The Big Summer Classic is this year's top touring jamband festival. Finding its roots in Monterey and Woodstock, the Summer Classic's proper progenitor is the H.O.R.D.E. festivals of the mid nineties. Following the success of Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza concerts, John Popper and Blues Traveler created Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere. Gathering their musical comrades like The Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and the Samples, the H.O.R.D.E. festival toured the country spreading good vibes everywhere.
Jamband festivals have maintained their link to their 60's ancestors by fostering social awareness and political activism. War protestors, environmental activists and marijuana decriminalization supporters gather with the purpose of rallying their brethren to support their cause and using the momentum to achieve social change. The politics and beliefs of the crowd were usually echoed back to them by the musicians on stage creating one big communal atmosphere of peace and love. It is in this respect that the Big Summer Classic separates itself. Despite an unpopular ongoing war in Iraq, Michael Franti was the only one to even mention it much less denounce it. The 2005 jamband crowd doesn't seem to want to their groove disturbed by the outside world.
That is not to say that there weren't some relics of the old hippie festivals. Concert goers were encouraged to proceed through the "Karma Wash" in which Karma technicians would ward off the bad vibes from your person through their proficient use of feathers and goodwill. Relix magazine had a prominent presence with spontaneous drum circles erupting between sets by their tent. Most entertaining were the twenty foot high inflatable Sumo wrestlers, the symbols of the tour, that towered over the back of the park grounds. Although there was a good smattering of tie dye, the clothing of choice of today's concert-goer seems to be a simple T and shorts.
Oh yes, there was also some music -- a lot of good music. With the sun beating down on the stage, the early arriving fans fell into two groups: those crushing up against the stage to get as close to the band as possible and those laying back on the lawn in the shade with a beer. As the concert progressed and the sun set, more and more people abandoned the lawn to the get closer to the music.
San Francisco based New Monsoon opened the show to an enthusiastic response. Possibly owing to its brevity, the band's 4 song set, heavy on percussion and middle Eastern rhythms, was the tightest of the day. Amidst band staples Blast and Daddy Long Legs, the band covered Pink Floyd's Echoes in its near 18 minute entirety, creatively employing a balloon and the sides of their drums to achieve the spacey interlude.
Umphrey's braved the mean spirited beach ball popping troglodyte but still played an underwhelming set. Distracting everyone from the music, the band marred their set by bringing out a horde of dancing girls in ill fitting bikinis and fishnet stockings to writhe around arythmically and unsexily.
Michael Franti and Spearhead attempted to enlighten as well as entertain. The Umphrey dancing girls were put to better use as they paraded throughout the crowd with placards containing aphorisms from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Alice Walker, Ghandi, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Spearhead's set also contributed the only mention of the Iraqi war with Franti exhorting "Bush War 1, Bush War 2, Got a war for me and a war for you" during Everyone Deserves Music's We Don't Stop.
Musically, Spearhead brought the crowd to their feet with reggae infused socially aware songs like Yes I Will and Yell Fire. String Cheese Incident's Michael Kang joined the band halfway through the set, notably contributing his violin to a rousing version of Everlast's What I Got. In a stranger accompaniment, a large muscular gent with black militant shades joined the band -- for a flower arrangement solo, which didn't last long enough as it seemed there were some lilies to add to the mix.
Playing barefoot, Keller Williams brought his unique blend of acoustic guitar mastery and backing audio loops. Onstage, Williams is an overgrown child having fun with all his various bells, whistles and theremin. Like a talented and funnier version of Carrottop, he brings the instruments out at random intervals and adds them to the backing loop. The one drawback to the loops is that it is difficult to tell when Williams is playing and when you are listening to a recording.
Williams uses his technical and musical acumen to great effect and his "one-man band" is truly unique and something to see live. Quite likely, someone will eventually outdo Williams at his own game and gain a larger audience with a similar act. Hopefully, they will have the humility to acknowledge Williams as the progenitor of this inventive mix of man and machine. Until that time though, there is noone else doing this better
His set included his normal batch of eclectic originals as well as covers of Gin and Juice, Candyman and Fly Like An Eagle. The set also contained another standard of the jamband festival -- the seamless transition with the next act. As Williams wound his set down, he was progressively joined by members of the Yonder Mountain String Band. With the whole String Band finally on stage for the Steve Miller closer, Williams finished up, waved goodbye and without stopping the YMSB took off with an hour of their brand of bluegrass and country. The collaborations between the bands continued as String Cheese's Bill Nershi joined the band for last third of their set.
With the sun set, the show was closed by the undisputed headliner of the Classic, String Cheese Incident. While most of the Brooklyn crowd came to see the Cheese, a theory supported by the multitude of enraptured spasmodic arhytymic dancers, they failed to enthrall the entire crowd. String Cheese's studio sound is grounded in bluegrass but onstage their sound is reminiscent of Graceland era Paul Simon fused with an inspired jamheavy Miami Sound Machine with the whole conglomeration seeking Harry Belafonte's approval to use calypso.
This night, the band made some odd choices. In the musical equivalent of sitting LeBron James in the 4th quarter of a close game, Michael Kang, an amazing and inventive violin player, played mandolin and guitar for most of the set. The band was also ill-equipped to tackle their cover of Stevie Wonder's I Wish. Missteps aside, String Cheese does have moments where they command attention and did so during the closing tunes One Step Closer and Search. Frustratingly, the frequency of those moments pales in comparison to their predecessors like the Grateful Dead and Phish.
Bringing back members from Umphrey's McGee and Spearhead, SCI appropriately ended the show with an encore of the Beastie Boys No Sleep Till Brooklyn. Michael Franti came onstage mid song for a little free style before being joined by dancing trees who helped lead the crowd in a chant for MORE - TREES -- IN -- BROOKLYN!