Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival | Silk Hope, NC | April 10-13, 2003

Hey, what do you say we go out in a hurricane, set up a tent, drink some Wild Turkey, and watch zydeco music 'til two in the morning? That's what normal people do on a Thursday, right? OK, maybe not. But when the weather cleared and the sun came out, all those strange decisions seemed vindicated. The first annual Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival was on.

Held on spacious farmland just outside of Chapel Hill, NC, the festival made its first appearance in the southland after 14 years of charity-inspired success in Ithaca, NY. Legendary roots-rockers Donna the Buffalo are the proud sponsors of the festival, which again supported a variety of local charities. Although the rain played havoc with the first day's schedule, soon all was back on track and the celebrations could begin. The festival featured four stages packed with a huge variety of musical styles, from bluegrass to reggae and everything in between. Workshops and seminars on topics ranging from the healing arts to indigenous traditions were plentiful, along with kids' activities, local organic food, and instrument and poetry contests.

First day highlights included the rousing sounds of country crooner John Anderson and local all-female rock band The Pink Slips. Big Fat Gap laid down some thumping bluegrass, and Donna the Buffalo headlined the evening with a raucous Dance Tent performance that had everyone shaking in their mud boots. The ironically-titled Sunny Weather provided late-night entertainment, keeping everyone dancing to its island rhythms until long after bedtime.

Friday morning started off with a variety of yoga and tensegrity classes for early risers (or late-to-bed'ers). Troubadour X set the sounds of bluegrass rolling on the Meadow Stage as John Specker laid down some happy fiddle music on the Grove Stage. Snake Oil Medicine Show followed with their rollicking blend of bluegrass, jazz, folk and funk. Their set featured a jam on "the world's most hated instruments," which included tuba, saw, accordion and ukulele: "Ukes, not nukes, that's our motto." Snake Oil's unique blend of disparate elements, including artist Phil Cheney's paintings being created in real time behind the band, whipped the crowd into a mid-day frenzy.

Soon the Del McCoury Band hit the main stage for one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. They ran through favorites such as "Nashville Cats" while amazing the audience with their unrivaled instrumental prowess. Del always brings a silly attitude to go with his serious chops, introducing a sad song by saying, "We don't have too many love songs, mostly murder ballads I guess." Bluegrass has always enjoyed this dichotomy, placing sad lyrics on top of happy music. Such contrast encompasses the full range of human emotions, from hope to despair, providing perhaps one reason so many people identify with the style.

After a side-stage set by country rocker Jim Lauderdale, renowned Zimbabwean political funkster Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited took the stage. Mapfumo is the originator of "chimurenga" music, which means "music of struggle." The title is well earned: Mapfumo was imprisoned for subversion in 1977, one year before the Zimbabwean independence. Mixing rock and funk with traditional African melodies, Mapfumo had the crowd dancing and swaying as the moon began to rise. After alternative country punk Alejandro Escovedo's side stage performance, the crowd made its way to the Dance Tent for one of the hottest sets of the weekend. The Preston Frank Family Zydeco Band has been laying down its blazing bayou boogie for decades. The accordion and funky bass had the audience bouncing up and down (very) late into the evening.

Saturday morning rolled around and the sun was high in the clear blue sky. Now this was festival weather. Local dance troupe the Apple Chill Cloggers brought their traditional foot-stomping to the Dance Tent, and later in the day Moontee Sinquah hit the stage. This was undoubtedly one of the most unique performances of the festival. Mixing Native American singing with rock and roll guitar, Sinquah created a sound that was equal parts past and future. Improvising riffs and rhythms over a spiritual base, the act took many in the audience by surprise, and wrapped up far too quickly.

Campbell Brothers were up next, and anyone wondering where Robert Randolph & the Family Band got their sound from should look no further. Their "electric gospel" cranks the sounds of the church up to 11. Singing for the Lord and dancing across the stage, the band's dual pedal-steel attack and soulful vocals gave everyone a supercharge as the sun faded away. Acoustic Syndicate followed on the side stage, unleashing its contemporary blend of acoustic and electric influences mixed with elegant harmonies.

Donna the Buffalo was next on the main stage for the second of its three festival appearances. Meanwhile, on the side stage, local reggae act Mickey Mills and Steel was laying down its groovy, percussion-heavy reggae sounds. It was simply too easy to walk between the stages, alternating between roots-rock and reggae with just a few funky footsteps separating the two. Late night zydeco was on the menu once again, this time with Preston's son Keith Frank at the helm. Incorporating the same traditional sounds, yet updated for the new millennium, Keith Frank's set kept the energy level pumping as the hours flew by.

Sunday morning came far too quickly, as so often seems to be the case. Several of the best acts from the weekend had another set scheduled, perhaps to capitalize on word of mouth from their earlier performances. Big Fat Gap, Campbell Brothers and Preston Frank all got another chance to display their talents. Snake Oil Medicine Show also got another set, this time in the Dance Tent, where members of the Hula Cats sat in, adding some Hawaiian colors to their already overflowing palette. They ended the show by leading a march off the stage and down the road, with the happy audience chanting, "Don't let it die!" as they followed them through the festival grounds.

Finally, Donna the Buffalo took the stage one last time to wrap up the first annual Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival. Overall the festival was a resounding success. Despite some scary weather on the first day, it had turned into a picture perfect weekend. Although I'm sure they'll continue to improve on the festival grounds, the infrastructure was convenient, comfortable, and nobody had to wait in line for food or port-a-johns at any point in the weekend. The festival's mission was to create a place where people could come together to celebrate peace and justice with a sense of community. Mission accomplished.

Words by Paul Kerr
Images by Todd E. Gaul
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 5/21/03]

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