Article by Lara Keithley
Harvest Fest on Mulberry Mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks began for some on October 13th. This is one day earlier than those who purchased a general admission ticket. The day began with spectacular weather that would stay with the event right up until the last camper scurried out of the venue on October 17th. It was warm enough for shorts during the day, upper 70’s to mid 80’s, and cool enough at night (mid 60’s) to sleep; if you did sleep that is.
Early arrivals were allowed in the venue at noon. The line to get in was small and moved swiftly. We found none of the congestion and security or parking issues that normally plague larger festivals. The staff was courteous, friendly and willing to help all the way to our campground which was beautiful indeed.
People that purchased VIP or camping upgrades were allowed in at noon on Wednesday. Those that chose this option were treated to a special concert at the Backwoods Stage that evening. The Backwoods Stage has been renamed the Mudstomp stage to reflect the sponsorship of Mudstomp Records.
The show began with the amazing Ben Miller Band. For those who love traditional instruments and great Americana music and have never seen the Ben Miller band, you are truly missing out. The Ben Miller Band is a trio consisting of Ben Miller on guitar, harmonica and banjo, Scott Leeper on the tub base, and Doug Dicharry on percussion. The sounds these three boys can get out of these instruments is amazing. Dicharry’s washboards skills make you feel that there is a whole percussion ensemble just raging it out. Leeper’s washtub has to be seen to be believed and the funk he can bring with it is mind boggling. If you missed Harvest Fest this year, this is among the many talented bands that you really must see and soon!
Next up on the extra special Wednesday night concert agenda was Whitewater Ramble. Whitewater Ramble is a rambunctious group of Rocky Grass up and comers from the Colorado scene and there is a reason that their star is on the rise. They are tight knit and enthusiastic, capable of changing gears with lightning speed. They have a new CD out which you can download for free at http://whitewaterramble.com/home.html .
Between Ben Miller Band White Water Ramble, the music played on until the wee hours of the morning. A great treat for all who were lucky enough to be there on Wednesday. Early comers straggled to their tents to get some rest before the festivities began in earnest on the 14th.
The general admission crowd was let in at noon and the park began to fill up.
I was able to talk with people as they arrived about the festival and the venue. The venue used to be a blueberry farm before it was bought by the Patton Family about six years ago. It was they who brought the festivals Wakarusa and Harvest Fest to Mulberry Mountain.
It is a truly beautiful venue and much thought has been put into running things smoothly and safely, without unnecessary hassles. This was the first year that Harvest Fest had a VIPoption. Not only did VIP ticket purchasers get early arrival and the most choice camping spots, but free beer, food and easy access to the main stage.
After the late night at the Mudstomp stage, our crew woke up late, drank some caffeine and then moseyed over to the main venue to check out shakedown street. The vending was relatively small but after all this is a smaller festival than most with an estimated attendance of around 3,500 to 4,000 people. But what shakedown lacked in quantity it certainly made up for in quality. The creativity, originality and festive mood of the vendors was genuine and kicked the morning off right. Everyone in our crews found something they couldn’t live without including a helmet with psychedelic horns and dishtowels delicately embroidered with the saying “shut your whore mouth!”
After taking our purchases back to the camp we enjoyed some more Ben Miller and White Water Ramble on the Mudstomp stage. The Whitewater Ramble boys did an even rowdier set than the night before complete with bass player Howard Montgomery literally climbing atop his standup bass and hanging from the rafters, while playing effortlessly. During their song “Watermelon Man” fiddle player Adam Galblum evoked Jerry Garcia’s guitar circa “Estimated Prophet” and spooked and enchanted the crowd.
Next we headed to the main stage for the last of the Dirtfoot show. Dirtfoot is a gypsy string band with amazing fans who make their own shakers from tin cans and rocks. Their brand of outlaw bluegrass is infectious and set the mood brilliantly for the next act, one of my favorite bands traveling right now, Mountain Sprout.
What can I say about Mountain Sprout? This band is a group of proud hillbillies just telling it like it is. Grayson Van Sickle just isn’t right. He proudly and defiantly picks his banjo, two foot long beard flying in the breeze, while singing about crack whores, warm beer, random sex, cheating on women in at least three states, growing weed because of the lack of alcohol in Arkansas and lamenting that he is related to hot women. He is accompanied by some of the most talented string musicians out there today and they are out there. Blayne Tebo plays a fiddle that you can’t stay still listening to. His dreads are flying around him and his countenance is one of pure ecstasy while he plays lively riffs to the band’s stark white underbelly lyrics. Adam Waggs plays the guitar keeping that rocking chair rhythm that makes dancing around to these guys not only a pleasure but almost impossible not to do. Daniel Redmond is a big ol boy who stomps and spits and grins while keeping a steady and reliable beat on his monstrous stand up base. There is no one like them, see them if you can!
Next on the main stage was Cornmeal. Almost everyone knows what a treat this Chicago- based bluegrass band is. Allie Kral is a divine woman, holding her own and showing her soul with her fiddle licks flying through the late fall afternoon. The whole joint is dancing. She is entrancing and just when you thought it can’t get any better than this, Tim Carbone comes out on stage for “Rise Above” and he and Kral catch the place on fire trading fiddle riffs. It is actually a touching moment. You can see how much these two fiddle players respect and admire each other and how delighted the whole group of musicians is to be on that stage. Everyone looks exhausted from boogying to these great bands for the last three hours and you can tell by looking at the happy faces of the crowd that his festival is already a success.
My crew heads out to get something to eat while Martin Sexton takes the stage. We are able to listen to him while we grub. This is straight forward Rock and Roll and highly enjoyable.
Next we head over to the Mudstomp stage to catch the tail end of Oakhurst, another fine group of Colorado musicians who have been paying their dues for awhile. They have had some personnel changes in the past few years but it appears they have settled in to good vibe. They are as energetic as ever with a driving drummer and faster than lightening banjo and mandolin. They are irrepressible and fun. They have the whole crowd dancing and smiling.
Next is Pert near sandstone on the Mudstomp stage. These guys hail from the Minnesota music scene. They play old time, new time and blue grass with instruments such as clogs, claw hammer banjo and washboards. I only caught a few songs because I had the opportunity at that point to interview Whitewater Ramble and talk to them a bit about their new CD but a good time was had by all!
We walk back to camp toward the end of Pert, rest up for a few and head up to the main stage for Railroad Earth. Tim Carbone and the boys are really on their game for this show. Although RRE is always enjoyable you can tell from their expressions and of course their performance that they are loving being here. They played the best “Black Elk Speaks” I have ever heard them play. There was much mutual love between RRE and the crowd.
Set List: Long Walk Home, Saddle of the Sun, Potter’s Field, 1759, Head, Lone Croft Farewell, Carrying Coal to Newcastle – > Mighty River – > Like a Buddha, Black Elk Speaks, Bird in a House, Any Road, E: The Jupiter and the 119.
By the time RRE was through I was not sure I had much left in me, but my new buddy Chad, who I met in line at the start of the festival convinced me that I had just enough left for Split Lip Rayfield. It turns out I had more than enough energy left and you really need it for these guys. Split Lip is another of those strange amalgamations that are made by traditional instruments. Playing the “Stitch Giver”, a home made base made out of a gas tank from a car, Jeff Eaton looks like some kind of wounded animal, like a fragile creature that needs support just to get through the night…..that is until the three band members take a collective deep breath and then just start raging out frenetically paced music. Eaton is responsible for a driving beat that is almost brutal in its pace and strength. The beat is more punk than bluegrass. The lyrics range from profound to giggle inducing. They played two of my favorites “If you’all like batman, we’ll fight you now goddammit” , which always makes me laugh and dance like a hooligan and the song most recently popularized by Yonder Mountain String Band, “used to call me baby”.
By the time this show was over my mind was almost as tired as my feet. There was not one show I saw all day that anyone could sit in a lawn chair and simply watch. I limped back to camp, sat by the fire for about an hour in a bluegrass induced haze before passing out in my tent.
I woke up the next morning and stumbled, blurry eyed over with my new friend Dan, who was camping next to us (the rest of our crew was snoring away in the tent). I didn’t get in line for breakfast but instead stood around for a few minutes listening to the music before I decided that I really needed at least a couple more hours of sleep. I left Dan waiting for his eggs and bacon and stumbled back to camp for a few hours of shut eye.
After my nap I headed over to the showers with Keicia and Jon of my crew. We had our towels and bags of shampoo and stuff and were slowly making our way when I heard “RagDoll” coming over the loud speakers at the main stage. As soon as I heard the familiar shout of Jeff Austin, I turned around and headed toward the stage. Sure enough, Yonder Mountain String band was doing a sound check. The boys looked as tired as I felt, but they also looked a little amazed at all the people coming out of the trees. Jeff remarked that this all reminded him of a festival they did in 2000 where they had to play about this same time of day, only there weren’t as many people at that one. They ripped through Ragdoll then “Complicated”, “Don’t You Lean on Me”, and a couple of others while roadies ran around them setting up this and that. Trusty Ben Hines, who is the best soundman in the business in my opinion, was walking around making sure the sound check was worth the effort and the boys sounded great. It took a minute for me to get used to looking at Jeff Austin without his “where’s waldo” glasses. His face looks naked without them.
Although feeling better after the shower I felt the need to listen to Big Smith and the Traveling Mccoury’s from the campsite. One nice thing about camping behind the main stage is that you could hear them plain as if you were at the actual stage. Both sounded great and I knew I would get the chance to catch the Mccoury’s later in the day.
I was resting up for what I knew would be a real treat, the Larry Keel and Adam Aijala show. This was one of the shows I had really been looking forward to. Larry Keel is so endearing and his voice is original and warm. He has a voice that was made for the singer song writer genre. One highlight for me was “Remind Me” which Jenny Keel lent her vocals to. This produced a magical mix of Adam, Larry and Jenny’s strong and true alto for something magical! Larry Keel and Adam Angela are two of the most talented guitar players touring today. While the crowed was not pants-on-fire dancing, they were mesmerized. Adam joked about drinking Jameson the night before and was relaxed and animated. It is always nice to see him in a different setting than his “iceman”, stoic picking with Yonder.
I headed back to the camp to meet up with my crew and grab some grub. We then headed over to the main stage for the end of the Split Lip show and to set up home base for theevening. It was time for the headliners and a night of dancing and bluegrass mayhem.
Wherever Vince Herman goes, a party goes with him. Leftover Salmon is one of the most beloved acts traveling today. The crowd roared as soon as they saw his shaggy head pop up on the stage. It becomes a dance party immediately with “Let’s give a party” and the party didn’t stop for a full half hour longer than the band was supposed to be onstage. Absolutely nobody minded. Larry Keel joined the fun as did Bonnie Paine and Bridget Law from Elephant revival. Then Yonder joined the show for the last song. A great time was expected and no one was disappointed.
Setlist: Let’s Give a Party>Breakin Thru>Riding on the L&N>Bills Boogie>Rivers Rising>Tu N’as Pas Aller>Fire Line (1) >Trouble Times (1)>Shuckin Corn(1)l>Down in the Hollow>What You Gonna Do (2)>Get’er Rollin (2)>Let It Bleed (3)>Boogie (3)>Ain’t Gonna Work(4).
Comment: (1) with Larry Keel and Vince on Bass (2) with Bonie Paine on washboard (3) Bonnie Paine and Bridget Lawless on fiddle (4) Bonnie, Bridget and YMSB.
Next up, the main event. It was told to me by several long time Harvest Festivarians that Yonder was brought on board and lent their name to this event to boost ticket sales and apparently it worked. The boys seemed honored that they were brought on to take ownership of this little festival and truly appreciative of the crowd that had gathered in part because of their sponsorship. They ripped right into “no expectations” and never looked back for the whole first set. Ben announced that the nicest thing about this festival is that there are no curfews so they could play as long as they wanted.
“Ten” boisterously brought the start to the second set. The crowd was hopping and the picking was fine. During the second set they brought up Ronnie Mccoury, mandolin royalty, as well as Dan Tyminski and did a fabulous version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”. Drew Emmit and Vince Herman then joined the boys for “New Speedway Boogie” and stayed on stage for the rest of the evening. This prompted an unprecedented “kid in a candy store” grin from Adam Aijala. (Something you don’t see often at a Yonder show.) The night ended with a crowd favorite “Boatman”.
Setlist: Set 1: No Expectations, Blue Collar Blues, Pockets, Loved You Enough, 1/2 Moon Rising, With A Little Help From My Friends> Ramblin In The Rambler> My Gal> Ramblin Reprise, Jail Song, Kentucky Mandolin(1), East Nashville Easter
Set 2: Ten> Years With Rose> Ten, Come & Go Blues(2), Man Of Constant Sorrow(2), Irondale, Finally Saw The Light, Spanish Harem Incident, Part 1(Lord Only Knows)> Angel, 2 Hits & The Joint Turned Brown, Looking Back Over My Shoulder, New Speedway Boogie(3), If You’re Ever In Oklahoma(3) E: Boatman
Comment: (1) Ronny McCoury on mandolin; (2) Dan Tyminski on guitar & vocals; (3) Drew Emmit and Vince Herman
The late night Mudstomp stage featured a set by Cornmeal and then Dirtfoot played until almost dawn. Anyone who didn’t want to sleep at this festival never had to. Early morningcartoons started at the Nomadic Village on Saturday at 8 am.
Saturday morning found us exhausted but happy. Caffeine was now a necessity. My crew started with the much anticipated Elephant revival show at the Mudstomp stage. Elephant revival is a fresh faced and fresh sounding group of enterprising musicians from Nederland Colorado. Dressed in Calico with their hair in braids, Bonnie Paine and Bridget Law look like angels and play like the devil. Never afraid to get down and dirty but always looking ethereal, these girls can hold their own with some of the best blue grass musicians in the business and they did. Joined by fellow band mates Sage Cook, Daniel Rodriguez and usually Bass player Dango Rose, this band brings Celtic influence, grass roots traditions and a modern voice to a genre they call Transcendental Folk. I say they are usually joined by bassist Dango Rose because his attendance was somewhat in doubt. This led to the band practicing all afternoon on Friday with none other than Ben Kaufman of Yonder. Dango made the gig which led to some bass sharing and compromise and some delightful music. Never one to be found far from an Elephant Revival show, Vince Herman also joined the band onstage and made the show as near perfect as a noon show at a festival could be. We were glad we didn’t miss it.
The always delightful Infamous Stringdusters were next on the main stage. Always hard driving and full of surprises the Stringdusters started out fast and ended the show faster. The highlight for me was their bluegrass version of “Handshake Drugs” by Wilco. You don’t hear something like that everyday.
Next up was the Emmitt-Nershi band. Rumor has it that Billy Nershi actually owns a home in the area. That would be an interesting home to see to say the least. Emmitt-Nershi never disappoints and they kept everyone dancing despite the fact that it was a bit hotter in the Arkansas sun on Saturday than it had been the rest of the weekend. Drew Emmitt’s mandolin was going crazy keeping up with Billy’s rocky grass, fire-tempo picking. The Band joked with the crowd and even took a couple of requests before making everyone crazy by playing “Jellyfish”.
Next up was the much loved Sam Bush. Bush played many of his Telluride favorites including “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “One Love” . As usual, Mr. Bush’s fiddle soared through the late afternoon and lifted the spirits of the crowd even higher. One thing that surprised me is that Sam did not sit in with Yonder that evening. He must have had a schedule to keep.
Keller and the Keels took the stage next. They started out with “Freaker by the Speaker” and the crowd kept growing as the sun began to set. Keller and the Keels have a CD out called“Thief” where they cover some unusual songs. They played a few of them including Amy Winehouses “Rehab”. Good stuff. Jenny Keel is an amazing bass player with a beautiful, soulful, alto voice. She is a strong yet delicate woman who can drive a beat with the best of them. The Keels by themselves are a treat. Throw in “Keller Keel”, as he is affectionately introduced by Larry Keel and you have a really fun experience.
Yonder once again takes the stage and from the looks of the crowd, no one is tired of them yet. From the first note of “Free to Run” to the last note of “Casualty” the show is energetic, intimate, playful and feels like a gift. They are joined by Keller who stumbles through New Horizons but really gets down during “Come Together”. Always a highlight for me is when Billy Nershi shows up wearing his aviator cap and glasses. I am surprised Nershi and Aijala’s guitars didn’t just burst into flames during “Snow on the Pines” and “Raleigh and Spencer”. The two faced each other in pick off fashion and each riff was better than the last. More than one person in the crowd just stood there with their mouth open as the notes flew off the guitars and into the beautiful autumn night air.
Set 1: Free To Run> Sidewalk Stars> Ain’t Been Myself In Years, A Father’s Arms, Don’t You Lean On Me, River, Cuckoo’s Nest, Holdin’, Town, Honestly, New Horizons(1)> Come Together(1)> New Horizons(1)
Set 2: Peace Of Mind> King Ebeneezer> Peace Of Mind, Isolate, Rag Doll, Another Day, Sometimes I’ve Won, On The Run(2)> Polly Put The Kettle On(2)> On The Run(2), Fingerprint, Damned If The Right One Didn’t Go Wrong(3), Midwest Gospel Radio(3)> Snow On The Pines(3)> Raleigh & Spencer E: Rain Still Falls, Casualty
Comment: (1) Keller Williams on guitar & vocals; (2) Andy Hall on dobro & Jesse Cobb on mandolin; (3) Billy Nershi on guitar & Bobby Britt on fiddle
We all went back to the camp and rested and I alone dragged myself back to the Mudstomp stage for one more look at Mountain Sprout. I stayed for a couple of songs and visited with my friends at the Mudstomp tent and then limped back to my tent, completely exhausted and thoroughly content.
The morning saw long faced campers packing it in and almost every new friend I said goodbye to on that beautiful Arkansas morning ended our conversation with “See you next year!”. Yes, they will!