Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shakori Hills Fall 2011 - Retrospective (Part One)

The Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, held twice annually in idyllic Silk Hope, North Carolina, attracted major national acts, including Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, legendary banjoist Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, up-and-comer Brett Dennen, Dirty Bourbon River Show, The Emmit-Nershi Band and many, many more. While we attempted to make an itinerary, there were too many equally wonderful listening options at any given time to resign ourselves to a schedule. What follows is a day-by-day breakdown of what we saw throughout the weekend. Too large for a single post, this is our account of the first two days of the four day festival.


Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings took the
Meadow Stage by storm Thursday night.
Photo courtesy of Yes Weekly.

Terry and I were the first to begin hauling gear and setting up camp. Thankfully, we’d only been at it for a half hour or so before the rest of us began to trickle in. There were some canopy issues that we had to think, rethink, re-imagine, and finally just Steve Jobs our way through. By the time camp was set and lunch was had, we’d heard the Opening Ceremony and about a half hour of Driftwood’s set. While Driftwood was definitely one of the bands I was most excited about, we had three other opportunities to catch them throughout the weekend.

By the time we were finally heading out, Des Ark was taking stage at the Dance Tent. It was tragically under attended, but given that people were still trickling in to their campsites and that there’d be another opportunity to see her later in the weekend, it made sense. The people that missed out definitely missed out on something spectacular: Aimée Argote’s southern-tinged, charming anti-charm combined with her master (if not occasionally vulgar) songcraft and soulful voice set the perfect tone for the weekend.

A little more than 3/4s of the way through Des Ark’s set, I had to catch up with a straggler from the camping party and help her make it back to camp with some much needed supplies (my air mattress and blankets). After all the logistics were taken care of and (perhaps) some drinks were drank, we headed out again, pitstopping momentarily to take in some of Donna the Buffalo’s first set of the weekend. From there, we recombined with the group at Bearfoot and caught the tail end of their set. The way the band managed to combine their classic, old-time bluegrass with the things I hardly tolerate about radio country into something I loved left me awestruck. A band that had popped up on my radar while researching Shakori, Bearfoot has a live set that lives up to their overwhelmingly positive press blurbs.

We left Bearfoot during their last song to get ourselves in prime position for the night’s main attraction, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Mrs. Jones is a performer that is not at all afraid to move, to sweat and to work during a set. In black sequins, Sharon  Jones inspired the crowd, weary from lugging gear and setting up camp, to move. She even picked crowd members and brought them on stage with her (except one girl, whose presence was obviously not desired). The Dap Kings, too, were amazing, providing more than enough music to battle Sharon’s powerful vocals. The band was on stage until 11ish, playing through some deep cuts and some obvious favorites, including, “How Long Do I Have To Wait For You.”

After Sharon Jones, I somehow lost the group. Venturing solo, I checked out Mipso Trio’s set and a little bit of Eilen Jewell. I’m not sure exactly why, but Eilen Jewell’s music fails to resonate with me. It seems like it would be the stuff of my dreams, an adorable and talented musician combining roots and country with a jazzy, cabaret-ish vocal style, but for some reason it fails to coalesce into an impressive whole.

Grant was the only one to make it to Peter Lamb & The Wolves, who closed out the night with an almost two hour set of smooth jazz that kept the dance tent hopping 'til 2:00 a.m.  Any band that plays the Mario theme song deserves an audience's rapt attention. Grant returned to find Terry and I sound asleep, resting well to replenish our much needed energy reserves; the weekend was still ahead.


Brand New Life brought us back to life Friday morning.
Photo: Terry McElhennon
Waking up on Friday to crisp, mountain air of Chatham county was only improved by both the camp toaster working perfectly and the unique blend of world music, funk and jazz provided by The Brand New Life. With our campsite situated only a short distance from the Meadow Stage, we were well within earshot. After some coffee (which I labored over for 2 hours (YES, I know there’s two Coffee Barns, that’s not the point)), a significant portion of the group went and checked out the Grassroots Fiddle, Banjo, Guitar and Mandolin Competition at Carson’s Grove. As with any competition, some were excellent, some were not so excellent, but all deserved commendation for their efforts and their chutzpah.

We left the string competition early and headed towards the Peace Park. It was rock stacking time. The tranquility of the Peace Park combined with the "man v. rock" aspect of rock stacking all to the soundtrack provided by The Brand New Life led to a pretty excellent experience. Though we made plans to return at some point in the weekend, we never made it back.

From there, we went back to camp to regroup and grab a bite to eat before heading to the nearby Meadow Stage for the much-anticipated set from local legends The Old Ceremony. While Grant will argue heavily to the contrary, two-thirds of the Myxem staff were underwhelmed. We have thoroughly enjoyed the output of the collective, founded by Chapel Hill's Django Haskins, but found that it just didn't translate well to a live show, especially not in such a sprawling outdoor setting.

One of our expertly stacked rock piles.
Photo: Terry McElhennon
We departed early and a little disappointed, and Terry's heritage triggered in him an instinct to gravitate towards the Cabaret Tent to catch the traditional Celtic sounds of Raleigh's James Olin Oden. It was enjoyable, well-crafted Irish folk (and one not-so-enjoyable cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black") that stood in distinct contrast to the high energy performances from the rest of the evening's acts.

 It started with Thousands of One's electrifying set at the Meadow Stage. The band brought their funk and soul tinged afro-hip-hop sound to a ready and waiting crowd. The energy from the set was palpable, setting the Meadow Stage crowd in ebullient motion. After leaving the stage, we spent the next hour peregrinating between Driftwood, Eilen Jewell and finally returning to the Meadow Stage for the Emmitt-Nershi Band. They used every bit of their collective touring skills, Bill Nershi with String Cheese Incident and Drew Emmitt with Leftover Salmon, to craft an affable and earnest stage show. The tight musicianship was underlined by their camaraderie, a friendship between bandmates that shone the brightest in the Mediterranean-tinged bluegrass that the band so expertly displayed.

After yet another pit stop at the venerable Camp Honey Badger (because every worthwhile campsite has to have a name), we embarked towards the Meadow yet again for one of the acts we were most looking forward to. Northern California's Brett Dennen, whose most recent album had us enamored at first listen with its thoughtful folk-pop sensibilities, was a perfect fit for the festival's largest stage. All the attendees were thoroughly enthralled by Dennen and his excellent backing band, ourselves included.

While it took considerable effort to tear ourselves away from a performance we will fondly remember, there was a Georgian freak-funk outfit named Noot D'Noot awaiting us at the Dance Tent. Their set was a blur of swirling horns, soulful melodies, and psychedelic craziness that kept every body on the floor ceaselessly dancing. We left the tent battered and exhausted as we trudged onward to see Ethiopian reggae stars dub Addis at the Meadow Stage. Their politically charged Afro-dub jams revitalized our weary souls (as well as the souls of a few people who were clearly in the perfect mood for a reggae show) just in time to close out the night at the Cabaret Tent with the authentic New Orleans swing of the Dirty Bourbon River Show.

After an excruciatingly long soundcheck that built an air of suspense in the audience, the group finally took the stage and reacted to the suspense with an explosion of energy. The bawdy, raucous set was a perfect way to end the festivities and was easily one of the most danceable performances of the weekend. We finished day two slightly worse for the wear, but with moods and hopes high, knowing that every incredible experience we'd had only brought us to the halfway mark of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Fest.

Stay tuned for the conclusion to our coverage of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance...

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