Shakori GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance | 04.15 - 4.18 | Silk Hope, NC
Thursday April 15
"Alright everybody, this is gonna be the beginning of the second annual GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. You are here!" The crowd cheered as festival organizer Jordan Puryear announced the initiation of festivities. Four days of perfect weather filled the Carolina fields with sunshine and music was in the air as more than 75 bands performed on four stages. Donna the Buffalo started the non-profit festival 15 years ago outside of Ithaca, NY, to raise money for local charities and showcase the sounds of their friends and inspirations from around the world. In the years since they've raised over $300,000 to help fund AIDS research.
In 2003, the festival spawned southward, opening a Southern front in the quiet countryside of Silk Hope, NC, outside Chapel Hill. This year they returned with an even wider variety of bands, with music playing nearly around the clock. While the kids ran along with Mother Goose or enjoyed puppet shows and parades, their parents could learn how to compost, square dance, or do yoga. From farming lessons to fiddle contests, poetry slams to cloggers, healing arts to basket weaving, the farmland was fertile with artisans and innovative craftworks. People commented all weekend on what a wonderful, communal feeling was in the air. They truly succeeded in creating a friendly, happy space where people could relax and feel an actual sense of community with the other folks in attendance.
Festival organizer Lydia Garrison laid down the opening notes of the weekend, as her fiddle lit up the Dance Tent with the old-time groove of Turtle Island Dream. Puryear, whose brother Jeb Puryear plays guitar and sings with Donna the Buffalo, handled guitar duties as their poignant melodies featured group excursions over individual solos. Like a bluegrass version of mid-70s Miles Davis, the emphasis was on group depth and chugging rhythms.
Amy Glicklich & Tenesi (nee Ward Puryear, another brother) brought an exquisite ethereality to their rendition of John Lennon's timeless "Imagine" in the Cabaret Tent. Amy's delicate inflections perfectly complemented the serene rolling hillsides and clear blue skies. Randy Whitt & the Grits ranged from slow grooves to boogie-woogie breakdowns, with Alex Bowers' barroom piano tinklings shining through. Several members of Donna the Buffalo sat in with folk-rocker Crow Greenspun, and joined him again for his set the following morning. Abe Reid & the Spikedrivers leveled the audience with their rousing burst of energetic blues, while the Ryan Cavanaugh Trio gave the Grove Stage audience a set of banjo jazz excursions and fusion adventures they're not likely to recover from soon.
Big Fat Gap
The Preston Frank Zydeco Family Band tore up the Dance Tent with their trademark swamp boogie. People kept asking me all weekend what zydeco was. Basically, it's Louisiana dance music--a combination of Cajun, funk, and soul that makes the whole crowd dance like mad in a manic celebration. It often contains accordion and washboard, with jumping rhythms and festive vibes. Just imagine if Funkadelic were from Louisiana. The GrassRoots Festivals are known for their zydeco, especially the all-night dance parties, and this set was just the beginning of a weekend full of frantic dancing.
Oliver Mtukudzi & Black Spirits
Photo by Kelly Jo Garner
The joyous African bounce of Oliver Mtukudzi & Black Spirits featured intricate drumming over funky, melodic changes. The Graceland comparisons were inevitable as the short staccato bass bursts obtained maximum snap with perfect timing and phrasing. The whole band laughed and danced in unison as the lead guitarist flew through flurries of notes with chunky rhythms thrown in. Mtukudzi has risen to fame in his native Zimbabwe with songs of social consciousness mixed with a danceable downbeat. Perhaps it's easier to sink into the sounds when the vocals aren't in English. Without the meaning of the words to distract you, focus shifts entirely to the audio domain, changing the voices into another instrument entirely.
Meanwhile, Chapel Hill's own Big Fat Gap was laying down their rootsgrass routine, running through originals and classics including "Whistle Song," "Cherokee Shuffle," and "Glendale Train." Their frenetic fiddle, guitar, and banjo exploits even ventured into gospel territory at times, with bassist and festival organizer Robert Mitchener sinking into some soulful vocals. The jamgrass adventures of Barefoot Manner included "Cool Breeze" and "Just Be Free" as their spacey yet rootsy sound filled up the countryside. From bluegrass classics to their own Caribbean-tinged originals, their danceable shuffle took us past sunset and into the night. While John Specker's one-man fiddle throwdown raged on the main stage, Garrett Tucker's 3-D Kaleidoscope featured the guitarist in a fingertapping frenzy, coaxing incredible rhythms and runs from his instrument.
Donna the Buffalo took the stage Thursday night for the first of three sets throughout the weekend. Their unstoppable zydeco roots-rock riot never fails to pull all the music of the world into one phenomenal package. From Cajun to country, reggae to improv, they draw on traditions from around the world to sinuate their singular sparkling sound. The band features the incomparable Tara Nevins on vocals, guitar, fiddle, accordion and washboard. Her husband Jim Miller sings and plays guitar, as does Jeb Puryear. The three of them trade off vocal and solo duties, as Kathy Ziegler's keyboards, Bill Reynolds' bass and Tom Gilbert's drums color and compliment the commotion.
Donna the Buffalo
They opened with "Movin' On" then moved into "Family Picture" and "Way Back When" before original member Joe Thrift appeared onstage to add rubboard to the thick stomp of "Part Time Lover" and Nevins' anthemic "Tides of Time." A huge spacey jam emerged in the middle of "Conscious Evolution," with Ziegler's keyboard comps and solos adding a neo-psychedelic flavor to the mix. Sounding like a zydeco party at Ken Kesey's house, they rolled on with the beautiful harmonies and melodic morality messages of "Rock of Ages" and "The Ones You Love." Thrift reappeared for the set-closing "Do My Thing," and the band encored "Current Theme" as the happy festivalgoers hopped down the road with tuneful memories playing in their ears. There was still a bit more music to see, as the Hula Cats filtered the sounds of Hawaii through their Appalachian lens, keeping the fans up late swaying to the island breeze. It was hard to believe it was still only the first night.