Some Kind of Jam
5/2/10 – 6/13/10 – Reflections on the Jibberjazz concert in Schuylkill County in 2010. For photos to this story, click here.
I usually look forward to the third weekend in April for Bloomsburg’s Renaissance Jamboree, but this year I had already purchased tickets for the jam-band festival “Some Kind of Jam 5” (SKOJ5).
SKOJ5 is one of several similar concert/festival events produced by Jibberjazz.com. After moving around to several other locations in past years, SKOJ5 landed in Schuylkill County Fair Grounds in Schuylkill Haven, PA.
My main reason for going was to see friend/bassist Matt Homiak perform in two of the bands on Saturday. Matt, whom I met while attending classes at PSU Hazleton, soon became a musical comrade in the early 90s and played bass on two tracks on my debt CD Mandala. Though we have been out of touch, he remains one of the kindred musical souls that has (whether he knows it or not) had a tremendous impact on my own musical path. Left-handed, and comfortable on all manner of 4, 5 or 6-string bass (fretted or fretless), Matt is definitely among the players in my mind if I could create a supergroup of people I know.
After Mandala, we lost touch for a number of years, Matt moved to Pittsburgh and I moved to Bloomsburg. I missed Matt’s previous appearance at a Jibberjazz event, and felt terrible about it for several years. So when I found out Matt was going to be at SKOJ5, I knew I had to be there to support him. A brief jam in Pittsburgh over this past winter showed we still had a lot in common, and Facebook has allowed us to keep in touch more often.
It’s worth noting that I do not related very easily to the jam band “scene”. There’s a few reasons for this. For one thing, my own music tends to be song-based. My songs have a verse, a chorus, a bridge, etc. Jam band music is much more improvisational and open ended. Many of the groups are entirely instrumental, and even the ones with singers often don’t feature songs in the typical rock, blues or folk sense.
Then there’s the stigma that many jam bands and jam band events have – namely, the neo-hippie drug culture. That scene, as those who know me well know, is the antithesis of my personality. I am willing to admit this is a bit of a hang-up in terms of exposing myself to new things. Yet, as this particular event demonstrated, it is worth exploring events out of one’s own comfort zone from time to time to see what is out there and to broaden your horizons. If you go for the music – and that is why I was going – then you can usually navigate away from the less-savory bits. And if the drugs and other stuff is your sort of thing, then it is there for you (unfortunately).
Audra has pretty much sworn off outdoor concerts after a bad experience at a Jethro Tull concert where she got stuck with a cloud of pot smoke and someone shouting the lyrics to Aqualung for half the night. Understandably, she was not the ideal candidate for someone to accompany me to SKOJ5, so I asked my brother Justin to go with me and he agreed.
The $40 entry fee is a good deal if you plan to camp and take in the many bands throughout the weekend and stay on-site. However, since we were arriving mid-day Saturday, it was less of a good deal for us. Even still, we got to see a lot of music.
We arrived around 1:00, got our arm bands and tickets, paid $5 for parking and drove in past the main stage through the winding roads lined with tent campers who had arrived the previous day and had to deal with a bit of rain. Lucky for us Saturday was shaping up to be a beautiful day. The group that was playing on the main stage when we arrived did not exactly give a great impression – their vocalist either really sounding bad and hoarse on purpose, or lacking the sense to give it a rest.
We parked near the smaller stage, which was situated under a pavilion with no seats to be found. This was definitely a “bring your own chair” event, and we forgot to bring ours. Matt wasn’t there yet, so Justin and I walked around to scope things out. It wasn’t long before I felt obligated to offer Justin a refund if he didn’t have a good time. This wasn’t his sort of crowd either. Both of us came prepared to camp. Justin’s Jeep looked like a shopping spree at Cabela’s. But on closer inspection the camping arrangements, though not bad, didn’t seem to be worth it since we lived so close. Neither of us felt like dealing with the next rain storm, or the craziness that was bound to ensue between 12 AM and 2 AM as bands continued to play and people got potentially more buzzed. We had higher hopes for the music, but quickly decided we would not be camping.
Lunch was decent, with a Thai Spicy Noodle stand that offered some Asian options, including a California-type sushi roll and a huge egg roll. There were maybe three or four other stands offering various grilled or skewered items, but the Asian stand saw repeat business from us throughout the day.
Throughout the day, I noticed lots of children, and there was even a children’s drum circle and entertainment area off to the side. So in that sense this was a family friendly event – if your family was openminded. Otherwise, there were people of many age groups. There were, of course, the youngest generation of neo-hippies, but also some people that may just have lived through (survived?) the 60s.
Both of the stages at the event ran pretty much nonstop and simultaneously, with solo acoustic acts on in between the larger bands as equipment was shuffled around. The first group in the small stage that we saw was a very good young white female blues singer with two guitarists. They had a small crowd, but not what they deserved. Later when I found a program, I noticed this was labeled as a “Singer Songwriter Workshop” but it seemed to be more of a performance, not a workshop. Perhaps we missed something earlier that would have explained the format.
Matt’s first fusion/improv group Jibberjam: Coal Region All Stars went on around 2:30 and played for over an hour. One thing about Matt, and the guys he plays with, is that they can just play. No rehearsal, not much fuss. Two guitars, bass, drums and sax… it was a mix of Frank Zappa meets Bill Laswell. There weren’t too many people on our side of the festival, so it was almost a private concert. I enjoyed their careful use of effects pedals including a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. Even the sax player had a whole pedal board of effects for some wild textures.
Some people found a small set of bleachers and carried it over to make some seating available, but the volume allowed us to hear the group from pretty much anywhere in the immediate area. The sound was well mixed – not just loud, but I am not one for blowing my ears out in the first hour of a festival.
Back on the main stage, Matthew Nichols played solo acoustic/electric classical and ambient guitar – the kind of stuff I enjoy and often find on Echoes with John Diliberto. In terms of sheer variety an energy, the Macpodz (playing on the main stage later in the day) were one of my favorites. They are a fusion “disco bebop” group from Michigan. Their live CD from Ann Arbor, is a great representation of what they do (got to support live music by taking some home).
The sound people at Jibberjazz deserve props for the fine work they did keeping the instrumentation sounding good. Aside from drums and bass, the Macpodz timbale player played beat-box flute (ala Jethro Tull); their horn player ran his instrument through on-stage effects and their keyboardist played a number of units, including a Moog.
Later in the evening, The Horse Flies took the stage and despite a rough sound check soon made a wondrous hypnotic sound that I could have easily listened to ALL NIGHT. In terms of vibe, The Horse Flies (billed as “demented, post-modern mountain music blending tradition with invention”) created something special that I was able to lock into even without the mind-altering substances that many of the attendees were obviously using. Powered by incessant banj-uke, with Twilight Zone lyrics intermingled with violin lines and a variety of percussion: This was a great sound. I eagerly bought their current CD “Until the Ocean”, which – for a studio recording – captures their sound very well (though the CD didn’t play on all units – a manufacturing defect no doubt – not their fault).
The atmosphere was enhanced by a great light show and projections. It would be easy to write off the projections as gimmicky and unnecessary, but in this context they really did add something to the experience. Much of the music could have stood up without it, sure, but that extra little bit of atmosphere that projections add to an event like this were a welcome addition.
The various stands throughout the event displayed a wide variety of tie-dye items, glassware, jewelry, hemp clothes and curious goods. The most imaginative, in my opinion, were propane tank gongs created by Matt Vitale. With a a few careful cuts into the bottom and and some good spray paint work, an old tank was turned into a sonorous device. My favorite, of course, was the one that looked like R2D2 and could be used to play the Star Wars theme. Check out www.govitale.com for more info.
Before sundown, Justin cut out early and I ventured off into the camping areas just to get a break from the larger crowds that were forming around the main stage. This is when I discovered a storage area for some old farm equipment. For some reason, I have picked up a thing for old, rusty mechanical devices these days, so I easily blew a half hour taking pictures and messing about with all the gadgets there. As darkness engulfed the grounds, I bounced between the two stages, eventually purchasing a whacky LED light just to make myself more visible. Notables on the small stage were a bluegrass outfit (either Displaced Peoples or Jatoba) who did some kickin’ Michael Jackson and “Eric from Baltimore” a solo singer/guitarist.
The finale (at least for the time I spent there) was The Everyone Orchestra – an improv-based unit conducted by Matt Butler with members from a variety of other jam bands. This time Homiak, and another bassist, were holding down the low end. This in itself was strange – two bass players. Homiak described this outfit to me earlier, and it goes something like this:
An hour before the show Matt Butler gathers everyone together in some undisclosed secure location to go over the format of the pieces the group will play. Butler teaches the group (or reviews for the veterans) his system of hand signals and demonstrates how his white board will be used to indicate changes in key, tempo, instrumentation, etc. Musicians (like Homiak) who operate on the improvisational edge can react to this with a vocabulary of riffs, phrases and lines.
Everyone Orchestra went on a bit late… like 10:30, but once they did they basically didn’t stop. There were easily 10 or more musicians on stage at once – made up of members from some of the previous bands, including folks from Macpodz. Two basses, clay pots, drums, two keyboardists w/ other electronics, two guitars, percussion, sitar… and of course Butler conducting it all with his white board and pulling the audience in from time to time.
By then the fire handlers were out in full force. A large crowd was against the stage. Everyone was having a great time. It’s a sight to see and well as a sound to be heard. It might sound a bit too chaotic, but it all somehow worked. Though, it was clear even the concert organizers had trouble getting Everyone Orchestra to wind down so the preparations could be made to move the next segment of the event indoors. By then if was midnight and time for me to get home.
There will probably always be a bit of a tug of war between purely improvised music and lyrical song. In the past, I have not always viewed “jam bands” as serious enterprises. This event changed my perception because it clearly showed that at least some so called “jam bands” know what they are doing in terms of providing entertainment. Whatever reservations I might have about neo-hippie drug culture, one thing is certain. The music that is coming out of these types of events is meaningful, and speaks to the ability of the band leaders to work the system to get their vibe out.
One thing that was absent from this event was an overt political message or stance – either by the acts or the event operators themselves. For example, with all the neo-hippies and throw-backs to Woodstock, I expected a bit more friendly event in terms of environmental impact. Yet, there was no real solid attempt made to reign in garbage and encourage recycling. People still used styrofoam and plastic. Perhaps the absence of a political message is just as overt as the presence of one. The message I was getting here was that it was not worth the extra effort to recycle or encourage it.
However, two things that were loud and clear (besides the music) were Marketing and Capitalism. Jibberjazz has a pretty good marketing machine in place to get the word out about the three or four major events they do in the summer. Whatever their position on the subculture they attract – they are selling tickets. It is clear that folks who attend one event probably attend others as well, following their favorite bands. This helps with cross promotion of artists and the events themselves. The gentlemen with the LED paraphernalia (wands, hoops, glow sticks) – sold out of garbage bags – were turning a few bucks with their Chinese-made gadgets – though it is not clear if they were “official” vendors.
So instead of staying close to home I got to experience something different. I’m glad I went, and it was great to see Matt in his element. The dude’s got balls, that’s all I can say.