Festival Update: High Sierra, Smilefest, and More

Now that things have cooled off from the intense, day-long Bonnaroo lineup announcement, let’s see how the rest of the fest world is doing, shall we?

Quincy, California’s High Sierra Music Festival has announced their lineup, and they’re keeping things relatively low-key this year, playing to their built in audience with acts like The Avett Brothers, Ozomatli, Femi Kuti and Positive Force, Railroad Earth, Bela Fleck with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, Dr. Dog, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Cornmeal, Blitzen Trapper, the New Mastersounds, The Slip, The Infamous Stringdusters, Telepath, Zach Deputy, and more. It’s a modest but high-quality lineup befitting the event’s history.

The rejuvenated Smilefest has a slightly improved lineup, as Michael Franti and Spearhead, Jeff Coffin Mu’tet, Josh Phillips Folk Festival and Barefoot Manner (acoustic) have joined Acoustic Syndicate, Keller Williams, and a number of local artists. 1990’s-era jamband Quiver will also perform a reunion show at the event.

The Joshua Tree Music Festival keeps quietly adding new acts, such as New Orleans brass stunners Bonerama and mor eCalifornia talent such as The Heavy Guilt and Evaros.

February 19th will bring more news from the Nateva Festival, and March should be full of announcements from Mile High, Lollapalooza, All Good, Pitchfork, and maybe even some early leaks from Austin City Limits, along with “round 2” of Bonnaroo.

Festival Update: Camp Bisco, Bear Creek, and More

We’ve got our eyes on a couple of new additions to our festival watch list – Camp Bisco 9 and Bear Creek Music Festival. Camp Bisco 9 is shaping up to be one of the most successful events of the year, and it’s still more than 5 months away. The event, which takes place July 15-17, 2010, in Mariaville, NY, sold out of the first batch of presale tickets and opened up a whole new presale period. The lineup for this one will undoubtedly be amazing and unpredictable, so check here and the festival website for updates.

The fine folks behind the Bear Creek Music Festival, held every year at Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park in Live Oak, FL, have taken a unique approach to their 2010 event. Tickets are already on sale and the lineup has already been announced for the festival, with is still 9 months away. I suppose their philosophy is sound – the longer tickets are on sale and the lineup circulating, the more buzz and press there will be. I must say, a $99 early bird ticket is a hell of a deal for the jamgasm of a lineup – Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Garaj Mahal, Lettuce, Soulive, George Porter Jr, Toubab Krewe, Zach Deputy, Will Bernard, and “artists-at-large” Fred Wesley, Skerik, Mike Dillon, The Shady Horns, and Kofi Burbridge are just a sampling of the monster funk lineup.

Bonnaroo rumors and confirmations continue to fly, with Wale announcing his plans to be on the farm and Zac Brown Band confirming their inclusion as well. As of right now, it looks like the speculators will be right on with their predictions of Dave Matthews Band, Kings of Leon, Pavement, and others.

We’re looking for anything we can find about Lollapalooza, High Sierra, All Good, Mile High, Austin City Limits, and other events, and we’ll be sure to post as soon as we hear anything!

Album Review: Assembly of Dust – Some Assembly Required

The many parts and pieces that comprise Some Assembly Required snap together in a truly satisfying way, save a few bum edges. Featuring special guests on each song, the album wins in the personnel department, but it’s hard to tell if the guests – John Scofield, Tony Rice, Grace Potter, Mike Gordon, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Richie Havens among them – were simply shoehorned into existing songs or if they had input into the recording and songwriting process. The album is unbalanced in quality and pacing, yet the band still comes out of the whole affair stronger than ever.

Some of the songs sound tailored for the attending musician, like the majestic introspection of “All That I Am Now,” which is urged into the mystic by Richie Havens’ prophetic voice and forceful guitar work. Others sound like typical folk-rock fare from AOD leader Reid Genauer, but with extra icing. The expansive rock number “Pedal Down,” for instance, features Zach and Andrew Gabbard of Buffalo Killers, but you’d hardly notice the difference unless you’re a huge Buffalo Killers fan because their contributions mesh so well with what AOD is already doing with the song.

Most numerous on the album are the songs that probably already existed but are jazzed up with bonus instrumental work, like David Grisman’s subtle mandolin work on “Cold Coffee,” Mike Gordon’s bio-mechanical bass on “Arc of the Sun,” and Keller Williams’ elegant guitar work on the rootsy “Second Song.” “High Brow” is right in the wheelhouse of moe. guitarist Al Schnier, who simply accentuates the song’s shimmering roots-pop with a tasteful solo and gritty, distorted rhythmic strums. The upbeat “High Brow” is nestled among a handful of the album’s less engaging songs, which makes it a key player in the listenability of Some Assembly Required.

The overall success of the album is somewhat inconsistent, evidenced by adjacent tracks like “Borrowed Feet,” in which John Scofield’s liquid guitar lines seem a bit out of place within the song’s dark edges, and “Revelry,” where the dueling acoustic guitars of Martin Sexton and Tony Rice perfectly lend a classic, CSNY-type sound to the song. Truly forgettable moments are few and far between, but they glare prominently because of the album’s frustrating pace. “Light Blue Lover” doesn’t live up to the promising inclusion of Tony Rice and Grace Potter, and the dobro work of Jerry Douglas is pretty much the only redeeming quality of “Leadbelly.” Theresa Andersson can’t salvage the plodding, ill-timed “Straight,” and the album-closing track “You Lay the Dust,” while sweet in meaning, does little to reward the listener for making it to the end.

Some Assembly Required doesn’t quite live up to the lofty bar set by its dazzling guest list, and it’s not Assembly of Dust’s best album by a long shot. However, it is still one of the strongest roots rock offerings of the year, and Genauer’s songwriting shines as always. All of a sudden, Assembly of Dust has a catalog that is growing more interesting and varied  by the year. It is a testament to the band that even when there are too many cooks about, the master chef’s vision still shines through in the finished product.

Rating: 7.9 out of 10

Album Review: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – Brother’s Keeper

Karl Denson spent more than a decade at the top of the jazz-funk-jam heap, and his band Tiny Universe became legendary for non-stop funk frenzies that tested the limits of time and space. On Brother’s Keeper, it’s clear that he’s trying for more sophistication, continuing to focus on his own vocal stylings while offering new songs with a touch of mass appeal. Denson’s craggy voice and the band’s stalwart wall of funk are intact, but his measured attempt to bring the music to a wider audience stops the party in its tracks. Unfortunately, there’s a stylistic tug-of-war that ensues on this album, and the conflict never resolves itself. On one side, there’s the immeasurable instrumental talent of Denson and his band, which includes longtime cohorts Chris Littlefield (trumpet), Ron Johnson (bass), and Brian Jordon (guitar). They’re allowed plenty of room, especially on the title track. But the song structure and slick production tug against the band’s desire to burn down the studio with fiery solos and hammering funk grooves, and some of the songs leave a lot to be desired lyrically (and I’m being nice there – I laughed out loud at some of the lyrics). Even the album cover seems like a less than graceful attempt to shoehorn Denson into the adult contempo/R&B market. With several numbers on the verge of R&B cheese and few memorable highlights, you might want to keep this album away from your ears.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Album Review: Phish – Joy

As maligned as it is, Phish’s studio catalog does one thing really well: it provides brief but telling capsules that mark pivotal moments in the evolution of the band’s music, lives and career. Joy is unlike any other album they’ve released in terms of subject matter, since many of the songs were born of the unsavory circumstance of drug addiction, faltering friendship, and even death. It’s not an album of dreary dope-addled tales, though. It’s one of abandonment, redemption, and hope, by a band that had been declared dead.

Most fans will find Joy similar in sonic quality to 1996’s Billy Breathes, and there’s no harm in that. The two albums share a producer (Steve Lillywhite) and feature a mostly concise, shimmering batch of songs. However, Joy also shares aspects of 2002’s Round Room, in that a great deal of it was recorded in real time, and there are rough patches left in for authenticity. The same divergent calculation can be made with each album – there are shades of the tightly wound rock of Hoist, the drowsy funk-rock of Story of the Ghost, the all-encompassing stylistic structure of Farmhouse, and the calculated prog-rock of Junta. Much like Phish’s entire career, Joy is inspired in equal part by new and old.

Comprised largely of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s compositions, Joy also includes one track each from bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. Anastasio, as always, is monstrously evocative and nearly predictable in tackling the subjects we all knew he’d get around to. Gordon and McConnell are less dramatic but equally sophisticated in their contributions. The band casts dark and light atmospheres at will, channeling different eras and aspects of their history throughout the album.

The opening three songs encompass an expansive range of emotions that can be interpreted in highly personal ways. They also exhibit the band’s legendary range. “Backwards Down the Number Line” serves as the shamelessly goofy and emotional pop tune, “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” conjures the hazy, menacing rock delirium of Phish circa 1997-2004, and “Joy” provides heaving balladry a la 1999’s “Bug,” with its striking chorus and swaying arena-rock refrain.

Gordon’s “Sugar Shack” chugs along as only his creations can, with fantastically oblique lyrics and fussy, tempramental melodies and time signatures. After this point, the album’s wheels start to rattle a bit, and the flow of the journey gets shakier. “Ocelot,” perhaps the most natural-sounding of the album’s songs in the live setting, comes across as messy and disjointed here. “Kill Devil Falls” is quite the opposite, and its vigorous tempo is on full display, complete with a big sing-along moment at the end that sounds as huge as it should.

The album is lyrically impressive until the feathery “Light,” which contains a real groaner of a line in the second verse – “It takes a few moments of whirling around ’til your feet finally leave the ground.” That line and some of the lyrics in the compositional opus “Time Turns Elastic” are the only real missteps in the lyric department, as most of the songs have deliciously cryptic or jarringly resonant wordplay to compliment the music. Even the deceptive simplicity of McConnell’s flippantly recorded “I Been Around” will stir feelings in Phish fans who know what the band has endured, both personally and professionally, over the last decade.

Still, the album flounders to a close. The placement of “Time Turns Elastic” doesn’t compliment the record as a whole. The 13-minute multi-section song serves as neither opening fanfare, thematic centerpiece nor closing flourish, and the dreamy creation almost feels intrusive in the midst of so many soul-baring, reflective songs. The band goes for gravitas with “Twenty Years Later” in the last spot, but the song’s majestically defiant chorus falls flat in terms of atmosphere and sound quality.

A strong start, plenty of diversity, and an uneven overall experience make Joy similar to other Phish albums. But the triumphant nature of the album’s existence and the unique lyrical content within help turn it into more than just a catalog item. The songs on Joy will always remind those who hear them of the end of a decade and the rebirth of a band.

Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Live Review: Gov’t Mule, Raleigh, NC, July 26, 2009

My review of the Gov’t Mule and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit show at the Lincoln Theatre Street Stage is up at Hidden Track – Glide Magazine’s Blog. Take a look at it won’t you?