YES! Spring and summer festival guide
When the cold winds cease and the sun beats strong and greenness starts seeping into the color scheme, our minds turn to the art of leisure and the science of communion with our creative spirit in the beautiful Carolina landscape.
It’s time to get outside, go barefoot in the sunshine, crank some tunes and get some friends together to celebrate’… whatever: our cultural history, our artistic legends, our small towns and beautiful places.
North Carolina is festival country, and for the next 13 weeks or so people will be pulling rumpled sunhats, sandals and shorts with lots of pockets out of their closets, packing up tents, tarps, coolers and blankets and heading to the dozens of festivals that crowd everybody’s social calendar this time of year.
It’s tough to decide which to attend, so we’ve made it a bit easier for you. We’ve compiled as list of 17 events that fall over the next 13 weeks ‘— some local, some far-flung and some just a short hop away ‘— enough music and culture and art to blow your hair back and set your feet to dancing. So read on, then pack up the sunscreen and get to stepping.
MerleFest ‘— a true slice of Americana
by Ogi Overman
Out of tragedy is born goodness, out of sadness hope. Because a handful of people care, the world can become a better place for thousands and thousands of others. Maudlin as it sounds, untold numbers of lives have been touched, transformed even, because Eddy Merle Watson died on a hillside in Caldwell County in western North Carolina in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 1985.
That could have been the end of it. His father, already a legend, could have easily retired ‘— and no one would have blamed him ‘— while his son, then in his early 20s, could have pursued a vocation with regular hours and a steady paycheck. Life around the placid foothills of Wilkesboro would’ve gone on at its own unhurried pace, the world around it in no way noticeably different.
But something strange happened ‘— some would say divine ‘— but whether it was a deity, fate, or simply the efforts of a few good-hearted souls, something intervened that declared that the memory of Merle Watson would live on in perpetuity.
Three of those good-hearted souls were Bill Young and Ala Sue Wyke, lifelong friends of the Watson family, and ‘“B’” Townes, who was dean of development at nearby Wilkes Community College. They’d come up with an idea for a way to honor Merle’s memory, but wisely waited for the healing hands of time to work before broaching the subject with his parents, Doc and Rosalee. A couple of years passed and one day they approached the Watsons with the idea of holding a concert at the college to raise funds to build a garden in Merle’s honor on the picturesque campus.
The Watsons not only endorsed the idea, but their daughter (Merle’s sister) Nancy suggested that they take it a step further. Rather than a one-time event, why not make it a multi-day, multi-stage series of concerts that could conceivably become an annual affair that would plow money back into both the college and the community? After all, between them, the iconic blind folk guitarist and his equally talented son knew everybody who was anybody in the realm of acoustic music, and perhaps some of them could be enticed into playing for such an event.
It took little or no enticement to get enough well-known artists to draw a crowd for the inaugural event. Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mac Wiseman, Marty Stuart and several other notables showed up the last weekend of April, 1988, set up on a couple of flatbed trucks and/or the college’s auditorium, the John A. Walker Center, and played to a crowd that numbered roughly 4,000. Considering that most of the crowd came through word of mouth, the showing was encouraging enough to convince Townes that they were onto something.
A group of volunteers soon set about building a permanent covered stage at the rear edge of the campus; additional performers were booked for the following year; word spread quickly through the burgeoning bluegrass, folk and acoustic music communities; and before long the event had taken on a life all its own.
Year by year the festival, now a full four days long and known officially as the Homecoming in Memory of Eddy Merle Watson, built on the preceding year’s success. Incrementally, steadily and with much prior planning, each annual event saw some embellishment that added to the festival’s allure and charm. Its growth, though phenomenal, has always been managed, never haphazard. New stages were added (and some moved), so that the total now numbers 13, scattered across the 140-acre campus, and numerous other improvements made to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds. The ancillary events, such as the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest and the various instrument competitions, have become happenings unto themselves, attracting entrants the world over.
Perhaps the first sign that MerleFest had become ingrained in the social fabric came during the mid-’90s, when two radio gurus, Rob Bleetstein and Jon Grimson, copyrighted the word ‘“Americana’” to describe the all-encompassing types of non-mainstream, acoustic-based music featured at MerleFest and its west coast counterpart held in Telluride, Colo. Today the MerleFest tagline, ‘“Exploring the roots and branches of Americana music,’” is an apt summation of the diversity of genres to be found therein.
A few years ago, when the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? became a cultural phenomenon and crowds swelled to the breaking point, some observers feared that MerleFest could become a victim of its own success. But recently-named festival director Jim Barrow, who’d just taken over the reins from Townes, meticulously went back to the drawing board, creating more space by moving vendor tents and traffic flow patterns, expanding the reserved seating area, moving a couple of stages, and generally staying ahead of the curve, thus proving those fears to be unfounded.
Now on the verge of its nineteenth incarnation, next week MerleFest will again prove itself a slice of Americana, welcoming in excess of 100,000 music lovers of every shape, size and description imaginable. It will be a musical celebration of life, a love fest, a spiritual event.
In every way that matters, a homecoming.
To comment on this story, e-mail Ogi Overman at email@example.com.
Los Lobos comes to southwest VA via East LA
by Jordan Green
On the heels of a trifecta of albums celebrating the East Los Angeles band’s 30-year history, Los Lobos will be hitting the road, playing festivals, casinos, ski resorts and concert halls this summer, with the odd zoo, winery and state fair thrown in for good measure.
Among those stops will be Floyd Fest in late July. A one-stoplight town at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia, according to legend Floyd once attracted legions of Edgar Cayce followers after the psychic predicted that the town would be the only place spared from a nuclear catastrophe.
Remote from anywhere, Floyd is probably not on the radar of many Triad residents but in actuality it’s only two hours north, up Highway 220 through Stokesdale, and through a series of hairpin turns on smaller roads that navigate through towns like Horse Pasture, Patrick Springs and Woolwine.
Los Lobos headlines the town’s annual world music, reggae and Appalachian festival this year.
The group that declared themselves ‘“just another band from East LA’” on their second full-length has never played Floyd before, acknowledges saxophonist Steve Berlin. Given the band’s eclecticism and enlightened sense of communalism it’s hard to imagine they will have much difficulty connecting with this festival audience.
Primarily known as a wedding band in the Mexican-American port of entry that is East LA throughout the late ’70s the band came into its own when it crossed over to the west and won over the punks in Hollywood. That’s when Berlin, a Philadelphia transplant who was playing with the roots rock band the Blasters, hooked up with Los Lobos.
‘“What we tried to take away from that era was a sense of brotherhood,’” says Berlin, who now lives in Portland, Ore. ‘“It sounds kind of hippy-dippy, but everybody was trying to help each other out, and not climb up everybody else’s back to become successful. There was a great spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood.’”
Being the one non-Hispanic in the band has never been awkward, either personally or musically, Berlin says.
‘“English blues, American blues, country music ‘— that was always a big part of Los Lobos,’” he says. ‘“There was an enormous amount of shared history, a lot of places where we met straight on, but obviously I had to accumulate some knowledge of Latin music. But the world I come from you’re always learning and you’re never done.’”
The band has a new best-of compilation, The Wolf Tracks, on store shelves. And last year’s Live at the Fillmore pays homage to the Grateful Dead with droopy lettering on the cover, skeleton album art and loose covers of classics like ‘“Good Morning Aztlan,’” ‘“The Neighborhood’” and ‘“Tears of God.’” The Ride, released in 2004, paired the band with a host of its musical heroes. The album featured figures as varied as Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Ruben Blades, Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples taking vocal turns on Los Lobos songs.
‘“The batting average for who we wanted and who we got is extremely high,’” Berlin says. ‘“It’s a very humbling experience for all of us. These were people that inspired us. Richard Thompson ‘— Fairport Convention was huge for us early on as a way of taking folk music and blowing it up. Dave Alvin really opened our eyes. He’ll take a blues song form or a country form, something really iconic, and create something beautiful and personal with it.’”
These days the band is back to creating new music of its own.
‘“As we speak we’re at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute of a new record,’” Berlin says. ‘“It’s just a question of, is everything we want to say in there?
‘“With the last record and Good Morning Aztlan we wanted to get back to more songwriting with the traditional verse-chorus thing,’” he adds. ‘“This record’s much more impressionistic. I think we’re back to the Kiko era. It’s kind of like picking up mercury. We’ve spread pieces all over the floor and we’re trying to pick it up.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org
LEAF: Black Mountain draws creative souls
by Amy Kingsley
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, a short-lived educational experiment founded by radical thinkers that ‘— for a time ‘— catapulted an unknown mountain town into the nation’s cultural spotlight.
The college opened in 1933 with a mission to educate the whole student. To that end, arts and manual labor were as intrinsic to the curriculum as lectures and books. The tiny institution was owned and operated by a faculty that abolished academic bookkeeping through grading.
Around the same time the disaffected professors from Rollins College opened the doors at Black Mountain, Europe’s intellectuals and artists were fleeing the oppression of Adolf Hitler’s encroaching empire. Many ended up at Black Mountain College, including Bauhaus affiliates architect Walter Gropius and Josef and Anni Albers. Cutting-edge American artists like composer John Cage and painter Robert Rauschenberg came to study with the refugees.
In its 24-year existence, the college’s faculty and board members included William Carlos Williams, Albert Einstein and Buckminster Fuller of geodesic dome fame, among others.
But as much as I admire the incongruity of such a cultural experiment locating in what was then the heart of Depression-stricken Appalachia, I’ve often wondered how much the collegians interacted with townies. When the school closed its doors in 1957, many of its principals decamped for San Francisco and New York.
Which brings us back to the present day and a new set of refugees headed to Black Mountain for the sake of creative expression. The theme of the weekend festival scheduled for May 12-14 is ‘“Celebrating New Orleans.’” Brothers from the city’s premier musical family, Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk and Cyril Neville’s Tribe 13, will headline the musical portion of the event.
‘“We are continuing to do an instrument convoy,’” says festival organizer Jennifer Pickering, ‘“and when we asked what people really needed, they said ‘Hire us; let people know we are for hire.””
The international history of the area is represented by acts from at least 50 different cultures. Music isn’t the only art form to be featured during the event; folk arts, dance and poetry will share the spacious campgrounds with the musical stages.
Families are welcome, and overnight camping facilities are available. Pickering says that about 50 percent of the crowd comes for the day, while the other half usually camps. About 5,000 people attend each day of the festival.
Pickering’s family bought the old site of Black Mountain College years ago to convert it into a summer camp. The history and legacy of the site inspires the festival, which is heading into its 22nd iteration (there are two a year ‘— in May and October).
‘“One of the things about Black Mountain College was that creativity wasn’t limited to painting,’” Pickering says. ‘“Painters also did music and dance, and that’s what we do too. As far as being creative and embracing the whole spectrum of arts, we follow that tradition.’”
It’s a tradition Pickering knows well. Perhaps a little too well.
‘“My house that I live in is actually a Black Mountain College student project,’” she says. ‘“I wouldn’t say it’s a good house, but it’s an interesting house.’”
To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at email@example.com
Fire Flies Festival lights up Greensboro this Julyby Danny Bayer
But I just love the life I lead
Another beer is what I need
Another gig my ears bleed
We are the road crew
I’m navigating down South Elm Street, whipping in and out of the post-dinnertime/pre-clubhopping traffic, Motorhead on the CD player, trying to make it the Green Bean in time to set up the PA for the next show. I’m doing sound, and I have to set up and break down three sound systems every night, in addition to my day job at the Carolina Peacemaker. It was exhausting, but worth it to take part in the magic that was last summer’s Greensboro Community Arts Collective Fire Flies Festival.
From a headquarters in a former tattoo parlor on Lee Street, Fire Flies infiltrated downtown Greensboro and the surrounding neighborhoods like’… well, a swarm of fireflies. Live music at the Green Bean, Lyndon Street Artworks and Gate City Noise. Workshops on women’s issues at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. Film showings, free food and art exhibits at the headquarters. A ‘“Really, Really Free Market’” in Lake Daniel Park. Strange, inexplicable events that seemed to pop up everywhere, such as acoustic guitars and singing by candlelight in the pedestrian tunnel underneath Murrow Boulevard, or office workers playing musical instruments in Governmental Plaza on their lunch hour. All kicked off with an appearance in the city’s Fourth of July parade by a group of artists dancing behind a huge wooden steamroller that said ‘“Smash empires/build community.’”
On any given night of the festival one could possibly see the backporch blues of Two-Bit Sideshow, the soulful singing of teenage songwriter Miriam Mareba, the acoustic punk of Florida’s Gainesville Liberation Orchestra, the fire breathers and dancers of Sinferno, the traditional folk songs of Gary Koonce or Taft Wireback’s tribute to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. During the day, the atmosphere at the headquarters building was like a summer camp for artistic adults. People drifted in to talk, look throug ‘zines in the reading room, grab a meal or pick out a tune on one of the musical instruments scattered about.
All events at the festival were free, ‘“to demonstrate how much can be done with creativity that doesn’t involve money and to make it accessible to everyone,’” says Liz Seymour, a member of the arts collective and an organizer of the festival.
Last year’s festival was conceived in part by the collective as a way to gain support for their plan to purchase a building on Lee Street to serve as a space for arts and progressive activism. That hasn’t happened yet, but the energy generated by the festival inspired several other projects, including a community space and reading room and a collective recording studio.
Fire Flies will be back again this summer, running from July 4 through July 9. The lineups and venues are still in the planning stage, and those interested in performing or being part of the magic should call 336.274.1814 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerry dies, a festival and family are born
by Brian Clarey
My friend Joey Wall eases into the rocking chair in the corner of her home off State Street. It’s fairly new, but she’s been spending a lot of time here each day, under the tall potted plant dripping with Chinese paper lanterns and small mirrors twisting on strings, with her baby girl Marley snug as a football in the crook of her arm.
Joey arranges an afghan shawl over herself and the sleepy six week old latches on.
‘“I say to Brandon, ‘Let’s go up there anticipating not being able to see any music and just see what we can see.’”
She’s talking about Smilefest, the three-day outdoor hippie cotillion formed at the Blind Tiger the night of Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995, an event with which she and her husband Brandon have become inextricably linked. Smilefest XII will be Brandon’s eleventh summer sojourn out into the Carolina countryside. Joey started going to the event about seven years ago and has since become a part of the extended Smilefest family, helping to create the wonderland in the country every year.
‘“[My title] is the subject of great debate,’” she says quietly, so as not to wake the baby. ‘“There’s not a word for what I do. We settled on ‘director of ambience.””
Basically she’s an exterior designer, transforming landscape into living space for the weekend.
Smilefest has become part of the fiber of the couple’s relationship; their love grew there and they had their wedding party out on the grounds. This year will be the first time the Walls go as a family.
‘“It’s baby’s first festival,’” Joey coos.
‘“We worked really hard over the years to make the festival family friendly,’” she says. ‘“This year I’m putting my money where my mouth is.’”
Kids under 12 get in free, she says, and the Kids’ Universe area will have the usual arts and crafts along with music, entertainment and more.
Over the years the couple has fallen in with a group of ‘“festivarians’” who call themselves the ‘“Flail Family,’” Joey says, and they take up a ‘“chunk of real estate’” in the campgrounds at Lake Toxaway.
‘“There will be a couple of kids,’” Joey says, ‘“but I think Marley will be the only infant. We’re just beginning to procreate.’”
Evidence that the Smilefest, in its twelfth year, is beginning to grow faint laugh lines.
The baby is sated now, sprawled spread-eagle on her mother’s lap and Joey rocks slowly in the milking chair.
‘“In the past,’” she says, ‘“I’ve gone up [to the festival site] for several weekends for months in advance. This year I’ll probably go up a couple of days before the festival. I’ll have to delegate to the people I’ve come to trust over the years.’”
She regards the package in her lap, shifting slightly and breathing slowly.
‘“This year I’ll get to enjoy it. In years past I had the radio glued to my ear.’”
Marley gives a slight wiggle, shifts her spindly legs, opens her eyes.
‘“Some friends have sent some baby tie-dye onesies,’” Momma says. ‘“Those’ll definitely make an appearance.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at email@example.com.
The Heavy Rebel Weekender: rock, rock, and more rock, damn it
by Chris Lowrance
Does your idea of a good time involve hot rods, hillbillies and a tattooed guy in overalls slapping at an upright bass like it just insulted his momma? Does most of your disposable income go towards Black Bart cowboy hats, spiked collars and a monthly subscription to suicidegirls? Chances are you’ll be among friends at the Heavy Rebel Weekender, a three-day festival happening at Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center from June 30 to July 2.
HRW cofounder Mike Martin describes the festival’s audience a bit simpler: ‘“Anybody who’s not dead and likes rock and roll.’”
When Martin says ‘“rock and roll,’” he means all of it. The 70-plus bands scheduled to play this year range in sound from honky tonk to punk, but the big scene is definitely rockabilly and its twisted sibling, psychobilly. If rockabilly is the sound that gave birth to rock and roll, a blend of blues, bluegrass and country, just what in the hell is psychobilly?
‘“It’s like rockabilly on crack’” offers Martin. ‘“Punk rock plus rockabilly. Rockabilly kicked off rock and roll; Psychobilly kicked off a lot of punk rock bands.’”
As always, the best way to describe music is to play it. Head to the festival’s website, heavyrebel.com, to listen to sampling of the bands scheduled to play, and you’ll get an idea of what Martin’s talking about. It like the opening to ‘“The Munsters,’” slapped out on a big black bass by your Uncle Jeremiah after he took one too many swigs out of the wrong jug and stayed up all night watching B-horror flicks.
But just like any scene, if you’re just listening to the sound, you only know the half of it. It’s all about culture, and the Heavy Rebel Weekender puts it all on display. ‘“It’s greasers standing next to punk rockers, standing next to hippies, standing next to rockabillies… standing next to emo kids,’” says Martin, and the list goes on. From photos of the previous shows (this year will be the sixth HRW), Martin and cofounder Dave Quick have transformed Winston-Salem into a car-wreck of counterculture. Purple mohawks and super-gelled pompadours compete for altitude, bleach-white hair juts out from beneath livid-red cowboy hats, and it all swirls together in a tornado of horn-rimmed glasses, ripped-up fishnet, and Levi 505s. Not to mention the ink… there’s probably more tattooed flesh than bare.
They’re drawn by the music, certainly, but also to the crazed carnival going on around the three main stages. Besides a custom car and bike show for pre-1968, custom-build rides with a definite ‘“DIY’” feel (‘“If you are looking for billet, six-thousand-dollar wheels or trailer queens, this show is probably not your ‘cup of tea,”” says the site), the festival will also feature guitar and upright-bass competitions, mud wrestling, beer-drinking and pudding-eating contests, a ‘“Wet Wife Beater’” competition, and an art show.
Add to that a haunted house staffed by band members and filling the entire upstairs of the Millennium Center, you’ve got a recipe for chaos… and one hell of a draw. 2005’s show drew over 1,800 attendees from across the nation and bands from across the world.
With all that going down, what’s the craziest thing Martin’s ever seen at the Weekender? ‘“That’s a hard one,’” he says. ‘“I’d have to say having a wedding performed by [televangelist] Jim Bakker’s son.’”
‘“It’s a huge three-day party with two thousand drunk people. Of course a lot of crazy shit happens.’” Martin adds.
Which, perhaps, sums up the Heavy Rebel Weekend better than anything.