Although I’m 500 miles away from Philadelphia, the conversation I’m having wouldn’t tip you off in the slightest. It’s with Philly native Jeremy Blessing, one of the city’s most superb guitarists, a cat whose long hair, bellbottoms and John Lennon glasses makes him perpetually look like he’s just walked out of 1971. The subject of our talk? The term “Founding Fathers,” which Blessing feels is outdated: “No one calls their dad ‘father’ anymore; they call them ‘dads.’ So they should change the name to the Founding Dads or the Founding Pops. Like, ‘Yo, what would the Founding Pops do in this situation? How do they interpret this shit?’” While I laugh in agreement, Blessing realizes out loud that the Founding Pops would make an excellent band name. Although we’re in Central Maine, the accents—and history—of our fair city have traveled along. Oddly enough, almost everyone around us sounds similar.
This is the annual Caravan Music Festival, a three-day music event held in the woods of Belgrade Lakes, featuring more than 20 bands and almost 200 attendees, most of whom are from the Philadelphia area. The gorgeous tent-filled grounds are surrounded by massive lakes, green mountains and lush offshore islands—things we city folk likely know little about. (Before attending, the only thing I knew about Maine were its two central exports—lobsters and Stephen King novels.) If this seems like an unusual place for a gathering of Philly musicians, according to founder Matt Manser, that’s really the point: “It’s about changing the setting, instead of going to see some of these bands at the same places. There’s no more destination venues [in Philadelphia]. Everywhere has kind of become a similar environment, so it’s taking all that and driving nine hours. You get out of your car, you’re out of your element, and you can’t leave, so at no point is anyone just coming for a set and then bouncing. You’re there for the long haul.”
To those who’ve never been, the best way to describe Caravan is this: You know that scene during the final battle of The Avengers when the camera glides from one superhero to the next in one long, amazing continuous shot? Well, it’s kind of like that, except the Hulk and Iron Man are replaced with incredible music and pasta. Everywhere you turn, something happy is going on: a nonstop dancefest, curated by Blessing, a self-described “funksmith;” old friends starting the nightly bonfire; kids spending hours swimming in the lake; the breakfast cook is making the best eggs you’ve ever tasted; s’more-sharing with people you barely know, health risks be damned—the list is long. Caravan’s mantra is “All are invited who will cause no harm.” And everyone who attends follows this to a tee. To see a few hundred people of all backgrounds partying in the rain for over three days, without incident, is pretty special. It’s doubtful even The Avengers could pull that off.
Caravan’s birth, explains Manser, “was a product of resources.” As a teen, he began traveling with a few friends from his Philly home to the quarry in Maine, where his family has owned the land since the early ‘70s. Each year, more and more people would join him on the journey, culminating in 2009 with the first official Caravan fest. Along with his band Flamingo, he invited some other musician buddies to come perform, resulting in a crowd of about 70 people. At the following year’s festivities, the number of campers more than doubled in size—as did outside interest. Soon after, other Philly bands were asking to join; complete strangers, too. What started as a yearly trip with a select few grew into a full-fledged event with a large audience to entertain.
Knowing he couldn’t do it alone, Manser recruited the aid of two close friends, Lynne Krohn and Tom Murphy. “It was pretty much just the three of us in charge of everything,” says Murphy, who’s also a member of local heavy-blues trio Penrose with brothers Pat and Dan. “We were doing sound, on top of the food, on top of the wristbands, and it was the three of us trying to maintain 200 wild motherfuckers.”
Manser’s father, Clark, can be seen all weekend helping out around the grounds and happily talking with all the campers. He’s super-friendly and warm, like only a parent can be, especially considering there are hundreds of strangers sleeping in his backyard. When I ask Manser how his father feels about Caravan, he explains that his dad is open-minded, “[coming] out of the hippie generation.” (Dad’s nickname in high school was Dr. Feelgood. Manser really wanted me to tell you that.) Though the idea was a hard sell the first year, after viewing the respectfulness all the attendees had, the rest of his family have continued to give their blessing. Though one or two neighbors might not approve, more of the Belgrade Lakes locals come to enjoy the good times each year. In fact, Manser says, “my one neighbor was angry at me that I don’t do it more often.”
It’s impossible to overlook the Philadelphia story imprinted on the festival, especially with some of Philly’s most popular local favorites performing—Cheers Elephant, Conversations With Enemies, Juston Stens & The Get Real Gang, and a barn-burning set by low-down folk-punkers TJ Kong & The Atomic Bomb. The latter has been one of the best live acts in Philadelphia for some time, but their Friday night performance made them a candidate for best act in Maine. As they ran through older songs, ragged-blues tunes from their upcoming Manufacturing Joy LP and an energetic take on Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” there wasn’t a pair of still shoes to be seen. Every one of the bands play at their best when they’re here, which makes the fest such an incredible experience. “When everybody you know and all these musicians you really respect are here,” Murphy tells me, “you want to look good.”
Besides all of the hard work and support, there’s still the high cost of putting Caravan together. To power an outside concert in the woods, you need to rent a generator. To feed 200 people, you need about $2,000 for food, as well as grills, cookware and paper goods. To sustain that number of folks, you also need porta-potties, recycling/trash pickup and countless other supplies. Manser and his crew charge the attendees a reasonable $50 fee, and even then, they don’t always make their money back. Although their admission is cheaper, this also applies to the bands. So far, Tom points out, there have been almost no complaints. “We love doing it, but it kind of blows our minds that all these bands are so into it that they’ll come up here and spend their money. We would love to pay these guys, but nobody who played got paid a dollar. They all chipped in for food and supplies. That kind of dedication—to put a thousand miles on everybody’s cars just to play in the woods with all these kids—really says a lot about the scene we got going on.”
Brendan Higgins of Vitamin Cheese—who’ve performed the past three festivals—sees the event as an extension of Philadelphia’s musical spirit. “Caravan and the whole DIY thing is all over the place in Philly,” he says. “People want to play music wherever they can, and they all drove 10 hours so they can play music up here. I don’t think Caravan would happen if people didn’t care about it, especially the people working, like Matt Manser and all the people cooking. Those dudes work all day long, but they have a blast, ‘cause they pour their hearts and souls into it.”
In a similar vein, TJ Kong’s guitarist/singer Dan Bruskewicz feels Philly today is “the perfect place to be an artist and musician” since “you can make it whatever you want.” In Bruskewicz’s opinion, “there’s no musical footprint in Philadelphia at the moment,” and that gives everyone—just like Manser and Caravan—a chance to do something creative. “People don’t come to town looking for jazz like they did when Coltrane was here, and they don’t come in looking for hip-hop like they did when The Five Spot was in its heyday. People come to Philly looking for a good time. That is the city’s new cultural reputation.”
Lynne Krohn, who, aside from organizing the festival, also manages Penrose, thinks Caravan ultimately brings musicians from our area even closer. “I now feel that we can hit up any of those bands and say, ‘Hey, let’s play a show together.’ You really get a sense of camaraderie.” And although it applies to bands, this sentiment is branched out to everyone. “I’m pretty sure there’s kids riding home with people they’ve never met before,” adds Mike McNamara of Vitamin Cheese. “I met a couple people here, and they’re all from Philly, so you have new friends when you get back home—though you get to be showered and hopefully won’t smell as bad.”
On Sunday morning, about a dozen campers march from the lake right to the stage, banging and strumming on anything they can find, to announce the annual performance of The Pat Friend Five. The group’s eponymous band leader has only one main rule in the band: There must be more or less than five people on stage at any time. Their set is a mix of incredibly skilled musicians with kids who have no musical background whatsoever, and all are invited to join.
In between various sets and sending off the folks heading back home, numerous open jams occur throughout the day. On a whim, I decide to take the stage to run through one of the two songs I can fully play on guitar: “Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones. (The other is “Your Love” by The Outfield.) The band behind me is full of old pals and people I’ve never met before, though we all know the song, and that’s what’s important. They make my impromptu attempt sound half-decent, which really says a lot about their skills.
Just as Bruskewicz said, “People come to Philly looking for a good time.” And although this is Maine, it still feels pretty damn close.
We’re taking you on a whirlwind tour of Philly’s sonic citizens—in the clubs, on the road, off the map and over the top.
PW's Music Issue 2014