STS9, Gramatik, Lettuce - McDowell Mountain Music Festival - 3/28/14

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STS9, Gramatik, Lettuce McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 3/28/14

It was a great spring night to spend outdoors at Hance Park for day one of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival before the brutal summer swoops in for the next six months or so.

There was an excitement in the air as Sound Tribe Sector Nine (STS9) was set to make their return to the stage after canceling their winter tour. Bassist and founding member David Murphy left the band in January and Alana Rocklin was preparing to take over for him. Rumors had surfaced that Murphy's departure was a signal that STS9 was ready to take their music in a new direction.

Perhaps the anticipation felt by STS9's legions of fans is what caused the audience to not acknowledge the band Lettuce. "Let the funk flooooooow," was the sole direction band leader Eric Krasno gave this high caliber collective of musicians. They put out everything they had, switching from soul to jazz effortlessly as notes from the saxophone fluttered through the air. Warren Haynes Band singer Alecia Chakour brought in her gritty passionate vocals to the proceedings.

Despite their efforts to grab the audience's attention, Lettuce plays music that is meant to be heard with friends while you dance, which means that no matter how funny a face the band's guitarist makes while he lays down a groovy riff, you're going to miss it. There is no denying that Lettuce plays music to enhance your trip, not freak you out. In this regard, Lettuce accomplished their mission.

The two gentlemen who took the stage for Gramatik generated the same feeling the eight guys in Lettuce did with half the instruments, a MacBook, and a fader. Gramatik is the brainchild of Slovenian producer Denis Jasarecic. His friend, Exmag, played the trumpet and sax when appropriate.

The music is much different than Lettuce obviously, but it's meant to intensify a good feeling. It's a lot of genre-defying samples mixed with some well-known rhythms (Stevie Wonder was the obvious favorite) and the crowd moved well to the beat.

Gramatik specializes in the type of music you hear before a boxing match or during a movie trailer. It sounds cool and fun for a couple minutes, but once the show starts it's forgotten. It's meant to connect with you briefly. All you'll remember is what you did but not what played. No one is going to go, "I gotta buy that album" when they go home (Actually you can download it for free at www.prettylightsmusic.com).

Later in the set, the samples went from 70's funk to 80's soul. Rapper Gibbz joined Gramatik and Exmag on stage to "make it sexy" with his sweet rhymes, but his falsetto and obvious lyrics came off like a Lonely Island track. The fedora and pale skin made him even more obvious as his two songs came off as a second rate Pharrell song.

The crowd went wild as STS9 took the stage, and unlike Gramatik they got the crowd into their set without the use of tricks that make you twitch. The sound of Nina Simone singing "It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life" was heard as the lights went up.

Bassist Rocklin arrived onstage with the rest of the band to debut the new song "New Dawn, New Day." The use of the song "Feeling Good" is a less controversial Simone sample choice than Kanye West made on his last album and the song more than fit the proceedings. Another new track titled "World Go Round" was introduced later in the set.

It's easy to have stage presence when you're the headliner, but STS9 still played like they had something to prove. Trippy designs ran in the background as Zach Velmer's drums dutifully kept the beat. He tried hard to hide his joy of being onstage again from bandmates Jeffree Lerner and David Phipps.

Unlike the previous performers that evening, STS9 is not meant to be background music. They attempted and mostly succeeded at being cinematic and creating an experience. Some tracks were reminiscent of the instrumental tracks Duran Duran used to put into their early albums with Hunter Brown playing his guitar so lyrically it's easy to see why words aren't necessary for the message the band is trying to convey. The crowd reveled in STS9's past and seemed ready to embrace their future.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: McDowell Mountain Music Festival featuring STS9, Gramatik, Lettuce at Margaret T. Hance Park

Personal Bias: I've heard of most of the bands in passing, but didn't have intimate knowledge of their content. A couple of college kids on spring break from University of Illinois filled me in on the importance of STS9's show but didn't agree with my take on Gramatik.

The Crowd: Phish shirts, sun dresses, and for those lucky enough to avoid the watchful eye of the red shirts: weed.

Overheard in the Crowd: "It's so loud but these guys are awesome!"-an audience member's take on Spatford, who was on the Local Stage between Gramatik's and STS9's set. She was spot on. After the confrontational Gramatik set, their tight layered songs went down smooth. Delta Fifths preceded them on stage with their raw bluesy story songs.

Click here for more coverage of McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014

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