[13 July 2010]
Modest in stature when compared with behemoths such as Coachella or Bonnaroo, the inaugural Nateva Music and Camping Festival, held over the July 4th weekend in Oxford, Maine, was an magnificent success. Boasting more than 50 bands performing on two towering main stages and two “barn” sheds, the event offered a plethora of choices for fans of many genres. The event made a huge contribution to the local economy, hiring local workers and volunteers, providing substantial space for local vendors such as Maine Root Sodas, Sugar Shack and a local farmers market, and billing local bands such as the recently reunited Rustic Overtones, Brenda and Gypsy Tailwind.
On-site camping on the 100-acre Oxford County Fairgrounds meant that approximately 9,000 revelers were never more than a ten-minute walk to any particular stage or to Shakedown Street where vendors hawked their crafts and wares and culinary delights, late night movies and a silent disco among many other attractions, even as off-site patrons who camped at the nearby speedway, site of the 1988 Grateful Dead 4th of July concerts, were shuttled in via a fleet of leased school buses. While a heat wave glazed fans with sweltering temps that reached the high 90s and a few strategically placed mist tents would have been welcomed, Mother Nature cooperated graciously, providing glorious, mostly cloud free skies and a mere passing sprinkle.
Lotus / Photo: Nick Fitanides
Thursday - 1 July
The festival gates opened Thursday afternoon amid tight security. Local Americana act Gypsy Tailwind kicked off the musical festivities at the (PCMHS) Port City Music Hall Stage (one of two shed stages), which took its name from a Portland based music venue. Later in the day, more fans packed into the shed to hear Lettuce and its whirlwind, salad spinner of funk, despite taking the stage 25 minutes past its scheduled start time. A tight, eight-piece, all-star ensemble with three horn players, they certainly got the weekend off on a funky note. But the dance party got started with the Jam-Tronic act Lotus, which performed two late night sets of improvised, highly energetic electronic rock mixed with techno beats. The wall-to-wall packed shed, the thumping beats and frenetic light show provided a feeling akin to being at a rave.
Moe. / Photo: Nick Fitanides
Friday - 2 July
Friday night’s headliner, Moe. took the stage just after dusk. The instrumental “Jazz Wank” allowed the band to get their sound bearings before sliding effortlessly into a slithery “Rebubula”. Bassist Rob Derhak’s line, “She’s an East Coast mama now, I know that for sure”, drew a huge cheer from this East Coast crowd. Moe. invited Keller Williams (dressed, like the band, in a suite to celebrate Moe.’s 20th anniversary) out to sing and play on the Grateful Dead’s “Deal”. Williams’ fervent interpretations of Jerry Garcia’s catalogue are always heartfelt and his vocals bear a close resemblance to the late Captain Trips. A somber and ominous “Darkness” featured dual vocal harmonies of guitarist Chuck Garvey and Derhak, and segued into the much more upbeat and high-energy fan favorite, “Moth”, and then “Buster”. The band encored with a new song from guitarist/vocalist Al Schneir called “Haze”, which moves from slow, harrowing verses into faster, more spirited, guitar driven choruses. Moe. closed the set with an upbeat, pop nugget “She Sends Me”, giving Moe.rons something to sing along to as they made their way out of the main concert field.
Two of the biggest draws came from Jamband veterans. Despite a surprising early time slot, (due to being booked in Colorado on July 3rd and 4th) Umphrey’s McGee’s sweet, high-energy set was one of the highlights. The melodic instrumental “Great American” smartly provided the chance to sound check—a rarity at events where one band is performing while another is waiting in the wings on the adjoining stage, but something jambands have learned to do prodigously. A weird, abstract excursion into synthesized prog rock none-the-less featured teases of Ted Nugents’ “Stranglehold”, before sliding seamlessly into the opening of “The Bottom Half”. There was some intricate guitar dueling between Brendan Bayless and Jake Cinninger on “Higgins”, before dense, synthesized organ brought it back into “The Bottom Half” to close the set.
Keller Williams / Photo: Nick Fitanides
Keller Williams has been performing solo long enough that the novelty of recording himself playing various instruments and looping the tracks as he plays another has worn off a bit, but he’s still an enthralling performer and songwriter. He moved to Theremin on “Cadillac”, drawing low and high pitched wails from the electronic instrument as he flailed his arms like a zealous conductor. Amid a percussive beat, he thanked the crowd for coming out to the show, singing in tune all the while, and then on a three count, transitioned to “Breath”, which dates back to his CD of the same name recorded with the String Cheese Incident. Amidst a rolling looped bass and acoustic guitar he introduced guest guitarist Al Schnier from Moe. singing the words, “Al from Moe. Al from Moe”. Together, they played a sweet, acoustic rendition of the Phish nugget, “Birds of a Feather”, that included a harmonious dual acoustic guitar flourish.
Later, back over at the PCMH shed, The Heavy Pets tore it up in front of a large crowd. This band laid down a mélange of swirling, psychedelic jam rock and acoustic pop that had a sweaty, afternoon crowd bouncing from wall to wall of the shed. The quintet showed cohesive musicianship amongst the two guitarists and a tight rhythm section. The Heavy Pets gained many new fans on Friday afternoon, including this reviewer
Greensky Bluegrass played a traditional blend of Americana laced bluegrass, similar in sound to early Grateful Dead. Several members traded verses back and fourth in customary bluegrass twang, and their tight mandolin and banjo picking seemed right in place at the fairgrounds site. The music of The Felice Brothers however were rougher around the edges, and the quartet thrashed around on stage with a rambunctious energy that got a rise from those gathered. This bands more punk inspired bluegrass would seem a better fit in intimate, dank barrooms or even sheds, and patrons would indeed get a chance to check them out later at the PCMHS.
Firedancer / Photo: Nick Fitanides
The second full day at Nateva provided splendid, cloud free blue skies, along with blazing sun and scorching temperatures. The day’s lineup was also the most eclectic and diverse, exemplified by main stage headliners the Flaming Lips and a sunset set from trance rockers Sound Tribe Sector Nine (STS9).
The Flaming Lips headlining set was a psychedelic mind bender, both visually and audible stunning. Opening with the atmospheric space age freak out “The Fear” with a massive, pulsating display behind him, frontman Wayne Coyne stepped into his inflatable orb and out over the hands of a delighted crowd. Dispersed in a setlist heavy on songs from the bands latest release, Embryonic, (“Worm Mountain”, “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine”…) were some of the Lips more popular hits. A large portion of the massive crowd sang along with Coyne the entertainer, his hands raised in the air, on “She Don’t Use Jelly”, the 1993 hit song that brought the band to the forefront of the then burgeoning MTV crowd.
The Flaming Lips / Photo: Nick Fitanides
The man can talk too, as he addressed the crowd in discourse about his anger and frustration for George Bush II and against the war, then introduced “The Yea Yea Yea Song” as a celebration for the election of President Obama. Huge balloons and balls bounced around the heads and hands of fans throughout while effervescent glowing lights flashed around the stage and tweenagers dressed in bright orange costumes danced on the wings of the stage on both sides.
On “I Can Be a Frog” he played a call-and response game with the crowd, baiting us with “whatever I say, your gonna scream it back at me at maximum fucking volume, come on!” The lovely, acoustic lullaby “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1”, belied its futuristic lyrical bent but was also a huge sing along for the crowd. Eerily, I noticed as he sang the words, “You won’t let those evil robots win”, fans dressed in robots costumes brushed by my side. The band brought the show to a dazzling conclusion with yet their biggest hit, “Do You Realize”, amidst exploding streamers and confetti shot from cannons and an extravagant, glowing light display on the screen behind the band. Yes, multi instrumentalist Steven Drozd was back on stage with the band after his recent hospitalization. And though the stage show may be a choreographed spectacle played out at festivals across the globe, it’s obviously one worth seeing, whether for the first time or again and again.
STS9 / Photo: Nick Fitanides
STS9 took to the stage just as the sun dropped below the horizon, and opened fittingly with a rarely played “Twilight”. A mellow opener with an atmospheric ambience, it drew curious denizens from the outskirts of the concert field to take in something new. Later, as darkness had fallen on the fairgrounds, they stepped up the tempo and brought harder edged beats and pumped up psychedelic spirals of synthesized techno rock on songs such as “Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist”, and the vibrant rocker “New Soma”. “Rent” ascended upon a slow, steady peak of keyboards, guitars and percussion, as multihued red and yellow and green lights enveloped the band amidst a dense fog. Tribe’s light show was one of the most fantastic of the weekend, and they brought it all back to where it started on “EHM”, a mellow, spooky trance like song to close the set.
Further adding to the diversity of the line up was the pop perfection of She & Him, fleshed out by two backing singers/instrumentalists, a rhythm section of bass and drums, and an additional guitarist supporting their songs from Volume One and Volume Two. The duo of pop starlet Zooey Deschanel & folkie Matt Ward drew a large crowd to the main stage, for their wispy, breezy harmonies and subtle arrangements. On songs such as “Theives” and “Don’t Look Back” Deschanel’s waif like, high-pitched vocals were thin and she had a hard time connecting with the audience. But when she sang in chorus with Ward and the backing singers on the flirtations cover of NRBQ’s “Riding In My car”, it inspired the audience to sway and move in rhythm. While the bands sweet pop was a pleasant alternative to the jam heavy line up, their music seemed more fitting for the intimacy of a club or small theater.
The McLovins are a Connecticut based trio of teens—two of whom resemble the Superbad character. The band began its five song set innocently enough with “Bedhead Crystal Bugger”, drummer Jake Huffman absolutely pounding on the skins. To put it simply, 15-year-old Jeff Howard is a guitar phenom, and his solos mesh fluidly with the tight rhythm of Huffman and bassist Jason Ott. As they moved through the mellow and groovy “Milktoast Man”, the crowd continued to grow and grow, till they’d drawn the largest crowd (well over 1,200) the PCMH shed had seen. Howard’s fingers deftly slid up and down the neck of his instrument on the closing rocker “Virtual Circle”. The crowd demanded with rapturous applause, an encore (a rarity at any multiple band festival) from the trio, and they responded with an incendiary cover of the Phish nugget “Tweezer Reprise” that figuratively blew the roof off the shed.
The Ryan Montbleau Band has become a regular attraction at festivals all over New England and always seems to pepper its set with lyrical references to sunshine. Early Saturday, he opened with a jazzy, “Inspired By No One” singing the line “And she eases up my mind, good things and sunshine all the time”. It was a harbinger of things to come under a cloudless, azure sky. In an upbeat lyrical scat, he referenced the 4th of July weekend and people dancing in the sunshine. The band played two new songs from an upcoming and as of yet untitled CD, “Songbird” and “Straw in the Wind”, which couldn’t be more different from each other lyrically. “That was our dark, heavy metal portion of the set, for us that’s some really heavy shit”, he said of the latter, which was underscored by vivid, swirling keyboards from Jason Cohen. He followed it up with the cheerful, well, “75 & Sunny”, though it was already closer to 95 degrees. Nateva got a wonderful treat when he sandwiched his groovy, tone poem, “A Hand Beside Me” between “Maybe Today”. The poem his account of a particular trippy festival experience, albeit one that many listeners could easily identify with. Again, sunshine abound. With four minutes left, the Bleau Crew had one more, a funky new song from the aforementioned CD called “Lovesongs”, which was anchored by tight rhythm, rumbling bass and dynamic percussion. Though far to short and early in the day, RMB’s set was certainly one of the festivals highlights.
Not surprisingly, Sunday, the holiday, saw the largest turnout headlined by Furthur, the latest iteration of the Grateful Dead, featuring original Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. The undercard was stacked with progeny of the Dead such as Max Creek and Moonalice, as well as Zappa Plays Zappa featuring Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil playing the music of his father.
Sunday’s early music featured a hit you over the head with heavy set from the Nate Wilson Group. Playing as a quintet with the addition of second guitarist Johnny Trauma, the group’s sound has morphed from melodic hard rock towards an all out barrage of thundering, mind-blowing brew of swirling guitars, riff heavy rhythm and churning keyboards.
The husband and wife duo of Derek Truck and Susan Tedeschi put together a line up of musicians culled from each of their respective personal bands, and have been spending time together, touring with the family in tow. Billed as The Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band, they played not only songs from each other’s repertoire (“These Days”), but also included new songs written specifically with this soul and gospel project in mind. Tedesschi’s “Love Has Got Something to Do With It” was inflicted with deep soul, her vocals bellowing out like Aretha Franklin. Keyboardist Mike Matteson wrote the gospel tinged “Bound for Glory”, a fitting song on this day.
Furthur / Photo: Nick Fitanides
Other than hoping in a time machine and traveling back in time to catch a peak era Grateful Dead performance, this Furthur line up is as close as one band comes to recreating the classic sound of that band. Arriving on stage at twilight with a luminous sunset over the horizon, the band opened the night fittingly with Furthur’s first performance of a Phil Lesh & Friends song, “Celebration”. At 77, Lesh’s vocals were off key occasionally, but harmony vocalists and fluid guitar playing from John Kadlecik helped to hide his vocal flaws.
If imitation is the finest form of flattery, then the late Jerry Garcia is smiling wide and proud, as Kadlecik (formerly of the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra) handles Garcia’s vocals and guitar playing deftly without aping his style. On the New Orleans boogie of “Mississippi Half Step”, he traded verses off with Weir, and his wah wah guitar was fluid and clean. “Cold Rain and Snow” melted into the bluesy ode “Ramble on Rose”, which turned into a crowd sing-a-long. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti also deserves recognition as one of the strongest players in the band. With an upbringing in classical music and later jazz, his piano and Hammond B-3 organ playing has just the right rhythm and blues swagger, evidenced on his jubilant solo on the euphoric “Cumberland Blues”.
The second set opened with the fan favorite “St. Stephen”, with a chorus of vocals and deep, resonating bass from Lesh. The lovely but mournful murder ballad, “Jack Straw” was an apex of the performance. While sung as a duet between Weir and Lesh, the tuneful piano of Chimenti and the searing guitar runs of Kadlecik accentuated the song. The line, “Leaving Texas, fourth day of July” obviously drew a loud cheer from the crowd. The exquisite trilogy of “Help on the Way” > “Slipnot” > Franklin’s Tower” allowed drummer Joe Russo to further distinguish himself as one of the jam scenes most talented and progressive drummers. As expected, Furthur encored with the boisterous “U.S. Blues”, with an entire crowd singing in unison on the patriotic and spirited chorus, “Wave that flag, Wave it wide and high. Summertime, come and gone, my oh my”. The band remained on stage and enjoyed the holiday fireworks display with the crowd. It was a magnificent display that brought the festival to a spectacular conclusion.
Sun Puppets / Photo: Nick Fitanides
The inaugural Nateva Festvial was a smashing success. Though the line up leaned heavy on the Jambands, there were many different genres presented, offering something for everyone. Most all festivals claim to be a family festival, but this one truly did follow through on that promise, offering so much more than just music. Water spigots located throughout the campgrounds and festival grounds offered free water. The Blow Brothers (Number one in the number two business) maintained the cleanest Porto Lets many have seen at any festival. And at least for this year, the awful N2O tanks that have become such an awful blight on the festival scene were, for the most part non prevalent.
Named for his two children, Nate and Eva, Frank Chandler, a first time concert/festival promoter, has found the ideal setting for his event. Hopefully he’ll continue to invite all 9000 of his closest friends back to the fairgrounds this weekend for years to come.
Sunset / Photo: Nick Fitanides