Inaugural Waterloo Music Festival Brings String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and more to Austin (FESTIVAL REVIEW)

Austin (more than most U.S. cities) has staked its reputation on hosting music festivals spanning multiple genres. While jam bands like Phish and Dead and Company have come through town, a festival featuring the music of the likes of The String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Leftover Salmon has not been a staple of the various Austin music festivals that take place. Heard Presents and Empire Control Room and Garage owner Steve Sternschein, along with partners, aimed to fill that gap that with Waterloo Music Festival on September 7-9 at Carson Creek Ranch located just across the road from the airport.

The upstart camping and music festival attracted several thousand fans to the inaugural event which boasted a Relix-sponsored Stage along the Colorado River in addition to the massive main stage that was erected to hold the impressive sound and lighting rigs SCI brought. Say what you want about jam music, the community of fans are close-knit, loyal and enthusiastic. Given the challenging weather conditions (rain delayed the start and day three of the festival), both fans and staff kept an upbeat outlook, fostering camaraderie and good vibes at the beautiful site.

The riverside Relix stage was something to behold. The flowing water behind stage reflected the greenery surrounding the area, rendering the milieu behind the performing bands to resemble a scene from Southeast Asia. A look around at the multitude of tie-dyed shirts, costumes and flags filling the natural hillside amphitheater quickly reminded us we were still in Texas watching gifted artists ply their trade.

The String Cheese Incident’s night one performance included a nine-song set capped by a two-song encore. Led by guitarists Bill Nershi and Michael Kang (violin, mandolin, guitar) the group settled in for the three-night run with a low-key opening night.  The setlist included tune, “Texas Town” in honor of the band’s return to the Austin-area. The song had not appeared in the setlist since SCI’s show at the now defunct The Backyard in 2013 when the band held their traditional three-night stand at the venue. There is some symmetry to the idea that festival organizers chose jam music as the theme of the event, then invited “The Cheese” out to christen the event given the band’s penchant for multi-night stands in the area.

Night two felt more satisfying than the opening set as the band got out to a fast start with a blistering “Hi Ho” which set off a night of furious dancing by euphoric Cheeseheads getting their jam on. It felt like the start of the epic, crazy party Saturday evening evolved into. A high point of the performance was a spot-on jam-infused version of Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket.” A Rousing encore of “Shaking the Tree” and “Colorado Bluebird Sky” capped an expansive set that left concertgoers sated.

SCI setlist Waterloo Fest Day One:
Dudley’s Kitchen > Close Your Eyes > Betray The Dark, Manga, Texas Town*, You’ve Got The World, Vertigo > Sirens > Desert Dawn

Encore: Nothing But Flowers, Black Clouds

SCI setlist Waterloo Fest Day Two Setlist:

Hi Ho No Show, Best Feeling > Song In My Head > Windy Mountain, Get To You1, The Big Reveal, Joyful Sound > Rumble, Rosie > Short Skirt Long Jacket > Rosie

Encore: Shaking The Tree, Colorado Bluebird Sky

While The String Cheese Incident was the focus of the festival (we spotted numerous fans wearing tell-tale grocery-store “cheese” labels) the talent on the roster was solid from the bottom up. Friday’s performance by newly formed “supergroup” Austin Groove Project was a happy accident featuring the precocious Peterson Brothers, guitar goddess, Jackie Venson, Magna Carda drummer Michael Gonzales, local diva, Tameca Jones, soul singer Alesia Lani, D Madness and producer, Jon Keyz.

Using the Peterson Brothers as the engine of the band, first Lani, then D Madness took the vocal mic, singing soul and hip-hop tracks over the chugging, steady beat of Gonzales and the Petersons who had the early crowd grinning and dancing, ignoring the high humidity and heat. Jones took the stage last to lead the band through to the close of the set, joking she could feel Keyz’ booming bass effects “in my ovaries” before launching into her first song. Her vocal performance lifted an already elevated crowd higher while sporting a thigh-high boots and fishnet stocking ensemble that clearly indicated which woman was queen on stage.

We caught a bit of the progressive jam act, Magic Beans over at the Relix stage before returning to the main for another festival highlight, Oteil Burbridge and Friends. Burbridge is the current touring bassist for Dead and Company. He is not the only Dead and Co member of the band. Keyboardist, Jeff Chimenti appeared alongside his bandmate. His soulful, church organ riffs were as vital to the performance as Scott Metzger and John Kadlecik’s exceptional guitar work. As expected the setlist included several Jerry Garcia Band tunes including JGB staples “How Sweet It Is” and “Run for the Roses.” The nostalgia in air was thick, along with a heavy dose of marijuana smoke. The band finished the set with an authentic rendition of legendary Texas performer, Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” before yielding the stage to The String Cheese Incident.

In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Sternshein hinted at other acts the festival wants to pursue for coming years including Dead and Company, Phish and Widespread Panic. It is nice to know the festival founder and his partners are planning on coming back for another round next year. It may not be Austin City Limits Festival but that is Waterloo’s Fest’s strength as a new festival curating an atypical large-format festival lineup, not a weakness.

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