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.
The Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati falls on the same weekend as two other big regional music fests, one 100 miles to our south and the other about 300 miles northwest of the Queen City. Like Bunbury, the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and the 10th annual Forecastle fest are happening July 13-15.
In theory, the proximity (geographically and time-wise) should lead to some crossover, as artists from one event might run their tour route to the other cities to score some of those big festival performance fees. (MidPoint's 2011 fest in Cincy, for example, shared some acts with the somewhat nearby Pygmalion Music Festival in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.) But so far that hasn't happened with Bunbury, which seems to be focusing on more mainstream "Alternative" artists, as opposed to Pitchfork's more esoteric lineup and Forecastle's endearing mishmash of styles.
Louisville's Forecastle previously announced that hometown heroes My Morning Jacket would be curating the event and performing. This morning organizers announced that joining them will be Dubstep superstar Bassnectar and Dad Rock champs Wilco, plus Andrew Bird, Girl Talk, Atmosphere, Neko Case, Sleigh Bells, A-Trak, Dean Wareham (playing Galaxie 500 songs), Galactic, Clutch, Flying Lotus, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mike Doughty, Real Estate, Deer Tick, Charles Bradley, JEFF the Brotherhood and Cincinnati's Walk the Moon, among others. Click here for ticket info and the the full lineup so far.
Meanwhile, here is who Pitchfork announced yesterday for this year's event in Chicago's Union Park: Vampire Weekend, Feist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hot Chip, AraabMUZIK, A$AP Rocky, The Field, Liturgy, Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Cloud Nothings, Tim Hecker and Willis Earl Beal. Thirty more artists will be announced later.
Pitchfork tickets go on sale next Friday, March 9, at noon via the Pitchfork fest's site here.
So if you could go to any of the three festivals, based on the info available so far (and not counting travel costs and lodging arrangements) which one would you attend — Cincinnati's, Louisville's or Chicago's?
The Big Pig Music & Arts Festival kicks off today in Ripley, Ohio (about an hour southeast of Cincinnati) at the Pisgah Hill Farm. The event runs from this afternoon until about sunrise Sunday morning (great local Electronica group Skeetones play a fest-closing set from 2-4 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morn). Billed as "3 days and 2 nights of music, camping, fire pits and barbecue spits," Big Pig features a mix of national, regional and top-notch local acts, as well as a late-night DJ tent, food from Habanero, Buzz Thru Coffee and other area establishments and "fire performances" by the folks from Nocturnal Arts. Pre-sale ticketing is over; admission is $40 at the gate. The fest website emphasizes that there is a $10 fee per car for camping (car pool if you can) and there is no on-site ATM machines, so be sure to bring cash. Click below for the full lineup and videos from several of the acts. And click here for complete details.
The members of Kentucky's Black Stone Cherry take pride in their closeness. They are still just four guys rocking out and living their dream. BSC's just-released third studio album, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, reached the Top 30 in the Billboard 200 and the group is currently on the Carnival of Madness tour with Alter Bridge, Theory of a Deadman, and Emphatic. The tour hits Dayton's X-Fest, at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, this Sunday (click here for concert details). CityBeat recently spoke with Black Stone Cherry lead singer Chris Robertson in depth about the band and the personal issues he has dealt with over the past few years.
MidPoint Music Festival headliners Cut Copy yesterday dropped a new video, "Blink and You'll Miss a Revolution," from the band's recently released full-length Zonoscope. The clip uses Planet of the Apes-esque dudes in a way that's both amusing and crafty — way better than most of the videos MTV used to play back when it was a music channel. And it's a nice primer for the Aussies stop here next week.
Oh, and here's what I wrote when Zonoscope was released back in March — notice the bit about them not touring here:
"Not as dancey as the the first two CC records, Zonoscope is a spacier, more laid-back grower that reveals frontguy Dan Whitford's lyrical acumen (the big beats and thick synths used to push his words to the background). I'm curious to hear how this sounds live. Unfortunately, CC's current tour does not feature a Cincy stop — though the band is slated to play the Pitchfork Music Festival July 17 in Chicago. Road trip!"