“And they’re off!” On Friday, May 19 the gates lifted in Scranton, Pennsylvania and campers raced to grab the flattest and grassiest space on the The Pavilion Lawn at Montage Mountain. They were not there for the 142nd Preakness Stakes, which traditionally takes place in Maryland every third Saturday in May, but instead were celebrating a new bluegrass tradition, the 5th annual Susquehanna Breakdown! Some attendees dressed in jockey-like colors and patterns with ridiculous hats and clothing combinations. Others wore graphic t-shirts splattered with band names like Cabinet, Umphrey’s Mcgee, Greensky Bluegrass and Phish. By the beginning of the first set at 6:30pm, one thing was clear… everyone was there to place their bets on a winning weekend.
The Dishonest Fiddlers, orchestrated by founder Dave Brown, are a Scranton local bluegrass act that switches up the bill every time they perform. The lightweight and easy listening bluegrass invited campers to put down their tent poles and join in the music at the smaller “Breakdown Stage.” Breakdowners were delighted to discover that Cabinet’s own fiddle player, Todd Kopec, was sitting in during the festival’s opening act. The Dishonest Fiddler’s performance marked the first of many expected Cabinet sit-ins over the weekend, but that comes as no surprise as the festival is named after one of their songs! Next up on the bill was the American-festival veteran Keller Williams. It is hard to think of the word “bluegrass” or just “grass” in general and not think of the pumpkin pie hair-cutted freak bouncing around stage barefoot from instrument to instrument. Once you have seen one Keller show, you have seen them all, but that doesn’t stop anyone from attending. Keller Williams got his start in parking lots playing to the energetic crowds that gathered before the main attraction, The Grateful Dead. For over 20 years, he has been marching to the beat of his own drum, guitar, synth and whatever else he decides to bring on stage. The completely improvised sets travel through space and time reminiscent of a spun-out music junky that can’t decide which radio station to listen to as they station hop. Keller closed his roots-filled funky set with a cover of Marian Hill’s “Down,” which lyrically is the most genius song to kick off a festival. If you hate on modern pop music, give this one a listen.
As the sun finally disappeared on Day 1 of the festival, the audience was treated to more Keller Williams for the first semi-official Cabinet set of the weekend entitled “Keller & Cabinet.” Launching into the bluegrass traditional tune, “My Grass Is Blue,” got the fans boppin’ and air pickin’ before a cover of “Float On” by Modest Mouse. As more and more non-camping 2-day-pass holders made their way into the venue, the atmosphere began to feel less like a backyard BBQ and more like a full-fledged festival. The communal body heat kept everyone warm as “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” served as a reminder that Montage Mountain was home for the next 36 hours. It wouldn’t be Night 1 of a festival without some minor technical difficulties. After three minutes of tinkering, the stage was back on track and Cabinet allowed Keller to take the wheel for his originals, “Alligator Alley” and “Sing for My Dinner.” Before the final track of the collaborative set, Keller commented that he wanted to do a reggae version of the upcoming tune but Cabinet insisted on playing it fast. Much like Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights, they wanted to go fast, and fast they went through Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” Ironically enough, ambulance lights flickered through the crowd during the Winehouse cover as the first festival attendee maybe had too much too fast. Members of the crowd looked on in hopes that this would be the one and only emergency rescue of the weekend.
On a brighter note, Cabinet came out swinging for their first major set of the weekend, tackling their catalog of reggae, bluegrass, roots and rock. “The Smile” breezed into the first slot as the symbolic greeting tune of the evening. “Hey Baby” gave Mickey Coviello’s guitar and Pappy Biondo’s banjo some focus in the spotlight and afterward they modestly commented it was “groovy as all hell.” Pappy was once again the center of attention during their rendition of “Diamond Joe.” Building the song up with some fantastic peaks and valleys via JP Biondo’s mandolin and Todd Kopec’s fiddle, the 6-piece band transformed the poetic country tune into a jam-grass meltdown. The “Diamond Joe” lyrics feature horses, betrayal and payback which are central themes in many old-timey tunes and Cabinet made this timeless piece their own to showcase their talent during this set. The band mentioned that the crowd size was much larger compared to years past and I took it as a sign of festival growth, strength and some perfect weather. The friendly fireside vibe of the Cabinet set was not complete without a singalong and “Pine Billy” served as a fitting choice. The “way up on a mountain” lyrics got extra howls as families and friends belted out “Pine Billy” during the second half the short set. “Sunday 60 Breakdown” finished off the set and the crowd significantly thinned as their beloved Cabinet went to get some rest before a big Day 2.
The evening was not over yet as late night funk trio Organ Freeman treated the mountain to an ass shaking dance party. Drummer Rob Humphreys, organist Trevor Steer and Erik Carlson on guitar answered the age-old question “Won’t you take me to Funkytown?” For those in attendance looking for poppy instrumental jazz or experimental and danceable funk, they found it right off the bat with “We’re On Our Way.” The band tested out several new songs during their set and considering most in the audience didn’t know the names to their originals anyway, it was all new and exciting to us. The first cover came in the form of Stanton Moore Trio’s “Pie Eyed Manc.” It was clear that Moore’s sound has a strong influence on Organ Freeman as they worked their layered grooves into every jam they went into. My one critique is that at 1:30 in the morning, instrumental jazz begins to all sound the same. As many non-campers such as myself began exiting the venue, it was incredible to clearly hear the echoes of funk during the entire walk back to the parking area thanks to mountain’s valley walls, which acted as natural amplifiers. The successful first night of music was complete and the main attraction was only hours away. The Breakdowners were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of mandolins played in their heads.
CABINET FRIDAY NIGHT SETLIST:
A Smile, Treat Me So Bad, Hey Baby, Diamond Joe, Mysterio, Eleanor, The Dove %, Pine Billy, Sunday 60 Breakdown
% Brief Power Failure occurred twice during The Dove
KELLER WILLIAMS SETLIST:
My Grass is Blue, Float On*, Ripped 6 Pack, Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow, AGWT Reprise (post Power Failure), Alligator Alley, The Tower, Sing For My Dinner, Rehab **
* Modest Mouse Cover ** Amy Winehouse Cover (Setlist credit: Rich Stoler)
ORGAN FREEMAN SETLIST:
We’re On Our Way, (New Track 1), Only If You Mean It, Putin And I Get Along Fantastic, Life’s A Bench, Reptile Moonshine, Pie Eyed Manc*, Change For A Nickel, The Green Green Grapes, You Said You Quit Drinkin’, (New Track 2), Verve, Byrd vs Fish, (New Track 3), Go By Richard, Not By Dick ENCORE: Hit The Ground Running, Come out Swinging
*- Stanton Moore Trio