“Oh you like Phish? You should check out this band,” say lots of people to me over the years, wrong every single time. Clearly it works on others, though; the jamband scene seems to be on the rise again, as ever full of hard-to-stomach lyrics and monochromatic music. “Well if that’s your attitude, then why the hell would you go to this Sacred Rose festival?” I had reasons! First of all, getting together with buddies. Secondly, when does Phil Lesh ever poke his head into the Rust Belt these days? How many times will he be back this way again? Thirdly, ever since I first came across Wilco, I’ve thought Jeff Tweedy’s would be just about the perfect voice to sing Jerry songs. I don’t think of Jeff as a part of this scene, but these songs transcend the scene, they do not define it. So Philco, probably only a one-off proposition, was almost unmissable.
Fourthly, Sound Tribe Sector 9. This is a band that conjures a whole host of feelings and memories for festival-going types in the years following the advent of Bonnaroo and the breakup of Phish. A lot of fans gave up on STS9 if not the entire electro-jamband movement as Phish regained their sea legs, and not necessarily without good reason; the scene had become more symbolic of chemical excess than musical excellence, and no one exemplified this better than STS9 bassist/hype man David Murphy, whose onstage persona had come to increasingly define the band for better or worse. When he was eventually asked to leave, I basically assumed STS9 was toast. Murph was annoying but it wasn’t like he was a weak link in a band of virtuosos, as far as I could tell. Their heyday was clearly past, and I doubted that they’d built up the kind of following or chops that could bolster a legitimate second act lacking the only charismatic stage presence they ever had.
Maybe the jury’s still out, but we’ll get to STS9 later. Friday seemed like the main event. The iconography all seemed very Deadish. You had Sunday’s headliner too, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, adding to the feel. When you also factor in Wilco fans, in Wilco’s hometown… let’s say in my head there was a big sprawling field, tens of thousands of dancing heads. Instead it was a side stage under a canopy draped in vines. This isn’t a complaint I guess.
The complaints arose from folks further out from the stage I’m assuming, where sound bleeding from other stages was probably aggravating as hell. It wasn’t especially crowded, so getting a closer spot for our group wasn’t hard, but I’m usually a distant-lawn guy myself, and the designers of this festival evidently didn’t…think about sound overlap? The stages weren’t aligned with any thought given to competing sound waves. Seems like festival design 101 to me. Did anyone notice that the actual venue, Seatgeek Stadium, was sitting there empty the whole time? I swear I’ve seen concerts right in there before.
What did Sacred Rose get right? Well, the free water stations! I never had to buy a single Liquid Death. The hotel shuttle system was amazingly smooth and painless. I wouldn’t say the portable toilet situation ever seemed overwhelmed. Astroturf is really nice to dance on. There was a cool sculpture of an ent and a kitty. And I enjoyed the food that I got from Cosmic Charlie’s Grateful Grille, Woogie Rolls, and Harold’s Chicken.
Fortunately I did not get erroneously charged thousands of dollars by any of the vendors as evidently quite a few patrons did. It was a cherry on top of the growing pile of complaints lodged against people involved with this festival in nearly every facet. Still, I had an absolutely marvelous time, myself.
It was, admittedly, very disappointing when Animal Collective cancelled within a couple hours of showtime. I do understand that as a performer you rehearse a certain show, and you want to give your fans the best possible thing rather than toss something off. But I’ll never understand modern artists’ need to obfuscate when they bail on a commitment. How is this ever even good PR? It strikes me as super odd that all we’ve seen is a second-hand tweet from the Sacred Rose account saying Avey Tare had lost his voice; I hope all is well in the AC camp.
I can’t say Friday was a very stacked lineup, either; it was great to see White Denim, the original indie/jam hybrid band, still brings it after all these years, and Yves Tumor was amazing as always, but I’ve never been bowled over by The War On Drugs and Lettuce struck me as combining only the worst qualities of both the jamband and blues-rock genres. At least Punch Brothers are still reliably impressive, and for the latter half of their set you couldn’t even hear the din from Lettuce threatening to drown them out for more distant listeners. (Also, the Laser Dome was…pretty cool! We saw a good portion of Freekbass’s set in there and cooled off and I wouldn’t be surprised if it saved more than a few heads from overheating.)
Two songs into the first Philco set I thought to myself ‘okay, this is gonna be just a novelty thing, trotting out ramshackle rudimentary renditions of these beloved songs for Tweedy and Nels Cline to swap spotlights during’. It wasn’t that, though. The band slowly began to gel, and particularly during the second set you could feel the electricity between Cline and saxophonist/flautist Karl Denson especially, leading to some fierce noisy peaks I wasn’t really expecting. Lesh himself seemed relaxed and in fine voice for someone upon whose voice even Deadheads doggedly crap. We weren’t getting the genesis of some new direction for old music, we were getting the benefits of wily songs in the hands of crafty veterans who haven’t yet lost their touch. And that “Via Chicago”, boy howdy.
I left feeling good, but that the best music of the weekend was hopefully still ahead. I don’t suspect Philco squeezed in many rehearsals and the seat-of-pants feeling was part of the fun; every journey outside the lines was a minor miracle. Saturday, however, had the makings of a potential jamband battle royale.
On paper, it was like being transported to circa 2008, when a schedule that went Lotus>Disco Biscuits>Umphrey’s McGee>STS9>Umphrey’s would’ve drawn wooks in droves. It had been a while since I’d seen any of these bands; I had no idea if any of them still had the magic, but I’ve had transcendent experiences in the past with, well, three of the four; nothing against Lotus, they just never captured my attention.
One thing about jambands, they like their bass. Unthinkable that you’d go to a jamband show and be unable to hear the bass properly, which is what sets Phish apart from the scene more than anything else these days. Being able to hear and feel Phil’s bass on Friday night was a whole reason to be there; Phish have one of the best bass players around, too, but their sound guy seems unaware of this lately. So the mere condition of dancing to improvisational music with pounding bass was filling me right up on Saturday.
Even before any serious dance grooves got underway, I had my first experience with Andy Frasco and it brought me lots of joy. The guy is like a cross between Andrew WK and Ricky from Trailer Park Boys; he gives all the fucks in the world about not giving a fuck. I’m pretty sure his heart is in the right place and he and his band The U.N. gave off some serious early-early-Mr. Bungle vibes, as in a godawful ska/rock carnival but with enough anarchic gusto to get their point across. Kinda made me miss going to these kinds of festivals.
Then continued the parade of music that all sounds like Particle from back when that guy Charlie was the guitar player. With Sunsquabi there was even an appropriate dose of Buckethead-style guitar-playing and songwriting. That’s a cat who doesn’t get enough credit for his influence on this scene; nobody wanks to a dance beat better than Buckethead. I’m not sure why there wasn’t more of Kanika Moore but her appearance late in the set brought it to a memorable conclusion.
As for the aforementioned late-’00s dream team, I’d say Lotus seemed vigorous and more satisfying than I recall from years ago, whereas Bisco was more of a ramshackle romp than I was expecting, not necessarily tired but maybe a little sloppy and lacking urgency. They always seemed like a polished dancemachine in their heyday and I don’t recall there being so much piano. Nevertheless an enjoyable set where I occasionally thought to myself ‘I know I’ve seen them play at least part of this song before’.
Umphrey’s, another quasi-hometown headliner, played what seemed to me a very safe and unremarkable couple of greatest-hits sets. Almost all songs I knew and only what I’d call standardly-deviant renditions; the only one that stood out as adventurous to me was “Hurt Bird Bath” and admittedly I’d gladly hear that song (not to mention “Wizard Burial Ground”) at every UM show. Maybe this band doesn’t do wide-open, what we Phishheads call “type II” jamming any more, I couldn’t say. I had this fantasy of them going full-tilt metal to frighten the Goose fans whose band would overlap with UM, but the organizers wisely tweaked set times so that Goose and STS9 were simultaneous between Umphrey’s sets. My fantasy was dead but on the plus side I never heard a note of Goose!
Also during the last couple songs of UM’s first set we were securing a spot for STS9 and so couldn’t hear the proceedings too clearly; maybe they actually jammed the fuck out of “Wizard Burial Ground”? Tribe was clearly the underdog on the card, competing with current scene darlings/whipping boys Goose, who brought out guests as they are wont to do lately and almost surely satisfied their every fan. Their music isn’t my bag; it turns out that Sound Tribe’s is. Still? Again?
I recall hearing that the band intended to return to its roots after Alana Rocklin took over bass duties in 2014. To me that didn’t seem like the greatest plan; early Sound Tribe always struck me as pretty flimsy, but what I couldn’t speak to was the spirit of early Sound Tribe, ‘cause I didn’t catch on early. It’s all the same members except for Murph, but as far as I can tell, it’s a completely different band from the one I used to know.
The STS9 of 10-15 years ago didn’t jam much; it was more a live-instrumentation EDM sound, which isn’t absent from the group’s modern sound, but it’s no longer the only strategy. Saturday was my second time seeing the revamped lineup and my gut tells me that Rocklin is still adapting her more jazzy style to fit these moments, as the rest of the band continues to stretch out to incorporate her versatility. Her tone and phrasing reminded me often of Bill Laswell, another master of genre-bending and no stranger to EDM himself, and once again I was reminded of how crucial it is to be able to hear the bass loud and clear. Sacred Rose screwed up plenty but they got this part right.
Even more crucial for me, though, were the jams themselves. These were not oversimplified happy two-chord patterns slowly swelled to bursting, which is about the only mode most jambands are comfortable in. I don’t even know the band’s catalog well enough to always recognize what’s a song and what’s a jam, but I’ve been a Phishhead long enough to tell you that jambands almost never give me the feeling of surrender and release that Phish do, and fewer still harness the collective will to ride the ebbs and flows of the music and still pull things together in a way that feels arrived at rather than forced.
Even in the deepest depths of my hippiefest era, I had little interest in actually becoming a fan of any of these bands. It’s too much work; I only had room in my brain for the mythology and minutiae of Phish (unless you count the Les Claypool menagerie, which isn’t nearly as intimidating). Even when I was seeing Umphrey’s a half-dozen times a year I I could only recognize probably 20 songs of theirs. Bisco maybe five. And it was totally fine. But it’s not fine any more where STS9 is concerned. I need to know these songs. I need to be able to tell when we’re in and out of them. I was always more drawn to Tribe’s songs than any other jamband’s, and it wasn’t just because there’s no singing. But Tribe 1.0 never showed me improvisational prowess; I may not have known the song titles but I always knew we were in them. Now we can be outside of them, too. That’s what I dig.
I keep coming back to Phish because they’re still the best at this, I’m pretty sure. But they weren’t, this year at Alpine Valley. In fact this summer has made me wonder what the hell Phish are even about any more. Whereas this STS9 set made me feel right at home, even though the songs themselves were unfamiliar. No agenda, no preaching, no silly nonsense and no overbearing guitar heroism. I’m after the free flow of ideas in unpredictable directions, navigated by hot players with open minds. I still don’t have a great sense of Alana’s personality, and maybe that’s the way she wants it. If I’m trying to let go and dance and be present with the music, I don’t need that extra information. That all stems from the ego, and what I experienced with STS9 was as close to ego-free jamband music as I can recall hearing in a long time. A show I actually want to listen to again.
I didn’t have a ticket for Sunday, and from what I can gather, that was an accidental great call, whether due to weather or the lack thereof. I like JRAD and look forward to my next chance to see ‘em, and I bet they would’ve closed this festival out in fine fashion. But it still never had a chance to be one of those magical, life-changing festy experiences like we used to have in the pre-corporate-homogenization festival days. The attempt to merge the hippie and indie music worlds isn’t inherently a bad idea, and utilizing the songs and imagery of the Dead is probably the best if not only road forward. But there wasn’t much of a feeling of community at this fest. Between the unwelcoming location, clueless setup and the expected price-gouging on shitty beer (Goose Island is trash!), this was clearly not an event staged by people who care deeply about music or music fans and thus didn’t draw the hordes of heads it should’ve. I can’t imagine anyone deeming Sacred Rose a success, but it also didn’t take much effort and wherewithal to have a great time.