“This is the strangest festival I’ve ever played,” said Jeff Tweedy, to a round of laughter from an intimate audience of his most passionate congregants. The strangeness derived both from the timing and the venue: It was around 1 p.m. this past Sunday inside a second-story, glass-enclosed function room at the Miami Beach Bandshell, part of the three-day GroundUp Music Festival. No more than 70 Tweedy fans were gathered on mustard-colored sofas to watch a short brunch set while enjoying freshly prepared ceviche, vegetable fried rice, sweet potatoes and chicken cutlets. It wasn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll; in fact, Tweedy offered, “it’s more like a cult meeting … is anyone taking the minutes?”
The Wilco frontman was in high spirits for the mid-day gig, conversing with us, taking requests, and joking about his impractical-looking white shoes and otherwise all-black attire, which Tweedy insisted should be the official cult wardrobe moving forward. Then, after just five songs, he was finished (the advertised time listed Tweedy performing for 40 minutes, but c’est la vie), the mini-set serving a preview for his proper concert at 6 p.m. that night at the Bandshell.
We stayed for the intervening four and a half hours of this “Tweedy sandwich” and were just as impressed with the perhaps lesser-known artists who played in between. This is kind of the point of the genre-hopping GroundUp Music Festival: Stay for the one or two artists you know, and expand your ears while discovering the other amazing talent. And with two stages and no overlapping performances, there’s no excuse not to dip into new sonic waters.
In fact, the centerpiece of the entire day proved to be Arizona’s Rachel Eckroth, fresh off competing for Best Instrumental Album at Sunday’s Grammy Awards. The keyboardist for St. Vincent and Rufus Wainwright, Eckroth is also a formidable singer-songwriter and composer in her own right. At GroundUp, her hybrid jazz/indie music confounded expectations, often traveling to the outer limits of interstellar musical space.
Heavy with echo, reverb and vocoder, and aided by an exploratory, free-jazz sensibility from her three exceptional bandmates, Eckroth conjured alien sounds, sometimes instrumentally, others featuring her lucid vocals and poetic lyrics. On keyboards and synthesizers, she could be as punky as Devo and as funky as Herbie Hancock, while bassist Tim Lefebvre laid down an impregnable foundation. Drummer Christian Euman proved to be a joyous presence behind the kit, performing with the seemingly effortless virtuosity of Elvin Jones. The eclectic set reminded me of several artists, from Radiohead and Jeff Buckley and David Gilmour to Beach House and Angel Olsen. Most impressive was Eckroth’s ability to not only hopscotch but master so many of these modalities.
Opening with the “Cheers” theme and closing with a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” that brought the house down, Dallas, Texas act Shaun Martin 3-0 followed immediately with a riveting set of jazz trio favorites in the electric fusion tradition. I also heard Parliament’s “P. Funk” somewhere in the set, but the group’s improvisations were such that concepts of “cover” and “original” blurred. It was all aural pyrotechnics, molten guitar solos and songs that lasted forever; I think I consumed an entire empanada in less time than Michael Mitchell’s heroic drum solo; I felt like I was experiencing the Tony Williams Lifetime at its peak. Toward the end of the set, watching Martin lead from the keys, you could see him very much “in the zone” and not wanting to leave it—a feeling that was mutual among the crowd. Martin is a born entertainer with charisma to spare.
Our night ended where it started, with Jeff Tweedy, dressed in black with an acoustic guitar, in full-on folk-singing troubadour mode. Cuts from Wilco’s celebrated new release Cruel Country were plentiful and lovely; the title song and “Ambulance” really struck a chord in this stripped-down milieu. As for “Let’s Go Rain,” the song took on a heightened meaning given the scattered showers throughout Sunday’s event, but by the end of that tune, it was all clear skies, which was very much Tweedy’s intention. (“Every time I play that song, there’s a rainbow somewhere,” he added.)
Tweedy focused the back half of his set on old fan favorites from the vintage catalogs of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco or, as he put it, his most “festive” tracks for a beachfront amphitheater gig. This including rousing, sing-along renditions of “Passenger Side,” “Shot in the Arm” and “Hummingbird.” During the latter, Tweedy couldn’t help cracking up while whistling the outro melody.
That, after all, is the kind of atmosphere GroundUp fosters: looseness, conviviality, the freedom to experiment. It was my first experience attending the eclectic festival, and I can’t wait to return next year—hopefully for all three days.