Organized by jazz-jam-funk trio Soulive, the inaugural Royal Family Affair was a fun ‘n’ funk-filled three-day festival at Stratton Mountain featuring the host band and many of their label mates, as well as musically like-minded friends.
It wasn’t all about the mindblowing performances, however. On Saturday and Sunday, the musicians took time out to host interesting and intimate workshops on various aspects of music, performance and the art of improvisation.
A series of six music workshops were an added bonus to the festival’s line-up of performances. The classes were sponsored by the Berklee College of Music and taught by the festival’s musicians, who happen to be alumni. All of the musicians on the Royal Family label are friends, and most met when they were students at Berklee and their summer programs in Boston. The festival’s classes were held in a beautiful stone lodge with high ceilings and a grand piano. Participants were predominantly young, male music students and working musicians, who were encouraged to interact and ask questions.
The first workshop “Creative Recording” was taught by drummer/sound engineer Alan Evans of Soulive. With examples using playback, Evans was able to separate each part and filter the sound. The gist of his message was “to be thoughtful and observant of the effects of sound, the space, skill, preparation and experience the musicians have playing together. Take one process at a time, and learn it. Beat it to death before moving on to other options. Less is more – a good song, good musicians and a good arrangement will always come out sounding good.”
John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame, taught the second class “Message of the Moment.” He played a few improvised solos on the piano and keyboard that were both lyrical and chaotic. Like a zen master, he imparted his musical knowledge of improvisation as a way of life and a process or “spirit” of the here and now, “to feel and connect to the audience, and if you know your instrument, you can go anywhere.” He received a standing ovation for both his playing and lecture.
With battle of the bands winner Lespecial playing tribal and progressive beats in the background, saxophonist Skerik gave a lecture titled “How to Avoid Smooth Jazz and Succeed in Life.”
With his madman/genius persona, Skerik was at once comical, entertaining and informative. The Seattle-based sax player is the inventor of a style called saxophonics. Having played in Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and Frog Brigade before “being fired,” he currently plays in Garage a Trois with Stanton Moore, Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon, as well as with Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet.
One method to avoid smooth jazz is to bring in some new technology and play the instrument in unconventional ways, such as making sounds into the open end and with distortion pedals and looping. He played a few sonic soundscapes as examples of how he improvises by making up a mini-movie in his head and providing the soundtrack as it unfolds. One person dared to ask how to get out of a “predictable jazz rut” and was brought on stage and given a hands on evangelical healing by Skerik with the advice to “avoid later Chick Corea and listen to months of punk rock until your girlfriend hates you.” It was repeated to know your instrument and its possibilities are endless.
The afternoon line-up began with the London Souls, a raw rock and roll power trio, whose covers are far better than the originals. This tight band – featuring lead guitarist-vocalist Tash Neal, bassist-vocalist Kiyoshi Matsuyama and drummer-vocalist Chris St. Hilaire – played their original tunes “I Don’t Need Nobody,” “Stand Up,” “She’s So Mad” and “She’s in Control,” in addition to covers ranging from the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” They played with amped up intensity and great vocal style.
Next up was Zach Deputy, a one-man band, who layers live looping to create the sound of a full band. He is a guitar virtuoso and soulful singer who has a four-plus-octave vocal range and can freestyle rhymes and beatbox with the best of them. With four microphones, numerous pedals, drum machine, guitars, keyboards, cowbell and theremin, Deputy was ready to roll. He jammed through roots, rock, soul, calypso, dancehall and reggae. Jennifer Hartswick, trumpeter for the Trey Anastasio Band, joined Deputy to sing a deep, soulful version of “Trouble Come My Way.”
Royal Family label mates Pimps of Joytime brought the boogie down with classic funk from their new album “Janxta Funk.” A great dance band, they kept the rhythm with congas and smooth harmonies.
When I interviewed Alan Evans, he said, “When Medeski, Deitch and Skerik get together no good will come of it.” And he was right. MDS decided not to even speak to each other prior to playing and pulled off a 100% improvised set. This head-banging, raging set had sax, drums and keyboard call-and-response and experimental distortion. Skerik played an outlaw set and produced sounds that no sax should ever make. He could make it sound like a guitar, beatbox or an echo chamber. Each displayed what they imparted in their lectures and read each other so well. Soulive’s Eric Krasno said he “became selfish” and was inspired to jump on stage and join in on the action.
Colorado electronica duo Big Gigantic created jazz dubbed over heavy bass dance beats. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken combined the elements of a live band and DJ for a innovative effect.
The much anticipated Soulive set had collaborations with Jennifer Hartswick, the Shady Horns and Chali 2NA on vocals. Their jazz improvisations, funk numbers and Beatles covers – “Come Together,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” – morphed the night into “full rager” mode. Their creativity, shifting solos and intuiting of each others moves was a music lesson in itself.
The Saturday late night dance party was well stocked with heavy, blow-you-back bass beats from Return of the Formula featuring Adam Deitch, Adam “Schmeeans” Smirnoff, E.D. “Jesus” Coomes, Sam Kininger, Kraz (aka Soulive’s Eric Krasno), Chali 2NA, Nic Casper, Atticus and Mr. Rouke.
Review by Janet Kwiatkowski
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
REVIEW & PHOTOGRAPHS of the Royal Family Affair, Day One, 8/12/11