Friday, October 21, 2011

Shakori Hills Fall 2011 - Retrospective (Part Two)

The Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, held twice annually in idyllic Silk Hope, North Carolina, attracted major national acts, including Donna the Buffalo, legendary banjoist Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, NY natives Driftwood, Toubab Krewe, Thousands of One 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 last two days of the four day festival.


Toubab Krewe headlined Saturday night at Shakori Hills.
Image courtesy of Aggie Donkar.
We awoke that morning to the funky gospel of The Flying Clouds. We so thoroughly enjoyed what we heard from camp we headed to the Meadow Stage once the coffee was ready. We were doubly impressed when we saw their playfully uproarious stage presence (with matching attire!) and their unstoppable energy. After the end of their set, we returned to camp to make lunch, but afterwards we meandered back to the Meadow Stage to see Des Ark for the second time that weekend. She had a different energy than the intimate Dance Tent set, but there was no difference in enjoyability. 

After her set, I went to check out the Poetry Slam for a bit. It was a great atmosphere, but as with bluegrass competition Friday, some was excellent and some was not so excellent. From there, I voyaged back to the Meadow Stage to take in a bit of Nawal's set. A Comoros native, her performance was an exotic sort of folk-fusion that at times was spot on and at others missed the mark.

Terry and Grant, who'd been at their second helping of Thousands of One for the weekend, met back up with myself and the rest of our group at camp. We had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Binghamton, NY natives Driftwood. The band was also kind enough to let us record an at-the-camp performance of Kris Kristofferson's "Best of All Possible Worlds." Look for the video Saturday 10/22!

Terry and Grant, meanwhile, were amid the swirling masses gathered before the Meadow Stage for Miami's Locos Por Juana, whose Latin jazz-influenced dance stylings had no trouble keeping the crowd moving.  After stopping at the campsite to make dinner, I brought some of the camp who'd missed our Driftwood experience to the Cabaret Tent to finally catch an entire set of their energetic folk-grass and manic stage show that had an entire crowd (including a man in a bull's hide headdress) stompin' and hollerin'. I really wish there were a more polished way to explain the set, but the raw energy and the excitement of the crowd leaves no other words.

We swung back by the Dance Tent to see Diali Cissokho, a native of Cameroon, performing with Karaiba! as a backing band as he expertly strummed on his kora (a 21-stringed harp-lute used in traditional West African music). Terry described the instrument best when he said it "sounded like a dream I had," because it served to create an ethereal tone that bordered on haunting.

The evening's real spectacle, Toubab Krewe, hit the Meadow Stage at midnight. I was backstage for the first bit of it and even from there, the energy of the stage and the energy of the crowd were almost tangible in the air. The crowd's excitement was so appealing, I left backstage to join the rest of the staff at the front for an authentic Toubab experience. Again, we were treated to sounds from Africa's unique musical heritage including more of the enchanting kora and a wide array of traditional hand drums.  The Afro-roots homage was not, however, lacking in the elements of good old American jam rock; songs spiralled into soaring improvised epics, with the flawless musicianship of the Asheville outfit's members keeping everyone's ears guessing. 

As the night drew to a close, we followed the swarms of exuberant festivalgoers toward the Cabaret Tent for the tail-end of a set from LiLa, an underground hip-hop act from Durham, NC. There was a burning intensity present under that great canopy as the bass pounded out into the night sky and over a gathering of engaged onlookers. When the lights finally dimmed, we were more than ready to go back to camp and attempt to get something resembling a good night's sleep. As difficult as that would be on air mattresses, there was still an entire day, and a revolutionary band that was yet to play.

The long-awaited Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
took to the stage Sunday night.

Image courtesy of Kim Newmoney

We were fumbling around the campsite Sunday morning, getting camp mostly packed up. Shakori is not an easy weekend, to be sure, and it can be physically and mentally exhausting, but why else would you camp at a music festival? The Morning Communion more-or-less woke everyone at the camp up and by the time the majority of us were functional (at least on some small level), the Green Grass Cloggers were clogging like nobody's business. Having never seen cloggers, at least not in my adult life, I can't really compare them to anything. So, based on experience, Green Grass Cloggers are the best cloggers around.

By the time we legitimately headed out for the day, we found ourselves with goofy smiles plastered on our faces as the Paperhand Puppet Parade moved by. The Paperhand Puppets are definitely a sight to behold, and the parade was enough to reinvigorate any slumping spirits. We actually wound up "catching a ride" with the parade as it wound around the outside of the Meadow Stage and moved its way to Carson's Grove. We laid about in the sun in front of the stage catching Driftwood (again). I really can't impress upon you how fantastic this band is, but if you're keeping count, this will be the fourth time I stopped in to check their set this weekend.

From there, we fell face first into the rest of our day, starting with Preston Frank's Zydeco Dance. We stopped to take in some traditional zydeco, a pillar of the Grassroots festivals. It was a lighthearted celebration of the  rich Cajun musical heritage. The Dance Tent's energy was enough to propel us back to camp, where half of our camping equipment awaited its inevitable return to the truck.

The Zydeco was hardly enough to pull us through the nightmare that was packing the truck, but it worked just long enough for us to return in time catch Hammer No More the Fingers at the Cabaret Tent. While we thoroughly enjoyed what we managed to catch of their set, Shakori Hills had taken an immense physical toll and we had to rest up for what was one of the most exciting bands of the lineup. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones were set to take the Meadow Stage at 7:00pm.

The Flecktones are a seemingly unstoppable force in modern composition; each member of the group has become a virtuoso of their instrument (and in the case of percussionist Future Man, an instrument of his own invention), and they apply it to their music in ways never previously thought possible. What we encountered in the Meadow that day was a visual and aural display of sheer, unbridled talent. Béla Fleck effortlessly shredded through gems from their extensive back catalog as well as newer material, Future Man showcased his surprisingly angelic vocals, long-absent "man with two brains" Howard Levy displayed equal proficiency on piano and harmonica, and Victor Wooten made his bass guitar do things that looked physically impossible, at least from where I was standing.
After the Flecktone's phenomenal performance (ending with an encore of "Sinister Minister"), the Myxem staff parted ways as Grant headed back to Raleigh to recuperate from what turned out to be bronchitis and the rest of us dismantled a little more of the campsite. Donna the Buffalo took the stage yet again to close out the weekend, and the group's die-hard fans (collectively known as The Herd) were out in full force for this last hurrah. That lasted until about half-past midnight. The band continued to play until almost 2AM, playing a set close to five hours in length, and the band seemed to have more stamina than their Herd. As we walked back from the parking lot late that night after loading up some more gear, we saw that the number of onlookers had dwindled drastically. The overwhelming jubilation of the crowd only hours ago had whittled down to a few handfuls of writhing bodies. 

This was how our fall Shakori experience would end, with an air of excitement that had slowly dwindled into a sense of dread; one that brought us face-to-face with the fact that tomorrow would be a return to reality. No more would we be able to wake up, walk across the meadow or lay down in the grove, and enjoy some entertainment that we'd rarely get a chance to see anywhere else. It was a true utopian vision and one that we, to be sure, will participate in for years to come.

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