[Ed. note: At the time, this review was not posted, hoping to find photographs. Alas, there were none. The ones used here are from other festivals and previous ZenFests. The 2018 edition takes place February 16-18 — this weekend.]
For the seventh time, ZenFest graced the little Plant City haven known as All World Acres for three days of great music in a very low-key environment (February 17-19, 2017). Music ranged from open-mike fun to simply superb, with a healthy dose of the latter.
Once again, organizer Alley Menendez put together a warm, engaging program of music. It began Friday evening as Christina Ungstad and x, performing as US, opened with a nice set, including “Sober,” “Scooby-Dooby-Doo-Bop” and “You Don’t Have to Love Me.” As you might imagine, their closing tune, “Smoke Marijuana,” was very well received.
Ungstad then MCed the open mike portion of the evening. There was a young girl who sang several songs, accompanying herself on piano. Ethan Coy had a very nice set of tunes, also singing and playing piano. “Great Spirit” reminded us of Nahko. A husband-and-wife duo offered two songs, the second a nice rendition of “Hallelujah.”
David Tam, who also performed Saturday, played a wonderful long piece on wood flute. Brian Brown, impressive at last year’s open mike, repeated with a great set on acoustic guitar. Then John Carlos sang two songs karaoke-style; his gorgeous voice resounded throughout the property.
Ashley read us a poem she had written, followed by a young man whose voice was reminiscent of Ray Davies. His second song, sadly, was “I’m Really Drunk Right Now.” Chris Sgammato righted the ship with “She’s Mine,” a nice tune he explained was written by talented artist Brett Denner, and then a lovely acoustic version of “Friction,” a song from his band Displace’s second album, Undertow.
Music began right after lunch with Aaron Field, a singer-songwriter, accompanying himself on guitar. Then Kayla Korpics performed on piano, joined by Taylor Rednor on guitar and a drummer. They played some original tunes, including a piece she wrote when younger with a thought toward “Suicide,” and some covers, notably Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
After two relatively quiet sets, things amped up quickly as The Vivid Moxie hit the stage. They started funky and got funkier as they went along. We loved the third song title, “Complicated String Theory,” and the song as well. In addition to a ton of funk, they entered thrash-punk territory with “Annie at the Disco,” Eric Layana deep in the pocket on drums.
David Tam was back with a fascinating set of music. He began with Japanese harp, played with a bow. It was an exotic, ethereal sound emanating from the stage. Then he played the harp with… eye bolts! Very cool. Tam next switched to a small wooden Japanese flute for several beautiful airs.
What followed were a half dozen great sets of music, several of them truly as good as it gets. Row Jomah was the first of the six; they were filling in on very short notice. So naturally they played an incredible set for us. It began with “Tell Me” and “New Gruv.” As usual, guitarist Mel Walsh was on fire. And speaking of that, “Fire and Ice” was next, preceding their great cover of “Once In A Lifetime,” which leader Joe Roma kills on vocals. The band played a great “yet-to-be-named” new song, and they ended with “Outhouse,” a great track from Cat People! that lets everyone in the band shine. If you want to see an example of a band running like a fine-tuned machine, look no further than Clearwater.
Orlando’s Tears of a Tyrant were back after last year’s great showing. Danielle Dart is a powerhouse vocalist fronting a power trio, and they are really solid. Early in the set, they played a nice medley of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band > With a Little Help from My Friends.” Next up was a blistering rocker, and Dart sounded like Ian Astbury of The Cult. WOW. They knocked out a respectable “Godzilla” before absolutely killing on The Scorpions’ “No One Like You,” Dart this time in full Klaus Meine mode.
Next up were Somatic (Tampa), featuring Bam Forza on vocals and Nook Nguyen as hip hop artist. They opened with a great song featuring tremendous guitar work from Max Kipnis. The Meters were covered with “Hey Pocky A-Way” before “Gonna Break Me Down.” At some point, Kipnis switched axes with bassist Billy Bassett, and they closed with “Shakedown Street.” Forza and Nook both sounded fine once their mike levels were adjusted.
The last three sets were truly magical — in my parlance, as good as it gets. The Reality were first to tee off. This trio, now expanded to a quartet, are on fire, working at preparing their sophomore album Car Trouble for release in the near future. They opened and closed with songs from their first album, Rhetoric, but everything else was new.
Dan Jones is so engaging as a frontman, singer, guitarist and trombone player, and his vocals on “All My Time,” with its stutter step style, always delights. Then the newer material came popping up: “Do It for Yourself,” “Play with Me” and the anthemic “Pineapple Salsa.” Caleb Bone sings harmony or unison on many of the songs and plays a wicked space bass as well, with B.A. Jones pushing the pace on drum kit.
And the band’s newest addition, Kyle Sareyani, gives The Reality a great new dimension with his keyboards and flute. Funk, jazz, rock, blues — they’ve got it. The set closed with “Dancin’ in D,” fully stretched out and jammed up. (The band followed set up with an equally tremendous one the next Thursday at The Ringside.)
Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish, another Zenfest mainstay, had the next slot. This band plays the deepest, nastiest blues. The soundcheck, “Blues in A Minor,” was smokin’ hot. The official set opened with “River of Soul,” with young guitar slinger George Pennington III and bassist Chris Brown both superb. Then it was time for the band’s magnum opus, also known as the Chris Brown song, about some escapades in New Orleans, titled “Molly’s Door.” Thee Eloquent Barbarian tinkled the ivories just right, and Bob Feckner’s flugelhorn was sweet.
Every song dripped with Youngblood’s magnificent baritone voice, none more than the closing “Devil Smells Like Bourbon,” which somehow worked its way into “Ace of Spades” and back out again.
And then the ultimate slot went to the band which has played every Zenfest: shoeless soul. Rene Schlegel and crew offered up some great originals, starting with “Happiness” and “Time” and a flaming “Bubble Song.” Schegel and drummer Dave Gerulat sing so well together in harmony. “No Dignity” seemed to include “No Diggity” and some excellent guitar work from Schlegel.
“Paving the Way” hit a Latin vibe, then a Caribbean lilt as it moved into “Smile.” Mike Ratza accented the great lyrics of “Obviously Oblivious” with his tenor sax. It was a perfect end to the evening.
Josh We Know opened a very low-key Sunday with his beautiful voice, guitar, and Stompy, his stomp box. A talented actor, he opened with “The Rainbow Connection” in Kermit’s voice to great delight. He played originals, pop tunes, a Dave Matthews tune, and “You Understand.” There was a medley that improbably but wonderfully included “Stand By Me,” “Drive” (Incubus), “Wonderwall,” and some great acoustic guitar playing. He closed with “What Can I Say Right Now” and “Say It Ain’t So.”
Next we got an entire set by Thee Eloquent Barbarian, or Al, whom we’d seen with Troy Youngblood and the Soulfish. His entire presentation is so entertaining, from his incredible voice (think Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock) and harmonica playing to his tilted-forward keyboard and drier-than-dry lyrics. He introduced each tune saying, “I call this, ‘The General was a Pacifist’.” Yes, that was the first tune.
Included in the set were gems such as “If I Were a Fish,” “Chess on the Internet,” “Broken Glass on the Street (Compared to Your Eyes When We Meet),” and, finally, “The Ice Cream Truck Song:” “I’ll buy an old truck, Paint clowns on it, and sell ice cream.”
Introvert was up next with his mix of rap, poetry and hip hop. He does seem like a shy type, but on stage he is fearless.
Before I had to leave for my radio show, I caught part of American Song Box, a fine American quintet working out of Tampa featuring Todd Murphy on guitar and vocals. Check them out when you get the chance.
ZenFest is the only music festival that is presented at All World Acres, and it’s a real beauty just off the beaten path. I’m hooked.