I'm writing this with just a few hours of spring left on the calendar, but in the Deep South the thermometer suggests it's been summer for some time. Those of you that shared the scene with me in Manchester for you-know-what last week, or this weekend in Athens during AthFest, will agree the summer music festival scene is in full swing and the heat index has been happy to oblige.
With nothing but shaded camping, free water, and an easy stroll between stages a little festival in Union Grove, NC hopes it’s patrons can enjoy the weekend of music, and play an active role in the philanthropy and exchange of ideas- rather than being happy to merely survive the marathon. In it’s 10th year SmileFest continues to respect and expand the foundation it was built upon. Not more than 2 months after Jerry Garcia passed Bob Robertson paid homage by organizing a memorial show in North Carolina. The positive energy from arranging an event that brought together like-minded good folk invigorated Robertson, and served as the inspiration for the first SmileFest held shortly after the Garcia tribute in the summer of 1995. "We were not lost souls looking for something to do, we already knew what we liked to do, it was just a matter of making it happen." Robertson recalled fondly.
The festival’s home these days is Van Hoy Farms, where the history is rich- and Jerry Garcia slips into the thickening plot once again. Legend has it, and depending upon the source the legend can be spun in more directions than that bohemian lovely in the sundress spiraling in front of the stage. Turns out Van Hoy Farms and Union Grove served as the sight for the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention for many years. This event would attract hundreds of thousands of music lovers from around the world to little Union Grove, and soon the festivities would spill onto the surrounding farms, because 200,000 people like to stretch their legs when they’re pickin’ and grinnin’. David Grisman and Jerry Garcia did just that one afternoon on the farm, and the rest, as they say, is history. As he considered Jerry’s death as being the catalyst for the get-together, and the traditions of the venue, Robertson cryptically connected the dots, "SmileFest has nothing to do with Grateful Dead…but I guess in a way it does," he related.
I guess it does too, but it’s the events respect for the local community (A Habitat for Humanity home will be built on site and the local high school will share proceeds generated from parking) and commitment to new and emerging talent, coupled with carefully selected accomplished artists that still roll up their sleeves and get dirty on the grassroots tip that makes it special. SmileFest stalwart Keller Williams joins the likes of Galactic, Yonder Mountain String Band, Umphrey’s McGee and Burning Spear— performers with impressive resumes and strong followings despite the lack of love from FM radio and most mainstream press, for the 2004 incarnation. As the entire scene prospers, despite this lack of support from traditional sources, the aforementioned heavy hitters will have to scoot over and make a little room for the rising stars that are injecting new lifeblood into our corner of the music world. It’s as if we’re privy to a transfusion of sorts on an almost daily basis that’s keeping us vital and refreshed. SmileFest will have 2 stages dedicated to musicians that will be gracing the main stage of this and other venues in the not too distant future. The Home Grown Music Network and Carolina Hydro will sponsor stages where we’ll be lucky enough to catch several acts that will soon find their ways into our CD collections and social agendas. Cadillac Jones, a sporty, sometimes jumpsuit clad scratch jazz combo from Atlanta that make it difficult to remain calm and seated will deliver a scorching set early Saturday afternoon that will undoubtedly send the mercury soaring. Fellow Atlantan’s Delta Moon, winners of the 2003 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and proud parents of a new album, Goin’ Down South, recently released on Deep Rush Records, will be giving festivalgoers the blues in healthy doses indeed. Gina Leigh’s sultry vocals will deliver the time tested standards and Moonie originals like lullabies late night Friday. You can’t go wrong with the blues. Modereko, Garaj Mahal, and The Motet will impress the uninitiated that join those in the know for their sets on the SmileFest’s side stages. In fact they give a lot of us little reason to wander. Jambands was lucky enough to catch three shooting stars, if only for a few minutes, to find out a little more about each, and to give them a jumpstart on the always inevitable first school assignment each Fall- the quintessential, "How I spent my Summer Vacation" essay.
Saturday afternoon you can witness Savannah, Georgia native Leslie "Serpentfly" Helpert and her majestic style of storytelling. The Berklee College of Music alum is putting the finishing touches on an album she recorded with the help of several talented musicians, including good friends Andrew and Brad Barr of The Slip. The as-of-yet untitled effort is tentatively scheduled for public consumption in November. The new record is a departure from the simultaneously stripped down, yet complex vocal and guitar acrobatics found on previous releases. It’s a much fuller sound that introduces the listener to notes and sounds that may have always been there according to Helpert, but are only exposed now with others helping to share her art, and vision of sound. Her live performances and two studio releases are both passionate and remarkably eloquent— combining artistic guitar styling with vocal energy and content that can be sometimes soothing, sometimes disarming. She advised that, "My music is not emotional- but it evokes emotions…I don’t want to be viewed as an emotional singer-songwriter. There’s more than meets the eye- I’m more interested in the mundane- using it to perceive the energetic and material force in life." Hers may be the single must-see set at SmileFest, especially for those of you that enjoy the I was there when’ memories captured at unique intimate environs in the presence of greatness. As for the festival Helpert expressed positive anticipation, "I think it’s very cool that they’ve been around for 10 years. I think it’ll be a departure from the typical get drunk, stay up all night burger circuit festival…I’m honored." Van Hoy Farms has been home to magical encounters before and Bob Robertson convinced me that ghosts linger on the property— probably in no hurry to move on from the musical playground they inhabit. "The place is haunted, and you just feel the energy, especially on those nights when you’re here alone." A Serpentfly set may be the perfect soundtrack for a haunted thriller- as it can be exhilarating, often a little spooky, and without question she makes it impossible to avert your eyes.
Athens, Georgia exports Dubconscious to Union Grove and the band is committed to bringing reggae to audiences everywhere, and their new live album Word of Life is the perfect vehicle for the mission. The group has recently cemented their commitment to the cause. Drummer Matt Woolley agreed with my observation that the band has taken tremendous strides in the past 6 months. "I feel that way," he said, "We all quit our day jobs- it was our faith in the music that took us to that next step." A new bus and constant gigging throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Carolina’s (including dates with STS9) and a strong local following at home in Athens have helped get the Word out, so to speak. The band has been lucky enough to blaze into some town’s virtually unannounced and unknown and still play for a healthy and receptive audience. "Sometimes it just takes one person, but regardless we try to stay patient and we realize that money is secondary," said band manager Roger Levine of their touring good fortune. When armed with a repertoire of positive anthems encouraging activism and social awareness, it’s easy to make friends. The band is looking forward to the weekend in Union Grove, "It’s grassroots, it’s about establishing a connection with listeners- like our music," Woolley offered. The band plays an early morning set Saturday at SmileFest that promises to be more inspirational than espresso, and set the tone for the day— with a smile of course.
At first I thought the late day slot Lotus was dealt by SmileFest was less than ideal. Philadelphia’s ambient orchestra plays easily digested and danceable electronica- what I felt to be, after dark’ music. After a recent road trip through the rural Georgia hills I think they’ll fit in fine with a daylight landscape. Bassist Jesse Miller was comfortable playing under the sun, saying, "I think as far as the set-list goes, we’ll pick more upbeat tunes- the rock, and less trance…less dark and ambient songs." Through relentless touring and a solid debut, Germination (released by Harmonized Records in 2003), Lotus can count itself comfortably in the company of better-known contemporaries like STS9, Brother’s Past, and Tortoise. The band plays wonderful music without words. As for the naysayer that might argue that lyric-less music will always be missing something, Miller argues, "Instrumental music has always been very powerful- across all cultural boundaries- sometimes it carries more power than songs with lyrics." Jesse and guitarist Luke Miller (his twin brother) both attended Goshen College in Indiana and studied music- composition and theory. It’s evident, yet subtly so. The album, and live sets surge with an intelligent and organic vibe— not with a painstakingly electro-precise and pretentious emotion that many classically trained groups convey. What’s been called mood music for the new millennium has a new kid in town that feels right at home in a festival setting (as they’ll hit the circuit hard this summer), regardless of day or late night time sets. As it stands they’ll take bloom on the Home Grown stage at 4:30 on Saturday.
The selfish part of me wants SmileFest to remain one of the better-kept secrets in my southern neck of the woods, but with coordinators that understand what makes a weekend experience worthwhile, it seems likely that the attendance numbers will continue to multiply. From the less than two hundred folks that made it the first year, to the nearly 4000 that showed up last year, it’s obvious the good word is spreading. Thankfully, SmileFest isn’t using obnoxious billboards and Madison Avenue marketing Guru’s to further their cause. This is truly a word-of-mouth gathering that encompasses all of the positive aspects of the community it serves, and thats why it will continue to thrive and prosper. For those of you that thought you’d made it through a preview that failed to plead for people to leave the canines at home, remind you about bringing sunscreen and being safe and subtle with regards to contraband, sorry. Have a good weekend.