ZenFest is a lovely little festival that manages to fly under the radar, but those who have attended and those who have played there know just how wonderfully intimate and warm it is. Its home is All World Acres, off the beaten path in north Plant City, almost to Zephyrhills. AWA is host to a number of events throughout the year, but this is their premier music event.
Music started early Friday evening (February 19) when festival organizer Allison Menendez sang a few karaoke tunes to get everybody started. My favorite: “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’,” of course. Then Christina Ungstad and a guitar player, collectively US, took the stage to host open mic night. They performed a few songs of their own before turning the mic over to a string of folks.
There were poetry readings and songs and more. Several performances were memorable, including a couple of tunes from Mama Gina, a fine folk singer who was also vending for the weekend. She included her one “angry” song about the obscene Florida back bear hunt last fall. She also played and sang at her booth during the day Saturday. The highlight of the evening was the guitar styling of Brian Brown (we knew his name because they called for him several times). He was a great player and added to the sound with his dynamic set. There was genuine appreciation from the audience, including the request for an encore.
Saturday began early with an excellent Native American drum and chant session, hosted by Grey Ghosthawk. That helped put everyone in the proper frame of mind for the day to come. Aaron Field had the first set at 1 PM; he had also played during the open mic, where he deflected a Dishwalla request. He did honor the request Saturday along with a bunch of original tunes, enthusiastically presented.
Suggestion to musicians: don’t tell us when you’ve made a mistake (or multiple mistakes). Likely as not, we don’t know. Just keep rollin’.
Next up was a young lady named Frankie Raye, accompanying herself on guitar. She has a lovely voice and great stage presence. She sang a number of very nice original songs, and then delivered the best — by far —version of “No Diggity” I have ever heard. Truly spectacular. She sang a “Perfect Song,” covered “Creep” and a Dar Williams tune, and closed with a nice song about a dream she had at last year’s ZenFest, “Thing or Two About a Dream.”
I had only seen Jun Bustamante for the first time last year fronting La Lucha, an excellent jazz trio. As much as I loved that show, I was totally unprepared for the astounding set she was about to throw down. She began with a stunning vocal exercise called “Everything.” I was completely drawn in, as were the others fortunate enough to be there. As she played “Grateful,” I appreciated her dark hair, black dress, dark shades and black guitar. It was a great image. Oh, and her radiant smile!
Somewhere toward the end of “Q&A,” Jun broke a string. It was determined that the songs would just sound ‘different’ with one string less, and Jun persevered. Which led to her attempting to tune the broken string: “phantom limb syndrome!” she said. “The Nest” and “Cranes” were more originals lovingly presented.
Next Jun sang a song of mantras with loops which was extraordinary. She closed with a wonderful short piece called “Chimes.” Her magnificent vocals remind me of Patricia Barber. I got a copy of her superb album The Heart and Home, The Body and Throne, which includes a number of songs from this set, including two versions of “Brewing.”
Thee Eloquent Barbarian performed an impromptu set at last year’s ZenFest, filling in an open slot. His incredible bass voice is so unlike anything we are accustomed to hearing, and he plays his keyboard tilted forward so that everyone can see his hands. (He is also a member of Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish.)
His songs are incredibly droll, sometimes melancholy, often laugh-out-loud funny, but they are always anchored by his deep voice and great playing. Each song is introduced with a deadpan voice: “I call this [song title.]” It made me think of Johnny Carson as Carnac with Ed McMahon somehow.
Consider his first song: “In a Painting.” “How pathetic is my life, to have a wife in a painting?” “Bad Transmission” offered unusual analogies between a car and a relationship. This is what Tom Waits would sound like… without the annoying rasp. He played “A Hole in My Heart,” “ Little Things” and “Plastic Gardens” before a stunning tune called “Nothing.” He closed the set with “Vacation:” “I want to take a vacation in your love.” Nicely done.
Ragged Old Souls was up next. Sadly, I missed part of their set, which sounded great. The last several songs I saw were excellent. This band definitely deserves my attention next time around. Steele bought their shirt!
The next five sets all ripped my head off — all great music and presentation. It began with Tears of a Tyrant, an Orlando quartet. The trio of Justin McDonald, guitar; Jester Cordell, bass; and Manny Martinez, drums, were fronted by singer Danielle Dart, a real dynamic spirit. The excellent third song evoked “Feelin’ Alright,” using that song’s exterior structure, redecorating inside. Justin had a superb solo.
The best song of the set was a superior funk tune with a driving rhythm that would remind you of the Stones’ “Miss You.” WOW. After another original, they tore into “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” Justin singing with Danielle joining in. And they closed with a great blues tune.
I was introduced to George Pennington III at a Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish show the day after Christmas. This 20-year-old injected new blood into an already great band. I was looking forward to Pennington’s own trio; I was lucky enough to catch part of their performance on WMNF’s Live Music Showcase Friday afternoon, which was excellent.
Pennington is brilliant. The trio opened with several bluesy tunes including “Set Me Free” and “Bad News.” They switched gears for a sort-of country-ish song called “Football Jam.” “First-Round Pick” evolved into a full-blown boogie. He blew up a fine “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” Then they pulled out all the stops with “Slobberknocker,” a medley that sails through a bunch of rock anthems, starting with Led Zep’s “Over the Hills.” The only other quote I can remember was “Space Truckin’.”
Then we had another band I knew nothing about, Tampa’s The Reality. This was yet another monster set. The trio are: Dan Jones, guitars & vocals; Caleb Bone, bass & vocals; and Logan Charles III, drums & keyboards. Jones also plays trombone, which he whipped out when René Schlegel (shoeless soul) grabbed the guitar. The set burned hotter the longer they played. “I Can Dig it” was hot, then got truly manic. A slow reggae tune was followed by MASSIVE FUNK. I definitely need to see them again as well.
It was time for Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish. This was the anniversary of my first Troy show, on the same stage. I was so impressed then and made a point of seeing this fine band ten times since. The band included Thee Eloquent Barbarian and George Pennington III, along with Bob Feckner, trumpet and flugelhorn; Sean C. Sinback, bass; and Matt Salvador, drums.
This was, by far, the most impressive performance I’ve seen from this band, and I have liked them all. But something was different. For one thing, Sean’s bass was louder; not too, loud, but just right. It really kicked things up several notches (although Thee Eloquent Barbarian said it was loud behind him!). Everybody in the band was on fire, and that young whippersnapper Pennington’s contributions were enormous.
They slid immediately into the wickedness of “The Blues in My Blood.” Youngblood’s deep, rich tenor is almost unmatched on the scene, so emotive and expressive. They followed with “Let Me Go,” highlighted by Thee Eloquent Barbarian’s great harmonica. “Want to hear a song about Chris Brown?” Youngblood asked! Of course, and out came “Maggie’s Door,” a tale of New Orleans debauchery.
A truly deluxe boogie tune evolved next, and they closed with “I’ve Got My Mojo Working.” This was an inspired performance from start to finish, rock-solid beat courtesy of Salvador and lovely accents from Feckner. And Pennington. That boy can flat rip all manner of guitar solos.
It was time for the final set of the evening from shoeless soul, the Dunedin band who has played every ZenFest. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them eight or ten times, including twice recently. But this set went interstellar. Maybe there is something in the water here at All World Acres, because DAMN.
This particular configuration had René Schlegel, guitar and vocals; Mike Ratza, tenor sax; Sladjan Vidic, bass; and Dave Gerulat, drums. They wasted no time getting right to the funk on a great tune. Then t from The Reality grabbed his trombone and joined in a nasty jam. A tune titled “Time” quickly ramped up into double-time, this one with Pam Middleton joining the vocals. They closed with “Greed.” Vidic had a great night matching up with rhythm mate Gerulat.
Treblehawk Brian had the opening set on Sunday at noon. He got the day started accompanying himself on guitar with music that was well received. Next up should have been Josh We Know, but Josh and his van in Deland were having a disagreement, and you know who won. Caveman Dave (from Philly) stepped in. He had an interesting performance, sadly too loud; fortunately, the sound was very good most of the weekend. He had us help sing a song about cats (“meow meow”) and dinosaurs (“roar roar”), and he played a fascinating cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The next young man was billed as These Hands. He had a very quiet style both on guitar and in voice. People listened respectfully to his introspective songs, and he covered “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which somebody had done Friday night during the open mic session.
We went from quiet introspection to full-frontal grunge rock courtesy of The Cruz Brothers. This young quartet plays with overflowing enthusiasm, and their set was met with great response. They opened with “Come Together,” following that with originals such as “Tortoise” (written by drummer PJ Cruz) and “Banana Man.” I believe most of the originals were written by lead singer and rhythm guitarist Phil Cruz. Phil and Cory Jones had some nice exchanges on guitar, while bassist Taylor Benson held down the bottom end. They also played “Newton’s Giant Flaming Laser Sword.”
As I was packing up to head to WMNF, Introvert was doing his rap/spoken word thing on top of a music background. This is not my favorite genre, but there was clarity and vision in his words. Next time. And I missed festival closer Nick Tumi.
Once again, a small music festival exceeded my expectations — by a lot. Already looking forward to 2017! Thanks to Allison Menendez, Richard Fiallo, and all who helped make this little slice of heaven exactly that.
Also, the food was killer! Our compliments to the chef!