While Friday afternoon was cloudy and rainy, Saturday morning dawned clear and warm at Equifunk. We wandered through the camp and enjoyed the picturesque landscape as laughter and music emanated from all the bunks. Campers enjoyed breakfast in the mess hall, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, softball, even hula hoop lessons. In other words, it was summer camp.
But the music started soon enough. Brooklyn’s I’ll Be John Brown provided the perfect Saturday morning set with a classic rock sound that called to mind a rawer version of Credence Clearwater Revival. After the electronic experimentation of the night before, it was great to have some “real” music again. A highlight of the band’s set was a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie” – combined with Dumpstaphunk’s cover of “Fame” the previous evening, we began to see a pattern of Equifunk bands doing amazing renditions of other songs; it was a trend that would continue.
The band I had been itching to see, Brooklyn-based nine-piece rockers Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, were scheduled to perform by the “Pool Stage” (exactly what it sounds like) at noon. It was clear when we got there, however, that setup was running behind. We surveyed the folks splashing in the pool, staked out a shady spot on the lawn, readied our notebooks and camera equipment, and, like any hardworking journalists, promptly fell asleep for the better part of an hour. Equifunk does that. No cell phones means no concept of time, but time doesn’t matter. There’ll be food, beer, and music for about 40 hours straight – why ruin that by watching the clock?
Eventually Sister Sparrow, neé Arleigh Kincheloe came on stage and, as we knew she would, promptly ripped the shit out of it. It’s astounding that such a husky and huge voice comes out of Kincheloe who is, to paraphrase Roc Dutton in Rudy, “five feet nothin’.” Her voice seems to change with every song – on “Millie Mae” she was Susan Tedeschi, on “Hollow Bones” she was Janis Joplin, but on “Dirt” she’s all Sister Sparrow, a funked-out wrecking ball whose “eyes are bigger than my liver.” Kincheloe’s brother Jackson, the unofficial bandleader, accompanies her on a bluesy, distorted harmonica. He’s probably sick of being compared to John Popper, but the compliment is accurate because the man is damn good.
The Equifunk crowd either danced along with Sister Sparrow, enjoyed the pool, or both. Eventually large quantities of sandwiches and fruit were brought to us. We were, as Red says in Shawshank Redemption, the lords of all creation. The vibe was so good that Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, who were scheduled to hop back on the bus after their show, staked out a cabin and stayed the night to enjoy the rest of the festival. Again, Equifunk does that.
Next up was Orgone, who actually had two slots on the Equifunk schedule. Formerly a backup band for a number of hip-hop musicians and then a primarily instrumental outfit, the band took on a singer in 2007. Recently, the singing duties have been handled by vocalist Niki Crawford who looks like Lauren Hill, sings like Jill Scott, and has all the saucy funk power you’d ever need. Orgone’s daytime set was primarily instrumental, however, as they channeled everyone from the Meters to Medeski, Martin & Wood on their extended jams. They left the crowd wanting more, which we knew we’d get later that night.
Bloomington, Indiana might not seem like a hotbed of funk, but the next act, the Main Squeeze, makes you think there’s more to the Hoosier State than Mellencamp and Axl Rose. The Squeeze beat out 200 other bands earlier this year for the chance to play at Rolling Stone magazine’s Super Bowl party, and they’ve been turning heads and making butts move ever since. Vocalist Corey “Large” Frye has a voice as big as his body and he’s not afraid to use it. A five-piece band - tiny by Equifunk standards - the Main Squeeze sounds much bigger, turning a great combination of covers (including a badass “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and originals into a fantastic but shortened set. No worries – before their last song Frye let the audience know they’d be playing a show in the camp’s social hall following Galactic’s set later than night. A set which we all knew wouldn’t end until nearly 3:00 a.m. So much for our planned early night.
Fans and artists alike enjoy music festivals because of the exposure. Bands get to play in front of audiences that wouldn’t normally seek them out, and festival attendees get to discover new music. It’s the basic reason festivals have gotten so popular. At most festivals, one or two bands that had been flying under the radar rise above the rest, putting on a show that garners universal acclaim and instant attention, not to mention a cadre of new fans. At Equifunk that band was Turkuaz.
A self-described ten-piece “funk army”, Turkuaz blew the roof off the pool stage, playing until the sun went down, though the crowd would have continued to dance in the dark had it been an option. Combining funk, blues, and rock in a way that hasn’t been done since members of P-Funk showed up in the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Turkuaz are an incredibly talented group that does 300 things at once, and does them all well. The band’s music is as wonderfully mixed as its members - bandleader Dave Brandwein resembles a (funky) English professor, bassist Taylor Shell is a displaced San Francisco hippie, the horn section wears jumpsuits that invoke DEVO or possibly Joel Hodgson in Mystery Science Theater, and backup singers Lisa Ramey and Geneva Williams add slinky dance moves to enhance their fantastic pipes. To call Ramey and Williams “backup” singers, however, does them an injustice – they tie the music together brilliantly.
After ten or so scorching originals and two covers (The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” and a spectacular version of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’”) Turkuaz made believers out of the Equifunk crowd and made the last hour by the pool the most memorable.
As night fell it was back to the E-Rena for Led Zeppelin tribute band Bustle in Your Hedgerow. I like Zeppelin as much as the next guy, but after 24 straight hours of funk I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to some skinny English dude singing about wood sprites. Turns out I’m an idiot - Bustle in Your Hedgerow does mind-bendingly good instrumental-jam versions of Zeppelin songs. You could argue that Bustle’s jams are “suggested” by Zeppelin riffs, as opposed to pure covers; the band takes the originals and veers off in any number of directions. You can hear “Over the Hills and Far Away” in there somewhere, but what they’re creating over it is something entirely different.
A highlight of Bustle in Your Hedgerow’s set was when Galactic drummer Stanton Moore hopped up on stage and assisted Bustle drummer Joey Russo with his duties, before temporarily taking over completely. (Russo later returned the favor during Galactic’s set, only he did it wearing a dog costume. Don’t ask, it’s Equifunk.)
Orgone then performed their second set, this time featuring more of Niki Crawford’s stellar vocals. A former backup singer for Macy Gray, Crawford is very happy being in front, as evidenced by the band’s fantastic performance at Bonnaroo earlier this year. She brought it again at Equifunk as did the whole band. Sergio Rios on guitar and Dan Hastie on keyboards are a formidable presence, insanely talented and seemingly linked by the mind as each knew precisely when the starts and stops were going to occur. Even though they had played two shows in four hours, they looked ready and willing to keep going.
Then it was Galactic’s turn, and the headliners didn’t disappoint. Guitarist Jeff Raines and bassist Robert Mercurio (both natives of the DC area) join Stanton Moore and organist Rich Vogel to form the most powerful combination of funk, zydeco, blues, and jazz this side of Jackson Square. Their recent record, Carnivale Electricos is a jamtronica ode to Mardis Gras, and their Equifunk show came off much the same way – a raging party of music and fun with a group of musicians as skilled as any in the world.
Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover handled singing duties, leading crowd chants on “Hey Na Na” as well as a fantastic version of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” (Apparently there’s plenty of room at a funk show for Zeppelin.) We’d secretly wondered if Glover would be called upon to sing his best known song, Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” and when Raines ripped the famous opening riff, the crowd went apeshit, despite most of them having been born right around the time the song was released. Call me nostalgic but the song may have been the highlight of the festival.
As expected the band wrapped up at a little before 3:00 a.m. and it was off to the camp social hall for another set by the Main Squeeze. The scene called to mind something out of Dirty Dancing, only with a lot more soul, as the band – clearly enjoying itself – continued its energetic brand of R&B literally until dawn.
To sum up: Equifunk is like no other music festival I’ve ever seen. The festival is “all-inclusive” in more ways than just food and drink – people go out of their way to be nice and make other people’s experience better. The bands aren’t in some backstage green room trying to hide – at dinner Saturday night we were in the same line to get burgers and dogs as members of Sister Sparrow and Orgone. The music – which despite the name is not all funk – was almost universally fantastic. Equifunk is trying to attract more music fans from the DC area next year, and I recommend you heed the call.