Revisiting its original video trailer/teaser, I am reminded that Kingston’s innovative O+ Festival, now flourishing in its fifth year and celebrated far beyond our regional borders, was originally conceived as something stopgap and urgent – in its founders’ own words, a “Band-Aid” measure in “brutal economic times.” In other words, the O+ founders – artists all, of various stripes – were aware at the outset that this community-mediated health-and-art swap meet probably shouldn’t have to exist. It was one community’s novel method of provision, pressed into reality by genuine need. That need proved, as often as not, to be for dentistry.
Because O+ owns such an audacious premise and, after years of growth and refinement, also possesses the proof-of-concept mechanics of a clinical study, let’s get distracted for a moment in its social concept and implications, before we turn over the who, where and when of this year’s super-stocked festival. O+ began as a conceptually simple, one-weekend way of connecting uninsured artists (whose fortunes are always yoked to larger economic tides) with healthcare providers in a loop of service: a festive arts-and-health bazaar in Uptown Kingston, utilizing community spaces and resources and enlisting the support of neighbors to make it all happen.
Health professionals and artists (bands and muralists, mostly) would perform their own unique spells and magics upon each other in a publicly attended, temporarily transformed city environment: “bartering the art of medicine for the medicine of art.” Musicians with bad teeth, repetitive stress tendonitis or “unspecified complaint” (often untreated for years and years) might get a quick fix or be set on the path toward recovery and sustainable health, assuming that they would accept such non-monetary remuneration for their performances (and they have flocked to it in droves). For their service, provided in an ad hoc hipster medical pavilion of sorts (which threatens to become a permanent facility soon), health care professionals of various traditional and complementary kinds were treated to…well, it is harder to say what material benefit was offered to the healthcare side.
For, now, we have stumbled into O+’s secondary premise, its secret mission. The primary motive was and is care for the uninsured and the exposed, and some long-term sustainable provisions for the always-endangered, never-secure creative lifestyle. But just beneath that, O+ is a test: a daring test of the material value of art in an age that is turning art into the fussy division of “content,” and that has eroded the value and price of content nearly to zero, in ways that are well-documented, ongoing and not accidental.
By placing music and murals on the same level as health and vitality, O+ puts a holistic price on art and draws a bold metaphor between physical and cultural health. You could have traded your music for food or clothing or rent defrayment. You could have traded your music for car or computer repair or any number of other essential services. The genius of O+ was finding and highlighting the natural, experiential affinity between health and art as “states.”
Obviously, as a society we understand the primacy of healthcare and we never, ever stop arguing about it; props to O+ for casting light on our aesthetic health (and its own crises) in a way that was all about action and not pontification. On the strength of its uncompromising cultural programming, O+ has become far more than a Band-Aid; it has matured into a new social model as well as a prestigious (and competitive) “starter festival” for bands and artists who have gone on to do bigger things.
Musically (for that’s all I really care about in life), O+ has been nothing short of a local revolution revelation, challenging the mid-Hudson Valley roots ’n’ rock defaults in an entirely collegial way and bringing us an annual megadose of urban indie, arty and the famously obscure. Venues all over Kingston are pressed into service, hosting talents from all over the world, with ample local representation as well.
This year’s big names are a diverse crew, including resident rock star Tony Levin’s Stick Men, the Baroque-pop songwriter Matt Pond and Freeman (the new project of Aaron Freeman, a/k/a Gene Ween). Because O+ has quickly developed prestige as an incubator in the indie world, a lot of the big names on this year’s bill are ones whom we don’t recognize yet. I think of Lucius’ revelatory set at BSP two festivals ago and all that has happened to that band since then. In that spirit, I’ll throw down a bet on the hypermusical Brooklyn band Landlady, which hits this year’s O+ with some accumulating buzz.
<!-nextpage->A recent trend in the O+ methodology has been not only the inclusion of local artists, but also the integration of local art brands and series as well. In past years, BSP hosted a BRAWL arm-wrestling tournament in its cavernous back space as part of O+, and Sari Botton’s popular TMI personal narrative series did its thing as well. This year, New Paltz’s startlingly successful Tin Roof Sessions have ducked in under the O+ umbrella.
In all, this year’s “Correspondence”-themed festival features more than 40 bands and 20 visual artists, a kickoff parade on Friday night, the wellness ExpO+, children’s programming, and ExplO+re: classes in Yoga, Gong Sound Healing, Meditation, Dance and Qigong. New events for 2014 include the community reading of published correspondence while sketching tableaux culled from Outdated Cafe’s collection, Tin Roof Sessions, a dance party in collaboration with Chronogram magazine, a mural-to-mural bike ride for all ages, an 18- and 28-mile rail trail ride and a 50-mile road ride for cycling enthusiasts.
It is a complex weekend, for sure, in keeping with O+ complex premise of community and interdependency. For a lucid breakdown of the idea and its 2014 execution, visit the lavishly outfitted https://kingston.opositivefestival.org, which, like everything associated with this artist-conceived festival, is done with creativity, imagination and great heart.
O+ festival, Friday-Saturday, October 10-12, $35, Uptown Kingston; https://kingston.opositivefestival.org.
O+ Festival features Gary Levitt’s Setting Sun
The Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer Gary Levitt releases his colorful-but-muted psych/folk/rock records (five and counting) under the name Setting Sun. The band alias began during his days as an audio engineer in San Francisco and came with him when he made the pilgrimage back to his college town of New Paltz, where he tended Setting Sun for a number of years while also running the Young Love recording studio and record label out of his country home.
A natural cultural incline leads, or once led, the best and the brightest of the Hudson Valley’s indie scene towards the boroughs, and Levitt, probably recognizing that the majority of his gigs and fans were there, did not resist the gravity. He reestablished the nomadic Young Love in Brooklyn, lucking into a suitable studio space, by his own account, and carrying on his multifarious, independent musical life without much of a hitch – also finding the time to launch a career in standup comedy because he likes the stage, but got tired of moving gear.
Now, thanks to the O+ Festival and a variety of other developments in Kingston, Hudson, Beacon, New Paltz and elsewhere, the resident indie scene in the Valley has grown somewhat lively and somewhat notable, and when Levitt brings Setting Sun up to play at O+ this weekend, he might well be wondering where all this was six years ago. Welcome home, Gary!
Be Here When You Get There (2013, Young Love Records) is Setting Sun’s first transmission from its Brooklyn home. In what is by now a fairly familiar indie paradox, Levitt went urban to find his inner eccentric rustic. Oh, Be Here When You Get There is not a retro BK banjo record by any means, but it is decidedly less synth- and sample-driven than 2010’s Fantasurreal. Neither does it attempt to recapture the bright pop of 2008’s excellent Children of the Wild. Moody, luminous, organic, driven by an earthy rattle of acoustic strum, filigreed with reverb-swamped solo strings and riven by some continuously inspired and lacy bass-playing courtesy of Jen Turner (Here We Go Magic, TEEN, Julian Casablancas), Be Here When You Get Here rather rocks in a dark Baroque/groove/folk way.
To my ears, Levitt has always exemplified a certain paradoxical class of indie auteur: the kind whose core values as a writer are traditional, but whose rough and experimental treatment of songs, via arranging and production, is anything but. Levitt’s unfussy melodies have always been growers; give them a chance and they will insinuate themselves, borne by his dark-but-by-now-entirely-comfortable singing voice. And his motives and purposes are genuine and never terribly obscure – philosophical, certainly, but Levitt is not into playing games lyrically.
The sounds and the settings, however, here as on past records, often embrace the murky, vertiginous, remote, warped and warbled, making the listener grope around a bit for the solid nut of the song. It is an intentional and often quite beautiful aesthetic effect, but only because that solid nut of a song is unfailingly there. Want some references for Be Here When You Get There? How about Devendra Banhart after a master class with Tom Petty?
Be Here When You Get There moves seamlessly between earthy and underwater, between the ominous (“Week Long Nights,” “Dream Next Door”) and the sweet and redemptive (“Selfish Love,” “Seasons”). The cumulative surprise here is how driving and propulsive this mood-folk record turns out to be. It is gone in a flash, and yet leaves the unsettling afterblur of a journey to some remote inner places where maybe you’re not really supposed to go.
Setting Sun, Sunday, October 12, 6:30 p.m., Stockade Tavern, 313 Fair Street, Kingston; https://kingston.opositivefestival.org.