The best festivals, like Disc Jam, build and deliver music-fueled experiences.
By Scott McLennan
The summer festival trend has its merits: it provides music fans with ample opportunities to take in tons of music over short periods time, with opportunities to enjoy favorite artists and discover new favorites at reasonable cost and minimal hassle.
But the blossoming of music festivals has also led to a lot of cookie-cutter productions that do little to foster any of the distinctive personality served up by truly great festivals, such as the storied jazz and folk affairs that set up shop each summer in Newport, RI.
It’s fine to see a few dozen bands over a few days, but the best fests build and deliver music-fueled experiences.
The Disc Jam music festival (June 7 through 10) has made experience a guiding principle as it enters its 8th year this weekend with a blazing roster topped by Lotus, Galactic, Beats Antique and The Motet, plus loads of interesting side projects by members of The Disco Biscuits, Turkuaz, Dopapod, Twiddle, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Snarky Puppy.
Disc Jam founder and leader Tony Scavone has continually fine-tuned his idea of creating a mid-size fest that focuses on psychedelic music and funk, along with welcoming the latest trends in so-called jamtronica and DJ sets.
Disc Jam has boosted bands that typically range from the mid-tier of larger festivals to headliner status. And, because Scavone has cultivated enduring relationships with bands in the jam scene, he is able to get some of the genre’s most popular artists to show up at Disc Jam to perform outside of the contexts that their fans expect.
This year, for example, Disco Biscuits guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig is performing an acoustic set. Meanwhile his Disco Biscuits bandmates bassist Marc Brownstein and keyboard player Aron Magner are sitting in with DJ Logic as well as performing with Electron, the band they formed with guitarist Tom Hamilton of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and drummer Mike Greenfield of Lotus.
And, just to make sure Disc Jam really stands out, Scavone combined the music with the opportunity to play disc golf all day on expertly designed courses. Rounding out this hippie nirvana, the performances run pretty much all night in some capacity.
Disc Jam once again sets up shop off of Route 22 in Stephentown, N.Y., just past the Berkshires. The site boasts a campground as well as disc golf course. The gates open at 10 a.m. Thursday and the music runs on multiple stages through Sunday evening.
Scavone got his start promoting and booking shows in Worcester, bringing hard-touring up-and-coming jam bands to the city’s music clubs. Having attended such popular modern psychedelic outings as the now-defunct Gathering of the Vibes and the enduring Wormtown music fests in Greenfield, Scavone decided in 2011 it was time he tried his hand at creating a fest. He knew the bands, he knew the tastes of the fans, and with disc golf he had a hook to make his event stand out among a once very crowded field of New England jam band fests.
Scavone quickly learned the difference between promoting nightclub concerts and building an outdoor festival. Devastating tornadoes that hit the state in 2011 (killing two people) tore through the campground area he was planning to use in Brookfield. The site was destroyed 10 days before the inaugural Disc Jam was set to tee off at the Hyland Orchard and Brewery in Sturbridge.
Scavone recalled scouring the area to secure a new campsite near the festival site.
“I was knocking on doors and asking anyone that looked like they had space,” he said “I stopped for lunch at BT Smokehouse in Sturbridge and a guy said, ‘Are you the guy looking for a campground for the hippies?’”
The friendly stranger took Scavone to his property and showed him a swath of land that was practically abutting the original camp site and untouched by the tornado.
“Three hundred showed up to camp and 600 came to the festival. It all worked out,” he said. “With the first year behind us, I said we can overcome anything.”
The festival grew and required new homes, landing just over the border in Stephentown, New York in 2015.
The one constant for Disc Jam has been the inclusion of Boston-bred improv-rockers Dopapod, which has headlined at least one day of the fest every year. This year, however, Dopapod is on a hiatus.
But that isn’t stopping the members of Dopapod from playing Disc Jam. That band’s guitarist Rob Compa and keyboard player Eli Winderman are among Disc Jam’s artists at large, joining several members of Turkuaz in that role.
Compa praised Disc Jam as a platform for supporting bands that rely on touring and live shows to build their audiences.
“Tony is getting a lot of bands heard that need to be heard,” said Compa, who in addition to being a roving artist at large will perform a duo set with Mike Gantzer of Aqueous. “And he is willing to give us a shot when we come to him with some random thing we want to try.”
Still, though Disc Jam has grown, Compa insisted that the festival maintains its original spirit — it serves a closely knit community. “This is one festival that feels like a family BBQ,” he said.
And the musical curating certainly looks like the work of a true fan rather than that of a bean counter.
The upper bracket of Lotus, Beats Antique, Galactic, and The Motet nicely covers the sounds of underground psychedelia and funk. Then there are some “must catch” collaborations and newcomers. The Tom Hamilton/Holly Bowling-led Ghost Light, for example, is generating a buzz, as is teen guitar phenom Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. And the core of rising jam-band stars Twiddle is present, providing what Scavone describes as a “serious potential for collaborations in the middle tiers.”
Disc Jam reflects an appreciation of the tradition that traces its roots back to the Grateful Dead and that inspired subsequent generations through the work of Phish, moe. and others. But Scavone keeps his ears open to the new musical blends that fuse electronic dance and trance influences with live instrumentation.
“In our name, I stress the word ‘jam.’ I want to showcase freeform music,” Scavone said. “I want to tear down the walls and barriers.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.