Fear and Loathing at Tall Stacks: Day 1
EDITOR’S NOTE: CityBeat has dispatched writer/musician Ric Hickey and photographer Keith Klenowski to cover this year’s Tall Stacks festival, with the only directive being “Think Fear and Loathing at Tall Stacks.” That and “Don’t call us after 2 a.m. if you need bail money.” Below is the start of Hickey’s tales from the riverbanks. Check citybeat.com/tallstacks for all of CityBeat‘s Tall Stacks coverage, including a photo gallery.
Keith and I arrive on site just in time to catch local luminaries Jake Speed And The Freddies on the Public Landing Stage. Previous Tall Stacks festivals had this stage facing the city, but tonight Jake, slide guitar ace Brad Howe and the rest of the boys have a panoramic view of the riverfront while they play.
Run into the beautiful Jenny Lynn from WNKU, who invites us to pay a visit to the station’s tent along Riverboat Row. Must make it a point to take her up on her offer to record a testimonial for later broadcast on 89.7 FM.
On site only a few minutes before we realize beers are $5 a pop. Damn, that’s a bit steep. The flask that looks just like a cell phone (complete with belt clip!) might very well be the first truly great invention of the 21st century. But even equipped with one at my side, I feel woefully understocked on booze for the evening. Tomorrow my backpack’s contents will include at least one small pocket-rocket of liquid contraband.
Making our way to the Great American Insurance Group Stage at P&G Pavilion — how’s that for a corporate bullshit mouthful? — we find Sonny Landreth laying down the serious Texas-fried Blues ‘n Boogie. Sonny’s slick finger-picking and high voltage slide playing bring the early evening crowd to its feet.
On our way over to catch the traditional Bluegrass of Chatham County Line at the Edyth & Carl Lindner Stage At Yeatman’s Cove (is all that syllabage really necessary?) we run into fellow writer and good friend Chris Varias, who’s with Bryan Mahan of The Kentucky Struts. Mahan reluctantly joins our chorus of bitching about the beer prices but is happy to report that Jody and Lance Stapleto turned in a great set earlier in the day on the Starbuck’s Emerging Artists Stage At Serpentine Wall.
Can we just start calling these The Main Stage, The Not-So Big Stage and The Rest Of The Little Stages Scattered About? OK, deal.
Mahan gives testament to The Stapletons‘ 11 a.m. “breakfast show,” where the lithe and laconic Jody Stapleton lowered his Elvisian shades down to rest on the bridge of his nose and was heard to utter, “Here goes nothin’.”
Wednesday’s first night crowds have a warm down-home feel, as this writer and his trusty shutterbug sidekick run into literally dozens of old friends and family members.
The crowd in front of the main stage swells during Chris Smither‘s hypnotic, hour-plus set, and every new arrival falls immediately under his spell. Smither’s left foot keeps a steady-rollin’ groove (a la John Lee Hooker) while he sings “Origin of Species,” a hilarious crash course on Intelligent Design. It’s during Smither’s flat-out incredible performance that I realize I’ve been at Tall Stacks only a couple of hours and have already heard no fewer than four world-class pickers.
As night falls I realize there are countless peripheral sights for the perceptive observer to behold: Eighteen-wheelers rumblin’ across the Big Mac bridge right next to the main stage, an almost-full moon peakin’ through the gathering clouds and a smattering of confused bats dippin’ down and all around just above head level, prob’ly wondering what all the fuss is about. Through the thicket of tall trees along the riverbanks can be seen the red and white flickering lights of a passing riverboat. (More on them later, of course.)
Over on the second stage we catch a hot minute of Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet‘s Cajun fire. The guitar plays a supporting role in most Zydeco music. But I recommend you do a Google search for Beausoleil to find out their guitar player’s name, ’cuz he played some of the most tasteful, understated guitar work of the evening. I love the fact that Creole colloquialisms and mostly French lyrics make for a largely unintelligible mish mash to most listeners. But the music is just so much infectiously fun that one can’t help but dance and at least attempt to sing along.
Back to the main stage, where we find R&B veteran Bettye LaVette proudly announcing the release of her new CD containing songs all written by women. Ominously stalking the dimly lit stage channeling some dark spirits, the purring and wailing Lavette launches into a nasty Detroit Funk romp through Lucinda Williams’ “Joy.” Miss Bettye drops to the floor and sits Indian style for a couple tunes, while the crowd hangs on her every heart-wrenching word, completely transfixed by her emotional performance.
The peripheral side show begins in earnest after LaVette’s set, as an amazing celestial fireworks show of distant lightning can be seen through the clouds due east. I wonder, “Is anybody else seeing this?”
Mounting winds and threatening skies are cause for concern all evening, and while waiting for Wednesday’s headliner Al Green to take the stage we feel the first drops of rain. Though he starts his set 30 minutes late, all is forgiven when Green walks center stage and begins his set with “I Can’t Stop.” The first couple tunes are marred by muddy sound, but when the stage crew removes the plastic that had been draped over the speakers to protect them from the rain, the sound projects crystal clear.
Rain starts three times during Green’s set, and three times it stops. Mother Nature eventually gives up, realizing that a little rain isn’t gonna scatter this happy, dancing crowd that had waited all night to sing along with “Let’s Stay Together” and “Love and Happiness.”
The Reverend’s debt to Otis Redding is already in evidence even before he leads his band through a medley of old ’60s Soul hits by The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and others. When he sings a verse and a chorus of Redding’s “I Been Loving You Too Long,” this writer actually breaks into tears and has to drop to one knee to gather my wits about me. If he’d sang the whole song, I might have come completely unraveled.
Green seems genuinely pleased to be in Cincinnati, advising the crowd, “We don’t get to spend this time together often, so let’s just enjoy it.”
Throwing out dozens of red roses to the ladies in the fronts rows while leading band through a heart-breaking rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” The Rev. Al Green has the crowd eating out of his hands.
— Ric Hickey