Sunshine Music Festival review - Jan. issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper
With a lineup that included two bona fide New Orleans acts, plus several others steeped in Crescent City musical history, the sixth annual Sunshine Music Festival stop at Mizner Park Ampitheater in Boca Raton on January 14 was expected to be more funky than its previous installments of blues, rock, and roots music performers. Yet what couldn't have been expected was how easy the Big Easy vibe would roll through a cool, clear, sunny day across an eventual capacity crowd, with attendees ranging in age from infants to those in their 70s.
Nearly every band started on time on the ampitheater's separate stages, set 100 yards apart. From Houston, TX, the eight-piece main stage opening act The Suffers has never had to travel far to soak in New Orleans' influence, and its soulful performance is certain to have attracted a wider following, even if its 1-1:45 p.m. set was witnessed by an audience at only one-third capacity. Vocalist Kam Franklin proved a powerful presence as she prowled the stage, hitting notes worthy of comparison to another Franklin, Aretha, and helping to cause seated members of the sparse crowd to get up and shimmy.
But trumpeter Jon Durbin, trombonist Michael Razo, guitarist Kevin Bernier, keyboardist Patrick Kelly, bassist Adam Castaneda, drummer Nick Zamora and percussionist Jose Luna are no mere wallflowers. Luna played congas, timbales, bells, tambourine and shakers -- sometimes varying between those instruments with each hand -- while singing harmonies, and the horn section alternated between dramatic solos and choreographed sways. The powerful single "I Think I Love You," an original composition from the band's self-titled 2016 debut album, wasn't exactly your grandfather's Partridge Family cover, and the entire front line of instrumentalists laid down on the stage with Franklin during the quiet sections of the Isley Brothers' closing "Shout" leaving both lasting audio and visual imprints.
As would be the case all day, the opener on the second stage (standing-room only with no seating) to the east appeared in rapid succession only five minutes later. Foundation of Funk is the all-star quartet featuring bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste -- rhythm section for famed New Orleans band The Meters -- with guitarist Eric Krasno, from heralded New York organ trio Soulive, and keyboardist John Medeski, from vaunted jazz/jam trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Formed by The Meters' longtime members in 2015 to pay homage to that influential band's 50-year-deep catalog with a cast of rotating players, FOF did not disappoint. Porter and Modeliste handled all lead vocals, with the bassist adding bottom-heavy grooves and high-register solos and the drummer showcasing his classic rolling tom-tom, marching snare drum, and two-handed hi-hat cymbal patterns throughout. Yet the New Orleans duo didn't select their quartet mates just by chance. On "Africa," Medeski deftly added a left-hand bass pattern for a full minute when he saw Porter remove his instrument to take off his jacket as the mid-day sun warmed the stage.
"We're so glad to see such a happy crowd here," Modeliste said. "We're just trying to keep it real up here, y'all. Are you enjoying the sunshine?" The growing throng roared, as it did following what's perhaps The Meters' best-known groove, the instrumental "Cissy Strut." Krasno's solo was his best, adding touches of the Allman Brothers Band sound to perhaps pay homage to festival co-founder Trucks, a former member. Medeski, as he did through the entire one-hour set, added harmonies and solos on Hammond organ, piano, and clavinet.
The keyboardist, who studied music at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale before attending New England Conservatory in Boston, wouldn't get much of a break afterward. Medeski's five minutes off rather involved a brisk walk to the main stage for the 3 p.m. start time by his limitless 25-year-old trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood. With drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood, Medeski started out as a pianist on the trio's all-acoustic, free jazz 1992 debut [i]Notes From the Underground[i] before adding electronic keyboards (and Wood electric bass) to define the jam band scene as much as the rock bands that have thrived within it from the 1990s onward.
Opening with the bubbling "Coconut Boogaloo," from the searing 1998 release [i]Combustication[i], MMW set the tone for a one-hour set that was equal parts funky and entrancing. Medeski's keyboard volume in the monitors was off early -- too loud for Martin; too soft for Wood -- but once that was rectified, the trio segued into one of its great rolling, free-form, stream-of-consciousness medleys that owed more to off-the-cuff improvisation than song structures. Medeski's unbelievable tones, on a larger rig that included Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano, synthesizer and clavinet, proved an acid test to much of an audience rapidly reaching capacity.
Ditto Wood's huge bass sound -- on the kind of vintage, violin-shaped Hofner bass that Paul McCartney used with The Beatles -- and Martin on an arsenal of drums and percussive toys. An in-depth student of world music percussion and rhythms, the drummer occasionally abandoned his drum kit to play a tambourine, then went back to his drum stool to accent on the rack of bells and chimes to his right. And the trio's only acoustic instrumentalist's solos, over the grooves of his electrified band mates, were just as unpredictable, compelling and impressive.
New Orleans funk band Galactic then took a blowtorch to the second stage. Inspired by Foundation of Funk's preceding set, and with New Orleans Saints N.F.L. wear and merchandise on display (including quarterback Drew Brees' jersey hanging to the side of the stage), the seven-piece act would fare better than its favorite team, which fell to the Minnesota Vikings later in the day in dramatic, final-play fashion.
Longtime members Jeff Raines (guitar), Ben Ellman (saxophone/harmonica), Rich Vogel (keyboards), Robert Mercurio (bass) and Stanton Moore (drums) were joined by new trumpeter Shamarr Allen and guest vocalist Erica Falls, both of whom made huge impacts on the band's sound and the crowd's uninhibited dancing in reaction to it. A younger, New Orleans-based solo recording artist, Falls' wide range and impassioned delivery energized originals from "Hey Na Na" (from the 2012 CD [i]Carnivale Electronics[i]) to the slow, bluesy "Does It Really Make a Difference?" (from Galactic's latest release, 2015's [i]Into the Deep[i]).
Drummer Moore was clearly inspired to follow one of his heroes, FOF's Modeliste, displaying groove alchemy on his drum kit, and mounted timbales and other percussive instruments, including on a couple surprising covers. The veteran members displayed an amazing sense of groove throughout the set, giving the Bob Dylan classic "Like a Rolling Stone" a funkier feel and vocalist Ann Peebles' 1973 hit "I Can't Stand the Rain" a rousing closing rendition. Falls' impassioned vocal and Allen's wild solo -- on a pocket trumpet no bigger than a foot long -- were practically enough to convince listeners that there was a riot going on.
Anyone expecting a letdown from unpredictable Phish bassist/vocalist Mike Gordon's band, appearing five minutes later on the main stage, was probably pleasantly surprised. Phish only touches on funk, a style Gordon isn't exactly known for, but this quintet with singing guitarist Scott Murawski, reliable keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer John Kimock and percussionist/vocalist Craig Myers proved surprisingly capable of making the surging throng dance in the aisles and move in its seats.
Tracks from Gordon's latest solo offering [i]OGOGO[i] ("Victim 3D," "Whirlwind" and "Crazy Sometimes") were creatively interspersed with covers by Murawski's former band Max Creek ("Cruel World"), Oakland, California funk titans Tower of Power ("You Strike My Main Nerve") and even Phish ("Meat"), all guided by Gordon's rhythmic vapor lock with Kimock and Myers, a creative percussionist who added programmed laptop computer parts to his arsenal of percussives and backing vocals.
Walter's work with his own 20th Congress band and Galactic drummer Moore's solo projects (notably the 2010 funk CD and instructional DVD/book [i]Groove Alchemy[i]) infused his glue-like offerings, and Murawski's vocals, solos and rhythm playing proved him to be an excellent foil to the often-quirky Gordon. Allowed to run his set 15 minutes longer than the other participants, the bassist couldn't resist throwing one wrench into the funk machine -- a closing cover of punk band Rancid's 1995 classic "Ruby Soho."
If there was an odd band out, it was second stage closer Hot Tuna. Formed by Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen (vocals/guitar) and Jack Casady (bass) as a side project in 1969, the group has since carried on intermittently in various incarnations. As night fell on the Sunshine Music Festival, its appearance was as a trio with drummer and former Levon Helm Band member Justin Guip.
Its not that the music the trio played wasn't quality, but rather the antithesis of everything that had preceded it, if looking at the musical glass as half-empty. Only Kaukonen sang, so there were no vocal harmonies, and Hot Tuna's string of nameless, faceless blues progressions, with plodding patterns by Casady and Guip, lacked the syncopation of the five earlier acts. On the glass half-full side, Kaukonen's use of both acoustic and electric guitars, on those light-and-shade blues progressions, occasionally ranged into Led Zeppelin territory. And the older contingent among the crowd, now packed like sardines the closer one got to the stage, ate up every note.
Perhaps Hot Tuna was strategically placed just ahead of the closing Tedeschi Trucks Band, which uses only funk elements among a musical stew that includes blues, R&B, rock, soul and gospel. Twelve-piece bands simply don't often otherwise exist in the popular music realm, and the powerful sound of the roots music orchestra -- with toppings like Susan Tedeschi's soaring voice and her guitar interaction with husband Derek Trucks -- give the act an individual fingerprint within music history.
The couple founded the six-year-old festival; hand-picking the participating acts each year, and closed arguably the best of those six with a raucous, 90-minute set of originals and cover tunes. Both the Berklee College of Music-trained Tedeschi and stage-schooled Trucks had successful self-titled bands before joining forces, with Tedeschi bringing in drummer and former Codetalkers member Tyler Greenwell (half of the band's one-two percussive punch with J. J. Johnson) from her band and Trucks keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge and vocalist/acoustic guitarist Mike Mattison from his.
Burbridge is an ever-musical force, and his Fender Rhodes intro opened a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Love Having You Around" to start the proceedings. He would play a memorable piano break later in the piece, and trombonist Elizabeth Lea's solo and visible energy proved infectious. She rounds out the horn section with saxophonist Kebbi Williams and trumpeter Ephraim Owens; Mattison's backing vocal counterparts are Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour, and bassist Tim Lefebvre's anchoring lines complete the rhythm section and lineup.
"How's everyone doing?" Tedeschi asked afterward. "It's so nice to be back in Boca Raton for the Sunshine Music Festival. And how about it for all the other bands that played here today?"
Trucks' inimitable fingerpicking and slide guitar playing highlighted the original composition "Shame," a roller coaster ride between breathtaking highs and tranquil lows, and his funky, distorted intro segued into the band's "Don't Know What It Means." Tedeschi's answering solo also made an impactful statement, as did Burbridge's bubbling clavinet pattern, an a cappella breakdown by the vocalists, and a free-form late section by the instrumentalists that added jazz elements and a wild sax solo by Williams.
It takes someone comfortable and confident within themselves to go from lead singer with Trucks' band to a cog in the vocal wheel with this larger unit, but Mattison is a rare kind of bird. He added acoustic guitar to the dreamy original "Midnight in Harlem," which featured another Trucks spacey intro and stratospheric solo for the ages, and came out front to sing lead on a cover of Taj Mahal's "Leavin' Trunk," with FOF/Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno guesting to make it a baker's dozen on stage.
The TTB's range of cover tune choices is a window into its all-encompassing listening tastes. Tedeschi later sang the Grateful Dead staple "Sugaree;" Medeski, Martin & Wood bassist Chris Wood joined in on Paul McCartney & Wings' bluesy "Let Me Roll It," and Trucks channeled late Allman Brothers Band founding guitarist Duane Allman on that band's classic "Whipping Post."
Only 38 years old, but having performed in public for more than a quarter-century, Trucks has always been wiser than his years and had a natural affinity for blues. With the deaths in the past year of uncle and founding Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks; that band's namesake singer and keyboardist Gregg Allman, and mentoring jam scene patriarch, singer and guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton, the young guitarist appeared to use the lengthy jam to pay a heartfelt homage to all three as well as to Duane Allman, whose own slide guitar pyrotechnics proved ever-inspirational. Seemingly in need of something to lighten the mood after such a processional, the TTB encored, and sent the crowd home with, a telling cover of Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned."