In dark times, it’s good to be positive: O+ Festival in Kingston

(Left) Jia Sung’s mural-in-progress at Redwood restaurant on North Front Street in Uptown Kingston; (right) Justin Suarez of Rochester painting his mural on The Anchor in Kingston at 744 Broadway. The seventh annual O+ Festival, “Bartering the Art of Medicine for the Medicine for the Arts,” will be held Friday through Sunday, October 6 to 8. The nonprofit festival enhances community well-being by connecting musicians, artists, volunteers, local businesses and health providers in a three-day celebration of art and wellness. The event includes more than 60 live bands, visual and performing arts, classes in yoga and dance, meditation, cycling events, a Literary SALO+N, film screenings, a dance party and more. For more information, visit www.opositivefestival.org/O+. (photos by Will Dendis)

Kingston’s O+ Festival can be described and analyzed in so many ways: as the proof of concept of a novel, barter-based model of healthcare and art that has already, in its eight years of existence, withstood numerous major changes in the healthcare landscape; as the flagship event of the new, hip and arty Kingston – a Kingston that those us from around here would have had a hard time imagining without a chuckle 15 or 20 years ago; as a kind of street conference on the interrelated subjects of health, community and creativity; as a spontaneous urban redesign, many of the artifacts of which stand year-round; and finally, as a prestigious music festival.

I remember when I first saw the O+ music curation, once ardently, forbiddingly hip, begin to yield a bit – just a bit – to the prevailing currents of the local. Initially, it seemed a concession for a Festival founded on a contentious urban artiness. Now it is just natural, and a fully balanced view on the vibrant heterogeneity of our music scene. So, we welcome a performance by the New Paltz roots/rock treasure Yard Sale (really, some of the best songwriters working around here) as we welcome the disorienting next-gen soundscaping and rap of Baltimore’s Abdu Ali.

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Brooklyn’s ultraprolific songwriter and guitarist Steve Gunn comes from the same slack-folk universe as Kurt Vile, with whom he often works. Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion seems to be one of the last standing folktopian collectives of a kind that dominated the indie scene of the aughts. The original world/reggae band the Big Takeover has been packing all the local clubs for going on a decade. The Mammals are a kind of Mike + Ruthy side-project band, specializing in gorgeous close harmonies and evocative acoustic textures.

Rochester’s Buffalo Sex Change are the most stylistically convincing garage-rock primitivists I have seen in a long time. Former New Paltz indie-rock stalwart Adir L. C. seems to be headed the other way: toward a sophisticated international swank/pop in which one can still hear his Pavement-y antecedents. Another duo – that of Hugo Largo singer Mimi Goese and the experimental electro-trumpeter Ben Neill – has been collaborating on some mind-bending art song for years, often in multimedia-enhanced performances.

My omissions are numerous and shameful, but this may be one of the richest and most inclusive O+ music lineups to date. And as the Festival expands beyond Uptown, filling the ad hoc venues of revitalized Broadway, and with O+ Festivals now happening in several other cities, one wonders how far they can take this modest idea born in Kingston eight years ago.

O+ takes place in the streets of Kingston from Friday, October 6 through Sunday, October 8. For a full lineup and schedule of music, art, speakers, venues and other attractions, visit http://opositivefestival.org.

O+ Festival presents Deerhoof in the back room of BSP on Sunday

Each October, when the O+ Festival takes over and transforms Uptown Kingston, I reflect on the crisis of hip and personal inadequacy. It’s all too much. You’ll never know all the hip and cool and important and revelatory music. There will always be more holes than badges in your quilt of cultural literacy. Don’t let that deter you from new explorations and acquisitions. If the surfeit of cool paralyzes you into complacency and defeat, here is the fate that awaits you: more Dylan box sets and documentaries scavenged from a falling supply of undiscovered footage. More repackaging and reappraisals of the genius of your youth until you really begin to believe that music was better back then, and that it glowed. Many powerful vested interests want you to feel this way. Stay calm, as they say, and let new stuff in – new, or just new to you. The past keeps changing, too.

Here’s a quick cheat for getting up to speed fast on a band or artist whom somebody maybe made you feel bad about not knowing. Fire up your streaming service and open your browser to Allmusic.com. Listen to the artist’s latest full-length proper release – or at least enough of it to get a sense. But please be patient and relaxed; develop a posture of active receptivity and willingness. You’ve got to give music a chance to introduce itself and its terms to you, and you’ve got to give your own reflexive judgements and classifications – usually triggered by cultural cues and biases of various kinds – a chance to pass, to settle and to just allow you an engagement with the music, uncluttered by a chattering rush to judgment.

Maybe your knee-jerk response will turn out to be right, but do you want preexisting schema to do all the experiencing for you? Try beginning with at least a provisional positive assumption: This music might be good if you let it. That’s all your local bands are asking of you, too: Allow that it might be good – not that we’re rock stars, or could have been.

Now listen to the artist’s first full-length proper release. If you wish, dismiss any self-produced early juvenilia and go straight to the official “coming-out” release. AllMusic can help you identify this. Let the early stuff talk to recent stuff. Finally, look at the artist’s AllMusic discography page and listen to the artist’s best record – the one that the Prime Geek AllMusic editors designate as “essential,” “this-if-no-other,” “the one.” (If it’s Willie Nelson or Sarah Vaughan whom you are just finally getting around to, you’ll probably find that AllMusic IDs one classic per career period.) In its deeming of essential releases, Michael Erlewine’s encyclopedic annotated music database and reference guide typically keeps truck with I would call “record-store-clerk consensus.” The one with the AllMusic icon next to it is the present’s best guess at what the future will think.

Applied to the long-running San Francisco cult darlings Deerhoof, this test produces one inevitable conclusion: Deerhoof was weird and cool from go (1997’s The Man, the King, the Girl), stayed weird and cool at the first blush of fame (2002’s critics’ pick Reveille) and is still weird and cool (a panic of new records in recent years including 2017’s extraordinary Mountain Moves, a remarkably lush and compelling collection of politically charged collaborations with other hip artists within and without their scene).

In a gesture of admiring befuddlement, AllMusic gives almost all their releases four stars. Four stars means “excellent.” Five stars means “classic.” Please note the difference in the basis of each judgment. Any Mary or Joe can cry “excellence!” but only the future can designate a classic. A classic has to be borne out over time and expressed in cultural impact. Deerhoof has in fact been around long enough (20+ years now) to have proven classics. The problem is with influence. It is hard to gauge the cultural impact of a band that seems like nothing less than a rival culture in itself. Tom Petty may come to you, but you have to go to Deerhoof.

It’s an art/pop band in a nutshell. Their records smell like art galleries – the paint and the perfume and the wine-and-cheese. The sonics are outlandish and cool (using mostly trad/rock tools, driven by the extraordinary drummer and band founder Greg Saunier), but the art is more in the embrace of rhythmic irregularity and sui generis song forms and in Satomi Matsuzaki’s repetitive art poetry. Yet still about it is a sense of pop loveliness and lushness, a charming and seductive beckon. Beefheart might be a model for the band’s musical ambiguities and estranged character, but Deerhoof is warm and wet, funny and conspiratorial.

It is not often that I wave the white flag when it comes to describing music. Trying to capture sound in language is the very definition of futility, but it is my particular Hell and I own it. With Deerhoof I have met my match. The legendary avant-garde pop tricksters Deerhoof are one of the headliners of the 2017 O+ Festival in Kingston, and a major score for this storied festival. They perform in the back room at BSP in Kingston on Sunday, October 8 at 8 p.m. Individual tickets to O+ shows are not available, but Festival pricing is reasonable and flexible, and includes an awful lot of great music, art and information. For more information, visit http://opositivefestival.org. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston.

Liana Gabel plays Kingston’s Keegan Ales this Friday

The music of the New Paltz songwriter/singer/tap-dancer Liana Gabel has always struck me as something like indie jazz: swinging in feel and in vocal mannerisms, but at the same time unrepentantly eccentric, innocent and earthy in its concerns and not entirely out of key with the do-it-yourself naïveté of indie folk/rock. Gabel’s new release Go Outside is easily the most assured and fully realized expression of her unique aesthetic to date.

Recorded as part of her residency at the Creative Sanctuary in Arcata, California and performed expertly by Gabel and other fellows in that program, Go Outside is entirely acoustic, pristinely recorded by Daniel Nickerson, lush and haunting in its arrangements. More “high folk” than street jazz, there remain a number of swinging tunes to remind us of where Gabel came from: the album-opening minimalist groove of “Oh Ma” and the delightfully rich cautionary swing tune “Fool.”

The daring songs emphasize nature and spirituality, but often veer in disarming ways into topicality and unexpected moments of confessional candor. In the album opening “Oh Ma,” an ode of gratitude to her parents (grandparents? both?), Gabel slyly cops to her and their dreams of stardom: “Each day you by the window singing to the birds / Arias I’m sure they’ve never heard / You want me to sing to you from the TV / I’ll guess we’ll have to see / Touching hearts takes time / I’ll keep singing.” Gabel’s persistence has paid off in the form of this next-level record.

As part of the O+ Festival, Liana Gabel performs at Keegan Ales in Kingston on Friday, October 6 at 8 p.m. For more information on the O+ Festival and the rules of admission, visit http://opositivefestival.org. To hear Liana Gabel’s Go Outside, visit https://lianaband.bandcamp.com. Keegan Ales is located at 20 St. James Street in Kingston.

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