The Frendly Gathering: 3 parts happy, 1 part rowdy
WINDHAM -- "There ain't no ‘I' in Frends" sang Twiddle's Mihali Savoulidis from his wooden platform in the Frendly Gathering's DJ nest, about 15 feet from the forest floor. It was well after 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, and Twiddle had just come back for an encore at the end of their festival-closing set. In a moment of smiling convergence, Savoulidis and his band started their encore with "Frends Theme," a song that the band wrote specifically for the group of snowboarding best fr(i)ends that initially conceived and now personally organize the festival every summer, using their creatively spelled motto as the song's central lyric. Clinging to the last few songs of the 2014 Gathering, the crowd responded like they weren't tired and they definitely didn't want to go home yet.
Pro snowboarders Jack Mitrani and Danny Davis organized the first Frendly Gathering in 2010 as a campout near Mammoth, California, then in 2011 they decided to move the festival back east, setting up at Timber Ridge, a small ski area on the east face of Glebe Mountain, opposite Magic Mountain Ski Area. Although Timber Ridge has been closed to skiers since 1991, Stratton natives Jack and Luke Mitrani were familiar with the site from their teenage years.
"We grew up about 20 minutes down the road, and this was the spot to come and get away and party when we were under 21," said Gathering organizer Jack Mitrani. "So, years later, we needed a spot to come back and throw the Frendly Gathering, and we thought this was the perfect site."
With its accessible base area, wooded areas for forest camping and hiking trails for exploring, Timber Ridge turned out to be an ideal location for the festival, offering plenty of space for the roughly 3,000 campers to set up their tents for the weekend. With most open spaces open for camping, groups set themselves up in the forest, on flat areas of the ski trails and at the top of the old lift lines, where those willing to haul their gear uphill were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding Green Mountains. While some camping areas filled in snugly, none were so packed that there wasn't an open place to throw a frisbee nearby.
The site was also full of happy little details, like a tipi in the switchback camp where campers could play with a monster-sized homemade jenga set and little handpainted signs along all the hiking paths that broadcasted little messages of positivity. Mitrani said these fun Easter eggs are a product of the month he and some of the other crew members spent at Timber Ridge preparing for the festival.
"That's what happens when you're here for a month with 40 people -- especially 40 passionate, creative people," he said. "They really take every detail very seriously."
After parking their cars at Magic Mountain and piling on yellow school buses to Timber Ridge, early arrivers started setting up their tents on Thursday afternoon to the sounds of Southern Vermont's own bluegrass group Gold Town, who have now played at all four Frendly Gatherings in Vermont. After sunset, the crowd really started forming at the main stage for Twiddle, who, after also playing all four years, have embraced their role as the Frendly Gathering house band. The first of their five performances was their only appearance on the main stage, and they marked the occasion with interesting covers of "Karma Police" by Radiohead, "D'yer Maker" by Led Zeppelin and a wild performance of "Best Feeling" by fellow jam scene regulars Keller Williams and The String Cheese Incident."
Earlier in the set, Twiddle's drummer Brook Jordan was forced to to stop in the middle of a drum solo and politely confront a fan in the front row who was throwing off his rhythm with their mistimed tambourine shaking. Awkward as it was, this moment that showed the intimacy of the venue -- audience members don't usually expect performers to be able to see them, let alone stop their song and talk directly to them.
Next, the party moved into the nearby Jenke Barn for a collaborative set of dance music performed by DJ Jason Stiegler and trumpet player Spencer Ludwig of Capitol Cities. Along with Capitol Cities' current hit "Safe and Sound," Stiegler played pop hits like Katy Perry's "California Girls" and a dance remix of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," leaving gaps between choruses for Ludwig to improvise energetic trumpet solos.
After camping under the starry sky, festivalgoers awoke to beautiful clear weather and just enough breeze for the first full day of the festival on Friday, and these perfect conditions would continue through Sunday. As has become tradition, Twiddle started the first day with an acoustic set at the highest point of the festival, drawing groggy fans up the steep slope to relax on the grassy ridge. Twiddle's keyboard player Ryan Dempsey joked with the crowd during soundcheck, playing the opening notes of Vanessa Carlton's "Thousand Miles" in a funny moment of foreshadowing. Getting started, Twiddle opened up with fan favorite "Daydream Farmer" before shifting into a heady, reggae-charge medley of "Glycerine" by Bush, Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," "Farmhouse" by Phish (Twiddle's Burlington jam forefathers) and the party-folk anthem "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show. Delighting the fans who made the hike, Twiddle followed the medley with the weekend's first rendition of the "Frends Theme," a tune that would reappear in the festival's final moments.
Other musical highlights of Friday afternoon included Kris Orlowski, who stuck around to play frisbee with fans after his set; the golden California western rock of Jamestown Revival; Adolescent bluegrass prodigies Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, who were performing their third live show ever (and they said their second was on Jimmy Kimmel Live); and the London Souls, a power trio who wowed audiences with their soulful classic rock sounds, showing their Hendrix and Joe Cocker influences with an interesting arrangement of "Magic Bus" by The Who.
Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, festival headliners Deer Tick took the stage at 8:30 on Friday evening, taking breaks in between their gruff country-rock songs to tell stories about festivals past.
Frontman John C. McCauley reminisced about performing with Deer Tick on his birthday at the 2012 Frendly Gathering, an occasion he said he celebrated by getting very intoxicated. However, he said that this year he was celebrating something completely different, as he had learned earlier in the day that his wife, pop songwriter Vanessa Carlton, was pregnant with their first child. Shortly after the announcement, Carlton came onstage to sing "In Our Time," a sweet duet from Deer Tick's new album. After the tender moment, Deer Tick roared back into full gear with a loud version of "These Old Shoes" and a blown-out audience sing-along on "Ashamed" to close their set.
After Kung Fu's funk dance party, Delta Spirit started their set of melodic, dynamic indie rock, lead by charismatic frontman Matt Vazquez. Winning over the improvisation-loving crowd with an extended jam during their song "Trashcan," Delta Spirit offered possibly the weekend's most conventional set of rock music -- a testament to the varied, eclectic lineup.
In a small booklet passed out to festival-goers, the Gathering organizers explain that most of the weekend's musical acts were booked after meeting one of the Frends crew in their travels around the world, on recommendations from the Higher Ground staff in Burlington, or just because the organizers have always liked their music. This fits in with the organic nature of the festival -- rather than booking the hottest new bands and cashing in on the current trends in the music world, the Frendly Gathering lineup really came together out of genuine enthusiasm, and the results showed.
One thing that very noticeably sets the Frendly Gathering crowd apart from most concert audiences is their unfailing willingness to dance. Of course people will always dance to electronic, beat-based music, but most festival audiences spend their afternoons swaying casually or just nodding their heads in quiet approval to the folk and rock acts. At the Gathering, however, the crowd is constantly three parts happy and one part rowdy, a perfect cocktail of emotions that turns every Friendly performance into a wild celebration of free and fearless dancing, regardless of time or musical genre. All weekend long, the Frendly Gathering crowd went wild for pretty much every band, from Twiddle's sunny, bouncy funk-rock to the traditional bluegrass of the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. This was especially clear during Shakey Graves' one-man folk rock show on Saturday night, which kept the crowd moving as much as the futuristic funk of Dopapod before him or the rhythmic pulses of Lotus immediately afterwards. Many musicians showed their appreciation for this enthusiastic response, like lead singer Rachel Price of Lake Street Dive, who explained that she usually has to tell her audiences when a good dancing song is coming, but she knew the Frendly audience didn't really need the hint.
Twiddle started off the music again on Saturday morning, setting up their gear on the bank of the campground's small pond to continue a tradition that started last year when the summit was too muddy for their usual mountaintop performance. Surrounded by a mass of people, it was almost impossible to see the members of Twiddle from across the pond as they played upbeat daytime jams like their second "Syncopated Healing" of the weekend and Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman." The poor sightlines weren't a problem though, because there was plenty of entertainment to watch in the pond. Despite its murky brown water, dozens of campers put on bathing suits to frolic and play in the pond -- floating around in inflatable rings, lobbing beach balls, and even piling onto a square floating raft until it inevitably gave out and dumped the swimmers into the water, starting a hilarious game of king of the raft. Hesistant to let the fun end, Twiddle closed their pondside set with an encore of Richie Valens' "La Bamba," one of the most high-energy songs in popular music history.
After discovering some impressive new acts in the afternoon, like Chuck Ragan, who travelled overnight from England to play the festival, the crowd's energy was still building when Lotus took the stage at 11:30 p.m. Using traditional rock instruments but steeped in the culture and sounds of dance music, Lotus showed off their incomparable style during their set, pushing guitar music to its mechanical, dancey limits. With their layered, precise percussion and tight melodic interplay, Lotus plays a hyper-evolved style of rock that may be tough to decode and relate to artistically, but it's perfect for dancing.
Following Lotus on the nearby Wood Stage, Moon Hooch boosted the energy level even higher with their drums and dual saxophone lineup. Recreating deep, dub-style bass sounds with a contrabass clarinet or by attaching a narrow road cone to their saxophones, Moon Hooch captures the essence of the recent electronic dance music craze -- except without the electronic samples. Few live bands can match the all-out insanity that sax players Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen show in their live performances, using wireless mics so they can run around on stage and sometimes locking together in an evil duel of face-to-face saxophone-based aggression. It really is an experience unlike any other.
Even though they played until 2:30 a.m., the crowd left Moon Hooch with plenty of energy, climbing into the woods for Twiddle's final, festival-closing set in the DJ Nest.
With each member perched upon his own wooden tower and the surrounding trees lit up with neon colored lights, Twiddle tied up the weekend naturally with their fifth set of the weekend, launching into a few long jam sequences. About halfway through the set, Savoulidis and his bandmates dropped into a version of "Frankenfoote" that featured the members of Dopapod smoothly stepping in for the the members of Twiddle and transitioning into their own song "8 Years Ended" before handing the stage back to their hosts, who resumed "Frankenfoote." They then followed the cooperative jam with a version of "The Box" that included elements of the Star Wars theme music, a fitting reference given the night's futuristic musical flavor and the DJ Nest's striking resemblance to the forests of Endor from "Return of the Jedi."
Opening their encore with a bittersweet "Frends Theme" in tribute to the nearly-finished festival, Gathering organizer Jack Mitrani joined Twiddle in the treetops to play a drum solo before the band started their final song, a piano-driven cover of Bruce Hornsby's "The Way it Is" merged with Tupac's "Changes," which samples the Hornsby tune. Ending their set just before 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, the crowd's energy finally died down as they shuffled back to their tents in the pale morning light, hoping for a few hours of sleep and already looking forward to next year's Frendly Gathering.
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