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Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Easthampton gets its groove on with 2nd annual ‘Cultural Chaos’



Friday, July 31, 2015
Afternoon near-summer sun ablaze, I stood on the closed-to-traffic Cottage Street in Easthampton, blinking, getting accustomed to the tide of happy people moving around me. Because even brighter than the sunshine was the community spirit on this special Saturday, the town’s second annual “Cultural Chaos” street festival.

As I was getting my bearings, local legend Ray Mason passed by, summing up both the shine (he wore a purple T-shirt with a smiling sun on it) and the spirit. “Ken!” he said, grinning warmly, putting out his free hand for a shake. His other hand clutched his guitar case, a craftsman en route to a gig.

Mason and his trusty Silvertone electric guitar were scheduled to play the Platinum Pony later that day — one of countless acts appearing at multiple indoor and outdoor venues, ranging from open-to-anyone busking areas on the pavement to a Main Stage flatbed truck parked in front of Tom Pappalardo’s colorful “Easthampton, Massachusetts” mural. Even the town’s new promenade at Nashawannuck Pond became a performing area.

Mason and I made it over to see Beige on the truck stage just before the band kicked into its first number, a ska version of “Mangled,” a song by frontman Steve Westfield’s old outfit The Slow Band. (Speaking of mangled, did the announcer introduce Westfield as “Steve Winwood”? Tingling sunburn was already setting in; maybe it was playing tricks on my ears.)

Westfield wore sunglasses that shined like orange Jolly Ranchers. His red guitar strap was emblazoned with a white lightning bolt.

“Dancing Larry” Howes was in attendance. The passionate music fan has been an indefatigable presence at live shows for decades, and not even his health issues of recent years could keep him seated. Wearing thick eyeglasses and looking thin, with suspenders holding up his baggy pants, Howes moved toward the stage using his cane — and then hung it on the ridge of the flatbed truck and did some of his old moves.

His body may not have vibrated with the same abandon as the old days, but his spirit was as strong. As always his wiggly moves were part appreciative bow to the positive energy of the music (Larry doesn’t dance for just any old band), part aerobic workout and part uninhibited invitation to the rest of the room ... or in this case, the bustling street of people — get out here and dance! He shimmied like it was 1994.

As Westfield’s group (which now includes his son Steven Jr. on bass) percolated in the key of A minor, the frontman improvised chatty comedy between verses, commenting on everything from a guy in the band who wasn’t wearing the color beige (“That’s a $5 fine”) to the fact that the group was playing in full sun with no water available to them on stage. “That’s like leaving your dog in a hot car, I think,” he announced drily over the dance groove.

The heat made me hanker for a cold treat. Inside Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream, I stopped counting the winding line ahead of me at 25 people, focused on the chalkboard of flavors and chose Jalapeno Lime — perfectly refreshing.

I zoned out in a shady sidewalk spot, watching guys on stunt bikes speed up a curved incline and flip and hang and balance their bikes every which way before speeding back down.

A guy walked by with a snake around his neck. Was I so sunburned that I was hallucinating? I caught up to him and found out it was a ball python. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Peter,” he replied emotionlessly, except for a raise of his eyebrows over his black sunglasses. He moved on.

I saw photographer/director/documentarian Paul Preston for the second time in an hour. He’d already changed into a fresh shirt (did I mention the sun?) and was moving with determination down the sidewalk, camera in hand, headed to the next magical moment, of which there were many, anywhere you looked.

Acrobats on stilts. People painting designs on old LPs outside Platterpus Records. A guy strolling in a homemade hat constructed from quintuple-tiered pie plates, pipe cleaners and other crafty doodads. A caricature artist with a smiling crowd gathered behind him. Magnolia the Paper Fairy, wearing a crinkly handmade dress, improvising typewritten poems and magic spells on the spot, using a spiffy old Underwood on a stool.

I scanned my oft-folded schedule and weaved back through the stream of people to the main stage to catch The Leafies You Gave Me. I didn’t know what hit me.

A large band — brass instruments, violin, keyboard, bass, drums, guitar — was laying down a funky groove, fronted by a guy in a big white disco jacket, addressing the growing crowd with slightly insane smarm: “I love the arts! Don’t you? I love every single one of you!”

A second guy jumped up in a train conductor uniform to shake the first guy out of his mania: “What are you doing? We’re not a jam band!” As guy two, Jarryd Conz, escorted guy one, Matthew O’Leary, off the stage, the band around them erupted into noise and launched a set of gregarious theatrical weirdness.

Post-festival research shed some light: “9-Piece Avant-Garde Music And Theater Ensemble since 2007,” “high school drama club meets Mr. Bungle” — but in the unfolding moment I had the joy of experiencing it all for myself.

O’Leary silently manned a TV tray on the pavement in front of the stage, making OCD adjustments to a stack of books ... which then got upended bully-style by a large lumbering guy wearing a ski mask ... who was later foiled by a punk-rock ballerina. All the while, the band above the fray was veering from one style to another — free jazz, groovy rock, Zappa-esque progressive fanfares.

Conz smiled to the crowd. “C’mon, come up front! We like you. We like the way you smell.” Gung-ho fans gamely crossed the hot pavement to get closer to the craziness.

Eventually the guy who played the thug — Chris Goudreau — came back dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with a lei of flowers around his neck, making Dada conversation with the crowd. “Now listen, if you have strudel, you have the power,” Goudreau explained in character, getting everyone to engage in a call and response with the word “strudel.” And as he began a croony tune he said he’d written “in 1922,” I had to tear myself away and move on, another smiley sweaty festivalgoer trying to fit as much in as possible.