- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
Before even setting foot in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, for the second year of the Et Cultura Festival, one thing is immediately clear. For a festival that covers Art, Film, Music, and a myriad of other cultural topics, someone stepped it up on the music front in a major way. Last year’s musical lineup included Dan Orlando, Kendra, Professor Toon, and the not to be missed Hot Jam Factory, while 2017 brings us the likes of Waxahatchee, Son Volt, Cloud Nothings and the only Florida appearance of the reunited Slowdive. No offense to last year’s bands (none of which I’ve heard of), but for a burgeoning young festival it would be a bit of an understatement to say they knocked it out of the park this year with the lineup. Of course the festival price went up from $25 to $75, but well worth the investment. Though the festival stretches from Wednesday to Sunday, the bigger names on the music bill are packed into Thursday, Friday and Saturday night with two shows going simultaneously at different venues that cater to the touring bands that come through town. The only significant conflict was with Waxahatchee and Cloud Nothings playing at the same slot Friday night, but for me that was a no brainer – Katie Crutchfield has put out some amazing records the last several years with this year’s Out in the Storm being her masterstroke to date so easy choice for me.
The Thursday headliner was Jay Farrar’s Son Volt. The band is still kicking around 20 years plus since the demise of Uncle Tupelo, and some highlights from this year’s Notes of Blue album fared well against earlier classics. The twin guitar attack (courtesy of Farrar and Chris Frame) on ‘Sinking Down’ was particularly a standout, with the song having yet another lyrical twist of the ‘Country Blues’/‘Moonshiner’ demand of “give me bread when I’m hungry, bourbon when I’m dry”. The swampy blues of ‘Midnight’ was another highlight from the new album, while Frame’s guitar lick on the older ‘Damn Shame’ was an early set indicator of things to come. Of course, there were many tracks from their debut, Trace, sprinkled through the set from the “tear in my beer” shuffle of ‘Tear Stained Eye’ to the brilliantly fiery ‘Drown’ near the end of the main set. Farrar is not one for chatting between songs or acknowledging his storied history, but the quick flash of a smile during a pregnant pause leading into the chorus of Uncle Tupelo’s ‘Chickamauga’ showed a bit of playfulness that he’s not exactly known for. That song was bookended in the encore by ‘Windfall’ and then an extended version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’ that allowed for some soloing on one of two flashy Gretsch guitars - not a brand you see much of, but their throaty sound serves the band’s workmanlike stance well.
Opening for Son Volt were local Tampa via Detroit husband and wife duo, The Hummingbirds, who played a satisfying Americana tinged set. They also defied the Boy Scout motto by not having extra strings on hand when two of Rachel’s popped early in the set. An able assist was made by William Tyler who followed The Hummingbirds on stage. Tyler is a veteran of the sorely missed Silver Jews and also Lambchop, but his solo work consists of instrumental guitar pieces. Here he played a single acoustic through what he referred to as two types of songs - ones about love or ones about ghosts or sometimes a blend of the two. Though the term virtuoso may sound like hyperbole, Tyler is clearly that with delicate picking to more percussive and rhythmic flights as well. This type of music doesn’t always go well with the bar crowd, but given his skill and engaging between song stories the small crowd was uncharacteristically attentive.
As mentioned above, my choice of headlining show for Friday was Katie Crutchfield’s primary vehicle Waxahatchee. Pushing half a decade from when I first encountered Crutchfield’s lo-fi bedroom recordings, I have been waiting ever since for a chance to catch a live show. With the “festival” attendees scattered between this show and Cloud Nothings, there was not a very big crowd on hand when the band took the stage (I understand the Cloud Nothings attendance was even less and led to a quick departure by the band). Likewise, Waxahatchee didn’t play the full hour slot allotted and that even seemed a sleight time wise given years of waiting. But grousing aside, the band put on a short but inspired set. Things started off slowly with the retro sounding ‘Recite Remorse’ from their latest album, before rolling into the more rousing ‘Silver’ with drummer Ashley Arnwine leading the charge on the song that includes the line of the album’s title. Another smart transition took place a bit later with ‘Sparks Fly’ segueing into ‘8 Ball’ which is one of my favorites from Out in the Storm. Of the older tracks, ‘Peace and Quiet’ was a clear highlight with Crutchfield singing some of her most searing vocals. And ‘Under a Rock’ with its fuzzed out punchy power makes for a perfect closer and sounds even better than on Ivy Tripp, with the full band treatment. The biggest surprise came in the form of Crutchfield’s acoustic solo turn on the spare, but impassioned, ‘Chapel of Pines’ off of her Great Thunder project. Not having seen them before, their stage presence and roles are worth commenting on. Crutchfield and twin sister Allison (on guitar and keys), along with Arnwine, provide the energy in the group. On the other hand, it felt like maybe the stage fog coming in from the left side was laced with sleeping gas as Katherine Simonetti and Ali Donohue barely moved a muscle during the show. Donohue does not play the role of lead guitarist and seemed mainly to provide the feedback hum to recreate some tracks’ lo-fi feel. An interesting but effective niche given the Crutchfield sisters’ clear lead guitar duties. Also for the sake of them all, I hope the laconic Donohue isn’t driving the van! Crutchfield gave a polite “thank you” after most songs, but interaction with the smallish crowd was limited. The short set mainly served to whet my appetite to catch them later down the road and I also discovered that I missed a solo show by Allison earlier in the year in support of her smart as a whip synth driven album, Tourist in This Town.
First opener, local band Die Alps! put on a lively set with Cornelia Calcaterra the clear standout. They kicked up more dust in the live setting than on their recorded work and think they have some promise in spite of our site’s less than glowing review of their recent album. Touring with Waxahatchee and next up was Montreal’s Ought. Leader Tim Beeler’s Talking Heads/Byrne fixation is obvious, but this is the second band I’ve heard this year (Protomartyr being the other) that cops Mark E. Smith’s flat vowel towards the end of the sentence approach on several songs. The Fall is a great touchpoint for any post punk band, but though later generations may not know of Smith, he’s hard to mimic without being a straight out copy. That being said, the long form of ‘Habit’ and the set closing muscular meltdown of ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ are great songs. I did have to chuckle when Beeler said they couldn’t stick around because they had a long drive ahead of them leaving Waxahatchee in their wake to travel the same route later on.
Due to a friend’s daughter’s “ill-timed” wedding (just kidding!), I didn’t get to catch festival closer Slowdive’s set on Saturday, but understand it was phenomenal - maybe at their next 20 year reunion. I wish Et Cultura the best and commend the lineup they put together of top notch acts. I don’t know if the lack of a crowd was driven by dueling cross-town headliners, ticket price (walk up price in particular), or other circumstances, but hope the organizers are able to stick it out and realize their vision of a multi-media festival with a world class musical lineup. I look forward to what 2018 might have to offer.