Mill City Music Festival Highlights
MILL CITY still has light years to go before it's as good as the Austin and Seattle blowouts it was patterned after, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few diamonds in the rough buried in the weekend's ostensibly predictable lineup. So, City Pages recommends skipping the usual alt/yuppie suspects (Violent Femmes, Babes In Toyland, Del Amitri, Arlo Guthrie, Barenaked Ladies) and local mainstays (Willy Wisely, Grant Hart, Strawdogs, Trailer Trash) for dates with some of the weekend's lesser-known jazz and gospel performers and blues and soul greats.
The festival's first few hours are bone dry, so you'll want to skip the early rush and show up at 3:00 p.m. for the feisty Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (Stage 5, 3:00 p.m.), a Grammy winner who has wowed fans with his Maynard Ferguson-meets-Dizzy Gillespie pyrotechnics. After that you can stick around for the reliable Steeles (4:45 p.m.), who'll be sure to squeeze some gospel-pop passion out of their latest (disappointingly sleek) CD. But you're better off heading over to Stage 1 (the "Mainstage") for Darlene Love (4:30 p.m.), a key player in many of Phil Spector's legendary wall-of-sound singles ("He's a Rebel," "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Back Home"). The years have passed; Love's potent vocal urgency remains.
Notoriety has never been an issue for the renowned Etta James (Stage 1, 6:00 p.m.). The saucy blues shouter weaves lewd double entendres and riveting psychodrama into her songs. James's set should be the day's high point; conveniently, it occurs in rough conjunction with a dreadful lineup of fusion jazzbos (Richard Elliot) and useless guitar wankers (Craig Chaquico) starting at 6:45 p.m. on Stage 5.
At 9 things get tricky as Mill City starts catering to catholic tastes and short attention spans. On the Mainstage, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers mix papa Bob's timelessly compelling catalog with contemporary reggae originals--an approach that succeeded brilliantly when Ziggy memorably closed last year's Smokin' Grooves tour. Otherwise, aging baby boomers can flash back with Tommy James (Stage 3, 9:00 p.m.). Even those of us under 45 know "Hanky Panky," "Crimson and Clover," and a host of other sock-hop staples that James and his Shondells unleashed during their late-'60s radio blitzkrieg. Or you can keep walking to Stage 5 and join the frat boys and anti-sorority girls in front of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts for a possible "Crimson" doubleheader. Jett will inevitably stoop to leading the throng in a rendition of "I Love Rock and Roll," but there's still enough snarl in her throat and gnarl in her guitar to reward the faithful.
You can keep the Sabbath by rising early and wandering the near-empty streets while listening to gospel ensembles on four of five stages, starting between noon and 1:00 p.m. The best of these is certainly The Mighty Clouds of Joy (Mainstage), a harmony group distinctively influenced by R&B counterparts Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Philly soul makers (and occasional collaborators) Gamble & Huff.
If that doesn't suit your soul, you won't want to show up until 3:00 p.m., when you'll be immediately forced to choose between the Motion Poets (Stage 5, 3:15), a local bebop jazz sextet who've recently relocated to New York, and Southern California's roots-rock survivors the Blasters (Stage 3, 3:30 p.m.). At 5:00 p.m. on the Mainstage, Moxy Fruvous, a zany yet topically incisive Canadian quartet, will simultaneously stimulate your brain and funny bone. Following at 6:45 p.m. is K's Choice, a folk-rock four-piece from Belgium whose chiming guitar riffs and painstaking lyrics habitually swell into the realm of heavy-metal intensity.
At 7:00 p.m. on Stage 4, Mill City offers an exceptionally cohesive country lineup: Robbie Fulks (7:00 p.m.), Alejandro Escovedo (8:30 p.m.), and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (10:00 p.m.). The first hard-core "insurgent country" artist to get signed to a major label, Robbie peppers his wild and rickety honky-tonk with fun lovin' irony. Austin, Texas, native Escovedo has been writing song-poems of everyday life that are as insightful as they are gorgeous. This pair's roots sensibility should finely complement another Austin native, Gilmore, whose quavering Willie Nelson-like voice has been beckoning from country's fringes since his career began in 1972 with Lubbock, Texas's astounding Flatlanders.
As is the rule with Mill City, though, when it rains it pours, and at virtually the same time (9:15 p.m.) Ray Charles will be working the Mainstage. Arguably the greatest integrator of gospel, R&B, and country music ever, Charles's inimitable moans and shouts can still capture a gutbucket sensibility without ever toppling into Oldies hell. If that weren't enough, at 9:15 p.m. on Stage 5 Manny Oquendo will roil and roll through salsafied Latin jazz with an energy and panache that may not be equaled throughout the rest of the Fest. At 9:30 p.m. on Stage 3, the New York vocal trio Solo add their rich harmonies to the night's card--and, as protégés of Flyte Tyme's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, there's potential for a special guest or two (like Jellybean, or the folks from Mint Condition).
Like Saturday, Monday starts slowly. Its only real feature is jazz tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri (Stage 5, 2:45 p.m.). Like guitarist Carlos Santana, Barbieri has a profound purity of tone that envelops listeners so completely that his melodies and rhythms threaten to become deceptively secondary.
At 5:00 on the Mainstage, Mill City hits its prime with the "Blues Music Festival." If Mill City manages to survive for another five or 10 years it will be due in large measure to its Labor Day afternoon blues showcase, a burgeoning tradition that, as was the case last year, figures to be the Fest's top draw. It begins on the Mainstage at 5 p.m. with Jay Geils and Magic Dick, the namesake and florid harmonica player, respectively, of the old J. Geils Band. They're followed by Jimmie Vaughan, who will forever be overshadowed by his more talented younger brother, Stevie Ray, but still remains a fiery, jagged guitarist and singer in his own right, most prominently as a founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But the quality really kicks in with Robert Cray, the pre-eminent contemporary blues artist, who has melded the grit and passion of vintage soul with a fleet but substantial guitar attack. As with last year, B.B. King will close out the showcase with the incredibly clean guitar licks and relaxed back-porch anecdotes that have made him the most recognized bluesman in the world today. And don't be surprised if the evening climaxes with a gloriously raucous guitar jam involving King, Cray, Vaughan, and the gang.
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