A groove music party [an error occurred while processing this directive]
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 12, 2002) – In the end, after three days of nearly non-stop grooves from all over the musical map, it was the basic, blues-based soul-jazz of Medeski, Martin and Wood that brought down the house – or in this case, the hillside – on Sunday night at the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival at Butternut Basin.

Maybe it was a simple case of less is more, but the keyboard, bass and drums trio made the music that was the most entertaining and intellectually provocative of the weekend. Building on a solid foundation of blues, keyboardist John Medeski painted with broadly textured strokes of color, with drippy, chunky soul notes on organ, with Ramsey Lewis-like gospel blues on acoustic piano, and with fistfuls of Cecil Taylor-like bursts of noise, atop the ever swinging rhythms laid down by bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin.

Not that there weren’t other moments of musical significance. Directly preceding MMW, the John Scofield Band, also deeply rooted in jazz, exercised its improvisational chops with decidedly funky versions of its trademark “Uberjam” music, colored by Avi Bortnick’s samples and Scofield’s distinctive, echoey guitar lines.

Other bands colored their grooves with world-beat influences. Ozomatli, from Los Angeles, brought a drummer and two percussionists to help power its high-energy salsa-rock, updating Los Lobos’s Mexican-American fusion with contemporary touches from funk and hip-hop but also looking back towards Motown for horn lines and choreographed dance steps.

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra boasted five horns and nine other musicians, playing a big-band-style r&b/Latin fusion – think Santana meets Fela Kuti – with hints of ‘70s Blaxploitation funk and electronica. Robert Randolph played long blues jams that drew on gospel and ‘70s r&b, even offering a rendition of Sly Stone’s hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”

Plenty of outfits just came to jam, at best achieving spontaneous moments of invention, at worst indulging in time-killing noodling. The quartet Psychedelic Breakfast operated from the Frank Zappa playbook of long, constantly morphing tunes, bouncing from genre to style as in one piece which recycled the hook from Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” before cranking out a standard blues that evolved into computerized electronica. The members of Garaj Mahal drew on their deep knowledge of funk and world music for long, guitar-led jams by Fareed Haque fueled by Kai Eckhardt’s popping bass lines. If Texas boogie-rock band ZZ Top was a jam-band it would be Larry, a quintet from Austin that played a rootsy, blues-based style with touches of New Orleans funk and Cajun music.

Representing the folk-roots branch of groove music, Railroad Earth took the basic ingredients of a front-porch string band and writ them large for the jam-band stage, adding a huge, powerful backbeat to instrumental solos by the group’s fiddler, banjoist, flutist and mandolinist in between vocalist Todd Shaeffer’s sincere vocals.

Refugees from Vermont’s disbanded group Strangefolk -- which once threatened to fill the vacuum left by the group Phish, the group that filled the shoes of the Grateful Dead in the mid-to-late 1990s and which is now on a long-term hiatus – were heard throughout the weekend on various stages. Luke Patchen and Reid Genauer both shared a folk-groove approach and a Seventies soft-rock earnestness.

Michael Franti and Spearhead combined the sentiments of Tracy Chapman’s socio-political folk with hip-hop, with a positive vibe out of Bob Marley and an inventive spirit as per the Fugees. Franti was a genial frontman, whose music dipped into Cuban rhythms and even one, dark, Kurt Cobain-like chant.

On early Sunday afternoon, West African pop singer Angelique Kidjo had the unenviable task of getting a bleary-eyed crowd up and dancing. As it turned out, Kidjo was more than up to the task. She was perhaps the most engaging performer of the weekend, with a natural ability to connect with an audience. It helped that her fusion of African and Brazilian pop was smooth and lively and that she had a powerful voice that expressed emotion directly, even when she was singing in a foreign tongue.

Presumably it was his high-energy, virtuosic licks that made Stephane Wrembel’s Django Reinhardt-derived Gypsy jazz of the 1940s blend in almost seamlessly with bands like Soulive, a guitar, keyboard and drums trio that was augmented by guest horn players on Saturday night.

BerkFest was as much or more a socio-cultural gathering – really a huge party – as it was a music festival. In many ways, the music was secondary – really just the soundtrack to the party. If you were 20 years old and had nothing better to do, it seemed like it could have been a fun one.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 13, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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