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The Werk Out 2016 Review: A Bubble in a Valley

Aug 12, 2016 11:57AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Lettuce // Photo By Stephen Perraud

In its seventh year, The Werk Out Music and Arts Festival offers attendees three days of camping in an expressive environment and a decidedly communal respite from a contentious election season

By Stephen Perraud

The modern American music festival landscape is layered and bottom-heavy. The ebb and flow of the summer festival ecosystem can sustain only a limited number of mega-events like Bonnaroo and Coachella, which attract disproportionate attention. Below the surface lie myriad smaller events, sometimes thrown by bands themselves, many carrying musical ethos and aesthetics tracing back directly to the Grateful Dead’s traveling circus of extended musical exploration.

Among the oft-critic-derided and sometimes misunderstood world of Dead-spawned improv-rock, word of mouth buzz and fandom centered on attending performances sustains a lesser known festival circuit where relatively unknown bands like The Werks can draw thousands of attendees to camp out for three days of music.

This year’s The Werk Out Music and Arts Festival, now in its seventh iteration and inhabiting Ohio’s natural amphitheatre slash campground property Legend Valley from August 4-6, stretches the limits of small festival format by booking larger draws and a diverse lineup (STS9, Lettuce, The Motet, Greensky Bluegrass), while still offering a reasonable price tag and allowing fans to bring their own beer.

As with many festivals, the need for a camping environment and room for thousands to roam and explore can deposit free-spirited, arts focused urbanites in a rural, salt-of-the-earth locale. Though reductive and coarser, maybe the more straightforward portrayal is that several thousands of Bernie Sanders supporters are deposited in Trump country. Conversations and interviews on the way to the festival and on site confirmed the dichotomy.

Thornville, Ohio, where The Werk Out is held, is a straight-shot, six-hour drive west from Maryland, through the heart of the Rust Belt. With our country enmeshed by seemingly irreconcilable social and political divides, the trip is a representative jaunt through rural Pennsylvania and Ohio counties where simmering discontent and support for Donald Trump is likely only to be overshadowed in November, according to recent polls, by sheer populous in bluer urban centers.
Everyone Orchestra // Photo By Stephen Perraud
Visually, the trek is all rolling hills, with 70 mph speed limits. Long, green pastures and valleys whiz by, interrupted by red wooden country store slash restaurants and taverns where motorcycles gleam, angled out front, lit-up Steelers insignia appearing where you might expect to see religious iconography.

I stop for a bite and a stretch, hoping to chat with some locals about the rift our country is experiencing in order to contextualize my journey from Blue Maryland through Red Pennsyl-Hio Belt to the festival’s Bernie Island. The hot dog stand where I park has a sign reading “MOST OF OUR DOGGS ARE FORKERS.” The women working inside look bored but friendly, and I strike up a conversation with one of them. She’s got short, bleached blonde, netted hair, a pierced eyebrow, and a tattoo of a dream-catcher on her neck.

A vent behind her hums loudly while we talk. I ask her whether she feels like, as a country, we’re improving or regressing.

“I feel it’s getting worse,” she says. I ask why. “Our President.”

I thank her for the hotdog, which, although good, is no forker, and continue through Pennsylvania and into Ohio. Mitt Romney captured Perry County, where Legend Valley stretches out from behind a hillside highway, narrowly in 2012’s presidential contest, though he’d lose Ohio overall by an even slimmer margin. A few months ago, Trump easily bested Ohio governor John Kasich in Perry’s Republican Primary voting.

But entering the festival is like another jump through time and space. Thousands are already parked and in various stages of camping setup. A woman wearing a full-body cat mascot outfit playing loud electronic dance music through a portable speaker directs me in a line of cars. The festival’s PR team has communicated to me in no uncertain terms that my credentials are to allow me on-site, in general admission camping, which involves parking and hauling camping gear a not-insignificant distance and, though affordable to attendees, is largely bereft of amenities.
Kung Fu // Photo By Stephen Perraud
As is the case with many smaller festivals, volunteers directing arrivals scratch their heads at my request for arranged press credentials. I’m directed away from the general admission entrance towards the VIP area, where an irrationally exuberant young lady insists that I park and camp in an open spot in VIP. I don’t offer much protest, setting up camp as the sun sets slowly behind the hills and checking the time to make sure I haven’t missed Brooklyn funk outlet Turkuaz.

I walk towards the smaller of two side-by-side stages, which allow for an act to set up while another performs, just as Turkuaz opens with “Chatte Lunatique,” a song from their Zerbert release. An octet with no weak links, Turkuaz is a true powerhouse on stage. Taylor Shell on bass and Michelangelo Carruba on drums form a one-two in the rhythm section giving their sound undeniable thump, with guitar, vocals, horns and synthesizers splayed around them in neat concentric radiation. Turkuaz builds momentum and peaks, as is their wont, with the closing “Monkey Fingers,” a bouncing retro-funk romp with hints of Parliament Funkadelic’s seminal “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” in its DNA.

The Werks follow, putting together a respectable set, complete with a few noteworthy jams which peak in a frenzy of crescendoing guitar lines and stage lights. It’s worth noting that the band booked several acts larger than themselves for the event, most notably STS9, Lettuce and Greensky Bluegrass, which could overshadow their vision for a namesake event. With each of their performances (one each night), however, the band is able to satiate their local devotees and spread their own gospel, whether running through mid-set covers on the main stage (“Carry on My Wayward Son” one night, “Frankenstein” another), or jamming their Ohio fanbase into the late night tent for a set of originals.

Among the festival’s redeeming qualities, its insistence on known funk acts appearing in late night sets is perhaps its strongest. All star funk collective Lettuce, billed in Thursday’s first late spot, navigates a high-energy trip through their more recent, jammed-out material, including a stellar opener in “Phyllis.” Without keyboardist/vocalist/hype-man Nigel Hall or lead guitar extraordinaire Eric Krasno present, the band sticks to a tight, improv-heavy feel. The group drives their set sideways, forward and through complicated funk grooves at an unreasonable volume, until they reach the unmistakable build to “Madison Square,” an anthemic, hold-on-tight while the rocket ship takes off, run through the locker room wall before the game, instrumental monster to behold.

Later in the festival, on Saturday night, Lettuce’s funk contemporaries The Motet, with a refreshed lineup including new vocalist Lyle Divinsky, stick mostly to the script. It’s a great script, though—the band’s recent release, Totem, is full of hot, retro jams like “Damn!,” which play well at 2 a.m. in a packed tent.

Back in the light of day, it’s clear that the festival honors its ‘and arts’ half of the bill. Instructive workshops, yoga sessions, visual art, fire spinning performances and sets with musicians from various bands (including an outstanding iteration of the ever-morphing Everyone Orchestra and a collective effort to recreate The Beatles’ Abbey Road) add to a palpable community vibe. The communal feeling is fed, in no small part, by the overall attitude of attendees. And, while the cliché vision of jamband fans as waifish, dreadlocked white man-children dressed like Aladdin isn’t exactly going to be dispelled here, conversations with attendees at the event are where stereotypes go to die.

Encounters with an ESPN camera operator from Missouri, an aquarium SCUBA diver from Ohio, a union welder from West Virginia and several successful small business owners reveal the creative and independent spirit of festival attendees at work outside of their leisurely pursuits. Most of the aforementioned attendees, ostensibly Sanders supporting liberals, rail against Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton when conversations veer towards political or social topics. The festival’s bubble of political discontent seems floating on a sea of entirely separate and diametrically opposed discontent in surrounding Perry County.
STS9 // Photo By Stephen Perraud
Electronic groove band Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), The Werk Out’s largest billed name, made minor waves recently at Pennsylvania festival Camp Bisco by lifting up the words of a member of the political establishment when they prominently featured a sample of President Obama’s recent Dallas address in which the president implored citizens to remain hopeful after a week of heartrending, public violence. If you’re unfamiliar with STS9, think muzak meets Eastern spiritualism meets electronic engineering. The band explores instrumental grooves and beats exhibiting the steady, soothing consistency of background music, with purposeful soft/loud dynamics and a tendency to build toward frenzied peaks providing a cathartic element unavailable in more-ambient instrumental comparisons. To use an analogy, the band’s sound is to elevator music as meditation is to just sitting there with your eyes closed.

STS9’s Werk Out set is not without incident itself; early in the first set, a female fan charges the stage and climbs Zach Velmer’s drum riser, falling backwards into Velmer and his kit. Velmer responds with aplomb, joking with the crowd and jumping back into the set, but the pitfalls aren’t quite over—the stage’s sound cuts out abruptly and unexpectedly during “Move My Peeps,” and the band decides to call it a set. It’s hard to imagine any fans leaving disappointed, however, after a second set features superlative playing on classics like “Really Wut?,” “Hubble,” and an encore of “Breathe In,” with its soothing, change-of-pace coda.

Saturday night, as The Werks close their final set of the event, they don white tuxedos and perform “Carry Me Back Home,” an emotional number serving as a tribute to Norman Dimitrouleas, their former keyboardist, who passed away in January. After Dimitrouleas’ passing, older brother and Werks bassist Dino Dimitrouleas announced he’d be taking a hiatus from the band to grieve.

Dino is back on stage throughout The Werk Out 2016, sitting in during collaborative sets and appearing with The Werks to pay tribute to his fallen brother. Before “Carry Me Back Home,” the elder Dimitrouleas thanks The Werks’ fan base for an outpouring of love and support after losing his brother, apologizing to any of the fans that reached out in the aftermath of Norman’s death to whom he wasn’t able to reply. Following the emotional number, the band brings the festival’s many operations staffers and volunteers on stage, which allows the crowd to roar in thanks and cements the aforementioned community buzz.

The Werk Out, uniquely positioned in this year’s incarnation to offer both bigger-drawing names on its bill while still fostering attendee-friendly environs, in the end, gives its thousands of battleground state native attendees a positive, non-partisan community celebration and an outlet for creative expression. It seems likely that the vibe of thankfulness and enjoyment in the air is particularly pronounced given what’s going on outside of this bubbled valley.