Soaking Up the Last of Summer with Analog-A-Go-Go

Talib Kweli at Analog-A-Go-Go IN Wilmington - photo by Brianna Hansen

With its new location, it’s safe to say not many attending Analog-A-Go-Go—the Milton-based Dogfish Head’s ode to music, beer, spirits and art—knew what to expect.

Sure, we knew there would be bands, who was going to play and when. And yeah, we were pretty sure there would be beer. There would be records for sale, crafts too. We also knew that there would be food trucks, and were even told which culinary delights to expect. But well armed with that knowledge, myself and my fellow attendee/girlfriend exited our 10 dollar Uber ride from Downtown Wilmington to Bellevue State Park with our minds open to a myriad of possibilities…

A one-time resident of nearby Edgemoor, I remember fondly the times I’ve spent there with my friends and family and know the park like the back of my 40 year old hand. An obsessor of maps, I’d already set to memory the beautifully drawn digital map provided by Dogfish Head. I knew where the stage (a 50 foot semi-permanent amphitheater that normally hosts a local folk rock or blues act) was located and where the different events were being held.

We had the driver drop us off at the park’s main entrance—causing a minor issue the police officer directing traffic, but curt apologies and acceptances were exchanged and we meandered down the Nature Preserve trail while headliner Built to Spill did a soundcheck for the lucky few who made it early. Our walk lasted about the entirety of both “Carry the Zero” and “Sidewalk”, two of the band’s fan favorites from 1999 full-length Keep It Like a Secret, and we arrived at the press tent—adjacent to the horse stables—to pick up our passes, crossed the parking lot and entered the cattle chute to a security check of only my bag before finally passing GO! and immediately approaching a truck full of draft beer…

…which we promptly ignored.

We had just received a message from fiancé singer Andrew Fusca about meeting immediately to record an interview with the Delaware band slated to open the festival. With a few minutes to spare before they were to go on, they as much as I, probably wanted to get it over with and enjoy the day. As we walked behind a surprisingly relaxed main stage, Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch was loading gear into a long black van and working out the kinks with his band, sound guys and organizers. Under an inauspicious tent sat our quarry, all five band members and friends sipping beers, but sadly we were too late and it was time for fiancé’s line check. Raincheck.

At that point, I made a beeline for the beer truck. I purchased a surprisingly cheap aluminum keepsake mug filled with the classic 60 minute IPA for a total of $10, a welcome refreshment as the midday sun was beginning to take the chill from the morning air. I delivered my partner her drink and sat discussing my recent bargain, in addition to more photography-oriented aspects like the natural light and the beautiful outdoor scenery along with photographer Joe Del Tufo (whose work capturing the event can be seen on his facebook page and this WXPN article).

After soundcheck and a brief pause, fiancé took the stage as the lines at at the sole beer tent in vicinity of the stage began to increase in length. Squatters with the foresight to show up early enough claimed valuable shaded real estate amongst the trees that lined the sloped clearing, allowing for prime viewing from pretty much any angle. But it was early, and guests were still slow to arrive, so the state representatives played to a loyal if diminished crowd.

Some obvious fans of the band could be pointed out singing along to the dream pop quintet, but there were definitely some faces in the burgeoning crowd that appeared new to the sounds, and very much liked what they were hearing. Singer Fusca decided to put the guitar down to concentrate fully on vocal duties, and as the midday sun moved across the sky the shadows cast on the band began to retreat. Now bathed in the glow of peak solar heat, they increased the tempo with drummer Brian Bruce setting the pace, the sun of his own solar system guiding the planets into their proper orbits.

The band finished strong, with the ensuing silence sending a sad reminder of the space they occupied before exiting stage left. I made my way backstage—again completely unhindered— setting course for an interview with the band. We managed to steal away Bruce and Fusca coaxing them to a wooded area behind the stage near a cast iron water well pump from the Deming Company—soon to be joined by bassist Jeff Marvel—to discuss their performance and  future plans (more on that coming soon – a squawking bird killed the chance to release the video we recorded).

The interview wrapped up quickly and there were still a few minutes before the next band, Philly punk trio Beach Slang, were to get going. And when God closes a stage door he opens a window to a food truck, so we made our way to the circle of vendors cooking up vital sustenance for the crowd. If I’m being honest, this is where I thought the festival could have been stronger. Despite the variety, the options didn’t seem to be very diverse. Nor healthy and a lot of choices came down to fatty decadence (Fried cheese curds? In the summer sun?). Vegetarian and vegan options were nearly non existent, though Mojo Loco came in with the falafel save for my vegan sidekick. Sure, a few trucks made a cursory effort at crafting something healthy, but mostly the fare was like that of a state fair. And prices just didn’t match the output. 2 tacos for $12 is not really a desirable price point for me.

As the day wore on, the increasing lines at beer tents and food trucks made it a chore to hydrate and I hope this is something they address if they choose to keep the festival IN Wilmington (and I certainly hope they do). Simple water stations could go a long way at keeping people happy and spreading out the crowds.  

With our bellies full, we made our way over to watch Beach Slang who put on an inspired set, but it looked as though the sun was going to keep the casual fans off to the oases on either side of the clearing. We sat soaking up the last of summer sun while bobbing back and forth to the energetic tunes being slung at us. Towards the end of their set, we went off to go look at what was being sold at the Record & Artisan Market.

It was a short walk from the stage to get there. On the way we passed the doodle area: A bunch of picnic tables where people could draw. Seriously. This was a thing. And a few people really did stand out, making the rest of us feel like it wasn’t even worth picking up the tools scattered about.

The market was essentially two aisles of white tents, about 10 feet by 10 feet. There were some great records for sale and anyone looking to buy vinyl could have easily found something they wanted. Dollar bins even had some hidden gems that while not exactly rare out of print diamonds, were certainly worth the price.

One particular stand out among the artists was an end booth that no one could have missed—bright colors laid in bold strokes on 1 foot square wooden planks captured a variety of quintessential album covers. The works of Steve Keene—dubbed the “Assembly Line Picasso” by Time magazine—has worked on album covers and promotional materials for many recording artists in the past. He believes that art belongs to people and mass produces a variety of hand painted works. The emphasis on “mass” was in full view as hundreds of planks adorned the tent’s walls, display boards and sat alphabetized in cardboard filing boxes. The pieces were all a treat, and even if you didn’t purchase one, standing there looking for your favorite album among the numerous indefatigable finished works was a fun break from wandering or standing in long lines for food while waiting for the next band to take the stage.

I joined another friend and the the three of us returned to the food trucks for another crack at edible satisfaction. I gave up once we got there, but did end up with a 3 dollar strawberry lemonade that was gone in 3 sips, but I must admit they were three incredibly delicious sips. The ice lasted about an hour longer than the drink, thanks to that handy aluminum keepsake cup, my smartest purchase of the day.

I went to meet a friend to give him an extra ticket, but the cell service was getting lagged up and text messages weren’t sending or receiving properly. Failing to meet, I returned to the flea market, this time admiring the works of Glass Thorpedo—particularly the delightfully scented candles crafted from old beer bottles—before hearing the next band’s soundcheck and making my way back to the stage.

That band was Hop Along. The folk/punk project of Philly’s gravelly-voiced Frances Quinlan have been getting some good press lately and even better opening slots on tours with relatively big names. Still, I don’t hear it. They come with energy but it always seems to dissipate. I won’t harp on this at all, but it wasn’t my favorite performance of the day.

I then received a call from my ticketless friend who was waiting at the entrance (why we didn’t think to actually call each other sooner is beyond me!) and met up with him just as Talib Kweli was making his way onto the stage.

In hindsight, the minor let down that was Hop Along wasn’t such a bad thing, because it made the ride back up all the more spectacular, thanks to Kweli. I wasn’t sure how this performance would go. Sometimes rappers come out to a DJ. Sometimes it’s just a prerecorded beats and accompaniment. Other times they come out with a live band, as was the case with Kweli. This can either succeed wildly or fail miserably, and in this case, it was a complete success.

Kweli was the star of the day, no doubt. He brought more energy than all the other acts combined. Hell, his hype man brought more energy than all the other acts combined. He bantered with the audience, talked hip hop history and lit a fire under the seats of the seatless crowd. The band was a solid backdrop, at once jazzy and rocking while still maintaining a downbeat that followed Kweli’s cadence, a challenging and speedy combination of high BPMs and deft syllabic meter. Kweli was 100% aware of his audience and obliged them with a cover of “Eleanor Rigby” either in tribute to the creativity of the song’s original composers, or as a tongue-in-cheek trolling of the suburban crowd. Perhaps both. Either way, nicely done, Mr. Kweli. The performance was exceptional.

We broke from the crowd following that and as the sun began to go down I caught up with some old friends that came up from Washington, DC. In fact, the catching up was so good that I nearly missed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Sure I heard their oompah all the way across to the doodle tables where we sat down, giving aching feet a rest, and laughing about old times, but it wasn’t until I was finally down in the crowd feeling the energy they brought that I understood why everyone had been anticipating their set so much. I started to perk back up again as the living ode to Dixieland stomp finished their set.

The darkness swept in in a hurry and the proximity to a beer tent with short lines hydrated us nicely, until the news that the 60 Minute IPA—the flagship beverage of the brewery that put on the festival—was completely gone. How this travesty could occur is beyond me, but I shook it off and ordered a Namaste. My guess is I wasn’t alone in my distaste for the other options—which also included a sugary sweet “vodka pom collins” that was reminiscent of boozy Kool Aid—and so 60 Minute being the preferred choice of the majority, it went a little too quickly. I suppose I should note, my normally hop-loving girlfriend disagreed and was happy to sip on her newly crowned favorite session sour, the SeaQuench Ale. She even gave a nod to the vodka pom for it’s “refreshing light carbonation” – I guess it really is to each his own. In hindsight, perhaps we should’ve sprung for the Firkin Friends add-on and had an even greater craft brew debate… next time.  

But with that argument laid to rest, it was time to go get a good spot for Built to Spill.

The headliner was always the number one reason I wanted to attend the festival. I’d first seen them live in 1995 after they arrived 20 minutes late to their Lollapalooza 2nd Stage performance (a group that consisted of Superchunk and pre-Play Moby). I’d seen their stuff numerous times after that including their memorable performance at World Cafe Live at the Queen a couple years back.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione genuinely and enthusiastically addressed the crowd before welcoming Built to Spill’s truncated lineup to stage: leader Doug Martsch brought along just a bassist and drummer for this tour, and the minimal effect was certainly noticeable as the amphitheater properties multiplied the spaces between the sound, making each note and beat ring clear. But with the sun down, the fog machine set off the show lights in a whole new way and the crowd was jazzed up again, ready for their favorite songs. And we were treated to most of them, with Marsch even sneaking in a quick quasi-political quip during their “Going Against Your Mind” performance, subbing the line “Thought it was alien/Turned out to be just God” with “Thought it was alien/Turned out to be John Galt”.

But mere illusions to the bible of objective capitalism aside, the Built to Spill set was tragically short due to strict park guidelines. The band is known for using all their time on stage wisely, and they fit in what they could with tight changeovers (Kicked it in the Sun and Joyride were two of my faves), but you couldn’t help but feel like something was being left on the table. Perhaps it was just the fan in me, not wanting it to end.

As the crowds began to exit and we walked back to the road to catch a ride back home, we reflected. It seemed attendance may have been less than originally expected, which provided a nice open vibe with lots of space, eerily similar to what the first Firefly Festival felt like before they got going. There can be problems with suffering under the weight of expectations, but I certainly don’t think this was the case with Analog-A-Go-Go, and all in all, the festival was fun, the weather was beautiful and—for most of the night—the beer was flowing and the music was engaging. Perhaps a few more things to do during the day next time around, options for non-drinkers and non-meat eaters, and even an earlier start time for the headliner would make for a more well-rounded experience.

And oh yeah, let’s try not to run out of beer.