I have to give props to the O Positive Festival, which took place in the city of Kingston, New York, from October 6-8. I have been around this innovative event since its inception at the start of the decade, but having missed the last two years for various reasons (being in New Zealand this time in 2016 was a good excuse!), it was wonderful to return and see just how much it has grown, and how much Kingston has grown alongside it.
O Positive initially served to bring a group of performing artists together with health practitioners, based on the unfortunate reality that those who are self-employed in the States tend to have little money for health care. It has expanded over the years to become a full-on music, arts and wellness festival. The music aspect is largely self-explanatory; the art can be found via various gallery installations, performance art, and a literary salon, but especially in the guise of the vast murals that have gradually served to enliven what had been quite a depressed small city; the wellness, for those on the consumer side, comes in the form of bike rides, yoga, meditation and dance classes, CPR training, and more.
In turn, the volunteering artists of O Positive get some form of free medical care by volunteering practitioners. While this might seem redundant to those who live in countries with socialized medicine, and while it does more than merely infuriate me that Americans can’t take the same for granted (and I’m posting this on a day when T***P is purposefully unraveling what few protections we do have), O Positive goes beyond providing what should be a government service: it builds community, it provokes conversation, it inspires collaboration. It is, in short, a GOOD THING, and based on what it has done for Kingston, it is no surprise that it has spread to other cities.
O Positive, like Burning Man, adopts a different theme each year; for 2017 it was Home, and that subject served to infuse the various visual art, the literary salon – and the street haiku in which I participated. At a time when Americans are having to question what their country really represents, this was an important topic. Still, O+ is not as musically diverse as it might initially seem: while there is a healthy focus on gender equality, it still leans heavily towards white people making noise with conventional instrumentation. This seems a shame given Kingston’s demographics, and is hopefully something the event can improve upon as it moves forward. In the meantime, here are my top ten musical acts, in the order that I saw them.
AMANDA PALMER, BSP Kingston back room. The piano maestro brought her father onstage for a couple of songs, including a Leonard Cohen cover; the old man had much of the Johnny Cash in him and we can see that music runs through the family genes. Palmer also unveiled a powerful new song called “Small Hands, Small Heart”; I think you can guess who it’s about. Like Billy Bragg and other great communicators, a Palmer show involves as much talk as it does music. Her audience would not want it any other way. (See video.)
HAMMYDOWN, The Stockade. A gleefully off-straight guitar band playing the corner of a wine bar, with an audience of fans dancing up a storm. They looked happy. So did we.
THE ROUGH SHAPES, The Anchor. Instrumental surf rock trio. Nice guys. All smiles. Great guitar twang. Not all music needs to change the world.
ABDU ALI, BSP front room. Billed as hip hop. Nothing of the sort. This was a dress-wearing, dreadlock-sporting, primal screaming Baltimore dude with a fierce drummer and some wild pre-recorded grooves. Would I go back for more? Probably not, but I’m glad I stuck about for what I got. (See video.)
BUFFALO SEX CHANGE, Somewhere Alley. (See photo.) Stand-up drums and guitar duo. With vocals. Wild vocals. Garage rock stripped bare to the boner. Perfect for a city alleyway. (See video.)
MONOGOLD, Somewhere Alley. Not to be confused with Santigold. They look nondescript. They almost sound nondescript. But those falsetto vocals – and the inherent tension. Special.
MIMI GOESE & BEN NEILL, BSP front room. Disclosure: these are my buddies. Mimi Goese comes alive on stage with her ethereal vocals and profound presence; Ben Neill controls the pre-recorded music – and vocal effects – through his mutantrumpet, which has three horns and a MIDI set-up. One of a kind. (See video.)
DEAD LEAF ECHO, 721 Media. (See photo.) I knew they were 4AD freaks. I expected Cocteau Twins. Actually got a lot of Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, and yeah, alright, perhaps some Pixies. Also got volume and some psychedelic lighting. And my friend Alicia got right down front and started dancing. The free Lagunita’s Beers probably helped.
A GONG SUPREME, BSP Back room. The calm before the storm, an orchestra of gongs that would have been totally at home at the Burning Man temple. It could have been hippie-dippy shit, but was perfectly effective and even, while it lasted, transformative.
DEERHOOF, BSP back room. The festival’s final act certainly made a noise. In this vast former opera house, it was unfortunately shrill and piercing, sending the audience rushing for free earplugs. It was also as innovative as you might expect from an act whose Joyful Noise 2017 project is releasing five albums this year in pursuit of funding a Bernie Sanders-inspired PAC, and whose official new LP includes a cover of the Staples Singers’ Freedom Highway. An act whose lead guitarist, Ed Rodriguez, performing here in red and white cape and matching guitar, looks like he has been flown in from the Darkness or Spinal Tap. An act whose front woman Satomi Matsuzaki is mesmerizing on bass, on vocals, and especially when dancing. An act whose drummer Greg Saunier should know he’s not funny but takes the microphone nonetheless. An act whose guitarist/bassist John Dieterich appears to be the only regular dude in the band. They are the bomb. Even if they are louder than a whole bunch of them. (See video.)