Review of Peach Music Festival ’14 | August 14-17
Tell an unsuspecting person that you’re going to the Peach Festival in Scranton, PA, and they might assume you’re going to a down-home county fair. They probably won’t envision thousands of tie-dye clad individuals flocking to picturesque Montage Mountain for a music festival inspired by the Allman Brothers Band.
In its third year, the Peach Festival brought together some of the most notable figures in the Allman Brothers’ wide circle of friends as well as some legends in the making. It’s a bittersweet time for the fans this festival draws: with the aging of the greats comes winding down of careers and tours. Earlier this year, the Allman Brothers announced that they will stop touring after 2014, and Gregg Allman canceled several recent shows due to health issues. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir was scheduled to headline Friday but canceled all of his tour dates a week prior for undisclosed reasons. Yet the Peach Festival still felt like a celebration—even as the generations shift, the rock n’ roll spirit inaugurated by musicians like Allman and Weir finds ways to stay alive.
The first thing to know about the Peach Festival is that you have to ride a school bus to get there. Unlike in elementary school, you’re now sitting next to heady festy attendees and your bus driver is flooring it up a mountain road. Five minutes after leaving the parking lot you’re dropped off at the gate and it’s time to party. Like kids on a field trip, everyone chatters excitedly and hops off the bus.
I started Day 1 at the Mushroom Stage to see bass wizard Victor Wooten. The Mushroom Stage is in a separate part of the venue—you’ll find it within a water park that’s open to all attendees but didn’t get much use on this abnormally chilly August afternoon. A large hill overlooks the stage; I perched upon it to absorb the funkadelic vibes. Wooten is a great get-the-party-started act: I arrived as the crowd grooved to his cover of James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”
Next came a last-minute lineup addition that rocked the Peach Stage, which is actually a covered pavilion with seats. (Seats! Out of the sun! Montage Mountain’s setup is a rare festival blessing.) In light of Bob Weir’s cancellation, Peach organizers wisely made sure the audience still got its fill of Grateful Dead tunes. They rounded up a masterful group of improvisers–including Weir’s Furthur bandmates Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti–to perform “A Dead Set.” The crew stretched six beloved Dead songs into a 75-minute set without, impressively, a single pause between them. They blasted through “Truckin'” and won the audience over with “Shakedown Street;” a long “Sugaree” gave way to a joyous “Not Fade Away” with singers Jackie Greene and Joan Osborne hamming it up on stage.
The 11-member Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring Allman Brothers slide virtuoso Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi, hit the Peach Stage next. I think of this band as a 21st-century answer to the Allman Brothers, given their blues-and-soul-steeped rock and dual ability to jam out but also be punchy and direct. The set opener saw Tedeschi and Trucks trading guitar solos, and the show only got fiercer with its diverse set of originals and blues covers plus an excellent rendition of Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep on Growing.”
The always-merry Trey Anastasio Band, who already had a Saturday headlining spot of their own, filled Weir’s slot. Though Weir’s presence was certainly missed (Anastasio acknowledged the fact, saying he hopes Weir will be back soon), T.A.B. was a fantastic first-night headliner. The Phish guitarist’s side project succeeds at making people dance pretty much 100% of the time. This is a good thing, because the temperatures dropped into the 50s during Anastasio’s set. Dancing was the only alternative to shivering.
The second day of a festival is always the most intense: you’re fully immersed in revelry and you have a long day ahead of you. I decided to ease into things with Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band (led by drummer Jaimoe of the Allman Brothers)—or so I thought. I greatly underestimated the nature of the Jasssz Band’s performance, which turned out to be awesomely feisty with its horn trio and badass blues singer Jr. Mack.
After Jaimoe’s set I journeyed from the Mushroom Stage to the Peach, a ten-minute walk through hippie paradise. A drum circle situated itself next to the water park’s lazy river, which festivalgoers on rafts listened to as they floated along. Vendors sold patchwork bags and funky jewelry; one stall was devoted entirely to artwork featuring Jerry Garcia. An installation of whimsical crocheted mushrooms on a hillside added to Montage Mountain’s magical mystery forest appeal.
I temporarily settled into a seat at the Peach Stage to see Gov’t Mule, led by do-it-all guitarist and singer Warren Haynes, also a 25-year veteran of the Allman Brothers. After an hour of severely loud rocking I trekked across the mountain again to catch the Wood Brothers—I headed out just as Haynes introduced saxophonist Karl Denson for a guest spot in the jazzy “Sco-Mule.” Alas, I left one good thing for another.
Like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the Wood Brothers are a treasure of our era. The trio, including bassist Chris Wood of Medeski Martin & Wood, have been at it for a while, but recently unlocked a new level of success thanks to their brilliant 2013 album The Muse. Singer Oliver Wood, who resembles a younger Gregg Allman with a mustache, dedicated the doleful “Postcards From Hell” to the musicians in the audience. “We’ve all played enough crappy bars where there are more TVs than people and more chicken wings than TVs,” he lamented. It felt good to see the Wood Brothers surrounded by a super-enthusiastic audience that knew the words to all of their songs: the band’s long-deserved festival moment had finally arrived.
The second Trey Anastasio Band set of the festival was even more glorious than the first, thanks in part to the no-longer-freezing weather. Phish fans got to hear “Alaska” and “Gotta Jibboo;” trumpet player Jennifer Hartswick belted out a crowd-pleasing rendition of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood.” “This is the first song we wrote 15 years ago,” announced Anastasio before leading into the electrifying set closer “First Tube.” The huge crowd on the grassy slope behind the pavilion seats created a carnivalesque scene lit up by glow sticks.
Finally, it was the festival founders’ turn: the Allman Brothers took the stage to perform the entirety of their 1972 classic, Eat a Peach. It’s an album full of gems, and the band did it the justice it deserves. The Brothers shone in simplicity and complexity—from a lovely “Melissa” in which Derek Trucks accompanied Gregg Allman on an acoustic guitar to the crazy half-hour-long “Mountain Jam” (totally fitting, considering the venue). The sweetest moment was the instrumental “Little Martha,” which Haynes and Trucks performed standing together under the spotlight. While listening to the quiet beauty of the melody Duane Allman wrote more than 40 years ago, it was hard not to think about the band’s often tragic decades-long history. Through it all, here we were on a mountain in 2014, the soul of the band still reverberating through the trees.
I’m convinced that “Wake Up With Warren” is the best thing to ever grace a Sunday festival lineup. The last day of a festival can be a little rough: if you’ve been camping, it’s been 3 or 4 days since you’ve showered and gotten a decent night’s sleep. If you’re hoteling like I was, you’re not as weary but you’re still sad about the impending return to reality. Thus, the concept of having Warren Haynes serenade the crowd with an acoustic 12:30 p.m. set is genius. (Even Haynes had been up late the night before: he and Derek Trucks guested at the Ron Holloway Band’s midnight set on the tiny Grove Stage.)
As fans leaned back in their seats and sipped coffee (or beer), Haynes imparted soothing tunes like “Patchwork Quilt”—his ode to Jerry Garcia—and covers of unanimously-loved songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” and the Grateful Dead’s “High Time.” In a rare non-headlining set encore, he sang Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Haynes initiated the last chorus of the song and stepped away from the microphone, allowing the audience to finish before flashing a peace sign and heading offstage. The cheers were so loud that a second encore might have been necessary, but another legend was preparing to play on the Peach Stage, where all of the Day 3 action took place.
Seventy-two-year old Taj Mahal and his band played a perfectly leisurely Sunday set. The energetic blues master brought warmth and wit to the stage as he cracked jokes, referred to the audience as “babies,” and got up after nearly every song to switch guitars or play the banjo. The happy vibes of tunes like “Queen Bee” filled the air and brought many to their feet. “Thank goodness we can have days like this together,” he remarked. True words.
Speaking of energy, the Soul Rebels brought it to an infinite degree. The eight-piece New Orleans brass band marched onstage and never once hit a lull. One of the Rebels directly addressed seated audience members, promising them that his band would get them standing up by the end of the show. They achieved their mission thanks to unrelenting upbeat jams and infectiously funky dance moves.
And then it arrived: the last Allman Brothers show most Peach Festival attendees would ever see. This was a sentimental occasion for many in the crowd, myself included. My dad introduced me to the Allmans during childhood, and their annual March Beacon Theatre residencies have consistently been some of my most-anticipated events of the year. Though the band’s breakup makes sense logically it’s still hard to see long-standing traditions come to an end, especially a band you (and your dad) grew up listening to.
The performance had it all: old classics like “Midnight Rider,” fresher tunes like “Soulshine,” and an epic version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” in which each of the members of the band—including all three drummers—took long solos. Before “Statebsoro Blues,” Gregg Allman introduced Taj Mahal, who, he told the audience, “we got this from.” Allman and Taj took turns singing the verses while Taj rocked out on the harmonica.
Mercifully, the set was anything but sad and ended with a thunderous “Whipping Post.” I’d even forgotten that it was my last Allman Brothers show until I was back on the school bus headed to the lot. I thought about the inspired performances I’d witnessed that weekend from artists new and old and I felt reassured that the torch was still burning. The thing about great traditions is that no one wants to see them fade, so we find ways to keep them going. “The road goes on forever,” sings Allman in “Midnight Rider.” We can look forward to the Peach Festival echoing that sentiment for years to come.