Walking toward Denton's Courthouse-on-the-Square on the first night of this year's 35 Conferette, there was little way of knowing what surprises were to come over the course of the fun-filled, and, at times, aggravating, opening night.
At around 7:15 p.m., which was well after dark, an eerie ambiance enrobed the areas surrounding the locations of Dan's Silverleaf, the Miller Lite Outdoor Stage, which was just to the side of Dan's, and the Dos Equis Main Stage, just up the road in the large Wells Fargo parking lot. With what seemed to be a dearth of outdoor lighting and an even greater dearth of music being played -- due to a delay in the start of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's set and the ending of the Secret Sisters Dos Equis stage set -- people were milling about in sparse numbers in an odd, lackadaisical manner.
Such isn't what one would typically expect from the opening night of a much-anticipated festival -- especially one that has managed to produce tremendous verve on previous opening nights, even in spite of bad weather, in some cases. Of course, the ultimate cure for a music festival with no music to be heard is easy: Mavis Staples.
Opening with a revelatory, a capella gospel number, Staples won the crowd over in about 30 seconds with her legendary soul and spirit. She managed to endear the crowd even more when she poked fun at the massive amounts of beards she spotted in the city.
On the other hand, by starting her set about 20 or so minutes late, Staples foreshadowed a trend for the night throughout the festivities: For whatever reason, many of the venues seemed to suffer from issues that simply threw their schedules for the night off.
At J&J's Pizza, the sound of music screaming from the famous basement was encouraging, as it meant the set had likely started on time. But the band playing, the primarily instrumental doom-metal act Magnum Octupus from Denton, wasn't the scheduled 8:30 p.m. act for that venue -- Kaboom, originally scheduled for that slot according to the official program, played the venue later. But, in some cases, instances like these gave way to a more welcome trend being developed -- being pleasantly surprised by a band.
Across the street, at Banter, another late-starting set sent attendees flipping through their programs. Dim Locator occupied the 9:15 slot that was thought to be reserved for Curvette. Using an electric kick-drum, Will Kapinos' offering as Dim Locator was pretty righteous. A little bit later on in the night, Sweetwater introduced an all-too familiar sight: An empty stage when a band is supposed to be playing on it. Eventually, Pinebox Serenade started their set -- but, thanks to some serious issues with the venue's sound, they had to cut their set sadly short (about 13 minutes after starting). It was definitely unfortunate, as certain members of perhaps Denton's most well-bearded band were clearly in for making a real go of it. Thursday was clearly not their night.
Indeed, this night was full of quirky twists and turns.
And, in what was clearly proof that both The Labb and Eaton Lake Tonics received the same memo that so many other venues and band's received, the last gig ever for Eaton Lake Tonics was still going strong when the scheduled 10:50 p.m. slot assigned to The Hope Trust was to begin. Sensing that things would be a bit behind for a while at the sports-a-riffic The Labb, a quick hop back over to Banter revealed that the local math-rocking trio Curvette had finally taken the stage, a full hour-and-a-half past when the program had claimed they would. But not only was Curvette's groove-intensive post-rock equal parts atmospheric and bombastic, they also easily offered the lyrical line of the night: "I've got a monkey on my back / my monkey is my back."
Over at Andy's, a little after 11 o'clock, the pleasant surprises continued, with Bravo, Max! at the Manhandler Showcase. Unlike with Pinebox Serenade earlier, this accordion-wielding band was given the chance to make the most of it. Their pop-rocking yet eclectic melodies were tight, and made it easy to see why kind words have been spreading about this outfit for some time now.
Now, back at the Labb (sounds cool, doesn't it?), it was time to settle in a bit and let the night come to us, frankly. As The Hope Trust ended their set, triumphantly displaying some of their new, more full-sounding material, the night seemed to actually be getting back on time, shockingly.
While still running a bit behind, the one-man acoustical band from Boerne, Texas, Possessed By Paul James (born Konrad Wert), popped on top of his personally handmade, wooden percussion stomp-box and began to saw on the fiddle as he jerked his head back and forth and yelped intermittently. It's easy to see where folks get the idea that he channels the spirits of some devilish musical gods when he performs. And, while some momentum-killing tuning issues hampered his performance a bit, instances like his performance of "Feed the Family" (see above) made it easy to feel as though a set only needs to be four or five songs long -- if it's going to be as intense as his was.
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Since Wert is an elementary school teacher in his Hill Country hometown, he had to end his set -- gasp! -- on time, so he could return home in time to teach. Of course, that just made room for one of Denton's biggest bands of rock heroes, Slobberbone.
Hitting the Labb's outdoor stage at 1 a.m. sharp, with a cool, 50-degree blanket of air covering the few dozen loyals, a brilliantly bearded Brent Best (really: he looked as though he had just returned from a Grizzly Adams impersonator convention) and crew tore through an hour of songs which span their entire catalog. "Placemat Blues," "I'll Be Damned," "Barrel Chested," and "Engine Joe" were among the favorites that were belted as loud from the fans lining the stage as they were from the guys performing on it.
Oh, and to add even more to the evening's pleasant musical surprises, before Slobberbone's set, Best told us that his solo album will be done this spring and that Slobberbone will finally hit the studio this summer to record their first new record in almost a decade.
Leave it up to two sure-things to ensure that Night One of this year's 35 Conferette wasn't a complete bust -- the resplendent, joyous soul of Mavis Staples, and the sweaty, unhinged late-night antics of Slobberbone.