Words // Scott Pingeton
Over the past two years the Nor'easter Festival presented by Eastern Mountain Sports has become one of my must-see annual events, and the end-cap to summer music festival season in New England. The festival, which was held at Burlington VT's Waterfront Park this year, caters to outdoor sports and music fanatics alike. A mashup of rock climbing, cycling and music from Okkervil River, G. Love and Special Sauce, Rivery City Extension, Aunt Martha, Kingsley Flood and more, all set along the picturesque banks of Lake Champlaign - well, there really isn't a better way to spend a fall weekend. I could only make it for the first half of the festival this year and as painful as it was to forego Okkervil River, Aunt Martha, Tan Vampires and The Toughcats - day 1 provided more than enough highlights to make it worth the drive.
I arrived early Saturday morning after a nearly 4-hour drive from Boston to hear Kingsley Flood soundchecking in the misty rain. The band went on to play a trademark energetic set to a handful of early-birds - clearly un-phased by either the sparse crowd or grey drizzle. The set featured favorites from Dust Windows as well as tracks off their upcoming EP set for December release. River City Extension were up next, blending punk-spirit, mariachi horns and folk earnestness into folk-rock anthems. On paper it may seem incongruous that the band played both the Warped Tour and Newport Folk in the past year - but after seeing them live it somehow all makes sense. As I saw the lead singer of each band head-bobbing to the other I thought what a great double-bill Kingsley Flood and River City Extension would make...
As the sun finally broke through the clouds, Providence's Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons took the stage. White Lighter was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it was great to hear the songs echoing across the Burlington waterfront. Songs of gritty desperation, pain and loss aren't normally what you think of as lighthearted festival fare - but Fletcher & co. sounded great as mandolin and fiddle echoed down the Burlington waterfront. It was somewhat surreal to see Kingsley Flood and Joe Fletcher - two of the local bands I would put my chips behind to break out of the New England scene - on a big festival stage. Nevermind the fact that they were playing to a mostly-empty field, it seemed like just a preview of things to come.
Truth be told, those were the three bands I made the drive for. Mariachi El Bronx surprised me though. As the G. Love crowd slowly filled in, the punk-cum-Mariachi band was starting to heat things up. I couldn't help but scratch my head as the very much non-Mexican lead singer (think younger Frank Black or Herc from The Wire) led the band through what sounded to these un-trained ears like note-perfect traditional Mariachi. Kids were dancing, heads were bobbing - this was my surprise of the weekend. Closing out the night was G. Love and Special Sauce. I have to admit that I've never been a huge fan, but the band's most recent Avett-produced effort Fixin' To Die has piqued my interest. Seeing him live I found a new appreciation for the R&B / funk-influenced sound. Set opener "Milk & Sugar", an ode to the magical powers of coffee, is the kind of mantra I can get behind.
And while music was the draw for me, the main attraction is without question The North Face Open - a United Bouldering Championship event that draws hundreds of climbing enthusiasts. For those that have no idea what "bouldering" is, it basically turns rock climbing into a competitive sport - as climbers must complete problems (as in, get to the top of a big-ass wall) as a five-minute clock ticks down. Some of the nuances of the sport may be lost on me, but after two years at Nor'easter I have to call myself a fan - it's really a jawdropping, holy-shit-did-you-see-that?! display of athleticism and skill.
But that brings me to my only complaint about Nor'easter: it has the potential to be a great music festival, if the music aspect of the festival was better-marketed. The pieces are all in place, but last year and again this year, no one is there for the music. If Kingsley Flood and River City Extension are playing to food vendors, and G. Love is playing a few hundred people - an opportunity is being missed. Until then, this festival will remain a sort-of secret hidden gem, but either way I know I'll be returning year-after-year.