It’s been an annual tradition since I can remember. Sterling Stage gave summer a proper welcome on Memorial Day weekend with their annual Folkfest. May 24th-27th, 2018 began the 24th season of Sterling Stage Kampitheater. TWENTY FOUR YEARS!! And the place is still fucking magic, through and through. Adventure around every corner and a vibe so thick you can almost reach out and touch it, but Folkfest is always something special. It’s heartwarming to see a happy extended family roam around the grounds, refreshed and renewed after a long cold winter, greeting each other with warm long hugs, smiling and throwing a “Happy Sterling!” out at everyone that walks by. One of the truest exhibitions of REAL family values that can only be found at Sterling. So damn nice to be back home in the pines!
The 2018 season kicked off with an exceptionally mellow vibe. The music was on point all weekend, start to finish. Everything was tranquil. I don’t recall seeing even one single instance of “Who let that douche in here?” Seemed like all things were in a perfect balance.
When I walk around for the weekend preparing for these writings, I observe and partake in the scene and try to soak in the vibe of the moment. By the end of the weekend, there is usually some undeniable and recurring theme that keeps popping up and serves as the basis of the jargon I spew. The word that kept popping up in my head over and over was Evolution. Let me explain.
Thursday opened with great music from Fakaui. It wasn’t too long ago that these guys played their first Sterling. I admire their progress. They groove really hard and I really like their bass player’s style! They released their debut album, Lifted and Gifted, in January. Take a minute to check it out on their Bandcamp page HERE. Next up is the evolutionary tale of Old Deer Ensemble. They announced they were reuniting in recent past. When I hear “reuniting after some time,” my brain translates that as some nostalgia seekers kicking around old stones and trying to drum up some magic dust of yesteryear. That translation does not apply to this band. Old Deer Ensemble is a collection of some the area’s finest players from some of the area’s most memorable bands. The best way to describe their sound in a nutshell – they play great, feel good, American rock and roll. They are as bluesy as they wanna be and can jam just the same. Since reuniting, they have released a debut EP, titled Festival. Well worth your while, you can check it out HERE. The songwriting will take you away to feel good moments. Bottom line – there’s no way you can walk out of an Old Deer Ensemble show without feeling all around good.
Their Thursday performances included songs off of their debut album. They did wonderful justice to “Scarlet Begonias” and “Mother an Child Reunion.” There was a heavy blues song that showcased Josh Russell’s uncanny ability to pull double duty on the guitar and keyboards, while Mike Bogan showed off his slide guitar chops. These are a couple of bluesy mofos and this band is so talented. You should make sure to catch them when you can!
Friday had a bluesy start, a folky build up, and a CJMG climax. Folk favorites, the Honey Smugglers, headlined the evening and were followed by a late night performance by Chris James and Mama G. This is a band that has undergone some serious evolution the last few years. I’ve seen them as a duet. I’ve seen them accompanied by a pair of Sirens. For over a year now, they have been flaunting the dream team rhythm section of Bruce Fritzen and Taylor Ricks on washboard and long fiddle. Since scoring this pair of diamonds, the sound of CJMG has been “in the pocket” and it shows. They have been busy writing material for a follow up up to their debut album and they presented it at the Sinatra Lounge on Friday night. Their first set was their debut album in its entirety. Set 2 was the new songs that will comprise their forthcoming follow up effort. Everything is on the up for this band – the songwriting, the musicianship… I can’t wait to hear what comes next. Friday afternoon featured a pair of sets by Barroom Philosophers. This is another band that has been busy pumping out new songs and comprising the fixings for a second album. Everytime I see them I feel I’m seeing a band before they break huge. They possess so much “it factor” that their success is almost inevitable. Their appearance in the latest issue of Relix Magazine indicates what path their talent is taking them on. Stay tuned for big things. We congratulate them and are honored to be able to spectate their journey!
It was a horny Saturday, as the day began with the Baked Potatoes and their magnificent horn section. Emcee Andy Waters started the day with the announcement – “We have a backward Saturday for ya. We’re starting with Baked Potatoes and ending with Breakfast.” Such a good day. Rochester funkers, Haiwa, spiced up the middle of the day with a great afternoon set. The song “Seeded Sun” caught my ear, as well as a good cover of “Mr. Charlie.” I love how Grateful Dead covers pop up all weekend long at a Sterling Stage festival. Reminds you where you come from!
The English Project played a pair of afternoon sets. It was a particular treat that organizers pulled in 90’s psychedelic legends, The Breakfast, for a long awaited return to the main stage. They played old classic Breakfast songs, a beefy Dead cover, and then offered up a new song titled “Atrocious,” as they announced they were getting ready to release a new album. Yes, you heard that right – the legendary Psychedelic Breakfast from the 90’s are getting ready to release a NEW album!
On the flip side of this treat, as if the return of the Breakfast wasn’t enough, organizers also booked Breakfast and Kung Fu guitar guru, Tim Palmieri for a late night solo Beatles set in the Sinatra Lounge. Tim stuck around to the wee hours. I started assembling a set list, but gave up quickly. He played so many songs. He made the statement that there were 424 songs in the catalog to choose from and he was picking 40 to share. I’m pretty sure he exceeded the 40 song limit. The abridged setlist is: all the greatest hits you can think of, and a handful of rarities and gems that you may have forgotten or never heard played live before. Tim displayed his mastery of the looping guitar effect and had the Sinatra Lounge filled with a whole band’s worth of music. I couldn’t believe all that sound was coming from just one guy!
It was during Tim’s Beatles set that I had my most profound experience of Folkfest. I was standing side / backstage at a point, technically looking out at the crowd and watching from over Tim’s shoulder. It was a scene of pure joy, as I witnessed a tight knit family let go of 8 months of collective bullshit (how long it’s been since we were last all together). Scanning across the front of the crowd I realized the whole Sterling crew and organization was front row, smiling, hugging, and wailing out the words to the songs that defined their childhood. They carried on like a group of drunken sailors that just got into port. These folks work damn hard to see to it that idiots like me have a safe place to be me. I cannot tell you how much that filled my soul up to see these fine folks get a chance to indulge!
Sunday’s church set was a mellow greet of the day with Johnny Richards. Correction – I rename him ‘Johnny On the Spot’. This guy stepped out of his tent. Literally steps out of his tent, and he was asked if he minded playing a set to fill in for a last minute artist cancellation. Of course Johnny says yes. That’s the fam thing to do. “When do you need me?” he asks. The response – “5 minutes.” What did Johnny do? 10 minutes from tent to stage and he sent it with a great opening set. Johnny On the Spot to the rescue! My discovery of the day was Mosswalk. They are a band out of Buffalo. They will get you grooving and keep you there. Reviewing my notes, my comment was “Mosswalk – Buffalo – Holy Fuck WOW!” Pretty much sums it up.
Let’s get back to that evolution theme that I started with. Sorry to digress. Consider that was the drums and space of this writing. Sunday afternoon hosted the solo acoustic debut of Matt West. You may be familiar with Matt’s work as the guitar player for Boogie Low or the Organic Soul Band. Boogie Low would be considered a rock reggae band while Organic Soul is more of a roots reggae. Either way, I always thought the common denominator here was reggae. The evolutionary story of Matt West is telling me otherwise and making me consider the common denominator to be Matt himself. He played his Sunday solo set like he was set out to prove some things. For starters, he proved that he is no one trick reggae pony! His set started with a nice grindy, acoustic version of “New Minglewood Blues.” He offered an evolved version of the Boogie Low classic, “Annie,” that was just great. It looks like Tim Palmieri isn’t the only guy who knows how to master a looping effect. “Midnight Rider” was also offered to commemorate the the anniversary of Gregg Allman’s passing. Matt also set out to prove he is a lover, not a fighter, not to mention a keen collector of brownie points, with a love song for his girlfriend titled “Tourmaline.” What a song! The lyrics to this gem were so good, Matt could have even found his way into MY pants! The evolution of Matt West indicates this guy has some things to say and some songs to share. His roots definitely extend beyond the reggae tree. I am very proud to have caught his debut solo performance.I know I’m going West whenever I can and I advise you to do the same!
Rounding out Folkfest 2018 were a pair of Grateful Dead sets from Let’s Be Leonard, that were sandwiched around Sunday’s headliner – the returning Hayley Jane and the Primates. Last year was their Sterling Stage debut, and they were greeted with a deluge of downpouring rain. Last year was great, Folkfest 2018 was even better. Hayley is a performance artist that will hold your attention like a moth to a flame and she is backed by a band of well schooled musicians. The Primates played songs off of their latest record, We’re Here Now. They also shared older songs, classics like “Hey Mister” and a reworked version of “Madam Humphrey’s” as well as a few brand new ones. They offered up a stellar rendition of “Friend of the Devil.” They had a top notch performance. I’m pretty sure they drew some inspiration from a gentleman named Sean who was front and center, dancing his ass off, and dressed to impress in something resembling what I would call an Amish hooker. Maybe not so much Amish, as much as hooker. I hope Hayley Jane and the Primates become a Sterling mainstay for as long as fate allows.
Old Deer Ensemble closed out the 24th year of Memorial Day fun at Sterling Stage. I said before that it was very hard to walk out of an Old Deer show NOT feeling all around good. Of course, one CANNOT walk out of a Sterling Stage festival without feeling the same all around good. Old Deer Ensemble sending you on your way just adds a special shine to your demeanor, as you venture back into that strange, strange world outside those pines.
Author: George DiFabio
Photography by: Jerrie DiFabio