At Home on the Hill at Terrapin

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As sure as summer gives way to fall, the Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival has become a “don’t miss” destination for any and all music fans from the Kentucky region and far beyond.  The festival, a celebration of music and life itself was the brainchild of Pete and Brenda Cashel, the farms proprietors as a way to bring people together in celebration of the cycle of growth and life itself.  With bands like  Dark Star Orchestra, farm and fan favorites Cornmeal, and many more providing the sounds, and the natural beauty of the Terrapin Hill farm providing the lush backdrop, the second weekend in September is a homecoming for the attendees of this gathering, be it their first or their tenth.

The spirit of community and caring felt by the Cashels is contagious, and their opening of their home to the hordes of music lovers is a gesture much appreciated by all in attendance.

terrapinhill.jpgSince 1985, the Cashels have operated the Terrapin Hill Farm, outside of Harrodsburg Kentucky. Neither came from a farming background, but found that the rewards of working the land to enticing to resist. It’s more than just growing food for the surrounding towns; it’s about teaching the people to do it for themselves. Eschewing chemicals and additives, the organic farm was awarded an Agri-Educational award for its dedication to all natural practices and opening its doors to schools and colleges to come in and see how food can and should be grown.  And it doesn’t stop at the farms edge, Pete Cashel takes his love and his tractor off the farm to local schools and communities, setting up plots and aiding in the setting up of teaching gardens.  He does this not for profit, but to share his knowledge and love.  He and his wife run their festival like they run their farm, for the joy of sharing.

The roads twist and turn, and eventually lead to a humble, handmade “Festival” sign indicating the turn.  A lush, hilly campground awaits, with wooded camp sites for those who dig shade, and vast fields  for folks who like to stretch out a bit.  The stages add to the overall down home charm of the Festival, as they are both Handmade, out of wood from the farm itself and surrounding areas.  While humble against some of the titanic stages to be seen at other fests, the music played on them is as wonderful as any of the mighty mega platforms found elsewhere.  The smaller of the two permanent stages is known as the Chapel stage, and featured a parade of talent, such as bluegrass stalwarts, Arnett Hollow.Folllowing their inspired set, a rare combination of the band, Terrapin Flyer took the stage, featuring three fifths of the band Cornmeal and Tom Constanten, former member of the Grateful Dead.  Constanten and company wound their way through Dead classics and some Americana standards in a way that was both traditional and fresh at the same time.  The music of the Dead has a power long recognized to turn any crowd into a boogying mass of humanity, and such was the case here.  Dancing barefoot on the hill was a theme for all the weekend, and it would be fair to say that no one managed to resist the joyous experience.

Over on the main stage, Great American Taxi came out to a raucous welcome, as happy campers streamed down the hill to see the deft mixing of bluegrass, rock and roll and pure swamp music being performed.  Playing Mandolin and acoustic guitars, Vince Herman, one of the founders of Leftover Salmon, led his band through a set of down home good time tunes.  Taking a moment to toast a few birthdays in the audience, Herman showed the affable charm that is a hallmark of Taxi shows, joshing with that good natured grin for which he is almost as well known as his skills on the stringed instruments he plays.  Finishing his set with a tear down jam session, Herman left the stage, but stayed quite handy, for the next band scheduled was on even he refused to miss, Cornmeal. 

terrapinhillmainstage.jpgCornmeal has a long history with the festival.  As Pete loves to mention during his now traditional Cornmeal introduction speech, the band was a suggested last minute fill in for another act who couldn’t make it, and in the five fests since, Cornmeal has become a pillar of the festival.  Their sets on the farm reflect their comfort in the surroundings, and they take the main stage by storm, year in and year out.  As bands go, the curious blend of bluegrass, psychedelia and pure talent is mind blowing in execution, and infectious in energy.  Chris Gangi, the affable bassist handles the bottom end and the bands emcee duties welcoming the crowds to the show with the same enthusiasm he attacks his stand up bass.  Wavy Dave Burlingham picks his five String banjo and sings his leads with a wry grin and a deft hand, While John Paul Nowak thunders like the rain clouds above, always threatening a cloudburst of percussive mayhem, then, finally unleashing a downpour of drumbeats and cymbal crashing strikes from above.  Nowak’s brother Kris plays the guitar, mixing picking and slide, and through judicious use of pedals and effects plays such a wide range of sounds, you could easily get lost in the soundscapes he paints.  And, last but by no means least, there is a beast that roam the stage and a beauty, all wrapped up in one enthralling package, the stunning Allie Kral.  The devil isn’t foolish enough to tempt her into a fiddle contest, he simply stands by the rest of us in awe and wonder at her mastery of the violin.  Mixing the fastest arm I have seen bow with a love of outer space style explorative jams, Ms.Kral is a whirling force of destruction, and the battery of the band.  While she jumps, the band provides a safety net for her to land on, as she provides the same for the others.  A true unit, they are a destructive force to be reconed with, and a must see on any stage, on any day.  A two song set in by Vince Herman was the highlight of the first set, and a destructive series of the classics, like “Rise Above” and “Hasten Jason” along with their spot on perfect covers of “Naïve Medley” made the night complete.

A quick spin to the Chapel Stage provided a heaping helping of the 23 String Band and a crowd in the mood to dance the night away.  The two forces of energized crowd and bluegrass picking fireworks, the 23 string bands stock in trade met and a monsoon of musical mathem erupted.  In case you’re not getting the subtext here, people were dancing in the rain!  Nothing more liberating than letting the elements have their way with you while the sweet sounds assuage all you fears! 

Saturday

alliekral.jpgThe vending alley at Terrapin was smaller than some, but completely lacking mass produced merchandise.  In keeping with the down home feel of the Fest, the goods available for purchase were handmade and crafted with love and care.  From beads to ornate glass decorations being blown on site from local artisans Natural Mystic, to hand woven scarves and clothing,  and, in all seriousness, how can you go wrong with biscuits and gravy down on the farm?  A large play area highlighted the Family nature of the festival.  We were on a family farm, and we were in fact having this party in someone’s backyard. Granted, their backyard is a little bigger than most folks, but still, people live there.  As is always the case, friendly dogs were welcome at Terrapin Hill and one ended up providing one of the funniest moments of the day.  More on him later.

Legendary archivist, radio host and Deadhead extraordinaire David Gans was on hand to start the morning off right for those brave enough to shrug off the elements and come here stories and song.  The dedicated early risers were happy that they had made their decision as all in attendance were obviously in a very happy place.  After a rocking set by The Other Brothers Band, it was time for the next Dead related Band to take the stage, Dose Hermanos with their mixture of a piano lounge act, a full on psychedelic freak out, and a pinch of Tom Waits thrown in for good measure.  Playing a mixture of standards, improvisational pieces and an original or two, the Hermanos did right by their name and pedigree.  Joined for the last few songs by David Gans on the Guitar, this set pleased those in the know, and won over fresh ears instantly with their pleasant sounds and style.  While the main stage was being set for the big four hour set from Dark Star Orchestra, Cornmeal was taking the Chapel Stage for their day set, traditionally a more straight up affair.  Not so on this day.  As if the fire from the previous night had not dimmed within them at all, the band launched into their set like a pack of ravenous beasts, attacking their own songs as if possessed.  The passion and fun with which they played was not lost on the crowd, who took that energy in and, like a step up transformer, multiplied it tenfold and returned it to the band!  In the midst of all this chaos, Cornmeal got an unexpected sit in for their set, the tiny Arlo the dog.  Melting hearts and showing his overall power over the ladies, Arlo walked across the stage like a dog that lives there should, wondering what all the fuss was about.  He sat near Allie for just a moment, owned her heart!  Quite the fuzzy charmer, indeed!

Now it was time for the band whose shadow is cast over the entire festival scene to be honored.  The Grateful Dead has been written about, spoken of and sung hymnals by its fans since practically the first note.  Their career spanned such time that bands have sprung up dedicated to playing their music alone.  Tribute bands and cover acts are generally an anathema to high end music aficionados, with one exception: The Dark Star Orchestra.  Widely regarded by Deadheads as the most authentic rendition of the original possible, DSO in fact often covers entire shows, not simply songs, recreating evenings long past down to the minutest of details.  It would not be surprising to find that they had done research into the Dead’s clothing and meal choices, so as to be able to stay as far in character as possible.  The love that Dark Star feels for the material is so prevalent; one just can’t help but love them for the effort.  Classic songs of the Dead, like “Franklins Tower” and “Ripple” were played note for note and the experience was immersive and captivating.  A set break of fire dancing, featuring poi spinning and fire fan dancing, lead to a true feeling of having escaped reality and landed in some mish mash of everything right about the gathering of humanity.

mcsparkplug.jpgKentucky residents Goldenrod  took the stage with an air of showmanship not often seen complete with suits and a sharp shiny robe among the couture. Sounding very much like Radiohead doing lounge covers of songs you’ve never heard, they won the crowd over with their total audio visual presentation.  Then came the moment past attendees were waiting for, the annual “How long will the Rumpke Mountain Boys play” game.  Though it is up for debate, seven hours seems to be the longest set by them on the Hill to date.  A loose, freewheeling Bluegrass outfit, the Rumpke Boys play with a loopy looseness and a flair that is infectious to all who fall within earshot.  Silly songs mix with the serious mountain tunes, and their musicianship is top notch.  Whether it was a crazed cover or a deep original, nothing was safe from the all night assault.  They played ‘til dawn, and then another hour for good measure, leaving the last few stalwart dancers smiling and in desperate need of rest.

Sunday

One of the great things about going to a smaller festival like Terrapin is the chance to mingle with the acts themselves, and this year was no exception.  Comically enough, the day’s first act, the dynamic rap duo collectively known as MC Sparkplug was seen schmoozing fans and dancing into the night.  So when they were late to start their set, no one was worried and when they did arrive it was time for their usual brand of high energy big smiles screwball rap.  Trading lines and jesting barbs, MC Sparkplug has a happy vibe to them that is irresistible.    Following them, the Barry Mando Project brought a far richer and deeper sound than one would expect.  Jazzy and melodic, they were a fine palate cleanser from the Bluegrass, rock and rap that preceded them.Louisville, Kentucky act The Vessel brought their eclectic brand of sound to the Chapel stage next and resurrected the fading crowd, pumping a wall of sound into the air.  The day’s final act, Ekoostic Hookah, made the journey down from Ohio and brought many of their fans with them who were all ready to hear their trademark mixture of Dead inspired songwriting and tight orchestration. 

The crowd watched the closing sadly as it meant another year would have to pass before they had a chance to bask in the near mystic love wave that permeates this little farm down Harrodsburg way. 

Click the thumbnail for more shots From Terrapin Hill By Rex Thomson

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