SMILEFEST | 06.06 - 06.08 | UNION GROVE, NC

The 8th Annual SmileFest Celebration of Peace, Love & Music in the North Carolina Sunshine. That's the full name, and a more apt title would be hard to find. An amazing lineup of musicians, beautiful weather, and a spacious and friendly campsite combined to make it an ideal festival. The early arrivals on Thursday night were treated to the sounds of Snake Oil Medicine Show, Acoustic Syndicate and Ancient Harmony. Things kicked off Friday with Furnace Mountain on the side stage followed by Braco on the main stage.

Allow me a few paragraphs at this point to divert from the music and describe what a wonderful campground this was. Although this is SmileFest's 8th year, it's only the second time they've held it at the Van Hoy Family Campgrounds in Union Grove, NC. This is just outside Statesville, and basically in the middle of vast farm country. Site of the legendary Old Time Fiddler's Convention, legend has it this is the spot where Jerry Garcia first met David Grisman in 1965. Although no plaque adorns the site, on a quiet night they say you can still hear the sounds of guitar, mandolin, and people looking for rides to Deer Creek.

The grounds feature a swimming pool, hiking trails, hot showers, and even a stream to wade around in. The Southern flavor of the festival appeared with a flatbed full of watermelons, which some folks promptly made into a 21-and-over snack food. A small farm-run general store was on hand as well, in addition to many other vendors, and although the folks running it were very nice, they had no juice or soda to sell. They recommended I buy some beer or Mike's Hard Lemonade. This was at 10:30 in the morning. An intriguing idea to be sure, but I held out for a soda machine instead.

There were two stages at the festival. The Main Stage held several thousand people and was thankfully covered to provide some relief from the sun, but with open sides for air. Even during the most popular shows, there was plenty of room for everyone to dance around. The Furthur Adventures stage was a short distance away through the woods, down a candle-lit trail. The woods then opened into a clearing, where there sat another stage, space for hundreds of people, and a food vendor slinging $1 garlic grilled cheeses. This was the late-night stage, with shows starting at 1:30am on Friday and Saturday nights. As long as the music kept playing, the people kept dancing and the cheese kept grilling.

Although you were allowed to bring your cooler with you into the show (read that again to grasp the full impact), they frowned on cans and bottles. So to help things along the staff gave out free cups all weekend long. They also allowed taping - all three of Keller Williams' sets and the Mad Dog Trio's set are already available on FurthurNet for shn downloading.

OK back to the music. Next up on Friday afternoon was the Jeff Coffin Mu'tet. Jeff is the sax player with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and now I know why. If you were Bela, you'd have asked him to join your band too. They tore through this set, firing up jazz grooves and thick layers of sound. Jeff Sipe (aka Apt. Q258) was featured on drums with the band for this gig. Formerly of Aquarium Rescue Unit and Leftover Salmon, Sipe always brings a large bag of tricks with him to the show. Halfway through the set Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten and Future Man all came out on stage to sit in. Now the entire Flecktones band was on stage, plus Jeff's band, and they grooved and improvised for the next half hour. For many people, this set the tone for the rest of the weekend. The musicians were as fired up as the audience, and couldn't wait to sit in on each other's sets and create new music on the spot.

Dashing over to the side stage now to catch the Larry Keel & Keller Williams guitar workshop. For those who haven't seen them, some festivals have workshops where artists can answer questions from the audience, and perhaps speak more technically about their instruments, along with jamming together on some songs. The Larry Keel Experience, led by the Telluride flat-picking champion, has been on a rampage through the southeast lately. Keller Williams is his own experience, as anyone who's seen his live show can attest to. He's a one-man band on stage, playing guitar and pulling drum and brass sounds out of thin air. An audience member asked Keller to address rumors that he'd broken up. Keller said it was true; he did break up. But then he went out in the desert and got his thoughts in line, and he got back together again. Good news for all of us. Danny Nicely sat in on mandolin for a ten-minute bluegrass version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2," with Keller handling the vocals, alternating between fake English and fake Southern accents.

Back to the main stage for The Code Talkers Featuring Col. Bruce Hampton featuring special guest Vassar Clements. The Colonel's latest project is some sort of undiscovered hybrid beast that science has yet to name. With Vassar sitting in, they leaned a little towards the bluegrass, but their kind of weirdness is hard to hide. Vassar is responsible for one of my personal favorite moments of music (his solo on Doc Watson's version of Bonaparte's Retreat), and it's always great to see him sitting in. He then moved over to the side stage for a fiddle workshop with Sam Bush.

Banjo ace Bela Fleck & bluegrass/classical bassist Edgar Meyer were next up on the main stage. They've just started touring as a duo recently, and a live album is reportedly on the way. They ripped through Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" from Bela's latest classical album at blazing speed. Some guy in the taper section was trying to count it with a metronome, but after he got to 32nd notes, and then 64th notes, he just ran out of the show screaming. Bela switched to his Swiss cheese guitar and Edgar sat down at a keyboard for an instrumental version of the Flecktones' "Communication." It turns out Edgar is quite the minimalist pianist as well.

The Sam Bush Band was next on stage, and to no one's surprise Sam invited some of his friends to join him and turned it into an all-star jam. Bela Fleck, Jeff Coffin, Edgar Meyer, Jack Lawrence and Curtis Burch all ended up on stage with Sam's band, roaring through a 15-minute "Sittin' on Top of the World." Sam announced he was officially tearing up the setlist, ripped it into little pieces, and threw it to the floor. He then shot a panicked look at Bela, and the two of them dropped to the ground to frantically put the setlist back together. Other highlights of Sam's full-throttle set included a medley that someone eventually had to put together: Prince's "1999" and Kool & the Gang's "Celebration."

T.H.H.E. Mood Cultivation Project filled in the gap on the side stage with their twin-guitar attack and soulful Southern vocals. Then it was time for the main stage headliner of the night, the Victor Wooten Band. The third Flecktones side project of the day, Victor's band consisted of some family members, some old friends, and the channeled spirits of James Brown and Sly Stone. Like an old-school R&B revue, they tore through solos and stage antics, even covering "Sex Machine" along the way.

But the night wasn't done yet. Starting at 1:30am, Keller Williams played out in the woods under the stars. Just a man, a guitar, and a giant electronic fun factory allowing him to replicate the sounds of a ten-piece band at will. A bass and electric guitar were mounted onstage, along with the acoustic around his neck, and a wide variety of percussion instruments. Using a loop machine, he created grooves starting with the acoustic guitar, then added one piece at a time until a giant jam machine had been assembled. While transforming "Johnny B. Goode" into a funk-bop number, he transformed the lyrics as well: "His mama told him someday he would be a man / And he would be the leader of an imaginary band." Alternating between loop-jam tracks and solo acoustic guitar, he kept the crowd moving till 3:30am. And just to make sure everyone went to bed smiling, he encored with "Scarlet Begonias à Fire on the Mountain jam à Legalize it." Not a bad day of music. And it was only Friday.

Saturday opened with original New Grass Revival dobro player Curtis Burch along with his wife Ruth on the side stage. Barefoot Manner opened the main stage. They were followed by MoDeReKo, featuring John Molo from Phil Lesh & Friends and Bruce Hornsby's band on drums, weaving sax, keys and guitar into a funky instrumental stew with jazz-rock overtones. Keller Williams then played his third set of the weekend, and he was followed on the side stage by a local band called Mad Dog Trio. Word has been spreading about MD3 for a little while now, and their keyboard-led laid-back groove was perfect for the late-afternoon sunshine. The Larry Keel Experience then took to the main stage, with special guests Vassar Clements and John Molo sitting in.

Next up was perhaps the most unusual and rare event of the weekend, and one that was unplanned and unpublicized as well. While most people thought a break was happening on both stages simultaneously, there was actually a drum workshop that had been set up unannounced on the side stage. Future Man, the synth-axe drumitar player from the Flecktones, and John Molo had set up two regular drumkits (no drumitar) and sat down for an hour of drum duets and a lengthy Q&A with the audience. Only a hundred or so people were there when it started, and only a few hundred when it was over. Those lucky few got to hear four separate amazing drum jams, including one based on John Molo's drumming on Bruce Hornsby's hit "The Way it Is," complete with Future Man rapping some of the vocals. Future Man told of a project where he's weaving musical melodies to the numerical equations of pi. The two drummers even took turns questioning each other about influences, drum theory and equipment. Future Man spoke about approaching drums harmonically and compositionally, tying his musical theories to those of Stravinsky, and told stories of growing up in Virginia Beach with Carter Beauford from the Dave Matthews Band.

The Steve Kimock Band took to the main stage next, and as people began to mix together, word of the drumming spectacle we'd just witnessed slowly began to spread. Kimock's band was on fire, and after Moonshine Racers filled the gap between sets, it was time for Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. What's left to say about these guys? You know they're going to blow you away, they know they're going to blow you away, and yet with all the preparation, you still get blown away each time. They just keep getting better and better, and I've never been happier that Jeff Coffin is now a full-time member of the band. They ran through songs old and new, including a ferocious version of Aaron Copeland's "Throwdown at the Hoedown" and a "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" encore, but the highlight was a duel between Bela and Future Man. Bela had a midi effect on his banjo so he could adopt the sound of a piano or any other instrument at will. For this duel, he picked a drum sound that was close to one that Future Man makes with his mouth. They dueled back and forth between banjo-drum and mouth-drum until the crowd was ready to pop through the roof. After seeing all four of them this weekend in side projects leading up to this, it was amazing to see the final product when they all got back together again.

There's not many bands that would want to follow the Flecktones, but one band that wasn't scared was Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. They laid out the funk and that's all they did. There's nothing else to write about it because it was nothing but funk. Karl Denson does not do non-funk. Only funk. His set started at 12:15am, but I'm not sure what time it ended because all of our watches stopped working when the Mothership descended. After Karl's amazing set, a friendly policeman told us it was time to go to bed, but we didn't believe him, so we went back to the side stage and caught the last set of SmileFest 2002. David Via & Corn Tornado were laying out some down-home bluegrass in the woods. Lots of folks were up late dancing and smiling, but I knew that sadly things were coming to an end when the grilled cheese girl had nothing left but Hostess lemon pies. SmileFest had come to an end, but we can look forward to next year, enjoy the memories that we have, and screw it, we can have a lemon pie. It's only 4 in the morning.

Paul Kerr
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 6/17/02]

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