For the second year in a row, Pulse Productions has put on a great two-day festival at the Roaring Camp Railroad tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Henry Cowell State Park. It really is just that perfect little festival. Not too long and not too short, not too hot and certainly not too chilly, and not too far from either the San Francisco or Monterey Bays. It’s just about smack dab in the middle of the Central Coast, and almost smack dab in the middle of July this year (last year the inaugural festival was held in early August). It was easy in and easy out, no hassle parking, and no big traffic to manage after a long day in the sunshine. And what a beautiful drive – whether it’s Route 9 or Highway 17 through the trees, or Route 1 along the coast, ya can’t beat the scenic drive home, with the sound of the music still filling your head. Scaled back a tad and grounds rearranged a bit, they had two main stages sharing the same large lawn space, one set up at each end. And, sort of in the spirit of Mountain Jam or Lockn’, I suppose, when one stage ended, ya just turned yourself around and walked down to the other end of the lawn to the second stage for that set, and when that was done, well, you know…. Some folks set up blankets under the trees in the shade, sort of in the middle of the field, or maybe closer to one stage than the other. The music was pretty clear all over the festival grounds, and they probably did have a bit of a view of the stage as well. The difference this year was they cut the smaller, “local” stage that was set up on the other side of the food vending area where bands would play in between acts on the main outdoor Sol Stage. They also moved acts out of The Barn to that second stage outside, keeping the shaded indoor area for the festival staff and operations. They also cut the festival bands back a tad, ending each day about 7:00pm or shortly after, whereas last year, I remember leaving the grounds in the dark, well after sunset. I’m sure it’s not cheap to put on a festival like this, so scaling back operations and acts may have been a wise thing and a necessary thing, until this festival grows a bit and can support itself. Hoping to make this thing a part of the Santa Cruz community for years to come, this festival will definitely flow with the times.
Day One began with Keith Grenninger, a local California singer-songwriter (Santa Clara Valley and Santa Cruz areas) who embarked on a solo career in the late 90’s, after being a founding member of a trio called, City Folk who performed locally and nationally up to their final tour in 1995. His band has consisted of musicians who supported the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, the Beach Boys, Warren Zevon to name a few. Stripped down, it was Keith supported by Jim Norris (drums), Dion Kai (guitar) and Patrick O’Connor (keys). Keith’s husky voice lends to the soulful and authentic way he performs as well as to the imagery he creates for the human conditions. Playing for the early morning crowd, selecting hits from his releases, one of the most memorable tunes he did was, “Take You to the Mountain.” There was a smooth beat that encouraged you to swing with a little ease. It had those big solid slaps to the drums that were perfectly timed with the stomp of your feet. Really, it’s just a simple, feel good song that, well, does your soul up right. Calling out for a familiar name and voice to join him on stage, the wonderful Tammi Brown comes out and just kills it on, “Let’s Talk About Love for a While”. Gosh she’s got such good energy; and, that smile, that smile. It can grab you and suck you in.
Just as Keith’s set was finishing, I started my way down the field and over to the other stage to hear Melvin Seals and The Spirit of ’76, a local Santa Cruz area band performing the Grateful Dead in, well, the spirit of their sound in 1976. This is actually a band made up of musicians from other Dead or Garcia associated cover acts – The China Cats and Shady Groove. All in the family I suppose. I noticed the crowd gathering in front of the stage was getting bigger, indicating more fest-goers were arriving as the morning turned to afternoon. Whole lotta happy hippies dancing around to their favorite kind of music, basking in the early afternoon sunshine, in the shade of the tall redwood trees, with green grass under their feet. Yeah, it was perfect. Starting out with a funky, “Music Never Stopped,” into a slow and sweet, “Sugaree,” lead vocals moving back and forth between Jerry (Brown) and Matt (Hartle), with a little support from Amy (Barry), generating the lively sound and spirit of the Dead’s sound in that era. Well, come their “Estimated Prophet,” with all the reverb that Bobby would use supported by that bit of a psychedelic jazzy Garcia jam, the crowd was feeling it. And, just like in the good ole days, it smoothly and easily moved into a grand rendition of “Eyes of the World.” Making each song even bigger, Steven (Sofranko) and Melvin Seals sharing the supportive and circling sounds of the ivories, whether located on the synthesizer or the Hammond B3. Like Keith Greeninger, they too invited Tammi Brown up to sing along, breaking into a lively “Dancing in the Streets,” with Tammi and Amy (Barry) exchanging the high end. Staying for “Sisters and Brothers”, her spirit was tossed back a few decades as she lent her voice to that gospel sound.
I headed back over to the Sol Stage as I wanted to get a good spot for Angelique Kidjo, who I had never seen before. Two little girls were sitting on the hay bales in front of the stage and started talking to me. They looked about 8 or 9 or 10, both with a head of braids, one opting for purple beads and the other choosing none. Impatiently waiting, they asked me, “When is Angelique coming out?”… And a few seconds later, “How long is it going to be?”…. and a few seconds later, “Do you know how tall she is?” and a few seconds later, “Do you know her?” and a few seconds later, “Isn’t she coming out yet?” They were so cute. They politely introduced themselves to me and said they were sisters, one very proudly bearing the same name as Kidjo’s only daughter. Opening up a bit, they told me they had just moved to California; they had recently been adopted from an orphanage somewhere in the Congo region of Central Africa. I asked her if she knew that Michael Franti, who was closing out the first night of the Fest, was also adopted. Wearing a curious grin, she shook her head, no. I told her I had at least two friends that I knew were adopted and how much it had changed their lives. As she told me of hardships being in the orphanage, she held her head down and looked at her fingers that were becoming tense as she was unconsciously clenching her hands. Knowing she’d been recently adopted, I suspected the memories were fresh. I told her I was glad she lived in California now, because I was happy to have met her and her sister. I reminisced of moving to California 20 years ago, telling her how many friends I made and how much I loved it here. Through her smile, I could tell she was glad to be here too. Just then there was movement on stage, signaling Angelique’s set was about to start; and an even bigger grin came across my new friend’s face as she jumped up on the hay bales, gripping the rail as she leaned just a little closer to the stage, maybe hoping to get closer to Angelique.
Well, I absolutely loved Angelique Kidjo’s set, from the first note to the last, ate it up I did. Her inner beauty just radiates from her. Her spirit shines bright, she speaks just as eloquently as she crafts her lyrics, and moves around on the stage in abandon, showing her joy for what she does. I can’t say that I recognized all of her songs, because I didn’t. Lyrics sung in her native language, she took the time before each song to talk to the crowd, explain the meaning behind the song and letting us all into it a little more. She is quite an interesting person, her musical influences running the gamut from Femi Kuti and Miriam Makeba to James Brown and Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. She’s also no stranger to Nina Simone, Gershwin, Ravel’s Bolero, and has collaborated with many from Dave Matthews to Ziggy Marley to Peter Gabriel and Dr. John. She is also quite an activist and advocate, involved in UNICEF and campaigning for women’s rights, the climate, world peace, and is the founder of The Batonga Foundation, which gives girls a chance at secondary school and higher education through building schoolhouses, improving teaching standards and increasing enrollment through scholarships. Gracing the stage in a purple, magenta and black outfit, headdress atop, she opens with a powerful drum and conga driven song, dancing with abandon, spinning, jumping and getting everyone warmed up. A song titled, “Kulumbu”, it has light guitar, quick beats, and a strong bass bottom. While the lyrics were unknown to me, Angelique says this song name means, “the dove of peace.” A song to make you forget about the unrest in the world.
Creating opportunities for crowd participation – dance and sing – this was one of my favorite sets of the day. Putting a hush over the crowd and supported by just the Steele guitar, she sang a ballad, “Maliaka” meaning “my angel” or “my child”. Connecting the next song to this, “Awalole” she talks about the young girls/teenagers who suffer hardships, intense poverty, and are typically orphaned with a bleak future. Investment in education is a resounding theme throughout her music. “…the new leaders of tomorrow are today…” While I didn’t understand the language she sings, through her voice, her emotions, and her body language – she spoke very clearly.
In dedication to the woman who inspired her, who paved the way so she could grace the stage today, she played a lively version of Mariam Makeba’s, “Pata Pata” and claimed if we didn’t know that song, our heads were somewhere they shouldn’t be! A song with a smooth groove, coupled with her warm voice, it created a gentle wave of dance throughout the festival. You could even see those spending time over with the vendors had turned to watch and dance. This song brought back vivid memories of the first time I heard Mariam Makeba. I was shopping in a little store on The Haight and they were spinning a CD of hers. I glided around the store and found myself staying longer, just so I could hear more. I asked one of the employees what we were listening to and she pulled out, Africa, a compilation of music from the ’70’s. Well, I think I walked down the block to Amoeba Music and picked one up for myself.
I was a little sad that she didn’t hear my new friends call out for her to sing, “Naima” – knowing that one of my new friends shared the name. Ah, but Kidjo redeemed herself, as right towards the end of her set she got out into the crowd for “Africa”, getting the entire place dancing and singing with her, “Ashe Mama, Ashe Mama Africa!” and I noticed my friends dancing right along behind her. And, to top the set off, she invited a crowd up on stage to join her for, “Tumba” to dance and party. Suddenly, a dance battle, or contest, or challenge or whatever you want to call it, ensued. The conga player placing himself front and center, providing the fast rhythms for people to head join him and show off their moves. I was so happy when I saw my two new friend’s up there grinning from ear to ear. What an experience for them, to not only get to see her perform so close but to then be up on stage with her, dancing and singing and just taking it all in. I bet they will never forget that.
I turn around to do the festival shuffle back to the other stage for a little Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, another Bay Area band making it big out there on the musical highway. I dig this band and I don’t get to see them too often (my fault, they play around in the Bay Area enough….) so, I was happy to have them on the schedule for an hour and a half set, scheduled from 3:30 to 5:00 pm. Starting out with a slow, laid back groove, they open their set with “Burnt”, a song that can give off a bit of funk as much as it is a blues song. And I really dig, “Deep Water” too, more upbeat, with a little reminder hint of folk rock and warm supportive harmonies out of Tim (Bluhm) and Dave (Mulligan). Speaking of Tim Bluhm, this set also included a few from his writing house. “Stick With Me” appears on an early Nicki release, Driftwood (2001) as well as their duo release a few years back, called Duets (2011), an eight-song compilation of folk, Americana and a little country and soul. Smart, and dare I say adorable, interplays between husband and wife, it really is a great show of not only how their music intertwines, but their lives. They also included, “Squeaky Wheel” from a 2008 release called, House of Bluhm something he released outside of his music with The Mother Hips.
Announcing they’d just put out a new release, Love Wild Lost, they play, “Waiting On Love”, “Queen of the Rodeo”, “Me and Slim”, “Mr. Saturday Night”, “Heart Gets Tough”, and “Heartache.” My favorite familiar song was probably, “I’m Your Woman”…. Oh, but wait…. You have to love the kazoo, and Nicki tends to take that out to hum along during, “Barbary Blues” which is a totally fun song you can just, “do-do-do-do, doodley-do-do” to all day long. I dunno, there’s something about her voice, reminds me of Linda Ronstadt for that crisp and funky upbeat blues sound, as she’d sing, “I ain’t your mama, I’m your woman my man.” The smoothness of her voice, the control she has, can sound as slick as Joni Mitchell. Heck, she even makes the word “hell” sound pretty. There were some great women of rock back in the 60’s and 70’s, and I think Nicki can be one of those great women of rock for this new generation that feels connected to the music of that time. And her band is friggin’ awesome. Darren Ney, holy cow can he rock that guitar; and, Dave Mulligan on rhythm and incredibly blended harmonies, and maybe he might sing a lead here and there (which he did this day, exchanging lead on, “Santa Fe”),all held together by Steve Adams on bass (also of ALO) and Mike Curry on drums, with frequent sitter-inner, her tall and handsome hubby, Tim Bluhm.
I was trying to watch the clock, knowing I wanted to head back over to the Sol Stage to catch the closing act was Michael Franti & Spearhead, who, well, as you know can easily draw a huge crowd and can more easily generate a huge dance party that can, well, get a little crazy! And, with no real photo pit at either stage, I’m hanging with the crowd. So, I headed back down to the Sol Stage listening to Nicki sing, “Jetplane”… “And I don’t know my brothers; I don’t know their plan. But each one will tell you the same damn thing…. Life is like a jetplane…..”
Now, I’m not one for waltzing away from a stage when the show is not over, but I was glad I did. I wiggled my way up front and found a spot somewhere between J. Bowman’s rig and Michael Franti’s microphone. “Hey, Hey, Hey” started out the two-hour long set; and within a few moments, the crowd was screaming and jumping along with Franti, seemingly unable to contain themselves. Filling the set with his popular songs, a combination of lyrics that speak of love, peace and equality combined with high energy, seriously happy music, the field was packed with bodies young and old all just grooving together. Because, well, “Everyone Deserves Music” – sweet music, even our worst enemies, see, they deserve music too. There is just something about this guy – he draws you in. I can’t help but to take notice of the connections he makes with his fans, looking directly at them in the eyes, singing to them, noticing those in the crowd that might need a hug, and he’s more than happy to oblige. I’m not sure I’ve seen any other musician do this. He knows no boundaries, he carries no worries about what might happen out in the masses, he just gets right down into the crowd and makes everyone feel like, well, they deserve music.
As they kick into, “Sound of Sunshine”, Franti notices a little girl out in the crowd. She must have been singing along (I had left the crowded front stage area) with him. He looks to his left and asks for a microphone for her, to which the crew grabs. You can hear her small voice, maybe a little nervous voice, singing, “That’s the sound of sunshine, coming dow-ow-ow-own! Hey hey, hey hey, hey ey ey ey!” Next thing ya know, she’s invited up on stage to join the band. Can you imagine that? She looked about 12 or so. She must have been out of her skin excited, looking out over that crowd of happy faces, people dancing and singing along with her, and seeing beach balls flying everywhere. And she stayed there, singing along, yelling, “woo!” and “yeah!” when J.Bowman took on a little guitar solo. Man that is something she will never forget.
No to hatred, yes to compassion – this is the Franti and Spearhead theme. This next one was dedicated to everyone in Charleston – those who suffered and those who came together to show that they believe that putting compassion and celebration of diversity first, every day is the way we all get lifted up. Beginning the next one kind of acapella, with just a little guitar to support him to start out, “Love Will Find a Way” that soon turns into a slow reggae groove. Surely a song for all kinds of people – this is why he draws such a diverse crowd. From hip-hop to reggae; funkified to soulfulized, his music and his message are what make him stand out. Heck, even the Dali Lama said he was, “… a monk without restriction….”
But I tell you this…. he is one hard fella to capture in the camera. He’s all over the place – stage right; stage left; center stage up front inches from you; maybe he’s stepped back towards the drums to share something with Manas. Next thing you know, he’s gone from the stage. Like Waldo, where’d he go? Just look in the crowd for the mass of people parting like the seas with their hands in the air – there, you will find him. He slowly makes his way through the field to about mid-point. I see his crew grab a short platform (I’d seen two out on the lawn and was confirmed they’d be for him). Staying out in the crowd for “All People”, he is completely surrounded by fans, arms in the air, looking up at him, reaching out for more of that vibe. Calling for hands to stay in the air, raise a cup, a flower, whatever you have, they start into, “My Favorite Wine is Tequila,” as he makes his way back to the stage dancing to another slow sticky reggae vibe.
Franti, whether intended or not, creates these concert moments that you don’t forget. Whether you’re the person he gives a microphone to, gives a hug to, and grabs a hand of, looks into the eyes…. Creating moments. As he begins, “I Got Love for You,” he requests you turn to your brother or sister and tell them you love them. Then he asks we form circles of love with those brothers and sisters… and love is everywhere. I hear him call for the smaller circles to become one big circle, all holding hands. The whole field opens up (as much as it could) and a big circle of smiling happy faces holding hands and just sharing the experience of it all. He really knows how to get everyone together, feeling like we are all friends. This is when I wish I was 20 feet tall – what a picture that would have been…..
After a blend of, “11:59> We Don’t Stop> 11:59”, he remains out in the crowd and dedicates, “Same As It Ever Was” to all first responders in the world, in this country, for all the people who work for justice to bring the truth to the light of day, for people who have lost life and love, for it is possible to get better, stronger. It really was a beautiful song. “I say it in my own house, and I say it in the streets. I say it on a record yo, and I say it on a beat. I paint it on a wall yo, until everybody sees. When we all see justice, then we’ll all see peace. It’s the same as it ever was. But there’s got to be a better way. It’s the same as it ever was. But today’s a different day….” Franti calls out for Manas Itiene, who sang with heartache in his voice. I don’t really know what Manas was saying, but it was soulful…. Believing things will get a little better, every day, as long as WE do a lot better.
Giving a shout out for the Grateful Dead for all they did, or maybe what they still do in some form or another. They made it possible for all people of all walks of life to come to one place and celebrate music together. He thanked them for decades of beautiful music. The crowd responded with a huge cheer of agreement! He even threw a little “Casey Jones” lyric into the last song of his set…. “(Say Hey) I Love You” has become something of a show closer for him, a big ending where he gets a ton of kids up on stage to dance and sing along, finding one in the crowd to give the microphone to for the last line of, “Because I know one thing, that I love you.” And yes, it is adorable, and no, it never gets old. Ah, but it wasn’t the set closer (surprise!!) as he takes the microphone to talk about a new song, a song of unexpected moments. He speaks of his son’s illness and the sudden loss of his crew member’s father that very day. He takes nothing for granted, not one minute of one day. He appreciates life and all of its ups and downs. “Once a Day” – hug someone; kiss someone; miss someone; love someone. And we all will rise up. Michael Franti has such a big warm soul and it oozes out of him, off the stage and over the crowd. I’m pretty sure everyone left the Festival grounds with a big skip in their step and a little more love in their heart.
Day Two began at the Sol Stage, as it did the day before, this day with a little Tim Flannery and the Lunatic Fringe. If you’ve heard the name Flannery but not the Fringe, well, you’re probably a baseball fan. Third base coach for the SF Giants for about eight years (through 2014), Mr. Tim Flannery is also an accomplished musician. Taking to the stage for about an hour and proving he can sing solo, or a part of a three-part harmony, and play the guitar. Arriving a tad into his set (I had not planned on the Sunday traffic heading into Santa Cruz!), I caught a little more than a half hour of music – acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, and a little solid rhythm. Call it folk music; he plays songs that have a taste of Irish bluegrass mixed in with a bit of a country sound. Visiting his website and checking out his music tab, I count eleven releases since 1997. Playing originals and covers (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Grateful Dead, and the like), he also uses his music and his name for good, raising nearly $100,000 for Bryan Stow by playing concerts with the likes of Jackson Browne, Bob Weir and Jackie Greene to name a few. And, not realizing at the time, but the man in the wheel chair sitting up close to the stage with a “Lunatic Fringe” t-shirt on was the man behind the movement.
His songs tell stories of hope and sadness, joy and loss, families and friends, life and baseball (he wrote a song, “21 Days” about the Giants’ and the days leading to the 2012 World Series). Heck, he’s even got a huge hit in Ireland with, “Molly Gram.” That must make him smile, being he’s an Irishman (also part Cherokee). Oh, and he didn’t forget to tell the crowd how the Irish brought music and whiskey ya know. Yeah, you’re welcome.
I walked down towards the stage during, “Hillbilly Rain” – a song of family, being connected by the roads paved before you, the blood in your veins, and the beat in your heart. He played a song for Uncle Jimmy who fought in wars past, a song for the all veterans who came down the mountain to home (“He Aint’ Coming Down the Mountain”); a song for all the “couch coaches” out there, you know, it’s easier to be fearless from a distance (“Gambler”); a song for serenading lovers who wait beside the water (“California Promises” by Jimmy Buffett), so soothing to the heart, as the harmonica wails and the peddle steal moans.
I can’t forget one of my favorite moments on that Sunday afternoon. Walking by the vendor area, I ran into Tim who was out grabbing some grub for his bandmates. During his set, he sang a song that I didn’t know, but had something about Buffalo in it (I grew up there). I asked him what the song was, and he began to sing to me – “And on a package show in Buffalo, with us and Kitty Wells and Charlie Pride. The show was long and we just sittin’ there, and we’d come to play and not just for the ride. And we drank a lot of whiskey, so I don’t know if we went on that night at all. But I don’t think they even missed us, I guess Buffalo ain’t geared for me and Paul.” A Willie Nelson song it was, and a special moment that was for me, to be serenaded by long-time Padres player and [recently] former third base coach for the SF Giants…..
Heading back down the field, I was pretty excited to see The Golden Gate Wingmen. This golden group is made up of John Kadelcik on guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keys, Jay Lane on drums and Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green on bass, or is it guitar? Or maybe we just call it a basitar. Or how about a guitass. Nope, that doesn’t sound right. Neither sounds right. Well, he’s a bass player but every once in a while, he gets to be a guitar player via midi. He hits that thing on the floor and, whaaaaattt? It’s heavy, it rips, and it was unexpected. All of these guys are super talented, having played with acts like Further (3 of the 4), RatDog, and Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade, and Reed with the likes of Steve Kimock, 7 Walkers, Rhythm Devils and Billy & The Kids.
Starting out a little nostalgic with their rendition of John Lennon’s, “Nobody Told Me”, it a tad more gooeyness to it than what Lennon would have given out, but still had that same hint of the sometimes strangeness we experience in life and that “wonder of it all” feeling to it. “…There were UFO’s over Felton and I ain’t too surprised….” There were also rainbow reflections in the sky that day, however, much cheaper than over Santa Clara (as John joked). Maybe a little heavier on the jam and a little longer on the spaces in between the familiar refrain. A good 15 minutes longer than the radio played days, they sail their way into the deepness of a guitar driven jam, held together by the kicking of the drum, the heavy steer of the bass, all delicately touched by the sound of the keys. Playing through familiar songs from a popular repertoire of the Grateful Dead (“Brown-Eyed Women”) and Jerry Garcia (“Might As Well”)…. A song that always reminds me of my sister, because she used to try to count how many times Jerry sang, “might as well” and she’d always loose count. Me too. You could hear the crack and strain in John’s voice as he reached for, “Never had such a good time, in my life before! I’d like to have it just one time more. I’d like to take that ride again, again!!” and Jeff cuts loose on the organ.
Then there was the unfamiliar that felt familiar for some reason (“Hard Highway”), maybe it is an original, but it’s been crafted after their influences, which make it sound familiar. And then the surprises, for me, with Van Morrison… you gotta love when the band calls for requests and your friend yells out a tune, and the band starts right up into it. I love Van Morrison, and to have this in their wheelhouse, well… surprise, surprise for me. “Cleaning Windows” is just one of those really groovy Van Morrison tunes. “Well I’ll take my time, and I’ll see you when my love grows. Oh baby, don’t let it slide. I’m a working man in my pride, cleaning windows…” They really played it just right, I must say. I don’t often hear a band cover Van and it was quite a treat. It was full – with warm keys just filling it all in the right spaces; it was breezy – with John’s soaring guitar, reaching for the rainbow on the clouds; it chugged along with a solid and steady rhythm just like the Roaring Camp Railroad steam engine train that smoked on by the stages more than a few times each day. It was one of those songs where, well, I had to put down the gear and just dance. It brought a smile to my face to look over at the train full of folks just listening to the music as they rode on by, waiving at the crowd and bringing a smile to everyone’s face.
Maybe my favorite space of their set was the “Help on the Way>Slipknot”. This was when Reed became a guitar player, even if just for a second. I was not camera ready so I just looked up and watched him go at it. Man, it was unexpected, a little sudden, and it blew me away, just ripping through the atmosphere surrounding him. This set the stage for the deep and spatial “Slipknot”, that sound of John’s guitar just wrapping around your skull and swirling its way down, down, down to your dancing feet. For a four-man crew, they sounded like a 10-man outfit. And Jay Lane, my heavens. Holding back there on the kit. His energy all over those skins, and the sign of it all was on his face. But, wha? What? How the heck did that “Slipknot” all of a sudden turn into “Ripple”? The front beat was sort of the same, but it felt like there was some double time going on there. Gave it a little more lightness, if this song needed it, or no… maybe it was a little groovy. Ripple groovy? Yeah, pretty much! Golden Gate Wingmen groovy? Yeah, pretty much.
Playing for a tad over an hour and a half, the stage may have started out with a decent size crowd, but by the end of their set, there seemed to be a larger gathering attracted to the sound. Whether it was late arrivals or just a draw of a note, the GGW were one of the highlights of my afternoon.
Up next on the Sol Stage was Brett Dennen. Like the first act on the first day, I’ve heard this name, but didn’t feel as familiar with his music. I’m told he graces the central coast radio stations quite a bit. And, by the size of the crowd gathered in front of the stage to catch his set, it looks like he’s got a decent fan base here. There’s a certain tone to his voice, not necessarily falsetto but on a higher octave than most. Jackie Greene has it. I heard a little familiarity to his voice, maybe a Jason Mraz or James Blunt, even a little of his influences with Paul Simon, Jack Johnson and Lindsey Buckingham. He also reminded me a little of Justin Townes Earle, kind of dorky but on the cool side of it. However, his three piece suit was of the country version, jeans, plaid shirt and a cowboy hat.
I definitely recognized a few songs in his set, so I suppose I have heard his music. Like “San Francisco” with its nice little groove, the upbeat strum of the guitar as he sings, “Oh if you want me to go, and I won’t follow, just so you know…” One of those easy to dance to numbers for just about anyone, and getting a big cheer from the crowd. Often on the radio waves, “She’s Mine” really tests his ability to hit the high notes while keeping this voice soft and a tad husky, singing, “She’s mine….. she’s mine, all mine. Oh she’s mine…” opting for the high strings to support his octave, playing so lightly and reminding me of a warm summer breeze…. And this one turned into a crowd sing-a-long too! I wonder what that feels like to a musician; to look out at a sea of people, all smiling back at you and singing right along with you. What an honor it must be.
From sing-a-longs (“Wild Child”) to clap-a-longs (“Dancing at a Funeral”) to generating a hush over the crowd (“Ain’t Gonna Lose You”), Dennen seems to have a song for everyone to relate to. And he sure knows how to pack ’em into a tight, hour-long set that might just fly by a little too fast. I really enjoyed this guy and will surely try to catch him again.
Doing the festival shuffle and making my way back down the field to catch Keller Williams and Grateful Grass happening on the second stage. Bringing along Michael Kang (“…indigenous to this area, yes he is…”) and Keith Mosely (“…encompasses the vibe of the goodness…”) from the String Cheese Incident, this was another anticipated line-up for me. I’ve enjoyed seeing Keller and his Grateful Grass, but haven’t had the pleasure to enjoy it with these two placed in the mix. Seriously, getting to hear this trio at this lovely space in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at this sweet and intimate set up, is probably something I won’t get for another long time. Starting with, “Eyes of the World” it quite obvious how Keller hears bluegrass in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. Keller’s intricate guitar work supported by the quick and delicate sound of Michael’s mandolin and Keith’s solid and funky bass, it really does sound like it should be played this way. Maybe feeling a tad humble, Keller says, “Taking some liberties, yes it is, but I think Jerry would have liked it.” Me too, Keller. And only Keller can do a sweet, 21-minute combo of a little Jerry, “Eyes” into a funky Bobby, “Feel Like a Stranger”, not skipping one beat… or a whistle. Oh my goodness.
Their one and a half hour set was packed with a whole lot of funky pickin’ and extended groovy jams – “Shakedown Street,” which had a great little three-man go round (“just gotta poke around, poke around, oh buddy poke around”), “Jack-a-Roe”, (apparently also known as, “Jack Monroe,” “Jack Munro,” “Jackaroe,” “Jackaro,” “Jack Went a Sailing,” “The Love of Polly and Jack Monroe,” among many other titles as this traditional song has been performed by so many over the decades.), “Women are Smarter,” “Midnight Moonlight,” and “Scarlet Begonias.”
Taking lead on, “The Hobo Song,” Kang’s voice maintained the front while Keller and Keith backed. This song’s quick beat and deep southern feel demands good vocals, and their harmonies were spot on. Ya gotta luv a little fiddle here and there, and Kang grabs it for just one tune, “Samson and Delilah,” for which Keller warns, “I like to go fast. I like to go real fast.” And it was fast… the fastest “Samson” I’ve ever heard…. and it was good. It was better than good. Need I say more?
And, if you’ve ever caught Keller perform, you know the humor he tosses in – from getting the crowd to whistle along during, “Stranger” to goofing on, “boo-do-dow boo-do-dow boo-do-dow now-nah-now” during “Cold Rain and Snow” and “bow-ba-da-dah-du-dah-da-dah” with “Mr. Charlie” to fill in where Jerry’s guitar may have, he’s not only an incredible musician but a very imaginative and humorous performer.
They ended their set with a fast pickin’, “Bertha.” This song took your head all over the place. It had such a lighthearted feel, people grooving all over the lawn, kickin’ up their heels, shouting and yelping with responsive pleasure. There was barely a moment to breathe, Keller giving in just a little and taking it down, down, down a notch for that chorus (“I had to move, really had to move…”), before whipping it back around again (“Bertha don’t you come around here, anymore. Anymore!”). What a treat, to see this trio up there just kickin’ it and having a blast. It looked as though they felt at home with it all, in the mountains, under the trees, looking out over a colorful body of hippies just smiling and having a time. Later that day, I saw Kang walking through the crowd with a smile on his face and a cold one in his hand, taking time to say hello and shake hands along the way.
Closing the weekend on the Sol Stage was the Yonder Mountain String Band. Their blend of bluegrass, with a touch of progressive southern sass here and there, was a perfect follow to Keller and a great way to end this summer jamband festival. Reading up a bit on YMSB on the Wiki, turns out Dave Johnston, founding member, first met Jeff Austin (no longer with YMSB) in Illinois and asked him to join a band called The Bluegrassholes, even though Austin claimed to play no instrument, but who owned a mandolin. OK with that risk, he asked Austin to just, “play anything, just play fast and loud.” Love that story.
Improvisational style, they can sound a little reggae, or a little rock, or a little high-octane bluegrass. The way they weave songs together, blending them seamlessly as if they were written that way, shows a continued exploration of their own work. Starting out with one of these blends, “Slideshow> Night Out> Slideshow” – well, the circus out there, ma’ma…. The banjo was swirling around the mandolin; the bass was thumping along with the rhythm guitar, and the swing and slide of the bow on the fiddle creating a fast-paced dance frenzy that no one could stand still for. How do they play so fast?! Barely a hint to the change in time, “Night Out” is about half the time of “Slideshow”, but will all of the musical exchanges and steady harmonies placed perfectly in their bluegrass spaces. And there is was again, that near second of a pause before heading back down to “Slideshow”, and over 15-minutes later, they finally let us have a breath.
It was a good breath too. I recognized the beat a tad (admittedly, I don’t have enough YMSB in my musical house to brag), this is an old bluegrass song recorded by The Steel Drivers (not that I knew that), but it has also been put out by Adele; and, thanks to the musical tastes of friends and family, I was aware of her version. Well, Allie did this song proud. Singing, “Four cold walls against my will. At least I know he’s lying still. Four cold walls without parole, Lord have mercy on my soul…” – painting a picture of heartbreak, regret, taking the wrong fork in the road, what have you. I could see her in a jail cell, with her fiddle, her voice echoing down the cement walls to the other women sharing those same cold walls, as they played the banjo or stand-up bass or mandolin along with her, sharing that sorrow.
Trading licks, instrumental prowess, songwriting skills backed by a musical shuffle on life. Music is robust, a frenzy of exciting jams, with a touch of that freewheeling spirit to their sound. And, if I didn’t think they could play any faster than they’d already played, well, I was wrong! “Bound to Ride” was at lightning speed, at superman speed, faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It is very hard to move that fast, get your legs and feet to cooperate was not easy. I was thinking, thank goodness this is a short song! It was the last band of the weekend and they were not going to let us rest, nope. So knowing some of their tunes may wind down after 3 or 4 minutes is something to hold onto I suppose.
Adding to their instrumental prowess are Jacob Jollif on mandolin and Allie Kral on fiddle, while not a replacement of Austin, but a new era of YMSB. Both musicians and singers, they’ve increased the musical boundaries of this band, and can take it to a whole new place. I mean, when Allie breaks into “Jolene”, that song made famous by Miss Dolly, she commands the stage and draws you in to the story with her. Stomping her feet as she demands, “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene! I’m begging of you please don’t you take my man!”
About half way through another one of their extended blends consisting of, “Pass This Way> Eat In> I’m Lost> Pass This Way” I realized I’d been enjoying their set for an hour and a half without a sip of anything. Parched, I headed over for a dairy-free pineapple coconut popsicle, which was in that moment, the best popsicle I’d ever had in my life. I must have been showing the joy on my face as I had about three people ask me what it was and where to get it. While pricey, it was, in that moment, the best $4 I’d spent all weekend. Man, it was good.
Making it back to the stage to “Troubled Mind”, another one of those high heeled fast paced bluegrass dance tunes, I found myself wanting to just put my gear down and enjoy it all. Wasn’t much left on the clock for their set, I wasn’t the only one who made the decision to just get lost in the sounds of the banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle, and sing along too – “By the looks I get seems I am the last to know. Apologetic eyes follow me everywhere I go. I swear I’m twenty-twenty but I never saw the signs, and now I sit alone and try to ease my troubled mind.” Yeah, we all think we are twenty-twenty, but there’s always your blind side…..
Ending with a surprise me song… Well surprise ME because they’ve covered this before. I enjoyed their take on The Faces, “Ooh La La.” Fitting them quite perfectly, it is one of those songs that gets everyone involved. It has a slow and steady groove coupled with that sing-a-long feel, as they hit the chorus, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…..” Yeah, don’t we all…. And I suppose I was surprised yet again by their take on “Son of a Gun”, a song by The Vaselines, whose version is incredibly different than YMSB’s bluegrass take. There’s a special ear that can hear the original version and also hear it as a bluegrass song. Fast pickin’ is putting it lightly, and it appears the YMSB had no intention of laying their set to rest on a slower tune! Putting a huge spring in everyone’s step and plastering perm-a-grins around the crowd at the end is certainly one big way to close out the weekend.
In the words of Keller Williams, it was perfect weather, with perfect music, at a perfect place where you can just lay down in the grass and dance with your feet in the air. The folks putting this on said they’d like this festival to become a Santa Cruz tradition, and I couldn’t agree more. This was the second year, and with a handful of tweaks and adjustments, this festival was as good as any summer fest you should plan to get to.