"I should have brought a gun."
It was the only thing I could think of to say as we sat in the long line of cars slowly making their way into Markham Park. This was not only because there was an arrow pointing to the park's target range, but also because a weapon would have been useful in dispatching some of the more impolite SUV drivers cutting in line.
Neither of these ironies took too long to settle in. After all, I was here with the wife and kids to observe the third annual Langerado music festival. As sort of "baby Bonnaroo," Langerado has grown from a one-day event for South Florida jam-rock fans into a two-day party to help Jerry's Lost Tribe shake off the winter and get ready for the spring touring season.
2003's festival was held at the Fort Lauderdale Stadium Festival Grounds and featured Charlie Hunter, Mofro, Medeski Martin & Wood and headliners Moe. Last year found Langerado expanding into Young Circle Park in Hollywood with a similar lineup: Moe, Mofro, Cake/Cracker, G. Love & Special Sauce and others. Although neither of these festivals could be considered groundbreaking in their curatorship nor particularly "hippified" in their music it's clear that by scraping the top layer of the jam-band/college-rock crossover, Langerado's organizers had successfully tapped into the current trend for road-dogging rock bands to latch on to the legacy of the Grateful Dead.
The bands many people including myself dismissively refer to as "jam bands" are not the same jam bands that were crisscrossing the country 20 years ago. They're not even the same type of bands that were "jam bands" five years ago. Yes, old-school jammers like the Allman Brothers (and their heirs apparent, Widespread Panic) and a large contingent of bluegrass/new-grass acts remain large draws among die-hard dope-smokers. And Phish the 800-pound ghost gorilla of modern jam-rock picked up some, but not all of the Dead's sonics.
But a whole new batch of stickers are adorning dorm-room doors and VW buses these days, denoting scores of other bands attuned to the movement's precepts of eternal touring, taper-friendliness and a smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em vibe.
As we were pulling into Markham Park, I had a vague understanding of this. Even though I was fully apprised of the lineup at Langerado and was ready to accept a bit of String Cheese's psychedelic noodling in exchange for a set by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, the thought of being surrounded by those people for two days was enough to make me wish for weaponry. I wish I could say that when we left on Sunday I was of a different mind-set.
After managing to find a parking space, we stumbled out of the car and maneuvered past rows of shiny SUVs, banged-up VW buses, campers, beaters and lots and lots of cars with out-of-state plates. My wife and I knew that the myth of the Deadheads that wayfaring hippie community scraping its way around the country begging for miracles and gas money had long since given way to the true identity of the modern jam-rock fan: a slightly disenchanted college student willing to blow extra student loan money (or parents' cash) on occasional jaunts into proscribed decadence that ended just in time to get back to take a poli-sci exam. We knew this, but we didn't realize exactly how true it was. Nor did we realize the extent the participants would go to mask this very fact.
A casual observer (one willing to ignore the presence of $40,000 cars) could glance around the parking lot and, from the profusion of dreadlocks, tie-dyes, hirsute she-pits and popped camper-tops, come to the conclusion that this was the real deal. But it wasn't five minutes until I heard a khaki-shorts-and-polo-with-a-ball cap guy in the ticket line start proclaiming, "Phil `Lesh, I presume` is the fucking man. He's the goddamned man, dude. He's the best."
Not very "kind" language, right? Especially in front of my 10-year-old. But what do you expect from someone who looks like an asshole investment banker? (Though this guy was exceptionally dickish, his voluminous profanity seemed surprisingly par for the course; these peace-loving earth-children all cursed and smoked like sailors.) Yet for the most part, there wasn't anyone getting stressed from the heat and crowds.
Except for me. Paying $10 for a burrito and getting violated by an ATM machine with a $4.50 surcharge will do that to you. You couldn't bring food or water in the show (although you could go back and forth to the faraway parking lot) and the lines at the food, beverage and $5 microbrew stands were always long. Add to that the merchants selling everything from tie-dyes and posters to stash boxes and solar-power systems, and you've got a recipe for quickly burning through a healthy amount of cash.
This was not a scrounger's paradise, but the pseudo-utopianism for sale probably made everyone feel better about themselves. What made us feel better was the music. Arriving a bit late on Saturday, we missed opening sets by the likes of New Monsoon and Pencilgrass, but when I heard The Benevento Russo Duo, a wave of relief washed over me. A hard-driving battle of overdriven analog keyboards and pounding percussion, the set by these two New Yorkers sounded very much like an acid-drenched Larry Young/Tony Williams free-funk smackdown, something good enough to make me forget both their Phish connection and the noodle-dancing going on around me.
"Aaah," I said to my wife. "If this is what it's going to be like all weekend, I think I'll be OK."
She rolled her eyes. I should have known that I wouldn't be OK.
I had to keep my eyes closed, as that was the only way to reconcile the dorkish stage presence of Particle bass played above the waist? with the superbly dark, electronics-drenched psychedelia emerging from the sound system. The band benefited from a spot-on drummer and a keyboardist who seemed intent on killing his instruments, and I had a quick flash of weakness wondering if I was a closet jam-band fan. If this is what these ratty-ass faux-hippies are listening to, who cares how they dress (or smell)? This music totally rocks! I'm going on the road with these bands! Whoo-hoo!
Oh, wait. My 10-year-old wants to go jump on the rubber band trampoline.
Though I was temporarily snapped out of my patchouli-scented reverie, the rest of the day's lineup did little to break the spell this fine music was casting. De La Soul delivered a brief, if lackadaisical, set that was redeemed by a thumping version of "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays,'" and a hilarious moment when they asked where all the "true hip-hop heads are at." (The whole crowd responded positively. They were all lying.) Back-to-back funk beatings by Soulive and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra followed and, for me, the deal was sealed.
Until Lewis sat down. Lewis wore Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a beaded necklace and not much else. Claiming to be from Bogota, Lewis said his purpose at Langerado was twofold: First, he wanted to spread the word about "indigenous peoples" (what that word is, he never said); second, he was informing people about his "crystal-healing work with the dolphins." I shit you not. If you designed a loopy hippie mystic in a lab, you'd come up with Lewis. And after you created Lewis, you wouldn't ask him to sit down with you; you wouldn't have to, because Lewis would invite himself.
After a few minutes of spieling me and my youngest about our auras, my wife and oldest son returned and were invited to join in the fun. Talk of crystals and chakras turned to questions about our faith, at which point Lewis put crystal shards in my 10-year-old's hand and then chanted something "indigenous." God bless my son; he did not laugh. At least until Lewis left.
Isolated spiritual encounters notwithstanding, this festival and the "jam-rock" thing at large is not the neo-hippie scene it's made out to be. It's more about righteous, improvised funk than about space jams and arpeggios. Every single band we saw on Saturday had at least a little bit of groove, and most had a lot. Even String Cheese Incident (who closed the festival both nights) have more soul in their step than they should. When Toots & the Maytals come off as one of the stiffest bands of the day, something's definitely going right.
And I was still loving it as we headed out of the park. A spring in my step and aglow with the self-satisfaction that comes with discovery, we made our tired-ass, sunburned way back to the hotel, ready for a good night's sleep. The perfect cap to a surprisingly good day.
It wasn't until around 2:30 a.m. that the drum circle started. In the hallway. Of a $150-a-night-and-up hotel. There was no sleep to be had. Goddamned hippies.
Apparently, the party continued after the park shut down around 9:30 p.m., moving to various late-night shows in Fort Lauderdale then back to the hotel pool and right into the hallway outside my door. We knew about the late-night shows, but nobody clued us in to the fact that there would be a party at the pool. When I took my 10-year-old downstairs to go swimming Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of watching an older Hispanic woman go clean up hundreds of empty beer bottles and cigarette butts littering the pool deck.
On Sunday at Langerado, all spring was drained from my step and the only glow left was the lingering rage of a sleep-deprived father who really wished he had brought his gun.
As if to echo my mood, the lineup for Sunday was nearly devoid of Saturday's excitement. Keller Williams, Donavon Frankenreiter, Mofro, Dirty Dozen Brass Band … whatever. I hate all these people and I hate their music. Michael Franti showed up with Spearhead and I even hated him. Medeski Martin & Wood? I wish I would have seen 'em at House of Blues instead.
While sitting through an anonymous, Santana-lite set from "Latin-rock" crew DeSol (who were the second band to play Sunday and apparently didn't get the note that the whole cowbell thing was a joke), I looked around and noticed that though the crowd was still light sleeping off the drum circle, I guess they were totally digging the band. Just like they dug Soulive. Just like they dug String Cheese Incident. Just like they dug De La Soul. Just like they dug The Benevento Russo Duo, New Monsoon, Umphrey's McGee or any of the other artists that played that weekend.
It was then I realized this whole "nation" of people doesn't have bad taste in music; they have no taste in music. Put any band in front of them Mastodon or the Mantovani Orchestra and if it has a drummer, a taper-friendly policy and made chicks want to have sex, the crowd would dance along. This event wasn't, for the attendees at least, about the music any more than it was about playing "disc golf" in the grass. Although there was a surprising quantity of excellent and adventurous sounds on display, the crowd's communality drew from the desire for a shared experience, and music was just providing something to look at and listen to.
This is certainly not uncommon; look around at a punk show and see how many people are really listening to the band. The thing is, punk shows or indie-rock or metal or hip-hop shows generally conform to some accepted stylistic parameters; this scene does not. Not even close.
So why do so many people hold such a deep and abiding loathing for it? Well, where to begin? The philosophical conformity is a good place to start. The hypocrisy "indigenous people need to be saved; unless they're cleaning up after me at the pool," "save Mother Earth, but get out of the way of my SUV" adds to it.
But, for me, it all boils down to the deep-seated pretense of it all. One should never be forced to wear a uniform or keep one's armpits unshaven in order to listen to good music, but all these college kids seem to feel that imitating the nomadic lives their parents (or at least their aunts and uncles) led in the '60s and '70s puts them in some historical clique of "radicals." But no matter how bad they smell and how tatty their clothes are, when all is said and done, most of them are simply well-off kids using this whole charade as a cover for getting wasted and hooking up.
Far be it for me to criticize people who want to get wasted and hook up, but at least they should be themselves while they're doing it.