From June 19-22, eager festival goers from up and down the East Coast jumped down the rabbit hole into The Mad Tea Party Jam. Down Tally Ho Lane, miles from the nearest town of Hedgesville, West Virginia, Ashton Farms sits among rolling Appalachian hills and has been the home to the festival since its inception in 2012. The party started Thursday and raged all weekend, driven by jazz, funk, and good ole’ rock n’ roll. It rained on and off all weekend, yet no one’s tempers were dampened.
Turkuaz took the stage for the first nighttime set at 8 p.m. Thursday night. This Brooklyn band puts out huge sound. The band consists of two sax players, a guitarist, bassist, drummer, a trumpeter/synth player, and a synth player/guitarist. Then there are the ladies—both of whom shake the tambourine, sing, and shake it on down. The group’s uplifting jazzy funk started drawing people to the crowd as then sun came out just in time to go down. Playing to the crowd at hand, Turkuaz cranked up the weird meter for their sundown set; if Rick James and the Queen of Hearts hosted Mardi Gras, Turkuaz would’ve led the parade. Smiles were contagious and bodies were jiving as Turkuaz set the tone for a weekend that would be full of grooving and jamming.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, a Baltimore 4-piece with 2 guitars, a bassist, and drummer, followed Turkuaz. Funk is their menu, and this band serves it up hot, whether you’re ready or not. They played a heavily psychedelic improvisational set, tightly casting out and reeling back in jams. Bassist Ben Carrey and drummer Dan Schwartz held the tempo while guitarists Greg Ormont and Jeremy Schon fed off each other as tunes poured out. Ormont’s hopeful singing pitch soared during a joyous rendition of their original song “Julia”. They closed the set with Tukuaz’s Greg Sanderson and, artist at large, Ron Holloway joining in on the tenor saxes as the Pigeons reminded everyone they’re just here to “F-U…N-K!”
Around 12:30 a.m., Dopapod stepped down and TAUK smoothly cut in on the neighboring stage. The instrumental quartet of Long Island natives represented the Empire State admirably and is sure to reach another level with the release of their new album Collisions in July. Drummer Isaac Teel, having already showcased his talent during a particularly technical section of “Trapper Keeper”, proved he is TAUK’s rock during their first set with his tight, snappy, concise style of delivering the beat. Alric “Ace” Carter also demonstrated his value on the keyboard; while the band constantly floated in an emotional, exploratory rock space, it was often Ace’s infliction on the keys that determined the mood a given song would take on—exulting or ominous, adventurous or reverent. While Teel and Ace were the backbone all weekend, Charlie Dolan shined on the bass and Matt Jalbert brought it all together on the guitar. The band’s chemistry was evident; they’ve been playing together for 10 years, dating back to middle school. Their powerfully raw rock left the crowd TAUKing at the end of night one.
The first full day began with the sun sizzling and temperature edging toward the ’90s. The watering hole, which was within a five-minute walk from any campsite, was a godsend for campers. A drum circle ebbed and flowed on the far bank, people floated with their beers in the creek, and dogs splashed and swam excitedly. The watering hole provided a much-needed and inviting respite from the sun, and there was neither a shock nor a knot in the stomach when entering the water—just pure, pleasant refreshment flooding the body with each step deeper in. Scranton’s Primate Fiasco, which features a virtuosic fiddle playing front-man, played an upbeat afternoon set before the sound of Turkuaz started wafting down to the water; only the grandiosity of their jazz-funk soulshine music could have dragged festival goers from the watery nirvana, and it did. Back at the stage, the band’s chemistry was even more apparent in the daytime. Turkuaz’s members poured enthusiastic joy into their instruments which, in turn, emitted bright, upbeat vibrations that induced twisting hips and shaking arms. At all times, a few people sang, a horn or three blared, strings buzzed, and the percussion marched along, creating the perfect daytime dance party. Turkuaz heads out West during July, but returns to the Northeast in August and is definitely worth checking out (check out their tour schedule).
TAUK’s second set followed, which was, again, thoroughly impressive. If you close your eyes, the four friends from Mon-TAUK will pick you up, bring you on a pioneering aural journey through outer space’s wild west, and send you back with a “whoa!” on your lips, all without singing a line. While the night before Dolan particularly stood out on the bass, Jalbert took on the persona of Master Shredder on the guitar during Friday’s set, as the sunshine apparently fueled him to lead the musical expedition. He poked and prodded along proggy scales, showing off talent that has helped the band earn play time on Sirius and spots at festivals including Summer Camp, Bonnaroo, and the Peach Festival. The downstate band left me wanting more and I now know not to miss the Collisions release party on June 19th at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.
The North Carolina-based Mantras played a heavy rock set from 7:00-8:30 p.m. Friday. The Mantras arsenal includes metal, psychedelic, funk, a hint of electronica, and generally equates to what can only be called good ole’ rock ‘n’ roll. They play a few shows in the Northeast from July 9-13 and at the Catskill Chill in September, and are recommended to anyone who enjoys the slightest head banging at a rock concert.
Many of the bands at MTPJ played multiple sets, which meant it was possible to miss the occasional set to explore the myriad of other sources of entertainment at this grown-up fantasy land. Dopapod’s second turn to the stage was a good time to explore the concert grounds. Fire dancers showcased their art in one corner as a small crowd always hovered nearby. A big, glittery Cheshire Cat guarded a labyrinth of art—Wonderland—in the middle of the music field, while painters set up easels just outside to watch the stage as the sonic landscape inspired the visual arts. Vendors skirted the outer edges of the field, creating a “V” whose point was straight out from the front of the stage, a few hundred yards up a slight slope, selling colorful clothes, handcrafted pipes, hacky sacks, quesadillas, and other creative goods and foods. Hoopers, families, and friends hanging out on blankets and lawn chairs created a loose-knit buffer between the vendors and the eclectically dressed crowd dancing at the stage— Thursday’s costume theme was “storybook”, Friday’s “Futuristic burlesque”, and Saturday’s “Summer solstice”.
Papadosio was the most popular band to only play one set, from 11:30 p.m. Friday to 1:00 a.m. Saturday, and may have elicited the most dancing all weekend from the crowd. After two days of hard rock and heavy funk, a reprieve into ambient tunes with electronic touches was welcomed. The crowd collectively swayed as ‘Dosio sent out the only waves of electronic vibrations of the weekend. Papadosio’s unique sound is Ambien to the ears and produced a mellow melt-fest among fans; the tribal drums, smooth keys, subtle electronics, and plucky guitar induced pleasant, trancey swaying. The opening tune, “We Are Water”, concluded with a sampling from “Alice In Wonderland”—“would anyone like some tea?”—and more than a few “cheers” went up in the audience. The North Carolina based five-piece played songs like “Curve”, “Hippie Babysitter”, “Night Colors”, and closed their only set with an enthusiastic, 15-minute version of “Unparalyzer”.
A light rain lingered Saturday morning, but mostly cleared up by the time Threesound sang “Roll Away the Dew”, covering The Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower”. They also performed a heavy instrumental cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” before ceding the stage to Fletcher’s Grove, Kings of Belmont, and then The Shack Band. The People’s Blues of Richmond (PBR) trio invited up Ron Holloway and Isaac Teel to help create their funky blues sound with a southern rock twang. Nekoro Williams busted out the best drum solo all weekend while lead singer Tim Beavers, who is an amalgamation of Jack White and 311 frontman Nick Hexum, tore it up on the guitar and vocals.
Following PBR, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus rocked out before Moogatu had their shot on the stage. They opened with Pink Floyd, closed with the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica”, and, in between, played a technically proficient cover of Umphrey’s McGee’s “Nothing Too Fancy”. Needless to say, Moogatu can hold their own. If ever in the DC/Virginia area, this band deserves a listen.
Consider the Source took the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, cramming as much talent into a 3-piece band as possible. Another NYC-based band, CTS transcends genres, blending progressive rock and jazz with Middle Eastern influences to create a powerfully unique sound. Bassist John Ferrara had already made his mark on Thursday night while slapping a mean solo with Dopapod, but double-necked guitarist Gabriel Marin and drummer Jeff Mann seized their opportunities to show off on Saturday. The majority of their 90-minute set consisted of all three members playing at mind-bending speeds with total precision. For CTS, that is the norm: rapid, technical jaunts into Middle Eastern psychedelic jazz-rock. I had to pull my jaw up from the floor when Fareed Haque joined the band (2 double neck guitars rocking the same stage) and Mann shifted over to his electronic drum kit. Luckily, this band calls New York home and there are plenty of opportunities to marvel at their proficiency when they are around.
Ron Holloway was likely the busiest man all weekend, offering his jovial presence and impeccable saxophone skills to at least a dozen bands during the festival. Despite the 80-degree plus temperatures, Holloway was as cool and crisp as an October breeze all weekend, undeniably at home on the stage. He expressed joyous, soul-massaging emotions with his sax the whole Jam. When Holloway led his band onto the stage, however, he shifted much of the spotlight to them. His guitarist tore off one of the best solos of the weekend while Holloway bopped in the background, with a lovely lady singing and dancing on either side of him. For over an hour, his band traded solos Saturday evening, energizing a throng of dancers that greatly appreciated Holloway’s groove-master presence for three days and nights.
The Ron Holloway Band yielded the stage to The Werks at 11:00 p.m. Saturday as the festival was winding down. They have a new keys player who completes the band and, during MTPJ, The Werks were firing on all cylinders. Out of the gates Saturday, they set the stage ablaze with “Disco Inferno”, which transitioned into the grooviest “Duck Farm” the Appalachians have seen. Ron Holloway helped the band cover Three Dog Night’s “Fire Eater” before drummer Rob Chafin sang an emotional version of “You’re Not Alone”. Previous keys man Norman Dimitrouleas and Consider the Source bassist John Ferrara joined in on “Galactic Passport” and the set concluded with an intense “Onslaught” that raised brows and dropped jaws.
There would, however, be one final “werkout” of the weekend; at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, the Ohio-based quartet came out to slap an exclamation mark on the festival. “Country Roads” finally drifted from the stage, igniting a full-out sing along, after which Chafin told everyone: “Look to your left; look to your right; hug both of those people. Share the love one last time that has been going around so strong all weekend.” The special moment seemed to stretch on, but ended abruptly when The Werks proffered a shifty, quick-paced “Mission Impossible” theme that had people boogying again. Most of The Mantras rotated in and back out during “G-Funk”, the final collaboration in what became colloquially known as “sit-in-city.” No one wanted the music to stop, but, at around 7 a.m. Sunday, hosts Elise and Taco, whose wedding anniversary the festival celebrates, came out to thank everyone for coming and pulled the plug on the music.
The Mad Tea Party Jam is an incredible secret tucked away in northeastern West Virginia. Its proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line drew in a perfect mixture of Northerners and Southerners for an amazing weekend. There was a comfortably laid back demeanor common among festival goers, and southern hospitality was abundant from “Insecurity” guards, volunteers, Elise, Taco, and the many talented and humble musicians. On the other hand, there were enough Northeasterners with the inherent gusto to squeeze every last drop of jamming into an unforgettable weekend.