On Sunday May 22nd, thousands gathered at the SOMO Village (Sonoma Mountain Village) Event Center to celebrate the 80th birthday of Hugh Romney, affectionately known as Wavy Gravy. Founder of the Phurst Church of Phun, the Please Force, as well as countless other charitable organizations, namely a founding member of the Seva Foundation for which this show was a benefit, Wavy knows how to throw one hell of a party. Thousands of friends, family, and fans gathered for a nearly 10 hour event with music, art, vending, food, and crafts to celebrate the birth of the clown jewel of the hippie movement, Mr. Wavy Gravy.
In typical Seva fashion, the musical entertainment was top notch. With a smaller stage set to the side of the main stage, it was possible to have continuous music all afternoon and the production crews did not disappoint.
Wavy acted as MC and traveled between stages, telling stories and introducing bands. As the king of clowns, his throne was thrust upon each stage, enjoying the best seat in the house. Talk about unobstructed views!
Lake Tahoe favorites, Dead Winter Carpenters (DWC) kicked off the main stage festivities with a blistering set that had Wavy Gravy dancing and laughing in his seat. The venue was still not full but you would be hard pressed to tell buy the sheer amount of people pressed up to the stage to dance with the DWC as Bryan (Daines), Jenni (Charles) and Jesse (Dunn) swap tasty licks while Brian (Huston) and Dave’s (Lockhart) drum and bass provide a solid foundation for the groove. Strangefolk guitarist Jon Trafton joined in for a couple of tunes while Steve Earl, who would play a set later, joined Wavy clearly in awe of the bands chops.
As the Dead Winter Carpenters finished their main stage set, Mr. Gravy introduced the Grateful Bluegrass Boys on the smaller side stage. This San Francisco Bay Area bluegrass supergroup plays both classic rock and Grateful Dead covers with a plunk and screech like none other. They bring people to their feet to dance to familiar classics from Steve Miller to the Eagles, with a bit of Grateful Dead sprinkled in for good measure. While the Grateful Bluegrass Boys played, many young up-and-coming clowns passed out the traditional red noses to honor our king of clowns, Mr. Wavy Gravy.
Next up on the main stage was Achilles Wheel. Hailing from Nevada City, California they are currently making quite a name for themselves in the rock and jam scene by hitting the music scene hard with shows, each night winning over countless new fans with their eclectic and captivating style of jam infused world music and rock. John Popper of Blues Traveller fame was the roaming musician and he made his first of many appearances sitting in with Achilles Wheel. Trading licks with guitarist Jonny “Mojo” Flores and Paul Kamm while bass player Shelby Snow looked on in awe, the band and crowd were simply delighted with John’s choice of being that roaming musician. Popper’s harp style meshed perfectly with the eclectic/electric sound of Achilles Wheel.
As the set wrapped up, attention was drawn to the side stage where a cast of clowns were gathered in preparation to sing to the birthday boy and colorful host of the party, Wavy Gravy. Before the cake was presented, a lively parade made its way through the audience to the front of the stage. Led by drum troupe Sambadrop and full of clowns, many who were graduates of Wavy’s Camp Winnarainbow, the parade brought all focus to the stage where thousands sang in unison while Wavy was presented a birthday cake with his own likeliness as decoration. After singing, “Happy Birthday,” a few kind words were spoken before the main stage fired up again, this time with the New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) at the helm.
The NRPS set saw many special guests including John Popper, Lorin Rowan, Joli Valenti, Barry Sless and Pete Sears. David Nelson led the band through new and old originals as well as a fantastic cover of the Rolling Stones, “Dead Flowers,” and a classic rendition of “Friend of the Devil,” by the good old Grateful Dead. Having long history in the area, the New Riders were clearly a crowd favorite. Good old Wavy even joined in the merriment, providing some funky kazoo riffs to play counterpoint to John Poppers soaring harp leads much to the delight of the band and audience.
The T Sisters were up next and took the stage by storm. The three sisters, Chloe, Erika, and Rachel, have been carving out a career playing for live audiences for quite some time and their musical prowess really shone through during this set. James Nash joined them for a killer “Bird Song,” as well as another Grateful Dead cover, “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” John Popper sat in with them as well, and as the first song was over, he looked over at the band and simply said, “Wow.” Clearly impressed, he stuck around for the rest of the set! The T Sisters are a class act and really treat their fans well. They took a moment out of their day to take a photo with a 7 year old fan, and that little girl danced at the rail for the whole set.
Singer/songwriter and musical outlaw Steve Earle took over the main stage at the conclusion of the T Sisters set. Met with much enthusiasm, Steve is no stranger to the SEVA benefit stage. Starting the set with a Steve Earle and the Dukes tune “Ain’t Nobody’s Day Now,” it was apparent we were in for a special treat. There is a sense of both intimacy and urgency in his presence and sound which has a tendency to mesmerize his listeners, including clowns of all ages. Steve played old classics as well as a few from a new release, a collaboration with singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin.
As Steve played, the sky began to darken just a bit and the weather began to change. Evening had settled upon the festival and the food lines were longer than they had been all day. There was a good amount of food and beverages to choose from: taco trucks, burgers, and vegan delights were available alongside smoothie and tea vendors. Beer was also an option to combat the spring sun. In addition to food, there were a host of vendors selling everything from do-it-yourself tie dyes to SEVA related merchandise. Just indoors there was an art exhibit featuring the works of Stanley Mouse and other Grateful Dead and jamband-related artists.
Another SF Bay area favorite, Hot Buttered Rum, played on the side stage after Steve Earle’s set concluded. HBR’s newest member, drummer Shane Schlick, along with Zebulon (Bowles) and original members Erik (Yates), Nat (Keefe) and Bryan (Horne) pleased the crowd with their original style of country infused folk with a bluegrass gypsy twist.
Yonder Mountain String Band closed out the nights festivities with an amazing set on the main stage. While Wavy Gravy played his kazoo for the entire set, the real highlights were the John Popper sit ins for “Run Around,” a tune made famous by Blues Traveller on their 1994 album titled “Four,” “Kentucky Mandolin,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and “Dancing in The Moonlight.” Another highlight of the set was a well played “Jack A Roe,” which surely would have made Jerry proud.
As I made my way back to the car and began to replay the day in my head, I couldn’t help but smile. This wasn’t just a typical birthday celebration or a charitable fundraiser… It was a good old fashioned love fest, with music bringing us together in harmony, once again.