From June 23rd-June 25th, 2023 the Reggae Rise Up music festival invaded Swann Park, along the waters of Baltimore, Maryland for the second straight year. After attending last year’s festival I knew this was something not to be missed! My friend, Todd and I drove into Baltimore on Thursday, the night before the festival, and stayed at the infamous Lord Baltimore Hotel; I say infamous because it is one of the top 10 most haunted hotels in the United States with the ghost Molly being the star of the hotel. (Un)Fortunately, Molly did not make herself present for any photographs or ghost stories, which is ok, because the night before a big festival for a grown-up is a little bit like the night before Christmas for a little kid and we knew we were in for 3 magical days of music.
Festival Morning arrived and we got an early start over to Swann Park. It was a short drive of less than 15 minutes from the supporting hotel, and parking was relatively easy. We headed in to grab our media credentials, met some other photographers, and headed into the venue. The festival is divided into 2 stages – the Vibe Stage, and the Rise Up Stage with the first band about to start at the Vibe Stage we headed over to check them out.
Being the first band to play at a music festival can’t be an easy thing. It’s 1:00 in the afternoon on a Friday, a lot of people are still at work and people are slow to show up, maybe just getting into town… well not on this day. The local legends Higher Education lead off the music festival, and with their 15 years of playing together locally, they created a loyal fan base which was evident with the early crowd. Their blend of reggae fusion is fun and I could imagine the way their band gels together they could get into some serious jam sessions. The highlight of their set came for me when they played Stuck on Repeat – it’s a song that is both melodic and almost psychedelic in their use of distortion in the guitar and vocals. The crowd of course was digging this, but also Iya Terra could be seen backstage checking out the local band as well.
Leading off the Rise Up Stage was Dale and the ZDubs, another local band with a big following. I had the chance to watch Dale and the ZDubs at last year’s pre-party and then again on the Rise Up Stage – I was impressed and they remained on my playlists throughout the year. The energy and sound Dale and the band bring is fantastic, sometimes with a fun ska vibe and other times with a strong Pepper influence. The Pepper influence is evident during their song This Time (written with The Elovaters), one of my personal favorite current songs. Dale and the ZDubs played their new single written with HIRIE called Her Melody, and Dale joked as the song started that he really wished HIRIE was there to accompany him, and while the song sounded great, I think we can all agree we can always use a little more HIRIE in our lives.
Rain started coming down as Vana Liya takes the Vibe Stage. I had the pleasure of meeting her family and her right before she went on stage. It would be the first time her parents ever saw her perform live, and it would make for an incredible experience. Her mother, brother, and sister all watched from the photo pit, but her dad wanted to experience it from the crowd. He stood with everyone else in the crowd with a mesmerized look on his phase as she sang Flying High with her beautiful voice. The crowd was dancing and singing along, I took a picture of the crowd and showed her mom and she beamed with pride. A few minutes later, arguably one of the biggest celebrities of the festival hopped on stage – not to sing, but to smile and wag her tail at everyone. Queen Cocoa, Stick Figure’s dog was there and of course, where Cocoa is Scott is close by. Scott and the rest of his band, Stick Figure, were there to take in Vana’s hypnotizing voice. Vana, next introduced KBong to the crowd as they collaborated on a song called Hey Momma, a very upbeat, positive song, and tribute to Vana’s mom. Vana and KBong together, singing the song directly to Vana’s mom who is now dancing in the rain with the smile and tear in her eye only the proudest of moms can produce “You’re with me everywhere I go, even when I’m on my own… Hey Momma, you taught me everything, Hey Momma you are my everything,” a touching and memorable performance.
Rain continues to come down, as Schwayze takes the Rise Up stage but everyone is so into the music and dancing in the moment that nobody has a care in the world. I believe Bob Marley is credited with saying, “Some people feel the rain, while others just get wet,” the crowd was certainly feeling it as they jammed out to the likes of California Day, and Corona and Lime. Schwayze was backed on guitar by Tony Stern, lead guitarist of Bikini Trill which added another level to Schwayze’s smooth sound.
One of the most energetic and interactive bands to play was, Iya Terra. They set the Vibe stage on fire with frontman, Nathan Feinstein jumping into the crowd to sing while bassist Nick Loporchio’s dreads cut through the air. Their sound is another of the evolving sound of reggae, and I personally loved the Movement/War Pigs/Marching On trilogy of songs. However, when they were joined on stage by Scott Woodruff, aka Stick Figure, to play Give Thanks, their set hit another level. The crowd and band were electric, gliding to every ounce of sound that dripped from the speakers. That energy stayed throughout the remainder of the set.
Pepper hit’s the Rise Up stage with as much energy as Iya Terra left us with on the Vibe’s stage. There was a special surprise though; after a little intro to get Pepper started they played their 2002 album, Kona Town, from start to finish in its entirety. The band sounds better than ever and man do they always look like they are having fun. After Kona Town, they ended with a few newer songs, including Warning, which was produced by Stick Figure and gave us a little taste of what was to come shortly when they close out the night.
Last up for the day on the Vibe Stage, was Tribal Seeds. Switching up the sound to a more traditional reggae feel, Tribal Seeds brings a sound that just kind of speaks to your soul. With timeless lyrics, a rhythm section that you can’t help but groove to, horns that you can feel in your bones, and a voice that is reminiscent of Mr. Robert Nesta Marley himself, it is easy to see how they have such a strong following and the closing artist on the Vibe Stage. Their live versions of The Garden, Moonlight, and Dawn of Time set the night ablaze.
Ending an amazing first day of music was none other than Stick Figure. I have been following Stick for nearly 10 years, and have seen them many times as a supporting act, opening act, and headlining – I can honestly say that they get better each and every performance. Scott is not only a self taught, hard-working and talented musician he and the band know how to put on an amazing show. Scott, Kbong, and Cocoa had all been making appearances on stage with other artists all day, and TJ and the rest of the band were there in support of other bands all day, and yet here they were closing the festival with the energy and sound of a fresh band. Stick started their set with their famous Have a Cigar intro (Pink Floyd), and then went right into one of my personal favorites Choice is Yours, which they wrote with one of last year’s headlining acts, Slightly Stoopid. They went on to play all the songs the crowd wanted to hear, and did a really unique version of Weight of Sound, which I dug. They were accompanied on stage by the guys from Pepper and The Elevaters for Smokin’ Love and Showdown, and ended their set with Once in a Lifetime. Between the sound of the band, the light show, the pyrotechnics, and of course Cocoa it was a sensory experience – one that the crowd was not ready to give up on, and luckily Stick Figure seemed happy to appease with an encore of songs including Livin It, Fire on the Horizon, and World on Fire.
As I made my way back to the car after Stick ended the show with my mind pretty much blown, I couldn’t help to remember again, the hard work and dedication that Stick Figure has to his craft; the hard work that took him and the band from that supporting act all the way to headlining a major reggae festival with all the bells and whistles. I couldn’t help but wonder, who will the next Stick Figure be, and will we see them this weekend?
By Matt Grube, Todd Judd
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