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.
Friday April 16
Waking up on Friday morning was like shifting from one dream state to another. There was simply music everywhere. From the new Acoustic Café built alongside the Bistro to random groups of pickers peppered across the festival grounds, it was hard to imagine a friendlier scene for such a gathering of people. Sunny skies, smiling faces, and a schedule packed with great bands made for a morning full of anticipation. Barefoot got in an early set, while Ami Worthen's Mad Tea Party featured her retro novelty jazz on a variety of vintage instruments and tunes. Her husband Jason Krekel, who also sat in with Snake Oil Medicine Show at the festival, played guitar while they toured through the happy sounds of the '20s and '30s with aplomb.
Ami Worthen's Mad Tea Party
The Delta folk blues of Ben Suchy led to a solo set by Donna the Buffalo keyboardist and vocalist Kathy Ziegler. Adding a guitar and a loop machine to her act enabled her to start a song on one instrument and then riff on top of it with the other, all while singing heartfelt Americana ballads sprinkled with homegrown nuances. The Never was simultaneously on another stage blasting out their modern pop rock, followed by the Afro-Caribbean buoyancy of the Sim Redmond Band. Singer Uniit Carruyo is married to Kevin Kinsella, the lead singer of John Brown's Body, as well as also being a member of Five Two, whose other two members sat in with Redmond to add their angelic harmony vocals to the uplifting tones. The band coasted and soared on the sound, breezily blending the roots of Africa with an optimistic outlook and a melodic musicality.
Sim Redmond Band
Project Mastana unleashed their danceable Indian/African rhythms, while the Blue Rags staged a rare reunion of their punkgrass collective. Guitarist Abe Reid now fronts the Spikedrivers, while bassist Bill Reynolds is a recent addition to Donna the Buffalo. They reunited to tear through a raucous set of electrified acrobatics. 12-year old rapper Lil MaQ was up next, followed by the old-time bluegrass classics and deep originals of Steep Canyon Rangers. Keith Frank, Preston's son, led his Soileau Zydeco Band through a positively pumping set of soulful tunes. Even more energetic than his dad's band, Keith Frank's music features a funkiness and happy snap that pumps out pure energy into the crowd, even landing at one point on the Meters' foot-stomping "Cissy Strut."
The dark country funk and Halloween bluegrass of The Horseflies came next. This unique conglomeration ranges from old-time mountain stomps to island jazz rhythmic augmentations, from intangible fiddle flourishes to avant-garde dissonance. Their captivating set led into a honky-tonk hoedown with Jim Lauderdale, featuring Donna the Buffalo as his band. They tore through "Life By Numbers" and "Wait 'Til Spring" before Preston Frank sat in for the locomotive-like grind of "Whoa Whoa Whoa." They encored with Larry Williams' "Slow Down" as attention shifted over to the Music Makers Foundation showcase. Music Makers is a local charity that helps old bluesmen pay their bills and keep making music. Cool John Ferguson's exalting electric exuberances ripped through the audience like a soundwave, as he headlined a set that also included Captain Luke, Macavine Hayes, and Whistlin' Britches.
Keith Secola & Wild Band of Indians combined rock 'n' roll with a Native American sensibility, adding flute and indigenous drums to their world beat vision. An inspirational eclectic soundscape is the goal, as their hopeful lyrics aim for a unified world. Legendary old-time heroes the Red Hots traced out their trancegrass transgressions as Two Dollar Pistols poured out a set of desperate, rollicking cowboy country blues. Fusion aces Jaafar took the stage to feature their mystical mind meld of Eastern and Western cultures. Bandleader and acoustic bassist Troy Cole led the charge of these sonic superheroes, as they combined the spiritual aestheticism of the abstract world with the force and driving power of Western rock. Guitarist Matt Parker was making his debut performance with the band, but nobody in the crowd could have guessed, as his double-neck guitar gambles floored everyone there to witness it.
Calton Coffie took the stage for a set of rhythmic reggae, even running through Outkast's "Hey Ya." His set also included the song that cemented him in history. "Bad Boys," by his former group Inner Circle, was chosen as the theme song for the TV show Cops, immortalizing the band forever in the pop lexicon. Some members of Donna the Buffalo appeared as Zydeco Experiment to take a stab at the more danceable areas of their catalog, while Snake Oil Medicine Show brought their art and sound explosion to a late night stage filled with voracious musical voyeurs. Mixing their sound from seemingly every musical genre on earth, these thrift store troubadours effortlessly entwine bluegrass, jazz, swing, funk, and world music into an amazing amalgam of banjo, fiddle, and sweet neo-retro vocals. They even feature a painter onstage, creating art in real time from the sounds encircling the stage. The night grew late as the woods came alive with the music of these merry mountaineers serenading the kids, crickets, and every critter in between.
Saturday April 17
Saturday morning now, and we're halfway through this thing. It feels like we've been here a year already, but I'd sign up for another tour of duty in a heartbeat. Many acts are featured in multiple sets over the four days, and as Saturday morning rolled into afternoon repeat performances by Turtle Island Dream, Garrett Tucker's 3-D Kaleidoscope, Project Mastana, and Randy Whitt & the Grits kept things bouncing. The aptly named Carnavalito brightened up the afternoon with their spicy Latin salsa, even landing at one point on Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va," the song popularized by Carlos Santana. Moontee Sinquah featured another take on Native American rock, while the Bluegrass Experience laid down their renowned newgrass sound to lead us into the evening.
While a poetry slam was boiling on the other side of the farm, one of the most unique acts of the weekend was preparing to appear. Hailing from Ithaca, NY, Galumpha isn't a musical act, but rather a comedic acrobatic dance troupe. Twisting and piling themselves on top of each other to form bizarre shapes and artistic entanglements, they entertained a huge crowd with physical manifestations of their absurd sense of humor. The Campbell Brothers were up next, and turned in one of the most blistering performances of the entire weekend. Featuring not one but two pedal steel guitarists, they ripped into a funky gospel jam that had the entire crowd reeling and gasping for breath. Legend has it they provided a young Robert Randolph with his very first pedal steel guitar, and it's immediately obvious how influential they were on his sound and stage presence.
They were followed by the sensational string work of Mali native Mamadou Diabate. His work on the 21-stringed harp-like kora has to be seen to be believed, and even then you're not really sure how he does it. Engaging the crowd in a solo set, he delivered a passionate, dynamic batch of songs to an audience that could barely absorb all the sound coming from just one person. Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad was meanwhile playing on another stage, featuring the former Squirrel Nut Zippers leading lady with former Zippers bassist Stu Cole in a jazzier setting than the swing sensations they're known for. While the Horseflies hammered on across the field, Donna the Buffalo was setting up for their second set of the weekend.
Opening with the foot-pleasing "Funkyside," they invited Diabate onstage to join them for "Blue Skies." Ward Puryear, aka Tenesi, added rubboard to "Tides of Time" and "The Mill" before they closed the set with the triple tremors of "Family Picture," "Positive Friction," and "No Place Like the Right Time." While Donna was playing, their entire sidestage area filled up with dancing and twirling. It says a lot about a band that the people who see them the most--their crew, families and friends--are the ones dancing the hardest every time they play. No one sits backstage at Donna trying to look cool--all the action is onstage, watching the band and sharing in the sound. As the encore "Mystic Water" faded into the farmlands, the sounds of the late night shows began to reach our ears.
The bluesy Irish rock of Jump, Little Children was battling with Barefoot Manner for control of the after-midnight antics (Barefoot even opened with "After Midnight"). The Hula Cats late show featured a special sit-in by Acoustic Syndicate bassist Jay Sanders. But despite all the talent prevalent in these groups, they couldn't outlast the all-night zydeco dance party hosted by Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band. They attacked the crowd with everything they had, pumping out one of the happiest, grooviest, smilingest sets of music I've ever heard. Donna the Buffalo guitarist Jim Miller was seen dancing through the crowd before hopping onstage to lend backing vocals to their own raucous rendition of "Hey Ya." Miller mixed between the stage and dance floor all night, as people poured in through all hours of the morning, drawn to the sound of Louisiana boogie echoing through the campgrounds. How could you go to sleep when this is going on? The band was swaying together in time as the groove kept raging, welcoming more Donna members including Puryear and Nevins as the show blasted on until nearly 6:00 a.m. For myself and numerous compadres, this set was the undisputed highlight of the weekend.
Donna the Buffalo with Diabate
Sunday April 18
Sunday opened into another beautiful day, and the music started early with Charles Pettee & FolkPsalm. This seven-piece ensemble writes original musical scores for sacred Hebrew poems, featuring Pettee on mandolin, Mark Simonsen on percussion, and Taz Halloween on vocals. The Campbell Brothers took a gospel turn for their Sunday morning set, sounding like an entirely different band than the jammed-out onslaught of the night before. As Ben Suchy's blues drifted through the afternoon, the old-time traditionalism of Bubba Hots slipped across the radar, featuring Jeb and Jordan Puryear on guitars. Sim Redmond Band took another turn as Snake Oil Medicine Show geared up across the compound. Lead singer Caroline Pond erupted in a furious fiddle display, jumping from early-70s style prog-rock flourishes straight into hillbilly jamgrass and back again without missing a beat. They even ran through a Jamaican medley featuring a couple of Overtakers songs, along with Peter Tosh's classic "Stepping Razor."
Keith Secola & Wild Band of Indians showcased their Native Americana, while Zydeco Experiment welcomed Preston Frank for the final zydeco zestfest of the weekend. Local mandolin legend Tony Williamson played a set before, and then sat in with, Big Fat Gap to fill the afternoon with bluegrass bonding. They later played "Bolin Creek" and a refashioned upbeat bluegrass version of the Band's "Shape I'm In." Meanwhile, Mamadou Diabate was communing with his spiritual string compatriots from across the acres of grass and sun. The Sunday night headliner was Patty Loveless, whose honky-tonk country rock and episodic ballads have made her a star across the world. Leaning more towards bluegrass lately, her set perfectly capped off the evening, leaving only the final set by Donna the Buffalo to wrap things up.
Opening with the enthusiastic happiness of "These are Better Days," Donna launched into an unusual set filled with special guests and surprises. After "Sailing" they welcomed Horseflies banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Richie Stearns onstage to play keyboards on "America." Later in the set, Preston Frank emerged to add his talents to "Wild Ass Zydeco" and "Maymel." Keith Secola joined in for "Livin' on Love and Gasoline," while John Specker stomped and hollered his way through Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and "Alligator Man," which also included Preston Frank. "Everyday" went into "NDN Karz," featuring Secola's vocals and the guitar of Charles Bond, who stuck around for "One Drop of Rain" and the debut performance of Bob Dylan's "Lay Down Your Weary Tune."
Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo
The set finally eased down with the appropriately named "Rockin' in the Weary Land" and the encore "There Must Be," with lyrics bidding goodbye to the crowd. "How could it be that you must leave to live in a world without me?/And how could it be that I must say goodbye and fade in your memory?/And how can I stand to let you leave?/There must be a way home from here/There must be something we share." Perhaps more than any others, these words convey the true emotion behind the GrassRoots Festival. There must be something we share--with each other, with those less fortunate, with those who couldn't be here and those left behind. The organizers of the festival worked for a year to create a space where life could be celebrated and memories could be made. They couldn't have done a better job.
Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Todd E. Gaul
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