Just off Route 22, along the New York/Mass border and you’ll see a faintly stained sign that reads Gardner’s Ice Cream and Coffee. If you blink you might miss it, but behind the sign and diner lives a much greater entity. Barely known to locals but well-known by its recurring attendees, this farm is home to the annual Disc Jam Music Festival, just completing its eighth year, where a small city resides for a weekend among a vast farm landscape near the Berkshires.
This year, the participant count, coined as the “Disc Jam Fam,” upticked to 5,000 people. Despite the large city created, live music was a constant, with a show for anyone at any time. Vendors came prepared with endless meal offerings, artists drew and designed in rotations to provide a fresh visual, and members of the prestigious Jam Flow Tribe used dance and props to draw attention to the festival’s bigger stages. Workshops for everything from Reiki to juggling detached a small community from the bigger festival ‘city’, and to truly get away from it all, you could disappear into the deep woods to try your hand at Disc Golf. With so many offerings, even the movement around festival goers seemed spacious, and with a stellar lineup of mixed music soundtracking the weekend, Disc Jam made its mark as one of the most versatile, yet secluded, festival experiences New York State has to offer.
As the sun sweltered above, thousands of people crammed the box office gates early on Thursday, but soon dissipated as they began unloading their campsites. Whether it was the warm breeze in the air or the serene cow pasture in plain view, there didn’t seem to be any tension as people unloaded their bags. Most attendees set up shop long before the music began and took some quality time to unwind from whatever expedition they came from. Before the live music began, music was amplified from several campsite speakers, somehow blending together in a fine fashion. The Mushroom Cloud was first to play the Main Stage at 2 pm with some explosive funk rock to warm up bodies for a long weekend of dance. Shortly after came the enticing “prog-uke” eruption of Brooklyn-based (and 87/90 featured) band Cousin Earth. Despite some initial sound snafus, the five member band kicked off their set with “Womp”, a driving rhythmic jam to compliment each introduced instrument. Cousin Earth also performed tracks off of their newly released album Human Music, such as the party pump-up “Alive,” the molasses-smooth track “Super Fun Laser Beams” featuring tight vocal harmonies, and the classic dance track “I Got This.” Despite a rather short set, it was clear that wandering attendees moved in waves to the Tent Stage, and Cousin Earth commanded their audience with fresh ideas and instruments to keep the sound moving and layered.
Following suit with complex rhythmic tempos and multi-instrumentalist members was ShwizZ, who took to the Main Stage at 4 pm. The Main Stage was divided into two halves, setting up one band while another played, which made transitions seamless and much less stressful for bands on deck. The shift of stage focus was only made apparent when the crowd starting spreading in great numbers in anticipation for the arrival of Aqueous, who played the Main Stage (side B) at 7 pm Thursday night. They played tracks from their 2012 album Willy is 40, including the title track, the jump-inducing rock anthem “Strange Times” and the transient jam of perspective, “Warren in the Window”. Diving into their old repertoire from 2009, the band played “Dave’s Song” featuring special guest Rob Compa of Dopapod, one of his many appearances playing as a guest on the Disc Jam stage. Aqueous teased the audience for a few seconds with a vamped intro to “Bennie and the Jets” before taking a funky dive into the full Elton John cover and returning back to a reprise of “Warren in the Window.”
Moving from a lower listing on festival lineups to the opening headline for Disc Jam 2018, the bari sax, saxophone and drummer trio Moon Hooch took to the Main Stage at 8:45 pm following Aqueous’ valiant set. The environment shifted as the sun set, and the staccato pulsing of bari sax combined with crisp drumming patterns turned the long lawn of listeners into a club of dancers. The dissonant harmonies of “Tubes” was well-received by the audience and the traffic cone saxophone wail was both an alarming and endearing sound that made people want to move. The band threw in some surprises in their set, adding some playful synth to layer upon the existing space. Nevertheless, the driving drop of each beat was amplified over the crowd like a punch. Even if you kept your cool on the outside, you could feel the beat inside your body.
After Moon Hooch closed up the Main Stage for the night, music would not stop there. Over in the Tent Stage, the show was just beginning as the entire audience from Moon Hooch drifted over to the smaller stage as Twiddle members Zdenek Gubb and Mihali Savoulidis played an acoustic set under the alias Gubbulidis. In addition to their music as a side project, the two never shy away from performing Twiddle tunes like “Apples,” the relaxing remedy “Syncopated Healing” and “White Light” from the full group’s PLUMP album. While the hours passed into the early morning, people grew weary of the acoustic sets that followed, but many stuck around to see the night finally close with a combo set of Rob Compa and Aqueous guitarist Mike Gantzer.
In contrast to the cold night that followed campers back to their sites, the warm sun radiated early Friday morning, and there was no alarm clock that could’ve waked you up better than the set of Funky Dawgz Brass Band hitting the Main Stage at 11:45 am. With a wide array of brass instruments from trombone to sousaphone, catchy melodies, clever raps and a whole lot of audience participation, the band made it clear that There ain’t no party like a Funky Dawgz party. Their set included their original “Make It Work” and a brilliant cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” to backdrop a beautiful Friday afternoon. In typical Funky Dawgz fashion, the entire ensemble paraded into the audience and shifted the focus into the middle of the crowd, where people danced alongside the band and clapped to the rhythm before erupting into a thunderous applause to close out their performance. With so much music to come on Friday, you’d think the crowd’s energy level would be sub-par, but the funky wake up call made everyone alert and ready for more music.
Brandon “Taz” Niederauer took to the Main Stage next, with some crisp riffs and catchy songs that got the audience clapping in awe at the now 15-year-old prodigy guitarist. Backed by a full band, his guitar teacher included, Brandon was liberated to follow melodic instincts in his guitar soloing, while smoothly transitioning to the main vocals in his original material.
Connecticut-bred band Kung Fu took to the Main Stage at 6 pm to play their electro-funk fusion for the large crowd that gathered. They brought on a cohort of special guests, most notably the alto powerhouse Shira Elias from Turkuaz. To close out their set, the ensemble and Elias covered “We Are the Champions” which rang through the audience with all singing in unison. Kung Fu were not the only ensemble to feature great covers throughout the evening. Denver-based band The Motet made a profound entrance to the Main Stage at 7:15 pm, throwing in a cover of “I Get High On You” from Sly and the Family Stone. Following in the same funky fashion was their performance of “The Truth” off of their 2016 album Totem, along with a track “Keep On Don’t Stoppin” from their 2014 self-titled album. With a whirlwind of brass solos and dance breaks, the sun set on Disc Jam with everyone moving together, and at the best moment, singer Lyle Divinsky paid a special tribute to Prince, who would’ve turned 59 that day. In Prince’s honor, Turkuaz vocalist Shira Elias joined The Motet on stage for a special rendition of the Chaka Khan’s classic “I Feel For You” which Prince had covered numerous times. It was clear that Friday night was designed to bring the funkiest bands one after the other, and with Galactic closing out the Main Stage for the night and DJ Logic hosting a variety of musicians over at the Tent Stage, the funk would keep rolling into the morning hours.
In their first visit to the Disc Jam stage, Big Mean Sound Machine greeted the new day with a booming brass resonance from its nine members. They performed “Seeing the Bigger Picture” from their 2017 release Runnin’ for the Ghost and the pulsing piece “In the Name of What?” from their 2014 album Contraband.
Easing into the afternoon was the set of Formula 5, over at the Tent Stage at 3:30 pm. Delivering impeccable improvisation and melodic mastery, the Albany-based quartet played a mastered mix of stylistic interludes in the opener “Breaking Glass” along with the dance inducing in “Sad Bed,” from their 2017 album All Points North. To make the set even sweeter, Rob Compa was invited on stage with the band to close out the set with a cover of “Swamp Music” from Lynyrd Skynyrd, which had everyone chanting swamp swamp swamp as a mighty chorus.
As festival attendance hit its peak during a warm Saturday sunset, the mastermind collaboration of Holly Bowling and Tom Hamilton headed to the Main Stage with a full band under the name Ghost Light. With a new album in the works, many of their song titles were unknown to a portion of the audience, but the vulnerable story behind “Diamond Eyes” and ongoing polyphony in the improvisational “Come Around” needed no title to make a profound effect on the audience’s attention and movement. This performance helps serve as the beginning of a very prosperous career for Ghost Light, and as they continue to play the festival circuit, people around the nation will connect with their stories and spontaneous jam abilities.
After an array of tribal fusion compositions and bellydance performances from the small ensemble of Oakland-based Beats Antique, the sun set for the final night of Disc Jam, with Lotus as the final headliner on the bill. This band goes back as far as 1999, the prime of their career skyrocketed in the late 2000s, and their set was a true ode to their continued success. They opened the set with the driving rhythmic force of “Bellweather,” dating back to 2008 from their album Hammerstrike. With altered voicing and just enough cowbell, people jumped to the beat and decorated the crowd with confetti, glowing staffs and a variety of strange masks. Dating back to the 2005 album Nomad, Lotus changed pace to a dreamy disco sequence with “Spiritualize,” transitioning to the electro-space track “Livingston Storm” released on that same album. They closed out their set with a feature from their 2007 Escaping the Sargasso Sea album entitled “Sunrain”. As Saturday rolled out into the evening hours, Electron took us on an eclectic, psychedelic listening experience complimented with the erratically-fitted guitar riffs of Ghost Light and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist Tom Hamilton. The set to follow was unannounced in the event program, but those who stayed up late enough got to join in the surprise set of Octave Cat at 2 am. Based out of Philly, this conglomerate of Lotus bassist and sampler artist Jesse Miller, Dopapod keyboardist Eli Winderman, and professional drummer Charlie Patierno brings influences of jazz, techno and hip hop to the electronic realm, and those still awake were beyond energized, dancing in the available space they had and applauding into the night.
On an equally gorgeous morning, the atmosphere was bittersweet as the last performances rang throughout the last day of Disc Jam. After a folksy duo set from Drummer Russ Lawton (known from Trey Anastasio Band, Strangefolk, The Chrome Cowboys) and Cabinet banjoist and vocalist Pappy Biondo, Norwalk-based band Goose drew the remaining crowd’s attention over towards the Tent Stage. They eased into the afternoon with a cover of the classic song “Little Eliza Jane,” immediately transitioning to a fast-paced race supported by an almost ska-like rhythm. They seamlessly moved from one musical style to the next, allowing space for individual soloing and a special guest performance from Rob Compa.
One of the most anticipated artists on the Sunday bill was Bella’s Bartok, which was made very apparent by the theatrically-dressed fans that found their place in front of the Main Stage at 4:45 pm. Jumping to the rhythm of “So Calm, Relaxed,” attendees and members of the band acted in a completely opposite fashion, spinning in circles and parading a brash frenzy. The band recently released the album Is Me That Monster? and many of the songs from their set were pulled from this, with rhythms too fast for any dancers to keep up with, though they tried.
As the music came and went on Sunday evening, festival attendees trickled out of the festival, unloading their gear with heavy heads. The sold-out weekend had such a variety of music to offer, and outside of the festivals stages was an entirely separate community of gatherers. Disc golfers and foodies alike traveled to take in Disc Jam’s many offerings. Wellness instructors, hula hoop dancers and visual artists all left with their own Disc Jam experiences, separate from their neighbors’. This community of art, music and memories is what Disc Jam thrives on, and the lasting memories made from this festival are made to last a lifetime. As another year of Disc Jam goes in the books, we are blown away by the versatile experience Disc Jam gives to each individual, and as the fest continues to grow, its capabilities will follow suit.