Jam bands to coalesce at BerkFest 2001
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 9, 2001) -- In just a few short years, the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, or BerkFest as it is more conveniently and affectionately known, has made its mark, establishing a national reputation as one of the premiere annual gatherings of the jam-band scene.
Drawing to various degrees on roots in funk, bluegrass, jazz, electronic, blues, rock, world-beat and other genres, jam-bands nevertheless are as noteworthy for what they tend not to be as for what they are. They tend not to be on major labels, on MTV, or on radio. They tend not to play harsh, aggressive music of the sort you’d find at a heavy-metal show like OzzFest, or even the kind that was largely in evidence at Woodstock ’99. Jam-bands favor a kinder, gentler sound. They tend not to be showy in their presentation – for better or worse, the music is the thing.
But as with the great-granddaddy of all jam-bands, the Grateful Dead, jam-bands are as noteworthy for their tie-dyed bedecked fans and the swirling scene that surrounds them as for anything they themselves do. For their fans and for many of the musicians, jam-bands are about a lot more than music – they are a way of life.
“The way I look at it is that what they’re referring to when they say ‘jam-bands’ are what type of people go to the shows and listen to the music,” said Vince Herman of the Colorado-based bluegrass band Leftover Salmon. “There’s no common musical mark that ties together all these jam bands. It’s the culture of the people they play to, and I’m totally happy about that. It’s the culture that needs to flourish in America. We are the true patriots. We are the ones who are going to save the world and the music is going to be a massive tool for that.”
Herman’s focus on the audience rather than the bands is echoed by John Medeski, one of the best-known performers on the scene, most notably as leader of the acid-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, which headlined last year’s BerkFest.
“Is the scene the bands or the audience?” asks Medeski, who returns to BerkFest this year with his new group, The Word, playing sacred-steel, gospel-influenced groove music. “If it’s the bands, all these bands are so different, then it doesn’t make sense to me. If it’s the audience, it’s an awesome thing, young people looking for a cathartic experience, which is great if they get it.”
“It’s really about living and being in the moment,” said Andrew Stahl, head of Gamelan Interactive Group, the concert promoter staging the fourth annual BerkFest this weekend – the third to take place at Butternut Basin Ski Area in Great Barrington – in cooperation with High Sierra. “It’s all tied together by heart and soul for me. That’s the root of it all.”
Whatever it is, the indisputable fact is that dozens of bands on five different stages, some indoors, some outdoors, will perform for thousands of fans at Butternut over the next three days. As Stahl sees it, BerkFest isn’t just about music. “It’s a three-day community based on having fun, meeting great people, and, of course, camping,” he said.
Campers will choose from two different camping areas: one in a large field, one in a wooded area, both a short walk from the music stages. There will be separate sections for grilling and barbecues, and more than a dozen food vendors will have set up on site by the time the crowds begin rolling in on Friday. Those planning on attending are asked to obey a few key rules: no open fires, no pets, no littering, no unauthorized vending, no glass, cans or coolers on the music meadow, no drugs, no alcohol drinking without a wristband, no nitrous oxide tanks, and, in perhaps a copywriter’s acid flashback to Woodstock ’69, no “creeps, squares or bad vibes.”
Festival organizers have gone to great lengths to work with the town of Great Barrington to minimize the other kind of jams – those of the traffic genre -- that the festival allegedly featured last year. Concertgoers driving into town will be directed toward one of two off-site parking lots – at Taft Farms to the north and the fairgrounds to the south – from which shuttle buses will ferry concertgoers to the concert site.
As for the music, it will range from the twin-guitar Allman Brothers-like vibe of Moe to Leftover Salmon’s contemporary bluegrass to Galactic’s updated version of New Orleans funk to Sector 9’s ambient electronica to The Word’s inspirational gospel jams to Dan Bern’s topical folk-rock. If Medeski and Stahl agree on one thing, it’s that the jam-band scene is eclectic.
For Stahl, it’s one of the festival’s strong points. “I like the fact that there are so many different styles that make up this genre,” he said. “I like the diversity. I get bored really easily.”
Ben Ellman, saxophonist with Galactic, feels that the music defies categorization. “I think the scene is just like a label stuck on it,” he said in a phone interview from his home in New Orleans. “It can’t be defined by a particular genre or style of music. My take on the whole thing has to do with a work ethic and musical ethic having to do with improvisation and the way you present your band.
“It’s not about glossy pop image, like Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync. It’s more like a community of musicians for music’s sake, and not necessarily for the commercial end of it. That’s why the fans are such hardcore fans, because most of these bands, they change their set every night, they improvise, their whole concept is to keep it evolving and changing.”
For a complete list of bands and a schedule, visit the BerkFest website at www.berkfest.com. For ticket info, call 1-888-325-2375. Here’s a look at a few of the bands scheduled to perform over the course of the three-day event:
Leftover Salmon: The newly-revamped Colorado-based group calls its eclectic mix “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.” The group had enough bluegrass credibility to attract the likes of Earl and Randy Scruggs, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Waylon Jennings, John Cowan and Sam Bush to contribute to its latest album, “The Nashville Sessions,” which also included guest appearances by John Popper of Blues Traveler, Bela Fleck, Lucinda Williams and Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
Like the jam-band scene at large, Leftover Salmon draws from many diverse streams. “What’s great is there are so many musical boundaries in American music to cross,” said singer-guitarist Vince Herman. “We just kind of set out to play the music that we liked, and a lot of that was bluegrass music but with serious rock and roll tenedencies and that kind of turned into bluegrass jam-rock. The well of American music that comes out of that is so great and so deep, there are so many other avenues to be explored.
Wax Poetic: One of the festival’s most intriguing bands, Wax Poetic is a trip-hop ensemble led by Turkish/Swedish saxophonist/keyboardist/composer Ilhan Ersahin. The group, which includes a vocalist, a spoken word artist, a sampler, a bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer in addition to Ersahin, a Berklee College alumnus, is one of the best at mixing authentic, experimental jazz arrangements and improvisation with state-of-the-art electronic dance beats. Ersahin also successfully weaves Middle Eastern and other world-beat textures throughout the group’s cosmopolitan soundscapes. For a sneak preview of BerkFest, catch Wax Poetic tonight at Club Helsinki at 9.
Sound Tribe Sector 9: Atlanta quintet Sound Tribe Sector 9 plays an acoustic-electronic style of instrumental groove music called “trance-fusion,” in which light, breezy and occasionally ethereal keyboard and flute melodies float over state-of-the-art electro-beats. As heard on the group’s CD, “Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace,” it is music for both dancing and chilling to, hyperkinetic and ambient, a psychedelic soundscape infused with Mayan mysticism, breakbeats, dub bass and jazz riffs.
Robert Walter’s 20th Congress: San Diego-based keyboardist Robert Walter was a founding member of the Greyboy Allstars along with Karl Denson, who has gone on to lead his own band, Tiny Universe. With his group 20th Congress, Walters plays funky, instrumental organ-jazz, with fat, chunky riffs on an array of vintage Hammond, Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes keyboards. Walter’s keyboards are set off against with the r&b-fueled saxophone lines of Cochemea Gastelum. New Orleans is never far away when Robert Walters plays; his album “Money Shot” includes a cover of Dr. John’s “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,” and features Galactic drummer Stanton Moore on several cuts. Walters has a lyrical side, too, which he explores on “Instant Lawn.”
Galactic: Founded in New Orleans in the early 1990s, Galactic is steeped in the funk, jazz and brass-band traditions of its hometown, with influences ranging from the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Wild Magnolias and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band most prominent. But the group’s instrumental palette goes beyond traditional funk to incorporate other diverse elements. Saxophonist Ben Ellman and drummer Stanton Moore double as members of the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, and you can occasionally hear a Yiddish or Balkan influence on some of the band’s melodies. “People in the band have played different styles of music, so you can’t help that being infused into the overall sound of Galactic,” said Ellman. “Primarily we play funk and music that grooves, something that may be real free and open and sometimes it has a tight, syncopated sound.”
Strangefolk: Born out of the same northern Vermont scene that gave birth to mega-jam-band Phish, Strangefolk began as an acoustic duo and now tours as a full quintet. As its name indicates, the group is song-based, but in concert the musicians take the opportunity to explore the songs’ outer limits. Its latest album, “A Great Long While,” is chock-full of rootsy, neo-hippie, acoustic rock with country-borrowed harmonies and soul-drenched keyboards, sort of a 21st-century version of Crosy, Stills and Nash.
Drums and Tuba: The name tells two-thirds of the story of this unusual group, because the trio Drums and Tuba also includes a guitarist. Mixing brass-band music, electronica and funk on “Vinyl Killer,” produced by Ani DiFranco and released on her Righteous Babe record label, the group makes a unique groove-fusion music that is cutting-edge while recalling some of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s more radical experiments with African polyrhythms in the early-1980s. Instrumental music, particularly non-jazz music, is rarely this witty, suggestive and cerebral.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 9, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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