Updated Sun, May 20, 2012 10:40 pm
It felt awfully intimate when Jorma Kaukonen took the Main Stage at the Nelsonville Music Festival on Saturday afternoon.
Accompanied by his fellow Hot Tuna bandmate Barry Mitterhoff, the pair skillfully plucked through a number of bluesy, folksy numbers to a sparse crowd mostly made up of baby boomers.
At times it was hard to concentrate on Kaukonen’s set, due to the blazing sun beating down on Robbins Crossing. Undaunted, the guitar legend offered up a Lightnin' Hopkins cover and an amusing politically infused number entitled "Bread Line Blues."
"We first played this song in China, and they didn’t seem to understand why this particular election is so amusing," Kaukonen mused before busting into the tune, which centered around a conversation between an elephant and a donkey.
By the end of his set, it was pretty evident why the man is considered to be one of the most skilled guitarists in the history of rock and roll.
Around 5 p.m., Minnesotan folksters Dark Dark Dark began a set full of melancholy accordion and wheezy trumpet playing.
Although Dark Dark Dark's instrumentation was a refreshing change from the largely guitar-bass-drum mix that dominated the sound at this year’s festival, it felt like a lot of the songs were half-realized. The band noted that they had recently recorded an album in New Orleans, and it certainly sounded like they were going for a Crescent City sound. Unfortunately, they never quite achieved it.
Around the same time, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels and Rope were puting on a delightfully off-beat performance at the Porch Stage.
With their bare bones equipment--harmonicas, drum set and two guitars--the duo treated the audience to their unique "sloppy-tonk" sound. Although there were only two people on stage, they definitely had enough stage presence to make up for their lack of band members.
Thankfully there was enough shade for the exhausted audience in the roomy area around the Porch Stage. The band’s energy was a welcome pick-me-up that seemed to perk up the sleepy crowd.
By 8:30 p.m., the temperature dropped and and a bigger crowd started to accumulate in the Main Stage area, similar to Friday evening. Before long, Roky Erickson's band started to chug out a Bo Diddley beat and Erickson, looking like the world's spookiest Santa Claus, took hold of a guitar and howled in his signature gravelly yowl.
In a manner only achievable by true rock legends, Erickson managed to rile up the crowd without excessive stage banter, depending solely on the power of his voice and guitar. Like many cult heroes, Erickson has a dependable and loyal fan base, many of whom made up the crowd on Saturday night. When he kicked into "Night of the Vampire," a couple of die-hard fans discussed how the song was “the greatest vampire song ever."
After Erickson's performance, the Main Stage crew started working on Andrew Bird's elaborate set up, complete with six-feet tall paper and wood gyrating spindles and large rotating horns that wouldn't look out of place in a Terry Gilliam movie.
Sometimes Bird’s studio work can come off a bit hollow, as light and airy as the thin, handsome man himself. However, catching one solo set by the multi-instrumentalist is enough to charm even the toughest critic.
Bird truly is a one-man band, and from the dramatic start of the set (making good use of the Main Stage lights) to its equally dramatic ending, he gave a multi-dimensional performance with the help of loops and instrument changes.
Dashing from violin to guitar to glockenspiel, Bird was a flittering ball of energy. Dressed like an incredibly hip Charles Dickens character, he kept stage chatter to a minimum, aside from praising the Nelsonville Music Festival staff for their hospitality (and dissing the Coachella festival for their lack of it).
Bird dipped into his nine-abum discography with songs from his most recent release, Break It Yourself, and selections from The Swimming Hour and The Mysterious Production of Eggs, among other records.
Before breaking into Noble Beast's "Fitz and the Dizzyspells," Bird told the audience that his last two songs "would be a real treat for you folks." His promise was fulfilled when "circus punk marching band" Mucca Pazza stormed the stage to join him at the end of the song.
The slightly chaotic, yet spirited, pairing of acts was a nice contrast to Bird’s meticulous, streamlined solo set.
Lee "Scratch" Perry is an udisputed legend, but he really wasn’t suited to close the second night of the Nelsonville Music Festival.
By midnight, it seemed that many in the audience were tired, achy and impatient during the long period between Bird's tear-down and Perry's set-up. The fact that that Perry's soundcheck was the longest of any at the festival didn’t help matters.
When Perry finally made an appearance around 1 a.m., he did so with a candle on his head and spouting nonsense, which didn't do much to excite the audience.
"Lee 'Scratch' Perry is a gay! Say it!” he commanded the audience, most of whom were too tired or too weirded out to comply.
Having successfully freaked out a decent chunk of the crowd, Perry ended the second long, hot day of the festival.
Andrew Bird and Roky Erickson clips by Cam Soergel (video) and Elliot Nicolson (audio).