Operation: Adaptation

Sun May 11 2008

A music festival in Wisconsin in April? Sounds chancy, doesn’t it? Sure, the bands play indoors, but who’s gonna camp out? The forecast called for rain all weekend, but the faithful were rewarded with gorgeous spring weather for the inaugural installment of Operation: Adaptation, an environmentally-conscious music festival tucked into tiny Concord, WI, where you could leave your Bonnaroo horror stories at the gate and experience the laid-back mini-fest atmosphere you were hoping for…
Friday, 4.18, 7:39 p.m. Forgot the doggone tickets at home. We’re five miles from the fest. Thank God this isn’t Langerado!
8:45 p.m. We pull up to the welcoming staff, who are generous with free gum and hippie drawl. The consensus is that any complications getting in are unimaginable. They didn’t even ask if we had any drugs or firearms! The lodge (Concord House) is decked out in Christmas lights, tapestries, and all sorts of homey, grass-roots décor. It looks great. There are booths for natural, organic products, hemp wares, clothing and jewelry, as well as a comprehensive merch table for the bands. And of course, the bikes! The main room hosts the Bicycle Stage, powered by real live humans riding stationary bikes hooked up to generators. The Electric Stage room also features mouth-watering pizza aromas, and three bucks for a Newcastle or Spotted Cow—not bad at all, although this is Wisconsin; hopefully next year, there will be some Sprecher and/or Lakefront Brewery sponsorship!
8:57 p.m. I greet Dan Aukofer, sound engineer and mastermind behind the human-powered concert series, which kicked off earlier in the year at his home in Waukesha. Deep in frenzied concentration, he has no idea who I am. Best to catch him after the sound system is tweaked and ready. As it turned out, the sound was virtually perfect in both rooms all weekend.
9:15 p.m. Groovatron takes to the Electric Stage. The first time I saw this band was St. Patrick’s Day weekend 2003 at Puffers in Chicago. We stumbled in randomly and were blown away. Ever since that night, we’ve attempted to fit Groovatron into our schedule but something has always thwarted us. About two minutes into the set tonight, I realize I won’t be able to stop moving for long enough to really write much.
9:25ish. We move from behind the really tall girl, taking up a precarious position behind the wildly flailing robotic camo dude with the totally crooked maniacal haircut. He is the perfect visual accompaniment to Groovatron’s intense, spastic jams. I can’t think of a more perfectly-named band.
9:40ish. The dude in front of us removes his hair, mid-lurch, making the camouflage outfit seem a bit disturbing. Then I notice his sandals. All is well.
9:45ish. Groovatron embarks on a sustained-intensity jam (à la Galactic, sort of; drummer Andy Dumeresq cast shades of Stanton Moore at times for sure) that lasts at least ten minutes. Nobody wants it to end, and it’s a rare band that can put forth such energy for so long without letting up. The set ranges from deep funk to Primus-style heaviness to spacey electronic flourishes with natural ease and flowing intensity. Every act to follow all weekend will be hard pressed to top Groovatron’s manic performance.

10:52. Clearly, Willy Porter’s set will be a Vitamin-D[ave Adler, keyboards]-fortified goof-fest, but it’s not bugging me tonight. We all know what an amazing musician Willy is, and there’s no need to take yourself seriously all the time, right? Besides, there’s gotta be an element of humor as you look into the crowd to see a dozen people pedaling stationary bikes.
11:20. Willy’s breathtaking solo performance of “Breathe” proves to be the highlight of the set, unsurprisingly. The man’s got the nimblest fingers in Wisconsin, not to mention words of wisdom and immaculate pop-song chops. Somebody get this guy some bigger festival gigs! But wait, I’m supposed to not want him to get too famous, right…?
11:44. There are some pretty lackadaisical bikers out there at this point, but there’s still enough power to keep Willy and the band amped up. Adler is really hamming it up and everyone’s enjoying it; he does lend a small-town-clown element to the Porter experience, but there’s no denying his talent. It’s a somewhat sloppy but feelgood set that matches the vibe of the weekend nicely.
12:15. My first Fat Maw Rooney show was a mostly-acoustic show at a bar in Nashotah, WI, a bluegrass-heavy affair; this is my second. I hadn’t previously noticed the striking debt owed to The Black Crowes, but I do now—particularly the vocals of guitarist Craig Baumann. But in a scene overrun with lackluster singers, that little bit of soul is welcome.
12:54. The down-homey “Tanglewood” is a sonorous, mellow twangfest, but “Rocky Mountain Way” is too mellow; the song demands more guitar muscle than these guys can seem to muster.
1:05. “Bring It On Back” gets spacey, then drummy, as the group explores the middle ground between Skynyrd and moe.; the ensuing jam sends the crowd into a frenzy.
1:30. A hippie couple embraces and starts making out. The guy clutches an Aerobie for dear life as Fat Maw encores with the “Oh! Darling”-esque stylings of “The End Of The Beginning.”
1:37. The Aerobie falls to the floor in the extended moment of passion, timed perfectly with the climax of the final jam of the set.
1:40. Fat Maw Rooney’s set ends. The Aerobie is recovered, and becomes a faerie crown/halo for the princess. Must be bedtime.

Saturday, 4.19, 4:39 p.m. I get to the fest in the middle of Runside Down’s set. It’s a double-keyboard attack with rhythmic shifts on a dime…well, maybe on a 50-cent piece. The groove gets pretty deep, the interplay is intuitive and there’s obvious enjoyment on the faces of the players. What more do you want just before suppertime?
5:15. Pert Near Sandstone is rocking the bluegrass as hot as anybody I’ve heard before. If only we could hook clogger Andy Lambert up to a generator, the lazy afternoon bikers could probably take a break! The stage is borrowing some power from the house now, but every pedal pump is a little less un-renewable energy spent.
5:32. In the nothing-is-sacred tradition of modern-day string bands, “I Am The Walrus” gets the (very effective) double-time treatment, complete with enthusiastic audience “woo”s.
6:09. Hula hoops are now in full effect in the back of the room. Is this a hippie trend, or are hula hoops back in society at large? Whatever the case, the bluegrass love has finally brought the nature-lovin’ throng in from the gorgeous weather in by far the largest numbers all day, and PNS deserves the attention—not only loads of fun, but undeniable talent.
6:48. Sean Shiel’s set was cut short earlier in the day, so he puts on an impromptu outdoor set with occasional violin and cello accompaniment. Some spirited, moody folk ensues, including a somewhat under-rehearsed but interesting “Norwegian Wood.” Shiel is the festival’s surrogate Keller Williams, but he knows it, and he’s one hell of a guitar player to boot.
7:30. “Long Black Veil,” one of the greatest songs ever written, is a perfect ending point, and very well-played. Shiel keeps playing, but we had to go in for Stealin’ Strings, who didn’t start on time, but you can only go downhill after “Long Black Veil.”
8:11. “Dirty Old Town” never fails to please, but it’s kind of a bummer that a jam band of Stealin’ Strings’s caliber relegates itself to a purely acoustic set, particularly when I’ve honestly just about had my fill of folkgrass for the weekend. The set is great, don’t get me wrong; I’m just even more anxious now to see the band’s electric set again.
9:10. I swear I couldn’t have missed more than a minute of the set, but upon entering the room for Family Groove Company, a blistering guitar solo is well underway, rhythmically suave and coolly confident…and pure rock ‘n’ roll. This bodes well.
9:20. The second song features some sneaky throwback rock’n’soul that could’ve used a soul singer, but then it wouldn’t have been so sneaky…
9:30. I can see how it might be a bummer for guitarist Adam Lewis that he sounds quite a bit like Trey at times, but it’s certainly not a bummer for me; the man is damn good. Trey, at his best, could make you worry that he wasn’t going to get there in time, then blow your mind when he did. Lewis has that sensibility, and less of a tendency to lose focus…tonight, at least.
9:58. I suppose I could be proven wrong, but I’m guessing we just witnessed the best guitar solo of the weekend, a barnstormer during the Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood tune “Little Walter Rides Again.” This band is known for getting its jazz on (its latest release Live In Chicago includes an exploration of Miles Davis’s “All Blues”), and this was an intense ride. FGC keeps its jams compact and thus perhaps more potent, making for a tight set that raged with energy to match the strength of its songs.
10:42. What can I say? Fat Maw Rooney is a class act. I feared I’d be completely bluegrassed to death, given the “acoustic” constraints of this set, but there’s all manner of rock, folk, grass, blues, flamenco-sweetened moody jazz, reggae-tinged soul…I’d venture that this set is even better than the electric set last night. Not only did these guys act as curators for the fest, they’ve really bookended Saturday in superb fashion.
11:54. I’ve been trying to get around saying it, but Chinese Fingertrap is the Galactic-lite of the weekend, complete with intermittent female vocalist Alyssa Voelker. The band plays a pleasant mélange of jazz, blues and funk with some pop-rock tunes thrown in for good measure, and by this point, judging by my crew and the overall mood of the room, nobody was jonesing for any more intensity than these guys were able to deliver anyway. Featuring guest spots from members of Fat Maw and from John Bescup (prolific Chicagoland trumpeter), this was just the easygoing set we needed to send us off to dreamland. You don’t go to a festival hoping the final set will be the most intense (Bonnaroo: Bake 1 being the exception); you want it to be a solid coolin’ off after the accumulated craziness of the weekend, and CF delivered. It was a weekend that far exceeded my expectations; there was not a hint of violence, even with the trickle of curious local rednecks towards the end. There were no drunken outbursts that I witnessed; I was vindicated when the dude with the permagrin and the bottomless bottle of Captain asked me if I liked rum, then confessed that he hadn’t really been drinking it much the whole time. The Concord House was transformed into a first-class hippie lodge and bar, and while the Totally Baked Pizza entourage produced better smells (intoxicating!) than actual pizza, the Italian sausage or beef was all you could hope for. (Reports indicate the breadsticks were also delicious.) To top it off, over 700 trees will be planted on behalf of the festival’s attendees, and it may have sucked less juice from the power grid than any electric music festival ever—who else is gonna make that claim? We can only hope the weather holds up as perfectly next year…

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