I wish more events like Sunday, June 12’s Big Splash came through the Inner Harbor. Ten bands, a good cause and a few minutes without rain? Considering the monsoons I’ve endured during other festivals, a peek of sun was just as good as a heat wave.
The event was to promote the protection of New York’s waters from unsafe gas drilling. Throughout the day there were speakers, petitions passed, tables of information and constant reminders from the stage of why we were all gathering. I arrived around 4 p.m. to a small crowd scattered between the two stages, one down on the pier just above the water and the other on the grass beneath a large tent with a dancing stage in front of the performers.
Sophistafunk is a breath of fresh air to the Syracuse music scene. Like The Goonies, they think outside the box and aren’t afraid to walk that fine line of cool/weird with unbridled energy. Keyboard and Moog master Adam Gold’s facial expression are priceless, especially when he wails and shouts like all the great and passionate soul singers. Drummer Emanuel Washington kept the audience guessing with complex rhythms thrown in from his electric drum pad combined with the kit; he added vocals on top. And when he really opened up as lead singer, his smooth voice was enough to make you stop and stare (I know I did). And, Mr. Jack Brown. Gold and Washington started the set out with a groove to introduce Brown in his very Justin Timberlake-inspired get-up: plaid jacket, red-rimmed glasses, “I <3 NY” t-shirt, blond beard, topped with a funky hat...all the ladies caught the reference. He was like the cherry on top of the sundae, completing the trifecta of funk. Gold and Washington brought undeniable talent and impressive skill on their instruments and Brown…that kid can (excuse me) fucking flow.
The group broke out newer material from their latest album, twentyeleven (Funk is So Phat Records), which they announced the release of at the show, (read The New Times review here) and threw in long and short quotes from James Brown, Outkast and Jurassic Five to keep the crowd on their toes.
What was most impressive was how involved they got the crowd
into the music. At the beginning of the set, the audience was shy, a good space away from the stage and barely bobbing. By the end, after Brown had commanded,
“Take 15 steps forward!” the audience was jumping, bouncing, spinning and the
half-pints even had the opportunity to dance on stage with the band (see the
pictures). Funk is ageless.
I got so caught up in the Sophistafunk set that I missed the
Tim Herron Corporation, but I did get down to see some of Driftwood playing by the water. As usual, the band didn’t disappoint. For this show
they traveled as a trio. Dan Forsyth and Joe Kollar switched on banjo and guitar
and Claire Byrne was on violin. Though only a threesome (without bass player Jon Doll), Driftwood still packed a punch,
especially with all three contributing to the vocals, filling in the harmonies.
What's best about Driftwood is how the group communicates to a variety of demographics, beating down stereotypes and proving that good music is just good music. Metal heads, traditional bluegrass faithfuls, rock'n'roll lovers and even babies (I'll explain), came out, kicked off their shoes and just jammed.
They played an early set by the water and a later set
as dusk settled in. In the second set they broke out a few requests including a
favorite, “Be My Baby,” a Ronettes cover. The excitement in the crowd just
exploded. Everyone was dancing as Byrne shook her hair and belted out, “be my
little baby / say you’ll be my darlin’ / be my baby now / whoa oh oh oh” with
fierce conviction contrasted by Forsyth and Kollar's soft backing vocals. The crowd
was so hungry for more, that even when the music had to be shut down due to a
noise permit that expired at 9:30 p.m., listeners demanded a final acoustic
jam. I’ve seen a few magical music moments in my life and this is up there. As
soon as the trio came out from the beneath the tent to play un-miked, the crowd
circled in, young, old and one mother with a baby in arms, to dance, clap,
stomp and shout along as the three sawed, sang and strummed, as old-fashioned
as could be. Complete magic.
Donna the Buffalo brought a similar energy with never-ending songs that had my arm feeling tired after I realized I was holding up the flip cam for 8-plus minutes. Again, the energy that came with the foot-stomping, hand-clapping music of the band just had the audience churning. Though the temperature was cooling, it was hot in the tent as sandals popped off and hair swung. Multi-instrumentalist Tara Nevins, ripped jeans on her impossibly skinny legs, stomped as she broke out electric violin, accordion, guitar and seasoned vocals that blend so well with fellow front man, Jeb Puryear.
Again, the greatest quality of all three
bands was their ability to transcend preconceived notions of genre or age
barriers. Looking around the tent as the band pushed forward, it was amazing to
see dancers packed on the wooden floor, but also all over the grass,
children swinging, teenagers, parents and perhaps some grandparents as well. It was a unifying experience and one, beyond that, rooted
in a positive cause.
The Big Splash event was a good reminder of how music and activism can still make a powerful team. Music is an effective communicator and unifier and it’s moments like those on Sunday that help remind us all what that can do.
Funk IS so phat.
Gettin' down with the kids.
...and a banana.