The Wildflower Festival in Richardson is one of the biggest music festivals in North Texas. It’s a big, sprawling three day event that usually features a fairly diverse lineup that’s maybe a little heavy on the classic rock.
This year’s headliners were Kool & the Gang, Jackopierce, Hoobastank, Rick Springfield, Edgar Winter Band, Tonic, Night Ranger, Kansas, The Toadies, The Wailers and Robert Randolph & The Family Band. That’s on the big stages; there’s also plenty of country, folk and other various acoustic singer songwriters going non-stop on the smaller stages.
And tribute bands, lots of tribute bands.
For instance, you had Swan Song (Led Zeppelin) Badfish (Sublime) Le Freak (disco- 80s rock) The Spazmatics (80s new wave) Bebe Le Strange (Heart) Eight Arms To Hold You (The Beatles) Spectors Gun Collection (Allman Bros) and Kraig Parker (Elvis).
So you had your choice of folk, funk and fakes with some alternative and a few classic rock nostalgia re-groups thrown in for good measure.
This year’s festival kicked off with Friday night’s program of Ellis Paul, Pierce Pettis and David Wilcox on the singer songwriter stage in the Eisemann Performing Arts Center. That’s a small theater with comfortable seating and near perfect acoustics. That sounded pretty good but we showed up Friday with one thing in mind and one thing only… Kool & the Gang.
The big concert area was pretty well packed when the sun went down and they hit the stage. It was uncomfortably warm and humid but that didn’t stop anybody from getting up and getting down. People were getting down all over the place. They played a set that was equal parts old school soul and straight up funk and the crowd loved it. Anyone who thought this was going to be a disco show would have been wrong. It was a lot more than mere disco.
The Spazmatics from Austin had the acoustic tent completely packed when we went by. They were pretty gimmicky but there was the truly awesome moment when they played "Jesse’s Girl" while Rick Springfield was playing on the big stage next door. We were having camera problems so we decided to take a pass on Jackopierce and Hoobastank and made plans to get there early on Saturday…
Saturday is the biggest day of the fest with shows starting early and going til midnight. Damned if it didn’t rain all morning so we got a late start and arrived in time to hear Edgar Winter playing “Frankenstein” from the parking lot. I’d seen him decades ago during the peak of his popularity and wasn’t all that impressed back then. Still, it was part of the package so I was hoping to see how he’s aged in the thirty years since. These days he’s playing with an entirely new band and he mixed up the set with some of his rootsier early stuff along with the more pop oriented hits like “Free Ride.” He was way better than I would have expected given my previous experience.
The morning rains had cooled things down for Saturday evening and left a lot of mud on the field in front of the big stage but not nearly as much as you’d think. It’s a testament to whatever commercial grade landscaping turf they use that there was any grass at all. After Edgar Winter’s set we set out for a beer run and to take in the ambience. We managed to catch some of Tonic’s set on the other stage but not enough to form any kind of opinion.
Next up on the big stage was 80s mainstream rock band Night Ranger. I was never anywhere close to being a fan but somehow managed to find myself holding down the base camp through their entire show. Spinal Tap has nothing on these guys when it comes to rock clichés.
Saturday’s big stage headliner was Kansas, another band I had seen decades ago. I’ve always thought the best thing about them was their album covers but they sounded pretty good- what little of their set I caught. I’m not sure who was and who wasn’t part of the original lineup because they’ve changed personnel so many times and it’s been so long since they’ve done anything notable that it’s kind of hard to keep track. Despite all that, they attracted quite a crowd, probably the biggest of the weekend.
I was hoping to at least hear "Point of Know Return" before cutting out but they must have been saving that one for the run of big hits later in the set.
About twenty minutes into Kansas show it was time to hike across the grounds for the real event that night, The Toadies. They’re back together with a new cd coming out. Previously I’d only seen The Toadies in a medium sized club where they could work a packed room into a lather. Turns out they can do the same thing on a big outdoor stage. The body press at the front of the crowd was so intense that in between songs Todd Lewis had to keep asking people to take a few steps back. I think the barricades nearly came down a time or two.
In a festival mostly featuring lots of re-formed bands with lots of substitute players, The Toadies are still composed of Todd Lewis, Clark Vogeler and Marc Reznicek with new bass player Doni Blair. Although former bassist Lisa Umbarger was certainly a force to be reckoned with, their sound hasn’t really lost much with Blair filling in. They still crank out loud, angry, guitar driven rock and draw a huge enthusiastic crowd a full decade after they first called it quits. For a while there Saturday night, it was like they never went away.
Most of the mud had dried up by Sunday afternoon when we got to the big stage to see The Wailers. It was a perfect day really, temps in the low seventies and clear sunny skies, a small but respectable crowd and plenty of positive vibrations to go around.
Of all the re-united bands this one was the most suspect. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh have gone on to the big Island in the sky and Bunny Wailer is retired , so who’s left that can actually call themselves the Wailers?
Anton "Family Man" Barrett, that’s who. He played bass on every Bob Marley record you can think of. And he still has it going on.
He’s put together a pretty impressive band with a guy named Elan Atius on vocals. I can only imagine being the new replacement vocalist in the Wailers is kind of like being the new replacement vocalist for The Rolling Stones. Those are some pretty damn big shoes to try and fit into. Not only that but they were playing the classic album "Exodus" in it’s entirety. He did a fully credible job as he bounced around the stage and even sounded a little like the late great man himself. He certainly embodied Marley’s spirit of peace, love and unity. Of course this being a tightly controlled setting with lots of security and police, I didn’t see anyone firing up a spliff.
By the time they got to "One Love" the light crowd was in full groove mode. Spliffs or no, with the awesome weather and awesome music it would have been impossible to feel bad about anything at that point. It was a truly beautiful thing.
They closed their show with a couple more classics, including a great version of "Lively Up Yourself."
Robert Randolph And The Family Band
The last big show of the weekend was the one I was most looking forward to. Robert Randolph is a pedal steel guitar phenomenon. He comes from a gospel music background called "sacred steel," which is basically hyper gospel music hopped up on speed, played on a pedal steel. Or rather, several pedal steels.
The Family Band’s sound is a mix of soul, funk, gospel and blues with a nod to country here and there. It’s a great big sound and the band members play off each other beautifully. His sister Lanesha trades off with Robert on some big vocals but the majority of the set is instrumental. For the most part Robert wails (and I do mean wails) on the pedal steel but straps on a fender at various points as well. It’s an attention grabbing, high energy performance that you just have to see and hear to believe. If you ever wanted to see someone channel Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix through an instrument best known for vintage country weepers or Hawaiian music, then go see this guy the next chance you get.
All in all it was a great weekend of music that came off sounding a lot better than it looked on paper. A chance to see some guilty pleasures of the past and turn on to some (relatively) new stuff as well.
And to think, just a couple weeks ago it looked like the whole country might be outlawing large public gatherings for health reasons. Whew!