Night Lights Music Festival Review

Sep 11-12, 2015, The Heron, Sherman, NY

by Ryan Smith

Making the dark night’s drive up those gently-rolling, lushly-wooded, back-country byways toward the Night Lights Fall Music Festival, I saw about four times more horse-drawn wagons (no joke) than I did cars or trucks. It’s quiet there in the Chautauqua, N.Y. region — good, and calm, and quiet, like an open window into a different time.  It could be real easy to get lost there, for sure — and maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, beckoned by a couple of friendly fellows into the festival grounds (the same hallowed space that the legendary, long-held Great Blue Heron Music Festival has always called home), I knew I’d made it to my destination.



And, by the time I arrived that cold Friday night in early September, the Night Lights were glowing bright, the crowd was settled in and cozied-up, and the music — a not-to-be-missed lineup of sonic sorcerers including Marco Benevento, Aqueous, The Werks, RJD2, and plenty more — was straight-up on fire. Heading toward the lights, trusty camera, pens and notebooks in tow, I heard Buffalo-based monster-jammers Aqueous doing their thing, and doing it well, right off the bat. I was immediately drawn in (I always am) to their quick-fire, progressive, masterful grooves, happy to have been able to catch at least the tail-end of their opening night’s set (luckily, for me and everyone else, there would be plenty more to come from them that weekend).

After Aqueous wrapped up its fiery first set to the howls of a boisterous crowd, it was time to make the trek up the trail and through the woods toward the venue’s Cafe Stage, a light-covered beacon in the light-patched forest, for Marco Benevento’s headlining Friday-night performance.  “Marco’s gonna blow your mind,” I said, just a matter of simple fact, to a buddy I’d run into off the bat.  Having had the true pleasure of seeing Benevento several times before at other festivals and clubs around the region, I had no doubt about that, And, lemme tell ya, I wasn’t wrong that night: The man and his musical cohorts (bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Andy Borger) blow minds for a living — and they make it look, and feel, and sound, so fun.

Writing for The Erie Reader, I’ve said this before about Benevento: “In all of [his] wide-smiled, jesterly, expertly-crafted sonic concoctions, there’s a slew of elements at work and play: You hear something of the funk of Stevie Wonder, the flamboyant showmanship of Elton John, the playful irreverence of Harry Nilsson. But what Benevento’s got – the amalgam of all that masterful influence and more, coupled with his singular inspiration, his muse – is something all his own.”

And that muse — brought out to play by the night, the lights, the crowd — was running hard and shining bright that evening, for sure.  I ran back into the aforementioned buddy after that show and before the next, and his now-knowing smile (and the big grins on everyone else’s mugs) showed that Benevento’s work for the evening was indeed very, very well-done.

From there, for me and a lot of other folks, the festival was cooking on that cold night: The Werks — like the psychedelic dance/funk/fusion ninjas they are — covered the main-stage and surrounding grounds in deep, deep grooves, taking everyone on a heady trip through their signature soundscapes; Ohio’s Broccoli Samurai (joined by The Werks’ drummer Rob Eaton and Aqueous guitarist Mike Gantzer) caught the Cafe Stage on fire during their late-night set; and, from there, the music, along with the Night Lights — an actual, beautifully-crafted, mile-long display through the meandering woods — shined bright until the morning’s coming.


I awoke early (okay, at like 10 a.m.) the next day, feeling soul-refreshed by the prior night’s music and all ready for what the day would bring. As could be expected at a ‘Night’-based fest, only a fraction of the 1,000-or-so attendees were up and moving (and some, still grooving) at that time, so the grounds had an air of serenity. It was easy, then, to take a look around, and see the farmland countryside, and really feel the wet chill in the air, brushing across the grounds like the first whispers of true autumn.

By early afternoon, bands started taking to the stages again, and, after checking out the day’s aptly-slotted, on-fire opening set by Erie-based rockers Daybreak Radio, I got the chance to talk with some folks about Night Lights and what it’s all about. Having originally started out as a series of small, friendly gatherings at that beautiful Chautauqua County locale, Night Lights — having just wrapped up its fifth year — has been well-groomed and growing the past couple of years, bringing in amazing live acts from all over the region and country, and, with that, earning a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the area’s music festival circuit.

“I love this festival. So much. It’s, like, the highlight of my entire year,” Daybreak Radio bassist (and well-known Erie-area show promoter) Ryan Bartosek said during the band’s set.

“I’m a big fan,” Aqueous’ Gantzer, chilling in the middle of the crowd, said with a smile as psych-funksters Ocular Panther were doing their thing just a little later that day.  Aqueous has rocked out at four of the five annual Night Lights festivals, he told me, and, every year, it’s “something beautiful.” From its hosts, to its bands, to its attendees, he said, it brings together “some of the coolest people,” all in a cozy, easy, laid-back — and absolutely gorgeous — setting.  It’s safe to say Gantzer didn’t mean it gathers ‘coolest people’ in a popularity-contest sense, either: He meant ‘coolest’ in the sense of good vibrations, good intentions, good community. “That’s what I love about the festival season,” he said. “It’s so community-based.”

That community was fully, and beautifully, apparent throughout Night Lights weekend, keeping the vibes and each other warm- and fuzzy-feeling, and having good fun, even when cold rain poured from the skies. As it is at some of the region’s other home-grown (and growing) festivals that are very much worth checking out, “close family, friends, and volunteers are the heart and soul of this entire thing,” said Night Lights event manager (a.k.a. ‘Mayor of Fun’) Brian Enwright during a brief break from his day’s busy duties. Every one of the 1,000 or so people there — behind the stages, on the stages, and in the crowd — “are all a community,” he said, “looking out for each other, and taking each other’s best interests to heart.”

That was well-felt at Night Lights, and, man, it was a beautiful way to say goodbye to summer.


Ryan Smith is a northwestern Pa.-based writer and photographer who focuses on arts, culture and other topics throughout the region.