Harmony Festival Packs Big-Event Ambition Into Small-Event Atmosphere
June 26, 2010 · Print This Article
Amongst a spate of boutique festivals jostling for the attention of a restless and eclectic populace, California’s Harmony Festival is unique; it does not fit neatly into a category of what the “typical” music event ought to be.
Situated deep in the sprawling wine country north of the Golden Gate, Harmony has been around for over thirty years, but only recently has begun to raise in stature as one of the premiere “progressive arts” events in the country. With a widening clientele of attendees – some 45,000 were expected to make it to the grounds this year – and an ever-widening base of musical interests from which to draw, Harmony is the one alternative festival in California that, perhaps, has a chance someday of cultivating widespread appeal on the level of a Coachella or Bonnaroo.
Now, that assertion might cause some to snicker, as the term “progressive arts” is usually considered code for “hippies, reggae, and weed”. There is some truth to that stereotype, and it should be noted that Harmony does not exactly transcend it just yet; hippies, reggae, and weed were all in ample supply at this year’s event. The main festival grounds were as much a carnival as they were a musical event, with a generous parcel of space dedicated to booths selling everything from gongs to vaporizers. Sections with names like “Goddess Grove” and “Eco Village” hinted at the holistic, organic, touchy-feely offerings within; there was no shortage of belly dancers, massage therapists, and speakers presenting theories that melded mysticism with science and politics.
All of that is fine and dandy from a lifestyle and philosophical standpoint, if it is indeed what you’re interested in when you fork over the cash for a three-day pass.
Over the past few years, though, Harmony has made some quiet but clear attempts to expand its appeal – particularly in terms of the music it presents – leaving one foot squarely in the left-wing ideals of its founders, while shifting the other foot closer to the postmodern fusion of the present. Recent lineups would seem to bear this out, both in terms of quality and content: the likes of Brian Wilson, The Roots, Erykah Badu, George Clinton with Parliament-Funkadelic, India.Arie, Cake, Michael Franti with Spearhead, Matisyahu, K’Naan, hardcore punk legends Bad Brains, and electronica luminary Alex Patterson of The Orb have all graced Harmony’s multiple stages during the past three summers. Most festivals of this size would simply kill for that level of quality and diversity in their programming, and it is here where Harmony sets itself apart as a singular experience for those who attend.
For 2010, things opened on an admittedly traditional note, with a lineup largely dominated by classic rock nostalgia.
Following an opening ceremony led by New Age maestro Kitaro, and the emcee antics of Woodstock icon Wavy Gravy (“I’ve recently begun marketing my own line of Wavy Gravy bubbles. I’m a clown-glomerate!”), the festival got into its regular groove the only way a Northern California festival can: with an appearance by one or more surviving members of the Grateful Dead.
While San Francisco’s Outside Lands recently slated Further – the band featuring Phil Lesh and David Weir – as one of its headliners, Harmony landed one of the debut performances of 7 Walkers, brainchild of longtime Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann.
Bill Kreutzmann of 7 Walkers performs at Harmony Festival.
Not surprisingly, the band’s languid two-hour set featured a ton of jamming, a ton of percussion, and a fair dollop of Dead, including a guest walk-on by the Dead’s other famous drummer, Mickey Hart. The material was sparked to life in no small part by the Southern-fried drawl and deadly guitar licks of lead vocalist Papa Mali, a more than able stand-in for the late Jerry Garcia.
Papa Mali of 7 Walkers performs at Harmony Festival.
As far as carrying the torch of dead rock luminaries is concerned, few are in a more convenient position than Dweezil Zappa, who has been running an elaborate cover band – dedicated to the extensive catalog of his father, Frank – for the past several years. On paper, such a concept makes it difficult to see the line between “tribute” and “grave-robbing”, so I had more than a little trepidation when Zappa Plays Zappa hit the main stage for their headlining set.
Dweezil Zappa performs at Harmony Festival.
My fears were quickly put to rest, though, when it became clear just how well – and with what kind of artistry and respect – Zappa and his extremely talented backing band perform the music. Frank Zappa’s stuff runs the gamut from psychedelic freakout to scathing satire to quasi-orchestral prog, and with its non-stop bevy of unbelievably dingbat time signatures and zany solos, it is among the most difficult music on earth to play. Dweezil Zappa’s band tackled pieces of insanity like “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” without even so much as breaking a sweat, and Zappa himself was a marvel of technical virtuosity, blasting out runs that would vaporize most guitarists with a placid, mellow confidence that was very hard not to admire.
The evening hours at Harmony feature the festival’s most successful attempt at expansion so far: the all-night spectacle known as “Techno-Tribal Community Dance”. A few years ago, the festival teamed up with the organization Mystic Beat Lounge to produce electronic and hip hop-driven entertainment for the nighttime hours. Techno-Tribal was the result, and it has quickly become one of the most exciting – and truly progressive – events of its kind to be found anywhere, featuring genre-busting collaborations and performances that regularly touch the outer limits of contemporary musical experimentation.
Galactic performs at Techno-Tribal.
This year’s event had a lot to do with bridging the gap between the daytime events and the ones taking place at night. The organization of the lineup emphasized a sort of “house band” feel, with many of the acts – New Orleans funksters Galactic, dub reggae luminaries Steel Pulse - playing sets both at the festival’s main stage AND at the glowstick-infested pavilion that housed the Techno-Tribal circus.
Chali 2na performs at Techno-Tribal.
Many of this year’s most fiery and exciting collaborations could be found at Techno-Tribal. It was here that Galactic – fresh from the Bonnaroo stage – could be seen jamming out Jurassic 5 tunes with the legendary Chali 2na, or where Bay Area positive tip rapper Lyrics Born could be seen debuting D.J. Shadow-produced tracks from his upcoming album, As U Were, backed by a 40-piece experimental hip-hop orchestra known as “Brass, Bows & Beats”.
Lyrics Born performs at Techno-Tribal.
For the turntable and laptop-inclined, there was British breakbeat specialist Tipper, ambient producer Ott, and the highly-enticing rhythm orgy that was Beats Antique. Combining reams of electronic percussion with elements of world fusion music – backed by an army of trapeze artists doing shadow dances in any number of sexy contortions – the splashy set was a high point for many of the sold-out thousands who squeezed their way into the sweaty, hangar-like pavilion on the final night.
Beats Antique performs at Techno-Tribal.
Lauryn Hill: Ms. Education
Of course, the entire weekend was dominated by a single name, a name that once came squarely from the mainstream, but now rivals Salinger for allusions to self-imposed exile.
Lauryn Hill – the lone female member of the Fugees – virtually disappeared from the planet after her 1998 Neo-Soul classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won five Grammys and sold ten million copies. By all accounts, she should be regularly touring arenas by now, and every once in a while, a mournful blogger writes a “whatever became of…” article about the woman and why she decided to shun her own fame and influence.
Of course, rumors about what truly HAS become of her – that she spent millions in label money recording and shelving material for a sophomore record that never materialized, that she’s become impossibly eccentric and difficult to deal with, that she insists on everyone calling her “Ms. Hill” – have only fueled interest in what the audience would see if, in fact, she did decide to make a return.
Landing her as the festival headliner was considered a large coup for the organizers, and the appearance quickly took on a sort of “emerging from the forest” aura for Hill, in lieu of her recently-announced set of guest slots at this year’s Rock the Bells.
The performance Harmony got from Hill was by no means a bad one. However, it also did little to dispel all those rumors of eccentricity that have hounded her over the years. Hill finally appeared onstage about ten minutes after her name was initially announced, and quickly proceeded to get into a twenty-minute, mid-performance argument with the sound technician (whose name was Phil, apparently) about her mic levels, and the levels for the rest of her band. After numerous commands to Phil that he turn everything up, the mix was reduced to an impenetrable slush that killed most of the nuance of Hill’s back-up singers and guitarists.
All through this spectacle, Hill calmly and confidently rattled out the same set of instructions, over and over: “Turn up my singers, they know how they like it. My mic needs to go up. Guitar needs to go up. I’m not tryin’ to tell you how to do your job, Phil.”
As one guy standing near me enthusiastically put it: “Get your Diva-on!”
Lauryn Hill performs at Harmony Festival.
Whoever was at fault for the sound difficulties, it was certainly a shame that the festival’s marquee moment got turned into The Battle of Hill and Phil. However, the performance was not without its moments. Many of the tunes from Hill’s catalog – “Ex-Factor”, “Fu-Gee-La” – were sped up and occasionally merged with covers medleys (I think I caught The Police’s “Can’t Stand Losing You” at one point), but to her credit, Hill did not mutate her old favorites to the point of being unrecognizable, and her vocals and rapping showed flashes of the brilliance she displayed a decade ago.
By the time she had reached the gooey pleasure center of “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, her voice was strong, the band had tightened up, and the capacity crowd finally seemed to be feeling it… but by then the 70-minute set was over, and Hill promptly disappeared backstage again, leaving everyone in attendance to simultaneously scratch their heads and feel fortunate they got to see one of the singer’s increasingly rare and idiosyncratic appearances.
In spite of the rather odd climax, Harmony 2010 concluded feeling like a success. While it would probably do just fine sticking close to its provincial roots, it is an event that also has enormous potential for growth. With a little finesse, Harmony could go from being a nice specialty event to a serious example of how the big music festival can re-claim itself from irrelevance.
-Words and Photographs by Luke Pimentel, Contributing Editor
For more images, click the thumbnails below:
For more information about Harmony Festival, please visit www.harmonyfestival.com.