This year’s Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival was a 10 (maybe even an 11!)
There was a variety of food choices, from festival staples like funnel cakes, fries and lemonade, to veggie options and Asian specialties.
As always, the craft area offered a wide array of handmade items. There wasn’t a single trip between the Meadow Stage and Grove Stage that didn’t include me pausing, at least a couple times, to get a better look at something that caught my eye.
The Children’s Village was busy all day with craft activities and afternoon performances that included guaranteed kid pleasers like puppets, magic and storytelling.
And then there was the music.
From the start to the end, the mood created by the extraordinary musical mix made this year’s festival special. Call it a splash of Southern (as in South Jersey?) hospitality. Call it eclectic. Call it a blend of old time, good time, and this time right now. Call it whatever you want. It was amazing!
And, as any good kick-off-to-summer show should, this day long concert had something for every musical taste.
Meadow Stage openers Quincy Mumford and The Reason Why made good on their promise to get the crowd moving with their engaging set of hard-to-categorize songs. After they played, I asked Mumford if they planned to stay around for the rest of the day. “Oh, YEAH!” he replied emphatically.
Mason Porter – a three-piece band with a full, rich sound – played early on the Grove Stage and grabbed the crowd’s attention with their captivating version of Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country”. Look for Mason Porter at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in July at World Café Live.
Scrapomatic – as singer Mike Mattison said – spent some time in Louisiana, “not that much, but enough to get the drift” and definitely brought that flavor to their set. The song styles ranged from the traditional – the rousing “Ring Them Golden Bells” – to a blues, rock, jazz and even a French-infused ballad.
Meanwhile, back at the Grove Stage, Sara Watkins and her brother Sean played a charming set, showcasing Sara’s sweet voice and fiddling finesse. Sara’s new record, “Sun Midnight” came out about a month ago and features some stellar guests such as Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne.
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Up next on the Meadow Stage was my surprise delight band of the day, Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra. Huge, both in sound and size, BroJo (as I’ve since seen them called) combines all the elements that make a live performance sparkle. They’re a little like burlesque, with a nod to novelty. They’re a big band. They’re brassy and funky, with right-out-front vocals by the fabulously foxy Samia and Lisa, and an infectious sound that I know had the crowd rocking out – though I was so transfixed on the stage that I never even turned around to look. If this band plays ANYwhere near where you are, go see them!
Cheryl Wheeler graced the Grove Stage next. Despite a string of technical glitches likely more annoying to her than to the crowd, Wheeler delivered a set of music that seamlessly flowed – from storytelling to song, from tender to bawdy, and from personal to political. Wheeler closed with a song about port-o-potties, providing what will no doubt provide for dozens of children in the audience a lifelong memory of the time they heard a lady say the word “poop” on stage.
Back on Meadow Stage, Jukebox the Ghost was entertaining the audience – and charming my teenage female companions – with their punchy pop-rock music and affable stage presence. After playing songs from their forthcoming record, vocalist Tommy Steele declared “Let’s go back to the golden oldies”, and then joked, “that just means we’ll play the other songs you don’t know”. I’m guessing that after the band’s upcoming appearance at Bonaroo (“just like this, but messier”), there will be fewer songs you don’t know.
I returned to the Grove Stage for what I expected would be the highlight of my day – a performance by Rodney Crowell. Looking fit and satisfied, Crowell strummed and crooned his way through a set of finely crafted songs, including a gem he said was “a song Hank Williams would write if he had discovered rehab and gotten sober” and tunes filled with such far flung references as brave Comanches, a sanded-down moon, gossip that “chirps and chatters”, Miles Davis, Van Gogh and Picasso. Crowell’s voice is still strong, his delivery is unpretentious, and his lyrics are truly timeless. I was not disappointed.
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Next up was Dawes, a consummate outdoor concert band. Their sound is big, but not so loud that they lose the delicacy of their harmonies and lyrics. Watching them, I thought about how strange it is that this band hasn’t been doing their thing – being a self-professed “American rock ‘n’ roll band” – for decades. When they played their anthemic tune, “When My Time Comes”, with the audience swaying to the almost mesmerizing melody and singing along loudly with the chorus, it was like time traveling for me. Dawes has two treasure-packed albums, and the new song they played on Saturday was every bit as fine as their older material.
I was introduced to the Carolina Chocolate Drops at a Jazz Fest performance in New Orleans recently and excited to see them again so soon. And, as I watched them on Saturday, I was struck by how perfectly their powerful music fits in a low-key outdoor setting like Appel Farm. All three band members, as well as occasional touring and recording partner, cellist Leyla McCalkla, are accomplished musicians and the sound they produce together transports the audience to another time and sensibility. Though it’s not hard to pinpoint their influences – everything from early minstrel music to hip-hop – it is truly difficult to describe the way it all comes out. All I can say is “see them live”.
Closing out the without-a-bad-moment day was the Tedeschi Trucks Band, an 11-piece group that absolutely wowed the Appel Farm audience. The band is led by Susan Tedeschi, with her immense and impressive voice, and Derek Trucks, who just flat-out plays a mean guitar, and carries on the tradition set for contemporary music by some of the best rock and blues pioneers. Not content to rest on their Grammy laurels – winning Best Blues Album for last year’s release, “Revelator” – the band tours extensively and continues to dazzle audiences everywhere they go. They just released a 2-disc live record, “Everybody’s Talkin’” in May.
Michaela Majoun, the XPN Morning Show host, introduced the first band on the Meadow Stage by saying “The weather is perfect today”. And while we all know that perfection is rare, that sentiment comes very close to summing up how I felt about Appel Farm 2012.