Musical Harvest is reaped on Mulberry Mountain

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As the fall arrives and the ripened crops in the field were reaped, The Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival grew strong in the Arkansas sun, gained a hosting band in Yonder Mountain String Band, and played host to a horde of happy faces that filled the fields to dance and celebrate arm in arm. Over the weekend of October 14, the vistas of the majestic Ozarks that run like a spine through the midwest part of the country, was home to a mixture of bluegrass, Americana, and plain old dirt stomping blues known to its faithful as “Mountain Music.”

As legend has it, the settlers of two centuries past would gather around their fires and pick on any stringed thing upon which they could lay a hand to at the close of their laborious days. Mandolins, violins, guitars, and the like were played by folks who had learned their song craft by lesson and ear, learning to play as much or more by love as by instruction.  The same spirit of pioneering that led them west had applied to music as well. Saws, spoons, and washboards, nothing was safe from being turned into an instrument of joy; the only true purpose served was to find a release from the stresses of day to day life through song.

2.jpgFlash forward to the present day and a festival with a deep lineup that would be featured throughout a jam packed weekend occupied the same territory. Throughout the weekend, legends rubbed elbows with newcomers and one band took the opportunity to stand up on the full-size stage, making a big statement about how far they’ve come and where they belong.

Yonder Mountain String Band has been working diligently for over a decade now and has become a staple in the music scene through their vigorous live shows that are punctuated by mandolin player Jeff Austin’s frenetic antics. This band that was once openly booed by stick-in-the-mud-traditionalists at a Bluegrass convention was now being offered the opportunity to put their name at the top of the bill, once and for all proving that they were in fact, not just fun but vital. With hilarious covers, reverential readings of classics, and tongue in cheek originals, their music is infectious.  The anarchic spirit that has long been a trademark of the band’s music was present, but their overall musical wisdom made them perfect hosts who would be omnipresent throughout the weekend, sitting in with whoever asked, before they themselves hosted an epic round table champagne jam to close out their second night of headlining.

Wednesday

Mudstomp Records operates out of the Ozark region and is home to a deep roster of bands steeped in the lore and sound of the mountains.  For this festival, they also lent their name to the Mudstomp Stage, a natural wood construction seated with a densely wooded backdrop. Over the course of the weekend, the stage would not only feature bands from its label but like-minded acts from the rest of the bill and region, singing similar songs in wildly different voices. There are some who listen to the music of the wild and hear no deft nuance or razor sheen to the shredding of the strings. For those, the beauty is lost. However, if one has the ear for it, the Mudtomp stage had something for him.  Starting the party early, The Ben Miller Band set the pace for the weekend with an unique sound that would be difficult to duplicate by anyone other than the players themselves.

After a short set from the BMB, we were treated to previews of two bands scheduled for the next day, Whitewater Ramble and Poor Man’s Whiskey, who both gave the crowd enough of a tease to ensure their return to catch the main sets that were yet to come.

Thursday

Mornings on Mulberry Mountain are spectacular affairs, with the height of the plateau offering enough of a panoramic view of the sky to give Montana a run for its “Big Sky” nickname. Gazing upon it was similar to viewing an ocean of blue in every direction, with a blue so true that it should be on a color wheel.  The air was fresh and crisp, with the night time temperatures dropping down into a cuddle-inducing 40 degree range, while the days sat in the 80s – a perfect setting to hear a stellar assortment of tunes.

In the morning light, the grounds were abuzz with campers setting up tents and shelters while the festival crew scurried to and fro to ensure that everything was in place for the down-home lunacy in store.

4.jpgFirst up was a proper set from the aforementioned Ben Miller Band.  Miller grinded out licks on his guitar, alternating between a lonesome howl and a joyous wail; he was backed by a washtub bassist and a multi-instrumental force called Dug on drums, washboard, and trumpet. Simply put, the BMB never ceases to amaze.  They write short songs that serve as snapshots of the dirtier side of life and never overstay their welcome but Miller does stretch out from time to time, with his thick and old-time guitar tone that sounds as if it came out of a radio tuned back the 1930s. The crowd was packed with fans and dancers and they controlled the day, amply showing why their fan base is a rabid and growing lot.

A quick tour of the food vendors revealed all sorts of wonderful options: BBQ, elephant ears, kettle corn, and the finest festival pizza available anywhere from Fired Up Kitchen. Once satiated, a stroll down the sanctioned Shakedown Street revealed a wealth of vendors who hawked everything one could possibly need at a festival. From tie-dyed shirts to flowery dresses and intricate wraps and jewelry of every type, it was a buyer’s market, and whether making a purchase or not, browsing was quite an adventure.  Say what you will, but a leather Viking helmet with horns is a must have no matter where you are.  I could have spent a majority of the day there, but alas the sounds of the Ramble were drawing nigh.

Branded as “high octane Rocky Mountain dancegrass,” the members of Whitewater Ramble hail from Colorado and have been working the scene for years. They’re currently touring on the strength of their new album, All Night Drive, produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone. Their rootsy sound featured counterpoints of mandolin and fiddle along with a flashy bassist and a drummer, Luke Emig, who controlled the tempos like a maestro. His drumbeats effectively managed to keep the songs out of the mid-tempo doldrums where many jamgrass bands languish.

Mulberry Mountain’s grounds has, at its heart, a giant arch of a stage. The permanent rust-colored structure that features an open back and the natural beauty of the mountain line as its back drop is the mantel’s centerpiece and where the headliners called home. Making its acquaintance first would be Mountain Sprout.

7.jpgSinging songs of butterflies and longing, Mountain Sprout‘s juxtaposition both from a subject matter and stylistic point of view truly defies categorization, and it made for some mighty fine dancin’ in the sun.  Their philosophy was summed up in the twist on the classic line “Shave and a haircut…NO THANKS!”  For most, their style of play would be a tough act to follow, but this would not be the case this day as Cornmeal was next.

Few bands sum up the jamgrass movement better than Cornmeal, who deftly blend the bluegrass flavors of the past with the psychedelic shades of the future into a churning experience only they can provide.  Playing their favorites like “Rain Your Light” and “River Gap,” the music was stretched wide with long and spacey jams counterpointing the raging up tempo hoedown numbers.

Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone joined Cornmeail on stage for a furious duel with Cornmeal’s resident fiddler supreme, Allie Kral, administering a new take on “Rise Above” that was far beyond the standard reading and into a place where only a guest of Carbone’s caliber could lead it.  Finishing with a flourish, the crowd let them hear their thanks for setting the fire to the day.

Providing something truly unique, the Nomadic Dreams Village featured fire dancers, poi spinners, and a small tent that would house tweener set jams and extra duty for bands like Tyrannosaurus Chicken. Consisting of  Smiling Bob Lewis and Rachel Ammons, these prehistoric fowl are a duo of polar opposites. They neither look nor sound alike. On one hand there is Bob, who sits while plodding on his resophonic guitar whilst grinning from behind his generous mountain man beard.

36.jpgOn the other hand is Rachel, who stands erect while wailing on her violin and using a kick drum to keep time. The best part was that it worked and managed to provide a trance-inducing session sound that churned through the air like wind through the fields. Stepping out of the tent and back into reality, the sun had gone down without my noticing and it was time for the headliners of the day, Railroad Earth.

The trajectory of Railroad Earth‘s career is the envy of many a band. Within their tenure, their shows are breeding grounds for the uninitiated and holy places for their fans. With Todd Sheaffer picking out lines and singing songs in a wise and smooth voice, and fiddler Tim Carbone and mandolinist John Skehan turning up the heat, the band provided orchestral homage to the beauty of simplicity. Whether engaging in tunes about the lonesome prairie or the whistle of the wind, the conviction in their music was indicative of a crew of true observers.

Adding to their repertoire of tunes, RRE has finally recorded a song about trains, “The Jupiter and the 119,” which given their name, should have been a no brainer.  Befitting of the setting in which we found ourselves, the song itself served as a powerful ode to times past, and featured blistering violin work by Carbone. With hair flying, he took to the solo at first looking like a man on the verge of an explosion, then without a hiccup and like a sponge, gathered all of that energy and focused it on long deep bowed lines of haunting beauty.

Railroad Earth has a reputation for always giving you all they have and they did just that on that Thursday evening in Ozark.  Upon closing lick, the crowd dispersed slowly, as the activities on the main stage were done for the evening. Luckily for those ready to keep the energy going, the Harvest Tent, a circus sized massive structure, was up and ready to run late into the night.

Click NEXT for Friday & Saturday coverage and the Photo Gallery{mospagebreak}

Friday

The sun rose on the second full day of entertainment and there were woods to be explored, friends to see and shopping to be done.  Having a general store on hand was gratifying, and many folks found that set of tent stakes they forgot, or the frozen fudgesickle they didn’t know they’d wanted so badly.

The buzz surrounding the Infamous Stringdusters was that they weren’t to be missed, and the voices spoke true.  Embracing the sounds of the past, keeping their sound clean and true to the old ways, the Dusters wowed the audience with both their dexterity songwriting.  This set was the first of two, with a main stage slot to come the next day, so the decision was made to head back to the Mudstomp Stage for a way too short lick trading session between Larry Keel and YMSB guitarist Adam Aijala, an awe-inspiring set despite its short duration. For the brief spot in time, it was as if the sky’s epic expanse disappeared, succumbing to the enthralling experience that was the music.

44.jpgAfter a brief stop for Split Lip Rayfield‘s round on the big stage, it was time to catch the second round of The Traveling McCourys.

Sired and raised by bluegrass royalty, The Traveling McCourys – Del MCoury’s sons Robby and Ronnie – are fine players in their own right.  Joining them this weekend was 13-time Grammy winner Dan Tyminski, perhaps best known as George Clooney’s voice on the track “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?  This ensemble embraced the conventions of their forbearers completely and possibly more than any other act of the weekend. With classical bluegrass swooping over center stage mics, the authenticity was an integral component to what could otherwise be viewed as a “more jam and less bluegrass” festival and the adulation of the crowd spoke volumes on their ability to reach the core of their chosen sound.

Leftover Salmon was formed from the merging of two bands, Mark Vann and Drew Emmitt’s Left Hand String Band and Vince Herman’s Salmon Heads. Hence it is appropriate that their sound is a diverse blend of styles self coined as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass.”  With Mark Vann’s untimely passing in 2002, Leftover’s future was unknown at best. Recently though, Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt have reunited at select gatherings for the occasional excursion to take their still rabid base back to the days of El Nino. With their current lineup of  Matt Flinner on banjo,  Greg Garrison on bass, Bill McKay on keys and Jeff Sipe of ARU fame on drums, Herman and Emmitt still led the show, taking their throng of admirers through uncharted territories of symbiotic fusion with deft grace and leering psychosis.  Though no longer regularly touring, they can be brought together if the party seems right, and such was the case on Friday night. Joined onstage by Bonnie Paige and Bridget Law of Elephant Revival, Vince donned a spoon scraper and joined Bonnie for a center stage rage. Leftover showcased themselves perfectly as the forefathers that they are and left no stone unturned, pulling out every style flavor and seasoning in their cupboard in making their sonic Mulberry stew.

21.jpgAs the evening’s closer, festival headliners Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage and over the course of their set would demonstrate exactly why they have been given the reins to the caravan. Looking lean and sharp, the band immediately pulled out a seven minute “No Expectations” that started the night of right.  They then noted how responsible they felt and that since it was their party, they needed to do their absolute best.  From that point forward and for the rest of the weekend, when Yonder was on the stage, the stage was on fire.

YMSB brought out guests like they themselves had been brought out in years past, sharing what they have worked so hard to receive. Tyminski joined the band for a rendition of “Constant Sorrow” and the band made even their more humorous ditties dazzling showcases for solos and car chase-level fits of strumming frenzy.  Ronnie McCoury and Larry Keel popped out to have a few goes at it, with the smiles on their faces saying all that needed to be said. To the devastation of the crowd, just as all good things must do, the set did eventually come to a close. However, devastation did not equal disappointment, and as the crowd wandered away into the night nothing but chatter of the firestorms they had witnessed could be heard. Some called it a night after Yonder, but there was no way that I was about to miss another trip with Cornmeal.

10.jpgCornmeal is a band that has many dimensions, and the time of day can affect the show you see, so a late night set was something not to be missed. Whereas the previous day’s sunshine set had the crowd dancing in the sun, their deep nighttime freak out set had bodies writhing in the pulsing dark. Kris Nowak has turned a corner in his playing and his overall sound has become beyond reproach. With Chris Gangi plucking the bass low and funky, and J.P. Nowak providing the framework on which the jams are built, the band can zip along, dip down, or take a trip into space at will. Finger picked banjo lines from Wavy Dave Burlingame and the wails of pleasure and pain from the violin of Allie Kral make their sound distinct and dangerous.

The entire show was a maze of jams as songs were bent, stretched, abandoned, and returned to.  Joined towards the end of the set by Jeff Austin and Drew Emmitt, the group showboated their way through a monstrous jam of legendary proportion with Allie finally deciding to rule the roost, causing drew Emmitt to literally sink to his knees and show fealty to the queen of the stage.  Good night.

Saturday

Elephant Revival started the last day off with a folksy, earnest, and enticing blend of sound and skill.  Front woman Bonnie Paige’s long black glove gave a sense of elegance to her wash board pyrotechnics, while the rest of the band joined her, seamlessly forming a greater sum than their parts. YMSB’s Ben Kauffman sat in with the band throughout their entire set and Vince Herman returned the favor from Paige from the previous night’s Salmon cook. The crowd was wowed and sad to see them end.

27.jpgA dusty walk to the main stage was in order where Drew Emmitt would make his second official appearance. This time it would be with the Emmitt-Nershi Band, his rollicking project with the String Cheese Incident’s Billy Nershi.

The interplay that between Emmitt and Nershi was just plain fun to watch. They fed off each other magically. Providing a mix of songs written together, by other members of the band, and an always fun Cheese tune in “Jellyfish,” they got the crowd whipped up, swirlin’ and twirlin’ just in time for the next act, Mr. Sam Bush and his band.

Bush has played with virtually everyone on almost every stage across the land. If you play bluegrass, you’ve either played with him or thought about it. His current band is a tight outfit and they followed his forays on the fiddle and mandolin like a drilled unit, and when they laughed at his jokes, it wasn’t that nervous, “gotta laugh at the boss’s jokes” kind of thing. Bush is actually funny. Mad skills are to be expected from a legend, and the comedy was well received and welcomed bonus.

There once was a word that was made up. It was “virtuotastic.” It was made up to describe Keller Williams. A solo giant, Keller admits that he truly enjoys “making music with people.” The reason for this was obvious at Mulberry. When he was playing with Larry and Jenny Keel (Keller and the Keels), he was a bluegrass machine. Sing-songing his way through a set of classic Keller gems like “Freaker by the Speaker” and bluegrass-tinged covers of Amy Winehouse’s rave up “Rehab” and the haunting Patterson Hood-penned “Uncle Disney,” the trio gave every moment it’s due.  Joined for a few by Yonder’s Austin and Johnston, and at the jaunting of Keller, the band clowned around and showed what can happen when genius merges with playfulness.  That mischievous spirit has always been at the heart of Yonder, and though they have matured, they have not lost the impish tendencies.

49.jpgOver the years the progression of Yonder has been fun to watch, and on the final night at Harvest, the crowd was treated to a historical watershed moment.  On stage that night, the band played huge, beyond their previous shows. Taking to the big stage with humility and assuredness, they were the stars of the weekend, the baddest band in the land.

Guests like the Infamous Stringdusters and Billy Nershi helped form a line down the center of the stage for a show closing 20-minute-plus jam of wild proportions.  Down the line they went, and finally, as if to seal the deal, Austin popped off in the center of the stage, and with the band behind him, signed Yonder’s name on the festival itself in a manner that  would do John Hancock proud.  Announcing that they had gotten word that they could have the whole shindig again the following year, they smiled and said “hope to see you here next year!” The crowd’s response left little doubt they would have company.

With a festival that was steeped in all things grass, the twist toward the jam scene made it that much more momentous. “Jam” truly knows no genre, but sects of its faithful have their niches. There is Camp Bisco for the electronically focused. There is All Good for the “stood the test of time acts” such as TAB, Panic, or a Dead ensemble. Then there is Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival on Mulberry Mountain, with the longest name and a place to call home for those that lean toward sounds more wooden.  And a blessed home it was.

CLICK THE THUMBNAIL TO VIEW  REX THOMSON’S SHOTS FROM THE FEST!

 

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