Equifunk 2013 Recap
Aug 26, 2013 01:41PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
By Steve Perraud
Equifunk, an all-inclusive, funk-heavy music festival held August 16-18th in the Poconos, proved a unique and refreshingly convenient event in its fifth year of existence. The festival’s organizers, enthusiastic former attendees of Camp Equinunk, a traditional camp for kids in Equinunk, Pennsylvania, have succeeded in combining their childhood summer camp experience with a live music event. The event’s nostalgic, rustic atmosphere is aided by surprisingly common fan and artist interaction and the laidback ease of an all-inclusive beach resort (ticket prices, differing based on camping location and length of stay, factor in three meals a day and all-you-can drink draft light beer).
Organizers have further distinguished the event by adding activities like a basketball tournament, tennis matches and a late-night campfire set of music. A quick survey of this summer’s festival schedule reveals no other event in which a musician performing on stage Friday night might spot up and shoot a jump shot over a fan on the basketball court Saturday afternoon.
Attendance figures appeared to hover somewhere around 1,000 for the weekend, with each set offering the kind of intimacy usually reserved for a smaller club performance. Aided by relatively low attendance numbers, the aforementioned ease with which fans can interact with artists, and the billing of several “super-jams”—sets allotted for standout members of various bands to throw together impromptu sets with each other—and it becomes apparent why the event features a palpably friendly atmosphere.
Friday’s early schedule featured several lesser known acts, including 13-year old blues guitar prodigy Bobby Paltauf’s namesake group. Aside from his technical skills, Paultauf’s ability to lead a band and execute subtle changes demonstrates the youngster’s uncanny knack for improvisational performance. It’d be difficult to imagine a future where Paltauf isn’t a well-known lead guitarist.
The weekend’s first performance in the covered but otherwise open-to-the-outdoors main E-Rena stage featured Midwestern funk/soul outfit The Main Squeeze. The band made a noticeable impression on one of the festival’s first large crowds, with keyboardist Ben Silverstein and guitarist Max Newman displaying impressive solos amidst powerful, upbeat funk numbers. Corey Frye, the band’s energetic, commanding vocalist and leader on stage, leant plenty of his own gusto, especially on a hard-hitting cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”
Honky-tonk Southern soul-rockers J.J. Grey and Mofro would follow, providing a divergent spectacle amidst the weekend’s dozens of funk influenced sets. Grey’s assured charm and scathing harmonica licks were particularly memorable. Leeds, England based The New Mastersounds would headline the evening, with their crisp, energetic funk sound accented by and announced sit-in by saxophonist James Casey, who regularly performs with Lettuce, Trey Anastasio Band and his own group, James Casey and the Eclective Collective. Casey’s graceful, passionate sax lines added a deep dimension to the band’s clean, strings-based funk.
Following The Mastersounds’ powerful performance with Casey, guitar and producer duo BoomBox filled the evening’s late-night slot (2:00-3:30) with upbeat, hip-hop influenced grooves that at times rang flat and dispassionate. After a day featuring full-band sets in which instrumental interaction and individual solos won the day, BoomBox’s manufactured, produced background and tepid, small stage presence seemed more of a signal that it was bedtime than a rallying cry for the evening’s musical fun to continue.
With sunshine and heat in Saturday’s forecast, one thing was clear; the Camp Equinunk pool and impressive waterslide would be the home-base for daytime activity. The adjoining Camp Blueridge also featured a pool and adjacent stage, but Saturday’s Equinunk Pool Stage featured established, can’t-miss names like The Heavy Pets, Marco Benevento and Keller Williams. Williams’ current project— a fabulously soulful funk band dubbed More Than A Little—renders his familiar and endearing quirkiness nearly unrecognizable by bringing aggressive slap-bass and female vocals to the forefront.
Williams has always prided himself in his cover song selection. Saturday’s set featured exemplary versions of the Talking Heads classics “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)” and “Once in a Lifetime,” as well as a ballsy, different detour through the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway.”
As dusk approached, Bobby Paltauf Band set up and began an unannounced performance in the Equinunk Camping section. With a growing crowd of curious onlookers assembling, saxophonist Sebastian Berruz of Baltimore/D.C. based funk/rock outfit Subtle Hustle joined the keyboard-less Paltauf band for entertaining renditions of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” Phish’s “Tweezer Reprise,” The Allmans Brothers’ “Southbound,” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which featured the arrangement popularized by Soulive, the evening’s headlining act. For a festival priding itself on collaboration and intimacy, a set taking place within the camping section felt right at home.
Starting with Nigel Hall Band’s early evening set, which opened the E-Rena stage, Saturday night would continue in spectacular fashion, quite literally until sunrise. Hall, a native of Washington, D.C. and multi-talented performer, has an obvious passion for old-school funk, bolstered by buttery smooth vocals. Often lending said vocals to funk powerhouse Lettuce, Hall’s own band is a project where his simultaneous keyboard and vocal talents are given more space to open up and breathe. Saturday’s set took on a smart, retro-funk feel, reinforced by Hall’s Lettuce band-mate Adam Smirnoff and his wicked, retro studio-funk rhythm guitar.
Just as J.J. Grey and Mofro provided a much appreciated temporary deferment from funk-dominated sets on Friday, nitty-gritty New Orleans based rocker Anders Osborne’s billing with keyboardist John Medeski would do the same Saturday. With Osborne’s energetic inflection and Medeski’s featured presence, new elements were drawn from Osborne originals like “Me and Lola,” “The Road to Charlie Parker,” and “Back on Dumaine,” as well as covers like Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” and Woody Guthrie’s oft-covered “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
Saturday night’s headliners, Soulive, would benefit greatly from guests sitting in, both announced and otherwise. With their set billed as a performance featuring The Shady Horns and legendary saxophonist and vocalist Maceo Parker, the set took on a new life, uplifting their cool, laidback grooves and adding rich texture. Hall would appear at the end of their set, crooning out an impossibly soulful rendition of Tears for Fears’ 1985 new wave hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Later, Hall reflected on the apparently impromptu moment. “It just kind of came together last minute,” he said. “Sometimes, the best ones come together like that.”
As Soulive’s set ended around 1:45 a.m., keyboardist and vocalist Marco Benevento began what the festival’s promoters had dubbed a Campfire Set. Beginning with a band and continuing variously without backing instruments (aside from dozens of campers with percussion instruments of their own) and featuring, at different points, vocals from Corey Frye of The Main Squeeze (who was obviously in his element directing fans in sing-a-longs), Arleigh Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds and, early into the next day, a keyboard-sharing moment with Nigel Hall, the set took on a life of its own.
With The New Mastersounds playing an announced late-night set for several hours of Benevento’s campfire experience, attendees wandered to and from the circle constantly, sometimes stumbling into raucous participatory run-throughs of Benevento originals, classics like “Bennie and The Jets” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” or segments of the Brooklyn-based musician simply pounding his old-fashioned sounding, modified piano. The set, by most accounts, officially ended at 9:15 a.m.
Brett Weinberg, one of the festival organizers, responded to questions about the campfire set (the first of its kind in the event’s five-year history) enthusiastically. “Campfires were always a big tradition during our summers growing up as kids at Equinunk (all taking place in that same spot as the set on Saturday night) and we thought this intimate experience would resonate well with our attendees; something fun and unique that everyone who experienced it would remember forever,” he said.
“Marco was truly the perfect fit, which explains why he jumped at the opportunity when we first brought it to him. The initial feedback has been overwhelming and it is certainly one of the cooler things we have ever seen done. It was perfect. I think we have seen the first of many future Equifunk camp fire sets,” Weinberg said, adding that he’d love to see the set somehow go “past 9:15 next year,” a lofty goal, though one not completely unrealistic.
Featuring music on Sunday for the first time with at this year’s event, organizers focused on marquee names, hoping to retain as much of the crowd as possible. Before the big names, though, hard-rocking trio The London Souls would prove one of the day’s early surprises, pulling together a heavy, pulse-pounding set which ensured that audience members still reeling from Saturday’s all-night festivities were awake and alert.
With Phish drummer Jon Fishman’s side project Pork Tornado among Sunday’s draws, two star-studded jams also served to convince fans to stick around. The first of which, dubbed The Equifunk All-Stars, featured Casey, Hall, drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Pete Shand, New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts (whose delightful and off-the-cuff stage banter added an extra element of lightheartedness to the impromptu feel of the set) and a handful of guests. The set’s highlight, a sprawling, delightfully funky run through Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” found Hall temporarily unwilling to move on from the song's intro because of how much fun he was having (Roberts explained as much to the crowd), and Casey using his solo to display awe-inspiring, soulful improvisation.With the evening’s final set featuring respected individual musicians collaborating (Moore, Parker, Medeski, Benevento, bassist Robert Mercurio and guitarist/vocalist Papa Mali billed as The M&Ms), the festival closed by emphasizing its strongest and most lasting impression; that Equifunk, ever the rare experience, provides as much of a unique outlet and opportunity for its performers as it does for its audience.