A Dance to Rival All Dances: SummerDance VI in Review
The sun was just beginning to set when we came upon the entrance sign. The day was finally here – we had returned to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park for the SummerDance Music Festival. We hadn’t been here since August of 2011, the last time Lotus headlined the festival. For the first four years of the festival’s existence, Lotus had played as its headliner. Unfortunately, in 2012 SummerDance went forward without Lotus, leaving fans dreaming of the day the band would come back, if ever.
However, fans wouldn’t have to wait as long as they feared. And Lotus’ somewhat unexpected return over Labor Day weekend in 2013 was nothing less than triumphant.
Nelson Ledges makes for an incredibly unique festival experience. The campgrounds are nestled in a forest, which provides campsites with shade from the sun. The campsites sit along ledges overlooking a quarry which filled with water after miners digging in the quarry hit the water basin below. Festival attendees frequently can be seen jumping from the cliffs into the quarry lake, hanging out on the beach, swimming out to the lake’s small island, and floating on rafts, all while being within earshot of the music. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can explore the caves a half a mile from the entrance to the festival grounds. Even if there were no music, you’d never run out of activities to keep you busy at the Ledges – it’s a veritable retreat into nature.
Of course, most of us were there that weekend for the music. Lotus bassist/sampler player Jesse Miller wasn’t kidding when he told Sensible Reason in an interview at the Peach Music Festival that the band had some surprises in store for fans (you can read that interview here). But before getting into just how special Lotus’ performances at the Ledges were this year, a number of the other acts that performed over the weekend deserve mention. We’ll take it day-by-day.
Friday’s music began with an unannounced sound check/mini-set during the day by Lotus. The band played through three songs in their entirety, sounding tight and ready to roll for the performances ahead. Those of us who discovered what was going down danced in the sand . All indicators signaled two epic nights of music.
Nunchuck, the electronic side project of Lotus percussionist Chuck Morris, took the stage to play the first official set of music of the festival. Chuck switches it up a little with this project and plays on a drum kit instead of his standard percussion setup, with Anthony Fugate on percussion. The ambient and spacey electronic melodies, tribal beats, and haunting vocal samples got your feet moving while creating a peaceful rhythm in the soul. And Fugate has quite the sexy singing voice, which he showed off in a funky little number that may have been my favorite song of the set.
Lotus bassist/sampler player Jesse Miller took the stage next with his electronic solo project Beard-o-Bees. The set began and ended with a distinctly industrial feel, similar to the instrumentals of old ‘90s Nine Inch Nails. He then went in a more ambient direction, working in a bit of play time on the melodica. Jesse also broke out his bass, and with it came a little disco with a dark side. Despite a brief moment of technical difficulty with his computer, he absolutely nailed his set, flowing back and forth between divergent musical sounds without a hiccup.
Future Rock was up next warming up the stage for Lotus that evening. They put on a fun electro-rock set that got the crowd ready for the first of two Lotus dance-fests with their dancey beats and intricate synth. Their performance was nothing less than an intergalactic dance party – when I closed my eyes I could almost see the shimmering galaxies weightlessly floating to the beat of the music against the dark abyss of space.
Saturday began with a much-needed reinvigoration in the form of a yoga session set against the meditative electronic musical creations of Lotus lead guitarist Mike Rempel. I had waited many months to hear Rempel perform some of his solo music live, and finally experiencing it was one of the highlights of my weekend. His beautiful guitar jams expertly layered over ambient, nature-saturated electronic soundscapes was the perfect backdrop for finding inner peace, whether you were doing yoga alongside instructor Devon Sweeney or lying in the grass with your eyes closed. After a long day and night of nonstop dancing on Friday, Rempel’s solo project was the perfect wakeup.
Then we got right back into dance-mode with a summery indie-funk disco fest put on by Luke the Knife, DJ nickname of Lotus guitarist and keys player Luke Miller. All he had to do was play his remix of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and I was ready to go for the rest of the day. There’s something about an LtK disco party that screams late night, but Luke created a set that perfectly fit the vibes of that sun-filled day by the Quarry’s lake.
Grimace Federation, Zoogma, and Orchard Lounge all performed prior to Lotus’ set that night. Grimace Federation, brought some space rock with a mellow energy that could have been the soundtrack for a beach adventure video game. Zoogma kept their set very melodic, with progressive instrumentals and a psychedelic vibe, and kicked the energy up a notch with some heavy hip-hop-infused rock featuring special guest Mr. Phantasm, a rapper out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And despite the temporary absence of their third member Ben Silver, Orchard Lounge came out with a killer set featuring down-tempo, house, and nu-disco selections, some infused with tropical instrumentals and hints of reggae. So many of the acts at this festival expertly tailored their sets to the venue and environment, and Orchard Lounge was a prime example.
For the first time ever, Nelson Ledges added a third day of music to the SummerDance schedule. Most of us would have loved to see Lotus on stage again, but the bands that performed Sunday kept those who remained at the Ledges entertained.
Broccoli Samurai, a fun and jammy instrumental group, covered Lotus’ “Spiritualize,” keeping the headliner’s presence felt even though they had left the Ledges for their performance that night at Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival. On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, the Manhattan Project satisfied the musical desires of those looking for a more electronic sound, but they tossed old-school lovers of rock-and-roll a bone as well with a cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.” And despite a relatively significant rainstorm that resulted in the cancellation of some music, the festival ended with a bang with a performance by One More Time, a Daft Punk tribute band. One More Time recreated the stage setup from Daft Punk’s “Alive 2007” Tour, and mimicked the French electronic duo right down to their suits and helmets. The set featured tweaked versions of classics like “Around the World” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” as well as tracks off the new album, including “Get Lucky.” Daft Punk fans could be seen throughout the crowd dancing, singing, and taking in the engaging light show. Although numerous people indicated their desire to see Lotus unexpectedly appear on stage that night, the Daft Punk tribute set was a noteworthy end to a wonderful weekend.
Lotus’ Two-Night Stand at SummerDance:
Days filled with performances by the band’s friends and side projects helped make this festival a particularly special Lotus-dedicated SummerDance. Yet in essence they were all appetizers for the musical main course. Surely, Lotus taking the stage was the focus of this gathering – the band’s return to the Ledges brought fans from across the nation to SummerDance, every one of them itching to hear Lotus perform surrounded by the beauty of the Quarry Park. The music is, without a doubt, central. But the thing about the Lotus experience is that it is so much more than simply live music. SummerDance was the perfect representation of that fact.
I come from a family of musicians and music lovers. Live music – both listening to it and playing it – has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, so I’m definitely no stranger to the love affair that many have with their favorite bands. Yet, despite the fact that my family and closest friends understand what it is to love a band, they have a hard time understanding why I love Lotus quite as much as I do. The debate is particularly pointed with my brother, a fanatical Phish enthusiast.
Don’t get me wrong, I will be a Phish fan until the day I die. Of all of the bands that have formed in my lifetime, I think it is safe to say that Phish has led the way in producing some of the most impressive live music of our generation, and has broken boundaries countless times when it comes to laying down devastatingly delicious extended improvisation incorporating a wide variety of music genres. But Lotus has more than proven that they can hold their own when it comes to the art of improvisation and defying the boundaries of genre. And, more importantly, Lotus gives its fans something that no other band offers – a deep connection with the band and its members.
Frontmen of bands across all genres regularly announce their appreciation of their fans to their audiences. But I have yet to encounter any band that goes quite as far as Lotus does to show fans just how much their fans mean to them. Throughout the weekend, you could find Luke, Jesse, Rempel, Chuck, drummer Mike Greenfield, Stage/Production Manager Padge McQuillan, and other behind-the-scene members of the Lotus team spending time with fans – hanging out and chatting, partying late night at fans’ campsites, swimming in the lake, enjoying a giant communal “Lotus Family” meal before the start of Friday’s music, and even cliff jumping. The members of this band go out of their way to connect with those who love their music, and it gives fans the feeling that they are more than mere passive observers. For many fans, these musicians and the people who help make their music happen are considered friends.
And when it comes to satisfying fan requests – no other band does it like Lotus. The two days of music were replete with instances of the band granting fans their greatest wishes. Lotus regularly fields requests to play one song or another, but over the past couple years some of the band’s most dedicated fans have been begging for the return of two songs in particular that haven’t made their way into a live performance since 2010. One of these songs, “One Last Hurrah,” appeared on the band’s 2008 album Hammerstrike, and the other, “When H Binds to O,” appeared on their 2007 album Escaping Sargasso Sea. Jess S., a dear friend from upstate New York who now lives in Colorado, made the long trip to see Lotus at SummerDance, and she more than anyone wished for nothing more than to finally hear “When H Binds to O” live. It had gotten to the point that when she made yet another request for it on Facebook in the weeks leading up to SummerDance, fan after fan (myself included) joined in on the request, begging Lotus to “give this girl her song!” Many of us have become close friends, but it still blows my mind to see such love between fans separated by such great distances. And to get to see that ear-to-ear, blissed out smile that appeared on Jess’ face when the first notes of the song came out of those speakers? That was a moment I will never forget.
Another close friend, Abby F., had been gunning for a “One Last Hurrah.” Abby has been catching Lotus since early 2006, and has seen these guys play well over one hundred and fifty times – she’s one of those people who could be characterized as difficult to blow away. But she hadn’t heard “One Last Hurrah” in quite a long time, and, as she so often told me, all she wanted at SummerDance was to hear that song and feel the Frisbees whizzing by her head (she swears up and down that the percussion parts in the song sound like flying Frisbees – check it out and I think you might agree). She wasn’t alone. “One Last Hurrah” has recently seen a great wave of requests. Luckily, as Lotus has shown its fans repeatedly, ask and you shall receive. Abby got her Frisbees during the second set on Friday night, and I wish I had been with her to see her reaction. Luckily, she was all smiles the rest of the weekend about it, so I got a taste of just how satisfied that moment left her.
So what? You might say. Every band gets song requests, and sometimes bands throw their fans a bone. Okay, we’ll pretend for a second that Lotus didn’t go out of their way to cater to fans’ song requests. But Lotus fans have a tendency to make some pretty wild requests outside of the music, and one particular request leading up to SummerDance comes to mind. About a month or so before the festival, long-time Lotus fan Mike H. created a petition on Facebook, imploring Chuck to leave his percussion setup during one of the sets and stage dive into the crowd. Immediately, fans chimed in begging Chuck to go along with the request, promising that they would be there to catch him. Chuck joked about the injuries that would likely result. He didn’t seem too excited about the idea – I am not sure any of us thought there was even the slightest chance that he would go along with it. So when he came out from behind his percussion setup during the second set, jaws dropped. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people screaming at once. And Chuck surfed that crowd like a pro. The experience was awe-inspiring.
Beyond the specific requests satisfied by Lotus that weekend, the set lists overall seemed tailored to long-time fans. The band broke out a number of old school jams and rarely played tracks including “Sift,” “Caywood,” “L’immeuble,” “Arupa,” “Slow Cookin,” “Alkaline,” and “Modicum.” A personal favorite came at the beginning of their very first set of music, when they opened Friday night’s show with “Lucid Awakening.” The song’s combination of stunning instrumentals and peaceful sounds of nature often fills me with a sense of spiritual renewal and vitality. The jam during the second half of the song (around 7 minutes) brought a level of intensity from all members that had my spine tingling. The entrancing echoing of Chuck’s rapid bongo-playing, the powerful clashing of Greenfield’s cymbals, Jesse’s steady and deep bass lines, the methodical use of guitar distortion by Luke, and of course Rempel’s delectably dark guitar solo simply transported me to another world. To begin the two days of music with such a symbol of rebirth was only made more significant when the band closed out their performances with a nod to a classic. The band paid tribute to the roots of funk with a cover of the Commodores’ “Machine Gun,” which made its way into their sets numerous times over the weekend. They even brought out drummer Rob Chafin of the Werks to play alongside Chuck on his percussion setup during “Wax,” resulting in one of the most beat-driven, percussion-filled versions of the song I have yet to hear.
The music the band played over the weekend, both the selections and the order in which they played them, was a melodic representation of the essence of Lotus – they are a blend of classic and contemporary, aware of both old and new fans, and they have no fear when it comes to challenging the norm and breaking through boundaries. From a strictly technical perspective, it may be true that Lotus has played better shows, but the level at which the band connected with their fans through the set lists (as well as in-person outside of the music) made their performances exceptional all the same. SummerDance VI was the rebirth of a wonderful tradition. It was both a return to origins and a leap into uncharted territory. But most of all, it was a reunion of individuals who have been connected through and with their music in a manner unparalleled in the live music scene. Lotus has created something very special with its music, something that goes so much deeper than the notes they play and the lights they display. This band has given, and continues to give, fans so much more. The relationships they have created, between fan and band member as well as fan and fellow fan, have taken the musical experience to a whole other level. And in a place like Nelson Ledges, the only possible result is absolute magic.
with photography by Eric Madar