Peach Music Festival 2017: 10 Best Things We Saw
The focal point of the 2017 Peach Music Festival, held this past weekend at the Pavilion at Montage Mountain in Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a star-studded tribute to late Allman Brothers Band founders Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks.
It had to be.
After all, the Southern rock pioneers, both of whom died earlier this year, were not only originators of their iconic band and style of music, but of the festival itself when it began in 2012.
The moving performances delivered by their surviving friends and brethren were just a few of the banner moments of a four-day weekend that included a pulsating set by rock giants My Morning Jacket, a crowd-pleasing display – during a torrential downpour – by Greensky Bluegrass, and a guest-heavy, improvisational showcase by Southern jam institution Widespread Panic.
Whether it was the willingness of Philadelphia-based guitarist and songwriter Tom Hamilton to entertain during a momentary loss of power onstage or a riveting cover of a celebrated classic, the Peach offered a lion’s share of highlights. Here’s the 10 best things we saw.
Best Eulogy: All-Star Tribute to Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks
The musical and biological families of the fallen Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks came together on stage to honor the late icons. Allman Brothers Band alumni Jaimoe, Oteil Burbridge, Marc Quinones, Jack Pearson and Chuck Leavell led a charge that included sons of the Allman and Trucks families and a laundry list of former collaborators and special guests. Devon Allman belted out a soulful “One Way Out,” and Duane Betts, looking eerily like his father, Dickey, in cowboy hat and denim shirt, joined Pearson and Les Brers guitarist Pat Bergeson for a spectacular three-guitar “Jessica” with harmonies ringing throughout their riff work. But it was long-tenured Allmans guitarist and Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes who took an inspired lead on an epic “Whipping Post” to close the set. A nod to Allman at his most guttural and exposed, the raucous jam ended in sentiment, with Haynes changing lyrics “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying” to “Sometimes, there’s no such thing as dying” to reflect his friends’ musical immortality.
Best Reinvention: The Magpie Salute
A public rift between brothers Chris and Rich Robinson has scuttled any chance of a Black Crowes reunion, but that hasn’t stopped lead guitarist Rich from finding a new conduit for the music he had a hand in creating. The Magpie Salute, featuring Black Crowes alumni Marc Ford and Sven Pipien, members of the Rich Robinson Band, vocalist John Hogg, and a soulful group of background singers, took the stage to show they could be just as powerful as the Crowes ever were. Hogg’s voice stunned on a soaring version of the Crowes’ “My Morning Song” – an impressive feat, as few can fill in for Chris Robinson – and the band debuted the original tune “Omission,” an electrifying hybrid of hard rock and Southern blues with a melodic bridge. Covers of the Rolling Stone’s “Tumblin’ Dice,” the Temtations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole” showed the group’s diversity, but it was rousing versions of the Robinsons’ hits “Jealous Again” and “Remedy” that proved these Magpies can fly in the same formation as the Crowes.
Best Inspired Cover: Gov’t Mule
Heavy Southern rock and blues outfit Gov’t Mule, a band that was started as an Allman Brothers side project by guitarist and songwriter Warren Haynes, represented the Peach at its most socio-political. Mule played a furious version of its Trump-era account of ideological schism, “Stone Cold Rage,” and the moodily funky ode to administrative stagnation “Revolution Come … Revolution Go” in the early portion of their set. Later, Jack Pearson and Marcus King, who fronts his musical namesake, the Marcus King Band, joined the band for a rendition of Marshall Tucker Band’s “Cant’ You See.” King complemented Hayne’s soulful vocals with his coarse yet robust high-end register and traded shrieking licks with his fellow guitarists to create a particularly daring take on a classic song.
Best Showman: Tom Hamilton
Guitar slinger and songwriter Tom Hamilton has become a fixture at the Peach. This year, he traded solos with fellow fret wizard Scott Metzger in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and enthralled an audience with his brainchild, the progressive Americana outfit American Babies. But it was his charm and charisma that made for the most candid of appearances at the festival. Hamilton and American Babies bandmate Raina Mullen had settled in for an acoustic set of duets when a venue tech delivered news that power was out and the set would have to be cut short. “Fuck it. Let’s ‘Kumbaya’ this shit,” Hamilton said, as he unplugged his guitar and approached the front of the stage. He and Mullen, without much pause, took an emotive crack at Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Hamilton endeared himself to those in attendance with the bare-bones performance, and wrapped up by delivering an impossibly adept rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” turning a snafu set into a fest highlight.
Best Americana Moment: Greensky Bluegrass
The finest display of American roots music belonged to Greensky Bluegrass, a band of Michigan origin with a penchant for testing the parameters of bluegrass. The five-piece string band bounced from frenzied picking to smooth mountain folk to two-step inducing country and lyrically-driven roots rock, but the first uproarious moment of the set came when the band launched into their take on Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Theirs was a version with enough psychedelic inflection to honor the original, but infused with some Western swing that made it delightfully unruly. In another highlight, Greensky invited trio the Turkuaz Horns onstage to accompany them in a raging version of their ominous “Bring Out Your Dead.” Over four days that saw the Turkuaz Horns collaborate with acts like Lettuce, the Werks and Pigeons Playing Ping-Pong, the moment held the most gravitas for the Horns, who were billed as an artists-in-residence.
Best Icon: Chaka Khan with Lettuce
Lettuce, a gathering of Berklee College of Music grads, who have all reached marked levels of success but always kept one foot in their college band, showed the Peach Fest a new face of funk. Their blend of intellectual jazz and dirty jams added a refined element to an art form that is still best served filthy. The band’s set was an exercise in sophisticated funk mastery, but it was their welcoming of a high priestess of the genre that left the most lasting impression. Chaka Khan joined Lettuce for a nostalgic trip into the R&B chanteuse’s catalogue, which included a booming version of “Tell Me Something Good,” Khan’s scintillating vocals typifying the performance, and the velvety R&B of “Sweet Thing.”
Best of the Fest: My Morning Jacket
The Peach lineup was chockfull of acts of revered status, but the presence of My Morning Jacket was downright magnetic. Fans of the experimental Kentucky-rooted rock unit, which blends elements of classic and Southern rock with ambient and avant-garde sonic expression, flocked to the venue’s main stage for the set. Led by unyielding frontman Jim James, who donned his signature multi-colored coat and the sampler with which he’s known to begin sets, the quintet unfurled a haunting “Victory Dance” before delivering an anthemic “I’m Amazed” and a stirring “Mahgheeta.” Taking their opportunity to honor Allman and Trucks, MMJ delicately teased the Allman Brothers’ “Mellissa” before launching into a medley that included Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a gripping “Melissa,” in earnest this time, a poignant version of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and an elegant rendition of Prince’ “The Beautiful Ones.”
Best Grassroots Movement: Cabinet
Formed in Northeastern Pennsylvania more than a decade ago, Cabinet are hometown heroes. Driven by the flourishing tempo changes of the band’s latest addition, drummer Josh Karis, the sextet began their set with the unfettered, Santana-like Latin jazz of “Mysterio.” They followed up with the reggae-kissed “The Dove,” featuring a harrowing vocal approach by mandolin player J.P. Biondo and the gritty, yet classical psychedelic soloing of violinist Todd Kopec. A few short years ago, a Cabinet set at the Peach would have been populated by mostly local and regional fans, but that audience has expanded to include fans from all over the country. Showing that their influences run much deeper than bluegrass, the ensemble launched into the single “Bottom of the Sea,” an unapologetically electric rock romp off their forthcoming album Cool River. Adding a bit of fun to the mix, Cabinet closed with their string-heavy rendition of Cake’s “The Distance,” putting the alternative big-band tune into an Americana light.
Best Long Strange Trip: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead
There’s no shortage of well-touted Grateful Dead tribute acts today, and the surviving members of the seminal jam band continue to tour as Dead & Co. with guitarist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge and pianist Jeff Chimenti, but it’s Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, made up of Russo, pianist Marco Benevento, bassist Dave Dreiwitz and guitarists Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger, that makes the best case for heirs to the throne. Each a monster musician in their own right, the members approach the celebrated Dead catalogue with a keen knowledge of composition and a mastery of their respective instruments, but they deliver their sets with an almost punk-rock mentality. Two sets on the opening night of the Peach yielded a rowdy “Feel Like a Stranger,” a superbly articulate “Jack Straw” and an unhinged version of “Fire on the Mountain” that saw both Hamilton and Metzger take guitar solos for a melodically psychedelic walk.
Best Jam Set: Widespread Panic
The Southern veterans of improvisation, who have made a 30-year career out of weaving blues, Southern rock and hard rock into a tapestry of open-ended composition, cemented their place among the jam greats by delivering a Peach set full of heavy embellishment, classic covers and boisterous sit-ins. Jimmy Herring’s vicious approach to blues guitar made “Henry Parsons Died” a treat to open the show, before sliding into the raucous Crazy Horse-style grunge rock of “Love Tractor.” In a mid-set cover tribute, Panic doled out incendiary versions of ZZ Top’s “Waiting for the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” with Herring’s mastery of the blues manifesting in unpredictable but articulate solos. Provoked by the throaty howl of vocalist John Bell, the band delivered an audacious “Party at Your Mama’s House,” followed by a tongue-in-cheek “Ribs and Whiskey” that was full of guitar bends and swells by Herring. Late-set highlights included a guest spot by 14-year-old guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, who unloaded a ferocious solo on “Surprise Valley,” eliciting approval from both the audience and Herring.