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October 17, 2007
Today, a decade after the seminal Lollapalooza brand lost whatever credibility the original concept still held, the face of the modern music festival has changed dramatically, expanding to include countless gatherings of diverse contexts and proportions. Perry Farrell's brainchild has been resurrected in a scaled-back, non-traveling form, boutique-style events like Treasure Island [click links for LAS coverage] are popping up, the mobile LSD circuses like Summer Camp and Wakarusa are catering to ever-increasing crowds of granola types, the alt-/indie circuit is burgeoning with the likes of Pitchfork and Noise Pop, and a host of festivals like All Tomorrow's Parties have taken the revolving flavor approach with each year's lineup hand-picked by a curator.

The Echo Project (photo recap) shares some of the typical festival clichés - throwing personal hygiene to the wind, watching everyone suddenly become vegetarian, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals and narcotics - but it also has a serious advantage over most of its contemporaries in that it follows through on the eco-friendly ethos and delivers everything from post-consumer recycled cups down to the little details such as the press stickers, which were made with biodegradation in mind. Bringing some 10,000 visitors to the small valley outside of Atlanta (compared with the nearly 65,000 daily visitors to the Austin City Limits 3-day event), the vibes were all-around positive due to the event's authentic cozy nature, which also made the performances more intimate. Spread across three stages and running over the course of three days, Georgia's 2007 running of the Echo Project promised a diverse and high-power lineup to go along with its outside-the-box thinking and the wholesome atmosphere of the private Bouckaert Farm acreage where it was to be held, way down yonder on the Chattahoochee River.

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Friday 10.12
The weekend kicked off with a set from Benevento-Russo Duo in the Solar Tent. Contrary to their reputation, I would like to set the record straight concerning this band's belonging in the jam band world - they don't. Based around a duo of organ and drums, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo's structures are terribly rich, the pair sounding more like a quartet than a duo. At Echo Project their ambient, distorted Rhodes progressions built around pulsating drum-tracks, combining for an organic mix of electronica and analog sound. While they have garnered many comparisons to Medeski Martin and Wood, the duo quite frankly are more deserving of recognition from fans of The Album Leaf or Tortoise.

Following Benevento-Russo, the carnivalesque presence of The Polyphonic Spree crowded the stage, the members draped in their army costumes, playing tracks from their latest record The Fragile Army as well as calling up material from their back catalogue. Although they still put on a show of enlightenment, one which many could rightly call a religious experience, the Spree's new outfits - changed to some garish revolutionary fatigues motif from very holy-looking robes - brought a less serious tone to the stage. It was also hard to convince a crowd that seemed primed for the rare treat of experience about to go down across the grassy field.

Like he had sucked up the Polyphonic energy before he even went on, GZA (The Genius) was dead-on, mixing up a set full of tracks from his infamous Liquid Swords LP, his debut Words From the Genius, and old Wu-Tang favorites. His flow and stage presence, without fancy lights or a cliché backdrop, held the crowd's attention for the duration of his set - it was without a doubt the Genius and his words that reigned supreme on Friday. Mid-way through the set Slick Rick, draped in excessive jewelry and sporting the same threads he was two decades ago, broke down for a mini-set, dusting off crowd favorites "La-Di-Da-Di" and "Children's Story" for a mass of old-school hip-hop heads.

After the GZA, I had the good fortune of scoring a Flaming Lips dance pass, which I was informed meant that I would be in a giant inflatable Santa Clause costume later that night. Between the euphoria of such a career-making theatrical performance and drinking from a cache of local Sweetwater Beer that found its way to the Media Tent instead of the Artist Tent (best accident of the weekend), the possibility of me losing my proverbial shit on the first night was very real.

The waiting in the lead-up to the Lips' set was unbearable, so the Bohannon crew holed up in the artist lounge with a bottle of Jack Daniels until the time came. When called up for my performance, I was warned about the chance of epileptic seizures brought on by the lights, then promptly handed a giant jet-pack to wear inside the 10-foot tall non-porous inflatable Santa. And so it was that I found myself running amok for the next hour, with a stomach full of straight Tennessee Whiskey and a load of Atlanta-brewed heaven in a cup. Although my field of vision inside the suit included only the 12 inches or so directly in front of me, I managed to wiggle my way around and pull it off looking famously in the process. Experiencing the Flaming Lips from the stage is a whole other animal - looking out into a sea of crazed fans is something The Flaming Lips experience every night they play out, and it is something I will forever be envious of. In Georgia the band ripped through usual setlist inclusions such as "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," "She Don't Use Jelly," and "Fight Test." The confetti flew, the horns blew, and the giant bubble floated through space - it was a beautiful extravaganza of unparalleled quantity that marked the highlight of at least one Santa's weekend, if not his entire life.

Bringing an end to my hanging around backstage and getting pictures and chatting it up with Mr. Wayne Coyne, The Album Leaf commenced their set across the way, delivering their reverberated melodies into a night of brisk weather - the perfect combination and come down from the Flaming Lips high. As the joints blazed and feet slowly shuffled, Jimmy LaVelle and company played glitch-Rhodes melodies new and old, their setlist running from the debut record, An Orchestrated Rise to Fall, to the latest, Into the Blue Again, and each cut carried more of a presence live than on tape. As the day ended, we made our way across the small valley into our dew-dappled tents to freeze the night away, laying and reminiscing about the day's absurdly fun qualities.


Saturday 10.13
Waking up on Saturday was sort of like waking up in a never-ending dream. Friday night's events were still a bit surreal, but realizing there was still music to be heard helped ease the shock and set the day into motion.

Son Volt had the misfortune of playing to a worn-down Saturday afternoon crowd. Jay Farrar and the band embraced the atmosphere and looked just as relaxed as their audience. The seasoned veterans they are, it was evident they know how to read a crowd and played directly to them. The vast majority of their set was built around this year's The Search, but they proved to have a few tricks up their collective sleeve, playing tracks from their Warner Bros. days with Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo.

Back in 2005 I could be heard maintaining that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah got entirely too big entirely too fast, a trajectory which didn't allow them the time to develop a tight live show. Considering our rocky past, I was a bit weary of how it would be seeing them on Saturday, but was thankfully impressed by their solidity. It seems as if, two years on, the band has eased in to a comfort zone on the stage, songs like "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" standing out as having improved dramatically since the days of their self-released debut.

In the traditional sense a festival wouldn't be a festival without a few scheduling conflicts - and the Cat Power/Brazilian Girls/Thievery Corporation conundrum was by and large the most significant of the weekend. Hopping into the photo pit, I managed to catch the beginning of a triple-threat of beautiful women, starting off with Sabina Sciubba (Brazilian Girls) in a rabbit suit which soon became a jumpsuit which exposed a bit more than I believe even she intended. Then came the sexy-soul groove set from Cat Power and the Dirty Delta Blues band - members of Delta 72, The Dirty Three, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Chan Marshall seeming anxious as ever and hesitant to face the crowd. Once started, Marshall's voice is enough to carry a show, especially one that starts with a cover of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Cat Power was strong, but the real action was going down courtesy of the Thievery Corporation set, which featured different singers throughout, changing as the mood shifted stylistically. Everything, ranging from dancehall to Mid-Eastern to down-tempo styles, was included in the set, which garnered the most visible fan appreciation response of the weekend. Did I mention the tremendously attractive belly dancers? Thievery Corporation pulled out all the stops.

Common was the special guest of the weekend, and the rejuvenated Chicago artist delivered a 45-minute set that few came close to touching over the weekend. "Testify" was the showstopper, with freestyled, flowing verses and lyrical dramatics that brought the crowd into a frenzy, while "People" - off of this years critically acclaimed Finding Forever - left its staple in the night as well. Common was unfortunately driven off the stage before the crowd had its fill, his slot curtailed at the Killers' scheduled time (we all know how whiny that Brandon Flowers gets). Suffice it to say that 95.6% of the ensuing set consisted of Flowers pompously throwing his hands up in the air, with a private port-a-john in the back reading "Killers Only" that was locked off to everyone else.

The real headlining action of the night and the surprise performance of the weekend belonged to MSTRKRFT and Miami's Lazaro Casanova. The tent was bumpin' through the night with MSTRKRFT's blend of hard-hitting borderline deep-house beats and Casanova's sample-based, Daft Punk inspired concoctions. Attendees didn't seem to be focused on the stage at all, where the three performers sat perched with individual bottles of Jack Daniels, but instead concentrated on dancing the night away. There were several moments when I braced for nudity as the low frequency beats threatened to blow the clothes straight off my body, and by all accounts Saturday night was another success for Echo Project.


Sunday 10.14
The last day of a festival should always be reserved as the day to explore and take it easy. On Sunday I ventured to the Experience Tent to check in on the weekend's various workshops on the advantages of bio-diesel fuels and those led by students from the Southern Energy Network. The good folks at Sustainable Waves had also set up solar panels that would run the Solar stage throughout the weekend. Festival favorites, Clean Vibes were also on hand to take care of diverting as much as waste possible by means of recycling. By all accounts the weekend planners seemed committed to making the festival grounds truly environmentally safe, a dramatic contrast to other larger festivals (no need to mention names) which strive for a green badge of authenticity but ultimately fall short.

As for the music on Sunday? Frankly, quite under-whelming. RJD2 and Man Man battled it out for fans on two different stages, both putting on phenomenal sets. Man Man, who had to have been one of the most talked about "to see" bands of the weekend, brought their unique brand of cabaret-Tom-Waits-inspired-high-energy music, while RJD2 went back to his roots by pulling out the four turntable setup and spinning for the duration of his set.

Through a string of strong albums for the venerable Merge label, Texas indie darlings Spoon have risen to the elite ranks of the indie literati, but after their run through Echo Project I certainly could not attest for their merits as a touring band. Although I do find myself a fan of their recordings, the band's live show is among the most derivative and mundane I've experienced in my concert-going existence. Put some energy into it fellas, or do us a favor and get off the festival circuit - we're quite happy with your studio work!

While we're on the subject of over-hyped performers, the same could be said for The Roots as well. I understand that they are pleasing crowds by doing the same Bob Dylan "Masters of War"/ Jimi Hendrix "Machine Gun" medley they have been doing for quite some time now, and that those cold and choreographed tactics work well for high profile artists on worldwide arena tours. But the entire point of the festival circuit is to provide unique experiences, and accordingly artists have got to bring their A-game and forgo doling out the same shit over and over. The guitar gimmicks are cute for a bit, but the Roots' performance was disappointing, especially for a group with more potential than one can even imagine.

After packing up shop and waving our goodbyes, we drove away to Phil Lesh and Friends playing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - the perfect way to cap off the festival. This year the Echo Project served as a true testament to how quintessential small festivals are; how much more of a pleasure they are to attend than the massive summer outings, and how innovative an experience they can be. Live long and prosper, Echo Project - we'll see you next year!


REMINDER: Be sure to check out a photo recap for images from some of the Echo Project highlights.

SEE ALSO: www.the-echoproject.com

--
John Bohannon
An LAS contributing writer based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, John Bohannon is also a regular contributor to the pages of Prefixmag.com, Daytrotter.com, and Impose Magazine.

See other articles by John Bohannon.

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