O+ Festival


Kingston, NY’s O+ Festival shines brightly at a time when it’s getting harder to find a music festival outside the usual touring-promotion-merchandising wheelhouse. Held this past weekend and traveling next month to Petaluma, California, O+ works like this: musicians and artists perform in exchange for healthcare and wellness services provided by doctors, physical and mental therapists, and alternative health practitioners. By “bartering the art of medicine for the medicine of art,” as the event credo proposes, O+ Festival transforms the over 40 concerts that festivalgoers can attend into celebrations of generosity and gratitude. Pretty much all of the performers are having a great night on stage, since they’ve all been paid a service that’s ever more precious and critical to the independent artist’s career.

The O+ concept is, in a word, genius. The establishment of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) has yet to make the festival’s mission redundant, since DIY artists are often less on the ball in researching and applying for this complicated policy. Furthermore, the health services they seek aren’t generally covered by health insurance; dental care and eye check-ups are in heavy demand, an O+ organizer told me. The act of charity, if that’s the right word, is really undertaken by the healthcare providers, most of whom see the artists during the daytime (when concerts aren’t scheduled), offering services that are financially prohibitive under normal circumstances. (O+ reminds us that doctors, dentists, opthamologists et al can also be independent music fans.) Community is the preferred O+ term for this civil society exchange, where it takes on a few added meanings.

Most obviously, the O+ Festival relies upon the stages, sidewalks, alleyways and edifices of Kingston’s uptown district. A small city (pop. 24,000) some 90 miles north of New York City, Kingston is one of upstate New York’s many deindustrialized locales where a vital, pedestrian-friendly urban milieu awaits reactivation. This process has begun with a small yet visible stream of 20- and 30-somethings migrating to the city and surrounding Ulster County, where real estate is cheap and conducive to work-live space renovations. It may not get the publicity that nearby Hudson receives, but with several bars, pubs and lounges boasting a stage, Kingston is now most consistent music nightlife destination in the greater Hudson River Valley for fans of indie rock, Americana, and modern art music — essentially the stylistic range heard at the festival.

I attended two of the three days at O+ Festival, and what I heard indicated that the organizers’ ears are as sharp as their hearts are large. The musicians and artists vary in their artistic stature, with none too well known; presumably this figured into the merits of their healthcare requests in the festival application process. If there were headliners this year, that title would probably go to Freeman and Matt Pond, two musicians of some familiarity to Spin/NPR media consumers. But the small-scale nature of the festival has its virtues, including a ridiculously cheap 3-day pass for $35 and many musical discoveries to be had.

For me, the biggest revelation was Brooklyn-based songwriter Shilpa Ray, the most exciting frontwoman I’ve seen in awhile. Her go-for-broke vocals evoke the punk spirit of Exene Cervenka and Carla Bozulich, and her band plays a fiery garage rock of considerable dynamic range, thanks to instruments like lap steel and the harmonium that Ray pumped mercilessly. Her music isn’t for the squeamish, as made clear by her most recent release, “It’s All Self Fellatio.”

Xylouris White, the duo of Greek lute player George Xylouris and all-star indie-rock drummer Jim White, drew rapt attention with Mediterranean-flavored improvisations. White is a fascinating performer to watch, and Xylouris’s speedy fingerwork (can we just say “shredding”?) drove the music to greater intensities before a broken string sent the audience to the bar. The keyboard-based music of Arc Iris, the new band from Jocie Adams (formerly of the Low Anthem), drew upon on non-rock idioms like cabaret, chamber pop and country with skill and energy, suggesting Rufus Wainright trapped in a psychedelic Peter Max poster.

Another community convened by O+ Festival is musicians from the surrounding region and broader upstate/New England area. This territory isn’t generally thought to be a cauldron of musical activity and band formation. The gravity of Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and other northeast cities is simply too great, which makes the many local musicians at O+ more of a mixed bag; for many, the festival engages them at a formative stage in their career. Of particular note were the moody, echoing indie rock of Albany’s Hand Habits and the retro touches of Burlington’s Kat Wright & the Indomitable Soul Band.

More of a lifestyle retreat than a music scene, Woodstock is located 20 minutes away from Kingston and was well represented at O+, with musicians generally at the post-hustle point of their careers. Tony Levin, the bassist/Chapman stick player for King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, is a go-to Woodstock session player whose band of Stick Men gave a prog-rock demonstration. Aaron Freeman recently wound up in Woodstock in his recovery from the addictions that caused him to leave Ween. The music he performs with the group Freeman (and, at O+, solo) is consistent with what you think a 44-year-old Gene Ween would make of Woodstock: an enthusiastic, unironic embrace of its Summer of Love ideals that’s over-the-top to many but expresses a unique, hard-earned sentiment.

If you’re in California’s Bay Area next month, the O+ Festival in Petaluma should be a worthwhile trip. It’s only an extension of the O+ brand to a new site, with none of the Kingston organizers involved in selecting performers and partnering with venues. But after an initial foray into the Mission District in 2013, the California organizers this year seem to appreciate how a small city fits the O+ concept, as admirably illustrated by the Kingston event.

The O+ Festival stops at Petaluma, California, on November 7-9.

[Photos by Leonard Nevarez; right of attribution reserved.]