On Saturday, May 20, Susquehanna Breakdown campers still sleeping received a wakeup call from the eastern PA quartet, Serene Green at 11:30am followed by another local act, Graham Mazer Duo, at 1:30pm on the Breakdown Stage. The Duo was also featured on the Thursday night pre-party bill at the Backyard Ale House, a Scranton establishment that has been sponsoring the festival since the first year. One of the many benefits of a smaller festival is the welcoming atmosphere that can be felt in a tight-knit community. The Electric City not only embraces the Susquehanna Breakdown, but makes out-of-towners feel at home. Whether you are camping on the lawn during the duration of the festival or staying at a nearby hotel, there is a sense of belonging that occurs in the area and brings the Breakdowners back year after year.
Being from NYC, my friends and I personally have all the craft beer and live music a group of guys can drink and hear. Two things we do not have are gorges and Wegmans Food Market, which is where we chose to spend our time before the festival. A quick waterfall hike in Nay Aug Park before an infamous sandwich made by the awesome staff at Wegmans was the perfect soul booster before a day filled with dancing, smiling and connecting. Entering the venue during the main stage (Susquehanna Stage) opening performance, Driftwood, we were refreshed and ready to go. The Binghamton, NY four-piece is self-categorized as “punk, old-time, folk, rock” and whatever else they are in the mood to play. To sum up their sound, these guys are eclectic. The set traveled from slow and melodic to soaring and ambient places with no genre left out. On two separate occasions, members of other bands informed me that Driftwood was one of the most important bands to see all weekend, and they did not disappoint.
Following Driftwood on the Susquehanna Stage was the band that threw the party, Cabinet. Unlike Friday night’s dynamic and lively set, this early afternoon rendezvous was all acoustic. JP Biondo paid tribute to recently deceased rock god, Chris Cornell, with a solo rendition of Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway.” The entire band gave a tip of the hat to their home state during the second song “Pennsylvania” and again during the self-titled festival track “Susquehanna Breakdown.” Hearing this track acoustically was like hearing washboard lightning striking a banjo. “Susquehanna Breakdown” is the song that the Appalachian Mountain Range would play if it had the ability to pick up an instrument. In a nut shell, this track is about as bluegrass as it gets and the ideal title for a festival with the same description. Cabinet continued to blur the lines between traditional and contemporary bluegrass with the final tracks of the set, “Back to the Basics” and “Poor Man’s Blues.” As soon as the final note was plucked, fans began their continuous migration back to the Breakdown Stage for the up-and-coming jamgrass group, Kitchen Dwellers.
Besides Organ Freeman from Los Angeles, the Montana-based Kitchen Dwellers traveled the furthest to be a part of the Breakdown, and they didn’t come to half-ass their set. Opening with “Five Candles” off their new album, Ghost in the Bottle, their sound attracted more and more first time listeners to the stage. As non-campers began entering the gates, the band was enthused to find a jam-packed crowd gathering. The Dwellers used the majority of their hour-long set to market their newest album. Four of the seven songs were fresh off the April 21st release, but the one that received the most love was “Colder Nights” which the band seamlessly transitioned into “In The Kitchen” by jam titans Umphrey’s Mcgee. I witnessed the first brain explosion of the day when the guy next to me wearing a “Nothing Too Fancy” shirt nearly dropped his beer after realizing that the Umphrey’s progressive jam song was transformed into a progressive bluegrass song. Needless to say, Kitchen Dwellers picked up a lot of new fans on Saturday afternoon, including myself.
Next up on the Susquehanna Stage was one of the finest soulful folk trios in the country, The Wood Brothers. As 4pm hit, Breakdowners had a nice daytime buzz going and were ready to dance and sing along with Oliver Wood, Chris Wood and Jano Rix. “Atlas” got the crowd stomping before “Keep Me Around” got them swaying. The eclectic blend of gospel, southern rock, folk and country brings something to the table for everyone. During “Tried and Tempted” I was reminded of our morning hike in Nay Aug Park with the lyrics “I been thinkin’ ‘bout turnin’ round and headin’ upstream, to climb a mountain of youth.”
While many bands sing about vitality, mountains, streams and other forms of nature, the Wood Brothers mesh their deep lyrics with their stirring compositions in an extremely unique way. It is difficult to find filler songs on any of their well-crafted studio albums, and the band keeps fans on their toes by rearranging even their most well-known songs in a live setting. “Luckiest Man” served as the singalong tune of the set and the band subconsciously paid tribute to the Preakness Stakes with “too many horses” peppered into the lyrics. The mysterious forces and ghosts of legends from the past were among us as the Wood Brothers covered “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers Band, as a possible nod to another Montage Mountain event, The Peach Festival. Other covers in the set included “Love Her With A Feeling” and the closing “Ophelia” originally performed by The Band. The spirit of recently fallen Col. Bruce Hampton was also in the room with us as they dedicated “Postcards from Hell” to their old friend. The incredibly touching set came to a close as locals rushed back to the Breakdown Stage to catch the Scranton 6-piece And The Moneynotes.
There is no good way to describe And The Moneynotes as their biography even mentions that they are a “schizophrenic musical entity.” I would define them as indie-grass or all-over-the-place-grass. From a 1973 cover of The Coaster’s “Poison Ivy” to a “Go Go Liza Jane” cover which dates to the early 20th century (popularized by The Band in 1965), these guys have a strong musical intellect which stands out in their performance. A delicate blend of originals and covers makes And The Moneynotes less of a band and more of a dive bar jukebox that has transformed into six humans. Their entertaining set was the perfect segue into the second Cabinet soiree of the evening which took place back on the Susquehanna Stage and held possibly the largest crowd to date at any Breakdown.
Fan favorite “Caroline” held the door open and peacefully prepared the crowd for their final Cabinet set of the festival. “Old Time Songs” from their 2015 Celebration release led to yet another festival-wide singalong before Pappy and Dylan Skursky formed a duo for the instrumental “Sunset in Vergennes.” It wouldn’t be a Breakdown without a local ramble and Cabinet invited their Scranton buddy Justin Mazer on stage for help with “Miss Molly,” “Heavy Rain,” and “Bottom of the Sea.” As the set came to an end, the band emotionally commented, “We love ya’ll so much” before exiting the stage. With lights dim and Cabinet fans on their feet screaming, the Scranton favorites came back out to encore with Cake’s “The Distance” which was their first time playing the thought provoking tune. Billy Strings acted as a solid bumper in between Cabinet and headlining act, Greensky Bluegrass. Strings was featured on the side stage and as the acoustic guitar wizard plucked away, fans stomped and moaned as a dust cloud emerged above the entire area. Speaking of fine particles of matter, “Dust In A Baggie” acted as the highlight of the set as mandolinist Don Julin harmonized with Strings.