Laying Down Tracks

Fans of 'real' music follow the sounds of jam bands who play without benefit of corporate sponsors. This weekend, the music trek led them to the Autumn Equinox.

September 27, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

BRANDYWINE -- Moments before, thousands of feet had been stepping to the sounds of jazz saxophonist Maceo Parker. Now, after nearly two days of virtually non-stop funk, jazz, bluegrass and reggae-inspired jam, quiet has finally settled over Wilmer's Park.

But before they head back to their tents in the nearby woods early Sunday morning, revelers at the Autumn Equinox Music Festival, like Ana Rodriguez, 17, and Susan Asay, 19, of Centreville, Va., bend down in unison to pick up small pieces of litter clinging to the trampled grass.

"There is an unspoken bond here," Rodriguez says, smiling as she tosses the last remnants of crowd litter into a garbage bag. "It's one big community. Everytime I go home, the experience kind of changes me in a way. I feel happy."

In this age of corporate music and over-hyped, over-priced mega-festivals like Woodstock '99, a scene and sentiments like these may seem charming, even naive.

But at the Equinox festival, and throughout what's known as the "jam band" music scene, participants unapologetically use words like community and family, existence and experience, to describe their unique sub-culture, developed out of the underground, improvisational performances of often little-known bands.

"When you see people dancing to music that's not on the radio, it's really encouraging," says Scott Paynter, 28, lead singer of Baltimore-based Jah Works. "It confirms your belief in the music. Everyone's out here to enjoy the music and support the bands. People are singing our songs in the front row and that blows me away."

The Autumn Equinox festival (this year's was the fourth annual) and its sister show, the All Good festival in the spring, are perhaps the most well-known jam band festivals in the mid-Atlantic region. Both shows, held at 80-acre Wilmer's Park in Prince George's County, are the creation of Tim Walther, head of Walther Productions in Columbia.

He began organizing festivals five years ago after following the Grateful Dead, producing three or four two-day camp-outs in the mid-Atlantic area annually.

Most feature eclectic lineups, mixing "trip-hop, jungle pop" sounds of Baltimore's Lake Trout with acts such as veteran jazz musicians John Scofield and Parker, who were among the 15 bands at Brandywine this weekend.

While Walther acknowledges inspiration from the Grateful Dead and Phish, he says the culture of the jam band scene has developed into something entirely unique.

"It's very much about the music and the energy around the music," Walther says of the community that has formed around his festivals. "People find comfort in this scene that they don't find in the rest of the world. There is a freedom of expression here. And the music brings the scene together."

Fans return year after year to Walther's shows. Many follow the festivals up and down the East Coast and sometimes around the country, creating an audience of supporters for music little known outside the circuit.

Walther says he has been able to maintain this sense of community by resisting mainstream publicity or sponsorship. Admission to his festivals ranges from $30 to $40 a person.

"We're completely non-commercial. I'm not trying to sell beer. I'm trying to introduce people to music," he says.

But even while the music was the reason for the gathering of nearly 2,300 fans at Wilmer's Park this past weekend, there is something more that draws them, something beyond the beats and chords that blare from the festival stage.

It's that something that Scott Graham, 31, recognized and has been trying to document in "Road to Equinox," a film about the music festival phenomenon he hopes to release this fall.

"It's kind of a sub-culture," he says. "It's church. The ceremony, if you will, is the groove."

Festival patrons, organizers and performers alike talk abstractly about the "groove" or the "vibe" that makes the scene unique. Graham says there is a certain "truthfulness" in existence that is nurtured here, the ability "to just be" that followers seek.

Children draw in the dirt. Strangers hug on the pathways. A few men dance unfettered in long, colorful dresses. And many patrons choose to expand their minds with marijuana and hallucinogenics.

While some consider the concert grounds a "safe zone," the use of drugs has drawn increasing attention from local authorities. On Saturday night, Walther said, Prince George's County Police hauled away more than two dozen concert-goers. Feeling beseiged, Walther and guests worry about the future of festivals at Wilmer's Park.

"All good things do come to an end," Walther said after the concert, which he otherwise deemed a success.

For most at the festival, though, the conflict has not altered the sense of community that brought them together in the first place.

"There is still a nice bond," says Karen Sweeney, 20, of Wilmington, N.C. "We want to show people we can come together. We want to bring that unity to the Earth."

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