Heading up to the 10,000 Lakes Festival from Chi-town to Detroit Lakes, MN for my 4th straight year I was stoked, to say the least. Excitement was already in the air as I arrived in Madison, WI greeted by the guys from Steez who would be playing their first ‘10KLF’ on the Vitaminwater Sync Stage – a hoppin’ red barn formerly called the Saloon. We leisurely gathered our gear, threw our Wisco microbrews on ice and loaded a crew of 10 heads onto the Steez Safari Bus – a classic old converted schoolbus, perfect for a raucous road trip to one of the most beautiful festival destinations in the Midwest.
We arrived on Thursday morning – unfortunately having missed a big Wednesday night of Widespread Panic, Pretty Lights, Gomez, Kinetix, et al, but in time for a couple hours to orient ourselves and gear up for a long day of live music.
The first thing that everyone seemed to notice about the fest was how sparsely populated it appeared to be - and it surely did feel a bit less bustling to me than in the past few years. This was a surprising sentiment, as the festival promoters were intent on setting a much higher standard for this year given last year’s less than ideal turnout. This would change as the weekend pushed on, however, as the festival offered day-passes this year for the first year ever due in part to the overwhelming demand to see Dave Matthews in particular. A few people in the box office even said that as many as 10,000 more people were expected for Dave’s Saturday appearance.
Upon entering the concert grounds, we first headed up to the smallest of the four stages – the ‘Vitaminwater Sync Stage’ (for facility’s sake, I’ll be calling it the saloon henceforth) nestled on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the festival grounds. By far my favorite stage because of its intimate, club-like nature, I found myself hanging here more often than not to scope out the new music. The saloon was never really that packed until the late-night sets when less was going on elsewhere, but the scene was always upbeat.
Among the highlights on the saloon stage for Thursday were Mifune – a high- energy Afrobeat group from Cleveland; Steez - a loose electro-funk band from Madison that refers to their own unique sound as ‘creepfunk;’ and My Dear Disco – an electro-disco-funk band, if you will, from Ann Arbor Michigan. In fact, Steez and My Dear Disco boasted two of the highest-energy shows of the weekend, in my opinion – with the Saloon shaking to their unique brands of danceable grooves.
Friday’s saloon lineup was very strong with including an early performance from Mountain Standard Time – a ‘mountaingrass’ band from Nederland, CO which infused elements of bluegrass, funk and jazz and represented a surprisingly unique take on bluegrass which was actually a refreshing way to start the day. (An unfortunate caviat to their solid showing at 10K was the fact that their trailer was broken into on their way home from the fest costing them all of their equipment, supplies and cash). Also taking the Saloon stage Friday were rising stars Big Gigantic – a saxophone/laptop and drum duo that is currently taking the tour scene by storm nationwide playing shows with the likes of The Disco Biscuits, Pnuma Trio and hitting the late night spots post-Phish as well. Probably the most impressive performance on the Friday saloon stage was put forth by The Macpodz – another Ann Arbor funk band – this time in more of a raw form than that of their counterparts in My Dear Disco. Led uncharacteristically by their bassist (and at times percussionist,) The Macpods brought a great late night energy with some of the best bass chops I’ve heard in quite some time. Back Yard Tire Fire closed out the late night on the saloon stage and brought the Southern rock flavor to a packed room.
Saturday’s lineup in the saloon was a little more reserved – with only one set by 10K vets, The Hue, really standing out in my mind. Sacrificing the first set of DMB I hit up the saloon to support fellow Chicagoans The Hue – a face melting prog rock quartet that undoubtedly intrigued the half-filled room of people who were seeking something other than a (perceived) raucously typical Dave show.
The next largest stage – the Barn Stage – was no more than 50 yards away from the saloon and was perhaps the most laid-back stage consistently throughout the weekend. Standing at the bottom of a steep grassy hill, the barn stage hosted a notable performance on Thursday. Akron/Family, a personal favorite of mine, was an interesting group to have at a predominantly jam-band festival as they generally fall more into the indie-rock genre. Wrought with obscurity, Akron Family put forth hints of intensity amidst a meandering soundscape to perfectly compliment a lazy afternoon.
Other highlights from the Barn Stage included Garaj Mahal – another standout performance with respect to the entire festival. Fareed Haque’s virtuosity never disappoints, enough said. Tea Leaf Green also rocked the Barn Stage – a treat in a much smaller setting than one can usually see the San Fran jamband play.
Still persisting, however, was the seemingly empty nature of the crowd. At any given show it was surprisingly easy to get as close to the stage as desired (which I didn’t mind one bit). Rounding out the high points for the barn stage were supergroup The North Indiana Allstars.
Moving right along, the next stage in size was the field stage – directly opposite the main stage. Often tending to drown out some of the sound on the barn stage, the field stage had an amazing system – a perfect setting for my first Railroad Earth show. It was this show which really kicked the festival spirit into gear. Still an intimate gathering, the straw-covered grass was crazy with energy (and hula hooping). Atmosphere played the last set on Thursday night – straight into a rainstorm and the crowd continued to grow as the festival persisted on.
The field stage on Friday afternoon had a strong back to back lineup with Everyone Orchestra opening with some of the best improvisation of the weekend followed by Steve Kimock’s Crazy Engine – both bands with Kimock’s son on drums. I missed local favorite Wookiefoot for the Macpodz and Boombox, but their lights looked pretty solid from the Barn Stage.
On Saturday Tea Leaf took the field stage with a noticeable increase in crowd size given the immanent DMB set later that day and, lo and behold, Dave Matthews himself came out and jammed on a couple numbers towards the end of the set. The day moved on with Ozomatli (who I admittedly listened to, quite clearly, from our campsite) followed by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings who brought the funk post-Dave.
Finally, we arrive at the main stage – a huge structure given the relatively small festival grounds. 10K pulled out all the stops for this one, with the likes of Widespread Panic (two nights), Wilco, Mason Jennings, Umphreys McGee, and the Dave Mattews Band. I was definitely impressed with the prominence and diversity of the headliners given the bookings in previous years. For every main stage show except for Dave Matthews one could get something like 40 rows back from the stage without even trying - it was incredible. Wilco played a bunch of favorites, with Tweedy looking as characteristically nonchalant and confident as ever. Widespread seemed to be a crowd favorite – with pockets of die-hards seen earlier in the day staking their claim to clusters of lawn.
By the time Saturday rolled around on the main stage, it became quite apparent that the day was going to have quite a different vibe from the previous three. Some of the heads around the fest could be heard grumbling about ‘Dave fans’ The cornhole (beanbags) ratio seemed to go up exponentially, as did the beer bonging and frat party feel. This was definitely the moneymaker day for the festival. It was almost as if the population doubled in size.
Prior to Dave on the main stage, Umphreys McGee offered one of the highest energy sets of the weekend playing a welcome host of old favorites with a few new ones sprinkled in between…and then there was Dave. The place was packed and the energy was electric and, I must say, I was quite impressed with the DMB. They were as on point as ever, and the song selection was solid in its own right as well as Dave did something I had not heard before (in 15 shows) segueing from Watchtower into Stairway to Heaven seamlessly, to the extreme delight of everyone in the crowd. The set was definitely a fun one and bro’s could be seen high fiving at the farthest reaches of the lawn.
All in all, the festival seemed to be a success. Its diversity of headliners lent strongly to the ebb and flow of the weekend with much of the energy seemingly focused towards Dave’s closing of the weekend, with the rest of the fest being more laid back and communal in nature. I wouldn’t say that it was musically the best 10K I’ve seen in the last four years, but I respect the top-heavy nature of the bookings given the tough environment for all promoters this year. There will undoubtedly be a 5th 10KLF in my future next year and I’m interested to see where the vibe will take my favorite music festival.