Most of our five-hour drive to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Equinunk was taken up by a discussion of the 1980s action vehicle Roadhouse; specifically, the overall plausibility of the film. Would rich, evil Brad Wesley really waste his time exerting a stranglehold over the podunk burg of Jasper, Missouri? A town which seemed to have, at most, three businesses in it? How much money could he really make extorting an auto parts store? It seemed, in all likelihood, a business model destined to fail in a film that at every turn becomes more unbelievable, yet somehow more awesome.
I bring this up because our destination - an all-inclusive funk/jam festival held on the sprawling campus of a Poconos summer camp - seemed unbelievable as well. Two days, fifteen bands, cabin living, limitless beer, and all meals prepared? All for one price? And did I mention it’s at summer camp? The skeptical side of me couldn't help but wonder if it were too good to be true. I was like those naysayers meeting Roadhouse's James Dalton, sizing him up, and saying "I thought you'd be bigger."
Turns out Equifunk is bigger, and badder, and more energetic (yet somehow more laid back) than any number of other festivals that cost five times as much. There is, as numerous people told us throughout the weekend, "just a vibe" on the campus of Camp Equinunk that is completely unparalleled in any other music experience. Very few music festivals are held in such scenic rural locations; so rural, in fact, that you're forced to go native as your cell phone bars gradually shrink and eventually disappear completely. And because the event is all-inclusive, you don't need your wallet. I can't remember the last time I left my cell phone and wallet in the car for two hours, much less two days. But damn if it isn't refreshing to not have to worry about them.
Required gear at Equifunk
After checking into our bunk we were ready for some music. Alas, nature thought better of this idea and the skies opened before the first note was played. We ducked onto the porch of a nearby cabin with dozens of other Equifunkers - and two nice folks carrying three full kegs of beer. The lack of music instantly became a less troublesome issue.
We chatted with new friends and found out that many of the Equifunk attendees - we were told it was 25 percent but it seemed like at least a third - are former campers and/or counselors. It's clear that they love their camp, and they want you to love it too. Jeff Kotcher, a camper/counselor for 14 years, told us, "A lot of my friends are here, just really enjoying a good time. The music is a plus, but it's good to just be back up here in the middle of nowhere. No technology, you're just enjoying life." It’s an attitude that permeates the entire event – yes you’re going to hear amazing music, but you’re also going to be a camper (read: a kid) again, and you’re among friends.
After an hour or so the rain stopped which allowed the first band, The Uptown Party Down, to get the night started. The early bands played at the "Teepee Stage," so named because of a makeshift teepee that sat behind the performers. The stage itself was built near a small campfire area in the center of camp, which gave a loose sing-along feeling to the performances. Even though they're relatively new, Uptown Party Down didn't play like it - despite the rain delay, the eight-piece group was tight. "A little rain never hurt nobody," quipped singer Alex Birnie. It certainly didn’t hurt the Uptown Party Down.
Splendor in the grass
Long Island's Nonstop to Cairo was up next, an eclectic mixture of funk, reggae and rock that got the Equifunkers dancing as the sun went down. Vocalist August Harris' frenetic movements and great voice calls to mind a young Angelo Moore - in fact comparing Nonstop to Fishbone isn't unrealistic; the band has seemingly limitless energy, never more than when bassist Matt Ezzo left the stage to ply his trade on wet grass with the fans. One could describe Nonstop to Cairo the way John Fishman once described Fishbone – “tighter than a mosquito’s ass.”
The rain pushed the final "Teepee Stage" performance to the next morning, so it was off to the late shows at the "E-Rena," a large covered roller hockey rink fitted with a very impressive stage and lighting rig. Brooklyn's Pimps of Joytime were up first. Like a lot of bands on the Equifunk lineup, the Pimps are jacks of all trades, creating what bandleader Brian J calls a "gumbo of sound,” afrobeat, reggae, dub, salsa, and of course a little funk. The E-Rena crowd took a little while to get revved up – one gets the sense that during the rain they retreated to their bunks for some light recreation – but once the Pimps got going it was all over. Balloons and beach balls flew, girls stood on the sideline and hula-hooped (is that the verb?), and everybody danced. Don’t take our word for it though – go see the Pimps of Joytime at Ram’s Head Live on July 23 and judge for yourself.
Next up was Dumpstaphunk. Formed by New Orleans royalty Ivan Neville in 2003, Dumpstaphunk was originally intended to play JazzFest and a few select other shows, then call it quits. Neville kept the band going and funk is all the much better because he has. The soul of the Meters is still there; founding Meter Art Neville is Ivan’s uncle and guitarist Ian Neville’s father. That funky bassline, organ, and jangly guitar that are so essential to funk music are never done better than when done by Nevilles. Add in the crisp, perfect drums of relative newcomer Nikki Glaspie and you’ve got a recipe for Tabasco-sauced awesomeness unlike any other band working.
Ivan, playing in his obligatory Saints t-shirt, frequently revved the crowd up, though had he said nothing the Eqiufunkers would still be ecstatic. A cover of the Queen/David Bowie classic “Fame” and the band’ signature song, “Put It in the Dumpsta” were favorites, but not a soul stood still for the duration of the set. Fortunately you’ve got the opportunity to see the Dumpsta for yourself when they play the Hamilton on Friday night.
The night time is the right time at Equifunk
It was difficult, then, for RAC, a self-described “group of international members who create re-interpretative rock/electronica/dance remixes for musical artists” to follow up. Mixing a set of remixes and dubstep tunes, RAC essentially acted as background music as folks socialized, got another drink, and generally enjoyed the splendor of a perfect night in the Poconos. That was likely the point – one can’t literally dance all night.
At about 1:00 a.m., however, booties got moving again as Sucker Punch took the stage. A long-dormant “livetronica” supergroup featuring members of the Disco Biscuits, The New Deal, and Lotus, the band had what appeared to be a 4-5 song setlist but in reality played one massive jam. Jamie Shields of the now (sadly) defunct New Deal sizzled on his own song “Denmark Massive” as the always entertaining Marc Brownstein of the Disco Biscuits wailed on bass. The always working Brownstein and the Biscuits recently finished up their 11th annual “Camp Bisco” in upstate New York, and Brownstein is the co-founder of HeadCount, a non-profit that engages activism through music. Even with that hectic schedule, let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years for more Sucker Punch.
Day 1 wound to a close as Aashish Bansal, who DJs under the name Speaker Bot, plied his trade for what little crowd hadn’t stumbled back to their cabins happy and funked up. As we wandered through the fresh air at nearly 3 a.m., gazing at the astoundingly bright stars (live in the city too long and you forget what stars look like) several of us agreed it would likely be an early night on Saturday. Oh how wrong we were. Tune in tomorrow for Part II.