A rundown of the top axe masters at Lockn’

Neal Casal may be the hardest-working guitarist on the jam scene. He will play four sets with three different bands over the four-day festival. Publicity photo Neal Casal may be the hardest-working guitarist on the jam scene. He will play four sets with three different bands over the four-day festival. Publicity photo

For the fourth straight year, the Lockn’ Festival will return to the Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington. Once again, the musical marathon will offer a deep roster of heavyweights in the worlds of jam and roots rock, boasting big sets by Phish, My Morning Jacket, Ween, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Tedeschi Trucks Band, among many others. While watching such sonically adventurous acts, the crowd is bound to witness plenty of guitar acrobatics-—from established veterans to younger upstarts, these are the fleet-fingered players guaranteed to deliver lingering leads and peak solos, creating the transcendent moments that make festivals unforgettable.

The incredibly versatile Trey Anastasio leads Phish through four sets over two nights at Lockn’ this weekend. Photo by Jay Blakesberg
The incredibly versatile Trey Anastasio leads Phish through four sets over two nights at Lockn’ this weekend. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Trey Anastasio

Lockn’ organizers nabbed a big one when they secured jam legend Phish to headline two days of the festival. The group, scheduled to close the main stage on Friday and Sunday with two sets each night, rarely plays multi-band events, but as Lockn’ has become the country’s premier jam summit, it seems appropriate for the quartet to make an appearance.

After more than three decades together, Phish has established a massive fan base that continues to flock to its lengthy live shows. While the group is comprised of four highly skilled players—each integral to the band’s exploratory sound—guitarist Trey Anastasio is clearly the leader. Through 30-plus years on stage, Anastasio has secured his place as the jam scene’s preeminent axe wizard. His nimble fingers guide Phish through an undeniably impressive mix of complex compositions, dance-ready grooves and improvisational journeys. When not navigating one of Phish’s intricate, orchestrated passages in double-digit epics such as “You Enjoy Myself” and “Fluffhead,” Anastasio uses his Languedoc guitar for full-throttle rock assaults and open-ended exploration.

Phish casts a wide net when it comes to genre inclusivity, and the band’s sets are often peppered with interesting covers. It’s not uncommon to hear Anastasio picking a bluegrass solo in an electric version of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” ripping blues licks in Son Seals’ “Funky Bitch” or slicing funk chords in Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”

Anastasio, at 51, clearly is still interested in expanding his range on his instrument. Last summer he was tapped as lead guitarist for Fare Thee Well, the Grateful Dead’s five massive stadium concerts that were billed as the last time the band’s remaining original members would all play together. When asked by Rolling Stone about his intense, six-month preparation for filling the role of the Dead’s iconic frontman, Jerry Garcia, Anastasio said: “The cool thing is it got me back inside the guitar.”

Gary Clark - photo-credit-frank-maddocks-extralarge_1438278808694 2
Gary Clark Jr. rips up the blues and sews it back together in kick-ass modern style on Sunday. Photo by Frank Maddocks

Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr. grew up loving the blues. As a teenager in Austin, Texas, he started hanging out at the famed Antone’s Nightclub and ended up being mentored by guitar ace Jimmie Vaughan (brother of Stevie Ray). While being educated in the traditional scales of the blues he was also absorbing sounds of the ’90s FM dial, becoming an open-minded fan of everything from grunge to hip-hop. As a result, a variety of musical styles have influenced Clark, as he continues to hone a sound that blends fuzzy, snarling riffs with soulful modern song craft.

Clark’s breakout moment came in 2010 at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. With the exposure came a heap of opportunities for a young player used to the grind of small clubs. He’s traded licks on stage with Clapton and sat in with the Rolling Stones on multiple occasions, and this past February he honored the late B.B. King at the Grammy Awards with a crisp reading of “The Thrill is Gone” beside Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton.

Clark has released two major-label albums on Warner Brothers, the latest being last fall’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. A mix of slick production and raw energy, the record does plenty of genre-hopping, from dance-friendly party funk in “Can’t Sleep” to throwback soul in “Cold Blooded” to shred-heavy rock in “Grinder.” Clark, though, seems to save his real guitar fireworks for the stage. His pulsing, atmospheric mash-up of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” and Albert Collins’ blues tune “If You Love Me Like You Say” is live-show dynamite.

Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring the most powerful couple in the blues-rock business, takes the stage on Saturday night. Photo by Manuel Nata
Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring the most powerful couple in the blues-rock business, takes the stage on Saturday night. Photo by Manuel Nata

Derek Trucks

At age 20, Derek Trucks started a 15-year run handling the slide licks in the now-retired Allman Brothers Band, a role he seemed predestined to fill as a young guitar prodigy who happens to be the nephew of the Allman’s Butch Trucks. During this time, he also fronted his own Derek Trucks Band—a group built around fiercely ambitious explorations into expansive Southern blues, free jazz and rollicking instrumental gospel—and also managed to squeeze in a two-year stint in Eric Clapton’s touring band.

These days he’s focused full-time on the Tedeschi Trucks Band, a 12-piece beast of a soul-rock outfit that Trucks fronts with his wife, blues songstress Susan Tedeschi. The band, playing Lockn’ on Saturday night, hustles between global rock grooves, swampy Southern jams and vintage R&B. The stylistic versatility centers on the interplay between the bandleaders, as Trucks, now 37 and considered a master of his craft, swirls lyrical inventive notes around Tedeschi’s soulful singing.

Neal Casal

Neal Casal will be a busy man at this year’s Lockn’ Festival. Between Friday and Sunday, the guitarist is playing four sets with three different acts. On Sunday his main band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, has back-to-back slots, the second a special collaboration with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. During a recent phone interview, Casal broke down the bands that make up his upcoming quadruple duty.

Back in 2010, former Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson decided to start a new band (Chris Robinson Brotherhood) to indulge his interest in psychedelic rock, and he asked Casal to play lead guitar. Casal had spent the previous decade and a half releasing a dozen solo albums as a singer-songwriter and doing a stint in Ryan Adams’ Cardinals, but joining the Brotherhood changed the course of his music career. “This band started another life for me as a musician with a different focus as a guitar player,” Casal says. “It was a real shift that’s taken a lot of work. I’ve expanded in ways that I never would’ve imagined. Chris needed a guitar player to fulfill his vision, and he lovingly pushed me into it.”

Three years ago Casal was tapped to join the super group side project Hard Working Americans featuring Nashville folk singer Todd Snider and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. Initially supposed to be a short-lived affair, the band, which also features Panic drummer Duane Trucks, now reconvenes on a semi-regular basis and recently released a second studio album, Rest in Chaos. With a politically charged cosmic country-rock sound that offers tastes of distorted grit and expansive jamming, the band will play Lockn’ on Saturday afternoon.

“I met all of these guys for the first time when I walked into the studio to start making our first record,” Casal explains. “This was supposed to be a one-off project, but we quickly developed a rapport that made us want to do more. We have a lot of respect for each other, and every time we get together we feel like we have more to explore.”

Last summer Casal was asked to compose instrumental set-break music for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well stadium concerts. He formed Circles Around the Sun for a quick jam session that included his Brotherhood bandmate Adam MacDougall on keyboards and created some captivating impromptu tunes in the spirit of the Dead’s roots-based psychedelia. The results were so well-received that the songs were given a proper release, Circles Around the Sun, and Casal and company will perform the music live for the first time on Friday night at Lockn’.

“We recorded all of this music in two days, and it was entirely improvised,” Casal says. “With little time to think about it, we caught lightning in a bottle.

“When it comes to doing it live, the idea is to approach the show with the same spirit that we brought to the recording—hold your breath and jump. We’ll have little time to prepare, so we’re going to capture the vibe with a lot of adventurism.”

Casal has previously played with Phil Lesh and Friends in different incarnations of his rotating Friends groups. In a special set on Sunday, the entire Brotherhood will act as Lesh’s band and also welcome a sit-in by Gary Clark Jr.

“I’ve learned more from Phil Lesh than almost anyone I’ve ever played with,” Casal says. “He still carries the original spirit of the Grateful Dead—be the best musician you can be, but also be ready to go for it and jump off a cliff. When you play music in that way there can be rough moments, but you always rise to glorious heights.”

Best of the rest

For nearly two decades, Umphrey’s McGee has fostered a sizable fan base under the mainstream radar with a jam-heavy prog-rock sound that’s largely driven by the twin-guitar attack of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss. The band’s skilled axe duo engages in dynamic interplay, as they move between frenetic shredding and trippy wandering throughout a catalog of songs designed for extended improvisation.

Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo and Carl Broemel both provide the lead guitar muscle in their respective bands, Ween and My Morning Jacket. The former gets the headline slot on Thursday and plays a second set just before Phish on Friday, while the latter headlines Saturday night. Coincidentally, both Melchiondo and Broemel are releasing solo albums this fall.

Tom Hamilton first surfaced in the electronica-rock act Brothers Past, but at Lockn’ he’ll be turning heads in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (playing late-night sets Thursday and Friday). The side project led by drummer Joe Russo (Furthur, Benevento/Russo Duo) delivers high-energy, wildly improvised takes on Grateful Dead songs, often giving Hamilton the opportunity to go gonzo on Jerry Garcia’s familiar guitar parts.

Two more guitar aces worth watching: Duke Levine and Kevin Barry—both accomplished session players who’ve backed the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris. At Lockn’ they’ll be playing in Peter Wolf’s band, the Midnight Travelers. On Friday Levine and Barry will flank the 70-year-old Wolf, former lead singer of the J. Geils Band (see interview on page 31), as he works through old hits and material from his soulful new album, A Cure for Loneliness, which came out in April.

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