Words by: Kristal L. Kuykendall | Images by: Jeremy Scott
Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival :: 08.12.09 – 08.15.09 :: Mulberry Mountain :: Ozark, AR
The first thing that happened upon my arrival Friday to the Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival was I heard, from three completely unrelated sources, how amazing Lotus had been the night before. I didn't appreciate it being rubbed in, the fact that I had missed a band I like a lot, and the fact that it apparently had been one of the best shows – if not THE best show – of the weekend. And two of the people telling me this don't even typically like Lotus' style of music; they are more acoustic-leaning bluegrass fans, so I was surprised. One of them, who never utters clichés, actually said it "melted his face off" – and he was listening from his tent 100 yards away! He particularly said the last song, which I found out later was "Spiritualize," was out-of-this-world rockin'.
|Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival 2009|
Unable to attend the first two days of the fest due to unforeseeable circumstances, other bands I received rave reviews about were the Sarah Hughes Band and Weakness for Blondes on Wednesday, as well as Infamous Stringdusters and Papa Mali on Thursday. Having heard the Infamous Stringdusters recently at Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was sorely disappointed to have missed this acoustic seven-piece bluegrass band. With some of the purest male vocals you'll ever hear, Infamous Stringdusters perform both originals and covers with lyrics that are up-to-date but juxtaposed with harmonies and melodies that are simply classic. You might feel, while listening, as though you have traveled back in time to hear Bill Monroe, or that you have ended up in the Grand Ol' Opry decades back for a heckuva Feature Show. To top it all off, Infamous Stringdusters feature an extremely talented dobro player, which - and I don't know how it is where you live, but it's certainly this way where I live - is not exactly common. In fact, the only dobro I've seen played live in these parts (Arkansas) other than with this band was that of Jerry Douglas, the best dobro player of them all, in the "Down From the Mountain" tour several years back. Now that was a treat. Nevertheless, so was Infamous Stringdusters, and I heard their performance at Mulberry was no different. I'd certainly recommend checking them out if you can.
One of the shows I heard the most good things about that I'd missed during the first two days was Mountain of Venus, a Fayetteville, Arkansas-based jamband that is very musically talented and at times somewhat experimental in its jams - but never lost. This band includes a female lead singer, Tanya Shylock, who is easily one of the best vocalists in the state of Arkansas, if not the best. Shylock tells me they had a particularly good jam on the song "Glory," which is in part about the Ozark Mountains and how some consider this area to be an energy vortex. They also played one of Tanya's favorites, "Lift," which offers strong dynamics and textures.
|Allie Kral with RRE :: Mulberry Mtn 2009|
But the coolest thing Shylock told me about was a wandering jam session later on, in the wee hours of the morning that started in the wooded campground area - there always seems to be a late night jam session going on in the wooded campground area of Mulberry! - and weaved here and there before ending up on the Downhome Stage, which is the stage that's on the other side of the wooded campgrounds. Some of the wandering jam players included Allie Kral from Cornmeal, some guys from Hot Buttered Rum and Oakhurst, Warren Dietzel from Crazy Neighbor and The Phosphenes, and a slew of other incredible pickers. "That was a friggin' hoot. That's what I look for at a festival, honestly, just a bunch of artists interacting and having a ball playing songs we all know and love," Shylock told me later on. "The vibe of the fest was as good as it gets."
So, being irritated about what I'd had to miss but ready for my own adventures, I caught the tail end of the Railroad Earth show, which was phenomenal, as they always are, and instantly changed my mood for the better. Though I'd missed two of my favorite songs – "Reuben's Train" in their set the day before and "Hard Livin'" at the beginning of this set – I got to hear Allie Kral sit in on violin for "Little Bit O' Me" and "Little Rabbit." There's just something about Railroad Earth that so sing-song melancholy, relaxing and upbeat, sad and hopeful all at the same time. I guess that's because they are so good at combining driving song beats with been-through-the-wringer lyrics. Whatever it is, I like it, especially when the sun's out, 88-degrees and I'm off work.
|Nitty Gritty Dirt Band :: Mulberry Mtn 2009|
The headliner of the night was the long-revered Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I have heard many stories about this band from my musician father but never have I seen them live. It was a sight to hear, so to speak. Early on, the mandolin-heavy instrumentals impressed me, particularly on the second song (title unknown). Then they played the traditional "Dark Hollow" (which many know from the Grateful Dead) with a banjo-fiddle-harmonica trio that was just awesome. But it was the bluegrass classic "My Walkin' Shoes Don't Fit Me Anymore," featuring a fast banjo lead by the talented John McEuen, that got the whole crowd to its feet and dancing. "We finally found a town that likes the banjo," he said after the song was over, inspiring a big cheer from the audience. The set did get a little country for my tastes a few times, particularly during their hit, "Fishin' in the Dark," but it was nothing I couldn't tolerate, and it was done very well at that. Toward the end of the show, NGDB highlighted the beautiful talent that got them out of California and made them famous in the first place – and it was easy to see once they started singing "Mr. Bojangles," the cover they hit it big with in 1970. Beautiful.
NGDB kept us on our feet with a quick segue into a bluegrass cover of The Beatles' "Get Back," and it was original-sounding enough at the beginning that it caught at least some of us by surprise when the first mention of "Jo Jo" rang out through the microphone – eliciting a loud "Woooh!" from the crowd. The rendition featured the banjo doing the famous lead guitar licks throughout the song, with a few piano solos here and there that were a great touch. An original that followed, "Workin' Man (Nowhere To Go)," struck me as a thoroughly Nitty Gritty Dirt Band-style song, something akin to a mix of Little Texas crossed with Railroad Earth, with a little Cajun flavor thrown in to boot. Excellent stuff and just right for this festival.
|Squirrel Nut Zippers :: Mulberry Mtn 2009|
Next up was Squirrel Nut Zippers, who I was very much looking forward to, even though it was a slight change of pace to say the least. They were playing under the big white tent, and started at 10 p.m. on Friday night. My first impression was that the juxtaposition of the screaming rockabilly electric guitar with the three jazz/something else horns was absolutely riveting, not to mention toe-tapping. The vocals weren't the best in the world, but it could have easily been a sound issue. They weren't bad by any means, and the instrumentation was so good it more than made up for any flat notes here or there. The female lead, Katharine Whalen, sounded much better toward the end of the show, when it seemed like she was letting her voice be itself rather than trying to affect an old-timey, "retro" sound as it appeared she was earlier. I enjoyed the beginning of the set with highlights such as "Memphis Exorcism," "Good Enough for Granddad" and "Put a Lid On It," but by the middle of the show and specifically the song "Prince Nez," the sounds coming out of the speakers started swimming around in my (sober) head, and from there things started to lean toward the clownish. Not as in silly but as in carnival clown theme-music. Still, I think whoever wrote the band bio that said people just don't know how to handle their style of swing-meets-punk-meets-jazz-meets-rock was pretty much dead-on, and perhaps the author was talking about people like me. It occurs to me that it's entirely possible that I just don't "get" their music like I'm supposed to. Looking around me, it was clear that I was not enjoying it nearly as much as a good portion of the several hundred people under the tent, but that's okay. To me, it just came off as a routine. Still, the song "Hell" was fun to hear live, despite my listening criticisms. These are, no doubt, talented musicians.
Soon it was time for The Avett Brothers on the Main Stage. First, I heard their cover of "That's How I Got to Memphis," and it was great. Wonderful vocal harmonies and a strong banjo lead made me happy to be alive and present. "Hard Worker" is so well-written it sounded like an old bluegrass classic, and "Pretend Love" featured great Willie Nelson-style acoustic guitar pickin' all throughout – fun stuff. But then they played a song whose title I don't know, that talked about "sleepin' in my grave" that just seemed, well, noisy; reminded me of a hillbilly version of the Violent Femmes before they were polished (well, as polished as they ever got). Still, overall, The Avett Brothers were impressive, and definitely made me a fan.
|The Avett Brothers :: Mulberry Mtn 2009|
Last show for Friday night was Blue Turtle Seduction, which was sort of New Orleans-sounding funky, folksy house music. I know, weird, right? It was, but it was incredible; definitely one of my new favorite bands now, and I am fairly certain that at least 500 other people under the tent with me felt the same way after only a few songs. It was impossible not to dance. One song sounded like a cross between G. Love and a funk version of the Black Eyed Peas, and not long after that a different song, featuring a fiddle lead, definitely had a String Cheese Incident thing going on. Others reminded me a little of moe., with their pop-jam flavor. I particularly liked the "Bluefoot" leading into "Roll 99," and whatever pop sounding track they played that required the violinist to fingerpick the lead on the fiddle – bad ass. I will be hunting this band down again for another live performance, and soon, even if I have to drive across multiple states to see them.
Saturday morning started bright and early with regional favorites Big Smith on the Main Stage. Big Smith can be described as hillbilly jam-grass with some electronic instruments thrown in and they feature mostly original tunes such as "Burn Down the House" and "12-Inch, 3-Speed Oscillating Fan" that are well-loved by all who hear them. Lately, the band has been venturing out of its comfort zone into areas that are a little more experimental and a lot more "jam," if you will, and one of those new songs, "Grandmother Mabel," is just phenomenal. Although very different for the band, it's very well written, and I believe will only open new doors for them and expand their fan draw. Another song the band has performed lately for the first time is Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and believe it or not it's awesome. Big Smith really makes it their own, with all the members taking turns singing the lead vocals on different verses, and Molly Healey on fiddle mastering the lead instrumental part that makes "Billie Jean" so recognizable. Big Smith keeps growing, mutating and developing into something better and better, keep an eye on this Missouri-based band.
Saturday night headliner Umphrey's McGee took the Main Stage by storm. After getting the crowd going with "Syncopated Strangers," the lead guitars were happily wailing on "Partyin' Peeps," followed by an excellent rendition of "Phil's Farm." The crowd especially loved UM's cover of "Dear Prudence," which was melancholy but danceable - and the fans did dance. Mulberry fans waited a year for this - the band was supposed to headline the Main Stage last year but severe storms forced an abbreviated performance under the tent - and now, I can see it was well worth the wait. Umphrey's really pulled out all the stops, showing us why they've achieved the success they have, packing so many fans into big venues tour after tour.
|Umphrey's McGee :: Mulberry Mtn 2009|
Saturday evening ended with Tea Leaf Green playing late night under the Harvest Tent. The band was jamming, that's for certain, and sounded great with strong vocals and guitar, opening with the likes of "Tequila," "Emma Lee" and "Cops Took My Weed." But many of us were tired and there weren't as many heads under the tent as you would normally see at a festival's last show. I heard a couple of people, who were leaving for bed after about the fifth song, say they needed something more high-energy than a piano-heavy jamband - however good a jamband it was - if they were going to stay up that late after four days and nights of festival. I sort of agreed. Still, I wish I'd heard Tea Leaf Green's set the day before, when Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth sat in on guitar for "Incandescent Devil" and played fiddle for a cover of Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street." Aaah, another time I suppose.
After just two nights I could easily see what Tanya Shylock meant about the vibe of the festival being as "good as it gets." Similar to Wakarusa (read the JamBase review here), which was held at this same locale this year after being moved out of Kansas, Mulberry Mountain Harvest Music Festival was very relaxed and peaceful with several thousand in attendance. Security was laid-back as well, with people's privacy, like at Wakarusa, very much respected, and overall people were extremely friendly toward each other and easy to get along with. You didn't hear a lot of loud stereos late into the night in the campground areas and we didn't see one scuffle or argument.
Though Mulberry is not, by any means, a "little Wakarusa," it is a nice, small festival, particularly if you like bluegrass and folk-jam music. Despite the need for a few more resources like additional porta-potties and an increase in staff, the weather was beautiful, the vibe overwhelming and fans were treated to some truly amazing music. Chances are next year will be even better.
Continue reading for more pics of Mulberry Mountain Harvest Fest 2009...