As festival sizes retreat from the 100,000-person behemoths of the earlier parts of the decade, the small- to mid-sized, jam-friendly festival is to thriving once again. The newest entry into the canon is Austin, Texas’s Waterloo Festival, a three-day throwdown in the “liberal” confines of the 58-acre Carson Creek Ranch. The property is already well-known to trance fans and beer hounds alike via other festivals that call it home. The next bunch to fall in love with its pecan groves? Fans of the String Cheese Incident.
SCI have been a jam institution for over 20 years, but 2018 has been a banner year for them. After three top-line, multi-night festival billings in the past four months alone, they’re taking their place among the scene’s royalty. Next weekend, Waterloo will be their fourth in that span, but it enters its arena as an aspiring hometown advocate. It derives its name from the pre-colonial moniker — a favorite of many local Austin businesses — but it also honors the city’s music scene in proper fashion.
That’s a tall order, given Austin has a vice grip on its title as the live music capital of the world. What niche exists that Waterloo can fill in an already thriving market? The answer runs parallel to the spirit of any jam-centric festival: more guitars, more bars, and more guest stars. With that, other more pressing questions still remain.
What, exactly, is an Austin Groove Project?
One quarter of the festival’s inaugural lineup is dedicated to homegrown talent, spanning psychedelic rock, bluegrass, and deep soul. Then there’s Waterloo’s singular offering to that end. The debut of the Austin Groove Project is a who’s-who of Austin heavyweights with an as-of-yet undetermined agenda.
The (at least) seven-piece band is anchored by the guitar phenom Jackie Venson and Peterson Brothers, a powerhouse bass-guitar combo cast directly from the same mold that produced the Brothers Johnson. Rounding out the rhythm section will likely be keyboardist and producer Jon Keyz and D Madness, a blind one-man funk factory who sings on top of fusing drums, loops, and keys. Vocals will be handled by committee — Venson and Madness are both more than capable singers — but the stars here are the butter-voiced R&B songstress Alesia Lani and Austin’s reigning queen of soul, Tameca Jones.
Is there room for more than one Dead tribute band?
It’s almost unjust to categorize Joe Russo’s Almost Dead as simply a tribute act; that distinction might be better applied to his Led Zeppelin vehicle, Bustle in Your Hedgerow. Live, JRAD walks the same line that Jazz Is Dead once did, implying the songs themselves are in service for much more inscrutable ideas. As sub-headliners, JRAD have two hours to stretch out. While the Dead’s musical themes are (eventually) evident in each selection, the manner in which they arrive at it is thoroughly unpredictable.
In the other corner is Deadeye, an Austin product that plays the Dead in a much more straightforward manner (if such a thing even exists). Their Sunday afternoon opening slot on the main stage will be an ideal time for bleary-eyed Waterlooers to shake the cobwebs from the late-night campground jams. The festival itself recently pushed all of its sets earlier to accommodate its neighbors, but there’s always a silver lining.
Who gets to cover “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”?
Odds are that it won’t be a Dead cover that gets the most attention at Waterloo. The Talking Heads classic ballad is ubiquitous in the setlists of at least four acts on the lineup — String Cheese Incident, Perpetual Groove, Big Something, and to a slightly lesser extent, The Motet. But can you blame them? It’s a rare tune that at once elicits both chills up the spine and warm feelings in the gut.
The Motet’s last covers were years ago, but nonetheless offer the most spot-on, maybe the best, version of anyone. SCI have played it consistently on their current tour, not to mention it’s appeared every year since they first debuted it 18 years ago. It’s been a rarity at their festival appearances this year and that they have five hours to fill here as headliners, so why not? The ever-touring Perpetual Groove have kept it close for nearly as long, debuting it in 2003 and still closing out their shows with it as of this year. Their version does an especially good job pulling at the heart strings, thanks to Brock Butler’s honeyed tone.
P-Groove, along with the Burlington, N.C. powerhouse Big Something (who’s own festival, The Big WHAT?, is really something else) have released actual official versions, with the latter having a second in another life as a band called Invisible. If you want a dark horse, look for Butler to join Big Something for it, which he’s been known to do. So who will win the Talking Heads cover lottery? Waterloo attendees, naturally.