Lockn' Festival 2018

Never miss a Sunday (or Thursday, Friday and Saturday) show.

This year's Lockn' Festival got off to a great start, with a clear weather forecast and a stellar line-up of top-tier musicians. Now in its sixth year, Lockn' has established itself as one of the premier destinations for fans of improvisational, collaborative music. What's both exciting, and occasionally frustrating at Lockn,' is that the music is unpredictable. Your favorite band on the main stage may be having an off night, but that after-midnight show by a band you've never heard of, is mind-blowing!

And then there's the sit-ins, which Lockn' specializes in. You know some collaborations are coming because they were announced ahead of time, like Margo Price with Widespread Panic, or Branford Marsalis with Dead & Company, but others are complete surprises that you never could have imagined. You can't believe the sit-in is happening, yet... it's happening now, right in front of you!

There's so much music at Lockn,' you can't see every act, although some try. I wasn't able to catch everything, but I'll share some special moments, which focus on the collaborations. On Friday, Umphrey's McGee took the stage, with special guest Jason Bonham, son of legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. After some Umphrey's originals, the expanded band hit the opening riff of Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times," and the crowd went wild.

A slew of Zeppelin classics followed, culminating with "Whole Lotta Love," which included Derek Trucks. This is the kind of curveball I was referring to earlier. Of all the potential collaborations that could happen, I would have never predicted that Derek Trucks would be on stage playing a Led Zeppelin song with Jason Bonham and Umphrey's McGee. There were no rumors this would happen. In fact, it was likely decided spontaneously, at the last minute. Trucks particularly shined during the psychedelic mid-section of the song, adding his unique slide accents.

Later on Friday, Margo Price sat in with Widespread Panic, and she was much more bluesy, and less Nashville, than I had seen her in the past. Joined by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band's brass section, they began the set with Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady," in honor of the recently-departed Queen of Soul, and wrapped things up with a nice cover of "Piece of My Heart," written by Aretha's older sister, Erma Franklin, and later made famous by Janis Joplin.

The surprises continued on Saturday during the "Foundation of Funk" set, which celebrated 50 years of New Orleans funk pioneers, The Meters. Original members Zigaboo Modeliste (drums) and George Porter Jr. (bass) were joined by several Neville brothers, Cyril, Ivan and Ian, as well as Tony Hall. Towards the end of their set, the members of Dead & Company (sans Oteil and Chimenti) walked on stage, and joined in for "Hey Pocky Way," "Iko Iko," "Fire On The Bayou", and "Ain't No Use." Two of those songs, "Iko Iko" and "Hey Pocky Way," have a history of showing up in Grateful Dead live shows, so it was a natural fit.

Tedeschi Trucks Band hit the stage next with another powerful tribute to Aretha Franklin, as Susan Tedeschi sang Aretha's first big hit, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." Ivan Neville came back onstage for "Bound for Glory," and Tedechi-Trucks closed things out with an intense version of "The Storm" that led directly into the finale of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post." Susan sang it with just as much soul, passion and anguish as Gregg Allman ever has. The road goes on forever.

Compared to the fire of Tedeschi-Trucks just before them, Dead & Company initially sounded like they were sleep-walking. Much has been said about the fact that Mayer & Company plays the songs at a slower pace than they were originally recorded and played live by the Grateful Dead, and this was evident during both sets. There were good moments, particularly "Fire on the Mountain," with Oteil on lead vocal, but the band never truly came alive on Saturday.

A bit disappointed, I headed over to the late-night Relix stage to watch Lettuce (with Eric Krasno) do a tribute to the Jerry Garcia Band. The groove was very strong right out of the gate, and got even better when Oteil Burbridge was introduced, and the band eased into the ska classic "Stop That Train." Next, John Mayer came out for J.J. Cale's "After Midnight." Then Bob Weir joined in on the fun, for "Sugaree." All the sudden, the upbeat, high-energy Dead show that I wanted to see earlier was now happening on a much smaller stage, under an incredible full moon, lasting until 3:00 am. How sweet it is, indeed!

On Sunday, after 90's pop star Sheryl Crow finished her set, Tedeschi Trucks Band once again took the stage, and hit the ground running with another song made famous by the Allman Brothers, "Statesboro Blues." After a killer "Down in the Flood," sung by Mike Mattison, TTB welcomed saxophonist Branford Marsalis to the stage, where he eloquently traded verses with Kofi Burbridge, on flute, during "Mahjoun." Next, Eric Krasno came out for another Dylan cover, "Going Going Gone." Finally, Joe Cocker's "Space Captain" closed the set with a bang, including a great duel between Derek and trombonist Elizabeth Lea.

The finale of Lockn' was Dead & Company's performance with Branford Marsalis. Beginning with "Shakedown Street," D&C immediately gelled with Branford. At their core, the Grateful Dead were essentially improvisational jazz musicians. That's what made them different from their contemporaries, that they could stretch way out, and compose on the fly, much like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And that's why Branford fits in so seamlessly. During "Bird Song' and "Eyes of the World," Branford, Mayer and Oteil conversed on a level that goes way beyond the constraints of rock, folk or blues. Mayer's playing was incredibly passionate during "Morning Dew," and the set included exuberant renditions of "Not Fade Away' and "U.S. Blues," all enhanced by Branford's sax. It was a beautiful ending to jam-packed festival.

Review by Alex Marsh
Photos by Jerry Friend and Willa Stein