If you are a musician who has an act they'd like to showcase at this year's MidPoint Music Festival and you haven't submitted for consideration, you better get on it. Tomorrow is the final day submissions will be accepted.
In related news, the MidPoint Indie Summer concert series (which has it's own Wikipedia page!) returns every Friday on Fountain Square starting June 1. Expect lineup announcements soon. A certain amazing local Power Pop/Rock band has "hinted" they will be a part of the series this year. But you didn't hear it from me.
MidPoint has also posted some fresh artwork that you are encouraged to use to create your own "posters, clothes, or otherwise interesting and useful things." Get your base materials here and check out the design below.
April 29 - Super 8 Motel, Wytheville, Va.
Wytheville — pronounced "whiteville," I believe — sits at the cross of I-77 and I-81. Looking down I-81, I used to see Bristol, Tenn., and think of that time in 1927 when The Cater Family and Jimmie Rodgers separately met a rep from the Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded a couple of songs. They got paid about $100. Lot's changed since then, though the pay's about the same. These days when I look down towards Bristol I see a redneck deputy hauling a longed haired songwriter off to jail for the crime of relieving himself behind a bush. In 1981, that cost $25. There use to be a great BBQ joint in Wytheville. It's gone. too. They had the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler.
I guess everyone wore themselves out Saturday as no one stayed up past midnight to talk or jam or whatever. On Sunday morning, with a solid six hours of sleep, I was up and drenched in coffee by 8 a.m. I packed up camp and planned what was left of my MerleFest weekend. I like to get going, so it was an easy morning and I headed out to the Traditional Tent for some Shape Note Singing with Laura Boosinger.
I misidentified this a few days ago as Sacred Heart singing. The idea is the same — using shapes for notes instead of notes on a musical staff. Sacred Heart uses four notes. Shape Note uses seven. The workshop I attended was about those seven notes and how to sing them. It's pretty straight forward — anyone who's ever seen The Sound of Music and sang "Do Re Mi" will get the idea. "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti" — each note has a particular shape attached to it and you sing that note when you see that shape. Laura talks about the history of Congregational singing, why they use shapes (people actually patented musical notation at one time) and how Sacred Heart differs from Shaped Note contextually, historically and regionally. Pretty cool stuff, even if the Traditional Tent smells like a barn and is now filled with flies. Laura is also really funny, cracking denominational jokes that the churchgoers find hilarious. I don't get them.
My interest in Sacred Heart/Shaped Note singing came when I wandered into a church one Sunday morning 30 or so years ago. I was wandering around northern Alabama on a motorcycle making my way to the Natchez Trace and then south to New Orleans when I stopped for a breather and cool air beneath a tree. I heard the singing as soon as my head stopped rattling. I slipped inside the outer part of a church and heard the most glorious harmonies — not sweet or beautiful, but primitive and inspiring.
In Shape Note, everyone is singing to the pitch the lead singer has identified. There is no piano, no organ, no hip dude playing guitar, only imperfect humans looking for the most comfortable place for their voice to sing. Your split into four groups depending on your vocal range — altos (includes sopranos), tenors, bass (includes baritones) and leads (anyone who can't but follow the melody regardless of range). I go to the bass group. Each group has a different part to sing — the altos, basses and tenors all singing a harmony part and the leads singing the melody. When it all comes together it unifies the same way most old time music does. It's wondrous and miraculous; if there is a place where God exists, it is inside the dissonance that has congealed into a thing so coherent and beautiful that any existence of God outside of it becomes marginal and meaningless.
I leave the Traditional Tent invigorated and inspired and head back to camp to pack the van. Everything packed and lunch consumed, I head back to the Traditional Tent for one last show before heading home — "Women Singing Traditional Music." On stage are women ages 20 -70, including hosts Carol Rifkin and Gaye Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Laura Boosinger, Joan Wernick, Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo), Kim McWhirter and Gailanne Amundsen (Jubal's Kin). All give outstanding performances, but Kim McWhirter brings the house down with a moving version of the Dolly Parton song "Crippled Bird" (which in turn is based on an English Broadside) sung in a sweet mountain lilt and strummed sparingly on guitar.
A wonderful to finish to a great MerleFest.
MerleFest is so much more then one guy can write about, no matter how much he tries. I like what I like — new bands and rediscovering old favorites. In addition to what I see and hear, there are workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to dulcimer playing, a kids stage and activities, open mics, sitting and picking, indoor concerts, food, vendors galore. It is amazing how much music and activity the organizers pack into one day (and then clean it all up and do it again).
A lot of people stream in mid-afternoon for the nighttime concert. As mentioned, these always feature name acts. I am most fortunate to be able to tag along with my sister, help her in her booth and receive onsite camping privileges in exchange. By 8 p.m., I'm pretty exhausted and looking forward to reading under the remaining light and then laying back and hearing what's on the main stage.
This year they had some good acts. Thursday night the very humble and talented (and maybe the last real Country act standing in Nashville) Vince Gill had a fine set. Saturday I was fortunate to hear Derek Trucks take Sam Bush and his band to school on how to play melodious improvisation on the Clapton tune "Bell Bottom Blues." Derek Trucks is the living heir on slide guitar to the dead-to-early Duane Allman and he has unquestionably extended that legacy way past a wink and a nod and into something quite imaginative and bold. His wife Susan Tedeschi joined them on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and hit all the backing vocal parts with soul.
Later that night, Trucks and Tedeschi helped Los Lobos to new heights on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." They sounded like they were having a blast, and my noisy camp neighbors confirmed as much the next morning as they were on stage watching the whole thing go down. Unfortunately, I slept through most of Los Lobos set and the Tedeschi/Trucks set Saturday night, though I caught the first few songs, and they sounded quite excellent. Good sleeping music — that's a compliment!
Saturday, Apr 28: Jubal's Kin Festival Grounds
Saturday at MerleFest broke hard and cold. Our camping neighbors had an impromptu jam session at 3 a.m., which is to be expected when camping at a music festival geared towards people who not only love to watch and listen, but also play. It would have been one thing to hear the soft strains of a string jam or the gentle harmony of "Wildwood Flower," but some dude shouting the lyrics to "Whipping Post" over badly tuned guitars played really hard … not the thing mountain dreams are made from.
So I sat, at sun up, reading and drinking coffee, plotting revenge and the instead of taking my revenge, made the accused coffee, read some more and generally moved real slow. Crustymarhsmellowman. I did get to play a couple tunes with Pete McWhirter as he moved past to grab some coffee on his way to open his booth.
Then I moved real slow some more.
Really real slow.
After lunch, I decided to make an attempt to see some music.
I had already missed Jim Lauderdale at the Creekside Stage. To bad, I like some Jim Lauderdale and it would have been a nice wake up, but there you are. I saw on the schedule Jubal's Kin at the Dance Tent, looked at the clock and … damn missed that, too. But what ho! There they are on the schedule at the Americana Tent immediately following their Dance Tent set. It's a MerleFest miracle! I grabbed my camera and another cup of coffee and headed out.
Jubal's Kin, all nerves and bad house sound on Day 1, was all smooth and in good voice on Day 3. They filed the promise I thought I saw at the Cabin Stage on what always seems like an eternity ago and delivered a set full of vigor, with pristine sound delivered by the sound person. Their originals are fresh with sparse instrumentation and the kind of tight harmonies that only siblings can deliver. Never lyrically embarrassing with overplayed earnestness or too casual observation, they meld in with beautifully arranged and originally considered traditional tunes. There's "The Cuckoo," that ancient English broadside, rendered as if Billie Holiday had spent some time in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. "Buffalo Gal" was reconsidered as a pop tune with a well delivered encouragement to jump in on the chorus and sing along. Gaelanne's fiddle playing is absolutely gorgeous in a John Hartford/Matt Comb's kind of way, though leaning a bit heavier on the front of the beat as opposed to sitting in the pocket. And her banjo playing is just delicious. They added one more member for this set — "Uncle Joe" on pedal steel and fiddle. With "Baby Brother" on bass, Jubal's Kin appears to be a family band.
Satisfied my instincts were intact, I left the Americana Stage to catch some other music. I wondered into the Traditional Tent to catch some of mountain legend Red June. He was explaining to the audience what a jam session was. Have I mentioned the Traditional Tent smells like a barn? I don't think it's intentional, but the wet grass combined with an enclosed space has rendered an unfavorable impression. After the lesson on what a "jam" is, Red invited a local banjo player up to do a fiddle tune with the fiddle player who didn't bring a fiddle, but did bring a mandolin. Not to fear! You can play fiddle tunes on mandolin (or piano for that matter), so he requested the newest banjo player and the fiddle player with the mandolin decide on a tune they both knew and then play it. Five minutes of discussion and tuning followed. As I headed out of the tent I thought "Just like a jam session," and went down to the Creekside Cabin to catch the rest of the Snyder Family Band and the following act, Sierra Hull and Highway 111.
The Snyder Family Band is a family Bluegrass band (no irony at MerleFest!). Like all Bluegrass bands they have a banjo, sing harmonies and play Bluegrass. Of course they play it really well. People love them. Standing ovation.
I waited around for Sierra Hull and Highway 111 to take the stage. Sierra Hull, 5-foot-nothing and former wiz kid master of the mandolin is now a promising songwriter and ingenue. I'm familiar with this script and am bored not two minutes into the first song. Sigh. I stop in the field in front of the Watson Stage to hear some of "Assembly of Dust." Young Nashville Country script. Know it. Boring. Moving on.
It's coming up on 3 p.m. and time to give my sister a break in her booth in the Heritage Tent. Nancy Roberson is a weaver based out of Knoxville, Tenn. She's been showing, selling and demonstrating at MerleFest for about as long as there has been a MerleFest. She heads out for her afternoon nap (apparently a hardwired Roberson DNA trait) and I pleasantly meet the mass of retail customers streaming by and wondering into her booth.
Nancy makes shawls. Well kind of. Not only does she design each warp for the loom, but on these particular pieces of clothing, she has design the shawl itself. It's twisted, sewn up the back, and pulled over your head like a loose fitting sweater. The front gathers in soft bunches and hangs across the chest. The ladies love them. Woven of soft cotton and rayon with the occasional silk woven in for effect, the main color of each shawl is broken up with a rhythm of competing and sometimes complimentary colors. People can't help but be drawn in by the colors and when the reach out and touch them, you always get an "Oooooo, these feel so nice and are so beautiful." If you don't, it's a replicant — ready your phasers.
When Nancy returned, I checked the schedule and cheese whiz on a cracker if Jubal's Kin wasn't playing in the barn-like Traditional Tent. Finally a chance to catch this band in more intimate surroundings, smell be damned. I headed over, got there early and claimed a seat near the front. In short order the band was on stage, laughing and calling out songs. They moved though a load of traditional tunes, all rendered in a sweet, imaginative way, like "Dinah Blow Your Horn," with added lyrics and a new verse melody. The Carter Family's "No Depression" was delivered in soul rendering pain. About midway through the set, a guitar string broke enabling some spontaneous double fiddle and dancing. While the guitar player stepped off stage, "Uncle Joe" and Gaelanne tuned their fiddles and discussed which tune to play. In a matter of thirty seconds (this is no a jam session) launched into a Skillet Lickers number my dad probably danced to when he was their age. A friend jumped up on stage and launched into some spirited clogging. Not to be undone, "Baby Brother" put his bass down, peeled off his shoes and joined the Appalachian chorus line at the end of the stage with some well executed Buck Dancing.
Yes sir, these kids from Florida are the real shit. I've spent decades in front of poseurs, wannabees, shitty players and hopefuls. Using a foundation of traditional music obviously passed along from a family that loves this stuff at an early age, Jubal's Kin are making something very real, unique and personal that compels you to be a part.
This is why I come to MerleFest. Thanks, guys, for inviting me in.
Exhausted from a night of no sleep and a day of wandering and finding Jubal's Kin, I headed back to my book and coffee and called it a day.
Friday Evening, Apr 27: MerleFest Festival Grounds
After lunch, I was ready for something a little more upbeat, so I headed back to the Americana stage to check out The Lost Bayou Ramblers. I caught these guys last year at the same stage, and they brought the place down. I suppose most Cajun and Zydeco is infectious — that constant backbeat and sing-songy lilt of the melodies, but done well, it can be a bit mind blowing.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from Lafayette, La. and their Zydeco is the real deal. Not quite as hard hitting as The Bluerunners, they still bring an enormous drum sound to an already rhythm-heavy beat. Fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, double bass, acoustic guitar and drums — the fiddle, accordion and electric guitar feed a triple-stack tone attack to every melody. It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd ca. 1975 without the volume, hair or rednecks. It's really something to behold and listen to. The fiddler sings and works the crowd in both French and English, the bass player holds his big acoustic bass like he's ready to swing it over his head, while the electric guitar player stands at the front of the stage arena rock style and the acoustic player runs back and forth behind everyone. These guys are regulars at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette and I suspect a trip to catch them in such intimate surroundings would be life changing. Check YouTube for some of their videos.
I left the Americana stage a bit exhausted and headed over to see what was going on in the Traditional Tent and found Phil and Gaye Johnson in the middle of their set. Long time radio host of various roots music programs, Phil and Gaye do tight harmonies and Roots-based acoustic music. Easy to listen to, they move from original to traditional and without a little bit of knowledge of traditional music, it would be easy to confuse what's original and what's not. Phil's a fantastic acoustic and dobro guitar player moving easily between slide, flatpicking, various forms of fingerpicking and sometimes both. The music is not something I generally sit and listen to, but like everything you see at MerleFest, the playing is top notch and professionally presented.
I slipped out of the tent and as I walked past the picking area, I could here the strains of Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce moving though the air. Like a lot of kids brought up in the 1970s, Peter was my first real introduction to Bluegrass music though the Old and In The Way LP. My dad had a few Bill Monroe LPs, but my mom wouldn't let him play that "hillbilly" music while she was around, which was pretty much all the time.
I wasn't planning on heading back to the Watson Stage, but I was intrigued. As I got closer, Peter was doing an slow acoustic version of "Panama Red." Frankly, I thought he was mailing it in, but I was still pretty far from the stage, so I kept moving in. By the time I got close enough to the stage to take pictures, which is basically standing in the front in everyone's way, he easy doing a song called "The Raven" and it was mesmerizing. It's probably Bluegrass heresy, but off all the Bluegrass I've heard over the last 35 years, his is the tenor I associate with "that sound" and, man, he's still got it. It rises and floats and breaks in all the right places.
I took some pictures and grabbed a seat near the back of the reserved section where the sound would be optimal. His band was outstanding. Peter on acoustic joined by a electric guitar player playing shimmering notes, a lap steel player doing pedal licks and swells, acoustic bass and drums. The lap steel player was especially amazing. Every swell and fill felt like a feather in my heart. They launched into a 20 minute version of the Rowan classic "Land of the Navajo" and by the time he started doing the falsetto calls, I was awash in transcendent tears. Peter Rowan has still got it all and I'm a big baby.
Next up I headed up to the Heritage Tent to converse with another of my favorite MerleFest craft exhibitors, bowl maker Larry Kearson of Marion, NC. And not just bowls, but dough bowls. As a boy growing up in NJ, we always had a wooden bowl mounted up on the wall. Occasionally my dad would take it down to kneed some bread dough in. I never thought much about it till I started making bread in earnest in my 20's. Then I wanted it. Desperately. It was a large bowl, about 18"-by-12" and had been hand carved from a piece of black walnut from the family farm in Tennessee. I finally claimed it 10 years ago or so and now it's a regular kitchen tool in our kitchen. Larry hand carves dough bowls from single pieces of wood. Some small and decorative other huge and highly desirable. The Zeke Bowl is one such bough bowl. About two feet long and 18-inches across, it was carved from a single piece of maple from Larry's neighbor's tree. His neighbor's dog, Zeke, laid by the downed tree for days and then growled and whined the day the tree was cut up — Zeke's Bowl. It's a beauty. Dough bowls shouldn't be stained or varnished, and Larry's aren't. You need a dough bowl carved the old way, hit Larry up.
From the Heritage Tent I headed over to the Dance Tent to check out Asheville's contribution to Hot Club-style Jazz — Viper's Dream. I guess I'm spoiled by Cincinnati's Faux Frenchman, Viper's Dream didn't quite cut it. Yes, you got to be one hell of a musician to pull off Django tunes, but the sound was shrill and I wasn't digging the fiddle player. Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen is without doubt a Cincinnati treasure.
I quickly jumped to the Traditional stage to see Wayne Henderson. With him was a fiddle, frailing banjo and acoustic bass players. Wayne has done three tours with the "Masters of the Six String Guitar" as well as received a National Heritage Award for his instrument building prowess. Wayne is one hell of a fingerpicker, easily one of the best living and funny as hell to boot. Very humble and unassuming. The quartet ran through some Carter Family songs, traditional mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, each played with great dexterity and devotion. What a thrill.
Following dinner, I headed up to the Hillside Stage for a set from Donna The Buffalo. A MerleFest favorite, this band has seemingly been on the road for twenty years. I'm a bit baffled how I've never seen them before. Another one of those alternativecountryrootsrockamericana band with some serious jam band leanings, Donna the Buffalo has been a perennial favorite on the tour and festival circuit. They have a loyal following among MerleFest attendees and the tie dye and swirling dancers were out in force tonight. They played a crowd pleasing set, leaving their fans wanting more. Not much more then you can ask for then that.
Friday, Apr 27 - MerleFest Festival Grounds
Every morning I wake and thank baby Jesus I am a biped, agile and have been blessed with a no mess ability to pee standing up. And in a steady torrent. Just about anywhere without attracting attention (well, there was that county deputy in Abington, Va., a while back who got a bit riled). Middle age is good.
Here's a tip for you campers. Your welcome to stay up as late as you want, but if it's 3 a.m. and your talking like your in your living room, don't complain at 6 a.m. if I'm banging pots like I'm in my kitchen.
Oh, and you've pitched your tent in poison ivy.
Thursday after an early evening catnap (middle age) to the sounds of Daily and Vincent (meh — great Stanley Brothers style harmonies, lay off the Cracker Barrel shtick), I made my way over to to the Dance Tent to catch some Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. This Asheville, NC, street ensemble features five guys doing hokum string/jug band/blues music from the late 1920's and early ’30s. Guys in newsie caps, mutton chops, bowler hats with tattooed ears (ouch, that had to hurt), nose rings — yep, total 20-sumpthin freaks.
Calling out tunes by long (and soon to be) forgotten Blues and string players from the early part of the last century, Blind Chocolate plays hard-driving, bawdy, syncopated, all-acoustic string music. Lyrically rich in double entendres, liquor and murder. This ain't the square dance stuff my Uncle Blake played and my dad danced to in parlors across the Cumberland Plateau during the Great Depression; this is the music found in jukes and bars and back room drinkeries and the kids love it. Every 10 years or so, string music comes back into fashion, and that, my friends, is a good thing. John Hartford is clapping from his grave. It's comforting to witness people giving over to the coherent dissonance of barely tunable instruments, played together and with vehemence. Banjolin, steel guitar, washtub bass, washboard and tenor banjo, three guys trading vocals, four guys shouting in unison and giving call-backs. Dwight Hawkins (Blind Boy Chocolate?) plays saw, bones and the short scale tenor banjo in a style I've never seen before. And does it really well. The banjolin player, Nicholas Marshall (one of the Milk Sheiks?), occasionally picks up a thoroughly modern looking mandolin, temporarily breaking the temporal enchantment. After a lull at the top of their long set as people wondered in and grew accustom to being ass-to-elbow, the crowd was jumping and yelling, kids from 8 to 80 whirled and shimmied.
After a few cups of coffee this morning (Friday), I headed over to the Americana stage to check out another Asheville based band, The Honeycutters. North Carolina has a rich history of Alternativecountryrootsrockamericana bands. From The Backsliders to the Avett Brothers, this state churns ’em out and the natives support band after great band. The Honeycutters fit the Avett Brothers mold of instantly likable songs and gifted melodies. It's got to be hard, after playing clubs and bars, to get up early enough to hit the stage by 9:30 a.m. The Honeycutters brought their 'A' game and delivered an instantly familiar and pleasant set. Just what my psyche needed after listening all night to my campground neighbors. The mandolin player plays in well-worn territory while acoustic guitar player Peter James fills the space with sweet crosspicking and occasionally lays into his guitar in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of early Paul K. Lead singer Amanda Anne Platt's beautiful alto fills the air — add in some tasteful three part harmonies and you have a AAA Radio winner.
From the Americana tent, my soul freshly refilled, I headed back over to the Cabin Stage for a set by Blues historian, storyteller and performer Frutland Jackson (Fruit Land). Hailing from Chicago, Frutland covers seamlessly and flawlessly all styles of blues from delta to north Mississippi to Chicago to Piedmont, all the while telling in a remarkably engaging and non-professorial way what distinguishes one style from another. I've seen plenty of Blues player who like to lecture during performances, and mostly I feel like shouting, "Shut the fuck up and play!" but Frutland had me wanting to bum rush the stage in awe and anticipation that he may answer some questions I have about Depression-era singers and groups. First set I've seen in a lonnnnng while that ended to soon. Most of his songs were originals done in a specific style with a voice that ranged from guttural to heartfelt tremble (think Ledbetter doing "Goodnight Irene"). Outstanding!
Some of the many things to do at MerleFest besides running from one stage to another trying to catch acts is sitting around and playing music with other attendees. Along with an open mic area, there are three tents set up where you sit down and play — Old Timey, Bluegrass and Anything Goes. The Anything Goes tent is like a hippy camp-out with one bazillion guitars around a raging fire in the middle of the night, playing Casey Jones minus the alcohol and LSD. The stuff nightmares are made of, but if you've never done this kind of thing, there's no reason to be a jaded asshole like me — grab your guitar and jump in. Everyone is clean and welcoming.
I sat around the Old Timey Tent as it had the least guitar-to-other-instrument ratios. (By the way, aspiring musicians — learn guitar to impress the girls or boys; learn something else for a working job.) A couple of old timers were letting fly on some fiddle tunes. Quite nice. The guitar player was strumming a pre-1935 Martin D18. I know about these things, and they tickle me pink.
Time for lunch!
After two days of driving in the Vanarama — a 1996 GMC Rally 3500 in school-bus yellow — we're only about 3.5 hours outside of Austin.
This is the second time I've made the trek to SXSW, but every time I make the four-state drive, a few things remain constant: Arkansas highways suck and everything truly is bigger in Texas.
On the last stretch of 11 South, as you approach Crockett, Texas, road signs alternate between "Cemetery" and "Forest." This wouldn't have been so intimidating if we hadn't exchanged ghost stories about dead relatives and scary camping trips (Google "Appalachian Trail" and "scary photos"). We then stayed in a hotel that we seriously scoured for bed bugs before bringing in our gear. But cheap is worth it, right?
We are by no means alone in this endeavor. Thousands of bands travel across the country and the world, whether or not they're "officially" a part of the festival. This is the biggest weekend of the year for bands — whether they're on the rise or struggling to get a fresh start — and they'll do whatever it takes to be heard.
Tuesday (today) marks the beginning of the SXSW (as far as the music portion). The All Night Party's Midwest by Southwest showcase kicks off tonight and will feature some of our hometown favorites, including The Sundresses, The Lions Rampant, Wussy and The Seedy Seeds.
This official showcase is an anticipated event, not only for us Cincinnatians, but also the locals. The Austin Chronicle has named Wussy as one of the top 10 shows to see Tuesday. (Scroll to the bottom of the link for the Wussy write-up,.)
We're not even in Austin yet and Cincinnati's already making headlines at SXSW.