It’s easy to dismiss smaller festivals, however I like to call Music on the Mothership (or MOM, abbreviated) near the alpine peaks of Taos, NM “the little festival that could.” Though the crowd appeared to have doubled in size from last year, it was still very manageable, and the lineup consistently blew my mind with their musical proficiency and transcendental interplay.
Many of the concert-goers and band members I spoke with found the “smallness” of the festival one of its key selling points. The vibe is intimate and friendly when compared to other festivals. The beer, at host brewery Taos Mesa, passes muster. Outside the venue a sprawl of service trucks and tents had grown into the campground since last year, offering late night / early morning food options, handmade clothing for the discerning tripper, even a mobile salon. Again this year, I chose the onsite camping option which, as it happens, I have mixed feelings about. The wind was nearly severe when I arrived and it took about an hour to pitch and anchor the weekend’s tent. It would not survive, but more on that later.
The first band I heard upon entering the amphitheater was Rising Appalachia, a welcome return from last year’s festival. This San Francisco combo sports exotic instruments and is well on their way to building a legion of fans. If the genre doesn’t already exist I will now create it in order to crown them as rulers, of “yoga folk.”
Tea Leaf Green, also from the bay area, was up next on the indoor stage. Looking at the lineup, this year’s MOM seemed to skew more toward jambands, which totally worked for me. TLG hasn’t released a new album since 2013’s In the Wake. While 5 years is not the longest gap between releases for a jamband, the exit of bass player Reed Mathis may have slowed them down a bit. They still boil over with delightful, warm, jaunty jams, but something seemed to be missing.
MOM has alternating stages – some outdoor, some indoor – so the music never really has to stop, as long as everyone shows up on time and the weather cooperates. There was a 37,000-acre fire blazing about 50 miles away, which made it difficult to arrive when you wanted to, if you came from the wrong direction. But for the first couple of days, problems were minimal, if you ignore the fact that the wind tore the rain cover away from the main stage on day one. Staff would spend all day Saturday mending the gigantic swatch of fabric.
The 11-piece wall of sound from Brooklyn known as Antibalas, still going strong after 20 years, closed out the big stage for the night, ripping through a solid set of positive, danceable, conscious Afrobeat music. Their hype-man knows how to work a crowd, and had us eating out of his hands: call-and-response, inviting dancers from the audience onstage, guest musicians, etc. Veering through different musical passages (some rather lengthy) and genres (funk, jazz, Cuban), and always with clockwork precision, even when going full-tilt polyrythmic, this was the band I had come to see, and I’m so glad I did. One of the lines from a song struck me enough to write it down: “Truth is golden and it shines forever.”
Having satisfied the boogie-monster inside me after a normal Fridays’ work and the promise of 2 more days of jam-packed bliss ahead, I retired to the tent and crashed. I’m sure the addition of an enormous, yurt-like tent to the campground within which music could continue into the wee hours seemed like a good idea at the time it was presented, in theory. In reality, since all the late-night acts were DJs fond of regularly dropping phat beats at bone-rattling volume, it was difficult to actually sleep through. The walls of my tent were thin, yes, and I should have brought earplugs. Ask anyone who knows, they’ll tell you I’m normally a championship sleeper. I was awakened by thunderous bass notes almost beyond the reach of human hearing throughout the night. The lighter sleepers among us (read: everybody) probably didn’t sleep at all. Another encounter which sparked the thought in my mind: maybe tent camping here wasn’t such a good idea. Lots of people camped in RVs – either ones they had brought with them, or at the permanent trailer hotel Luna Mystica, adjacent to the venue. They probably slept. The DJs finally stopped as the sun came up, and I finally managed to sleep a good stretch.
Early in the day on Saturday, probably a bit bleary-eyed and haggard, but feeling relatively good, I met a band called Moves Collective from Ocean Beach, CA. They were scheduled to play “late night” under the “Bedouin” tent in the campground, for so it was dubbed. I was overly happy to hear the organizers had decided to nix further late night DJing in favor of live bands, Although, they’re not necessarily any quieter, I thought. When late night Saturday came around, and I could no longer stand (due to fatigue, not intoxicants), I went to the tent, which still managed to stand against the seemingly incessant wind. I really wanted to stay up but, as it happens, I did hear parts of Moves Collective’s set on occasion, when awoken, and they sounded fantastic. If only I wasn’t getting to be such an old man, I thought to myself, I’d put on clothes and make my way down there. This was to be the last night anyone ever slept in this particular tent.
Early in the lineup on Saturday was one of those bands I hadn’t heard of yet, but whose reputation with other musicians seemed to precede them. While setting up an interview with Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth — who was due to take the stage about sundown — our conversation was cut short when Tim hard-cranked his ears toward the stage and proclaimed, “Gotta catch me some Shooks!” The Shook Twins’ sound is immediately arresting: reverby, surfy, David Lynchian. One of my favorite things about festivals is getting turned on to bands I didn’t know I liked yet. Absolutely haunting vocals. Bad dirt folk.
I missed the opportunity to have a conversation with Tim at last year’s festival, and I vowed not to make that mistake again. So, at the expense of seeing more awesome music, I lurked, awaiting an opportunity to speak with him backstage. He was getting a massage. When I was able to catch his attention, we snuck out of the green room where it was quieter. The main question I wanted to ask was “What’s your advice to up-and-coming jambanders?” His response was classic and brief: “Find your own sound and stop copying the Grateful Dead.”
I laughed silently to myself when I realized what followed onstage: Joe Craven & the Sometimers playing wicked reinventions Grateful Dead songs. Joe was once a member of the David Grisman Quintet and had the opportunity to jam with the late, great Jerry Garcia on a number of occasions. His new album is a collection called Garcia Songbook and the familiar refrains are couched in radical re-workings of structure and melody. I was curious where the band’s name “The Sometimers” came from, so I asked Joe afterwards. With a mischievous glimmer in his eyes, he replied, “I just thought it sounded funny.” I got the impression he was the sort of guy who often displayed that glimmer.
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