SmileFest | Van Hoy Family Farms Campground | Union Grove, NC | May 29-31, 2003
“You gotta check out my boogie hole!” These were the words my friend Jason uttered upon the conclusion of SmileFest 2003, as he led me to a six-inch hole in the dirt floor he’d created due to furious dancing throughout Karl Denson's closing set on Saturday night. Ah, but we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Let’s retreat three days, to Thursday afternoon, as we all arrived in the North Carolina farmlands, and SmileFest had not yet begun.
I came into the festival with huge expectations. I attended my first SmileFest just the year before, and was enraptured with the quality of music, the friendly atmosphere, the convenience of the facilities, and just the overall vibe. This year proved a fitting sequel, big enough to attract top-level artists, but still small enough to walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. The main stage is covered to help shield from sun and rain, but with open sides to keep the air flowing. A short walk down a trail through the woods leads to the second stage, sponsored this year by the Homegrown Music Network.
The full throttle bluegrass sounds of Cast Iron Filter kicked off the festival on Thursday night, leading into the off-center rock approximations of Col. Bruce Hampton & the Code Talkers. This new stripped-down version of the band served up “Basically Frightened,” before illuminating the crowd with “Turn On Your Lovelight.” Acoustic Syndicate followed to wrap up the evening, taking us into the late hours with their acoustic guitar and saxophone excursions. Curtis Burch, the original Dobro player for New Grass Revival, came out to join them for “Mettie Madness” and “Rainbow Rollercoaster,” before the band took a chop at Bob Marley’s “Small Axe.”
The music started early on Friday morning, and things really got rolling with a Guitar Workshop on the second stage. No less than six guitarists were jamming away together, including Curtis Burch, Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon, Adam Aijala from Yonder Mountain String Band, and North Carolina’s own Larry Keel and Ras Alan. They tore through standards including “Salt Creek,” “John Hardy,” and “Blackberry Blossom” as the crowd ate up every note. Legendary banjo player Tony Trischka led his band through a raucous set on the main stage, relaxing only to take some requests for solo banjo. An old-time down-home version of “I Know You Rider” segued into “Whiskey Before Breakfast” before Tony drifted into other improvisations.
After a Mandolin Workshop on the second stage featuring David Grisman and Tony Williamson, it was back to the main stage for the Larry Keel Experience. Larry hails from these parts, and took this opportunity to put together a stellar all-star bluegrass band. Along with his ferocious flat-picking guitar, the band featured his wife Jenny on stand-up bass, Curtis Burch on Dobro, Adam Aijala on guitar, Jason Krekel on mandolin, and Fiddlin’ Dave Vandeventer on fiddle. Vassar Clements was originally booked to play with the band, but unfortunately had to cancel. They set the tone with “420 Blues” before paying their own tribute to Bob Marley with “Soul Shakedown Party” into “Three Little Birds.” Gary Ruley from Mule Train sat in for “Cold Rain and Snow,” with Larry and Jenny returning the favor by joining Mule Train for their afternoon set the next day. Joe Craven from the David Grisman Quintet joined in on percussion to help finish the show and lead the way into Grisman’s set.
The DGQ’s set opened with Jim Kerwin on stage alone, plucking away an angular melody on the stand-up bass. After several minutes, Joe Craven appeared to add some beatbox vocals before moving over to fiddle, jamming briefly on the “Pink Panther” theme before moving finally to his regular position behind his armada of percussion instruments. Enrique Coria emerged to add some agile Argentinean acoustic guitar, and finally Matt Eakle floated in on the flute. Once Grisman himself came out to finish the quintet, the show was officially on. Grisman first came to the Van Hoy Family Farms for the legendary Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in 1963, when he was only 18 years old. It was here that he first met Doc & Merle Watson and Peter Rowan. Perhaps feeling sentimental, he played “Cedar Grove,” the first song he ever wrote on mandolin.
The only booing heard all weekend was when Grisman asked the crowd, “Do you like pop music?” He elicited cheers, however, with the caveat, “How about pop music from 1947?” After laying down the sweet sounds of Nat King Cole, he dedicated “Dawgnation” to Jerry Garcia, who was present at its writing. Grisman gave generous and detailed band introductions for his cohorts, citing CDs they’ve released on his label and others. This current band represents the longest standing version of the Quintet since its 1977 debut, with Coria still the “new guy” after a decade with the band. They returned to that debut self-titled album for “Blue Midnite” before encoring “Fourteen Miles to Barstow” from the 2001 album New River by Grisman and jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin.
Leftover Salmon took the stage to lead the crowd late into the night. Their recent sets seem more song-oriented than in past years, although things spiced up when Joe Craven joined in on percussion. There was hardly any time to rest before the music started up again on Saturday morning. MOFRO was originally booked to play an early afternoon set but had to cancel. Filling in were some of the most talented musicians of the whole weekend. Swedish fusion bass tornado Jonas Hellborg exploded all over the stage, with guitarist Shawn Lane pouring in gasoline and drummer Jim Britt from Yamagata pounding the general alarm. They twisted and clawed their way through an hour of intense jazz-influenced rock that absolutely floored all in attendance. Hellborg is well known to fusion fans through his work in various settings with John McLaughlin, including the re-formed Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1980s, but there were many people surely exposed to him for the first time at SmileFest.
The fusion sounds continued when Garaj Mahal hit the stage. Featuring another McLaughlin bandmate in bassist Kai Eckhardt, Garaj Mahal tore into one of the hottest sets of the festival, with guitarist Fareed Haque flying over the fretboard, sending blasts of deep funk and jazz mayhem soaring through the crowd. They jammed through “Gulam Sabri” before wrapping up the set with “Celtic Indian,” bouncing between Eastern- and Irish-influenced melodies. MoDeReKo was the next band up, grooving through its brand of melodic funky goulash with drummer John Molo from Phil Lesh & Friends holding down the meat and potatoes. Keller Williams then followed with his own recipe of “strings and samples stew,” varying between acoustic alchemy and lulling loops, even covering “The Bounty Hunter” by Mike Cross before yielding the stage to the Sam Bush Band.
Sam’s current band is a pounding quartet featuring Brad Davis on guitar, Byron House on bass and Chris Brown on drums. They showed SmileFest’s love for Bob Marley on the third day in a row by opening with “Lively Up Yourself” into “Is This Love.” Sam also took a trip down the paths carved by Hellborg and Eckhardt earlier in the day by picking up his fiddle for a run through “The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys.” Curtis Burch joined his old New Grass Revival bandmate for Jeff Black’s “Same Old River,” and then Sam felt like really turning up the volume. Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” segued seamlessly into an absolutely slamming version of “I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth before morphing back into Grand Funk. They went back to their bluegrass roots to wrap up the explosive set with “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” by Bill Monroe.
While Sam was hosting the hoedown on the main stage, a very unusual event was transpiring through the woods on the second stage. SmileFest likes to surprise its audiences a little bit each year with some unannounced shows on the second stage. Last year it was a drum duo and workshop featuring John Molo and Future Man from Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. This year it was another workshop, this time with Kai Eckhardt and drummer Alan Hertz from Garaj Mahal with John Molo.
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe was the final act on the main stage, and they ripped into it with everything they had. I’ve seen them several times before, but never with the ferocity and downright thump they had at SmileFest. Fareed Haque came out to add his ridiculous guitar impossibilities several times throughout the show, which fuzzy memories indicated ended sometime around 4:30 in the morning. One huge, thick jam led into Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” while another intense Denson sax solo opened into “The Grunt” by James Brown’s band The JBs. Ron Johnson’s bass and John Staten’s drums provided the perfect groundwork for the melodic excursions of Brian Jordan's guitar, Chris Littlefield’s trumpet, David Veith’s keyboards, and of course Karl Denson’s delicious saxophone tone.
Barefoot Manner had the honor of being the last band to play at SmileFest, holding court at the second stage until 5:30 in the morning. Remembering that SmileFest began as a tribute to Jerry Garcia, they erupted into a huge jam in “China Cat Sunflower” before Wildman Steve joined them on washboard for “I Know You Rider.” David Via also sat in on mandolin as the night grew closer and closer to morning. Finally, as the sun came up, they closed with an acoustic version of “Ripple.” Perhaps no other song could have better summed up the beautiful vibes and incredible sounds of the weekend: “Let there be songs to fill the air.” Now I gotta go check out that boogie hole.
Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Adam Gulledge
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