Concert review: Lotus Festival, Sept. 2009

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Will the Lotus Music and Arts Festival, the annual celebration of global culture and beats held last week in Bloomington, turn you into a lesbian? Most geneticists would say no. But a 40-something Bloomington woman I met Saturday night at the Festival says she heard differently.

We were standing underneath a sliver of awning off of Kirkwood Ave., both of us trying to avoid a steady rain. From our dry vantage point, we watched an increasingly-soaked punk marching band and flag corps ready themselves for a puddle-hopping march through blocked-off streets.

She said she had avoided Lotus for 15 of its 16 years. And even when she resolved to go this year, her cousin snidely derided the event as a gathering of "hippies and queers." "It's just about music!" she appealed to me. (And of course, all manner of non-comformists come to hear the music, some of whom identify as hippie, queer or both, some as plain vanilla as they come.)

Well, to echo a theme from Matt Socey's review of Indy Jazz Fest - good on you, my short-lived awning neighbor. Good on you for stepping out of your comfort zone and acknowledging that, not only is there a world of music out there that's not commercially viable, but that it comes to your backyard once a year. Good on you for not being an ugly American, for helping to open up your community to the best of those "world" music acts travelling through the country this month, for helping to make successful a festival that operates on a shoestring.

Because, even if we may not quite accept that we're in flyover territory, we certainly get skipped over by a lot that's worth hearing, seeing and experiencing. Take the two string bands that played the Earth House last Tuesday night, Luminescent Orchestrii and Fishtank Ensemble, both of which would have fit perfectly into Lotus's lineup of both traditional groups from around the world and "fusion" ensembles from right at home (they're in the fusion camp). As one Orchestrii member stood before a not-so-substantial crowd of 25 - many of whom hadn't paid after descending from the rather noisy Contra dance held simultaneously in the upstairs sanctuary - he appealed to people to pony up for a ticket, noting that because it's almost cost-prohibitive for "world" music groups like his to play the middle of the country, they usually don't. (And it would have been nice if a few more people could have seen, for instance, the Fishtank Ensemble's scintillating violin theatrics or flawless and multiple octave-ranging soprano.)

But back to Bloomington. I made it to the second night of Lotus, which was barely compromised by a steady rain because even the outdoor shows were held under tents. (If a tent wouldn't be feasible, could the Jazz Fest invest in a giant tarp for next year, or perhaps a geodesic weather bubble out of the dreams of Buckminster Fuller?)

The festival takes over downtown Bloomington without much impeding traffic, with three outdoor tents - down from a maximum of four tents with a free stage a few years back - and a network of indoor venues - including a theater, nightclub and church sanctuaries - hosting shows. The vibe is comparable to the Fringe Fest, but a bit more vibrant; it must take the slightly anti-establishment thrill of populating a roped-off street with a parade, of walking freely from one event to another, to engender the kind of spontaneity and sense of forging one's own path that makes a festival work.

While everything under a roof was still just as much fun, the outdoor art garden, populated by human-like figures constructed with streamers and other degradable material, did not survive the storm, and the folks cleaning up before the festival was over looked like the bedraggled amassing piles of trash after Woodstock.

While Lotus is certainly about the music and art, it would be a bit unfair to critically review the bands, particularly if one followed my ethos and that of about half of the folks I talked to - see as much as possible, leaving behind even something magical to see if something else might be magical in a different way. But I'll give you an idea of my night.

I started off with BLK JKS, a South African psych-rock band signed to Bloomington indie label Secretly Canadian playing in a tent beside the venerable community radio station WFHB. Classic psych with plenty of reverb, echoed vocals, heavy bass, aggressive drums, BLK JKS (pronounced Black Jacks) appropriately asked the crowd to join them on a journey to the end of the rainbow in outer space, or something to that effect, though they may have played a little early in the evening to induce trance states in not-yet-primed listeners.

Indian percussionist Srinivas Krishnan, a Lotus regular, brought along a backing band - Madras Broadcast - to perform songs hundreds years old on both modern and ancient instruments, with endurance tests met by two young saxophonists who shared the melody with a violinist.

Kinobe & Soul Beat Africa played Ugandan music that was similarly poised between tradition and modernity, the singer a virtuoso on thumb piano and the balafon (a gourd-based cousin of the marimba), the bassist plucking afro-beat on his fully-electrified guitar. The Bluebird should have been the spot for a dance party going well into the night, played by Kinobe or any of the dance-friendly bands at Lotus. Instead, the stage was cleared for the Sublime tribute band, and those of us living in the now headed to other venues.

So the dance headed to the outdoor tents, hosting marching bands, a one-man band and electrotango. I chose electrotango, played by Argentina's Bajofondo, who struck me as that country's answer to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with a video screen, syncopated light show and heavy bass and drums. It wasn't quite my speed, so I closed the night with Vishten, an Acadian band with native French speakers, one of whom un-idiomatically explained for us a slang term about the male member, whose shrinkage was detailed in one traditional number. They were exactly what you expect out of a band chosen for Lotus - adventurous enough to include recently-composed numbers in the Acadian tradition, while technically masterful, particularly on upbeat reels or Cajun tunes. And chances are, unless they come back to Lotus in the next year or two, you won't hear them in Indiana for a good long while. - Scott Shoger

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