Concert Review: Adirondack Independent Music Festival (Day 1) in Lake George, 09/01/2023
Fire on the Mountain – ADK Edition
Dead & Company’s final tour may be one for the books, but the music of The Grateful Dead is alive and well in the Adirondacks. Several thousand fans turned up at Charles R. Wood Park in Lake George on Friday night to cheer on the Dark Star Orchestra, who headlined the first night of a full day of music at the annual Adirondack Independence Music Festival.
In the band’s last show of the summer, Dark Star Orchestra interpreted a 1978 concert by The Grateful Dead that, short of the invention of a time machine, is about as close to seeing the Dead in that era as you will get in 2023.
When Jeff Mattson (who plays the Jerry Garcia role) strode to the stage with his white Travis Bean guitar, I knew the crowd was in for a late 70s set. Aside from replicating the sets, DSO gets high marks for their authenticity to equipment and tone of the Dead. For two sets, this is exactly what the band did, most successfully on some of The Dead’s Bob Weir-led rockers.
A member of DSO since 2001, Rob Eaton more than fulfills the Bob Weir role in the band. As both a rhythm guitarist and rave-up singer, Eaton is about as ace as ole Ace himself (though thankfully, Eaton chose to wear regular pants over Bobby’s signature pirate-inspired capris or cutoff jean short-shorts). Eaton played Weir’s signature late-70s model Ibanez guitar with its beautiful inlay, and I found myself wishing that Weir himself would return to that specific ax to achieve its tone. Eaton also shined on vocals on “Mexicali Blues” (a song we probably won’t ever hear Bob Weir sing again, for a good reason), “Mama Tried”, and “New Minglewood Blues.” All three songs were highlights of an 11-song first set that ended with a blistering “Scarlet>Fire,” which fit the beautiful park setting on an evening where the Waning Gibbous moon illuminated the Adirondacks. In recent years, Dead & Company have been content to extend jams in the first set, and eight or nine-song sets have become the norm, so it was refreshing to hear a traditional Grateful Dead first set, which, for all of their reputation as a jam band, was often pretty tight.
The second set was punctuated by an outstanding “Estimated>Eyes,” where Mattson had his finest moments of the evening. A fitting stand-in for Jerry in stature, spectacles, facial hair, and guitar tone, Mattson nails Garcia’s vibrato and emphasis on Mixolydian melodic playing over high-speed guitar pyrotechnics. Mattson also doesn’t shy away from the deep space propensity of second-set Garcia. His brief exchange with keyboardist Rob Barraco coming out of “Drums” would have made Ornette or Sun Ra proud. Speaking of “Drums,” Dino English and Rob Koritz put on a classic pre-electronic drum and percussion show that was made even more interesting by several roadies who joined in on hand percussion instruments (Keller Williams, who opened for DSO, joined in as a guest as well).
Eaton and female vocalist Lisa Mackey shined on the set-closing “Sugar Magnolia,” which sent the crowd into a frenzy. The “Sunshine Daydream” outro was a reminder of what a beautiful day it was, both in weather and in spirit. The band encored with “U.S. Blues” and its “Summertime, done, come and gone, my, oh, my” lyrics. And while the summer may be done for the Dark Star Orchestra, two days remain for the Adirondack Independence Music Festival. Plenty of interesting acts and FOUR sets of moe. are on the schedule. Tickets are still available. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
The Rest of the Fest
Albany-based Hilltop kicked off the festival promptly at 1 p.m. Fresh off their Phish after-party performance last week at Nanola, the four-piece was in fine form. Their set included a fitting cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky”. Guitarist Aris Nieuwkerk’s guitar effects (especially a Jerry Garcia-inspired envelope filter effect) particularly stood out.
Syracuse’s Sophistafunk combined the Bootsy-inspired synth bass of P-Funk with the socially conscious rap of Mos Def. Recently returned from the West Coast, Sophistafunk is widely regarded for its many appearances on the Food Network (because they are one of Guy Fieri’s favorite bands). Frontman Jack Brown oozes charisma and hyped up the crowd with his relatable Upstate flow “Even when the snow’s getting heavy / just remember that the weather’s temporary”. Honorable mention to keyboard wizard and restaurateur Adam Gold, who often channeled Barry White’s bass voice to supply vocal hooks, all while digging into the clavinet and synths as a kind of live DJ for Brown. Gold owns Syracuse’s Funk’n Waffles restaurant, which appeared on Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” and sparked a friendship with the uniquely coiffed food mogul.
Buzzed-about Eggy did not disappoint. The Connecticut band showcased myriad influences, from progressive rock to jazz to indie stylings. The exceptional, high-energy keyboard playing of Dani Battat paired well with the single-note runs of guitarist Jake Brownstein. “Here and Now” is a good example of this interplay and reminded me quite a bit of the way a band like Goose both draws upon the classic rock history of jam music and innovates by including introspective lyrics that are more typically found in indie rock. Eggy will return to the Capital Region this fall with a soon-to-be-announced show at Putnam Place set for November.
Like Eggy, Plattsburgh’s Lucid has a knack for switching between genres. From their alt-country leaning opener “Bad Habit” to a dandy cover of Bill Withers’s “Use Me” to a funky guest spot by Sophistafunk’s Jack Brown, the band covered a lot of musical ground in their hour on stage. “Whiskey Dreams” was one of the catchiest songs of the day and reminded me of something David Lowery would have penned for Cracker back in the 90s. Also, a shoutout is required for Lucid’s Lowell Wurster, who was the utility player/MVP of the day. He rapped a guest verse with Sophistafunk and played the washboard later in the day with Dogs in a Pile.
Dogs in a Pile seemed to bring the biggest following to the first day of the ADK Festival. MC extraordinaire WEQX’s Jeff Morad mentioned that this was the “eighth or ninth” time the band had played the Capital Region/North Country and that it was becoming a second home for the Asbury Park, N.J. natives. This young group is extremely talented and really stretches out their jams – in fact, their hour and fifteen-minute set was only six songs long. Drummer Joey Babick was probably the most powerful kit player I saw all day, and he is the engine that fuels the twin guitar attacks of Brian Murray and Jimmy Law. Their progressive jam sound really reminds me of Umphrey’s McGee. “Trunk Rum” featured a particularly intense extended jam. Jimmy Law and keyboardist Jeremy Kaplan both impressed with massive solos.
In all my excitement to see some of the younger bands on the undercard, I almost forgot about Keller Williams. Dressed in an unassuming t-shirt and shorts, Williams (who played barefoot) looked as though he may have washed up on the shore of Lake George. His performance was part Jack Black, part stoned-Deadhead, part Owen Wilson cool, and it was simply my favorite act of the day aside from DSO. Williams never took himself too seriously, and for that reason he was a festival favorite back in my early-aught college years. Most of us felt like he somehow slipped off of the lot and just wound up on stage. But the aw-shucks stuff is part of his schtick, and it belies clever songwriting and showmanship.
After an entire day of watching larger groups try to win the crowd, Keller won it easily by making them laugh: “Impossible” warned the crowd to “never trust a hippie,” and “Doobie in My Pocket” told the hilarious narrative of an air-traveling musician who is paranoid he may have packed some drugs in his suitcase. And in between unhinged covers of songs like The Presidents of the United States “Peaches,” Williams played tunes like “Breath”. Not only does the track have poignant lyrics, but it also displays his brilliant ability to electronically loop and become a one-man band. As I write this, I realize many of these things should not work at all, but there is something so unassuming about Keller. He’s like the jam scene Jonathan Richman or something. If I go to a wedding and see some guy looping tracks I would almost instantly hate him, but I’ve always loved Williams, who just seems like some guy playing in the Alpine Valley Dead lot. His covers of Dead songs are always great, and he nailed the psychedelic rarities “Doin’ That Rag” and “Mountains of the Moon” to whet the crowd’s appetite for DSO. Of course, he also closed with “Freeker By the Speaker” from his 2002 album Laugh, a song that was on steady rotation back in my college radio days and delighted the growing evening crowd.
Some Final Thoughts
The sets from Keller Williams and DSO found me in a reflective mood on the drive home. While I’m excited that there are young jam bands on the scene these days, the sound of these young bands is so progressive and technical that I rarely find myself leaving the venue and humming their songs. You can’t really hum the sound of a clavinet groove or a two-chord guitar funk vamp. What The Dead were able to accomplish was to leave a songbook that will far outlast its members. At some point, there will not be a living member of The Grateful Dead (I hate to think of this), but the music will persist. I saw people in their early 20s who knew all the lyrics to “Ship of Fools” (and even Jeff Mattson messed up part of a verse). The reason for this persistence is both the incredible quality of the songs AND the Dead’s sense of melody. Their songs are fun to sing, and I hope the young people in this scene can channel Keller Williams a bit, have some fun, and write the songs that the next generation will be singing in fields under the bright summer moon.
As for the festival itself, it was a true delight after a summer of seeing large SPAC shed shows. I worked my way to the rail easily for several sets but also had a blast people-watching from the back. The staff got everyone in easily, and it was nice to be able to step off the premises and reenter when needed (for instance, I really needed a $5 grilled cheese during the DSO set break) and was able to buy one from a psychedelic bus couple that was set up in the street).
As for production, the side-by-side stage setup was phenomenal and seamless. As soon as one band finished, the next band was being introduced. It was cool to watch some of the band’s soundcheck as another performer was on stage “next door.” I also love the nice flat park with the raised stage – I had great sightlines anywhere in the park. The sound mix was also excellent for all of the groups – no small feat given the diversity of acts that played.
In ten hours, I saw seven bands and eight sets of music with only a half-hour break in the action. That’s a tremendous value for ticketholders. Those who upgraded to VIP did get the option of a covered seating area (I forgot my sunscreen and will pay for it tomorrow), indoor bathrooms, and discounted drinks, but the general admission amenities were more than adequate as well. There are lots of cool food vendors inside the venue and a fully sanctioned shakedown as well. Merch was great and included some bargain-priced moe. sale items as well as a number of festival-exclusive pin, t-shirt, and poster options. It’s clear this festival is a labor of love for the folks putting it on. Long live ADK Fest.