There is truth in the adage, “good things come in small packages,” and a case may be made for small, independent music festivals as opposed to large, corporate sponsored, mega festivals. Over the Memorial Day weekend, roughly 900 music fans made the sojourn to Camp Kee-wanee in central Massachusetts to attend the StrangeCreek Music Festival. Promoted by the Wormtown Trading Company, it’s the sister festival to the Labor Day festival known as the Wormtown Music Festival, and campers and patrons of both events are known collectively as “worms”, in keeping with the events’ environmental consciousness.
Camping at StrangeCreek was a bit overcrowded with good reasons; the day prior to the event, a storm tore through the campgrounds and downed numerous trees; further, a rumor lingered that much of the campground had been deemed off limits as it was found to be state property. Lastly, this year’s event was the largest in terms of attendance yet. None-the-less, once settled into a wooded site, the long weekend of music and good times began in earnest.
The three-day event featured shaded camping; more than 70 regionally based bands performing on two main stages, two smaller stages within the campgrounds and two late night cabins right up till sunrise; family entertainment; a community bonfire/drum circle; arts and crafts and a wide variety of food vendors. Best of all, as a BYOB event with no beer sponsor, patrons were free to wander the grounds and sit in front of music stages with their own choice of beverage, rather than having to pay a hefty sum for a watered down cup of the same old draft. The Non-Profit organization Strangers Helping Strangers was on hand to accept donations of non-perishable food and hygiene items, which were donated to the Franklin County Meals Program. We were blessed with glorious sunshine the whole weekend, with a short, sun shower late Saturday afternoon that was a welcomed respite.
Just under two years ago, Zach Deputy left his home in South Carolina, going on tour for the first time in support of his self released debut CD, Out of the Water. One of his first stops was the Wormtown Festival. This weekend at StrangeCreek, Deputy was a main stage draw, performing two sets. Deputy is a one man band, recording himself and playing the guitar tracks back as he layers on vocal beat boxing as percussion, vocals, bass tracks, steel drums and more. What sets Deputy apart from others performing in this manner is the positive vibe and infectious energy he brings to his performances; he’s got a contagious smile, and his music is so lively that it is impossible not to dance to.
His music is a huge hit with young women. On the uber-catchy “Coconut,” several scantily clad young women found their way up on the stage to strut their stuff. Meanwhile, the crowd in front of the stage continued to grow as he played. Upbeat, funky numbers such as “Jump In The Water,” “Twisty Twisty” and Tubesteak” (see the embedded video below) got the crowd shuffling its collective feet.
Late in his second set, he busted out “Wormtown”, the song that has become the defacto theme of both festivals and had the entire crowd singing along, “We gotta leave all this nonsense behind, and run to the party to relax our minds, let’s go, party people let’s go, everybody let’s gooooo, down, down, down to wormtown, it is a party like nobodies business, the days are long and the nights are endless, so let’s head down to Massachusetts, head down.”
Boston’s Ryan Montbleau Band is another that has made a name for itself with wildly energetic sets at both festivals over the past several years. The Bleau Band was funky from the get go, getting things started with an instrumental sound check, and a call and response to the crowd; “Wormtown are you feeling all right, let me here you say yea?” The evening sun was setting behind the trees, but his poetic vocals still had nods to warm sunshine; “You gotta feel that sunshine on the inside.” Jason Cohen made himself heard leaning into the keyboard on the soulful “A Way With Women”.
Not many bands employee a full-time violist, but Laurence Scudder handles such a task dutifully while also lending backing vocals. His sweet viola solo on “Honeymoon Eyes” brought a huge cheer from the crowd. A new addition to the set list was “Straw in the Wind”, an elegant and soulful ballad replete with shimmering strings, which seamlessly transitioned into “Songbird”, both of which will be on Montbleau’s upcoming CD to be released in the fall.
Late in the set, during a ebullient and rousing run through “Grain of Sand”, a male streaker jumped on stage between Cohen and Montbleau, just as the song was building to a climatic crescendo, to which a surprised Montbleau sung in tune, “Holy Shit!,” He then slid back into the chorus, “And if I want to much of life, my heart would understand, I’m making the most, of this great big grain of sand,” and then added playfully and in tune, “…And a naked man!” Looking to the band behind him as they broke it down musically, he jibed, “Couldn’t have been a girl, had to be a dude, right?” Montbleau closed out the set, fittingly, with a lively “Take My Breath Away”, (his own original, not the top 40 hit by Berlin) asking the crowd to sing along with him on the chorus.
Music didn’t stop till sunrise as two cabins provided late night performances for the all night partiers. I wandered into the Wormtown cabin, the bigger of the two cabins, which was recently re-built with donations from patrons of the two festivals, and heard the second half of Garaj Mahal’s set. They laid down a fusion of instrumental jazz and funk, lead by the talented Eric Levy on the Moog organ and keys and the even more talented Fareed Haque on guitar. Haque had a fluid and melodic style on guitars, without being showy. He played jazzy, soft guitar as well as heavy, metallic rock guitar. Bassist Kai Eckhardt seemed to have an inherent chemistry with the bands newest member, drummer Sean Rickman. At one point, levy’s propulsive synthesized keys sounded like the soundtrack to a hyperspace video game.
Early Saturday afternoon, I ambled further into the campground and found the River Worm Café Stage. The band on the small stage was a mix of musicians from several bands that were playing throughout the weekend. They jammed on a few popular songs, including a Grateful Dead cover and the Band’s “The Weight” that had the gathered fans singing in unison. What caught my attention most however was an acoustic original sung by Chaz Cybulski called “Optimystic”, a beautiful ballad. He later told me he began writing the song in San Francisco and finished it later in Mystic, CT.
Back over at the main stage, Rubblebucket played high-energy set influenced by the second wave of British ska (Madness). By the band’s third song, simply titled “Rubblebucket” their high energy, jazzy funk had drawn a sizeable crowd. Front and center of the act was Kalmia, on lead vocals and tenor saxophone. With her smooth, high-pitched and emotional vocals and boundless enthusiasm, she reminded of an American Bjork, albeit with a huge saxophone strung over her shoulder. She’s joined on horns by Alex Toth, trumpet, and Adam Totson, trombone, and on “November” the horn section seemingly lit the concert field on fire, getting the crowd moving and shaking. Kalmia enticed the crowd, raising her hands on the “Whew, whew, whew,” chorus, while the rumbling rhythm section shook the dirt below our feet. Closing out their set, the horn players marched out and through the entire crowd for a good two minutes before finding their way back to the stage to finish “Came Out of a Lady”. Rubblebucket was certainly one of Saturday’s many highlights.
Back in the woods at the River Worm Café Stage, Brothers McCann drew one of the largest crowds I saw at the intimate stage. The sound of this band goes a long way to display the variety of musical acts at the festival, as they offered a roots rock, pop sound. Lead vocalist Pat McCann had a sweet, falsetto vocal range, akin to Jamiroquai’s lead vocalist Jay Kay. They began with a new song, “Find Your People”, which Pat described as a moment when a lost companion shows up in your life. It featured lovely acoustic strums of Mike McCann and electric harmony from guest guitarist Noah Maltzberger. He also took a searing lead solo on “Still Somebody Else”, a song that channeled the helpless feeling experienced in the worst of times. It moved seamlessly into the infectiously catchy up-tempo ditty, “Control”, which offered jazzy fluidity in its harmonies. Mike took over lead vocals in the soulful and funky “Gone”, his voice more rough-hewn and granular. But he encouraged the large crowd singing, “I’m here to put your hand in the air, here to help you put your hand in the air,” to which we all raised our hands and clapped along in unison. “Different Colors” featured Pat’s swirling synthesized keyboard swirls intertwined between electric and acoustic guitars. The Brothers McCann was surely one of the weekend’s most pleasant surprises, a band that many who were there will look forward to hearing more from.
Back at the main stage, festival co-hosts and headliners Max Creek were on stage with the sun settling behind the trees. Max Creek has been rocking audiences in the Northeast for more than 39 years and perform with the experience of accomplished and esteemed veterans. As I arrived in front of the stage, they were tearing through their cover of Dire Straight’s (Mark Knopfler) “Calling Elvis”, with keyboardist Mark Mercier’s vocals bearing a stirring resemblance to Knopfler. What Creek added to the song, was improvisational dueling between Mercier and renowned guitarist Scott Murawski, who etched electric squeals of guitar between Mercier’s tasteful tremolos.
Creek began the second set with the fittingly titled “Summer Sun”, despite that the days sun had dropped below the horizon. Long, improvisational passages demonstrated the musical dexterity and cohesiveness amongst the quintet, as transcendent exploration was held together by the rhythm section of bassist John Ryder and drummers Scott Allshouse and Greg DeGuglielmo, who ultimately reined in the jam to its rumbling conclusion.
Creek invited another locally renowned guitarist, Jeff Pevar, to join them on the rolling “Willow Tree”, and despite obvious unfamiliarity with the song, he quickly settled into the tempo and grove. It was easy to witness the chemistry between the two distinguished guitarists, as Murawski would lead Pevar in the notes as the following songs began. Mercier’s piano and Pevar’s country tinged guitar played sweetly off each other on “You’re the Only One”, sung by alto voiced Ryder, who encouraged the crowd to sing along on the chorus. Creek closed with a short but fun instrumental, “Back Porch Boogie Blues”, that had the crowd dancing all over the lawn by the light of the moon.
Awakening on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the Worm Kids paraded through the concert field accompanied by giant, walking puppets, and made their way to the stage for a short chorus set. Led by Bed Rudnick and Friends, they sang a poignant version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Mid-song they slowed the pace and gave several children the chance to answer the question, “Why should there be peace and no war?” Young Luna’s answer made sense; “Because the world could be a better planet and we can help each other and be kind.” But Cole’s answer really brought a huge cheer from the crowd; “Because if we do have peace, people can play and do what they want!” The Wormtown kids chorus also beautifully sang Zach Deputy’s afore mentioned “Wormtown”, and Michael Jackson’s “We are the World” substituting We are the “Worms” in the chorus.
Massachusetts own Jen Kearney & the Lost Onion took the main stage after the kids set. The band plays roots rock accented with a Latin flare. On opener “Warm Bath Eyes”, Garret Salvuk’s trumpet and Kearney’s keys playfully swirled around each other. The horn and Kearney’s “La La La, La La La La” chorus swing the tune in the Latin direction from the get go. The band kept the upbeat, salsa funk grooving on “Gentle and Precise”, showcasing Kearney’s dexterity on the keyboards, her fingers rambling up and down the scales. JK&LO slowed the tempo drastically on the slow burn of “To the Moon”, and “One in the Same”, on which her sultry, yet harmonious Modal croon resonated with the crowd, drawing a cheer as the former drew to it’s conclusion. The tempo rose again on the Jackson’s inspired “Succotash Blues”, a rhythmic, guitar driven song that inspired more than a few folks to spin and twirl dance partners around the concert field. The Latin funk returned on the upbeat groove of “Patience Child”, again accentuated by Salvuk’s rich trumpet flourishes. They closed with a slow and soulful take on Lenny Kravits’ “Let Love Rule”, which would have been wiser placed mid-set and replaced with a more upbeat, funky closer. Regardless, JK&LO was warmly welcomed back to StrangeCreek.
Connecticut based the McLovins have been the toast of the jamband/festival circuit. At StrangeCreek, their reputation very obviously preceded them, as they performed in front of one of the largest crowds of the entire event. The teen trio played a seven-song set from their just released CD, Good Catch. As they began “Virtual Circle”, the crowd filtered in from all directions. It centered on the deft finger work of guitarist Jeffry Howard, who plays with the speed of Joe Satriani and the dexterity Trey Anastasio, to the delight of the crowd that appreciated both sides of his style. The tempo slowed and mellowed to a jazzy, lounge swing groove on “Milktoast Man”, which put the maturing vocals of drummer Jake Huffman front and center. Listening to the young man sing, it’s apparent his vocals skills and range have developed astutely over the past year. The McLovins closed with the instrumental “Bedhead Crystal Bugger”, anchored down by the fat bottom grooves of bassist Jason Ott. This critic has been lucky enough to be around since this band began, and like all teenagers, the McLovins continue to grow and mature musically, in leaps and bounds, and never fail to impress all whom hear them play.
The Alchemystics were another new band, to this critic anyway, that thoroughly impressed and made many new fans with a stirring set. The band’s sound is rooted in reggae, and infused with hip-hop and soul music. Similar to the Roots, this band employs real musicians playing rock instruments, guitar, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards, while several members add harmony vocals. To the mix they add the potent vocal stylings of an emcee (Force) and a reggae singer (Ras Jahn.) On “Mosh Up”, the emcee pranced from one side of the stage to the other, and from the front of the stage to the back, firing up the crowd with his effervescent energy. His raps flowed super fast off his tongue while Jahn soulfully tempered the lyrical flow. The percussion and keys stood out on the smooth conclusion to “Spread Hope”, and then the band tossed out Alchemystics Frisbee’s to a large crowd eager to snatch them up. Where the band excelled was in the songs with more musical rhythms, such as “Shine Eye Girl” and “Elements”, rather than the more hip-hop leaning songs, such as “Bangers N Mash” and “Fire”. The Alchemystics paid tribute to Bob Marley on an emotive cover of “The Heathen”, and then followed up with their soulful version of Damien Marley’s “Road to Zion”.
Closing out the main stage as the sun was setting Sunday evening was another New England band, festival co-host Strangefolk, which disappointingly performs only infrequently these days. The began with the funky and sultry delivery of “Come on Down”, laced with a dense organ solo mid song, Don Scott’s fingers bouncing from one scale to another on the keys. They then busted out one of their most well known songs early in the first set; “Livin’ It Out”, featured John Trafton’s melodic harmony guitar trading off with Scott’s organ swells. Despite that these five musicians perform together but maybe twice a year, there is an obvious musical chemistry amongst them.
The sum of the parts much greater than their individual voices, I’ve often remarked that Strangfolk would have been the successor to the Eagles throne of harmony vocals when the Eagles retired. Unfortunately, Strangefolk retired before the Eagles. Luke Montgomery’s dulcet vocals interweaved gloriously with Trafton and bassist Erik Glockler’s on the melismatic and sinewy “Escalator”. Their three-part vocal harmonies are as good as any in rock music today.
The second set opened with the rollicking, county shuffle of “When I’m Gone”, the one number sung by drummer Russ Lawton. In the beautiful dusk late Sunday night, “Month of Tuesday’s” beautiful harmonies and Montgomery’s engaging baritone drew a huge cheer, while electric guitar flourishes blended with rich, sustained organ swells. Saving their best for last, the band close the second set with Trafton’s upbeat country tinged “Fallin” that brought a second wind to the crowd as they swirled around the concert field, before the band returned to the stage for an encore of their most beloved and fitting song, “Sweet New England,” that again highlighted the tight vocal harmonies, Trafton’s soaring electric guitar and Scott’s swirling synthesizers and organs. It’s an utter disappointment that we only get to hear this band perform live twice a year, but it certainly does make times such as this all the sweeter.
StrangeCreek may not have the carnival rides or comedy tents or enchanted forests or mainstream popular radio acts of the huge, mega festivals, but its intimacy provides a free and easy feeling. The party lasted through the night till the wee hours of the Monday morning, with the bonfire stoked, drum circles booming and cabins rocking. And isn’t that part of the goodness of an intimate festival such as this? As Cole, one of the Worm kids from the parade so eloquently put it; “people can play and do what they want!”