Still smilin’ Familiarity breeds content at inaugural Jomeokee Music Fest

by Ryan Snyder

The location hasn’t changed; the same monolithic inselberg towered over a pair of stages seated before a natural amphitheater at its base. The music also remained unswerving in its appeal. There were all roots on the bigger stage and all riffs on the smaller one. The same ear-to-ear grin in checkered parachute pants and two-way radio could also be seen running around backstage amidst a flock musicians easily espied by any jam scene vet, but “Smilin’” Bob Robertson is firm that last weekend’s inaugural Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival was a brand new venture.

SmileFest, the groovy little festival he founded 17 years ago that last made its home in that same Jomeokee Park following a short interruption, is indeed no more.

In its place, the first step in the evolution of the newly eponymous event was to lift the “friends and family only” ticketing embargo that helped exclude SmileFest’s pre-hiatus troublemakers. Otherwise, the festival’s growth manifested in the form of a few daring, unrehearsed sets. Everything else, well, all felt loosely familiar, including the smiles.

The current incarnation is the brainchild of Robertson, his business partner Ryan Thompson and the only man who could ever rival Robertson in smiles-per-minute, bluegrass luminary Del McCoury, who himself was a persistent sight over Jomeokee’s three days. His first onstage appearance spoke to the musically extroverted mentality the perpetually unruffled McCoury has adopted in recent years, as he, flat-picking guru Larry Keel and a happy-to-be-here Patterson Hood shared an hour of stories, songs and tuning preferences. Hood was a sodden mess by the end of his main stage set an hour before where he opened his solo tour by treating new songs like a proud papa does a baby boy, but it didn’t compare to his state in trying to keep pace with two guitar greats. Confessing beforehand that he had no idea what to expect, Hood at times looked like Chris Farley on that Japanese game show, beating the language barrier by sheer dumb luck. While the high and lonesome McCoury and the husky-voiced Keel switched leads, Hood eventually settled in, delivering an impeccable “Miss Me Gone,” solo for the first half while his accompaniment tuned their strings down to a lower G than they came prepared for.

In other sets, performers embraced the unexpected. The highly anticipated Everyone Orchestra, dubbed a tour manager’s nightmare by one of its players backstage, brought in nearly as many big-name artists specifically for that performance as there was elsewhere on Jomeokee’s roster. Six-string god Jimmy Herring was joined on guitar by moe.’s three-chord burner Al Schnier, while moe. drummer Vinnie Amico was seated next to the ever-understated Jeff Sipe on drums. String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang, the scintillating George Porter Jr. of the Meters, and its conductor Matt Butler rounded out the imports of the band that included Boston funk massive Lettuce’s horn section.

Though the Everyone Orchestra has been around for over a decade, the concept remained simple and its final product utterly unique. Butler, this time dressed in a gaudy three-quarter length coat and top hat, wielded a dry erase board to bend artist and audience alike to his mercurial will. He called out hard groove transitions in the middle of a blue-eyed soul jam, egging the audience on with call-and-response cues when things didn’t develop to his liking. The pace was totally fluid, but never once developed into noodling simply because there wasn’t time. Lead was a football that Butler yanked away as quickly as he set it up, if everyone, including the audience, did eventually get a turn to drop it through the uprights.

If it sounds like Jomeokee hedged toward the jam crowd, it undoubtedly did. Even with the once-rich festival scene on the decline since the saturated 2000s, the right mix will still attract an audience. Attendance was somewhat less than ideal as the typical summer festival crowd begins to be replaced by the alternatively-minded Hopscotch and Moogfest goers, but it wasn’t short on enthusiasm. The audience’s slavish commitment to shred reared its head during Herring’s set, bookended by fiery instrumental interpretations of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life,” and Lettuce’s stone-cold trips through the obscurest Earth, Wind and Fire jams. Some degree of perseverance was needed through main headliner Yonder Mountain String Band’s second show when there was no alternative, but the Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival still has plenty of room to evolve, and as it does there will be room for even more smiles.