Festival Review: Orlando Calling
Day One: Awesome but overwhelming
Festival fanatics take note – there’s a new gathering in town… well, just to the south anyway, in Orlando Florida specifically. Aptly dubbed Orlando Calling and still in its infancy – the first event took place the weekend of November 12 and 13 – it attracted a roster that may well be the envy of rival musical events that have been around far longer. The names on the roster say it all – Bob Seger, the Ettes, the Doobie Brothers, the Avett Brothers, Pete Yorn, Iron & Wine, Dr. Dog, the Pixies, the Raconteurs, Drive By Truckers and, hell, that’s merely day one! For yours truly, it was well worth leaving home at 6 AM in order to arrive by the time the gates opened at 11 AM Saturday morning. And what we received in return was an amazingly excessive abundance of music, but one that presented the challenge of taking it all in.
Held on the site of Orlando’s venerable Citrus Bowl, the same venue that hosted the Rolling Stones in 1981, it featured no fewer than five stages of varying size, from the mammoth realms of the bowl itself, to the crowded confines of the Art House, a small tent like area that had onlookers stoically gazing at rookie performers from outside the front flaps. Fortunately, the rest of the venues easily accommodated any overflow audience, and while there was constant temptation to squeeze towards the front of the stage, particularly in the larger concerts, no one was ever made to feel cramped or crowded. In fact, most of the time a blanket could be spread and still allow for ample visibility.
A varying stylistic landscape
The initial challenge on arrival was to discern the lay of the land without getting distracted by all the food booths and merchandise tents that littered the landscape. But in short order, my wife Alisa and I were plotting the schedule of appearances that would occupy our day and evening. We began by going to the FreeCreditScore Stage where, appropriately enough, we caught a performance by The American Secrets, who, not surprisingly, happen to be the giddy outfit currently featured in FreeCreditScore commercials. While something of a surprise to see that they were a real working band, they proved the point by running through an upbeat set that culminated with their now famous jingle. We then stuck around for something a bit more serious, the Deep Dark Woods, a Canadian combo whose backwoods sound resembles nothing less than The Band or the Flying Burrito Brothers as if refitted for the current millennium. A bit of levity about being pampered with a haircut and massage backstage notwithstanding, their mournful musings made for a genuinely pensive encounter.
It would be a couple of hours until the day’s main attractions would take the stage, so we opted to spend our time discovering some of the newer names on the festival roster. Civil Twilight, an ambient three piece combo that resembled nothing less than a cross between Radiohead and U2, roused the crowd and beckoned a flock of photographers. A little bit was a lot to take in, so we made our first transition of the day, venturing over to the Authentic Stage where Lucero was holding court. Bedecked in tattoos, a horn section and hunting caps, the Memphis six-piece provided an early high-energy jolt, which was already badly needed. “I promised I’m gonna wake up any second now,” their singer teased, affirming the fact that early preparation had taken its toll. Sounding something akin to a Southern-stirred Bruce Springsteen, these good old boys were the first highlight of an afternoon that would soon be flush with surprises.
On the other hand, we knew what to expect with Iron & Wine, although nothing on record ever prepares one for a live encounter. With a seemingly incongruous instrumental line-up – banjos complement flutes, exotic percussion and warbling back-up vocals – they offered up an adventurous and progressive template that at times sounded like King Crimson in full Court press. Big and burly, Sam Beam took center stage, an authoritative presence that resembled nothing less than a country preacher ready to inspire the flock and dazzle them at the same time. They were both awesome and intriguing, and while they tugged at the parameters of their time-constrained set – no one except the certified headliners was allowed to exceed 40 minutes – they delivered a performance that can only be characterized as nothing less than mesmerizing.
New darlings and former loves
Sam Beam and company provided an apt warm-up for our next stop, the Citrus Main Stage where the Avett Brothers held court in their usual off-handed, unassuming way. The group’s unbridled energy makes adjectives like “exuberant” and “infectious” seem an understatement, given that it’s hard to resist their riveting charms. The Avetts have been long time favorites of Alisa and I ever since we first caught them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival five years ago, and while an expanding audience awareness has found them perched on the precipice of mainstream success, their Southern charm remains undiminished. A harmony-drenched take on the gospel standard “A Closer Walk With Thee,” inspired by their grandfather, a Methodist minister, finds equal footing with populist anthems, and when the band are in full flight, there’s no one that can top them for sheer exhileration. Cellist Joe Kwon is a particularly striking object in motion; often in full frenzy, he rocks his instrument in a way that would make a classical performer shudder with dread. On the other hand, when they regroup for the title track of their latest LP, I And Love and You, they also manage to seduce their audiences with sheer sentiment.
“I got a flat hand and a flat wallet,” Seth called out at one point. Hmmm, we don’t know what that first remark references and as for the second, with their growing fame, that wallet shouldn’t remain flat very long.
Although still caught up the Avetts’ euphoria, we were equally psyched to peruse the Pixies, and when Kim Deal, an earth-motherly type that boasts one of the best bass rumbles around, announced that they were going to do the whole of Doolittle, the crowd was overjoyed. Highlights included a a snarling “Debaser,” a celebratory “Here Comes Your Man” and a positively giddy “La La Love You,” each accompanied by appropriate images projected on a screen hung behind the band.
Still, the highpoint resided in “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” the album’s once and future classic. Their poppy punk songs were quick and concise, often introduced by Deal in album order simply by giving the number of their sequence on either side. Black Francis nee Frank Black is still an ominous presence and given to a good scream, while guitarist Joey Santiago avoided any real interaction and stood stoically off to the side. Nevertheless, Deal and drummer David Lovering seemed intent on clowning around, and when prior to the encore, Deal announced she was tired and ready for sleep, Lovering kidded her relentlessly for apparently giving in to the whims of middle age.
Fortunately, their animated performance found those in the mosh pit down below – your truly included –not quite as inclined.
Even so, with performances by the Raconteurs, the Roots and the Killers still looming, we opted instead to see the Drive By Truckers in the smaller FreeCredit Stage, having had enough of close encounters with our fellow festival goers. We were rewarded with a rowdy set that offered shout-outs to their Southern roots, a stance that mimicked Lynyrd Skynyrd and various other regional forebears. Energetic and indulgent, they capped their performance with a rousing take on the title track from their latest opus Go-Go Boots and sent us off into the night drained, delirious but eagerly anticipating the festivities that awaited on day two.
Day Two: Tough acts to follow
Day Two of Orlando Calling began much the same way as Day One, with plotting, strategizing and attempts to create a schedule that would allow us to see all the bands on our wish list. In truth, the festival offers over indulgence and a wealth of riches, factors that turn it into parallel experiences. There are those artists one hopes to see as well as those that due to conflicting schedules or overwhelming desire, make that reality practically impossible to realize. A fellow festivalgoer may share tales of amazing experiences that may have nothing to do with the encounters experienced by another, simply due to the constraints of time and the inability to be in more than one place at one time. Science arrived at the latter premise several centuries ago, but those who opted to pit, say, the Raconteurs against the Roots may yet to have accepted that reality.
The fact is, with five venues of varying sizes and a line-up the equal of any of its competitors, there’s simply no way to take it all in. Fortunately Day One had allowed us to get the lay of the land and eased the challenges of discerning from one stage to another. Yet with schedules often staggered a mere ten minutes between the start of one set and the beginning of another, difficult decision would have to be made. Some of the acts rarely visited the state, much less South Florida, so the possibility of seeing such desirable draws as the Flatlanders, Dwight Yoakam, Chris Isaak, Brandi Carlile, Michele Branch, Bob Seger, the Doobie Brothers and more in a single afternoon and evening obviously defied the odds. Ultimately, no amount of planning and plotting would succeed with sets that averaged 40 minutes at the most and shows that inevitably posed conflicts in terms of timing.
Then again, what other festival can claim such variety? Take one artist from column A, another from column B and ultimately you can find yourself grooving to Buddy Guy, punking out with the Pixies, rocking with Bob Seger, or enjoying country cool with Blake Shelton. For a first time event, Orlando Calling boasts variety in volumes.
Our first choice of the day, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, failed to show due to the fact that all their equipment was stolen the night before. A bad blow for them, but for us, a momentary respite as we caught our breath and gathered anticipation for the day of music that loomed before us. We opted then to first check out Elizabeth Cook, a Florida bred singer/songwriter whose casual country recalled Emmylou Harris in her formative years. Her three piece band, including another noted singer/songwriter, Tim Carroll, offered up an easy, breezy performance punctuated by Cook’s comments about her upbringing in nearby Wildwood and her parents in particular, who first became acquainted as honky-tonk musicians. Unfortunately, Cook’s mood quickly turned sour when a cable fuck-up silenced her guitar and necessitated repairs that took time out of her already abbreviated set.
“Hopefully next year they’ll be more together than this year,” she remarked with no small degree of ire. “You technical guys employed here, do you have a plan?” Happily for her, her repeated requests for more of the champagne she had consumed backstage didn’t go ignored, which ultimately seemed to assuage her.
The Flatlanders were much anticipated by yours truly, although attendance for their performance was surprisingly scant. A true Americana super group, the band – fronted by singer/songwriter/troubadours Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, each among Austin’s finest – was originally formed 40 years ago. The one album they originally recorded together became the stuff of legends, at least until five or so years ago when they reformed and began releasing a new series of collaborative efforts. Still, despite the sparse crowd and an abbreviated set much too compact to fully display their wares, the trio, their bassist and drummer demonstrated why reverence is duly deserved. The blend of Gilmore’s high lonesome vocals, Ely’s authoritative presence and Hancock’s ability to anchor it all emphatically made their set more of an event than most of the crowd likely realized. Selections from their own song stash and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” served as a sampling that merited much more.
Tough choices on a hectic afternoon
By midday it became evident that there would be limits to what we could accomplish. Some of our precious time went to a new young band from New Hampshire that called themselves Aunt Martha, an oddly named ensemble that didn’t have a single female, much less anyone who looked matronly enough to actually be an aunt. Heads down earnest and clearly possessed by a studious sensibility, they made imaginative music, enough so to invite future listens to a new online album entitled Norway.
I rejoined my wife Alisa in time to catch a brief portion of Michele Branch’s solo show and then just as quickly we turned our sights elsewhere. With the Doobie Brothers playing a stadium show, the desire to indulge in some oldies proved to be a temptation too great to resist. As it turned out, this venerable band can still rouse a crowd, and though only three members of their classic front line remain – singer/guitarist Tom Johnston, singer/guitarist Pat Simmons and the band’s multi-instrumental anchor John McFee – the band still renders well worn standards like “Takin’ It To the Streets,” “China Grove,” “Listen to the Music” and “Black Water” with their same trademark enthusiasm. A couple of new tunes from a forthcoming album seemed to fit in just fine, as did new bassist, John Cowan, a bluegrass veteran who had no trouble adapting to the Doobies’ rocky ways.
Afterwards, I rushed over to catch Justin Townes Earle, who dressed in work shirt and specs, resembled not so much his namesake – or his famous father either – but rather Sheldon from the show “Big Bang Theory” doing a turn as Woody Guthrie. Positioned between his two female accompanists, one on stand up bass, the other on fiddle, he offered assorted selections from his excellent album, Harlem River Blues, dedicating “Christ Church Woman” to the people affected by the earthquake that devastated the New Zealand city that contributed the title. In contrast to his father’s irascible reputation, Earle seemed exceptionally polite, addressing his audience as “ladies and gentleman” and tossing in the occasional self-deprecating comment to boot.
Nevertheless, Earle’s announcement that he was about to sing some blues made me think I probably ought to check out the real deal, Buddy Guy, who was performing one stage away. Alisa had gone there directly from the Doobies show and when I caught up with her, Guy was grousing about the fact that the stage manager had given him a five-minute warning to wrap up his set. At 75 years old, this venerable blues man is as feisty as ever, and an ending medley that incorporated riffs borrowed from Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” showed off both his variety and voracity. He added some flashy technique — picking the guitar strings with his teeth, playing it from behind his back and then rubbing it against his backside. While the gimmickry was obvious, his skill still showed.
Two superb showman and the ghost of Johnny Cash
Speaking of showmen, one of the afternoon’s most anticipated sessions presented itself in the form of Chris Isaak and his illustrious combo, mostly the same musicians who starred with him in his Showtime series. These guys had their moves down pat, from the matching gray suits that contrasted with Isaak’s dazzling red Nudie outfit and later, a suit all in mirrors, to their coordinated choreography, patented rock star poses and the good natured joshing they share among themselves. Isaak himself looks as if he hasn’t aged in 20 years, and his stage presence, cool croon and movie star looks make him an artist for the ages. Exceptional songs and infectious entertainment enhance their winning ways and chances are, if anyone in the audience wasn’t a devotee before the show started, they certainly were at its conclusion.
“Thank you for being open to adult language and nudity,” Isaak said early on, and although the prudish needn’t have worried, the anything goes attitude was obvious from the outset. Naturally, all the big hits were included – “Somebody’s Crying,” Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” and a handful of oldies from his new album, Beyond the Sun, a collection of covers of songs that influenced him early on. A steaming version of “Great Balls of Fire” had the crowd going wild, but his version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire” was especially incendiary.
By this point, Brandi Carlile’s solo set was well on its way to a conclusion once we arrived. Still, being steadfast fans, we were determined to catch whatever we could. We arrived in time to hear her do her own Cash covers via roughshod renditions of “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” As she left the stage, the crowd roared their approval and shouted for an encore, but true to Orlando Calling tradition – at least what we had seen on the side stages so far – a return to the stage was not to be. That, despite the fact that Carlile was the final performer of the day at that particular venue. The audience finally conceded the inevitable, much to everyone’s chagrin.
Clearly, my strategy for catching bits and pieces of music here and there was flawed to say the least. Although I determined that there would still be some time to see the final minutes of a conflicting set, in reality, the time it took to travel the distance, even to an adjoining stage, proved futile. Besides, after a full day of due diligence, our energy was sapped and our motivation along with it. Consequently, we scrubbed our plans to see Blake Shelton and Kid Rock in the stadium and took the easier course, to catch Dwight Yoakam.
Despite the fact that Isaak had been a hard act to follow, Yoakam and his band gave it their all and very nearly succeeded. Perhaps because they were pals and often trod through similar musical terrain, Yoakam took more than a few opportunities to send some good-natured zingers Isaak’s way. When the sound of the musical activity in the nearby stadium intruded on his set, Yoakam suggested it was Isaak trying to make trouble. And when they came out for one of the festival’s rare encores, he attributed that to Isaak as well. “Chris is making some trouble backstage,” he joked. “They asked us to come back out and kill some time.”
Still, if any rivalry was implied, Yoakam didn’t seem too concerned. He too looks exactly like he did in the ‘80s, still wearing his trademark cowboy hat perched low over his eyes, with his blue denim jacket, flashy boots and tight, tight jeans showing consistency to his signature style. (One has to wonder if he claims the patent for today’s new trendy skinny jeans.) His swivel hips and shifty legwork also reflect his trademark showbiz stance, as does a backing band intent on rocking from the get-go. Likewise, there was no shortage of hits, from covers of “Streets of Bakersfield,” “Little Sister” and “Act Naturally” to classics of his own like “1,000 Miles” and “Guitars, Cadillacs.” He also resurrected the ghost of Johnny Cash,”offering his own take on “Ring of Fire,” while varying the tempo so that it was almost unintelligible.
It was left then to Bob Seger, white-haired, a wee bit heavier, but no less enthused, to close out Day Two and with it, the festival itself. Looking like a good-natured rock ‘n; roll granddad and backed by a 13 man band that included faithful sidekick and saxophonist Alto Reed, a handful of original Silver Bullet Band veterans, Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer and a full four piece horn section, he ripped through such classic rockers as “”Fire Down Below” “Roll Me Away,’ “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and my personal favorite, “Hollywood Nights.” Bob’s voice may not be as powerful as it once was, but the songs are no less telling, and with the perspective of time, songs about the weariness of a road routine take on an autobiographical context. Likewise, the more poignant offerings – “We’ve Got Tonight” (perhaps the best fuck song ever conceived) and “Turn the Page” remain as resilient as ever. Seger’s superb show resonated with everyone there, proving indeed, to quote one of his song titles, Rock and Roll never – ever — forgets.
For its first time out, Orlando Calling ran remarkably smoothly. Likewise, the quality and diversity of their performers was as impressive as any fest that’s been up and running for a while. Still, next time, it would behoove them to stagger the performances more so that audiences can make the rounds and catch more music. And while they’re at it, they might consider extended the sets beyond a stingy 40 minutes. Otherwise, there’s ample reason to hope that Orlando Calling will beckon for many years to come.