July 9: gather the band in Hoboken, New Jersey at the PATH train stop after picking up two vans in Lyndhurst, NJ. Philly area: Ardmore Music Hall A gorgeous, intimate venue on the western outskirts of Philadelphia with an amazing lineup of bands passing through there. Definitely a hidden gem and as good or better than any medium size venue in downtown. Philadelphia family turned out and the show was hot.
All Good Festival, West Virginia We had a smooth drive down which got very pretty, very fast when we hit the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet in the western MD/ Northern WV, northern VA area. People were out on the kayaking, swimming, fishing, soaking up the sun on large flat rocks in the middle of the river. To be able to pull over the van and just take some time to enjoy…alas. The road took us near, but not through Harper’s Ferry. We got to the festival, set on the grounds of a Berry Farm. It was a pretty huge operation. The sun was glaring down and there was no shade anywhere, aside from our little tent in the backstage area that was more like a sauna.
We did an afternoon set which was great although we were frying in the sun (there’s an archive of it if you’re interested in listening), ate an amazing dinner (best festival catering of the summer) and got to say a quick hello and goodbye to our friend John Medeski, who was later performing with The Word.
We hit the road around 6PM and drove back about 7 hours to NY for a quick sleep in our beds.
Green River Festival: Greenfield, MA
We arrived in the early afternoon, making pretty good time up from Brooklyn. The festival was set on the grounds of Greenfield Community College, a little ways north of the Northampton/Amherst area in the mountains of Western Massachusetts. They had three stages, spread out over the meadow below the main college building. In between the stages, dozens of full-size hot air balloons inflated and lifted off into the air and across the valley over the course of the afternoon. I didn’t think it would be that exciting to watch, but seeing it up close changes everything. To see a bundle of silk transform into an enormous floating egg, with the help of a giant flaming torch is a real sight to behold.
We got to see our friends Red Baraat, Rubblebucket, tUnE-yArDs and the Wood Brothers, and played a late night set following the Wood Brothers.
We drove back to the city the next morning and had a day off to pack our bags.
We had a full day to to drive to Ottawa. It took about nine hours to get there, including a stop at the Canadian border. We drove through the mountains in central / Western New York State stopped in Syracuse at a food coop and got some very good road food and continued on to Ottawa where we arrived around 10:30PM.
Ottawa: Bluesfest This was a massive multi-day festival held in the center of Ottawa, the capital of Canada. We arrived in the afternoon amidst heavy clouds. Right before soundcheck I ran over to the CBC Radio national studios and did a quick Q&A. When we collected at the venue, there was a and a lot of rain and we did a quick line check in a downpour. The rain died down mostly when we played. The stage was slick with water and it was a little dicey and chilly but nonetheless strong and fun. It was in an open garden, ironically, behind the Canadian War Museum. Hopefully we changed the energy, at least temporarily. We got some dinner afterwards in the dining area behind the MainStage where Lynyrd Skynyrd was performing and went out to a pub celebrate the birthday of our percussionist Marcus Farrar.
Laval: Laval is a university town / suburb north of Montreal. We arrived at the venue just past noon to load in. It was in a giant concrete parking lot in a massive mall area, next to an enormous cinema. It was scorching hot. We got onstage early and were able to have a nice long sound check where we worked on the new vocal section to “Gold Rush” and worked through some other transitions in the set. It felt really good to have some relaxed time on the stage and not feel rushed.
We got to the hotel, just on the other side of the highway, and met down in the lobby to go out for a birthday dinner, this time celebrating the birthday of our bassist, Nikhil Yerawadekar. We found a spot across the street and were having a divine time when we looked at the clock and had to hightail it back to the van to get to the show.
The band before us was just finishing up and we got ready. Saxophonist Joe Woullard’s wife made me a cape, so I put it on, and he wore his. The show was amazing. It was free, outdoors, and all ages so we had a wildly diverse audience of kids, teenagers, adults, elders, people sitting, standing, dancing. I don’t think many of them knew us but they dug it. After the show, the stage went dark, and this 100m long row of fountains started blasting, with a light show and animation projected on to it telling a story. I had to pack up so unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy it but it was quite a spectacle.
Quebec: We hit a bit of traffic and arrived and had to run straight to sound check. The town is gorgeous…we played a small plaza right at the gates to the old walled city, about five blocks from the massive cliff overlooking the lower town and the river. We checked, and then had about three hours to eat and prepare. We bumped into our old friend Odario Williams aka Grand Analog, who was performing before us on the same stage. I ran a few blocks for a live-on-the air interview broadcast from an old historic bar for a local community radio station, and then went back to do the show.
We played around 9PM had a great audience, again free, all ages. Midway through the show, my neck strap broke and my horn went crashing to the floor. Several keys on the lower bell section buckled and were unplayable. I ran backstage and into the Grand Analog dressing room, and the tenor sax player lent me his neckstrap, but I still had the problem of the horn itself. When I blew through the horn, nothing but raw squawks came out when I fingered those notes. I had to play the rest of the show an octave up and sometimes using other harmonies, but it worked out. I spent the whole night praying that I’d be able to find a shop in Montreal that could fix it.
Montreal: We hit the road around 7 AM (ugh) and motored down the east side of the St. Lawrence to Montreal. It was pretty uneventful except that the rest stop where we paused had a bunch of large fiberglass replicas of dinosaurs.
As luck would have it, the best horn repair shop in town (Twigg Musique) was 1.5 blocks from the hotel we were booked at. I dropped my horn off and hoped for the best. The band sound checked and afterwards, Amayo and I went to St John’s Church to meet with Professor Norman Cornett for a Dialogic Session. We met Prof. Cornett back in July 2001 when we performed at the Montreal Jazz Fest. He was teaching a course at McGill University called the Soul and Soul Music. Five of us—Amayo, Victor, Phil, Stuart participated in the class. We talked about music, protest, a bit about the history of Fela and afrobeat music and how we made music inspired in part by him in a different political context.
The Dialogic Sessions this year were much deeper. In a nutshell, the Dialogic Session is a format/ is a listening/meditation exercise developed by Professor Cornett and has been conducted across the globe. In the exercise, the participants are sensory deprived except for their ability to hear. They’re in the dark, with a blindfold or scarf over their eyes, and they listen to an entire piece of music. When the song ends, the lights come on and they are instructed to write about different aspects of the music and their reaction to and perception of it. How long did they imagine the song to be (in minutes and seconds)? What were the empirical things they noticed: what instruments were present? How many voices? What structures did they notice in the song? Then, how did the music make them feel? What emotions were present? What feelings did the song convey? Following that, they were instructed to distill their impressions of the song into the form of a tweet in 140 characters or less.
Prof Cornett conducted this in Montreal a few days prior to our dialogic session, and several of the participants of this session were in attendance with Amayo and I. Prof Cornett read their responses to the music and it was incredible to hear how deeply they were able to get into the music via these questions. They were so present, and were able to really pick out so much of what is going on in the music that normally goes over people’s heads. Their observations made me think a lot about songs that I haven’t listened to in a while—what moods and feelings they perceive, and how their perceptions coincided, for the most part, with what we were trying to express, even though they didn’t really pick up on all the lyrics. It was a transformative, psychedelic experience without any external drugs or catalysts. After the discussion of the pieces “Filibuster XXX” from our fourth album “Security” and “Sare Kon Kon” from our most recent album, we did a longer question and answer and the audience’s questions were equally deep and nuanced.
I was moved by the depth of the engagement of the listeners and made a promise to Professor Cornett to go through this exercise myself with a piece (or pieces of) music. I’m trying to find the right time, place, and cast of characters to do this with so Prof Cornett if you’re reading this, be patient!
Before we knew it, it was time to hustle back across town to pick up my horn before the shop closed. They were closing early and stayed open a few extra minutes for me to come and grab my horn before heading over to the venue for dinner before the show. The horn looked and sounded great, and they did it for a reasonable price although horn repairs are never, ever cheap.
There was some light rain before and during the show but it was nonetheless crushing—again, free, outdoors, all ages. Montreal in the summer is one of the best places to be. People squeeze every last drop out of the sunshine and the beautiful weather. There are outdoor festivals of all types—jazz, African music, comedy, theater, all through the summer months. Everyone is out in the streets and the town is pulsating with life.
We got back to the hotel in a rather grimy part of town where there was a lot of drug activity on the street and the parking lot attendants warned us to take absolutely everything of value out of the vans. We got to sleep and took off the next morning, pretty early, for Cottage Country, Ontario.
River and Sky Festival, West Nippissing Area We hit the road from Montreal and counted our blessings that the vans weren’t messed with. The previous night, some guys, upon coming back from a bar around the corner, saw a drug deal gone bad and a guy fleeing some assailants sprinting into the hotel lobby.
We had one stop that we could make and chose wisely to stop in Ottawa for a lunch. Online we found a place called Wilf and Ada’s. It was locally sourced, and delicious and not crushingly expensive. Bellies full, we headed northwest. An hour or so beyond Ottawa, the country was less and less populated, and the last several hours of our drive were through forests. We hit one small town of North Bay, which seemed enormous compared to the two or three small towns we had passed through, and then headed west along Lake Nipissing, passing territory belonging to the Nipissing First Nation.
We got to our hotel, had about 45 minutes to catch our breath, and drove to the festival. We were a little stressed because both tanks had the fuel lights on and there were no gas stations nearby that we could get to and make it on time.
Up the Sturgeon River we drove, passing through the tiny town of Field, Ontario, and into the wilderness west of town until we got arrived at the small camp called Fisher's Paradise where for the past few years they’ve been hosting the River and Sky Festival.
It was very, very roots…perhaps more homespun than what we expected, but they made up for it in vibe, and enthusiasm, and the stage sound was great. When we got there a band called Homeshake was playing. They were so mellow and it really blended in with the serenity of the meadow at the foot of a hill alongside a river bend. A few of us went out in canoes and paddled around for a few minutes before we had to unpack and get to the stage.
The set up was a little bit hectic as we are a big band and as in many cases maxes out their mic stands and channels. To add to the chaos, the mosquitos, and other night-feeding, blood sucking bugs came out just as the sun went down, and many of these were drawn to the light of the stage. It was like a Hitchcock film. After the show, we counted the bites on our hands and necks. Many of us got bit through our shirts and pants.
We had enough gas to make it back to the hotel for a short night’s sleep. We found a gas station in the morning took off for a drive Hamilton that got really hairy once we hit the weekend vacation traffic north of Toronto.
Hamilton, ON Hamilton is a gritty former steel town about an hour southwest of Toronto along the lake. In former years, it was an industrial powerhouse and was built up and developed into a major city by 1900. The decline of steel and other heavy manufacturing crashed the economy and the city fell into a decline. From the 1950s to the 1980s, much of the old downtown area and many central neighborhoods were destroyed and parking lots and bland shopping complexes, including the one surrounding the hotel where we stayed. Nonetheless, the city is very cosmopolitan and has a lot of flavor. In recent years the skyrocketing housing prices in Toronto have driven a lot of people to move to Hamilton.
We played at a small bar called This Ain’t Hollywood. It’s a dive, but in the most endearing sense. Last year, we played a free show at the Hamilton James Street Supercrawl, along with Charles Bradley, Sugarman Three, Naomi Shelton as part of the Daptone Super Soul Revue, and were treated to a late night set by the Sugarman Three at This Ain’t Hollywood later that night.
We were excited to be playing a small club venue in contrast to the large festival stages of the previous several nights. The show was amazing…sold out to a very sweaty room of about 250 people. We stayed out on the patio till the wee hours of the morning socializing, knocking down pints, and eating some delicious vegan macaroons and pumpkin squares brought to us (all the way from Rochester, NY) by artist Valerie Berner. Shout out to the few dozen people from Buffalo, Rochester, and other parts upstate who crossed the border to see us!
We had the next day off…our first in 8 days…to catch up and rest. We had to switch hotels, which was a drag, but we got settled and all went our separate ways to do laundry, work out, sleep, find a instrument store, or a decent cup of coffee.
The next day we took off for Toronto, and had another night off. A bunch of us went and checked out Los Van Van, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires in Nathan Philips Square in downtown Toronto. The bands were amazing but big concrete spaces like that aren’t typically good for sound, and this spot was no exception. It’s always a drag when they take the best bands from the world and put them in the worst sounding places in the city. We’ve been there many times.
I caught up with a pair of very dear friends, a creative artist couple living and working in Toronto and doing work at Happy Sleepy.
The next day we had a 9:30AM lobby call and packed into one van to head over to the venue, get our credentials, and wait for sound check. The credentialing process was intense. We had to bring our passports, and in normal fashion, one of us forgot his. We were issued THREE enormous laminates barely smaller than an iPad and cleared to go backstage. As these were the PanAm games the security was in full effect. Soldiers, police and everyone in between were posted all over.
We performed at 3:30 to a pretty nice sized audience, just after Charles Bradley. We got back to the hotel and got some dinner and went to sleep.
The next day, a few of us went to the airport while others drove the vans back to New York City.
FOH Engineer / Tour Manager: Drew Thornton Touring lineup July 2015: Amayo - lead vocals, percussion Jordan McLean - trumpet Joseph Woullard - tenor saxophone Eric Biondo - trumpet Martín Perna - baritone saxophone, flute Ray Mason - trombone (on leg 1) Jas Walton - tenor saxophone (on leg 1)
Will Rast - keyboards Tim Allen - guitar Marcos García - guitar (on leg 1) Raja Kassis - guitar Nikhil Yerawadekar - bass
Kevin Raczka - drums Marcus Farrar - percussion, vocals Reinaldo deJesus - congas