On July 2-5, Sterling Stage Kampitheater passed the 20 year mark with a celebration of music with a lineup that was basically a Sterling Stage history lesson. While a good percentage of the music loving population descended upon Chicago to witness the end, and enjoy the last of something, Sterling Stage friends and family descended upon their wooded haven to put a 20 year stamp on the tradition that won’t be bidding farewell anytime soon! It was a perfect weekend – good weather and good vibes, no one interrupting your independence, happy faces and good music. Damn good music!
Thursday featured music in the Sinatra Lounge from Sterling alumni Hakeem Dodley, the Greener Grass Band, and headlined by Sterling favorites Tim Herron Corporation. Friday saw the 20th Anniversary into full swing with a day of music, start to finish. Reuniting after over fifteen years for this special celebration was Roach Powder. They were one of the two bands that played at Sterling Stage Kampitheater’s first event back in 1995. Roach Powder returned with 3 full sets stretched across the weekend. Lead guitarist Eric Brown also brought his soul project, The Eric Brown Band, for a Saturday afternoon set. The other band to play the very first Sterling Stage event back in 1995 was The Grand Overseers of Divinity, which included Eric McElveen of Tim Herron Corporation and Mike Bogan of the Mike Bogan Band. Both of these gentlemen are also featured in the Ameribeat Orchestra.
Saturday was another amazing day with a great opening set from The Linears, along with a hopping afternoon set from The George Wesley Band that included a great version of “Electric Avenue” with a “China Cat Sunflower” ending. Saturday afternoon also included something that has become a yearly tradition and a boat load of fun for all the participants. The Primate Fiasco led a second line parade around the festival grounds. In a street performance style, they would stop here and there to allow fans to gather around, eventually leading the crowd into the Sinatra Lounge for a rendition of Beck’s “Where It’s At.” They also played a total ripper of a late night set Saturday night / Sunday morning. I’m not sure if it was the ambiance of the Sinatra Lounge at late night, the excitement of the celebration at hand, or the sweet sound of Drake Descant’s shiny new accordion, but the crowd reaction to the Primate Fiasco’s late night set was similar to the feeding frenzy that ensues when meat falls into a school of piranha. I know it was not the case, but man the crowd acted as if they were famished for good jam music and this was the first helping they had come across all weekend. Maybe it was something in the water.
True to Sterling Stage history, Friday and Saturday nights were headlined by jam band pioneers, Max Creek. Making their nineteenth and twentieth appearance, Max Creek first performed at Sterling Stage back in August of 1996. These guys brought 4 sets of amazing original and cover material, culminating with an appropriate final set on Saturday night that consisted mostly of Grateful Dead songs. As a special twenty year treat to those who chose to spend their weekend at the 20th Anniversary Party, Sunday night was headlined by the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” digital stream on a big screen for the crowd.
My observations of the weekend – Roach Powder gave an absolutely satisfying performance of “Blue Sky” -> “Bird Song” -> “Blue Sky” during their second set. I love listening to Jesse Collins. The George Wesley Band is great and bass player Lion Sanford does not play the bass – he makes sweet love to it! I was more than pleasantly surprised with my first experience with Jam Factor, which features Bill Rose and Tim Frazier who played in an early Sterling Stage group called The Rounders. I have decided that Jam Factor packs some serious WOW Factor and I need to see more of these guys when I can. I’ve seen their name around Syracuse playing at the Dinosaur BBQ and other places. Highly recommended! And of course, anything Primate Fiasco is always a highlight for me!
The spirit was in the air all weekend. Even though we were in the middle of the woods in Upstate New York, no one could ignore what was happening a few states to the left. So many bands payed homage to the Grateful Dead this weekend that I was beginning to think it was in each band’s contract that they must play at least one Grateful Dead song per set. So many Grateful Dead songs were played at Sterling throughout the weekend that no one felt like they were missing something by skipping Chicago. It was like you were in a perpetual version of the Fare Thee Well shows. If you compile a set list of the Dead songs that were played throughout the weekend, one could feasibly argue that they too saw one hell of a Dead show. When I look at my notes, I count 29 Dead songs I heard played before the Sunday stream even started.
In closing, I have to say I am always impressed by the caliber of musician and band that Sterling Stage brings to their festivals. Of course you recognize the names of the national acts that are on the bill, but there is always a good many names that make you say to yourself, “Who the f*** are you?” Trust me, whenever you find your inner monologue questioning what you are about to see at Sterling, rest assured it will be something outstanding. At Sterling Stage, you get national act quality at a local or regional level. I am so thankful that organizer Eric McElveen knows how to maximize on the large selection of quality music that this area has to offer. Always a hoot. Thank you . . . for a real good time!
That being said, you WILL NOT want to miss the next installments of Sterling Stage’s 20th Anniversary season. They bring their annual “String Fling” to you, July 30-August 2 featuring Cabinet and Jatoba. Then they close out their 20th anniversary year with “The Last Daze of Summer,” September 17-20, and featuring Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad, Fishbone, Wild Adriatic, plus many others. Get your tickets now!
Written by George DiFabio
Photos by Jerrie DiFabio