Every few years, at irregular intervals and in different towns, a horde of psychedelic musicians descends on a single venue. There, this bearded army holds court for three days and three nights of howling drone and delicate folk, and then departs, exhausted and happy. The event, known as Terrastock, is entirely different from every other music festival: in its communal vibe; its tightly connected network of bands and spectators; its focus on psyche and improv and folk; and its wholly noncommercial character. The current iteration, the sixth since Terrastock began in 1997, is set to take place in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 21-23, and as Michael Gibbons of Bardo Pond, who has performed at all five Terrastocks to date put it, "Go. If you like psychedelic music, you can't have a better time."
A brief history
The original Terrastock took place nine years ago, in a warehouse building in the Olyneyville section of Providence called Atlantic Mills, about a mile from the current Terrastock 6 venue, The Pell Chafee Performance Center at AS220. The festival was conceived as a way to raise money for The Ptolemaic Terrascope , the UK-based magazine founded by editor Phil McMullen and publisher Nick Salomon of the Bevis Frond to cover experimental and psychedelic music. "By the late 1990s, they were experiencing some money issues and they weren't sure if they could continue the magazine, so there were a lot of things that fans all over the world did," explained Jeffrey Alexander, who is organizing Terrastock 6 and who has appeared at several of the festivals with the Iditarod and his current project Black Forest/Black Sea. "There were some people in Texas that put together comp CDs as a benefit to raise money and then there were some people in Providence at the time in 1996 that decided to organize this festival. The whole idea, originally, was that...to raise money for the magazine. But it didn't actually raise any money."
The first Terrastock was special, Gibbons explained, because it set the pattern for the event, drawing a diverse array of bands that linked past and present psychedelic traditions. "I don't want to compare and contrast, because the newer ones are cool, too, but the first one was wild because it had a lot of bands that had a real connection to the late 1960s and early 1970s psyche experience," he said. Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine appeared at the original Terrastock, breaking a nearly 30-year retirement from music. Alexander, who appeared at the 1997 festival, counts playing finger cymbals with Tom Rapp's band that year as one of his all-time Terrastock highlights. That year's line-up also included Flying Saucer Attack, The Bevis Frond, Neutral Milk Hotel, Cul de Sac and, after a bit of maneuvering, Windy & Carl, who have gone on to perform in every Terrastock to date.
Windy recalled T1 this way, by e-mail. "Well, I remember someone telling us we were going to be invited, (probably Ben Goldberg at Ba Da Bing!), but we never heard anything. It was getting very close to the fest, and we finally gave up hoping to be invited, when suddenly we heard Bowery Electric had dropped out and we were offered their spot," she wrote. "So we grabbed some friends, and drove out to Providence. Carl had broken his leg that January, and our friends had to help us drive out and carry all the equipment. But we made it, and we played the very first night, and we played to 500+ people who actually LISTENED, which was nothing we were used to at all." She added, "It was very magical and unbelievable, and still seems dreamy to this day."
'A fantastic, beautiful experience'
Subsequent Terrastocks have been held in San Francisco (1998), London (1999), Seattle (2000), Cambridge (2002) and this year, again in Providence, each time drawing a broad array of experimental bands and taking on some of the character of the city where they are held. "The environmental factors change, but the vibe is the same," Gibbons said. "It's a really special vibe. The only thing that's different is really the environment, how cool the venue is or the town is. They've all been fantastic, beautiful experiences."
Despite its origins as a fund-raiser, says Alexander, the festival has never done more than cover its costs, succeeding more as an experience than as a business enterprise. The ticket money goes toward travel expenses, hotels and gear. None of the artists are paid, yet many of them return festival after festival. "It's always just been like a thing where everyone around the world that's into this underground experimental, psychedelic folky stuff will get together and just have a great time and it's just a big break-even party."
Moreover, with festivals springing up everywhere – the like-minded Million Tongues in Chicago and Arthurfest in Los Angeles – Terrastock veterans still insist that theirs is different. "The biggest difference is how immediate everything is," Windy said. "You can talk to any band there. You can sit and have lunch with them. You can stand next to them in the audience while watching a diff band on stage. All the patrons LOVE music, and all the bands involved LOVE music, and all three days are hundreds of people listening to great music, talking about music, staying up all night talking about music, and being friendly. Everyone is down to earth. Everyone is approachable. There is generally no attitude from anyone performing, and it's just very friendly and happy for three days."
Alexander added that Terrastock is also unique in that it draws together so many hard-to-see bands in one festival. "A lot of the people that are playing are the kind of underground musicians that will make records and work in a record store for their day jobs and put out albums, but it's not the kind of music where it's feasible to go out on tour…not in every case, obviously, but in a lot of cases.”
This year, for instance, Finnish folk collective Avarus, will make its only U.S. appearance at Terrastock, as will fellow Finns in Kemialliset Ystävät. Japan's Ghost may or may not be playing its last show ever at the Festival, said Alexander, noting that communications with the band have been contradictory. "Bato, who is the leader, for several months was saying it would be the last show that Ghost would ever play, and as such he specifically requested that he play as the last performer on the main stage on the last night, because he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory," he explained. "Then I started getting some sort of cryptic emails that said, well, it's going to be our last U.S. show until Bush is out of office. And then the last thing I heard was that he specifically requested the Ghost listing to say, 'last ever USA appearance...maybe.'" But regardless of Ghost's future, the show is the only U.S. appearance for 2006. All seven band members are flying from Tokyo to Providence for two days and then returning home.
Cross-fertilization and collaboration
Terrastock has also, historically, been a Petri dish for artistic experimentation, the byproduct of so many bands and musicians coming together in a relaxed and receptive environment. "Every Terrastock has informal jam sessions, things that aren't on the schedule, where musicians get together and play," said Alexander, pointing in particular to an unplanned session at Terrastock 1 involving musicians from Bardo Pond, Azusa Plane and David Pearce from Flying Saucer Attack. Gibbons, who participated, added, "It was in this big room where the food and a lot of the merch tables were. It's common at these kinds of gatherings for different guys to just get together and jam and stuff. Yeah, but we all just went up there cold and did this kind of drone and it was a fantastic experience." The session was recorded and later released on CD, though Gibbons questioned whether a disc could ever capture an experience like that. "It kind of translated on the CD, but for us, it was just kind of…we were freaked out and blown away."
Even just meeting the other bands can be a highlight, said Windy. "I loved being able to talk to the guys in Mudhoney and borrow their guitars when we played in Seattle," he remembered. "How cool is that? I started learning how to play bass to Sonic Youth and Mudhoney songs, and years later at the Seattle Terrastock got to borrow Mudhoney's guitars. Very fun!!"
Finnish folk and lost 60s icons
Terrastock's highlights this year will include first-time ever US appearances by Finnish folk-drone bands Avarus and Kemialliset Ystävät. Neither band will be playing any other shows during this brief U.S. trip, so fans of their free-wheeling mix of psychedelic rock, free jazz, krautrock and noise, should start checking Providence hotel vacancies now.
This year's schedule also makes room for a number of more intimate, folk-blues artists including Fahey-esque finger pickers Jack Rose from Pelt and Glenn Jones from Cul de Sac. P.G. Six, from Tower Recording, will be bringing a band and performing songs from his upcoming album on Drag City, while dark folk banjo-picker Sharron Kraus will be appearing with Black Dove partner Christian Kiefer.
As in previous years, older artists connect 1960s and ’70s folk psychedelia with the current scene. Tom Rapp from Pearls Before Swine will perform again at this year's festival, as will Bridget St. John, whose early 1970s records have recently been reissued by Cherry Red.
From Alexander's label, SecretEye, the four-person, all-female, extreme-folk collective Spires That In The Sunset Rise will make their first Terrastock appearance. Bardo Pond, Kinski, Windy & Carl and the Major Stars will be back for repeat appearances.
On the Thursday before Terrastock, a show with Acid Mothers Temple, a reunited Abunai, and Boston-area improv'ers Bright will kick off the weekend, though it is not included in the ticket price and open to the public.
As always, the bands run the gamut from amplified drone to acoustic folk, with instrumentation ranging from simple acoustic guitars to timpani, vibraphones and exotic world instruments. Yet, Bardo Pond's Gibbons said that he sees them all as part of the same continuum. "It goes back to the 1960s. I don't know. There's some kind of chemical releases that come out of the brain that come out of all kinds of music…whether it's quiet or loud and droney. It seems to have this effect on the pleasure centers of the brain.”
"There's almost some kind of trigger," he added, struggling to put what's common about Terrastock bands into words. "It sends you into a place…you might go down a road of thought that you never thought before, or see insights into something you've been wondering about or remember things that you haven't remembered. There's some kind of trigger in it that makes your consciousness flow…there are automatic associations or something. There's something about music that…I don't know, I'll just really get lost in some other world, and I'll realize that the music is triggering these images in my mind. For me that's the kind of music I'm attracted to."
Tickets for the three-day festival cost $110; one-day passes are also available at $35 for Friday, $45 each for Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, and for a complete schedule of bands, click here.
By Jennifer Kelly