Photos by Lori Sky Twohy
It’s always exciting to go to a new music festival. After one goes to so many over the years, it’s hard not to start picking favorites; ones that you’ll want to revisit, year after year. This was my first time to Pinnacle, NC, and it was the 1st annual Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival. Fresh vibes and great weather filled the air as music lovers settled in their new homes for the next 3 days. The site, which sits directly below Pilot Mountain was previously home to Smilefest. Big colorful letters spelled S-M-I-L-E at the top of the hill to remind us of past years and perhaps of how good it is to be able to come out to a hillside and listen to some of the world’s best music for three days with friends and fellow music lovers. I’d say that’s worth a grin. We were lucky to find some trees to camp under for some natural shade during the day. However, those same trees also created a hailstorm-like atmosphere involving giant acorns. It kept us on our toes and made for some good laughs and a few whelps. There were talks of sniper squirrels.
One thing about music festivals that really gets on my nerves at times is having to choose between different acts who have overlapping sets. It’s so easy to miss a favorite song, an epic collaboration with a special guest, or get so involved in a set that you miss someone you really wanted to see. Solution? Put two stages side by side at the bottom of a hill or natural amphitheater, and have alternating sets one after the other. When one band plays the other stage is made ready for the next act. This is one thing I loved about Jomeokee. However, with this move also comes responsibility of booking a really solid lineup. The folks who headed up this festival did just that. An impressive array of musical forces displayed throughout the festival made for one very memorable weekend.
Things really got going on Friday evening when Larry Keel and Natural Bridge came on stage with their gritty yet refined style. Keel’s raspy voice and picking skills seemed to send a message that it was quite all right to let loose for the rest of the weekend. I still can’t rule out the theory that his beard holds special powers. Keller Williams, a fellow Deadhead and festival veteran, sat in on Ramble on Rose. It would be the first of many songs played throughout the weekend that were made popular by the Grateful Dead. It’s safe to say the majority of the people there had no problem with this.
Floodwood, a bluegrass project with Al Schneider and Vinnie Amico from moe., played two excellent sets on both Friday and Saturday. They shined. It was refreshing to hear their take on bluegrass. A little bit of moe., a little bit of jamgrass, a touch of gypsy folk, and a some traditional pickin’ with a fiddle to boot. It’s a genre that you can recognize within a few notes, but one you can take in many different directions as was displayed throughout their sets and throughout the entire weekend. Shirts and stickers with messages like “Legalize Bluegrass” and “My Grass is Blue” was a sure sign that folks were here to see some good pickin’.
However, bluegrass definitely wasn’t the only genre that was feeding our ears and souls throughout the weekend. As the sun started its journey behind Pilot Mountain on Friday night, Patterson Hood and the Downtown Rumblers brought some thoughtful, slower, country-esque songs to the crowd. Hood and his band play a myriad of songs that, strangely enough, made me happy and sad at the same time. This setup was quite different from that of the Drive By Truckers, his other band, that has made quite a name for themselves since starting to tour in late 90’s. There were two acoustic guitars, including his, an electric guitar that was a far cry from overpowering, keys, drums, and a cello, of all things. The cello was refreshing to see in the mix and definitely played a big role in the overall sound. I walked away impressed.
And what’s a music festival without a bit of Reggae? Luckily we wouldn’t find out. Stephen Marley, one of the legend’s sons, perked some ears and moved some feet on Friday night, as the crowd swayed and danced to the genre that his father made popular throughout the world. He did play a couple of his dad’s songs, like Could You Be Loved and Buffalo Soldier, as a reminder of his roots, but his style is one that he can definitely call his own. Complete with swaying, singing ladies on backup vocals and a an extended version of the Beatles tune, Norwegian Wood, Marley made an impression on the crowd, and would prove to be a perfect segue into Yonder Mountain’s set . On Saturday, Midnite and his band, hailing from St. Croix,Virgin Islands would relax many minds on the hill. It’s truly some of the most chilled out down tempo reggae out there. No doubt, it made for a great time to stretch out on a blanket and chill with some good friends.
Now, there aren’t too many guitar players that you can hear a few notes from and immediately know who is behind those sounds. It’s a sign of originality and a well-developed personal style. We were all privileged to have one of those players at Jomeokee for both Friday and Saturday nights. Jimmy Herring has become a staple in the jam scene. He has shown his incredible versatility, playing in bands like The Allman Brothers, The Dead, and Widepread Panic. This tour, though, his focus lies with his own project, the Jimmy Herring Band, which covers many different styles of music. His strength on the guitar, combined with the talent he surrounds himself with, creates a sound to be reckoned with. The complexity of his music is very appealing and often thought-provoking. It was a pleasure to finally get to hear JHB in an outdoor setting. It was a first for me. There’s something about a sonic force like that ringing through the crisp night air that can take the listener to a different plane of consciousness. He opened the set with Led Zeppelin’s Since I’ve Been Loving You and also mixed in two Beatles songs, Within you Without you (which is on his newly released album, Subject to Change Without Notice) and A Day in the Life. Jimmy also sat in for a couple with one of New York’s funkiest bands, Lettuce, another great choice to mix things up a bit at Jomeokee. I had actually gone back to my campsite to grab a cold beer halfway through the Lettuce set and I heard Jimmy start to play. A few licks in, I instantly knew who was up there; this from nearly half a mile away. Needless to say, I got back there in good time.
At the end of the day it was bluegrass that carried the vibe of the fest. You know, that pickin’ and grinnin’ attitude, that vibe. Some like it fast. Some like it slowed down to that ole time pace, and at Jomeokee, everybody got a little bit of what they were looking for, if not a whole lot more. More highlights in bluegrass for the weekend included Keller Williams w/ the Travelin’ McCoury’s, two high energy sets from Yonder Mountain String Band, Emmit-Nershi Band, The Danberry’s, and the Del McCoury Band.
If you don’t know who Del McCoury is, you should. A living bluegrass legend he is, and at 73 years young, his soul still shines as bright as ever. Keller, backed by Travelin’ McCourys, gave us an upbeat yet light-hearted set, featuring a number of bluegrass tunes as well as some Keller staples like Best Feeling and Freaker by the Speaker. It was great to hear these songs played in bluegrass fashion. They also surprised the crowd with covers like I’m Amazed by My Morning Jacket and Foster the People’s Pumped up Kicks. Keller’s playful attitude and ridiculously unique picking style always puts the smiles on the faces, and his set here was no exception. They got a little help from Jeff Austin and Del toward the end of the set and played “Bumper Sticker,” a new song written by Keller. A line in the song goes, “It’s hard to mow my lawn, when my grass is blue.” More pickin’. More grinnin’.
Yonder played two extremely high energy sets on Friday and Saturday nights. They never let you down, always taking the collective energy to the next level. It wasn’t clear whether Jeff Austin (mandolin and lead singer) was high on life during Saturday night’s set or if he happened across some party favors, but that man was tweaking like it was nobody’s business. Either way, he brought the goods like he always does, doing things with his voice that you’ll never hear anyone in a bluegrass band do. It’s always refreshing to listen to those Colorado kids do their thing, because no one else has or ever will play quite like them. Two nights of Yonder was quite alright with me.
More and more it seems festivals are setting up smaller stages in an area away from the main stage(s), in order to give us more of an intimate experience with musicians. I was very glad to camp close to “The Pickin’ Stage”. It was a tiny wooden shelter that was set back in the woods across the bridge that took you to the other side of a ravine. On Friday night, Del McCoury, Larry Keel, and Patterson Hood sat down on this little stage and created what I can only imagine to be a magical and intimate atmosphere for those looking for something a bit lower key than the force that is the Jimmy Herring Band. You know where I was.
On Saturday, Drew Emmitt and Ronnie McCoury combined the sounds of their mandolins, and told stories through song and speech. Ronnie told a particular story about call waiting. It happened to be Jerry Garcia on the line. Try to imagine clicking over and getting to tell your friend that you have to go because Jerry’s on the other line. I felt sure his friend understood.
Matt Butler (Everyone orchestra) , Andy Thorn (banjo, Emmitt-Nershi Band), and Jeff Sipe (drums, Jimmy Herring Band) made some really cool noise later that day. It was nice to hear the sounds produced by the banjo/beats combination. Jeff Sipe is one of the best all-around drummers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, playing in the past with acts such as Phil and Friends, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jeff Coffin and the Mu’tet, the WMDs, Leftover Salmon, the Jeff Sipe Trio, and now the Jimmy Herring Band. He always devastates, and this weekend was no exception.
Eric Krasno (guitar, Lettuce) and Al Schnier came together to close out the evening on the smaller stage. The Pickin’ Stage is a fantastic idea, and the setup was awesome, but it did get too loud over there due to sound coming from the main stages, especially early on Saturday. Hopefully this problem will be addressed before next year. It’s not a lot of fun to listen to two different acts at the same time, especially when one of them is stripped down and low-key.
Emmitt-Nershi Band continues to make beautiful music, combining forces from Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident into a fresh sound that has a lot of traditional qualities. Down in the Hollow, a Leftover song, and Black Clouds (String Cheese Incident) were two tunes they played on Saturday that made the masses cheese, pun intended. Speaking of Cheese, Michael Kang (violin player for SCI) was also on the grounds. He came out first for a stellar All Star Bluegrass Jam that Yonder hosted after their set on Saturday Night. Other players that came out for the jam were Billy Nershi, Rob and Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter (fiddle w/ the Del McCoury Band) , and Vinnie and Al from Floodwood. It was a great end to Yonder’s second night.
The last set on Saturday night was rather epic. The game plan of the Everyone Orchestra is to fill the stage with incredibly talented musicians, who don’t normally play together and have a conductor lead them on a ride of beautifully chaotic, yet logical and coherent improvisation. Man oh man, was there a cast of incredible players up there for this EO! Jimmy Herring was on guitar, Al Schnier (moe./Floodwood) on guitar, Michael Kang on violin, George Porter, Jr. (the Meters) on bass, Jeff Sipe (JHB) and Adam Deitch (Lettuce) on drums, Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band) on keys, the horn section from Lettuce, and Jennifer Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band) on trumpet and vocals. This set was one of the main reasons I was so pumped for this festival, and it met my expectations, although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It actually sounded like a complete symphony orchestra at times, but with a jam-like touch. Everyone played their role without stepping on toes, as almost every start, stop, and change was as directed by the conductor. They produced some musical moments that were nothing short of breathtaking.
I got the chance to chat with Jimmy Herring a couple of weeks ago and asked him about the EO. To say the least, he was very excited to again be a part of it and this time with a new cast of characters. To my surprise he told me there was little to no rehearsal of any kind. Complete improvisation was the name of the game, but there was order to it all, you can be sure.
The EO is the brainchild of Matt Butler who got the idea while on vacation in India. He attended a multi-national open mic night and was exposed to a large number of different musicians, most of whom didn’t speak the same language, playing together and communicating purely through music and improvisation.
His attire on this night included a white jacket and top hot that both had crazy colorful designs on it, complete with a huge all-seeing eye on the back center of it that danced around as he did. Perhaps the eye was a reminder that although he may have been facing the musicians most of the time, you could be sure he wasn’t forgetting about the audience. He used large cue cards for the musicians as well as the audience to let them know what was next. He got us to participate with timed claps, and repeating lines like “One more day in the Sunshine”. He did a beautiful job of conducting and taking everyone on an incredible musical journey, while showing the skill and ability of all of the musicians to create cohesiveness in such an environment. It truly was the Everyone Orchestra.
Sunday morning after sleeping through about 5 hours of rain, we got up and went to church. There were no pews, and you could dress however you liked in this service. We showed up 10 minutes after the service began and received no odd looks. Hell, I even drank a beer during the sermon. The only people wearing suits were the preachers on stage. It was The Del McCoury Band Gospel Hour and it was something to behold. He told some stories and just shined on, like he always does, singing many a ole traditional gospel tune. There’s something to be said for family bands, keeping that tradition, knowing and living your roots. It’s really taking music to a different level. It had been a while since I had been to an early Sunday morning service, and I thank God for it.
After church, the Danberry’s played their second set in as many days. Watch out for these guys. They have a solid sound that’s soulful, energetic, and combines elements of bluegrass, blues, folk, and Americana. A pure sound coming out of Nashville, with great vocal harmonies and a driving beat.
The only two downfalls that I think are worth mentioning were the sound at the Pickin’ Stage and the number of undercover drug enforcement officers scouring the grounds, needlessly giving out citations to folks who were minding their own business and not hurting anyone. On Saturday afternoon I witnessed 3 people get pulled out of the crowd by 3 different undercover cops, within a 30 minute span, apparently for smoking a marijuana cigarette while listening to some reggae; the horror. It’s a shame that cities continue to take advantage of events like these to make life that much harder on someone for smoking a little grass…our tax dollars hard at work. Anyway, that wouldn’t stop the music lovers at Jomeokee from enjoying their weekend. The music played on and good times were had by all.
Throughout the weekend, between sets, we were reminded by the MC/host of the correct pronunciation of the festival. “Say it with me folks… JOOOO-Meokeeee!” Perhaps it got a bit annoying after the tenth time, but it still made everyone smile, and more importantly, say it right. However, It feels very natural, and Drew Emmitt agreed, that “maybe we should just call it Jammy-okee?” Either way you want to say it, the first annual Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival was a success in the mind of this music lover. The grounds were beautiful and spacious. There was room for double or triple the number of people who attended, but because of the setup, it still felt very intimate. The collective vibe was a good one. People were there for the music. The weather was perfect for most of the weekend, the port-o-potties were kept clean and stocked with t.p., the staff and volunteers were friendly and courteous, and most importantly, the music was world-class. Cheers and many thanks to the good folks responsible for organizing the festival. I know I’m not alone when I say I’m looking forward to the next Jomeokee.