Phases of the Moon Festival
September 11-14, 2014
Kennekuk County Park – Danville, IL
Review and Photos by Charles Izenstark
The inaugural Phases of the Moon festival might best be described in the words of Charles Dickens: it was the best of time and it was the worst of times. It was a weekend full of ambition that began on a horrible note but ended with many sweet memories. Festival promoters, Terrapin Ridge Productions (helmed by the father-son duo of Barry and Sam Shear) faced the one obstacle that every promoter hates, Mother Nature. An extraordinary rainstorm swamped the venue on Wednesday evening causing the promoters to suspend early entry in order to attempt to reclaim their venue. And the promoters seemingly spared no expense in these efforts by importing hundreds of tons of gravel, mulch and hay (and as a fleet of bobcats that would be the envy of many a construction site) as well as a helicopter in order to dry out the venue and make it useable. Despite the magnitude of these efforts, thousands of their ticket holders were left on the side of the road waiting to enter the venue. Most frustrating was their inability to provide any significant information to those people who were further hindered by non-existent cell-phone service and internet access. As a result, Thursday’s musical offerings were only seen by a relative select few who, we are told, were rewarded with an exceptionally good set by String Cheese Incident.
Day two dawned to bright skies and the prevalent attitude that there was lemonade to be made from the previous day’s lemons. Dumpstphunk, on the second stage, delivered a relentless set of raging funk that ignited the party in true high octane fashion. The NOLA funkmeisters fueled the audience into a dancing ferver that set the tone for the day. Next up was Jackie Greene who provided one of his trademark sets of Dylanesque folk-rock that was highlighted by a particularly sweet version of “Mexican Girl”. Anders Osborne was next on the agenda and he provided one of his trademark sets of swampy blues/rock during which he and Scott Metzger traded a series of “can you top this” licks that had the crowd howling in approval. Next on the mainstage was JJ Grey and Mofro who continued the bluesy vibe with a nice set that included a wonderful version of “Brighter Days” and provided the most amusing moment of the weekend. During the tune, Grey noticed a rage stick featuring Bob Ross, the star of the iconic PBS television show “The Joy of Painting” and took the time to sermonize that as an angry youth he had watched the show and even attempted (badly, it turned out) to paint, before realizing that the message of the show, for him, wasn’t about painting but about the infectious positivity of Ross himself and that there would indeed be brighter days ahead.
When the festival schedule was originally announced, the next set was supposed to be provided by Bob Weir and Ratdog, but, unfortunately, Weir had to cancel due to some health concerns. This left the promoters scrambling for a replacement only to find that Weir favorites Grace Potter and the Nocturnals stepping up to fill the vacancy. The enormity of this gesture is evident when one realizes that Potter and company were hosting their own festival that same weekend, necessitating the quickest of fly-in/fly-out arrangements imaginable. Despite these difficulties, the group delivered a sultry set of rock and roll that certainly made up for Weir’s absence and the quick detour to catch the end of Sam Bush’s third stage set was time very well spent.
String Cheese Incident was tasked with fulfilling its headliner status with two sets, the second of which was billed as the Lunar Landing Conspiracy. Festival promoter Sam Shear said he hoped that this set would become the festival’s signature moment with other bands serving as the “curator” in the future. But before exploring the cosmos, String Cheese delivered a more standard set that began with a very lively “Rollover” that was left unfinished before morphing into an epic “Restless Wind.” The tempo remained high for “Bollymunster” before slowing for “Look at Where We Are“ and “You’ve Got the World.” The ensuing “Jellyfish was very well received and gave way to the appropriately named earworm “Song in My Head.” This was followed by a wonderful “Best Feeling” (always a favorite sing-a-long) that magically transitioned back into the end of “Rollover” to complete an extremely satisfying set.
After a brief pause the band returned to the stage, accompanied by an aerialist and fire-dancers and launched the conspiracy with the familiar strains of “2001: A Space Odyssey” before the Mofro horns joined the party for a funky take on the Neville Brothers’ “Yellow Moon.” The horns departed and Bill Payne and JJ Grey entered for a somewhat countrified version of the Creedence chestnut “Bad Moon Rising” with Grey providing the gruff Fogertyesque vocal. As Grey departed, Vince Herman and Sunshine Garcia joined the crew for a dirty, grungy take on Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” that was one of the highlights of the weekend. Without fanfare, Andy Thorn was added to the mix and the group grassed it up with the Peter Rowan classic “Midnight Moonlight.” After which Cheese was left to their own resources and returned to their own songbook for “Galactic” which, in turn, gave way to the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and then dissolved into the evening’s drum solo. When Travis and Hann were done with their fun and games the band returned to the set opening 2001 theme which, surprisingly did not end the set. Instead the band treated the crowd to a delightful version of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage>Eclipse” that had the lunatics on the grass singing along and howling at the moon as they retreated to their campsites or late night shows. Overall the “conspiracy” was a success, but it did lack the over the top theatrics normally associated with Cheese’s “special” sets at festivals like Electric Forest and Hulaween.
As day three dawned, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers made for a nice breakfast soundtrack before Martin Sexton delighted the relatively sparse crowd (it was still early morning on festival standard time) with his finger picking wizardry. Next up was a nice set from the Jeff Austin Band. It is immediately clear that Austin and banjoist Danny Barnes have clicked musically but the band as a whole still seems to be rounding into form and it is still very strange, and somewhat disorienting, to see Austin in this new setting. Next on the mainstage were Leftover Salmon with special guest Bill Payne (who the following week would be named a permanent member of the band). This set was a relentless party that featured a Nicki Bluhm guest vocal on the country classic “Silver Thread and Golden Needles,” a pair of Little Feat classics (which also made one hope that “Willin’” will be added to the Salmon ‘s regular repertoire) and a couple joyous tunes (“High Country” and “The Two Highways”) from the band’s upcoming album. Jackie Greene’s second set of the weekend was relegated to the back burner in favor of parts of the third stage sets by Toubab Krewe and Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds (more evidence of just how deep the musical lineup was) before returning to the mainstage for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and their unrelenting funk assault.
As the temperature dropped precipitously (Mother Nature can be a bitch) the Tedeschi Trucks Band delivered the best set of the weekend. Since guitarist Derek Trucks announced his departure from the iconic Allman Brothers in order to concentrate his efforts on this endeavor this band has evolved into one of the freshest sounding bands going. With a setlist full of diverse musical elements ranging from gospel tinged blues (their acoustic take on the Rev Gary Davis classic “(Keep Your Lamps) Trimmed and Burning” was pure magic) to rocking show stoppers like “Bound For Glory” and “The Storm” this was a band at the height of its musical powers. Possibly the best example of how the band is trying to keep it fresh was their take on the Derek and the Dominoes classic “Keep on Growin’,” a tune that Trucks has been playing, seemingly forever, in acknowledgement to Duane Allman’s seminal contribution to that band. But Trucks has now replaced Skydog’s amazing slidework (something that would be considered heresy is some places) with his own fiery fingered fretwork and has made the tune his personal plaything. But what really made this set most special was when Tedeschi was left alone with her acoustic guitar and dedicated an angelic version of Ray LaMontaigne’s “Shelter” to the memory of Brian Farmer the legendary guitar tech for Warren Haynes and the Allman Brothers (not to mention, Johnny Cash) who had passed away earlier in the month. Tedeschi’s simply gorgeous tribute to a good man gone too soon left more than one audience member drying their eyes.
As the temperature continued to drop, Widespread Panic took to the mainstage and sought to keep the crowd warm through dancing and with a set that began with staples “Henry Parsons Died,” “Chilly Water” and “Can’t Get High” more than a little heat was generated. But the energy necessarily dwindled over the course of their frigid, marathon set (which clocked in at just under 2 and a ½ hours in an unseasonably cold temperature that hit the upper 30’s) with “Space Wrangler” and “Me and the Devil Blues” being the most memorable moments of the set. As a whole, and under the circumstances, the set was good but it simply lacked the intensity that one normally expects from a Panic show.
As day four dawned, the call of the road (and real world responsibilities) necessitated that it was going to be a relatively short and (unfortunately) Panic-less day. Leon Russell (the only mainstage performer selected for the bill by the senior Shear) delivered a nice set to the hearty few who answered his reveille call, but the crowd gradually grew during Donovan Frankenreiter’s turn on the second stage. A trip to stage three was required in order to catch the excellent set from the Chicago based funk-and-soul quintet The Main Squeeze, a band that is backboned by the tremendous rhythm section of Reuben Gingrich and Jeremiah Hunt, who lay the perfect foundation for their bandmates to demonstrate their enormous chops. Most will be struck first by Corey Frye’s amazingly expressive and versatile voice that is amplified by a swaggering stage presence that immediately commands the audience’s attention. But the talent runs very deep in this band and soon one is slapped upside the head by Max Newman’s dexterous shredding on guitar or Ben Silverstein’s quicksilver keywork and the realization sets in that this is a band that is destined to be headlining festivals in the near future.
Circumstances dictated that Gov’t Mule’s set was to be the festival finale for this correspondent and Haynes and Company, who are touring in support of their recent release Shout, opened their set with “World Boss” and “Steppin’ Lightly” to ensure that the the audience was sufficiently dosed with the new album before the band dug deeper into their songbook. There was a subtly poignant moment of loss when Haynes was forced to retune his entire guitar, a situation rarely if ever witnessed during Brian Farmer’s tenure. That moment of loss was magnified when Haynes used his newly tuned axe to play a necessarily heart wrenching version of “Banks of the Deep End” the mournful song he wrote in the aftermath of original bassist Allen Woody’s passing but which now seems to memorialize both of his lost friends. The band returned to the new album for a very sweet version of “Captured” and “Whisper in Your Soul” a tune that has yet to find its road legs. But any complaints of “too many new tunes” quickly vanished as Haynes started the unmistakable into to the Zeppelin classic “No Quarter” which was absolutely mesmerizing. “Railroad Boy” and “Beautifully Broken” were undeservedly lost in the Zeppelin wake but when Jorgen Carlsson dropped into the set-ending Thorazine Shuffle (arguably Allen Woody’s signature bassline) all was again right with the world and made for the perfect final notes for the weekend.
As a whole, the inaugural Phases of the Moon Festival should probably be considered a success. While too many things were done wrong, and the promoters were faced with circumstances beyond their direct control, on balance the experience was more positive than negative. But the promoters need to be cognizant of several issues that need to be addressed. On a production level, both main stages were too high and made for a sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience especially as you got closer to the stage. On the other side of the production coin, the sound quality was excellent, and the side-by side stage set-up with exceptionally precise set timings made planning one’s day exceptionally easy (although there also were more than a few unburied cables that required one to choose one’s path carefully). But the major problems that need to be addressed are with the venue’s infrastructure. First and foremost the venue needs better access as it has only a single two lane road on which all traffic (staff, artists, vendors and patrons) has to pass. The logistical impossibility of this was immediately evident when that single road had to be dedicated to bringing in the stone, mulch and hay needed to make the venue useable instead of ticketholders. It should also be noted that it would have been a complete nightmare had the venue needed to be evacuated due to some sort of emergency. Once inside the venue the only evident sources of free water seemed to be two drinking fountains that were in constant use. While it is possible that there were other sources on site it should be noted that the festival map did not even denote that one source. It should be noted that a park representative and local authorities both committed themselves to making or allowing upgrades to the venue, most specifically additional access roads, so we can hope that by the time the second installment rolls around (which seems likely considering the promoters have a five year lease for the property) that the worst of times will be gone, leaving only the best of times.