Monster Mash Florida: A Smashing Success
Look, it’s obvious that nobody’s crystal ball is working right now. Festival-goers all over the country — and the world — are hoping for some sense of normalcy in the coming year, although when that might happen nobody knows. Here in the east, we certainly hope that Suwannee Hulaween will be back for Halloween 2021, for example. Because we were absolutely crushed to miss the 2020 edition.
Somehow, in just two short months, Monster Mash Florida arose and turned into a magnificent if tiny replacement for Hula. There is no question that, if Hula returns for 2021, there won’t be a Monster Mash 2021.
But there is equally no question in anybody’s mind that, if Tom Laws and Megan Baker team up to throw another festival at a location such as Lone Palm Ranch in Hastings, Florida, there will be hundreds if not thousands of music fans ready to work, support, and attend one of their events. Because, for three days — October 29-31 — Laws and Baker and crew were absolute rock stars!
Corrections, additions, and photographs of sets we missed gladly accepted!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29
Shortly after rolling in on Thursday, I walked over to the barn structure where they were holding the music events for the day. A friend spotted me and asked, “Who are you here to see? Side Hustle?…” I stopped him, held my arms out wide, and gestured to the entirety of Lone Palm Ranch, beginning to fill up with tents and RVs, not to mention the main stage, vendors, food trucks, and hundreds of people already on the property for the pre-party, and said simply, “THIS.” He nodded.
It just felt so good to be outdoors on a magnificent fall day with the trappings of a music festival everywhere in sight. For most of us, it had been since the beginning of March, if not some time before.
This festival was heavy on the Jacksonville music scene, and that is a very, very good thing. First up were Danka, a punk reggae trio, and they lit it up immediately. Matt Henderson sang and played guitar. He was joined by Adam Kenneway on bass, who also plays with Bonnie Blue, and drummer Brandon Howell was playing with them for the first time. You would never have known. In fact, the festival was as much Howell’s as anyone’s, as he was a part of more than six sets over the weekend. The former Custard Pie member tucked himself perfectly into this set — and every one he played all weekend.
Henderson was an engaging frontman. Later in the set, they invited Juanjamon, an artist at large, up on tenor sax. He immediately quoted Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull”! Several songs later, Joe Marcinek sat in, and the jam turned jazzy, Howell crushing on drum kit.
This was the only night when music did not go off as schedule; Friday and Saturday were tight. Joe Marcinek and Friends finally stepped up at 8:48, as he led the group through his signature tune “George Washington.” Guitarist Stephanie Perez had a nice solo, as did Juanjamon. The collective soared through some very spacy stuff, a really great jam. After “West L.A. Fadeaway,” they hit Marcinek’s original “Soffa,” with an organ solo by Kaleb King (Them Vagabonds). A nice “Scarlet > Fire” also featured vocalist extraordinaire Jessica Jones, who crashed the festival from Denver (and are we ever glad she did!). Anton LaPlume (Side Hustle) was also in the mix on guitar.
They dipped into Marcinek’s JMIII album for “Mojo,” his other signature tune. Perez and King soloed again. Jones was back for another round on closing “Not Fade Away.”
This was a very good set by Marcinek. What kicked it into amazing territory was the one-two punch of Matt “Spider Fingers” Lapham on bass and Brandon Howell on drums. They blew this up.
The schedule said Matt Henderson was next. No band, just Matt. Looping, apparently. The set-up was lightning quick. And what happened next was one of the greatest sets of the weekend, and there were some phenomenal sets over the three days. Henderson was simply brilliant. This was deep house/acid jazz with Hendrix guitar, great vocals, hip hop sensibilities, and an electrifying presence. His hour set quoted “The Message” and India.Aire, got heavy, got silly (“I Need Mac & Cheese”), and kept people dancing for an hour. Serious talk: DO NOT MISS HIS SOLO SETS.
Joywagon had the late-night slot, beginning at 12:20. They juggled covers and originals very successfully, beginning with a different spin on Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and one shitkicker version of “Cocaine.” WOW! They played a bouncy instrumental in honor of Andy Lytle, the man running sound Friday and Saturday at the main stage; Colin Christopher and Lytle used to play together in Orlando. Jeremy Clapper (bass) and Remy Lundy (drums) were rock solid all set long.
They rocked out, went real uptempo, then reeled it in as Juanjamon slowed it down for some reggae, singing “Natty Dread.” They bounced from an amusing “Don’t You Want Me” (Human League) to an uptempo country rocker on acoustic guitar, on to “Freaker by the Speaker” and then “Melissa.” Finally, with Stephanie Perez on electric and Christopher on acoustic, they stomped through “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Night one in the books.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30
The day was gorgeous, and it got a gorgeous start from Sweet as Folk, better know as Arielle D’Ornellas, the fine graphic arts and photography artist who also sings and plays ukulele (she did the graphic art for the festival). She was accompanied by Colin Christopher on acoustic guitar and Remy Lundy on cajon. She also balanced fine originals, such as the opening “Dip Your Toe in the Water,” with songs such as “Angel from Montgomery.” Her particular vocal style allows her to offer fresh interpretations of songs you think you know. She went from J5’s “I Want You Back” to beautiful original “You Are So Loved.”
A great mashup of “Somebody to Love” and “My Sweet Lord” was followed by her “Stardust,” and then right into “Bad to the Bone”! The covers such as “Just Like a Woman,” “Riptide” and “Crave You” (Flight Facilities) were great, as were more of her original music, including “We’ll Be OK.”
Joy Wagon was back for round two, this time featuring Leroy Sly, an eclectic hip hop vocalist. They were wearing pirate hats and outfits (well, sort of), so of course they played “Cosmic Booty.” The head of the tune was OK, but the jam smoked! Justin Davis grabbed his banjo and joined in on “The 420 Song.” “Psycho Killer” was fun, and Davis returned for “No Handlebars,” a wild event with Sly and the band going nuts.
There was a story while Sly sported a huge Afro wig and a raucous “Fuck That Shit on the Radio.” The master of ceremonies for Friday and Saturday, MC Nook, sat in on “Comatose” with a fine BLM rap, and they shut it down with another wild one: “Rockin’ Out on the Radio.”
The Tom Bennett Band purports to play piano pop prog, and that is accurate, but it really doesn’t begin to describe them. This is an electric group and comedy show showed rolled into one. I didn’t get locked into the set until the song about strippers and Mike Tyson. Then poured out a long story about a lama and eventually how the band got together (did you know they’re ALL named Tom Bennett, not just the keyboard player?).
They ripped a solid “Breathe” with violin player Philip Pan sitting in before “Six Feet Above Ground.” There was a Latin thing about not touching the yoga teacher’s butt, with a very metal ending, and they closed with “Nothing from Nothing” before taking us all to church.
Blessedly, using only one stage gave people the chance to talk to friends, head back to the campsite, grab a bite to eat, and visit the vendors in between sets.
When Jacksonville’s Bonnie Blue hit the stage, folks were ready to dance, and the boys did not disappoint. During the set, we got six songs that will be on their new album, beginning with “Best Friends,” which segued into “Disco” (Widespread Panic), and it was Dance Fever! Keyboard player John Wilson grabbed the vocals for “Blood for Gold,” the first of two songs in a row from their excellent album No Lookin’ Back. Willis Gore sang “Gypsy Woman” next. He and Bradley Churchman were simply blazing on guitars.
Three more new songs were next, all well received. Wilson sang “Good Company,” Gore sang “Breakthrough,” and Churchman sang “Beggars.” “Breakthrough” was a raging rocker, and “Beggars” was very much in the Allman Brothers Band mold, with artist-at-large Nigel Ledford (Firewater Tent Revival) on banjo guesting. Gore then soared on “Trigger,” an older tune that still reminds me of “Hope In a Hopeless World.”
Wilson went to clavinet for a funky “Bootstraps,” and Churchman sang “Do You Remember” (both of those are new). They ensured that the dance party would continue with “Hot ’Lanta” before “Everyone’s a Winner” (Hot Chocolate!). Bass player Adam Kenneway was superb all set, as was drummer Jeremy Mayr, who got to strut his stuff on the ABB tune.
There were, by my count, five absolutely transformative performances at Monster Mash. The first of those was by Ben Strok and the Full Electric. Those who attended Suwannee Rising 2019 got a good look at a band in transition, evolving and growing exponentially. The set they blew out at Monster Mash was, well, monstrous, in the very best way possible.
They began with a “howl at the moon” sound check; the official full moon would be Saturday, but this one was pretty fine. Once done, they launched immediately into the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which began a medley segueing through “Devil’s Time > Marine Layer > Terrarium.” Next up, Max Zargon sang “She Blinded Me with Science” and twisted and abused his synths. “When You See” led to a spicy Latin outing on “Retumbo,” Brandon Howell superb at drum kit. And his former Custard Pie bandmate Aaron Glueckauf had a tremendous set on bass; those two are now permanent members of the band.
Juanjamon, Jessica Jones, and Mike Strok came out for a spirited “In the Waiting Line,” and every song the band was on fire with Ben Strok’s guitar blazing. Another new song, “The Last Time You Were Here,” sounded great before the finale: “Let Me Fade.” This is next-level stuff.
The evening’s headliners were The Roosevelt Collier Trio, with Collier on pedal steel guitar, Matt Lapham on bass, and Anthony AC Cole at drum kit. As is typical of most Collier sets, the gents just jammed for quite a while; they know precisely what to expect from each other. Cole gets a huge sound out of a very concise drum kit, and he is a fine vocalist as well.
Eventually, they rumbled into “Third Stone from the Sun”; the trio had recently reprised their Jimi Meets Funk set in Winter Park. Juanjamon came up to blow some tenor, and Lapham had a fine solo. That jam led to “Who Knows,” with Cole singing any damn thing he wants to. Jessica Jones joined Juanjamon, MC Nook, Stephanie Perez, and a breakdancer on stage for a wild “Rock Steady” which morphed into a righteous, set-ending “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
In order to save moving equipment back and forth, the late-night jam was on the main stage. Unfortunately, that took a while to set up, which cut into their time (noise curfew at 2). It was billed as Beartoe and Friends, and it began intimately with just Beartoe on acoustic guitar and Nigel Ledford on banjo. No matter what I thought this would be like, I was wrong, in so many great ways.
They opened with a rollicking “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” followed by a totally unexpected “Dancing in the Dark.” Matt Lapham and Anthony Cole came back out for a killer “Cocaine Gonna Kill My ? > I’ll Fly Away > ? > Dead Flowers > Linus & Lucy > Dust in a Baggie.” That last one was a riot, Ledford singing about doing 20 years in prison for that “dust in a baggie.”
There was so much great music pouring out, including “West L.A. Fadeaway” with Ledford on wah-wah banjo. Christina Nakajima came out with her upright bass, Philip Pan back on violin, plus a percussionist and another guitar. They got through “Drinking Too Much Whiskey,” and suddenly it was 2 a.m. Beartoe and Ledford encouraged everyone to find them at the all-night jam. I was baked.
Because of the convenience of a single stage, I caught all the music except for the opening folk and acoustic set from Blacksheep Troubadour. I was busy at the campsite; fortunately, I could hear him and enjoyed his voice, playing, and song selection.
The next two sets were chock full of enthusiastic and fun music, with Them Vagabonds up first. They stirred originals and covers into a fine Halloween stew, beginning with “Losing My Life,” “Better Off,” and “Hell Fire.” Then the group, fronted by Kalen King on guitar and Kaleb King on keyboards, romped through “Cats Out Under the Stars” and “Dirty Laundry.”
“Having a Time” rolled into a great version of “Fairies Wear Boots,” the ubiquitous Brandon Howell rocking the drums and Jared Gore huge on bass. They played a fabulous version of “The Wizard” from the first Black Sabbath album with a guest on harmonica. And Philip Pan was back for the closer: “It’s Evil.” Yes, it was!
Also, best setlist!
Grindstone Sinners had done a Dead set at the pre-party the previous Saturday at 1904 Music Hall, and for this set they came out at 90 MPH and never took their collective foot off the gas. “Crossroads > Midnight Hour > Hot ’Lanta” absolutely rocked out before original tune “Life Can Be a Breeze.” Singer Ashlyn Weidemiller, who confessed her knee injury was from dancing too hard at the 1904 show, torched the blues on “I Put a Spell On You.”
They tore up “Les Brers in A Minor,” which drifted into “What Do You See,” then briefly into “Third Stone from the Sun” and then a bouncing “Southbound.” After “Wild Ride,” they had planned to play “After Midnight,” but they were stage-rushed by Juanjamon on tenor and Roosevelt Collier with his custom (non-) lap steel guitar for a killer “The Sky is Crying.”
The next three sets were stunning, legendary, transformative, absurd, brilliant… throw some superlatives on the fire. Because DAMN!
The Reality are an outstanding funk quartet from Tampa, one we’ve seen dozens of times, including at a wedding a month ago, where they were superb, but this was a whole ’nother thing. Somewhere during the set, I found photographer Chuck Smalling and his wife, Nikki Smalling, and asked, “Who IS this band?” Those two are Funk Eye Media and have been to scores of their shows; they were as stunned as I was. (Oh, that wedding? It was theirs!)
Apparently, the group decided they should simultaneously become a true jam band AND a trance-dance band in addition to their funkstering. They opened with a new tune, “My Baby,” and things seemed “normal.” Then, it being Halloween and all, they whipped out “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter, not the New York Dolls). They had debuted it at the Smalling wedding, but this was absurd. Juanjamon joined them for a long, jazzy take. After BA Jones did that drum part, Dan Jones blew out a long, spacy guitar solo, and Josh Kim tore it up on synths. Caleb Bone (bass) opened his golden pipes for “Really Don’t Care,” with Dan Jones on a trombone solo, Kim on organ and then synths. Next they rolled through a jamtronica trance-dance tune before “Fat Fanny Pack” and “Sweet Tooth.” Another new song, “I Wanna See You Dance,” went all trance-dance-y, too. The guys were wearing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers suits, so of course they played “Go Go Power Rangers.”
Next — for me — the defining moment of the weekend. Jessica Jones had arranged with the band to sing their signature tune (well, one of them): “All My Time.” I was trying to take a video on my phone, so there was no way to wipe away the tears streaming down my face as Jessica (we’re dealing with three Joneses now) absolutely nailed the vocal intricacies of this song. OMG. They were set to close with “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” a glorious Kim synths feature, but Collier loved what he was hearing and wanted to join them on stage, and it was pure magic.
Side Hustle decided to follow suit with an incredible set of their own. Anton Laplume (guitar) and Billy Begley (keyboards), the gents who curate an amazing 28-program podcast series called Bottom of the Bill, were certainly top of the bill this night. If you didn’t recognize them, it might have been because they were all dressed as Garth Algar. They led with a new song by Begley (no working title yet) before “Work with What You Got.” Then Aaron Plotz on drums kicked the band in a jammy Latin direction on “Freedom 35,” and Collier joined in.
They got all funky for “Living for the Day,” Begley balancing clavinet and organ. Bass player Sean Thomas helped set up some funky syncopation on “Destitute,” with Collier back on stage trading back and forth with Laplume. Then, in what seemed to be the order of the evening, they too hit that excellent trance-dance groove during “Fed Up.” The word of the night, incidentally, was SHWING (or maybe SCHWING). After some spooky organ on “Street Walker,” the vocal harmonies were awesome leading into — what else — more great trance-dance during “Promise Land > Abra Cadabra > Alpha Draconis.” The crowd was eating it up.
I had parked myself next to the sound tent, and there was a gentleman taking videos of many of the sets. When he introduced himself as Richard Borders, I was stunned. This was the famous Richard Bruce Borders, an icon on the rock scene for more than 50 years. He is a photographer, but he is best known as a pioneer in the creation light shows for bands such as The Who and The Grateful Dead. He lives in Jacksonville, and we look forward to interviewing him soon.
In addition to his work videoing during the weekend, he was excited to talk about a young prodigy he has been working with named Madison Carr. Borders had worked with Tom Laws to create a space for Carr to do a very short set before CopE came on. Madi is a multi-instrumentalist, but for this short performance she accompanied herself on guitar on “Rhiannon.” She was joined by Nigel Ledford and Philip Pan for an original tune titled “Living with Your Ghost,” and she finished with an interpretation of “People Are Strange.” We look forward to hearing more from her.
On Sunday morning, I saw Dennis Stadelman of CopE and gave him my eternal request: Please send me a setlist. He pulled out his phone to do that, then remarked to the half-dozen or so friends with him: “Did we really only play FIVE songs last night?” They were nodding as I suggested: “Perhaps it’s because you decided to become a prog metal AND a trance-dance band!”
Because that is exactly what happened. CopE are one of Florida’s premier jam bands from way back, and it is clear they are nowhere near done. This set was just ridiculous. They opened with “Today,” and from the get-go you could sense something was different. It opened into a deep jam, with Juanjamon (yes, he’s actually IN this band!) on clavinet and then tenor. Kenny Stadelman on bass and Dave Gerulat on drums were so incredibly tight.
Dennis was killing on guitar as they bounced into “What Goes Up,” which absolutely turned prog metal. No idea what got into these four, but I hope it never comes out. That eventually worked its way into “See,” with some great electric piano. “Going Home” got trance-dance-y as they slowed the pace; Juanjamon had a long tenor solo.
Often, CopE would close with “Shake Anything,” but Dennis said he looked at his watch and saw there were only 15 minutes left; no version of “Shake” had ever clocked in under 20. Jessica Jones, Roosevelt Collier, and Stephanie Perez all rushed the stage for an all-too-short version of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” MC Nook brought them back for an encore, a fine version of “Comfortably Numb.” MIND. BLOWN.
The aerialists had been putting on a great demonstration off to the side, and during the break they did a duet that got great response from the crowd, and the dancer dude was back for more on the main stage.
The penultimate set was, appropriately, the Monster Mash Electric Hustle, featuring a constellation of stars. Among them, Anton LaPlume (guitar) and Billy Begley (keyboards) from Side Hustle, Brandon Howell (drums), Steve Honig Bass), Stephanie Perez (guitar), Nigel Ledford (banjo), Ashlyn Weidemiller (vocals) and Jay Umlauf (guitar) from Grindstone Sinners, and last — but absolutely not least — was Myrna Stallworth, vocalist extraordinaire of the Parker Urban Band.
Of course they opened with “Thriller,” and it was awesome! Juanjamon jumped in on “Never Gonna Get It,” with all three singers (including the lady in red) wailing away. Begley and Umlauf tore into “Superstitious,” which led to “Psycho Killer” and then “Monster Mash,” a raucous version with Stallworth’s gospel voice soaring skyward. They closed with a fine “I Put a Spell On You.”
Finally, it was time to shlep over to the barn stage for the final offering from The Firewater Tent Revival. I’ve seen them several times, always a delight, but this was, one more time, transformative. The addition of — who else — Aaron Glueckauf and Brandon Howell dramatically evolved this band. Nigel Ledford would like his band to be considered for late-night slots rather than afternoon ones at festivals (whenever they return en masse), and that’s exactly what he has now.
The band had expanded to include Beartoe on acoustic guitar and Phil Pan on violin (fiddle, whatever). AS stepped out on the first tune before it collided into “Give Up the Funk” and then “West L.A. Fadeaway” (its third Monster Mash iteration). There were so many outstanding songs with even better titles, such as “I Believe I’ll Have Another Beer” and “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breathe.” Somehow all of that morphed into “Rockit” and then “Short’nin’ Bread.”
Vocalist 1 was playing a washboard on “Let Me Drink,” followed by a great old rock&roll tune with Ledford’s banjo, Pan on fiddle, and AS on alto sax. An enormous jam developed out to “I Feel Like I Might Have ODed,” which fell into “Eleanor Rigby,” a Pink Floyd song, and a version of “Mama Don’t ’Llow” on steroids, leading to the vocal ensemble singing “Mary Jane.” And one last time for “I’ll See You in the Morning, Lord; I’ll See You All in Hell.”
Of course, absolutely NONE of this would have been possible without the crew who threw the party. Blame Tom Laws first, because it was his idea to “fill the void.” He worked tirelessly in the two months leading up to the event and then almost every second of the event (he was spotted dancing a time or three). And Laws, a neophyte in the concert and festival business, could not possibly have chosen a better second in command than Megan Baker, a veteran of numerous campaigns and a never-ending source of energy, love, and knowledge. Add Clint McLellan to that list as business partner, webmaster, and online guru.
Two of the people most attendees met as they arrive were Terry and David Laws, Tom’s parents. Mama Terry was queen of the ticket booth, and her relentless smile was an indication that we had indeed come to the right place, while David jetted around on his golf cart (four-wheeler?) doing what needed to get done.
Ginny Laws, Tom’s sister, and her husband, Wes Emfinger, manned the merch tent all weekend. Johnny-on-the-spot was Noah Buckhouse, Tom’s cousin. Thanks to Matt Murray as well.
An event like this requires sponsors, and the contribution Sam Durham and Carve Vodka made to this festival cannot be overstated. Thank you for stepping up to ensure the success of this festival.
Receptor Sound and Lighting has established itself as a national-class company, and their participation always guarantees the most professional work. Joe Donnelly was again brilliant with lighting, and Monster Mash was fortunate that Billy Strings could loan Andy Lytle back to Receptor to run impeccable sound.
Add to these the dozens of volunteers who directed traffic, did clean-up, worked the hospitality tent, manned the VIP entrances, and handled many more tasks that a festival demands.
Tom, Megan, and crew: Just let us know when we plan to regroup!