The festival's first day started off with a bang, or a stomp rather: Chicago-based bluegrass band Cornmeal on the Main Stage. The four-piece acoustic ensemble was clearly ready to rock, never mind that it wasn't very crowded yet because most folks were still either on their way or setting up camp. Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth sat in on a few songs, providing a double fiddle that sounded, at times, perfectly harmonious enough to be just one amazing fiddle on songs like "World Got You Down" and "Girl With the Short Brown Hair."
|Allie Kral & Tim Carbone :: Wakarusa 2009|
Next up was Split Lip Rayfield, whose progressive punk-jamgrass was just as full of spunk and off-beat charm as ever. Meanwhile, Joe Purdy took the stage in the Revival Tent not too far away. An Arkansas native known for his country-chart-topping hit "Wash Away," featured in the 2004 season of ABC's television series Lost, Purdy might be compared to Jack Johnson, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne.
Lightnin' Malcolm & Cedric Burnside gave the people what they wanted. Think a Dirty South, blues-rock version of The White Stripes. This duo brought it, oblivious to whether anyone was appreciative or not - but the fans were. Burnside, the grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of famous drummer Calvin Jackson, is himself fast becoming renowned for his skills on the drums. And his guitarist, Lightnin Malcolm, who toured for years with such blues stars as Cedell Davis, R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford and Otha Turner, will tear your heart out as he shreds both traditional and cutting-edge blues licks.
But alas, the Cedric listening had to get cut short, because 30 minutes into his show, the fairly new Jimmy Herring Band took the Main Stage. Herring, lead guitarist for Widespread Panic and a past guitarist for many bands including The Dead and The Allman Brothers Band, was accompanied by Neal Fountain on bass (instead of Oteil Burbridge, who did spring tour with the band), Jeff Sipe on drums, Scott Kinsey on keyboards and Greg Osby on sax. Herring impressed his fans in the crowd as well as the critics, letting loose on the notes while revealing his '60s and '70s influences. I dug it. I don't know if I'll be rushing out to buy his debut solo album from last year, Lifeboat, but I'd definitely listen to the whole thing if I had it.
|Jimmy Herring :: Wakarusa 2009|
Next up was dinner break and Underground Orchestra in the Outpost Tent. UO is a Los Angeles-based rock/progressive fusion band, as the members like to say, and consists of Ben Baruch, Ej Wasik, Chris Michetti (formerly of Raq) and Garrett Sayers (formerly of The Motet); Steve Molitz (Phil Lesh and Friends, Particle) joined the boys on keys for the weekend. The group killed it in both performances at Wakarusa as they rocked their particular version of jazz, funk, fusion and Middle Eastern melodies - all done in the jam band style. UO ended its Thursday show with a unique version of Daft Punk's "Robot Rock."
After dinner, we got to check out a little bit of Porter Batiste Stoltz, a New Orleans supergroup of three well-respected musicians who have played support (and at times lead) for other famous musicians for decades. They were absolutely fabulous, wowing the crowd with their Crescent City funk and very groovy jams.
|Steve & John Kimock with George Porter Jr. :: Wakarusa 2009|
But, shortly after their start, Steve Kimock Crazy Engine took the Main Stage. We cut out for that, having fallen in love with Kimock a few years back at a performance with Donna Jean and Friends in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This time around, Kimock was playing with Melvin Seals on keyboards, Janis Wallin on bass and his son John Morgan Kimock on drums. Steve Kimock didn't disappoint; the show was just as pleasing as ever, with melodic tunes and rifts taking your ears as well as your spirit up and down and back and forth on waves of musical ability. He brought it to a head with "That's What Love Will Make You Do," followed by the closer, "Fiyo On The Bayou," with George Porter Jr. running over after his set to sit-in for Janis Wallin on bass. Great stuff. I wrote in my notebook: "I know I just ate dinner not too long ago, but sitting here listening to this, I feel fat and happy in more than one way."
Next, I got firmly planted in a great spot, ready for Railroad Earth to blow me away. And did they ever! Railroad Earth, I would swear, has been on Phish tour recently. And Panic tour. And has been hanging out with Dylan, and any other artists that might inspire the members of one of bluegrass' most improvisational and creative bands. Yes, I said it. Railroad Earth - which never ranked that highly in my book until this weekend - took their musical talents to a whole new level on Thursday night, and they had an out-of-this-world visual experience to match, in the form of an amazing light show that neither distracted from the music nor distorted the experience.
As a listener who is somewhat familiar with RRE, having seen them several times and owning a few of the band's albums, I was struck by how much it seemed like they were channeling Phish - and I mean that in a good way, despite the fact that I'm not an especially huge Phish fan. The songs just had an exceptional, soothing flow to them, the notes possessing an extra-special connection between each of them. This was not your father's bluegrass (unless your father grew up in the '60s and did a lot of LSD, that is). The vocals, which always remind me of Bob Dylan in their intonation, were spot-on and crystal clear, especially in the harmonies on the 15-minute "Head." The band particularly jammed well on "Smilin Like a Buddha," during which fiddler Tim Carbone just about burned through his bow he played so hard. Outstanding. I'm pretty sure my jaw was on the ground during the entire set, which lasted nearly two hours and closed with "Little Rabbit."
|Railroad Earth :: Wakarusa 2009|
Next up was Thursday headliner No. 2, Gov't Mule, an admitted favorite. The band, led of course by guitar magic man Warren Haynes, opened the two-hour show with "Blind Man in the Dark" and then "Streamline Woman," which prompted me to jot down, "Nitty gritty rock 'n' roll! Particularly crisp and sharp as a knife!" (I was beside myself.) Haynes really got the crowd worked up with a rousing rendition of "Don't Step on the Grass Sam," and he kept them in a frenzy by quickly going into the sing-along favorite Radiohead cover, "Creep." The drum work on "Thorazine Shuffle" was highly impressive, and was followed by a version of "Sugaree" that was so lovingly sung by Haynes you'd have thought he wrote it. If you've ever seen Gov't Mule, you already know they encored with "Soulshine." I've seen better encores from this band, but not better shows.
Just as Gov't Mule was winding down, Yonder Mountain String Band, one of my other all-time favorite bands (I have a Top Five — it's the most I can narrow it down — and both are in it) took the stage at the Revival Tent. So, I practically sprinted over there and arrived in time for about the second or third song. I was amazed to see a full house going crazy over the song "Angel," which is not, in my mind at least, your typical party, festival or even dance-along song, but whatever. This crowd was hyped with energy and ready for Yonder to throw down the gauntlet at its 12:30 - 2:30 a.m. late night set. So, Yonder obliged. Jeff Austin, the mandolinist and lead singer, was clearly on fire and thrilled to be at Wakarusa and in Arkansas. There are a few songs the band does particularly well when they're really feeling the energy from the crowd, and they did them here, with "Rambler" and "Boatmen's Dance" being my faves. The show ended with "Two Hits" and encored with "Bloody Mary Morning," both crowd-pleasers.
|Matt Abts - Gov't Mule :: Wakarusa 2009|
Although I barely caught any of it before I crashed for the night, I did grab a glimpse of Dirtfoot's late night show on the Backwoods Stage. How to describe Dirtfoot? This Louisiana band is part redneck tribal dance music, part Cajun slam rock, part New Orleans jazz and part jamgrass, sort of. Funky sax on "Gonna Get Ya," smooth sax intro on "Back of a Stranger." The vocals are spoken on many songs, but they're nice when sung, like on "Back of a Stranger," and the lead singer's voice reminds me of Metallica. The strong polka backdrop of "Break My Bones" is fun, after it finishes catching you off guard. And that was about all the live music I could take for one day. Good night to me!
Continue reading for Friday's coverage...