Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival, held last Thursday through Saturday (Oct. 16-18) at Mulberry Mountain Ranch, where Wakarusa is also held in the summer, served up three days and nights of almost non-stop live music on four stages amid some of the best festival weather there in recent memory.
Not a drop of rain fell all weekend — a miracle to anyone who’s been to an event like this at Mulberry Mountain, which is just a few miles north of Cass and Turner Bend on Arkansas Highway 23, a.k.a. the Pig Trail.
Instead of the typically gray and nasty weather that has seemed to strike every festival at Mulberry Mountain for the past five years, the skies were sunny all day every day, and the nights were clear and crisply cool — dipping down into the 40s at times just before sunrise.
Though Harvest Festival tickets are limited in number — in past years, organizers have said they would sell no more than 7,500, to keep the festival small and the music experiences more intimate — the event did not appear to come near its maximum capacity this year, with perhaps 4,500 in attendance at its peak on Saturday.
But for those who did show up, everything was just right for a great weekend of live music and camping in the beautiful Ozarks. Here are some of the highlights:
The festival kicked off with performances by Fayetteville-based Arkansauce followed by Fort Smith-based Tyrannosaurus Chicken, both held in the Harvest Tent amid a crowd of enthusiastic festival-goers ready to get the weekend rolling.
Then Mountain Sprout, from Eureka Springs, kicked off the day of music on the Main Stage early in the afternoon. Playing many of their standard favorites, the group also threw in material from their new album, “Long Time Coming,” closing out their warmly received hourlong set with the record’s title track.
Since last year’s Harvest performance, Mountain Sprout has a new fiddler, and he’s had almost a full year to get into the band’s groove — and it was clear Thursday afternoon he has done so and more. Michael Schembre had huge shoes to fill taking over for founding member and Sprout fiddler Blayne Thiebaud, but he is clearly the right man for the job, and as he has grown into the role over the past year, he’s likewise grown more confident and more animated — and more fun to watch. I dare say he was one of the most talented fiddlers on hand last weekend at Harvest Festival — and there were a lot of them fiddling around.
Back at the Harvest Tent right around dinnertime, Kansas City-based Samantha Fish made her Mulberry Mountain debut. The smokin’-hot Fish has been on a major roll ever since she teamed up with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde on “Girls with Guitars” of 2011, and – fueled by a tour of Europe and the states, Fish has earned quite the international buzz in the blues world. Later that same year her New Ruf Records solo debut, “Runaway,” earned much critical acclaim, with its mix of gutsy riff-blues rockers and the mellow small-hours jazz sounds.
More recently, Fish joined label-mate Devon Allman for a sultry duet of the Tom Petty classic, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” that appeared on Devon’s “Turquoise” CD and accompanying video; now Fish is touring in support of her newest release, “Black Wind Howlin.’”
With original songs that aren’t always super-impressive but are never boring either, Fish’s strength lies in her performance abilities. Her songwriting rests soundly in the groove of the Rolling Stones yet tips a hat to many, even to the likes of Heart; but Fish’s guitar-playing will make you wonder if the folks who believe in reincarnation are indeed, perhaps, onto something – because if Stevie Ray Vaughan were ever reincarnated as a female, you’d have Samantha Fish. If you have a chance to catch one of her shows, we recommend you do so.
Fish used her hour-and-a-half debut on the Mountain wisely, summoning a consistently dark, gritty, back-alley-knife-fight kind of blues as she repeatedly prompted her guitar to wail — howl, even — right on target. It was indeed a howling black wind of the blues that blew through the Harvest Tent early Thursday evening.
Thursday night’s Main Stage headliner was an enormous treat: Trampled By Turtles from Duluth, Minnesota. The band does not even come near the Natural State very often – though they have performed in Arkansas a few times, including helping inaugurate the new location of Juanita’s when it moved to the River Market a few years ago. (They sold out Juanita’s not long after it had re-opened, and then put on a helluva performance before a sweaty, overcrowded and understaffed room full of blown-away fans. It. Was. Astounding.)
Though the progressive-bluegrass standouts of TBT have not always astounded me with their post-punk energy and speed, they certainly are capable of doing so when they’re in the mood. Thankfully, they were in the mood to seriously light the Main Stage on fire at Harvest Festival. From the outset, nearly every song was played at lightning speed, and even a few of their “calmer” hit tracks that typically are not played so fast (“Victory”) seemed to fly more than usual. The crowd, me included, ate it up as the fiddle and banjo, in particular, soared at such speeds. (The acoustic guitarist showed off some pretty fancy fingerwork as well, even at blazing paces.)
Later Thursday evening (actually it was Friday morning, 12:30 a.m. till 2 a.m.), festival hosts Yonder Mountain String Band performed in the Harvest Tent; they’ve been touring all summer with Allie Kral (Cornmeal) on fiddle and Jake Jolliff on mandolin, since the spring departure of founding member, mandolinist and vocalist Jeff Austin. Jolliff, a native of Newberg, Oregon, and a 2011 graduate of Berklee College of Music, was the 2012 winner of the prestigious National Mandolin Championship at the Walnut Valley (Kan.) Festival.
Just about everyone on hand for the show, it seemed, was eager — anxious, even, or at least the longtime YMSB fans were — to hear the new lineup, style and song selections, and see what the group would sound like now, and what covers they might pull out of their hat. YMSB has released nearly a dozen albums chock-full of great originals, but their hardcore fans are always also betting on some unusual and typically thrilling arrangements of other musicians’ big hits and B-sides, from the likes of The Beatles to the Allman Brothers, tucked in here and there, especially during their longer shows.
And: would they be performing their original tunes penned by Jeff Austin, or those that he always sang lead on? Would they do new stuff and let the guest members take the lead?
The answer: No, they are not doing Jeff Austin’s own songs. They have added a few strong new tunes, and still have probably close to 100 other tracks (their own as well as traditional bluegrass standards they’ve made their own) that Austin didn’t sing lead on and/or did not write himself. So there is still plenty of material for Yonder to choose from. And, as guitarist and founding member Adam Aijala pointed out in an interview a few months ago published in a Georgia newspaper, the band has never vowed not to do Austin’s songs. They are just steering other directions for now.
Lead vocals are now being shared by longtime co-lead-vocalist Aijala and banjo player Dave Johnston, as well as a few tracks sung primarily by the new mandolinist Jolliff, whose voice is probably the strongest in the group, at least as far as consistency, tone and accuracy go. Is he as sure of himself on the songs as the three remaining YMSB founders? No. But he has a ton of promise and raw talent, in my opinion.
Allie Kral also sings frequently — though mostly backup vocals. Nevertheless, the additions of a female vocalist and a fiddle are the best thing Yonder could have possibly done for themselves after well over a dozen strong years as the original four-piece. Talk about a fresh new sound for an old favorite! Not to mention that Kral came out swinging on the first night of her Harvest Festival debut as a guest member of YMSB, with a kickin’ rendition of “Jolene” Thursday that the band totally rocked out on by all accounts.
Other special treats worthy of a mention from Thursday night’s set were the band’s take of “White Freightliner,” and the closing medley of “Northern Song” with “Sidewalk Stars” off the band’s self-titled album.
Although I was not fully convinced about the new lineup until I’d heard more — and many fans I have seen discussing it online since were equally as hesitant to accept the new Yonder with open arms — as it turns out, the Summer/Fall 2014 version of YMSB is definitely worth catching, no matter the venue. Especially if you enjoyed the old version, but, like me, sometimes found yourself a little bored with the often-wandering instrumental jamming between songs, or a little disappointed in the vocals.
There seems to be a new core of energy to this band, and a renewed focus. The next two nights’ performances — and the group’s surprise, late-night acoustic set standing around in front of the Backwoods Stage, and their first-ever Harvest Festival Coffee Hour set the next morning — would prove both to be absolutely true.
After an energetic set by Dirtfoot kicked off Friday’s music on the Main Stage, wildman Andy Frasco and his band, the U.N., brought the party atmosphere up several notches of crazy with 75 minutes of raucousness and rowdy rock and roll, complete with his infamous crowd-surfing (this time he crowd-surfed several dozen yards to get to a jar of Arkansas moonshine being held up for him in the audience). Frasco is based in Los Angeles but considers Northwest Arkansas his much-loved second home — and if he had to give a second home address, he’d very likely say Mulberry Mountain, given his affinity for the place and events held there, and his obvious and close-knit connection with the fans that frequent there.
No, they just can’t get enough of Frasco at Mulberry Mountain. And that’s OK. His songs are either fun, party-rock classics everyone knows or they are uptempo, bursting-with-energy live versions of his own sunny-pop and upbeat blues-rock originals. And you have to love his energy and enthusiasm. Even if you are wholly unimpressed with his music, you will find yourself smiling and laughing along with Andy Frasco during his performances, and cheering him on afterward as he tours the globe nearly year-round nowadays.
(It’s especially easy to root for him if you keep up with any of his diary-like updates on Facebook; they’re heartfelt glimpses into the life of a rock-and-roll wanderer, a semi-lost soul on a public path to finding its own depth and strength. His journey, at times, is gripping to follow, and it is almost always encouraging to those of us struggling with everyday life and all our societal issues and hang-ups.)
Friday afternoon was filled with fabulous sets from Elephant Revival, Split Lip Rayfield (the Main Stage dinnertime audience demanded an encore from this popular progressive punk-grass group from Wichita, Kansas), and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which has a new lineup that isn’t quite as powerful as the original but still packs a big punch.
My favorite never-heard-of-them-till-now performances of the weekend both occurred Friday: Paper Bird, with three talented female vocalists who did sound a little like birds singing in perfect harmony, and Old Salt Union, a five-man newgrass group from Belleville, Illinois, that stretches the traditional sounds of bluegrass with some pop-like catchy hooks, but still manages to stay true to their roots.
On Friday night, Yonder turned up the heat on a beautiful but very chilly fall mountain evening with a 150-minute set beginning at 10 p.m. on the Main Stage. Two songs in, Kral once again stunned the YMSB fans on hand with a powerful cover of “You’re No Good,” and the evening contained some old Yonder favorites (“Honesty” and “Criminal”) as well as some newer material. The concert closed with an almost-half-hour jam including “On The Run,” “Black Sheep,” “Look Out For Hope,” and back into the final chorus of “On The Run.”
Later Friday night (or rather later in the wee hours of Saturday morning), the group surprised fans leaving a closed-for-the-night Backwoods Stage by popping up in the front of the audience with their instruments and playing an unscheduled acoustic set. “We had so much fun playing our Main Stage set last night, that we kept it going in the campgrounds!” the band posted Saturday morning on its Facebook page, along with some photos of the impromptu set and the bigger stage show as well. “Is it too early to say that this is the best Harvest Festival yet?” (The band’s Facebook fans answer: No, it was not too early…)
Saturday’s music began with the Shook Twins taking the Main Stage fans by surprise — and they were trickling in from the surrounding wooded campgrounds throughout the set, as though drawn by the siren’s song, understandable given the outstanding vocals from the group — and then with a roundly average set from Honey Island Swamp Band of New Orleans at the Harvest Tent.
Usually, the bands who play at Mulberry Mountain exceed fans’ expectations that are built through listening to their recorded material beforehand. This was not the case with Honey Island Swamp Band, I’m sad to say. After listening to a couple of songs off their albums, I was expecting the large, full sound of this four-piece swamp-blues-rock group to blow me away in person. It didn’t. It was pretty disappointing, but it primarily suffered from being boring and formulaic — not from any lack of abilities on the members’ parts.
While the more traditional bluegrass sounds of The Steel Wheels filled the air in the field by Main Stage, we wandered over to Backwoods Stage for Ha Ha Tonka, a band I saw play at Stickyz in 2011-12 that, as I recalled, had just about blown the roof off the joint. They weren’t quite as powerfully loud in the outdoor setting, but proved themselves just as talented if not more so after nearly three more years of development as a group.
After a rendition of an older tune — “Old Bill Jones,” dedicated to a fan named Bill who was celebrating his birthday — Ha Ha Tonka broke out a mandolin-heavy original that, with this combination of pop-rock instrumentation, made me think of “Climb To Safety,” the version on Widespread Panic’s “Wood” album. Ha Ha Tonka is kind of the sunny, 22-year-old’s indie-pop version of Wilco, with a little bit of the Counting Crows — or even a lil’ early Goo Goo Dolls — thrown in. And the Missouri group’s original tracks are as well-written and performed as some of the better releases from the likes of international pop-rock sensation Parachute.
The Devil Makes Three performed an impressive hourlong set on the Main Stage, despite some self-described nerves on the part of the band’s frontman/vocalist/guitarist Pete Barnhard — who was playing his new resonator guitar with a slide at very high speeds, in between strumming the lead acoustic guitar chords. He explained with an embarrassed laugh that Jerry Douglas had been sitting up front earlier, but he’d wandered off, so Pete said he felt better about playing his new resonator “with Jerry not watching anymore.” What a charming peek into a musician’s head, I thought. These are, indeed, real people up on stage!
A little later, New Jersey progressive jam-grassers Railroad Earth threw down the gauntlet for the festival’s final evening, with a fired-up 90-minute concert on the Main Stage just before Yonder’s headlining performance. It included inspired renditions of my personal RRE favorites “Chasin’ A Rainbow,” “Saddle of The Sun,” and “Bird in the House,” the latter of which included a guest performance on mandolin of Thomas Kingsley, the winner of the Harvest Festival Annual Pickin’ Contest earlier in the weekend.
Next up on Main Stage was Yonder. Tim Carbone, Railroad Earth’s fine fiddler, joined Yonder Saturday night on the Main Stage for a handful of songs toward the end of Set One. World-renowned resonator/lap steel player Jerry Douglas also guest performed, for almost the entire evening. (He was there with his own band for an afternoon set in the Harvest Tent earlier that day.)
The evening would see a number of new songs and rarely performed covers, such as a beautiful rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” on which Kral handled lead vocals — and did so very well, I might add, with just a touch of breathiness beneath her strong falsetto that let you know that she, too, was feeling the magic of the song that night underneath the Mulberry Mountain moonlight.
Indeed, the entire weekend was magical, thanks to perfect weather and the most diverse lineup of bands Harvest Festival has ever had. It’ll be hard to repeat it next year, but I have no doubt that hosts Yonder Mountain String Band and the organizers at Pipeline will do their very best.