By Christopher Arnott
3:39 PM EDT, April 29, 2012
I spent the entirety of Saturday at the Meriden Daffodil Festival, artfully blending two of the scenes in which I regularly travel: the local music scene and the family-fun scene.
I’ve attended the majority of the Daffodil festivals held in the past 17 years or so; the fest itself has been going on for twice that long, but it was in the early ‘90s that it first becam distinguished as a gathering spot for local bands. In the past decade especially it’s become renowned as one of the first out-of-town gigs for up-and-coming college and high school bands, particularly those from Wesleyan University.
Some of the bands don’t get it, in the way that young people sometimes disdain things which they later learn to treasure. Any interest at all in a young act should be taken seriously. Any large crowd, however distractable, should be practiced upon. Any paycheck in the three or four figures should be received as if manna from heaven.
This year I was not just an attendee but a participant, playing solo ukulele. Playing on the large Food Tent Stage is like standing in a wind tunnel. The constant hum of hundreds of people ordering and eating food from dozens of booths (operated by local non-profits) could be disorienting if you let it be. But really, it’s like playing to a small crowd, since only the slightest percentage of the mass of humanity in the place is looking in your direction. The stage is about the size of the first floor of my house, so except for the mic and monitor, it felt a little bit like playing uke to myself. After my frenzied, one-man-against-all-knon-foodstuffs set, people kept asking me if I’d had fun. I sure “fun” is not the word, but I certainly was amused. I was also given better payment and support than I’ve experienced in any local club ever. Not that clubs have to worry about transporting the performers’ gear to the stages with golf carts.
The Daffodil Festival has a reputation of treating its musicians more than square, and while this may not be the sort of gig where you might expect an agent or label-owner to show up and sign you, it is the kind where you’ll find numerous local-band radio show hosts, from Bob D’Aprile of WPKN’s Connecticut Rocks to James Velvet of WPLR’s Local Bands to Daffodil Festival band-booker Rob DeRosa, who hosts the Homegrown program on WESU. It is the kind of place where I got complimented for writing this week’s Advocate/Weekly cover story on the festival by a middle-aged woman who’d brought her 12-year-old daughter because “she likes punk-pop” and was intrigued (as are we all) by The Foresters, a sibling trio whose oldest member is 12. “You should start a band,” I counseled the child.
My own daughters (whom I regular advise to start their own band) and I were at the Meriden Daffodil for 11 hours and, upon leaving, were astounded by how we had NOT been able to do in all that time. We saw a dozen bands, but not the full set of any of them. We rode one ride (the Sizzler), though even with the long lines we’d expected to do three or four. We browsed dozen of crafts and artisans’ booths, but far from all of them. We wandered the open areas of the park, but just to get elsewhere. Most things were multi-tasked: eating whilst grooving, shopping whilst chatting. And still there weren’t enough hours to do everything. Those of us who go for the music often forget that, unlike a lot of music festivals, the add-on events aren’t window-dressing but their own equally important element. How many rock festivals have you been to where there might be a martial arts demonstration or a raffle or a food tent or give-aways or crafts tents or such, usually token offerings meant to suggest variety? The Meriden Daffodil Festival is one of the state’s larger outdoor community festivals, which also happens to be the largest local band festival in the state.
Since this is a Advocate readership and not Meriden Patch or somesuch, I’ll concentrate on the bands now. Several had been hyped to me as especially worth seeing, and all lived up to it. You could argue that these stages were not the best places to see some of these bands, who would be expected to be more comfortable at youth centers or small bars or hipster basements. But I’ve come to think of the Daffodil Festival as a test of greatness; if you can make it there…
So high marks to the avant-instrumental trio String Theorie for being so buoyant and exuberant and experimental on that tricky Food Tent stage. Congrats to old friends The Rivergods from New London for looking so professional and grand on the bandstand stage (I’d pay the compliment to the Manchurians, but they’ve played the bandstand numerous times by now.) M.T. Bearington kept his moody, whispery edge despite being on the Welcome Stage. The Guru, a high school act which seems to have magical appeared from the 1970s, replete with sunglasses and sideburns and jazz-rock affinities—stuck flowers in their guitar necks and pranced merrily about the Welcome Stage. Frank Critelli, who could have done what I did and gone it alone on the Food Tent stage (I think he’s an extraordinary solo performer) instead assembled an all-star group to back him up, including a later headliner on that same stage, keyboardist/songwriter Mark Mirando. Critelli could later be seen vamping with The Manchurians on blues/R&B standards and originals at the bandstand, while Mirando assembled his own all-stars, including guitarist Dick Neal, for his melodic Food Tent set.
It’s funny that in a mainstream realm of cover acts, popular genres and crowdpleasing riffs, the band that might have gotten the most focused attention, and probably has enjoyed the most commercial success professionally, was indie-rock exemplars Mates of State. Given that they were playing the relatively intimate Welcome Stage—one of those municipal truck-based platforms, surrounded by metal bleachers—and the fact that fireworks were bursting above them, and at first unbeknownst to them, for the last third of their set, the band was remarkably at ease and turned in a consummate, finely tuned set of synthesized modern dance/pop/rock with appealing danger elements (for such excessively synthesizer-based music) as a frisky live bassist and a back-up keyboardist who doubles (rather frequently) on trumpet.
Mates of State, of course, are generally defined as the duo of Kori Gardner (lead keyboards and lead vocals) and Jason Hammel (drummer and occasional vocalist). The married-with-children couple, who have lived in Connecticut for a decade, completely grasped the family friendliness of the event. Kori announced a dance competition between children and grown-ups.
Up in the bleachers, the Mates of State’s set felt like the ideal mix of club frenzy and outdoor community springtime wonderment. The diverse crowd, spanning at least three generations, reminded you of where you were, as did the color-bombs bursting in air in the sky above them. Yet there was that same intoxicating feeling you get in a dense, dark, late club full of 20-somethings. Sharing a sour raspberry lollipop with my daughters felt similar to having shots at the bar with old pals.
This is the unique splendor of the Meriden Daffodil Festival. It’s a stroll in the park in a black T-shirt with a backbeat.
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