After ten years at a ski resort, the Moe.Down Festival moves to a much more eye appealing site.
moe.down FestivalCity: Mohawk, NY
Venue: Gelston Castle Estate
For 10 years straight, moe.rons -- fans of the New York State based jamband moe. -- have called Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin, New York home over the Labor Day Weekend. In 2010, however, moe., relocated moe.down XI festival further south in the Mo(e.)hawk valley, to Gelston Castle Estate. Over the long weekend, the property was home to more than 8,500 moe.rons.
Though the historic castle is now in a state of ruins, the views from the top of the ridge looking over the lush, green concert hill as you pass the castle are majestic. And while this was not the first time that a concert had been held at the site, (Further performed on July 3,) it was the first time a multi-day, camping event has been held. Makeshift roads were constructed and a water tank infrastructure was put in place that pumped water to campgrounds. Instead of a separate tent/stage away from the main stage, this year they placed a second, smaller “buzz” stage in the same concert field to the left of the main stage.
Our hosts graced the stage later than scheduled, due to Nas & Damian Marley’s late appearance that threw off scheduling. Without a word, drummer Vinnie Amico counted off with his sticks and moe. was off in the sound check/instrumental “Zed Naught Z". A run through four upbeat songs, “Time Again", Waiting for the Punchline", Blue Jeans Pizza” and “Captain America", set the tone for a fantastic weekend. “Captain America” moved into a dark, ambient guitar zenith, which segued into a new Al Schnier composition. “Puebla” is a slow, 20-minute hymn that features the slide guitar of Chuck Garvey and progresses into a rock dirge including deep textures of Mallat Kat from percussionist Jim Loughlin. It’s a historical story song that looks back on the U.S. Mexican War of the late 1840s. Moe. brought the tempo back up on “George", and an unfinished “Brent Black” that segued into a very high energy “Akimbo"," highlighting the pounding rhythms of Amico.
For an encore the band came back with a thump of Rob Derhak’s bass, into the funky conclusion to “Brent Black", with Garvey burning through the neck of his guitar, and a five-minute drum/percussion jam. It would have been a fine enough ending for any moe.ron., but with a rumble from Derhak’s bass they moved into his new song, “Billy Goat” to close out the night, as a cool, light rain fell.
Diversity has always been key at moe.down, and this year’s lineup was certainly as eclectic as previous years. The hip-hop/reggae combination of Nas/Damian Marley incorporated a full band, including a guitarist and bassist, drummer and keyboardist, a DJ, a Jamaican flag waver and two backing vocalists. The sample of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” signaled the Nas hit “Hip Hop Is Dead” and had the mostly Caucasian crowd of jam fanatics raising their hands in the air with Nas. But it was Marley’s cover of his fathers’ “Exodus", with backing singers belting out the chorus and Marley bounding from stage left to right, his ankle length dreads swaying as he moved, that energized the crowd for moe.
The Punch Brothers were the first band on the main stage as a soft rain fell. Furthering the diversity of the line up, this traditional bluegrass quintet -- featuring vocalist/mandolinist Chris Thile -- failed to live up to its reputation, playing a lackluster set that never really got the crowd dancing or shuffling its feet. Unlike say, the Avett Brothers, who performed at moe.down in 2006, there was no foot stomping nor dust ups, no hollering and bellowing of lyrics or encouragement to the crowd to sing along. The Punch Brothers set was the biggest disappointment of moe.down XI for this critic.
Saturday began damp and chilly, with the cold rain of the night before still falling. But as moe. played through its afternoon set, the rain dissipated and sun began to burn through the clouds to warm us just a bit. The hard driving “Skrunk” began the set with Garvey and Schnier both ripping chords from their instruments. A slow, moody build into “Lazuras” featured rat-a-tat-tat percussion from Loughlin and a resonating rhythm from Derhak and Amico as the crowd filled the green grass at the bottom of the hill. This year’s kids theme was “New York City” and a swarm of kids paraded on stage wearing costumes such as the Empire State Building, Taxi Cab, a Big Apple and a Jet’s Uniform. As the kids left, moe. kept the tempo upbeat, segueing right through fan favorites “St. Augustine", “32 Things” and “Y.O.Y” to end the set.
Turbine, an electric rock band, drew a large ovation from the crowd at two performances on the Buzz Stage, as well as a stealth late night set on a crude stage in the campground. The band features Ryan Rightmire playing electric guitar and electric harp at the same time. He’s quite a amazing harp player, at times sounding like a simple harp, “Roll On” and at others, running it through effects pedals and sounding like an organ, “Don’t Take Money From Strangers". Blues was the foundation of their rock on songs such as “No Explanation” and “New Age of Sun". Closer “Behind These Walls” was awash in twin guitars, harp and three-part harmony vocals that fired the crowd up.
Upping the hipster quotient at moe.down XI was indie rock act Built to Spill. At times the music was sensual pop, with sweet three-part harmonies and playfully strummed guitars, sounding like the Beach Boys or Beatles. Other times it was much harder rocking, with loud, abrasive, wailing guitars and moodier, longer excursions into avant-garde noise that screamed like Crazy Horse in an arena. But Built to Spill seemed to be most successful when combining sweet melodies with harder rock and Martsch’s ethereal vocals, for songs that resembled the best of My Morning Jacket. While only a small number of fans braved the hill in front for the set, Built to Spill was a welcome addition at moe.down XI.
Lotus is a perennial late night act at festivals, where its trippy, trance rock easily sets barns and sheds ablaze and swarms of fans mash and bump into each other in a scene that is akin to a rave. And while there was a large crowd gathered, outdoors and free to shake and dance with as much space as it needed, the music just didn’t seem to translate. The energy level never really “raised the roof” and the crowd wasn’t as pumped or excited as I’ve seen in previous performances from this band.
Back on the Buzz Stage however, Orgone brought the west coast funk Upstate. This was the band’s first time performing on the east coast, and they made the best of their three sets. Led by the effervescent Fanny Franklin on vocals, the band included a three-piece horn section -- a must for old school funk -- drums and percussion, bass, guitar, keys and a DJ. When not singing, Franklin stepped to the side of the stage and let the band swing and sway through jazzy, funky, improvised jams that certainly warmed up a chilled crowd. Orgone was easily the events’ most welcome new find.
With a chill hanging in the air, moe. opened the first of two sets with the popular “Plane Crash” as fans scampered, and some even stumbled, downhill as Derhak’s vocals bellowed and bounced off the hills and trees. On “Bring You Down", Garvey’s soloing went from poppy and melodic to head banging wails. It was juxtaposed by Derhak’s new pop song, “Daydreaming", which has yet to develop its peaks and climaxes, but succeeds none the less at just three minutes in length. One of several surprise bust outs was Schnier’s cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android", last played according to Phantasy Tour in July of ’07. His vocals ached while Garvey and Derhak echoed atmospheric sorrow in harmony. “Time Ed” is classic moe. and featured a short, mid-song drum/percussion jam from Loughlin and Amico, and Loughlin’s Mallat Kat solo drew a huge ovation.
“Seat of My Pants” opened the late set, but “Bearsong", where fans “wooo” along at rests in the music brought a huge cheer before moving into the psychedelic Floyd like squall of “Runaway Overlude” and then ultimate moe. song, “Recreational Chemistry". Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, this was the most improvisational jam of the weekend, with Garvey and Schnier leading the frenetic pace and Loughlin’s Mallat Kat filling the darker spaces between. The moody, mellow groove of “Wormwood” gave the crowd a breather before arriving at a haunting “Plane Crash” conclusion that built through morose ambience to ear bleeding, ringing guitar wails from Garvey, bringing the second set right back where the first began, as Derhak yell at the top of his lungs, “I don’t wanna die” and the vocal chorus backed up with “To Fucken High". Regardless of a slow rise to some nice guitar dueling between Garvey and Schnier, the mellow and dark “Faker” encore was a somewhat of a letdown after some of the earlier jams, bringing Saturday night to its conclusion.
Another significant change came with the addition of single day ticket sales on Sunday only. As such, the line up was stellar, the best of the weekend. While the rain of the previous day had long moved on, there was still strong, blustery winds blowing down over the ridge, and children ran with kites and fans wore long pants and windbreakers or hoodies in the cool temps.
The mellow, but soulful grooves of the Ryan Montbleau Band started the day with two sets on the Buzz stage. The drinker’s lament “Slippery Road” opened as fans sauntered downhill with morning hangover cures in hand. Another fairly new song, “Here at All” celebrates joy of performing, and Montbleau, the poetic songwriter, improvised a first verse to go with the day.
“Sitting on a stage
When I wish it was my own
Connecting a great big hill, a castle and this home
And I’m staring at the mountain around which they built this town
Painfully reminding myself
That I can’t stick around
And I am looking out at all the houses
Staring up at all the steeples
And I’m looking out at so many, so many wonderful people
And I tell myself
To sit back, relax and have a ball
Still I’m wondering what it’s like to really be here
Here at all.”
The sun began to break through the clouds during the hip shaker “Inspired by No One", and he made note of it without missing a beat, singing; “I knew we were gonna bring out the sunshine, man / Here come that sunshine / Oh, make me feel alright / Here it comes / Make me feel alright / Makes me feel so good inside.” And of course it was given that it would be followed up by the jubilant “75 & Sunny", a song that reveres getting older and wiser and living life to the fullest every day. They played a wonderful cover of “I’m So Good in Bed", an ode to the joy of self gratification and written by comedian Robert Schimmel, who sadly, had passed away tragically on Friday due to complications from an auto accident.
While the festival is known for its collaborations and band switches, this year that tradition was disappointingly missing. But on Sunday, guitarist Al Schnier did join the Ryan Montbleau Band adding country tinged, harmony electric guitar to the funky, “You Crazy You". The band kept the funk going on closer “L.I.D.S” that featured rich, swirling organ swells and rolling percussion.
Over on the main stage, although the temps were cool as a fall day in New York… Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were tearing it up like it was a “Hot Summer Night". At least that was the song the band opened up with, an absolutely blaring glam rocker where she screamed into the microphones amidst loud, fuzzy guitars and driving bass. “This is a song about how much I hate telephones. There just tricky little machines, you know? So I figured I’d write a song about it – get me out of ever having to answer the phone again,” is how Potter prefaced “That Phone". Then she leaned into her Hammond Organ adding Memphis swing and soul.
Potter moved to her Flying V guitar and led the band through a cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass", giving a stirring rendition of Debbie Harry and drawing a big ovation. The band showed its chops, moving from the bluesy, gospel rich “Nothing But the Water” into the psychedelic cover of “White Rabbit", and the line about “…some Kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving slow", drew a large roar. “I wanna dedicate this one to the blow up doll over there,” she said, referencing said “toy” in the crowd. “This one is for you, you naughty little minx,” and the sexy Rock and Roll siren led the band through “Paris (Ooh La La,) the glam oriented, risqué tale of sexual bravado, and the voodoo rocker “Medicine” to end its set.
Phish bassist Mike Gordon performed on the main stage along with his solo band, which included renowned guitarist Scott Murawski. Gordon is a quirky and eccentric songwriter and this solo band often works as a sound laboratory for songs that make it into the rotation with his full time band, or otherwise for his solo cannon. Songs such as opener “Andelmans' Yard” and “Sugar Shack” displayed his knack for pop song craft, with a bouncy rhythm and some loose improvisation, but mostly followed the song’s structure. His cover of Radiohead’s “15 step” from the In Rainbows album seemed to fly right over the heads of most of the audience, as did several new songs such as “Spiral” and “Idea", which will both be on his new CD due in October. Murawski’s guitar playing was fluid and tight throughout, and when given the chance to solo, drew loud cheers.
Sunday’s surprise came from a young but mighty Boston rock band called the Brew. And in spite of the quartet’s youth, it’s amazing to realize just how influenced they are by classic rock, in their own songwriting and chosen covers. Keyboardist/vocalist Chris Plante has a raspy but sensual singing voice, and when backed by guitarist/vocalist Dave Drouin on opener “Radio Swiss", their melodic, in unison vocals strike a remarkably catchy chord. The music got dark and somber in tone and ambience as they moved into Led Zepplin’s “No Quarter” while fans filtered over from the main stage, stunned, jaws dropped in amazement. “Mountain Elf” turned into an improvisational vehicle, moving through melodic rock pieces into quiet, mellow piano sections and back to guitar driven rock. They mocked about covering a Bon Jovi song, but it in fact was a Steel Panther cover, “Party All Day (Fuck All Night) that began with a cheesy synthesized beginning similar to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer".
“moe.down, welcome to 1981. And we are, mother fucking Foreigner!” hollered Drouin as a drum beat counted off, and then a low bass line rumbled and then the keys and finally, one guitar joined in. It’s a good thing we’d had damp whether over the weekend, because the Brew’s cover of “Jukebox Hero” absolutely set the mountain ablaze. Drouin passionately belted out vocals with zeal in fine tribute, all the while wailing on his Flying X guitar. Now with a huge crowd eating out of its hands, the band closed with its own “Faces". Like a finely fermented, frothy beverage, The Brew tapped a vat of new fans at moe.down XI.
Of course, moe. saved some of its best to close the weekend in style. They eased into “Buster” led by Derhak’s bubbling bass line, and harmony chorus of Garvey and Derhak. The tempo and groove stayed mellow and dark, moving into a new Schnier song, “Haze", with a wash of blues and mellow yellows engulfing the band on stage. This song has developed quite well over the past year and now includes some dueling guitars between Schnier and Garvey, mellow Mallat kat from Loughlin and a smokey vocal from Schnier. A long build to a wailing crescendo with heavy percussion from Amico and Loughlin returned to a slow dirge again and moved into “Yodelittle” and the hard rocking “McBain". After giving Tori Amos’ Cornflake girl the improvisational treatment, they closed the first set with the live staple “Timmy Tucker” with most of the crowd singing in unison with the band.
Set two began with the somewhat tiresome mayoral elections of moe.ville, and this year’s winner was Rage Lincoln and his reading of the Hettysburg Address. On “Moth", the three-part vocal chorus was not in sync, as if a long weekend had caught up with the band as well as the moe.rons. But they found some energy through a long, funky and dark run of “Four", moving from slow spacey grooves that built to a crushing crescendo and then back to mellow again. “Rebubula” brought the crowd back to life, and the twin guitars of Garvey and Schnier were in tandem and drew a huge cheer.
Moe. concluded the weekend with a four song encore, beginning with “Deep This Time", which featured the only guest sit in of the weekend, Osid Riley on woodblocks, and Derhak even offered light banter about him being the only musician to sit in over the weekend. Coming out of “The Pit", Derhak then adlibbed, “Let’s do that thing where we jam into another song,” to which Schnier replied, “We just did.” moe. segued into Loughlin’s rap, “Farmer Ben". Garvey added ethereal, haunting guitar squeals and Amico a steady backbeat on drums, as Loughlin bound from one side of the stage to the other while rapping. Moving back behind his percussion rig, the band rolled right back into the unfinished last chorus of “Moth” to bring the musical festivities to a close, before the end of the weekend fireworks.
As a first time festival location, Gelston Castle Estate proved to be quite successful. The long walk from parking to the designated campgrounds was a bit distressful for fans, and the campgrounds were a bit overcrowded. With a few improvements however, there is no reason to believe the estate won’t make a fine site for future festivals. If home truly is where the heart is, for many moe.rons that home will be at the estate over the Labor Day weekend for many years to come.