A Horny Night at Bluesfest with Trombone Shorty, Phantogram, Cypress Hill

 

B-Real, Cypress Hill. Photo: Mike Bouchard

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By: Jay McConnery

Perfect, unusually temperate July weather greeted the teeming masses for Bluesfest’s annual hump-day spectacular, as the well-oiled festival continued crushing expectations and like so many over-priced hintonburgers. Far busier than I expected, the site filled steadily as Cypress Hill’s chronic disciples amassed at the Claridge Stage, and I took the opportunity to check out some new music over at the River Stage. The No BS! Brass Band was a surprisingly entertaining and accomplished 10 piece from Virginia- which dropped some funky originals, and contemporary interpretations of New Orleans Brass band music. An odd-looking rag-tag of trained musicians, the group worked through some funky arrangements with fast changes and super funky breaks from punk-styled drummer, and apparent band-leader, Lance Koehler. The band took turns passing the lead, and each member individually impressed, but again I felt Koeler’s tasty kit-work stole the show. It was a damn near perfect experience in the bright evening sun, until a slightly hesitant and bookish vocalist with an awkward hairline strode out for a tune with painfully repetitive lyric, initializing what my colleague referred to as ‘the Houseman effect’- wherein subpar, unwelcome, or slightly annoying vocals undermine the overall vibe or consistency of an otherwise instrumental/funk band’s performance (for a portion of the show). This wouldn’t be the only time this phenomenon played out over the course of the evening either, as fans of Trombone Shorty might agree. After a few minutes of grinning and bearing, it was back to the funk- and we were soon headed over to catch the opening of Hip-Hop- Heady Crop heroes, Cypress Hill.

In the jovial crowd of current, former and future potheads, red security shirts circled like slobbering jackals as the fat beats and nasal vocal delivery of B-Real and Sen Dog inspired increasingly thick plumes of inspiration and cautious tomfoolery.  The performance opened with some glaring sound issues which seemed to belie the essential upper low-end of live hip hop, creating an odd mix of extremes which initially made the set a little difficult to enjoy. It was thankfully remedied in time for ‘Insane in the Membrane,’ as the MCs stepped into full swing, puffing oversized doobies and praising the potency of Canadian bud. The group engaged the audience with typical call and response exercises, as well launching into a classic inter-crowd diss-off, which devolved comically.  It was a fun set, which didn’t offer a lot of surprises or innovation, but delivered the classics in a smoked out environment, as the impressive crowd surely hoped. Though a separate musical era and vibe altogether from acts such as STYX or Foreigner, Cypress Hill was a booking which arguably fits firmly into the growing tendency towards nostalgia at the Bluesfest, as many among the audience appeared to be checking out their leafy passions of yesteryear.

The rest of the evening was rather scattered for me, significantly spacy even, after the Cypress Hill experience. I did check out a portion of ‘Bombino’ on the Black Sheep,( the only outdoor alternative to Cypress Hill, for a full 45 minutes of the evening schedule!). As a result of what felt like a booking oversight, a fair number of people were subject to their set, which at times felt like Afrobeat on speed. Bombino certainly sounded great on their web and NPR clips, inspiring my visit, but seemed like a different, unrecognizable band on stage that night. It appeared that the drummer and rhythm guitar player were possibly new,  definitely white, and maybe last minute replacements who didn’t quite have the intricacies of the rhythms entirely worked out. As a result, their overall sound could be described as confusing, especially with the donning of their uniform afghan scarfs and black terminator sunglasses. Their cacophony of rhythmic confusion had me camped-out early for Trombone Shorty, which is saying a lot, as the last time I had seen him thought was trombone shitty. It wasn’t long before Shorty’s band ‘Orleans Avenue’ came out full force on the River Stage, blasting tight aggressive party grooves, as Shorty danced across the stage leading the action with his impressive bone. It was quite enjoyable, but I meandered to the Killers, and soon after my search for vibe ended with Phantogram.

Atmospheric, hip-hop inspired, ambient trip hop would be my best description of what unfolded on the Blacksheep stage- in what I would consider one of the better sets I’ve seen this so far this year. Recommended by a wise friend, this four-piece led by the guitar and key duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, dropped some engagingly moody pieces, with in combination with their dense brilliant arrangements and thoughtfully produced light show worked with bone-chilling effect. The beats were a mixture of programmed backing tracks and live kit drummer creating a potent, at times dizzying groove. Bathel’s vocals drift between trippy and dreamy and her pouty steel-toed stomp commanded the audience’s attention like so many lost children. The density of their arrangements and the crisp sound created an irresistible scene for this reviewer, one which easily eclipsed the rest of the evening. Phantogram were the first band of the day that felt relevant and original, and I really enjoyed the entire set- including some bargain bin stage theatrics which though lo-fi, were somehow quite impressive.  I’m reminded consistently that the best and most satisfying experiences remain on the periphery.