Fans get what they need at Hangtown Music Festival

Tahoe Onstage

Oliver Wood and Jano Rix with The Hangtown Allstars in Placerville onstage.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

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You can’t always get what you want. Bassist Chris Wood’s emergency surgery earlier in the month, of which he is making a healthy recovery, robbed the Hangtown Music Festival of a proper Medeski, Martin & Wood show to celebrate the band’s 25th year anniversary. Disappointing for sure, but in his absence we may have gotten something we all needed with Medeski, Martin & Mad Skillet. We needed to see the improvisational masters truly improvise.

Tahoe OnstageKeyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin were joined by Dirty Dozen Brass Band tuba player Kirk Joseph and guitarist Will Bernard, who added a different sonic dimension from which the crowd could experience what Medeski and Martin can do.

Joseph was especially chameleon-like in his use of the tuba within the configuration, using effects to soak into many of the set’s different vibes. At times he was a steady, jazz bassist with his pumps of the lungs; other times he was pulsing out rhythms that brought the band into bluesy, house music territory. Watching Martin skip off of Medeski’s organ like a stone over a glass pond was to see two kids catching up on lost adventures after moving away from each other.

For those whose first time it was seeing the two play together, it was a real-time history lesson. For those who’d seen them before, it was another glimpse of living legends doing their thing.

Oliver Wood and Jano Rix with The Hangtown Allstars
“Hi Chris!” shouted a packed El Dorado Stage Saturday afternoon into the cell phone of guitarist Oliver Wood, brother of the same mother to bassist Chris Wood. Oliver then shot a goofy face into the camera and sent it off into the ether for Chris to enjoy.

Chris’ recovery led him to miss the Saturday showcase, but Oliver’s set with percussion maestro Jano Rix, Ric Robertson on bass and a bevy of Hangtown Allstars served as the perfect Get Well Soon card. Oliver and Rix did what they do best, deliver emotionally resonant music with heart and gusto through a filter of blues, country, folk and R&B. They just did it with a couple more friends.

Hangtown MC and musical gypsy Joe Craven let loose a beat-box meets Daffy Duck meets jawbone intro that flowed into a tranquil, wind-in-the-willows version of “I Got Loaded.” Oliver led the whole crowd in a “Luckiest Man” singalong before inviting Horseshoes and Hand Grenades harmonica player David Lynch, Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling and Andrew Altman and Infamous Stringdusters Dobro hitman Andy Hall for a celebratory send-off jam. Chris Wood was missed, but in his absence was a festival celebrating life and music all in his honor.

Tahoe Onstage's Garrett Bethman and Ben Morrison of Brothers Comatose in character at Hangtown.

Tahoe Onstage’s Garrett Bethman and Ben Morrison of Brothers Comatose in character at Hangtown.

The Brothers Comatose
Just by walking out as the world’s best dressed hair metal cover band, Bay Area’s The Brothers Comatose won Hangtown.

The bluegrass band’s members looked better than anyone else and had more fun than anyone else (Whiskey Shivers finished a close second in both categories). Lead singer Ben Morrison even played shirtless for a good portion of the set after encouraged by a chanting crowd and chided by fiddler Philip Brezina that he wouldn’t continue until his chest was bare. Later requests for “more banjo, less pants” were not honored, but The Brothers Comatose gave the crowd what they wanted.

It just felt good watching the band run through fan favorites (“The Van Song,” “Pie For Breakfast”), comical covers (Europe’s “The Final Countdown” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”), and cuts from its excellent, latest album “City Painted Gold” (“Tops Of The Trees,” “Knoxville Foxhole”). The members put together a great set that was fun, enriching and carefree, everything you would want from artists at Hangtown.

The band likely found a new appreciation for what it took for the men of hair metal to take the stage in spandex and leather in the 1980s, but everyone at the show Sunday definitely had a new appreciation for what The Brothers Comatose bring to the stage.

Editor’s note: Tahoe Onstage photographer Larry Sabo and writer Garrett Bethmann captured the essence of the sixth-annual Hangtown Music Festival. They’ve distilled the four-day autumn celebration (2016 edition) into a series of articles and photo essays. Stay tuned this week for their reports.

Related stories:
Hangtown Part 1: Gene Evaro Jr. grows from Joshua Tree. LINK
Hangtown Part 2: Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Whiskey Shivers. LINK
Photos: Happy campers in Hangtown. LINK

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About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. An eight-year resident of Lake Tahoe, he now lives in Denver, Colorado.

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