When it comes to legendary outdoor concert venues places like Red Rocks, Alpine Valley, Deer Creek and Shoreline instantly come to mind. But if you surveyed a bunch of old school Deadheads, especially those from the Midwest, stories of another legendary venue emerge: those of a central Ohio venue named Buckeye Lake. Aptly renamed Legend Valley, the venue that once hosted Grateful Dead (and AC/DC among many others), and more recently has been the home to numerous Hookavilles, became the new home for the 16th annual All Good Music Festival. With a lineup boasting three of the remaining members of the Dead and a headlining set from the legendary Allman Brothers supplemented by a stable of festival veterans and a sprinkling of emerging acts the festival promised to add new legends to the pantheon of concert lore.
Often a festival’s “Thursday pre-party” lineup is populated with regional bands that are on the cusp of emerging as headliners. But the All Good approach was to book an evening’s worth of music that made early attendance a mandatory requirement. Kicking off the proceedings were Minnesota based bluegrassers Trampled By Turtles whose ultrahigh-octane approach to traditional bluegrass immediately sent the crowd into a dancing frenzy. The festival’s side by side dual stage set-up catered both those who crave immediate gratification and those who might want to maintain their main stage position but still be able to enjoy the second stage, as the Lumineers launched into their short energetic set within mere seconds of TBT’s last note (and it should also be noted that the stage crews did an absolutely amazing job all weekend of turning over the stages so that the music never stopped).
With dusk falling, it was time for the weekend’s first special treat, the one-off collaboration of Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis. The trio started with a long jazzy Birdsong that was somewhat uneven due, no doubt, to the fact that as familiar the tune was to all of them, it is unlikely that any of them had ever played it as part of such a small ensemble. But this unevenness was remedied by the gradual and subtle introduction of several of Bruce’s Noisemakers to round out the sound and allow the stars, especially Marsalis, the opportunity to shine. With a few Hornsby tunes interspersed into a string of Dead classics, including the use of Rainbow’s Cadillac as the introduction to Franklin’s Tower, the augmented trio ultimately delivered a very satisfying set.
Next up were The Werks an emerging band from nearby Columbus. The band took full advantage of their prime positioning, for which they humbly proclaimed their gratitude, to showcase their trippier take on the danceable beat while the main stage was being switched over. Their too-short set left many wanting more but also provided an exceptionally potent preview of their own Werk Out Music Festival which is also moving to this venue this September.
To round out the evening’s musical festivities (at least for me, as I left the Shpongle experience to those who like to be shpongled), Phil Lesh took the stage with his latest assortment of Friends. This group included Lesh’s sons Brian and Graheme, but the workhorses of the ensemble were Jackie Greene on keys, Larry Campbell on guitar and the amazing Joe Russo on drums, and ultimately it was the contribution of vocalist Teresa Williams, especially on the gospel nugget Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, which allowed the band to truly take off.
Day two of the festival promised a wholly different experience than the rest of the festival as the lineup lacked the historic jamband presence of the other days and instead featured a slew of headliners drawn from all across the country. The music again began with a rootsy feel as Elephant Revival helped the festival goers greet the day with their sweet harmonies. They were followed by West Coast rockers ALO who delivered an excellent set that featured several tunes from their new album, including the infectious “Speed of Dreams” a sweet tune that immediately sticks with the listener. Their set also featured the debut of the festival’s “artist at large” Roosevelt Collier the master of the sacred steel who is probably best known for his work with the Lee Boys.
Next up on the mainstage (after a short second stage set of “stompin’ blues” by 4 on the Floor) were the Wood Brothers. Oliver and Chris’s brotherly harmonies, both vocal and instrumental, were supplemented by Jano Rix on drums and “shitar”. Highlighted by a beautiful new tune called “Heaven is a Honey Jar” and a Collier sit-in on “Atlas” this was the first really memorable set of the weekend.
And the memories kept coming as Matt Butler led his Everyone Orchestra onto the side stage. For those unfamiliar with this experience, Butler gymnastically conducts his ever-changing assemblage of festival musicians in a wholly improvised and at times interactive musical journey. For this journey the orchestra was comprised of ALO supplemented by the Bridget and Bonnie from Elephant Revival as well as the horns from Rubblebucket. The ensuing “Create the Legend” jam and the madness that followed when Butler instructed the group to “Follow Lebo” (ALO guitarist Dan Lebowitz) made most wish that the ensemble been allotted a much longer set.
SOJA’s ambitious attempt to invigorate and re-invent reggae with a hip-hop sensibility never caught fire and marked the weekend’s first letdown. But the “cave music” set from Moon Hooch was ample proof that festival promoter Tim Walther is always trying to find the next new band. Although they were showcased in a late afternoon set, this NYC based trio, featuring a pair of dueling saxophones (and occasionally a contrabassoon) backed with drum accompaniment, seem destined to become a staple of the late-late night festival dance party.
G Love and Special Sauce delivered their trademark energetic set of hip-hop flavored blues. Having seen the group two other times earlier in the month (as the opener for Umphrey’s McGee) this set was much more connected to and appreciated by the audience. It also featured the weekend’s most amusing moment when, during his “basketball” rap, G Love invoked the name of LeBron James to the raucous derision of the central Ohio crowd. Rubblebucket’s set of dancy jazz was fun but their sound, especially those processed vocals, might be better served by being heard in a smaller enclosed environment.
Festival stalwarts Yonder Mountain String Band demonstrated yet again that they are a band at the height of their musical prowess. With a nugget like the cover of the Talking Heads “Girlfriend is Better” (on which they were joined by Collier) tucked in the midst of bluegrass classics, Yonder supplied the crowd with the perfect soundtrack to greet the sunset. This set also provided the most poignant moment of the weekend as the band, after noting that first and foremost they were “a Colorado band,” humbly asked the crowd for their thoughts and prayers in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. The set from the Pimps of Joytime had the misfortune of coming both in the wake of Yonder’s stellar set and directly prior to one of the more anticipated sets of the weekend, that of The Flaming Lips, and, combined with the shortness of the set, the Brooklyn based ensemble was unfortunately relegated to filler status.
No band compels its audience’s attention as much as the rock and roll circus known as The Flaming Lips. With high powered confetti canons, a gaggle of dancing girls, a light show seemingly drawn from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a human gerbil ball, this band engages its audience in a wholly unique sensory-overloading concert experience. With a tendency for the theatrics to overwhelm the music, those with a preference for substance over smoke and mirrors might be tempted to call these guys a novelty act, but any music fan who heard their double encore of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man and their own Do You Realize? had to recognize that musicianship is the true heartbeat of this carnival.
Papadosio had the difficult position of following the Lips’ onslaught, but they deftly picked up the baton and delivered a highly energized set that maintained the musical momentum and built the perfect bridge to the night’s final set. Occupying the final slot of the evening were New Orleans funk masters Galactic, a band which after almost two decades together refuses to rest on their considerable laurels and continues to evolve in multiple directions. On some tunes it is the addition of the hip-hop sensibilities (and soulful trombone) of the Rebirth Brass Band’s Corey Harris. Or perhaps it is their attempt to bring vocal depth to their funk (coupled with a seeming desire to conquer the entire classic rock catalog) with the help of Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover (thankfully, sans the braids and spandex of his youth). Regardless of the reason, by the time the band finished their encore of the Rolling Stones classic Sympathy for the Devil their set had become a new legend in this central Ohio valley.
Day three began with more rootsy music, this time from Larry Keel and Natural Bridge. Keel’s flat-picking wizardry provided a gentle eye-opener for those who awoke early following the previous day’s unending musical barrage. The next main stage set, from Conspirator, offered those in the know the rare chance to see that fabled festival creature the normally nocturnal wild spunion in the daylight. Even the band noted the strange timing of their set while introducing a new song by noting “this is only the second time we’ve played this, the first time was 2 this morning and we haven’t slept since.” But the odd timing did have the benefit of allowing a whole new group of festival goers to get their dance groove on early.
Tea Leaf Green and then Jerry Joseph and the Jackmorons were next up and provided back to back rocking sets that provided the crowd with more typical afternoon festival fare. They were followed by the bluegrass offerings of Railroad Earth who delighted the crowd with a fantastic set which showcased their picking prowess as a back drop to Todd Sheaffer’s silver-toned vocals. Next was the second attempt at reggae with Passafire taking the second stage, but their efforts were no better than the previous day’s attempt to bring an island flair to the festival.
The Dead-based entertainment for the day was provided by Dark Star Orchestra who will be hosting their inaugural Dark Star Jubilee this Labor Day at the same venue. They deftly re-kindled the Grateful Dead spirit with a lively set of tunes taken from the entirety of the Dead’s catalog. The band’s take on the rarely heard Pigpen chestnut “Alligator” was a particularly special treat that no doubt had many fans looking forward to DSO’s own festival. The Dead spirit continued with the Rex Jam, another Matt Butler led improvised musical extravaganza, but for this jam the spirit of the Dead was not from their music alone but also from their charitable endeavors. Named for the Dead’s Rex Foundation, the jam was a benefit for the local high school’s music program. With a musical core of Tim Carbone, Reed Mathis, Trevor Garrod, Larry Keel and Roosevelt Collier, Butler orchestrated another musical memory. A law needs to be passed requiring Butler to cast his magic spell over every festival.
The second strangely timed set of the day was played by normally late-night denizens Big Gigantic, who quickly established a dance groove that chased the sun over the horizon. From atop of their lighted podia, the Lalli-Salken duo crafted a particularly tight set that clearly demonstrated why they are a band on the rise. The short reunion set from The Bridge was deeply heartfelt and moved several of their loyal fans to shed a tear in remembrance of a band that is no more.
For a while, it seemed that it just might not be the Allman Brothers’ night. Their set opened slowly and was lacking in musical magic until more than halfway through the set when Roosevelt Collier joined the band for the Allman classic One Way Out. Collier’s slidework, which had both Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes sneaking across the stage to get a closer look, established a momentum which the band quickly matched and set the tone for the rest of the set. After Collier departed, the band shifted into a trio of dirty blues tunes (Leave My Blues at Home, Worried Down with the Blues and Statesboro Blues) before closing the set with a titanic version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Returning to the stage to a thunderous ovation, the band encored with an exceptionally fierce Whipping Post that saw Haynes and Trucks teach a master class in slide dexterity and left the crowd whistling for more.
As Lettuce re-started the party, their first tune served as the musical backdrop to a fireworks display, which also signaled bedtime for some (ahem). Those who succumbed to slumber would regret their choice as the preferred form of greeting the next morning was some form of “How about that freaking Lotus set?” which caused some (cough, cough) to wish they had the foresight to take a nap during some of the earlier musical faire.
Day four, shockingly, began with yet another roots-centered act, Corey Harris and the Rasta Blues Band. Harris (not be confused with the Corey Harris from Galactic), who was named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded a genius grant by the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, and his set of ragga-tinged blues was a pleasant enough way to begin the day. The rocking set from Devil Makes Three was proof that the magically great great musical institution known as the power trio has taken deep root in bluegrass country. Next was a short set from the Chris Jacobs Band, the new project from the former guitar player from The Bridge, which allowed Jacobs to highlight his eclectic song-writing style.
The final member of the Dead to return to Legend Valley was Mickey Hart who delivered a diverse set of music that completely eclipsed the contributions of his former bandmates. Hart, unlike Weir and Lesh, had the benefit of both a cache of new material to spice up his setlist and a now road seasoned band at his disposal and he exploited them to their fullest. Hart’s band delivered with both the new (a mesmerizing version of “Time Never Ends”) and the old (an almost grungy “Bertha”) material. But the true highlights came from the subtle re-working of a couple of Dead classics. The first gem was the slowed down version of “Brokedown Palace” a song that started as a sing-along until the audience slowly dropped away allowing the soft silky voice of Crystal Monee Hall to transfix them with a gospel lull-a-bye that rocked their souls. Freed from its marriage to Scarlet Begonias, the Hart penned Fire on the Mountain has also been reborn. Now with an extended build up, handled beautifully by guitarist Gawain Mathews, this Fire started as a mere ember that was fed slowly, carefully tended, allowed to grow naturally before being released volcanically to set the whole mountain ablaze.
With the promise of a seven hour drive ahead, departure was delayed just long enough for a final small dose of bluegrass, this one administered by Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass. Culminating, at least for some, with Roosevelt Collier joining the pride of the mitten, for Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know” no less, and engaging dobro player Anders Beck in a final slide duel that was the perfect cherry to top off a festival sundae.
As the promise of a shower and clean sheets beckoned, festival goers returned from whence they came. With them they took new stories and memories; stories and memories of a small Midwestern valley and the music that was made there. But stories and memories are the stuff that the best legends are made of and those who were there when the All Good Music Festival arrived in central Ohio should count themselves lucky to have been part of latest installment in this valley’s legendary history.