Harmony Festival 2011, Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa, CA
Photos by Kelsey Winterkorn
The 33rd annual Harmony Festival 2011 arrives on the forefront of the latest trends of sustainable living, spirituality, health, art, and of course, music! Attendees swarmed across Santa Rosa’s fairgrounds bedecked proudly in their most festive dancing gear. We felt a bit like we were in a hippie shopping mall with hundreds of vendors selling everything festive from custom clothing and musical instruments to plants and hydroponics.
When I got to the main stage I was amazed by the size of it. Set majestically, speaker towers sat amongst beautiful plants and flowers such as fichus trees. Seven colored tapestries hung down as a background — one for each chakra. Our highlight for Friday was Railroad Earth; a band of six from New Jersey. Todd Sheaffer with lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Tim Carbone on violin and vocals, Andy Goessling on acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophone and vocals; Carey Harmon on drums, hand percussion, and vocals; and Andrew Altman upright bass. The first song they played was “Just Another Bird in the House” and the crowd was very pleased and raucous right from the start. They mix a bluegrass sound with Celtic and Cajun influences and sing about America’s struggle with social and environmental dislocation. The group harmonized well together, and the sound was rich and complex. When the band played “Happy as a Banjo,” an upbeat song with a nice rolling and jamming sound, the grass field had filled in tighter, with the audience excited and jumping around. The music coming from the many different stringed instruments sounded like multiple solos at once, but still really coming together as group. The group Railroad Earth has a lot of great stories to tell and they deliver them with a refined sound and a deep knowledge of bluegrass roots.
The next highlight was Rootz Underground’s two sets — early Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Passionate frontman Stevie Lightning steals the show with athletic stage antics and a wide range of reggae vocal styles. The rest of the band was on point and included a guest from SOJA on keys. This show truly stood out for me at Harmony because of their uplifting lyrics that emphasize human rights and equality beyond most reggae artists. Lightning naturally interacted with the crowd — requests for hands up fit seamlessly into songs lyrics. He rocks the stage like a punk show with leaps and kicks all over the stage. The crowd was enjoying every minute of it, dancing, blowing smoke, and waving Rasta flags. Rootz Underground played their new single “Unknown Soldier”, which was very well-received by the crowd.
The Flaming Lips headlined the festival, and brought another legendary whimsical spectacle to the stage. The show was enormous. Before the band was even on stage you could tell it was going to be a wild one from their sound gear painted in rainbows surrounded by a mass of dancers in Wizard of Oz costumes under a gigantic big disco ball hanging high in front of a visuals screen. A cloud of smoke formed, unveiling to the band’s entrance along with confetti cannons blasting in every direction, spewing colors to even the rear of the huge audience. Always trying to be unusual, they opened with their most popular song “Do You Realize?” The cannons continued during the whole show, along with people backstage hurling cow-sized balloons filled with more confetti onto the band and crowd, to explode across the musicians into further splashes of confetti. Famous for their “space rock” sound and delightfully quirky lyrics from frontman Wayne Coyne, he aims to humor and tickle all of the senses. Mostly the band plays while he runs around playing with a large arsenal of toys. In the middle of the set, to a 2001 Space Odessey-esque cacophony from the band, Coyne came out with giant hand props, performed a mysterious slow ritual, and then awestruck the crowd by exploding at least thirty lasers from each palm onto the giant disco ball overhead, showering the night with enough reflected lasers to make George Lucas envious. Later in the show the band inflated a giant clear plastic orb, which Coyne singer got inside of and walked on top of the crowds’ exuberant hands and cheers. The show continued to be a space circus until the very end.
More highlights included Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes from L.A. And Primus who wrapped up the festival on Sunday. A ten piece band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes bring positive lyrics on top of a lively and very danceable folk sound. They seem very carefree during their performance, waltzing around like a gang of gypsies, stopping to sling jokes, and the lead singer Alex Ebert clambering off the stage into the crowd, bringing the mic to a few randoms, asking them for good stories to share. With most of the band joining in on vocals, they brought a really strong chorus to every song that beckons the crowd to sing along. Eccentric funk metal inflected with bluegrass and jamband sound, Primus arrived to a crowd full of their fans. Last year former Primus drummer Jay Lane left Furthur to rejoin Primus. At the show they talked about their upcoming album of brand new music since the last 1999’s Antipop and we got to hear some of the new tracks, which stayed true to the Primus sound. I was hoping for more stage theatrics, but we only got big inflated spacesuits with visuals in the helmet visors.
Harmony 2011 provided a fantastic environment to enjoy diverse music, art, food, and drink for a long weekend. Apart from the music there were tons of workshops, speakers, free yoga classes, and many other activities to get involved in, many of them hosted by Bay Area companies. I would love to see more than one major stage in the future, to stagger more big name artists for a more nonstop experience. The lineup was very diverse in genre and surely exposed festival goers to many new artists they hadn’t yet encountered.