Guest Written by Vera Lee Mandić
Photos by Aaron Bradley
Ever since STS9 had a rebirth of sorts in 2014 when Alana Rocklin joined the band, hopes of their first festival since 2011 have always been prevalent. Dreams came to life when Wave Spell was announced a mere three months before it was scheduled to take place in Belden Town, CA. From that point on details would roll out sparingly and sporadically, adding a sense of mystery (and a little bit of worry) to what was about to take place. Will this be organized? Will the weather hold up? Can this small town really handle 1200 bloodthirsty tribe fans? Is this really gonna be worth the money, time and effort needed to get there? With so many questions looming, the one thing we all knew going in was that for better or worse this was going to be a weekend that would not soon be forgotten.
Right off the bat, getting into the festival was a total nightmare. Everyone was made aware ahead of time that our vehicles would have to be parked at a satellite lot (10 miles away) and then get shuttled inside the venue. Groups of people had to endure 90-degree heat while waiting upwards of 4 hours until they were finally able to hop on a shuttle. I overheard one girl say “This is the worst festival ever.” and she hadn’t even gotten her camp set up yet. Tensions were incredibly high for some. Even my group’s eternal optimist was starting to crack at the very end. However long the process took, once you were in and set up it felt like a victory. You did it. The only thing that mattered now was that you were with your friends in a beautiful setting and Sound Tribe was playing their first set in a few short hours.
Shortly after the clock struck midnight, Tribe took the stage for their first of 3 ‘Wave Spell Live’ sets. These sets were dubbed as straight improv. STS9 in their rawest form. There was a lot of hype surrounding these sets and rightfully so. The theme of night 1 was definitely funk. They came out hard and they came out dirty. It was an hour of music that was so crisp that it is truly mind-blowing that it was all improv. Within 15 minutes, somebody standing next to me exclaimed in pure jubilation “this is exactly what I came for!”. Set 1 was fantastic but was merely a precursor for the next 3 nights that were to follow.
One of the most unique aspects of Belden Town is the river flows right next to it. This river could only be described as a godsend in that it was a total escape from the brutal heat that preoccupied the daytime hours. Giant floaties that ranged from unicorns to mechanical bulls acted as an oasis for the hundreds of people that would spend a fat chunk of their afternoon in the water. The vibe on Friday was wild as certain patrons (aka mostly my friends) were blasting unsuspecting floaters with water guns. Even members of the band’s family got in on the action including Jeffree’s wife and daughter. Watching Free’s daughter dump a bucket of water on my friend’s head in response to him spraying her with the gun was one of the cutest and most wholesome things I have ever seen. All the while the bass music playing at the beach stage (which ranged from trap beats to deep house) created the perfect soundtrack to a gorgeous, sunny day.
If you weren’t in the water on Friday, it’s probably because you were preoccupied with Beef Spell. Beef Spell started off as a joke on Facebook and ended up evolving into quite the happening. About 100 people showed up to the designated grilling area to judge a handful of Tribe fans on the quality of their meat. With bragging rights and a pretty sick trophy (what’s up, Live As Time Changes) on the line, everything was at steak. I, unfortunately, didn’t show up until the end but managed to eat a couple succulent scraps. If Beef Spell isn’t apart of the festivities next year my taste buds will be very disappointed. After a long day of swimming, beef and whatever else was done to make time go faster, 3 more sets of 9 were upon us.
On August 7th, the Murphy Fire ignited in Quincy. With it only being 1.5 miles from Belden, there were legitimate concerns that the fest might not take place. Thankfully the wildfire was contained in relatively quick fashion and the show went on as planned. In a moment that can only be described as proper, STS9 opened their first regular set with “Firewall” as the crowd roared in excitement. They followed that up with “Water Song”. While some will say that it was symbolic of water washing away fire, I personally think it was a friendly jab at Curveball. Phish’s festival that was scheduled to take place the same weekend was forced to cancel one day before “due to water quality issues on site”. Wave Spell also ended up selling about 150 additional passes after the cancellation. So maybe it was less of a jab and more of a shout out? Friday night set 1 definitely carried over that same funky vibe from Thursday. The “Frequencies” suite was when things really kicked into high gear and was followed by the short but always powerful “This, Us”. Ever been to a biker bar in space that also has Vampires? That’s where “This, Us” lives in the spectrum of sound. “Be Pulse” followed and said “yo gimme your heart so I can tug on it and make you feel everything.” When The Dust Settles Reprise > Wave Spell finished off an emotional first set that left myself and everyone I talked to saying “what the actual fuck”.
After a wonderfully weird 30 minute set from Richard Devine that featured a naked guy making it up on stage (sober as a judge I’m sure), tribe was back at it for another action packed set. Rent > Red Clay > Rent was out of nowhere and the transitions could not have been more smooth. New Dawn, New Day > Mischief of a Sleepwalker was even smoother. The mischief teases lasted a solid 5 minutes before they finally went into it. “Just do it already!” could be heard not too far behind me and once it was done the place went nuts. Menacer, a newer song, had me wanting to knock down buildings and cause mayhem. A super crisp Hidden Hand Hidden Fist ended the second set of the evening and all that remained was Wave Spell set #2.
Rumors ran rampant all day that Richard Devine would be sitting in with tribe for their Wave Spell set. Devine was a frequent collaborator with the band during their earlier years and when he didn’t sit in with Tribe at Red Rocks last year (he played ‘in the round’ sets just like he was doing here) I was pretty disappointed. Not even 15 minutes into his set the band came back on stage and begun playing with him. A lot of people still hadn’t returned to the stage yet, so it ended up being even more intimate with only a couple hundred people. The vibe of Wave Spell #2 was completely different from #1. This was spacey. This was drawn out. This was alien like. This was everything I wanted it to be. Anybody that knows anything about the jam scene knows that using a term like “dick down” to describe a performance carries serious weight. Friday night was a dick down and left friends of mine saying they could go home now and be satisfied. That’s what a great dick down does.
Saturday not only featured 2 regular sets by the band but also included solo sets from Zach Velmer and David Phipps. After another long day by spent by the water (I almost died trying to be a hotshot on a rope swing but that’s a story for another time), I walked up to the beach stage for Zach. The star of his set was his daughter, Isis. While Zach dj’d, Isis took center stage and stole everybody’s hearts. Dancing around with the purest innocence, people could be seen crying all around because it was just so god damn adorable. In a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life, Zach ended his set with the Chainsmoker’s Coldplay remix and everybody lost their shit. Never thought in a million years I would type that. Phipps’ solo set on the main stage followed shortly after. If I had to pick a favorite member of the band it would be Phipps. His piano playing has brought me to tears on multiple occasions and Sound Tribe simply wouldn’t be Sound Tribe without him. I caught my first feels of the weekend when he played a modular version of Baraka. My eyes were welling up and my best friend asked me if I was ok. “Yeah. That just hit me. Wow.” He ended his set with “Golden Gate” > “No Woman No Cry” > “Golden Gate” > “No Woman No Cry” and everybody left a little more uplifted than when they came in.
Set #5 of the weekend came out smacking with “The Rabble” into a spicy drum and bass version of “Call Jam”. “Vibyl” then went into the original “Call Jam” and back into “Vibyl”, then into the rarely played “Your It”. This made me especially happy for my friend Aaron, who I was with when he heard it for the first time at Red Rocks a few years back and he’s been chasing it ever since. We were separated while it was played in Belden but as soon as he saw me he burst out “I got my Your It’!” and we hugged. Moments like that, man. Set 5 also featured maybe the best version of “MOD” they’ve ever played and one of my personal favorites, “Blu Mood”. Set #6 opened even hotter than #5 with “Surreality” > “EB” > “Orbital” > “Move My Peeps”. All 4 songs flowed so perfectly as one cohesive segment. This was easily one of the best segments I’ve ever seen from them live. The end of set #6 featured the first encore of the weekend. The always classic “Luma Daylight” > “Tokyo” left us beaming. It was another incredible night from Tribe and we still had one more to go.
Sunday came with it the realization that the weekend was almost over. Nobody wanted to leave. This was too perfect. Nothing in the outside world could be enticing enough to make me want to get out of here. With the inevitable a very short time away, all we could do is prepare ourselves for an epic send-off. Wave Spell set #3 kicked off tribe’s first set of the evening. The vibe of this one was, in a word, beautiful. The sunset was a picture perfect orange. The hue from the sky made us feel like we were inside of a burning flame (which for all intents and purposes we kinda were). Out of the 3 Wave Spell sets, this was the hardest to believe that it was straight improv. Later that night I was told by a reliable source that as soon as they left the stage Alana started bursting into tears, simply overcome with raw emotion by the magic they had organically just created. Whether this story was true or not, the power of music is such an incredible thing and was especially felt during this specific sunset.
The final 2 sets of the evening need to be discussed as one. In nearly 120 shows I have never seen the band so zoned in as they were on this night. On paper, this was not a setlist that blew me away by any means. But being there in that moment, with these people and this place, it was easily two of the best tribe sets I’ve ever seen. Everything was methodical. Every note was played with force and purpose. The crowd was hooked in a way we had not been all weekend. “Light Years” > “Roygbiv” was amazing. They brought out Dominic Lalli to sit in on “Grow” and it felt like 2010 again. “F Word” literally froze everyone and had me believing all of Belden Town was about to take off into space and never return. “Rise Above”> “Hubble” was one of the most unbelievably patient and smooth transitions they’ve ever done. I turned to my friend, he looked at me and said: “This is gonna be huge.” It may have been the most poignant statement of the weekend. First song of the encore was “Breathe In” and the longer it went the harder I wept. I’ve used the terms “patient”, “methodical” and “poignant” already but that is exactly what “Breathe In” was to a tee. I hugged my best friend and it was one of the most loving and emotional embraces I’ve ever had with anyone. I was overcome. The final song was “986 Foot Tall Trees” with Dom sitting in once more. They started the weekend appropriately with “Firewall” and they ended it appropriately with 986. And just like that, 9 sets of 9 flew right before our very eyes, ears and hearts.
For 4 days and 4 nights, roughly 1200 people from all over the country descended upon this beautiful place with one thing in common, Sound Tribe Sector 9. As vivid of a picture that I have tried to just paint for you. it still does not come anywhere close to how special this weekend truly was. Expectations were met, exceeded and exceeded again. To ask for anything more from this band would be completely and utterly selfish. This was what it’s all about. I’m still at a loss for words and I somehow managed to write this review. This was a moment in time that will live forever. As I sit at the top of Big Sur and try my best to end this the right way, I cannot help but feel one thing and that is GRATITUDE. I am grateful this band came into my life in 2009. I am grateful for the experiences I’ve had as a result of them. I am grateful for all of the beautiful weirdos they have brought into my life. I am grateful that I got to attend Wave Spell. I am grateful.
Just Thanks, STS9.