God bless that Monkeywhale

by Ryan Snyder

Good news everyone. The Monkeywhale has been saved and it has successfully repopulated in its native habitat. The three-day festival that was intended to direct attention to the inscrutable creature’s cause, or simply to breathe some life into local music interest, blew through Greensboro like an autumn breeze, leaving almost no trace except for the comforting feeling in those it touched. It didn’t attract hordes of rabid fans to either of the venues; there was no profligate promotional conglomerate behind it; it didn’t have a lavish stage set-up or lighting rigs; tickets wouldn’t require a second mortgage, nor did anyone make cash hand over fist from it. Yet, while 90,000 people willfully contributed to an utterly inconsolable traffic experience and its ecologically ruinous effects 90 miles away at the most expensive concert to ever occur in the state of North Carolina, a few friends got together at the Blind Tiger for a final night of good music and good tunes.

The night opened with a trifecta of sets by Triad folk heros and heroine, starting with Sam Frazier and Martha Bassett. Both laid down beautiful sets in their own distinctive veins before joining a man that the area holds close. In grand minstrel tradition, Bruce Piephoff played a truly memorable set of emotive ballads that surely shook those who were tuned in to his words to the core.

If there’s ever a poet laureate position just for Greensboro and Winston-Salem, Piephoff should be at the top of the list of candidates.

Tucked squarely into the middle of the evening was a set that, after it’s announcement only a few days before, easily became one of the most anticipated of the evening. As his sons Scott and Seth take the roots music world by storm, their father Jim Avett lent his golden voice to the tail end of a set by one of the newest and most gifted trios around. It wasn’t simply my own introduction to Amelia’s Mechanics, formed by local staple Molly McGinn, but that of most in attendance. The crowd swelled around stage to witness the striking harmonies of the guitar/ukulele/viola combo and gave a warm welcome to Daddy Avett as he joined for a few of his own numbers.

Eating the Invader’s Matty Sheets, a graduate of the Les Claypool School of Stage Repartee, not only hosted the evening, but also experienced a gradual transformation into a TJ Cowboy. His slick vintage suit was slowly replaced with sombrero, sarape and face paint, as he reminded of a PBS festival week emcee; stopping the music just long enough to remind everyone of why they’re there.

Sheets gave a particularly hearty introduction to the Alcazar Hotel, who hit the crowd with both barrels from the moment they touched the stage. Front man Will Dawson passed bass duties off to Adam Dodds, obviously because it’s impossible to bound around the stage in such a manner while toting the low end. Dawson was all over the stage and in the crowd, as guitarist Edward Stanley shredded one garage standard after another. Dawson toned it down considerably, even jetting off to put on a shirt and coat, as they where joined by the imitable Katherine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers for a few numbers from their own band Lucky. Whalen would get into the act though, as she reappeared in a yellow go-go dress when the band kicked back into the high-octane jams.

Asheville’s stephaniesid was the penultimate act, with singer and Bjork lookalike (and soundalike) Stephanie lulling the crowd into rapture with her wispy voice and ethereal musical landscapes. Don’t worry though, because House of Fools was quick to shake the crowd right out of their torpor. The six-piece futuristic rock outfit rattled the spent crowd relentlessly and garnered by far the largest dance response of the evening as guitarist Joel Kiser tore through one solo after another. Singer Josh King ended the evening in fine fashion with a folksy little improv ballad entitled “Save the Monkeywhale,” confirming that you don’t need an extravagant tour, or especially Bono, to get people behind a worthy cause.

Jim Avett joins Amelia’s Mechanics for one of his own originals.

Katherine Whalen joins Lucky bandmate Will Dawson during an Alcazar Hotel performance.