Catskill Chill 2014 Delivers On All Fronts
To paraphrase Will Ferrell channeling James Lipton, what can be said about Catskill Chill that has not already been said about god himself? Technically, there is an actual trademarked Bestival held on the Isle of Wight the same weekend as the Chill, but to the so-called Chillfam, there is only one bestival. Hyperbole aside, Catskill Chill has now delivered the premier festival experience in the Northeast for the last half decade and shows no signs of letting up. The Minglewood magic is both quantifiable and mysterious. Sure there’s the great music and the great friends. There’s the cabins and the hammocks and the endless laughter. There’s the picturesque cusp-of-autumn scenery – the starlit lake and towering pines. But there is oh so much more. Words can only begin to describe the vibe in Hancock, NY for one glorious weekend a year. It must be experienced to be fully understood. And even then, each one of us has a singular path through the weekend, always unique and often incomparable.
After a prolonged semi-hostile takeover of our assigned cabin in prime territory, our crew, a healthy mix of Chill veterans and virgins, was ready to tackle a jampacked weekend. By the time the dust had settled, it was too late for Mun, but Eric Krasno was already wailing on the B stage. A charter member of the Royal Family collective, Kras has been Chilling since the beginning, whether with Soulive or Lettuce or spinning his favorite records. This year, he brought his own band out and they brought the heat, peaking with a scorching rendition of The Beatles’ “Get Back.” Over on the main stage, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe kicked out the funk jams with ridiculous precision. And in Club Chill, Alan Evans’ Playonbrother dutifully tackled the psychedelic proto-metal of the original power trio Cream.
Darkness came and the dance floor beckoned. Speakerbot animatedly laid down some fresh beats at the DJ truck. Sandwiches were made. Once the dance demons were satiated, the inaugural Twiddle Dead set awaited in the Club. Good old Grateful cuts mingled with surprising detours, notably an exploratory take on the venerable “Eyes of the World” that found its way into the song of last summer, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” before ending up in the truly foreign territory of the Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch.” We knew it would be weird, but we did not know it would be this weird.
Is there any band that represents the ethos of the Chill better than Lettuce? The precision funk machine has turned in more than its fair share of noteworthy sets over the years at Minglewood. This two hour set ranged from pure funk into raucous rock towards more electronic territory and back again at the drop of a dime, kicking night one into high gear. If only the band’s “Madison Square” cohorts the Knicks could play with such consistent energy and verve.
If Lettuce are the funky face of the Chill, Simon Posford might be the face of festivals in general. Shpongle is a longtime international festival fixture, be it with his infrequent live band performances or his DJ sets replete with those psychedelic trance bangers that have soundtracked countless late nights and early mornings. The man with the feathered chapeau always brings the trip with him. Try not to smile when dipping into a crowd dancing relentlessly towards dawn, clad in luminescent gear every color of the spectrum, flowing through a sea of bubbles and good vibrations. For pure sensory overload, this was a definite highlight.
Saturday. It’s a Saturday. It’s a Saturday. It’s a Saturday. The first full day of any festival is always a marathon. In order to maintain appropriate energy levels, this marathon started with Dave’s Mini Donuts wrapped in bacon. It was uphill from there. Actually, most things at the Chill are uphill. Twiddle delivered a solid early afternoon main stage set with a slew of guests, as luck would have it, all from missed bands – Kung Fu, Dopapod, and Mun. A progression reminiscent of Phish’s “Contact” and “First Tube” segued neatly into a Michael Jackson medley of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” was an excellent way to get the party started. A clandestine Cabinet soundcheck of “Black Peter” was icing on the cake.
Shwizz turned in the best set of the first half of the lengthy day, cycling through razor-sharp prog jams and displaying heavy metal chops with dazzling dexterity, culminating in a righteous “Machine Gun Funk.” Also, there was a freaking parabolic keytar. Who does that!? Brock Butler provided a sweet soulful coda down at Acoustic Junction. And then the rains came. Though some stellar tunes were no doubt missed, some of the better times to be had at the Chill are laughing away the raindrops in your cabin with friends and interesting interlopers.
When the storm passed, Yonder Mountain String Band was there to welcome one more Saturday night with their country bear jamboree version of bluegrass, always sure to get the party started. The eminent group twanged and gutbucketed their way through a nonstop hoedown of moonshine medleys and front porch hogstompers. Cabinet continued the string party over at the club with yet another Grateful Dead tribute set, leaning towards bluesier rock numbers like “Brown Eyed Women” and, of course, “New Minglewood Blues.”
The marquis affair was The New Deal, back this festival season for the first time since 2011 with a new drummer in tow. While the first set featured the same live progressive breakbeat house templates that put the group at the forefront of the livetronica movement at the turn of the century, there was a bit too much of the contemporary elements of EDM – sawtooth synth and echoing e-drums – albeit with a knowing wink and nod. Thankfully, the second set returned to a more familiar New Deal sound with expansive versions of their flagship jams – “Technobeam” and “Gone Gone Gone.”
There was no way Papadosio was topping their frigid festival-closing set with Dopapod from last year, but they turned in quite an admirable late night set, laden with mellow psychedelia and minimal crystal crunch grooves. Somewhat staid for a Saturday night, the progressive collective dug deeper, generally eschewing the four-on-the-floor electronic safety net for a slightly more cerebral sound. Over in the club, the hybrid tribute act Pink Talking Fish worked its way through an inspired jukebox mix of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish tunes to a capacity crowd. Even better quality jams were to be found at the continuous ShwiKus cabin jam. But the front porch grilled cheese session ultimately won out.
This was Tom Hamilton day with the versatile guitarist taking part in three sets of music. But the day started with a short but sweet Ukuleliens open mic set. Following a palatable Providence folk singer with guitar and a cringe-worthy didgeridoo solo, the ukulele-based offshoot of NYC rock band Mercury Landing played the twangy bluegrass number “Green Thumb Jimmy” which featured a veggie vocal jam, and drew in bystanders with a blistering video game theme medley of Tetris, Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat.
Then Cocktail Party Phenomenon keyboardist Mike Gardner, a dead ringer for Phish’s Page McConnell took the stage with an acoustic guitar to lay down a lovely version of a McConnell signature tune “Strange Design.” For those that trekked back to Ukulelien camp, there was a secret encore comprised of a Robin Williams tribute in the form of “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, followed by a take on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” not quite ready for human consumption. And the day was just getting started.
Tom Hamilton joined Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits for a heavily attended sunny set of acoustic numbers, kicking off with the Biscuits rarity “Soul is Shaking” and winding through some appropriately bucolic numbers from the likes of The Beatles, David Bowie and The Band. There was even a triumphant singalong version of the Brothers Past staple “Simple Gift of Man.” Predictably there was also a healthy dose of Dead, with a lilting version of “Bird Song” and a set closing rendition of the reliable triumvirate “Help > Slip > Frank.”
Cocktail Party Phenomenon was easily the best discovery of the weekend. They absolutely throw a phenomenal cocktail party (BYO cocktail). The burgeoning Philadelphia group tackled familiar though underplayed tunes by Bela Fleck and Umphrey’s McGee, while showing off originals wrought with the type of infectious melody and taut interplay that will likely keep this rising band a festival mainstay for several seasons to come.
A frequently seen scene shirt featured Hamilton’s face embedded on the side of a ham with the epithet Jamilton Hamz. And the hamz kept on coming with the American Babies set. As Brothers Past has become more of a sporadic endeavor, the Babies have emerged as Hamilton’s main gig. What began as a straightforward Americana act segued in the past year and change into a full-fledged jamband mixing originals with reliable standards. This set featured Babies standards like “Winter War Games” and “Joeline” alongside “Tangled Up in Blue” and “New Speedway Boogie,” the unofficial Chill anthem (“spent a little time on the hill”).
The meat of the day came in the form of a ShwiKus tribute to the legendary Parliament Funkadelic. The two-headed Shwizz/FiKus monster had already cemented its status as Chill MVP with two nonstop late night cabin jams with friends like Wiley Griffin from Mun and Jeff Mann from Consider the Source pushing right on to the day. This P-Funk set took it to the next level though. Not merely content to replicate the sound of the quintessential funk collective, the onstage ensemble embraced the outrageous psychedelic garb and spirit of the intergalactic funk mothership. Equal parts funky and weird, the set reached a peak as Shwizz himself (guitarist Ryan Liatsis) perched atop a centerstage speaker with a bag of wine and a can of silly string and basked maniacally in the unadulterated musical onslaught unfolding around him.
After the tail end of a virtuosic set courtesy of another Chill favorite, Consider the Source, it was time for the main event, a headlining set by Electron. Rumors earlier in the year had the Disco Biscuits slated to make their Chill debut. That didn’t pan out, but Electron is nearly as good. Sticking closer to the Biscuits songbook than Conspirator, the previous years’ entrant from the Biscuits camp, Electron was a treat for the Bisco contingency. The set started with a goosebumps-inducing “Home Again” and continued through Biscuits classics both blissful (“Humuhumunukunukuapua’a,” “Kamaole Sands”) and sinister (“Plan B,” “Confrontation”). Speaking of bliss, raging Biscuits in a hammock lakeside – perfection! Of course, there was a nod to Jer in the form of an electrified “Shakedown Street.” A heartfelt version of the elegiac Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb” closed out the stellar set, a strong contender for best of the weekend.
Wyllys and Brownie took it home with a back-to-back DJ set/vape session featuring some surprisingly deep house and other pleasant rhythmic selections. From there the night devolved into a delirious, hilarious cavalcade of whimsy featuring unicorns, bocce and bonfires complete with manifested marshmallows. There is no better way to cushion the impending plummet back into reality than getting straight silly until Monday morning. And when the morning comes and the dying embers of the fire fade out to a bucolic lakeside sunscape, start singing along. Things went down that we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.