Good things come in small packages. Great things, too. That perfectly describes the inaugural Little Manatee April Fool’s Jam Fest held at the Little Manatee Canoe Outpost in Wimauma FL (April 1-2). Held on the gorgeous tree-lined banks of the river, music was the primary focus, but family, canoeing, kayaking and enjoying the sylvan atmosphere were all part of the experience.
This new festival was sponsored by WMNF 88.5 Community Conscious Radio and specifically by Thor Bendickson and Wayne Tagle, hosts of In the Groove, the weekly jamband show. Many of the WMNF family and volunteers were involved in making this event a success. [Full disclosure: I now cohost the jazz program on WMNF.]
Music began early Friday evening with Atlanta’s hard-grooving rockers Voodoo Visionary. They were on a brief tour of Florida before a swing through their home state. The tour had begun on Tuesday as they played live in the WMNF studios, and they were on fire.
After a brief soundcheck (“Testify”), they opened the fest with their funky “Kang Gang > Dancin’ Feet.” Vocalist Scottie MacDonald has the perfect voice for this band’s music, and his smile radiates when he performs. Guitarist Mike Smith is another one of the superb but underrated players on our scene, and he ripped it up on every song; the band wisely gives him the space to do just that. The rhythm section had everything locked down tight while Dennis Dowd’s keyboards danced in and around Smith’s solos.
After “Testify” (from their album Spirit of the Groove) and a really funky “Cold Shallow Moon,” they offered a nice cover of “Feel Like a Stranger” and closed with a great song titled “Harmony.”
I had seen Shane Meade only once, years ago, in an acoustic duo. Thus I was totally unprepared for the brilliance of the next set by Shane Meade and the Sound. Meade, handling vocals and playing acoustic guitar, was flanked by guitarists Fil Pate and Sean Shuffler. Tenor player Rob Masten began the set with an intro to “Set Us All Free” that was truly super. Where would they go from there?
Answer: Up! Higher! The next song was about “Cleveland Street” (in Clearwater). Meade claims the band plays “soul-infused folk rock, with a splash of jazz and mountain funk.” I’m hard pressed to argue with that. Masten was huge all set, and Pate and Shuffler often sounded like horns playing with him. And both guitarists had great solos throughout the night.
Joe Cosas, a mainstay on the area music scene, was great on bass, pairing with drummer Albert Warren. Of particular note were songs “House Full of Doubt” and “El Segundo.” Put these boys on your must-hear list.
That left it to Trae Pierce and the T-Stone Band to close out the night. That would be an understatement. Pierce and company had played last year’s WMNF Heatwave and the Great Outdoors Jam, so at least some of us were prepared for the onslaught about to happen. Pierce and T-Stone are the very embodiment of the Funkadelic song “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!”
After a brief intro, they blasted into “T-Stone is Here.” Pierce was killing on lead bass guitar, and Adam James was shredding on guitar. A huge medley ensued, with “Come Together > Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) > No Diggity > bass battle > Rock and Roll, Pt. 2 > Run Through the Jungle.” Seriously. The bass battle was superb; Charron Freeman went toe to toe with Pierce. A nifty drum solo ended with Gordon “G” Rodgers coming stage front after playing the side of his kit, then playing the stage, joined by vocalist Rae Pierce and Freeman, both with drumsticks.
“Crash the Party” was driven by an incredible bass line from Freeman that led into a wicked “Enter Sandman!” James was incendiary, and that led to “I Got the Power > Killing In the Name > Whole Lotta Love,” during which James crowd-surfed, not missing a note. Who says a funk band can’t play rock?
The next portion was straight-up funk, and then rock, and then, well: “Fire > Sex Machine > Give Up the Funk > Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye > Lose Yourself > We Will Rock You > Auld Lang Syne > Star-Spangled Banner.”
You need some Trae Pierce in your life.
Mother Nature had promised some precipitation, but we were optimistic. Music was scheduled to start at 12:30, but a late addition to the schedule played at 11:30. That was Pins & Needles, the group of four very young ladies playing a wide variety of songs. It was delightful. Best comment from the lead singer after finishing “Blister in the Sun:” “We changed the lyrics to make it PG!” Their “Psycho Killer” was great, too.
Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish were ready for 12:30. Troy had a spiffy purple hat and everything. At 12:25, right on schedule, the heavens opened up — for three hours. No Troy, no Kettle of Fish, no Future Vintage. FV actually made the drive, but it was decided to try to maintain the original schedule, with Row Jomah on next.
I had been in contact with both bands, so it’s likely part of the confusion was my doing. Row Jomah kicked off as a quartet, since guitarist Mel Walsh had not yet arrived. That put Austin Llewellyn in the spotlight as lead keyboard player for a while, and he rose to the occasion with ease. The skies had cleared, and the air felt clean, if a bit muggy. Row Jomah played a number of songs from their excellent album Cat People!, including “Suffer” and the closing “Outhouse.”
Christie Lenée was next on stage. She had just played live on WMNF earlier in the day. She was joined by bass, keyboards, and Jonathan Thomas on drums. Her set began with the delightful “Here I Go,” and she never let up. “Daylight Comes,” “Stay” and her cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Salisbury Hill” followed.
Then Lenée asked: “So do you want to get funky or continue (with the mellower music)? This is a jam fest!” So out poured “Learning Tree.” Next, she told us about her soprano guitar and The Engle, the small metal hammer she uses to play it. Think harpsichord. It was wonderful. Slide guitar followed on “Take a Little Vacation,” and she closed with her anthem — and the perfect song for this festival — “We Are One.”
I’ve seen Bobby Lee Rodgers more than 30 times. He is one of the greatest guitar players anywhere. And this was the best set I’ve ever heard from him. I have no idea where he finds so many excellent rhythm sections, but once again he had great backing. He set the tone from the start with “Outer Space,” then to “Beggin’ You to Stay” and “Ike Stubblefield.” Brian King was huge on bass. BLR dedicated the song “Radio” to all those involved with WMNF. It began slowly and built into a feverish jam. And the set ended with good advice via the song “Breathe.”
Believe the hype. Marcus King is that good. Better, in fact. So good that Warren Haynes put him on his label and will produce his next album. Here’s the thing. The depth of his guitar playing, his vocals and his knowledge of music belies his 19 years on the planet. He began playing at 7 and worked with his father’s blues band for years. King is the real deal.
And he was supported by an excellent band, including: Jack Ryan, drums; Stephen Campbell, bass; Justin Johnson, trumpet, trombone, background vocals, tambourine; Matt Jennings, organ, keyboards. There was also a very good tenor sax player. Jennings also got funky with his clavinet.
Three songs in, they totally rocked some Southern jam jazz with “Thespian Espionage” (from the album ). During “Slip Back,” featuring, as King put it, “old soul,” the song veered into “Eat That Question > Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother > arena rock anthem > War Pigs.” Zappa into Grand Funk? HELL YES! King’s guitar playing is pure dynamite, but his vocals are just brilliant, with the perfect growl.
Finally, it was time for those black-light crazies The Bath Salt Zombies to blow our minds. Which they proceeded to do. Their choice of covers and macabre originals is always appropriately off-kilter. “Little Red Riding Hood” preceded “Dig a Little Hole,” about a place to put a body. Then came the first of their delectable mashups. Zane Bowman was singing “The Rainbow Connection” so sweetly, when suddenly it slammed into a Ronnie James Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark,” Graham Woodard barking the vocals. And Noodles was jamming the light show, courtesy of The Elephant Project.
There was a great cover of The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In” after “Lowly Worm.” Then there were smiles all around for “Too High (for the Supermarket.” And you know how you may have seen a particular band or musician a number of times but not really heard him or her? That was true for me as I appreciated the amazing drumming by Dan Croley, not to mention his fine vocals as well.
Fan favorites “Bearded Lady” and “Whoa Betsy” were followed by “Good Morning Little School Girl,” Toto’s “Africa,” and “I Put a Spell on You.” The black light show was excellent, given the limited setup they had. Also, it is impossible to overestimate the contributions of mandolin player Fancypants Fancypants: simply superb.
When it was time to close, bassist Tucker Cobb took the low baritone (bass?) lead vocal on “Boris the Spider,” which wonderfully, magically morphed into the best version of “I’m Your Boogie Man” EVER. Sorry, KC. You don’t own it any more.
And, with that, the first Little Manatee Jam Fest came to a close. But reaction was so insanely positive that we won’t have to wait a whole year for a reprise. Watch this space!