As I begin to write this I do so with a slight bit of hesitation.
It seems that northwest Arkansas is a hidden oasis of cool, and I do not want to be the one who lets the cat out of the bag.
The people there who make up the music scene seem to be completely dialed in and thrive off of good music and vibes. The 3rd annual Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival, held September 11-13, was a phenomenal way to find out about the thriving scene and offered a weekend of outstanding music.
Things kicked off on Thursday afternoon – it seemed a bit weird to start on Thursday (when it would end late on Saturday night, however it would prove perfect timing.) Local talent Charliehorse would start things off with a nice set of alt country/Americana. The vibe was very laid back and comfortable as the crowd slowly began to make their way into the breathtaking grounds throughout the afternoon. Elephant Revival Concept would go next, offering up a taste of Nederland, Colorado bluegrass. Darlings Bridget Law and Bonnie Paine would go on to be seen sitting in with many other bands throughout the weekend, but seemed most at home with their band as they wowed the early afternoon crowd.
Green Mountain Grass, from Austin, Texas followed with another set of tasty bluegrass. The theme of roots music from Americana and bluegrass seemed to provide the most idealistic environment for a relaxing first day of music. The launch of festival sponsor, New Belgium Brewery’s Fat Tire in a can also helped immensely.
As it came closer and closer to the time slot allotted for The Hackensaw Boys, things became a bit discomforting as they were nowhere to be found. However, just moments before their set, the van rolled up and the rowdy boys from Virginia spilled out, instruments in tow. They offered up a fine set before turning things over to transplanted locals, Mountain of Venus.
Mountain of Venus has toured hard in years past, however after resettling to near by Fayetteville they have taken a bit of a hiatus from the road. It was apparent that everyone in attendance was excited about their set, as they seemed to have the best turn out of the day. Vince Herman made his first of appearance of many by jumping in on the action alongside his friend roller girl for a little roller skate jam.
Despite technical difficulties New Monsoon offered up a great set to close the evening. As they pinpointed the electrical problem the solution seemed to be turning out the stage lights, and continuing to jam in the dark.
Waking Friday morning amidst friendly campers, word spread throughout the campground that someone was cooking free breakfast. As most of the neighbors made their way over to free eggs, bacon and fruit, Dirtfoot also offered up a surprise morning jam around the breakfast table.
The first official performance of the day was on the rustic campground stage with Shannon Wurst and 3-Penny Acre. More great Americana-rooted music seemed perfect for staring a gorgeous blue-sky mountain day. Speaking of mountain days, over on the main stage Denver’s Oakhurst offered up the first performance from the fabulous stage setting.
With lovely tree-topped mountains surrounded the stage, Oakhurst’s brand of jamgrass seemed to resinate all throughout the mountaintop. The main stage would go on to host a nonstop day of superb music. Great American Taxi, New Monsoon, Split Lip Rayfield and The Avett Brothers would go at it before the night’s headliner, and possibly the most exciting band on the line up, Leftover Salmon. Salmon offered up many old favorites as they led the charge late into the evening. Bonnie Paine made appearances on washboard, and everyone seemed to reveal in the celebration of keyboardist Bill McKay’s birthday.
Saturday arrived with weather reports that Hurricane Ike was headed right for us. No one knew exactly when it would arrive, but it was certainly coming. However you would not have known it from the perfect weather that greeted Cornmeal as the started the day on the main stage (complete with a Vince Herman sit in).
Over on the Campground Stage, The Shotgun Brothers Band got things started, before turning it over to the surprise of the weekend, Ben Miller Band.
Ben Miller and his boys offered up a rambling set of two-minute jams that ranged somewhere between the energy of the Black Keys and demeanor of an Appalachian front porch jam. The use of a one stringed bathtub bass and two-sided shared drum kit, definitely was not the norm. Despite the novelty of this strange set up the music was front and center.
Looming notions of the looming storm may have kept attendance from being as high as it should have been, yet it did not prevent those who did turn out from getting a wonderful weekend of music. Crowd favorite Big Smith offered a wonderful set up music complete with yet another Vince Herman sit in.
Hot Buttered Rum challenged the crowd to get wet with them as they played their unique northern California take on bluegrass. At this point it had began to mist rain at varying levels of strength, yet nothing hard enough to damper the good time.
Perpetual Groove would go at it next. This was one of the most anticipated sets of the day, as it was much of the crowd’s first time to see them since losing keyboardist Matt McDonald. His replacement/ longtime friend of the band John Hruby seems to have fallen right in line with the band. They have altered their sound slightly, yet they still deliver a familiar experience.
By the time The Wailers took to the stage the storm had arrived. Yet no one seemed to mind, they went on business as usual hyping the crowd with a classic reggae performance. However it was cut somewhat short as things became a little too live on stage and there was fear of someone being hurt from the sopping wet electrical equipment.
This left the night’s headliner Umphrey’s McGee with a challenge. The hardworking band has climbed the ladder of success to quite a production. Tons of gear had been loaded on the main stage, and there was no way to get things over to the partially dry late night tent. Being the allstars that they are, Umphrey’s had their practice kits toted over to the tent and set up. They would proceed to pack the house during a massive downpour, and offered up two long, lively sets of music. Their jams helped deny the storm a victory for a while, things finally became just too wet. The tent had began to flood, and it became apparent it was time to call it a day, but nothing seemed to kill the vibe of the fabulous music festival.
So, the cat is out of the bag. There is no excuse for the fourth installment of Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival to not be huge, although some of the locals may not be too happy about us sharing in their secret.
Despite whatever growth the festival experiences, one thing for certain: it will always feel like a family affair – more like a massive private celebration than a music festival. I am sure they would not mind if you decided to crash the party.