Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
The Grand Slambovians and the Americanarama Festival of Music were the highlights of an amazing weekend of entertainment with connections and themes that became apparent as I looked back on the whole grand experience.
The experience started Thursday in Schenectady with the Zoppe Italian Family Circus, which I’ve already covered. The next night I wound up back in the Electric City for the Summer Night Out in front of Proctor’s Arcade for fireworks and music, including Funk Evolution and a solo street performance by C. Ryder Cooley (also known for her circus skills).
So the circus theme continued Saturday at Riverlink Park on the banks of the Mohawk River in Amsterdam with the Grand Slambovians (formerly known as Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams). I had seen the band in 2010 at Mountain Jam, but there was too much else going on at the time to give them much attention. I remember thinking that I wanted to see a longer show by them.
So I got one at Riverlink, and what a show.
The humidity and heatwave of the week before finally broke and the weather was wonderful for sitting by the river. The band was also happy about the change, citing a gig a few days prior in the blazing sun when they got so hot they couldn’t function for two days after.
The audience, many of whom appeared to have no idea who they were seeing, responded enthusiastically to the mostly unclassifiable music coming at them. The Slambovians made some fans that night.
While it is tempting to call the band folk-rock, jam band or historically-steeped Americana, the Slambovian experience goes beyond most standard classification. A sense of humor and the absurd, an appreciation for romance and a belief in spirituality pervade the songs.
The merchandise table had shirts, hats, CDs and DVDs, but also Slambovian coffee. “Full Rich Flavor, Strong Even Buzz,” the label states, claiming that the dark, smoky sweet flavor makes it truly the drug of choice. I had to buy some.
Joziah Longo, lead singer and songwriter, grew up playing country, folk and mummer’s music with his father, and the Slambovians performed a medley of mummer’s music. The band has been together since the late ’90s in Philadelphia, and on Saturday they also played music from four studio and live CDs including The Grand Slambovians (the latest), The Great Unravel, Flap Jacks From the Sky and A Good Thief Tips His Hat. I don’t think they played anything from their Very Slambovian Christmas or The Circus Does Dylan (our circus theme meets the Dylan theme… more to come on that.)
In fact, not only was there a Bob Dylan theme to the weekend, there was a Band theme as well: Garth Hudson, who made a dramatic appearance with Wilco at SPAC the next night, contributed a promo blurb to the newest Slambovian CD: “Joziah is an awesome songwriter,” he wrote.
I must agree, although it’s hard to single out a favorite out of so many consistently good songs throughout both sets. “Talkin to the Buddha,” “Windmills” (which the band were happy to see in Amsterdam’s Dutch heritage road signs) and “The Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express” stand out. The latter was a result, the band explained, of being mistakenly booked on a European tour with classic rock bands of the ’60s. “Everyone was too embarrassed to say they had never heard of us,” Joziah explained.
The music is happy, mystical, progressive (think Country Floyd or a Hillbilly Zappa with feelings), coated with Old Weird Americana (think Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow, where the band settled for a while) and clothed in fashion to match (Josiah’s stove-pipe hat, goatee, tux shirt and antique vest might lead to Abraham Lincoln or Amish comparisons).
Tink Lloyd added atmospheric swirls and flourishes with her cello and accordion to Sharkey McEwen’s fluid guitar and mandolin work, behind the spirited drumming of Eric Puente. Everyone in the band sings well together.
After a glorious sunset and a lengthy intermission where they each talked with almost every member of the audience, the band played a superb second set. “This has really been a magical show,” Joziah exclaimed, and it actually felt that way.
Like the circus on Thursday, I went in smiling and came out even happier.
If Sunday at SPAC didn’t leave me as elated, it was probably because the Americanarama Festival wore me right out. To be sure, most of the music was terrific, starting with a too-brief set by Ryan Bingham, followed by a too-long, but still excellent set by My Morning Jacket. Next was the best part of the evening: a brilliant, guitar-driven set by Wilco, which included guest spots by Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) and Garth Hudson on a powerful, loud “Chest Fever.” It was particularly thrilling to hear the standing ovation for Hudson, who hadn’t been on the SPAC stage in years.
It was Dylan’s set that was both wonderful and annoying. Having seen Dylan more times than I care to relate here, I was prepared for an uneven set, but I was pleased that it was so strong with great songs, including “Blind Willie McTell,” “Love Sick,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” the best “All Along the Watchtower” I’ve ever heard him do and a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that was only eclipsed by a version he played at RPI in the ’80s. I actually look forward to his never-playing-the-same-song-the-same-way-twice method: it keeps the band on their toes, and he’s never boring.
My disappointment was with his shunning of the spotlight. In fact, there was no spotlight on him at all, and his stage lighting throughout the show was always darker than the rest of the band. There was no photography allowed, not even cell phones. That’s OK with me, but no video screen for the lawn? I understand Bob is entitled to protect his image, and he’s been abused in this more than most, but this is also a guy who has attempted to be a movie star: remember “Masked And Anonymous” or “Renaldo And Clara”? So isn’t it a little late for vanity?
Also, it’s been 10 years or more since he’s even picked up a guitar in public. He’s never been and never will be half as good a piano player as he is a guitarist. At least he can still play harmonica, even if his voice is so rough it’s barely understandable, but then he’s always sung in concert with a voice that is hard to understand.
These are minor points, really, because I did like the entire show. What a weekend: no wonder I was exhausted.