There’s really nothing like it.
Back now from Woodsist Fest 2014. It was the third consecutive year I made it way out west to the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, CA for the two-day music festival curated by Jeremy Earl of Woods.
Like the previous two Fests, this one (themed “Do it”) offered many magical, memorable moments and surprises in the most beautiful of settings imaginable.
When Jeff D and I laid our blankets down on arid ground for day 1, the sun was shining bright above. As we entered, a guy in a van parked on Highway 1 played The Babies. Loud. The air was pleasurable, filled with good smells from the venerable forest and nearby mighty Pacific Ocean. It was Tuesday, August 5 and the Skygreen Leopards were underway after front man Donovan Quinn had finally worked through a contentious, on-the-spot sound check. Between selections from their great new release on Woodsist, Quinn’s Leopards bandmate Glenn Donaldson gazed into an audience limited to about 350. “You’re here on a Tuesday. You’ve got a great life,” he said.
And so it went. Five great acts spanning seven-plus hours each day.
Among the highlights:
-White Fence was the best I’ve seen them, executing with perfection several numbers from For Recently Found Innocent with help from the great Ty Segall who’s appearing with the band on selective dates. Wearing a patch on his jacket that said “Stop Sales Tax,” Segall contributed backing guitar lines and some keys. I had been unaware of the possibility he’d be at Woodsist Fest. Nick Murray was awesome on drums and of course Tim Presley IS White Fence. What a guitar player. What a performer. What a songwriter. We got a great rendition of Paranoid Bait as the sun went down and a cluster of young dancers up front made what would make the start of a continuing and refreshing presence at the Fest with their outward show of enthusiasm which is always a question mark at this event.
-There was palpable buzz running through the grounds in the half-hour or so before Foxygen’s Sam France careened onto the stage for the full band’s set on day two. A year ago, Foxygen pulled out of its Woodsist Fest slot after France suffered a broken leg. Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado admirably agreed to fill that hole with a superb, band-backed performance of solo material. His pinch-hit in that spot won him huge respect. At the time, I believed Rado might have been better off going it alone given the strength of his solo effort on Woodsist – not to mention outtakes from that record and a subsequent Bandcamp release of him covering McCartney’s self-titled debut. But then I saw what I saw from Foxygen last Wednesday and I need to recant that position. Foxygen was incredible. France was part-Jagger, part-Morrison for this one. Unlike the show I saw Foxygen play in New York late last year, France was clearly at full strength – able to deliver the kind of showmanship you see in person only a few times in a lifetime if you’re lucky. France pranced into the audience several times for dance-offs with the aforementioned cluster of hip-shaking fans and exerted maximum energy throughout. On the band’s most well-known number “San Francisco,” France mimicked the movement of a toy soldier – as if to say he wanted to move on from an old hit, old news. And so he did. People in the audience were shaking their heads after it was over. That’s how good it was. The music runs through Rado. He’s the ringleader and the backbone of the band. But his pairing with the frenetic France really works when it’s on like it was under the redwoods. A trio of backing singers/dancers (including Rado’s girlfriend Jaclyn Cohen) added a legitimate non-frivolous sound/visual dimension. Their vocal roles on the forthcoming double LP come into play heavily based on the new material played including a great one called “Hang.“ The Woodsist Fest stage barely had enough room for what totaled nine musicians in the band but credit Foxygen’s road manager Tim Smiley for his meticulous pre-show set-up and preparations.
-Kevin Morby’s set on day one was personally a major thrill because I’m a big fan but it also felt like the crowd was into it, too. The Fest slot was well deserved. Morby thanked Earl on stage. The title cut off Morby’s debut really rocked. Mike Campbell played bass and demonstrated a solid grasp of the material despite his only recent enlistment. Campbell will play with Morby on a string of US dates before returning to his main job in Laura Stevenson’s band. Morby says it’ll be just him and drummer Justin Sullivan when the pair tackle a Euro tour starting in early September. Morby and the band exited the grounds late Wednesday afternoon to start a long ride to Reno for a show Thursday night.
-Angel Olsen played after Morby on Tuesday and wowed the audience with a voice of tremendous range and beauty. Her delivery is unique. Olsen locks in deep, intense stares at the audience and occasionally cracks a smile, sometimes a giggle, mid-tune. She reinforces songs containing traces of anger with an authentic near-snarl. Her band was great.
Craft beer in a sixteen-ounce reusable plastic cup was $7 served with maximum love by the same great couple that’s been there each year I’ve attended. Admission to the Fest was $123.99 for a two-day pass. Tickets sold out almost immediately when they went on sale April 15.
Sound was generally good given the rapid pace of changing needs associated with each act. I was hearing an annoying echo on Earl’s mike during the Woods set that took awfully long to iron out but there were no real technical snafus to speak of. I thought Real Estate did a really great job following up Foxygen’s grand slam. It was a tough act to follow and Real Estate just went out there under full darkness and played a great set. The dramatically trimmed-down Alex Bleeker closed out the Fest by calling Kyle Field, Jarvis Taveniere and Earl to the stage to join Real Estate for a cover of the Dead’s “He’s Gone.” Bleeker nailed the vocals. Earl declined to get on stage. Bleeker wins the award for most down to earth stage banter. During the Little Wings set, Kyle Field was hilarious while mocking the merchandise he brought to sell. Field played mostly new material which sounded great. He wasn’t as rollicking, gesticular or wild as he was at last year’s Fest but what a pleasure it was to see him given the rarity of his visits to the East Coast.
During any lull in the proceedings, Ben Knight of Beachwood Sparks spun vinyl from a small set-up in front of the Library. He played a lot of Joe Walsh, Dead and Jerry. It was great. Not to sound corny but at this Fest you can feel a little of Jerry’s spirit. It would have been his 72nd birthday just four days prior to the start of the Fest.
It’s funny, in the weeks and months leading up to the current Fest, I find that accumulated memories of the event have me yearning or wishing bands that were there in years’ past were on the bill again. The Mantles. Pierced Arrows. Fresh and Onlys. I wish they were there again. But then I get there and there’s all these surprises like the wonderful Steve Gunn – and new memories make me realize that the evolving nature of the lineups are great too.
When you consider ugly episodes that reportedly unfolded at much larger music festivals in Saugerties and Chicago in just the last few weeks, it would be folly for me to complain about the overall level of planning, execution and troubleshooting performed by promoter Britt Govea of SF-based Folk Yeah as Woodsist Fest 2014 unfolded.
Govea was tested promptly on the Fest’s first day soon after the gates opened.
The Library’s lone bathroom with modern plumbing was declared out of service, which left the Fest’s grounds with just two porta-potties. Handmade signs (presumably drawn up by team Govea) posted near the potties directed males to take a walk down into the woods for bathroom business of the number one variety. The main problem with that was the steepness of the slope entering the woods. Noticeable erosion vs. a year ago made the initial stretch of path into the gorgeous wooded area behind the library a tricky proposition given the sharp downward angle and lack of grip-able footing.
Telling men to take a hike down the hill clearly wasn’t a viable fan-friendly option so to Govea’s credit, those signs came down no more than an hour after they went up. Two more porta-potties were brought on site the morning of day two which put to rest any concern about bathrooms.
No food was sold at the Fest. Govea should make clear in advance that this is the case. His e-mail laying out the logistics (sent out about 24 hours in advance of the Fest) said patrons should “feel free” to bring food in with them but the e-mail didn’t clearly state food would not be available for sale. Several Woodsist Fest rookies who sat near us Tuesday had to leave half-way through the program to buy something to eat, not knowing what the deal was. You don’t want that. The less coming and going on Highway 1, the better (and safer). I understand it’s been difficult to bring in an appropriate food-seller to set up shop since the amazing range of offerings available at Woodsist Fest 2012, but all Govea has to do is state clearly in his e-mail that “No Food Will be Sold at the Fest.” Make it clear.
One more complaint. And please don’t consider my beefs here to be any kind of broad indictment of an event that I consider the #1 highlight of my year.
When I was about to enter the Fest grounds for day two, I was approached by one of two private security guys hired by Folk Yeah. The man asked to inspect what was inside my bag. As he examined the contents of the black backpack I carry everywhere I go, the guard quickly deemed the camera I use primarily in daylight situations to be against the rules. It would not be allowed in. “But why?” I said.
“No cameras with detachable lenses. People use ’em to shoot video,” he said.
“I’m not a video guy. I don’t do video,” I said.
“Take it back to the car,” he said.
So, given the great spirit and vibe of Woodsist Fest, I decided I would end the argument right there. The state of things in Big Sur is such that you don’t get agitated about real-world matters. Be All. Be Easy. I walked about a hundred yards down the road and put the camera in the trunk of the rental car.
When I returned to the entrance, the guard wanted another look at what was inside the bag. This exam was a bit more intrusive. Doing a second search connoted distrust on his part. He dug a little deeper and then pulled out the small point-and-shoot camera I use for nearby objects. He had already looked at this camera during the first search but now wanted to consider whether it too violated some newly-concocted policy. There was no detachable lens. “Does this shoot video?” he said.
“This is just a point-and-shoot,” I said without directly answering his question. Even the most basic of modern cameras – not to mention just about all cell phones – have video capability.
He let me go in with the basic point and shoot. When I asked the woman working the main gate (a Folk Yeah lieutenant) to confirm whether this previously unstated ban on detachable lenses (nothing was mentioned on either the ticket or the Govea advance e-mail) was legit, she said yes. She further stated that the unexpected bag search was initiated by Folk Yeah. “It’s why we hired them (security),” she said.
Despite all that, at least a half dozen people could be seen displaying cameras with detachable lenses as day 2 of the Fest played out.
This is just a hunch but Folk Yeah might have felt pressure from the Foxygen camp to prevent footage of their set from hitting You Tube. I could be wrong but from where else would the concern about video be coming from? A few days earlier, a side-of-stage video of Foxygen performing in Seattle got major play. I thought the clip was generally favorable in depicting the band’s greatness but I also understand a band’s objection to dissemination of their work in a way that can be completely misleading or unhelpful to their artistic mission.
My alarm/concern was with the unexpected bag search. Woodsist Fest is unique in that you have a small gathering of like-minded folks linked solidly by a common admiration for Woodsist Records and Woods. Fans had not been subjected to nor warned of any kind of search prior to this year’s Fest.
To search – or not to search – is really about a tone or climate that had been created and celebrated at this unique event. The Fest loses a little bit of its intimacy and uniqueness when a security guard applying heretofore unstated regulations puts his hands in your bag.
There were none of those swarms of flying, nibbling bugs that we saw at last year’s Fest. Instead, the only insects I saw were beautiful dragonflies that hung around in a good way both days.
This trip also included a fun and dramatic Athletics victory over the Rays in Oakland. We sat in the right field bleachers the night before the Fest with the great flag-waving regulars who make an A’s game unique. Two young men with saxophones played the horn line on George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” during Josh Reddick’s walk up to the plate – and whenever he made a defensive play. The legendary kettle corn vendor Crazy Legs was there despite a noticeable decline in his footwork.
We caught two full cards of racing at Santa Rosa on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. On Thursday, we saw jockey Russell Baze celebrate his 56th birthday with wins in the final two races aboard short-priced favorites. Baze has won more than 12-thousand races and keeps adding to his total. Nobody will ever come close to whatever his final number ends up being. On Friday, we watched Baze go wire-to-wire aboard Seduire in the Wine Country Debutante.
The trip ended Friday night in Occidental, CA where we ate a great piece of halibut. A large, lighted peace sign on a hill above Occidental’s main drag clinched the sense we had concluded this great visit to Cali in the right place.
I found an open seat to JFK on Saturday afternoon out of SFO. Back to work on Wednesday.