Keep on Truckin’ America
The inaugural Truck America Festival rolled into the Catskills the first weekend of May – albeit with more of a whisper than a roar. The three-day event, held at the exquisite Full Moon Resort in the hamlet of Big Indian, was unquestionably under-promoted, and sparsely populated as a result, but it was also one of the finest things to have hit this region since I moved here. I’m desperately hoping it will become an annual event.
Truck – perhaps not the sexiest of festival names – originated in the UK, in the village of Steventon outside Oxford, a dozen years ago. The brainchild of brothers Joe and Robin Bennett, it advertises itself as “a village fete meets Woodstock with a cutting edge musical policy sharp as your suit, free of any sponsorship or corporate agenda,” and draws up to 5,000 attendees annually. By festival standards, that’s small – just 1% the size of the original Woodstock – but then the Bennett brothers are not your standard rock festival promoters. They’re musicians, first and foremost. You may know them by their band Goldrush, in which capacity they also backed up fellow Oxford boy Mark Gardener, formerly of Ride, on his American tour. That geographical and musical connection is important; it explains why the debut Truck America included not just the psych-folkies, roots bands and singer-songwriters that are perennially popular in the real Woodstock, but leaned heavily towards dream-pop artists: Mercury Rev, Hopewell, The Joy Formidable and former Slowdive frontman Neil Halstead. In fact, it was the promoters’ friendship with Kingston-based Mercury Rev that led to the recommendation of the Full Moon resort as a suitable location for their first foray onto American soil, and a similarly strong relationship with Rev’s Brooklyn-based brethren in Hopewell that helped entice some of Gotham’s better young bands to join the bill. Truck appears to be a festival based on connections, comradeship and community rather than one steered towards the profit motive. Certainly, everyone involved was seen to be smiling, all weekend long.
The location had much to do with this. The Full Moon Resort sits in beautiful natural surroundings that include the Esopus Creek and Slide Mountain (the tallest in the Catskills), complete with ponds, fields, pools and barns. While most of the neighboring motels and ranches are now out of business, the inevitable result of air conditioning, television, computers and cheap air travel, the Full Moon thrives by opening only for special events – primarily weddings, conferences and, reflecting the owners’ own passions, music camps. (The Full Moon hosts the annual Camp MMW, at which attendees work, rest and play alongside Medeski, Martin and Wood; this year Dweezil Zappa is hosting something similar.) For Truck America, Full Moon provided various cabins and the main inn for guests, designated a couple of fields to campers, and recruited local residents as volunteer crossing guards and greeters. The Bennett brothers and their New York counterparts supplied not just the music, which was healthily varied, and some extra-musical activity (workshops, films, kiddie activities and the like) but also the vibe, which was consistently positive. The music alternated between three venues – an enclosed Tent, a Roadhouse but 100 yards away, and, later at night, once the unheated tent closed down, in the nearby Barn. And the schedules were designed to alternate, allowing everyone in attendance to see everyone in performance.
Truck America was not desperately expensive: the $130 three-day ticket, including camping, must have looked like a good deal for those looking to escape the City for a long weekend in the country. And I did meet my share of locals who’d put down $50 a head for the Saturday show. But it was harder to justify the $40 single day ticket for a Friday line-up that lacked a marquee name, or $50 for a Sunday that boasted hip – but not hit – Brooklyn acts, when most of us locals are trying to catch up with our family commitments and prepare for the working week – and cope with a recession.
So what did I see and what did I make of it?
The Joy Formidable were astonishing. The Welsh trio of Ritzy Bryan, Rhydian Dafydd and Matt Thomas are clearly influenced by the early 90s: not just the sonic psyche-out of My Bloody Valentine, Ride and co., but also the grunge ethics from Seattle. There’s a gothic element there, too, and just enough off-kilter melody tinged with a distinctive Welsh lilt to have me pining for Catatonia. One song started with an extended syncopated drum riff, another ended with the sort of lengthy, psychedelic coda that made the term “shoe-gazing” seem positively relevent all over again. The set leaned heavily on the newly released American EP A Balloon Called Moaning, with “Cradle” and the set-closer “Whirring” particular highlights. It should be noted that while I checked out the music earlier in the day, you simply can’t get the full effect of the live show by listening to a heavily-compressed MP3 emanating from computer speakers. This was a band that simultaneously pinned your ears against the wall and yet enticed you to the front of the stage. Bryan’s striking look, plethora of guitar pedals, banshee-like voice and endearing personality all had much to do with this. Though witnessed by less than 100 people, they were the talk of the weekend. As much as anything, watching the Joy Formidable was something of a time-warp: reminiscent of (if distinct from) any number of club acts I’ve seen over the years in distinctly urban environments (London, New York, Manchester), I had to pinch myself to realize that I was witnessing them in the heart of the Catskills.
Wintersleep hail from Halifax, Nova Scotia, a place I visited twice, for three weeks at a time, back when my dad lived there in the mid-70s. Their MySpace page sufficiently piqued my interest with its melodies, but the reality of the live show was something distressingly more normal: lots of heads down focus as they riffed cheerfully, in a mildly rootsy and woodsy and indie way, over simplistic two-chord riffs, yet all the while lacking the kind of charisma necessary to propel their subtleties to the forefront.
Nina Violet opened up the Barn Friday night (at 11pm), performing with a six-strong band, including trumpet, violin and what may or may not have been an electric autoharp. While I loved the line-up, I couldn’t claim equal excitement for the songs; in fact, it was sufficiently narcotic that I called time and headed home.
Neil Halstead is the former Slowdive and ongoing Mojave 3 frontman who’s developed a secondary career on the solo circuit; his second album, Oh! Mighty Engine, is a favorite of mine for its subtle songwriting and soft, sensitive vocals. Halstead, who in manner, voice and beard, is the tourists’ idea of the quintessential Englishman, is a veteran of the British Truck Festival where, he noted, it always rains, which made his unusually warm and reassuring sunny Saturday afternoon tent set that much more of a treat. Oh! Mighty Engine was released in America on Jack Johnson’s label, which helped explain why, while he is hardly a household name in the Catskills, those in attendance greeted his set with rapt reverence. And while Halstead’s gentle voice over plucked guitar may seem one-dimensional to some, his lyrics are frequently amusing. I particularly enjoyed the opening couplet, “I was drunk when I met you, I was drunk when you walked out the door.” And he ended the set with “Sometimes the Wheels Come Off,” by far the best track from Oh! Mighty Engine, which includes this assessment of a door-to-door bible basher: “he wants to talk to me about the big JC, well who the fuck is he?” Somewhere in-between these songs, Joe Bennett joined him on violin.
Gary Louris followed Halstead in the Tent on Saturday afternoon, and raised the stakes accordingly. A little older, perhaps, a little wiser, maybe, and a better singer, certainly, his material is more reminiscent of what some might call the golden era of the singer-songwriter, the early 1970s. Bouncing around his extensive repertoire, including the Jayhawks’ delightful “Angeline,” and a recent composition for the Dixie Checks, his set concluded with a Byrds-like band performance for which he strapped on a Rickenbacker and was augmented by the Bennett brothers, Cat Martino and others for a fantastic rendition of, among others, the ongoing Jayhawks favorite, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”
T.J. Kong and the Atomic Bomb, performing in the aptly-named Roadhouse were, as you might surmise from the name, a party band. “We like tequila,” the singer announced by way of introduction, and sure enough, the group were seen to be sipping regularly from glasses of liquor in between songs. The nearest comparison I could find for their howling, demonic party blues was to imagine Wall of Voodoo playing down on Bourbon Street. You get the picture.
Mercury Rev’s show was the perceived headliner of the weekend, the locally-based act emerging from a quiet spell to perform a drummer-less “career-spanning” set accompanied by a “chamber orchestra,” essentially the now familiar floating cast of supporting musicians on various violins, cellos and woodwind instruments, as conducted by Joe Bennett. (With Bennett himself frequently conducted by frontman Jonathan Donahue.) The restrained performance suited the confined surroundings of the tent, and it delved as far back as Donahue’s days with the Flaming Lips, included a Daniel Johnston song, and featured a fair scattering of cuts from their now impressive catalogue of albums. With Carlos Anthony Molina and Jeff Mercel both playing keyboards, and Donahue on acoustic guitar, it was left to guitarist Grasshopper to give the show its electric edge; he delivered perfectly. An encore of sorts saw the increasingly ubiquitous Joe Bennett on trumpet; his brother had been playing clarinet in the orchestra. Say one thing for the Bennetts, they’re multi-instrumentalist multi-taskers.
The Sadies’ retro-country, blues and surf set in the Roadhouse might have seemed antiquated but for the sheer fury with which they performed. Led by the alarmingly tall brothers Dallas and Travis Good (check those names!), they engaged in some of the wildest finger-picking I’ve seen in years, ran through any number of surf-influenced instrumentals and threw in some righteous singalong-gospel with “There’s a Higher Power.” They had what was now a sizeable Saturday night crowd in the Roadhouse dancing like it was… well, Saturday night at a Roadhouse. Perfect scheduling.
Cat Martino, a product of the American east coast though clearly very mucha part of the Truck UK crowd, brought the tempo back down over in the Barn, using foot-pedals to loop her voice on top of itself until she was singing as a choir, then doing likewise with a Casio keyboard and what that possible electric autoharp. This was not about hooks and choruses as much as atmosphere and texture, and in an ideal world (one where I was not getting up at 6:30am) I’d like to have stayed for the whole show.
But then the same goes for Hopewell, the Dreaming Spires, Grand Mal, Two Dark Birds, Willly Mason, our own local Ida and, especially, Sunday’s nominal headliners from Brooklyn, Here We Go Magic and White Rabbits. (And a band named for my former subway stop in Brookly, Atlantic/Pacific.) There was, frankly, too much music to go round, and just about all of it had something to recommend it. Kudos to the Bennetts for bringing their event across the Ocean, to their American partners for corralling the acts and some sort of crowd, and to the Full Moon for providing such a lovely location. From little seeds do saplings grow. Come back next year guys – and shout it from the rooftops. The Catskills could do with you.