Entering its fourth year, Night Lights Music Festival had a buzz, but it wasn’t until after that anyone realized how special this year was. Back in early spring, the announcement of such acts as Turkuaz, The Mike Dillon Band, Consider the Source, and the all-mighty Snarky Puppy generated an unheard of type of hype in Buffalo: one that looked past our short summer months. The music appreciators of the community carried the excitement right onto the grounds as the first day began.
The high musical expectations bonded the group that gathered as tents were pitched and friends were quickly made. Everyone on the grounds were extremely friendly, bringing Buffalo’s moniker of the “The City of Good Neighbors” out to the woods of The Heron in Sherman, NY. The fest could not have been laid out any better. Camping was close, two totally different stage experiences and plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the fall weather and scenery in New York state. The foliage alone at this time of year provided a view during the day that matched the light spectacle at night. The ground’s fruitful accommodations didn’t stop there either. Bands were happily able to park, unload, and reload their gear right next to the stage and the food was as delicious as it was affordable. There were two places that you could grab a bite to eat and it was hard to pass the offers up. For $15 you could get a cheeseburger, a generous slice of pizza, a grilled cheese sandwich, a bottle of water, a bowl of amazing chili, and still have a little money to tip the staff for their hospitality. The people of Night Lights ate like royalty for the two days spent in the woods.
Everything from top to bottom met or exceeded expectations, leaving only the bands to hold up their end of the bargain, and standing right there waiting was the full lineup, eager to accept the challenge.
Day one started off with Cleveland’s Broccoli Samurai, bringing their flavor of jamtronica to an area that is familiar with the band and showed up in support. As the four-piece danced through melodies, the crowd gathered and began letting go. Drummer Chris Walker’s drum and bass style of playing paired well with the band’s more atmospheric sound. If this was any indication of how the festival would go, it was already traveling in the right direction. As the day wore on, more people began to arrive after getting out of work and rushing to join in the fun. Being later in the season, daylight was quickly fading and the first glimpse of this year’s lights were being eagerly awaited. Between nine and midnight, a great back-to-back combination of Jimkata and Lazlo Hollyfeld took hold of the collective spirit for the first time. It shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard as both bands have local ties with Jimkata spawning from Ithaca and Lazlo calling Buffalo home. In the case of Lazlo, this is even more special as Night Lights was started by these guys, and through their vision, it’s grown quickly in four short years to the best festival in Western New York. Lazlo’s set was packed with energy, and if you’ve caught this act, you’d know that this wasn’t anything different from when they rip up the stage at Nietzsche’s. With the band featuring Matt Felski on vibraphone, their sound is unique and incredibly exploratory at times. The music appreciators showed their love for the band for not only their music, but what they have built this festival into.
The highlight of the night though came during Dopapod‘s already jam-heavy set. As the band proceeded to wow the audience, Buffalo’s own Mike Gantzer came out for a sit-in with the band. The Western New York love was in the air as known-Rochesterian Rob Compa played opposite on ax from Gantzer. The two traded licks before syncing up for a momentum-building tear across fretboards, propelling the Friday night party onward to the Saturday morning. It’s not even fair to say that Mike holds his own up there anymore as he’s now joined the club and making Aqueous fans across Buffalo prouder with each moment under the lights. As the party wound down, campers were sharing their own version of what they heard, completely unaware that Saturday would only raise the bar.
Saturday started with rather ominous weather, but that could not surpass the energy for the second day of music. Afternoon sets by Rochester’s Ocupanther and Buffalo’s Funktional Flow showed off what the area is capable of in terms of young talent. Both bands have been cutting their teeth in the local scene and beginning to stretch out into other markets. Even with different styles, both bands had a solid draw and brought their best to the stage.
The brass sounds of the 12/8 Path Band carried the party both physically and emotionally into the woods as the lights began to take effect and illuminate the path to the Café Stage, which was buried in the woods. The Mike Dillon Band was up next and it would be their dynamic set that started the domino effect. For the next seven straight hours, the festival would peak, hitting a stretch and a high rarely seen in these parts. The music would transcend the woods that surrounded the grounds, igniting a powerful music experience. Mike Dillon himself stepped up onto the Café Stage with his wild hair and larger-than-life personality. As he took his helm behind the xylophone, Mike announced that his bassist was probably soaring overhead as his flight was delayed. If it was any indicator of the amount of talent though that was present at this fest, the show went on with John Ferrara from Consider the Source sitting in and providing a new perspective on the low-end for Mike to dabble with. It wouldn’t be the only sit in of the day either with Mike Dillon returning the favor later in the night.
As the show began, there were few knowing what to expect. Mike Dillon’s prowess was quickly realized though as there are few that have, both, the energy and imagination that Mr. Dillon embodies. His melodic choice in the instrument helps take the crowd musically to another world, while the rhythmic aspect of it allows him to channel the passion that is coursing through his veins. The band channeled the Consider the Source-style experimental heaviness with John putting out a vibe that the drummer hopped on and accentuated. As you’d expect with a last-minute substitution, there were some things just called on the fly, but what you wouldn’t expect was how well the band pulled it off. The execution must have energized Mike to step out into the unknown as he called out to his two stagemates saying, “Here’s one you two have never played before. It’s in the key of C.”
There was hardly a stutter in their phrasing.
Mike’s actual bassist eventually arrived and finished out the set, thanking John for his help in the process. Mike’s work with the sticks was fascinating to watch from both an artist and crowd perspective. He sent people spinning with enthusiasm while the stars made their entrance and the night set in. As the rawness of the set came to a close, the residual sound permeated the deciduous surroundings, filling in with sound what the lights could not.
The night wouldn’t let up.
As Mike Dillon finished his set, there was a funk army setting up camp under the Main Stage tent, preparing to unleash on the unsuspecting crowd. From the distance, you could hear the rolling bass line of Taylor Shell and the heavy stomp of Buffalo-native Michelangelo Carubba behind his kit. As the crowd drew closer, the sound filled out with a varied vocal attack, a loaded brass section, and guitars that cut through the crisp, autumn air. There was simply no slowing the roll of this unit as their forward progression was almost uncontrollable. The band’s strongest asset in Carubba stomped out a heavy beat, keeping this arsenal of weapons on track and coming right at you.
Over the course of this year alone, Turkuaz has covered bands like the The Talking Heads, and most recently, Sly and the Family Stone at this year’s Catskill Chill. Giving the Night Lights crowd a taste, the band pulled out a well-timed cover of the Talking Heads “Slippery People”, shedding light on a clear influence to their sound. Another highlight from their set was the song “Electric Habitat”. The tightly executed song pushed the crowd as the melodic line was woven through the rhythm of the song. Guitarist Craig Brodhead really dug in on this one and clawed his way up the tonal food chain to stand out amongst his peers. If music is technically using the same set of notes that are available to every other musician that’s come before them, then where did these guys find all of this energy? The momentum they set in motion from the very first note is like no other band out there today.
The unique blend of sound is not even a result of their instruments alone as the crowd was treated to an acapella segment during their set. The entire band layered vocal tones while bassist Taylor Shell gave a scruffy “Yeah, yeah, yeah” lyrical contribution. The overall assault from the Brooklyn-based group was felt by the crowd who were sent reeling from their set. On the way back to the Café Stage, there were plenty of “did you know they were that good” type comments between the path travelers. With some of that militant funk mentality rubbing off on the crowd, the collection of people pushed forward into the night preparing to endure even more at the hands of Consider the Source.
The Middle Eastern ‘sourcery’ commenced immediately as their sound was encompassed by that culture among many others. The overall drive behind their set though was pushed with a heavy dose of metal, which was clearly an influence on their approach. Gabe, Jeff, and John are the only three who make up the band, but you wouldn’t be able to guess that with your eyes closed. Their sonic assault is a clear indicator of what World War Trio will sound like, and a great follow-up to the barrage of funk from Turkuaz.
Gabriel Marin is the guitarist in the group by instrument, but equipped with a MIDI pickup, he is able to pull out just about any tone he chooses on a given night. As the crowd approached the stage, a heavy dose of xylophone had people wondering if Mike Dillon was making an appearance with the band, only to find out that it was coming from Gabe. His aggressive approach was balanced by his smoothness as his hand glided around the fretboard, providing much color and flavor to their songs. Pulling from his inner Tom Morello, Gabe culled noises and wrangled them into a driving melody that was full of rage. The whole group embodied this angstful spirit that came out through both their music and stage presence as they thrashed around and felt the music deeply. The encircling crowd felt it too, as many closed their eyes and got lost in the progressive jams. The deep synchronicity the band fell into carved out a deep and wide aural path that the crowd willingly followed them down. While their set wound down to the end, the energy certainly wasn’t. The woods danced with colors and people followed suit as they made their way back to the main stage where the pinnacle of the night was about to take place. The peaking energy was felt through the trees and up from the ground with every step.
As the excitement came to a head, the crowd gathered under the big tent at the Main Stage for an experience few had heard or seen before. The members of Snarky Puppy took to the packed stage, fitting in like a puzzle piece with how many instruments were laid out. It has to be noted as well that this was not the exact same band that played the night before, and even that band wasn’t the same as the night before that. Snarky Puppy’s rotating cast provides an interesting twist to jamming and the cohesive sound that is developed from it. Not only do members rotate in and out throughout the tour, but each and every musician is a multi-instrumentalist with the ability to pick up something different on any given night. It doesn’t matter who anyone holds atop their musical pedestal, there is no band better than these guys right now. The band is a true musicians band and it showed with every Night Lights act collecting backstage, trying to catch a glimpse of these guys. Saying that on it’s own though would be selling the band short, suggesting that they’re unable to relate to the common and casual music listener. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The band is capable of taking an odd time signature and creating a groove and feel that’s deep enough to get a crowd dancing. Each and every person latched on to every swell and lingered on every ebb and flow.
As the band progressed through their set, it was a true spectacle to see how easily they translated their music. Buffalo is a music-loving community and showed its true appreciation for the band over and over again throughout the band’s set. At one point during the show, bassist/conductor Michael League took the time to clap out a beat, asking the crowd to join in with its relative ease. Once everyone caught on, he remarked, “there, now you can all count in 7,” simplifying something complex down to the non-musically inclined.
Taking nothing away from the whole, the percussion work within the group was driven, yet subtle; calculated, yet raw. Louis Cato specifically on the drums, who happened to play bass the night before because he simply can, put on a clinic. With their music education outreach, maybe he was just confused on where he was because he was there to teach that night. As I sat surrounded by some of the best drummers backstage, their eyes couldn’t get any bigger than mine as they watched this man completely decimate the kit without losing one person in the crowd. Even with all of this power, the band could still finesse a note and added a gentle touch to the color, painting just enough at times for the brush to touch.
Coming back for an encore, the band searched out Mike Dillon to join them. His unusual approach fit in well and a musical battle ensued to close out the set. Dillon’s words the next day on social media summed up his experience saying, “They [Snarky Puppy] are one of the few Denton bands that came out of the school of music that have continued a trajectory. Every time I see them, they get better.” While it’s hard to understand how a band that did what they did at Night Lights can continue to get better, the hundreds of fans who were there will surely check back next time to see if that holds true. It was a treat to have one of the best in the world out in Sherman, NY for one night, pushing that high point higher than it has ever been. These guys are more than just a band; It’s a musical prophecy coming to fruition and everyone there bore witness to the truth.
With an almost insurmountable hill to climb following Snarky, Buffalo’s beloved sons in Aqueous didn’t try to fight the current. Instead, they did what they’ve been come to be known for and settled in to their healing role after everyone’s mind was just collectively blown. In this area, it’s typically been at the hands of these guys, but being always up for the challenge is built-in being from Buffalo. As the set got going, it was clear that their new drummer Ryan Nogle provided a spark to the band as it had been a while since they played this inspired and driven. What was assumed to be a reliever role, was soon flipped, as the band continued the pace that Mike Dillon and Turkuaz started and Consider the Source and Snarky Puppy pushed forth. Nogle and the rest of the guys were channeling all of the greats that came before them on this given night and their bright choruses and slow rolling groove kept bodies in motion well into the night. It’s hard to place a finger on it, but Mike Gantzer is one of the most engaging and compelling guitarists out there today. With his efforts, the band built swelling jams, reaching an ominous high point before letting it all fall down. Their ability to change gears and send you soaring is a gift that they share with some of the bigger acts of the night. The crowd might’ve been still reeling from what proceeded, but they were willing to let Aqueous take them higher.
Despite the urge to keep the trajectory, eventually all good things must come to an end. In the case of Night Lights Fall Music Festival 2014, all great things came to an end as well. There was unfortunately no exception to the rule, regardless of the crowd’s willingness to keep dancing. The threshold and boundary to which music can be pushed was just tested this year and it opened up a lot of people’s minds to how high they can personally set that bar. For those in attendance, it will be tough for a while to hear something that can even hold a light to Night Lights. We all drank from the fountain of musical youth and rejuvenation was aplenty.
All video is courtesy of our friends at Buffalo.fm