SmileFest turns the 2006 frown upside-down

by Ryan Snyder

It doesn’t really matterwho you ask abouttheir experience at the lastSmileFest in 2006; by mostaccounts it was an unmitigateddisaster. TransylvaniaCounty sheriffs made everyeffort to turn what was arguablythe best music festivalin North Carolina not namedMerleFest into its ownbackyard fishing hole, onlythey weren’t exactly nettingbluegill and walleye out of Lake Toxaway.Sheriffs had set up a mobile command unit onsite, sending undercovers in to roust anyoneand everyone on the most minor of possessioncharges. They went into tents, the crowd itselfand even backstage in search of their poundof flesh. They posed as festival goers, lookingto sucker whoever they could into giving up atoke in exchange for a pair of silver bracelets.It was so prevalent that staff made announcementsfrom the stage warning of the presenceof undercover officers. Then the promotersof the festival that began at the Blind Tigerright after the death of Jerry Garcia decidedto just pull the plug rather than subject whathad become akin to a large family gathering tosuch heavy-handed, out-for-blood law enforcement.Four years later, SmileFest returned witha new home at Jomeoke Campground inPinnacle and a brand new attitude. The verdict?It was everything one could hope for agreat music festival to be — provided, that is,you could get access. Being a “family reunion”of sorts, not just anyone had the ability tobuy tickets before day passes were releasedlast week, just before the festival kicked offon Friday. From the first glance at the campgroundsand crowd in front of its two flankingstages, you might assume that the utter sparsenessresulting from such a strategy denoteda monumental financial failure. Not so. BobRobertson of SmileFest organizers MountainRoots Management said that they had logisticsin place for a maximum of 1,500 attendees, sothe 1,200-plus that came out were well withinexpectations. For anyone who’s never been toa camping festival, that’s not a lot of peoplecompared to some of the other behemoths inthe region. There was almost always a spotopen on the railing at the front of the stageno matter who was performing, somethingunheard of at any other successful festival.SmileFest 2010 wasn’t merely a reunionof friends and family in the guise of a musicfestival; it was also a revisitation of the festivalby many of the artists who’ve performed inyears past. Some returned ina much better place than theywere before, namely headlinerMichael Franti. His Fridaynight slot was one of the mostattended of the weekend, as afever-plagued Franti visiblystruggled though his 90-minuteset. Credit Franti for his effort— he did his best to keep upthe outward appearances ofhealth, even bolting around theside of the crowd to reappearabove the soundboard for asong. He bounded all aroundthe smaller stage the wholenight, relentlessly pumping theshow’s energy level despitehaving a doctor backstage thereto treat him at a moment’snotice. Franti & Spearhead was oneof the rare acts of the weekendwho neither borrowed performersfrom another act or whosemembers shared bands withother performers. It was a family,alright. A big, musicallyincestuous one, but a familynonetheless. Acclaimed drummerand Brevard native JeffSipe seemed to have a hand inevery show of the weekend,starting with the pre-headlinerFriday night jam. Sipe was joined by R&Bgiant Ike Stubblefield on the Hammond B3organ, putting out some of the most cerebralfunk instrumentals this side of the Mohawks.The show was billed as the SmileFestOrchestra, so guests were inevitable. Thosecame in the form of flautist Kofi Burbridgeand diminutive soulstress Laura Reed, thoughthe set’s 60-minute time limit kept the listshort.Sipe was a regular during the course of theweekend, jamming with everyone from DarolAnger and Scott Law in a fusion of progressivebluegrass and ragtime to lending his sticks tothe incredible saxophonist Jeff Coffin’s Mu’tet.(A side note: The Mu’tet featured a youngman named Felix Pastorius on bass. If anyonewas wondering, it is indeed Jaco’s son.) BothCoffin and Sipe joined the E. Normous Trioto close their set, which featured bassist JaySanders of Acoustic Syndicate, who playedFriday night. Meanwhile, Sanders’ Donna theBuffalo band mate David McCracken reunitedwith his old band Folkswaggin’ for a one-offto close the festival on Sunday, but the KevinBacon-ness doesn’t end there. Keller Williamsmet up with old Virginia Beach jam cohortsQuiver to relive one of their classic tracks,while later, Williams shared the stage withLarry and Jenny Keel. Larry Keel was joinedby David Via during his set with MaGrawGap, and so on and so on.While the weather didn’t exactly hold outthe entire time, Johnny Law did. There wasnary a law enforcement official in sight andthere was also no need for one. The thincrowds engendered nothing but goodwill theentire weekend and everyone looked to be ontheir best behavior. You could tell because ofthe big smiles on their faes. !DMB saxman Jeff Coffin jams with his Mu’tet featuring Felix Pastorius. (photo by Ryan Snyder)