Shakori Hills Festival | 04.16-04.19 | N.C.

Words & Images by: Stratton Lawrence

Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance :: 04.16.09 – 04.19.09 :: Silk Hope, NC

Shakori Hills Fest 2009
"There are only a few days of the year like this, where you don't even notice the weather," said Amy LaVere to her enthusiastic Saturday night crowd at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival's Grove Stage. "And we're spending it here!" she added with a huge grin.

LaVere's attitude was echoed by all in attendance at what was likely the largest Shakori gathering to date. "This feels like a Saturday crowd," said Donna the Buffalo's Tara Nevins on Thursday. And Saturday, of course, was even bigger.

But at Shakori, a truly organic festival that combines a family-friendly atmosphere with a venue where souls can truly let loose (substance-aided or not), a growing crowd doesn't hinder the vibe and only adds to the performances. There always seems to be room in the meadow for a blanket, and it's never a problem to scoot down to the front row without ruffling anyone's feathers. An established festival can build upon its vibe, and at Shakori, that vibe is definitely love and boogie.

This writer's crew rolled in from Charleston, S.C. as Donna the Buffalo kicked off their opening night set, highlighted by a 15-minute "Mystic Water" played by request for a fan's 50th birthday. After some zydeco shakin' with Keith Frank, Oklahoma's Samantha Crain proved to be the pleasant discovery of night one. Crain laughed from the stage after someone referenced the song she'd just sang. "No, that was about a preacher who drowns a man he's baptizing in a river." Of course. The tiny songwriter is ably backed by three very similar-looking male bandmates (The Midnight Shivers), with the guitarist adding high harmonies to Crain's strong, distinctive voice. It's easy to see why The Avett Brothers' original label, Ramseur Records, would sign her. Crain's an impressive talent.

Holy Ghost Tent Revival - Shakori Hills 2009
Friday morning began with a wedding and a not-too-strenuous and oh-so-beneficial yoga session at the Movement Tent. A couple was married in the campground, with a celebration followed by the insane acoustic energy of the Holy Ghost Tent Revival on the main Meadow Stage. The Greensboro-based group puts every ounce of sweat and energy they can muster into their performance. The 1 p.m. dance party that ensued rivaled many of the late night jam sessions (including a highly unlikely mosh pit at the Steep Canyon Rangers). Although their Thursday night show ended before our arrival, Shakori-veterans HGTR's two shows provoked a lot of excited talk and word-spreading throughout the festival.

After a quick excursion to nearby Jordan Lake for a swim, the afternoon continued with a second, more subdued Samantha Crain performance. That show ended in time to swing by Chapel Hill all-female quartet Sweet By and By's Grove Stage performance, highlighted by a cover of Gillian Welch's "Annabelle" sung by stunningly beautiful violinist Emily Frantz.

On a friend's recommendation, we hustled over to the Horse Flies show in the Dance Tent. This veteran band has remained below the radar (at least in the Southeast) only through a lack of touring. Playing instruments that appear far older than the band members, the fiddle-driven grooves are as psychedelic in their acoustic roots as anything Leftover Salmon or The String Cheese Incident ever performed, yet distinctly authentic in their instrumentation. The addition of a conga drum helped the band find and hold long pockets, and the dancing crowd roared when each song finally found a conclusion.

Mamadou Diabate - Shakori Hills 2009
After the Horse Flies mind trip, kora player Mamadou Diabate provided a perfect excuse to lie in the Meadow Stage field and soak in the sunset. Diabate's got enough strings (21) on his instrument to create his hauntingly beautiful sounds, but it's amazing he has enough fingers to squeeze so many notes into each measure.

The stars appeared as the Steep Canyon Rangers proved their capable of thrilling both a traditional bluegrass audience and a rowdy festival crowd. A few excited youngsters started dancing madly through the audience, causing the closest thing to a mosh pit a bluegrass show has ever seen. Things eventually settled into a full-on hoedown, as the Rangers acknowledged The Dead's Greensboro performance the week prior with their version of "Don't Ease Me In," and an "Orange Blossom Special" encore that had everyone hopping.

Is there a better fit for a naturally beautiful outdoor festival stage than Todd Snider? Barefoot and dressed in a green cardigan and a leather hat, the songwriter's solo performance on the Meadow Stage had everyone rolling with laughter and awe. From "Beer Run" to his tune about "tree hugging, peace loving, pot smoking, porn watching hippies like me," more than a few in the audience felt they were hearing a spokesman of their kindred souls.

Jim Lauderdale brought out Donna the Buffalo to back him at his evening gig, shakin' that mojo loose and proving he's still the biggest acoustic rock star on the circuit. Our night ended with French-Algerian Rachid Taha's world-punk dance grooves, including his unique cover of "Rock the Casbah" and an amazing number of dancing female audience members squeezing onto the stage.

By Friday's conclusion, tick count was steady at four and only one bite. Shakori is notorious for their prolific ticks, and attendees are well warned. Fortunately, it's an afterthought after the mind-blowing array and variety of performances booked in one day.

Boulder Acoustic Society - Shakori Hills 2009
Saturday began lazily, jamming with friends around the spacious, wooded camp area. Jamaica's The Overtakers kicked off our live music for the day, demonstrating that a full reggae band needs only three strong singers, a guitar, and some random percussion tools. "Ghetto Life Is Not Easy" proved the highlight, as the band relied strongly on covers of classic Bob Marley tunes.

At 3 p.m., the Boulder Acoustic Society followed Holy Ghost Tent Revival's lead with a rollicking afternoon set that began the day's frenzied dancing. Ranging from almost-electronic sounding beat box jams to a laid-back cover of "Ain't No Sunshine," BAS showed there's plenty to be done with an accordion, an upright bass, a fiddle and a bare bones drum kit.

After rockabilly/country singer Eilen Jewell's show, featuring a pair of Loretta Lynn covers, Durham, NC's The Beast proved a fine booking for late afternoon on the Meadow Stage. Led by MC Pierce Freelon, the funk-laden band absolutely thrilled the crowd, including a beyond-impressive appearance by Freelon's mother on vocals. Beats shifted back to country-rock with The New Familiars, whose sound has morphed from acoustic harmonies to guitar-driven rock in the last year. Covers of "Baba O'Riley" and "Mama Don't 'Low" included Boulder Acoustic Society's Kailin Young on fiddle and Scott McCormick on keys.

Later, the Horse Flies brought their acoustic trippiness to a packed audience at the Meadow Stage. The reverb-drenched vocals and delay-effects on the violin created a surreal underwater vibe, especially when violinist Judy Hyman chanted from behind her overflowing mop of curly red hair.

Donna the Buffalo - Shakori Hills 2009
Songstress Des Ark opened up for Donna the Buffalo on the Meadow Stage with her wry wit and honest banter, before the headliners lit into an energetic, breathtaking set of danceable favorites. Guitarist Jeb Puryear teased violinist Tara Nevins about her hangover that morning, before she revealed that he sews his signature hats himself. Puryear acknowledged her by removing his cap to show off his balding head.

We boogied hard before heading back to play a few tunes around the campfire. The evening was somewhat stunted with the discovery that our campsite had been robbed - tents knifed open and wallets and valuables taken. Shakori's atmosphere is so loving that no one expects that sort of selfish act, but there's little organizers can do to counter the problem. Although Saturday night was rife with bands of roaming high schoolers, many of who stumbled around looking for booze and drugs, it's impossible to pinpoint a culprit. Unfortunately, Shakori will likely have to implement some sort of age-limit-without-a-guardian policy, or at least include public awareness in their publicity and programs. Staff acknowledged hearing multiple horror stories, and said the problem seemed much worse than at last fall's festival.

Sunday morning found a few more ticks (personal weekend count – 10) and a glum feeling over the reality of our missing funds and damaged possessions. However, Shannon Whitworth quickly sang those blues away, dreamily claw-hammering her way through a set of pedal-steel infused originals. Woodwork Roadshow followed her nicely, with bassist Jones Smith taking more than a few impressive walks on his instrument. Town Mountain vocalist/guitarist Robert Greer joined them for a couple songs before his band took the stage for a set of their own.

Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
A light rain set in as Ralph Stanley walked onto the Meadow Stage, awing the crowd with classic tunes that seem surreal to hear performed by their original songwriter. As expected, Stanley's band is as fine a group of pickers as any, and led by his distinctive vocals it's an experience that had the crowd silent and captivated.

After Justin Townes Earle's cancellation, we headed over to the Dance Tent for another round of Boulder Acoustic Society. The Colorado boys didn't disappoint in round two, summoning the sound of a didgeridoo with nothing but vocals and highlighting Kailin Young's searing fiddle. At the show's conclusion, they gathered in the crowd for an unplugged set of tunes and sing-alongs for a very appreciative crowd.

Donna the Buffalo closed the night with a final jam, but after four days of frolicking, we made the tough decision to pack out and make the trek back to Charleston, glowing all the way home.

Shakori seems to ensure that their artists have as much fun as their audience, a sure sign that things are being done right. The bands clearly enjoy playing to such attentive, excited crowds, and most seem to hang around to see other acts rather than treating Shakori as an in-and-out gig.

The variety and quality of the amenities and performers at Shakori are stunning. It's easy to have fun at a music festival, but it's another thing to be able to sense the love and thought that went into its planning. From the 'peace park' rock garden to the 12-year-olds impressively jamming at the Outpost tent at 10 p.m., there's no shortage of inspiring and hope-inducing scenarios to stumble upon out on the farm at Shakori.

Continue reading for more pics of the Shakori Hills Festival...

The Beast
Samantha Crain
Boulder Acoustic Society
Holy Ghost Tent Revival
The Horse Flies
Kailin Young of Boulder Acoustic Society
The New Familiars
The Overtakers
Amy LaVere
Kids jamming at The Outpost
Sweet By and By
Woodwork Roadshow
Shannon Whitworth
Steep Canyon Rangers

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