The Southern Comfort Music Experience set up shop at Madison’s Willow Island for the second year in a row on Saturday, September 6th. There couldn’t have been a more perfect day for the free music festival: droves of UW students were back in town, Badger football fans were rampant after the morning’s home game win, athletes and enthusiasts were abound for the weekend’s Iron Man triathlon, and most of all, skies were blue with ample sunshine as temperatures climbed into the mid-70s. Ten bands took the stage between 2PM and 10PM, making for a long but thoroughly enjoyable day of diverse music, food, and of course, a variety of Southern Comfort-based mixers. Oh, and did I mention, admission was free?
A whiskey-sponsored festival may initially spark visions of tattered jeans and cowboy boots, with country twang or hair-metal riffs permeating the air. But Southern Comfort seems adamant about quenching the thirst of the young, hip, offbeat music fanatics whose drink of choice may still be up for grabs. Now in its fourth year, the SoCo Music Experience increasingly targets an alternative crowd with a less than mainstream taste in music, as proven by this year’s headliners, Akron-based neo-blues duo The Black Keys and Philly’s very own renegade hip-hoppers The Roots. The event was further diversified with a set by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, and a variety of local bands who occupied the second stage throughout the afternoon and early evening.
I had made my way to the main stage by the middle of GZA’s second song and quickly realized, as I tried to photograph him from the pit doing something, anything interesting, that his presence was far from electrifying. Besides intermittently pacing back and forth across a portion of the stage, he was so stiff and lifeless that his projected disinterest was contagious. I saw no more than five hands in the air at any point in time, and the crowd appeared still and unimpressed. I thought he might walk offstage and call it a night at any moment. I must admit I was quite surprised to hear him remark after the fourth or fifth song (semi-enthusiastically), “this is fuckin’ fun!”
A welcomed tribute to fellow (late) Clan member and cousin, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, breathed new life into the drab set — the crowd responded ecstatically and immediately to the first few notes of the familiar hit “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” GZA managed to keep the energy level a little higher throughout the rest of the set, mixing it up with songs from his own catalogue as well as Wu-Tang’s. The latter garnered a much better response, with songs such as “Clan in Da Front,” “4th Chamber” and “Triumph” making heads bob and arms wave in the air.
GZA ran nearly 15 minutes past his scheduled end time, but managed to repeatedly plug his new album, Pro Tools, while also letting us know that his entire show was being documented by a camera crew. He pointed out one rabid fan in the front and insisted he be caught on film. He also stated that cameramen would be in the audience post-show to capture attendee’s thoughts on politics, current affairs and the like.
I headed out immediately after his last song to see what else the festival had to offer. I was slightly entertained by a Rock Band competition taking place in one of the green SoCo tents, and noticed they had MacBooks set up on a center table for anyone who may need to impulsively hop on the net. Another tent hosted a merch stand for the various artists, and SWAMP showcased its modern art show posters nearby. There was free SoCo merch everywhere – t-shirts, beads, plastic shot glasses, stickers, temporary tattoos, earplugs, and red plastic SoCo cups were never more than a glance away.
Though crowds were a bit sparse in the daylight hours, the brand-saturated affair managed to attract thousands of music fans to the main stage by the time the sun had set. As the Black Keys took the stage, people were solidly stacked to catch a view of Dan Auerbach on guitar/vocals and Patrick Carney on drums. The band tore into the title track from 2003’s Thickfreakness, establishing a soaring sound that fiercely penetrated the vast, open air. The signature reverb-rich blues-guitar squall translated perfect live, while Carney kept a reliable and innovative beat on his kit.
One unfamiliar with the duo may at first be skeptical when only two performers step onstage. But the intensity of each member’s pomp and skill fill up the aural space leaving no room for additional players.
Resembling a hobbit in a black and red lumberjack-style shirt, sporting chin-length greasy hair and a red-blonde beard, Auerbach commanded the stage throughout the set with a Flying V guitar as his weapon. The band treated attendees to an assortment of tunes including “Same Old Thing”, “Strange Times”, and the slow blues of “Everywhere I Go”. They opted for a sentimental cover of Captain Beefheart’s “I’m Glad”, who Auerbach said was one of the band’s idols.
Though satisfied with the Keys’ rousing set, those gathered at the SoCo Music Experience were eager for The Roots to take the stage. The band’s entrance was led by an energetic sousaphonist, dubbed Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.,” who paraded around triumphantly as if in a New Orleans march. A total of seven players occupied the stage, including original member and front man Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and original drummer Ahmir “Questlove” (or “?uestlove”) Thompson.
Though Black Thought may typically be regarded as the star of the show, I must say that guitarist/backing vocalist “Captain” Kirk Douglas was the object of my affection Saturday evening. His smooth vocals on the Grammy-winning track “You Got Me” were inviting and enchanting, but it was his knockout guitar work later in the song that stole the show. The song turned into a multi-part epic, showcasing the talent of multiple players, but it was Douglas that shined brightest. He took the tune in a different direction as he vocally imitated the peppy sound of his guitar to a tee, eventually letting go and bursting into an unparalleled solo during which he channeled Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and even quoted the infamous “These Are A Few of My Favorite Things”. In a climax of glory, Douglas hopped onto a speakerbox in front of the stage, which may as well have been a glowing throne, as he fervently worked his Gibson Les Paul with stunning skill and passion. It was during this jaw-dropping solo that I think my jaw literally did drop in amazement, as I had one of those rare, live music-invoked experiences – the feeling of pure musical bliss where the beauty and spirit of the moment transcends everything else and a brief aura of weightlessness kicks in. I commend Douglas for that, but I was quickly brought back to Earth as bassist Owen Biddle took center stage for a less than show-stopping bass solo. It would be nearly impossible to top Douglas, however, and Biddle’s performance throughout the rest of the show was definitely up to par.
Having never seen the Roots perform live before Saturday night, I was most definitely pleased with the multitude of sounds the outfit seamlessly blends together. While each band member is entertaining enough to watch individually, they certainly come together to create quite the entertaining and interesting mash-up. They manage to incorporate the likes of big band, hip-hop, reggae and rap with bongos, keyboards and soaring electric guitar, creating nothing short of a unique and interesting night of music. Not to mention the snippets of familiar favorites they carefully weave into their performance, such as Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”, the Commodores’ “Jungle Boogie”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and even the ever-ominous guards’ song from The Wizard of Oz (think oh ee oh, eeoohhh”). I expected the sousaphonist to stick around for only the first few songs or so, but was delighted with the opportunity to watch him throughout the entire show. I was definitely impressed with his chops and the way he was able to jump up and down with the bell of the instrument hovering above his head!
Another crowd pleaser was a sped-up version of Phrenology’s “The Seed (2.0)” -watch the live video below. This tune again featured on-point vocals by Douglas, and flawless flow delivered by Black Thought. The Roots finished the show strong, providing a fun scene for spectators as the band members collectively shuffled simultaneously from one side of the stage to the other as they performed their closing number.
After the show, drummer “Questlove” signed multiple drumsticks and threw them into the crowd. Also flung into the masses were a few t-shirts and a drumhead, and band members Kamal Gray (keyboard) and F. Knuckles (percussion) mingled with fans near the rail and took photos.
All in all, the SoCo Music Experience was a well-organized and well-managed event, even featuring a Designated Driver tent to help attendees get home safely. Despite some long waits in the beer/drink line, which is all too typical of festivals, the night seemed to go off without a hitch. Parking was a breeze, there was not a single disruption I noticed, and everyone left with a good night of music under their belts as a beautiful Saturday night had really just begun. The show’s finish at 10 PM began most people’s “after-party,” and for those Badger fans who had come straight from the game that morning, it was destined to be a long (but great) night indeed. Just ask this guy (below)!