laundry listbanjo, electric bass, percussion, acoustic guitar, mandolin and a guest appearance of The Wind on mikes. No prob. Dorsey, from Tempe, sang surprisingly tight four-part harmonies and have a fairly strong grasp of songcraft with brief tunes filled with hooks. They appear really young but they know their historical lineageand not just the whole Dylan-with-a-harp-around-the-neck’ thang, but they also threw in some of their originals mixed into a set that included a great cover of “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show. Right as rain, these young dudesthey’re onto something, time’ll tell and all of that futurespeak stuff.

John Butler woke up, fell out of bed, and didn’t drag a comb across his head. He did close out the Main Stage for Saturday and the festival and the man can play. His traditional instrument of choice is an electrified 12-string acoustic and his trio ain’t half bad either as each member has a pretty wide background of experience and influences. Truth be toldButler’s brand of music is very similar to Marley’s in that he appears to write lyrics lashed to timeless melodies that, may, just may, stand the test of time if some radio stationInternet or otherwiseor some group of smart kidsold and newbpick up on his sound and get out of their hetty heads (or beds, for that matter). The Trio continues their tour supporting the excellent 2007 release Grand National, and at the festival, the band delivered showmanship, great chops and a willingness to sink their teeth into a jam for extended periods while never losing sight of the original melodic hook of the songa fine jam trait, indeed.

The John Butler Trio was an outstanding and appropriate ending to another standout two-day McDowell Mountain Music Festivalespecially after last year’s uninvited dust storm halted proceedings for a spell to avert near-apocalyptic events on the Main Stagethat had equal servings of good, hot weather coupled with orderly sets of one-right-after-the-other-rock’n’reggae’n’jam’n’soulshakedownpartymusic, booze, food, entertainment, a family-friendly, new music fan-centric Kid Zone, and a multiple continents’ vast sonic library of musical history that either led one to overindulge or feeling safely satisfied.

- Randy Ray stores his work at

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