Susquehanna Breakdown marked by stellar sets from local and national acts
In the Spring of 2013, local jamgrass outfit Cabinet partnered with entertainment giant Live Nation to present the Old Farmer’s Ball, a day-long festival that showcased the music, culture and artistry of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
It was a well-received event due to the diverse musicians and arts and crafts vendors who converged at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain in Scranton to celebrate all things NEPA.
A few years later, Old Farmer’s Ball has blossomed into Susquehanna Breakdown, a multi-day festival featuring acts on two stages and quick intimate sets in a VIP section. The 2017 edition was held May 19 and 20 at The Pavilion, and while the focus was still the music of NEPA, Cabinet brought along some of their nationally recognized contemporaries for two days of Americana roots music that served as the ideal kick off for the summer concert season.
The Dishonest Fiddlers — a Scranton-based string quartet — kicked off the festival in the early evening May 19 with a fiery set of up-charged acoustic jamming, and twangy country vocals from singer Dave Brown. A returning act from last year’s edition, the Fiddlers have evolved their sound over the last 12 months, and with the inclusion of Cabinet’s Todd Kopec on fiddle, the band put in one of the most talked about sets of the weekend.
Following a short break, one of Cabinet’s more recognizable friends, the one-man jam band, Keller Williams, took to the Breakdown stage (outside the main entrance) for a rousing hour-long solo set — complete with his famous looping of instruments — in which he created a full-band arrangement on some of his well-known numbers like “Freaker By The Speaker,” and “Doobie In My Pocket.”
After a break, Williams re-emerged backed by Cabinet. Rather than try to lead the band through every song, Williams appeared more at home just being a part of the band and letting them determine what should happen next. It was a sign of respect, but also dual admiration, as everyone on stage was smiling for the duration of the collaboration on cuts like Cabinet staple “The Tower,” and a cover of “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse.
After Williams left the stage, Cabinet remained in high spirits and delighted its hometown fan-base with some crowd favorites like their folky interpretation of the traditional “Diamond Joe,” and the avant-garde “Mysterio,” the latter of which showcased some tight grooves from drummer Josh Karis.
The day wrapped up with an extended performance from the best named act on the bill, Organ Freeman, a three-piece jazz/blues fusion outfit from Los Angeles.
May 20 was a music lovers dream, with over 13 hours of music continuously pouring out of three stages.
To kick off the day, Cabinet banjoist/singer Patrick “Pappy” Biondo treated the VIP crowd to a short but sweet set of music from the legendary Earl Scruggs on the VIP stage located on the side of the (Susquehanna) main stage.
Back on the Breakdown stage, Serene Green with special guest Anthony Hannigan greeted everyone as they walked in the gate. For anyone wanting to simply go right to the main stage to set up their spot for the day, it was impossible to walk past Serene Green without stopping. The four piece band from Bethlehem — Quentin Fisher on mandolin, Michael Johnson on guitar, Shane McGeehan on bass, and Steve Leonard on banjo — were a welcome surprise to the early morning festival slot. With infectious harmonies and a unique hybrid of modern and traditional bluegrass, Serene Green delivered a memorable performance.
Driftwood, a four-piece acoustic string band from Binghamton, N.Y., welcomed people to the Susquehanna stage around 12:30 p.m. with their signature mesh of American folk and rock.
Throughout the rest of the day, the VIP stage saw singer/guitarist Billy Strings pay tribute to Doc Watson; NEPA natives Tom Graham and Justin Mazer honor the spirit of 1977; and Pappy Biondo, Brother Roy Williams and Mazer tip their caps to JJ Cale.
Local music once again shined on the Breakdown stage as Graham teamed up with Mazer for a tight set of mostly original Graham compositions.
Later in the day, Scranton favorites And The Moneynotes reunited for their first show together in three years. Known for upbeat and entertaining live shows, And The Moneynotes looked ecstatic to be back on stage together. Later, Cabinet friend Billy Strings mesmerized with some ferocious picking and energetic vocals before Susquehanna Breakdown veteran Tom Hamilton and his American Babies, accompanied by some special guests, delivered the most sonically charged performance of the weekend.
Back on the Susquehanna stage, Cabinet performed an acoustic set early in the afternoon that kicked off with the appropriate “Susquehanna Breakdown.” Seeing them perform an acoustic set was a welcome treat, as later in the day, the boys returned for an electric set which saw Mazer join his friends for a thumping “Miss Molly” and “Heavy Rain.”
With two electric guitars and Pappy Biondo on electric banjo, the band sounded more like a well-groomed rock band than a string band. Not only did it work, but it showed the versatility of Cabinet. As a final surprise, the band debuted a cover of “The Distance” by Cake as the encore.
Arguably the biggest name on the bill, Greensky Bluegrass, provided a stellar headlining set, complete with sit ins from both Biondos, a guest appearance from Hamilton, and even a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to end the set.
Wrapping up the festival was Turkuaz, a funky nine-piece out of Brooklyn, N.Y., that instantly had the crowd dancing and didn’t let up until around 2 a.m.
Along with the music, Susquehanna Breakdown provided a unique outlet for many local artists and vendors. Whether it was clothing and jewelry, or delicious food from Shady Grove Wraps and Gouda Boys, the festival economy has used Northeastern Pennsylvania as its incubator, and continues to grow year after year. Whatever next year will bring is unknown, but to paraphrase a Cabinet song, it’s definitely going to be another “celebration.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.