Backwoods Pondfest, Peru, NY- 8/2-3
Nestled away in the North Country of Upstate New York, just past the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, lies the small town of Peru, where for the past seven years Backwoods Pondfest has taken place. This small music festival brings back the aura of what fests were like before they exploded in the past 15 years, and highlight music from the region and state, as well as national acts such as Chali2na and Garaj Mahal, among many others. Pristine weather that eschewed the humidity and non-stop rain of the summer gave way to flannel shirts and jeans at night, as friends and family both young and old gathered for a continually well-attended and highly anticipated event for Upstate New Yorkers.
There is of course history in this setting. Twin Ponds Campground was the setting for many a Pondstock in the early ‘90s, a festival produced by owner Sandy Bazzano. This tradition was renewed when Katie and Liz Bazzano, daughter of Sandy, started a new festival with the help of Lowell Wurster of Plattsburgh’s Lucid and Chris Boire in 2009. The result quickly became a North Country tradition that brought in live music fans from across the Northeast and regulars from across the country.
With two stages, room for campfires and sprawling potential for camping down winding trails, those in attendance were offered the benefit of a traditional Adirondack setting with music from early afternoon until dawn, covering both familiar and newer acts to broaden musical tastes. The down-home sound of folksters The Blind Owl Band and the trashy funk of Spiritual Rez gave way to host band Lucid, whose jams built to high peaks and enlivened the North Country folk, particularly with the festival’s anthem “Backwoods.”
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad’s chill and upbeat reggae funk had an added bonus of Cosmic Karma Fire performing near the stage, giving added visuals to GPGDS’ “Ok Ok” and the lights of Luke Stratton, one of the best lighting designers not named Kuroda or Waful. Ithaca’s Jimkata exhibited groovy ambience during “Concrete Breakdown,” akin to select Disco Biscuits from the late ‘90s, while Dopapod unleashed a barrage during their headlining set at 1am. “Trapper Keeper” sprawled out while a jam of “Eight Years Under” was briefly explored, “Braindead” came on strong and finished strong, while Dopapod’s foray into bluegrass with “Hey, Zeus” was a pleasant surprise, as well as the brief 2am rain that chilled the hot set only slightly.
Saturday began earlier with Doomf@#k’s surprising wake up for the crowd – don’t let the name scare you, the music was a perfect dose of string-band meets klezmer with an Eastern European groove. Albany’s The Chronicles provided amped up jazz via a sturdy horn section while Rack Em Let’s Go played Jerry Garcia’s “Run for the Roses” to a more relaxed crowd in the tent. New Jersey’s Fikus put a psychedelic twist on Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven”, and with their Cuban sound and jazzy upbeat guitar-work set the bar high for music, and it was barely 4pm.
Another Albany act, Formula 5, brought up Justin Henricks from The Chronicles to play guitar on a jammed out version of Phish’s “Sand,” who never dueled with Joe Davis but added to what developed into complicated exploration, eventually dipping into the ending section of original tune “The Clear.” The Garcia Project, a fine alternative to the ever-popular JGB with Melvin Seals, had voices and sounds that were spot on with the original group. Kat Walkerson and Mik Bondy traded vocals on “Deal,” “Don’t Let Go” and “Tangled up in Blue” among many other enjoyable grooves in the early evening. The first of two headliners for the evening, Jennifer Hartswick Band, accompanied a soulful sunset behind the stage as she sang songs off her album Ocean Floor, as well as wowed the crowd with a serene “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and a soul-filled version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Few voices compare to that of Jennifer’s, and the crowd made it known how appreciative they were for this musical treat.
The night was capped off with high energy funk and jams from multiple bands, starting off with Syracuse’s Sophistaphunk, who engaged the crowd with hip-hop/funk numbers such as “Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll.” Bernie Worrell Orchestra brought a member of funk royalty with an impressive supporting cast. The spacey psychedelic nature of their jams was accented by the disco light show and a set-closing “Red Hot Mama” throw-down among the packed audience. Vermonters Twiddle are poised to be the next band to break out of a state that has given birth to many greats, including Phish, Strangefolk and Grace Potter. This quartet found reggae-rhythms and room for paced improvisation during a highly anticipated set. Host band Lucid capped off the weekend with a 1am, with “Whiskey Dreams,” the final track on their most recent release, Home is Where I Wanna Grow, which has more than a hint of Three Dog Night.
Sax player Jamie Armstrong sounded like the late LeRoi Moore, adding just the right notes to the eclectic funk/jam band. Cosmic Dust Bunnies took the crowd into the latenight, sounding like Aphex Twin meets The Disco Biscuits in a tent of late revelers and dawn-seekers.
The Upstate New York region is home to many festivals, and Backwoods Pondfest is one of many that have an original, small festival vibe with a lineup that is bigger and better each year. If you’re tired of the large festivals that have become too corporate and expensive, head north to find that true festival feeling once again.