Sterling Stage kicked off their 20th year on Memorial Day weekend, May 21-24. The 11th annual Folkfest was headlined by Ryan Montbleau Band and brought a packed field of fans that came ready to celebrate music, art, family, and the oneness of enjoying it together. Overflowing with happiness, the festival was complete with old friends, yearly alumni, and some new additions that fit like a glove. I have to say, organizer Eric McElveen really knows how to book a strong cross section of music of many genres. That is the beauty of Sterling Stage. Falling under so many umbrellas, do you call it a jam band festival? A roots festival? A jazz, acoustic, folk, or bluegrass festival? Yes, yes, and yes. All of the above.
Sticking to the usual format, the first and last days of the festival feature guitar great Tim Herron. A staple to the venue, Sterling just wouldn’t be Sterling without the masterful guitar work of Tim Herron ringing through the air. On Thursday night he hosted a late night campfire session with Tim Herron & Friends. Tim Herron Corporation (THC) brought the 20th year’s first festival to a close with a Sunday sermon by twilight. THC also features Sterling Stage and Syracuse Blues Fest organizer Eric McElveen on bass.
Friday night was rap style funk night. Rochester greats, Subsoil, played a pair of high octane sets in the Sinatra Lounge. Syracuse favorites, Sophistafunk, played a special headlining set on the main stage. Usually a 3 piece band, they had a fourth member Friday night with the addition of a saxophone player. For a few guys, they make A LOT of sound. The keyboard work of Adam Gold is simply mesmerizing. Pouring their hearts into the music of a somewhat hometown show, singer Jack Brown kept reminding the crowd, “This is our family right here!” Nestled in between these two bands was an enormous ball of energy that came all the way from California to grace Sterling Stage. Andy Frasco and the UN came full of reckless abandonment. It was clear that they were there to instigate a whole lot of fun. Their sound is listed as “Party Blues” and they know how to get a party rolling! The Folkfaces lead us off into the night with a great late night set.
Saturday was full of some great high points of the festival. The day started with a set from Sterling alumni, Arethusa. The afternoon featured an amazing set in the Sinatra Lounge by Spring Street Family Band. This was their virgin Sterling performance and they blew me away! These guys are a Syracuse band that have only been together for two years but have a sound and an arsenal of original material that leaves you confused how these guys aren’t already backed by some bigger, quasi-corporate machine. I strongly advise anyone reading this to do two things – go see Spring Street Family Band as soon as you can. They are playing at the Westcott Theater on July 31. They also play regularly at the Dinosaur BBQ. Secondly, you have to grab one of their cd’s. It is full of original songs and sounds great. Most impressive! Also playing great main stage sets were the Blindspots, who just returned from a successful tour of the south, as well as the Honey Island Swamp Band.
Saturday evening featured Folkfest headliner, Ryan Montbleau Band. For his 10th annual Sterling Stage performance, Ryan showed up with a new bag of tricks. He brought with him a whole new band and a new album of songs. Touring in support of his new release, ‘Growing Light’, Ryan assembled a super group of sorts for this occasion. Mike Dillon flew up from New Orleans fresh off of a Primus tour, Johnny Kimock just completed a week long rehearsal session for the upcoming Mike Gordon tour. Beau Sasser has been tearing up the jam band scene as of late with his own band, Beau Sasser’s Escape Plan, and now as the newest member of funk titans, Kung Fu. Ryan also brought with him Marc Friedman on bass and “the lady parts,” Kit Holliday and Lydia Harrell on backup vocals. Ryan was scheduled to play 3 sets. Set one on the main stage began with the Lou Reed classic “Walk on the Wild Side”. Ryan stuck to old RMB classics for the most part, only playing one song from his new release. He also managed to sneak in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for another treat.
Tumbleweed Highway kept the vibe rolling in the Sinatra Lounge while Ryan Montbleau Band took a lengthy set break, in order to allow nightfall to set in. The second set from RMB was focused more on material from the new cd and riddled with lengthy and spacier jams that cater to the freaks who come out at night. Appropriately placed, RMB covered Ray Charles’ “The Night Time is the Right Time”. Ryan always shows up with something special for the Sterling crowd, but this year he was in rare form. Flexing his spontaneously creative muscles, in the middle of the second set Ryan says, “What do you want to do? Want to write a song together right now? Let’s do it!” He and the crowd created a new little ditty right there on the spot – something about feather dusters . . . He even played a rare cover of Jeffrey Osborne’s “Back in Love Again” at the end of the second set.
Next up was another mind blower. After set two, Second Line Syracuse hosted a late night campfire session in a packed Sinatra Lounge. Second Line Syracuse is an eight-piece band of horns and drums with a strong influence of New Orleans brass bands. Lead by jazz trombonist Melissa Gardiner, Second Line Syracuse kept the vibe of the night upbeat and happy and made sure we weren’t ready for bed yet. This band is good. Damn good! To blow me away even further, when I asked Melissa if this was their first Sterling performance, she said not only was it their first Sterling performance, but it was their inaugural performance as a band. Wow! That is Eric McElveen, clearly displaying that he does more homework than all of us put together when seeking out good music. I have no idea where he finds some of these bands. Thank you Eric! Another band not to be missed, Second Line Syracuse is playing a back to school show on August 27 at Funk n Waffles Downtown.
As if this day and night were not yet complete, Ryan Montbleau proceeded to host an acoustic late night campfire session of his own. Beginning at a couple minutes past 1A.M. and fully aware that he has a multiple set performance the next day ahead of him at another festival in another state, what was expected to be a shorter, encore-like performance turned into a twenty-one song journey that was as personal as one could hope for. With unbridled interaction with the fans, it was truly Ryan having conversation and playing songs while surrounded by close friends. (I stood 4 feet in front of his face for all 21 songs) At one point Ryan said, “Wanna hear the last song I wrote?” He then presented his latest gem, “Cue the Majesty,” after telling us what it was about in a VH1 Storytellers type of fashion. He is a true poet. At a smidge after 3 A.M. Ryan played and everyone sang along to an ever appropriate “A Little Help from My Friends”. One more quick song and he was off into the morning to grace other festive faces in another state. I’m not sure when this man sleeps.
Sunday was a nice close to a nice weekend. The day started with a great set by Gerald Henderson. The main stage had great performances from The Linears and Echo System, while the Sinatra Lounge enjoyed great sets from Miss E. and the Resonators, as well as the Honey Smugglers and Sterling regulars Pale Green Stars. Headlining the final night of Sterling Stage’s Folkfest was Tim Herron Corporation.
Next up for this season is the 20th Anniversary Party July 2-5, with two nights of Max Creek. If Folkfest is any indication of what to expect from the 20th anniversary season of Sterling Stage, then it is clearly a no brainer where one should be spending their Independence Day. See you there!
Ryan Montbleau Band Setlist from May 23, 2015
Set 1: Walk on the Wild Side, Inevitable, Hot Coffee in a Paper Cup, Dead Set, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Honeymoon Eyes, Stay, Maybe Today, Songbird
Set 2: Growing Light, Never Gonna Be, Night Time is the Right Time, 75 & Sunny, Head Above Water, Loving You, Those Things, Pacing Like Prince, Any Blues, Back in Love Again, ENCORE: I Can’t Wait
Set 3 (campfire set): Time and Again, Duncan, Hey Good Lookin’, Lime in the Coconut, Grain of Sand, Kingston Town, Luckiest Man, Ghosts, Slippery Road, Ain’t Nobody’s Business, Quickie, How Blue Can You Get, Dance Dance Dance, Eggs, Loaded Gun, Chariot, Boomer’s Story, Cue the Majesty, Lonesome Serenade, ENCORE: A Little Help From My Friends, My Best Guess
Written by George DiFabio
Photos by Jerrie DiFabio