Before this weekend, I had never eaten a Veggie Thing. I’m happy to say that I am now among those that have been to Shakori Hills Grassroots Music and Dance Festival and tasted that wonderful bounty from the Sugar Shack. But there was much more to see and do than just eat delicious overpriced food. One of the surprises of Shakori Hills is the variety it offers in terms of musical genres, from bluegrass (of course) to Cajun and Zydeco to West African Groove, and the fun didn’t stop there. I learned a Cajun two-step (quick, quick, slooow) at one of the numerous dance workshops, all of which featured live music and were a sure cure for sore-bum-from-sitting-too-much syndrome.
The festival began for me on Friday around noon with a performance by Didgeridoo, a multi-faceted group featuring several UNC students including Andrew Magill, Erika Littman, and Liz Ross of Lafcadio.
Their set was eclectic to say the least, with a myriad of different drums and percussion mixed in with banjo, six-string guitar, and even singing saw, courtesy of Ms. Ross. Erika Littman even sang a traditional Irish ballad unaccompanied after Andrew Magill’s Ghanaian inspired rhythmic dance chant. Didgeridoo played with reckless abandon and certainly won over many fans with their diverse and talented musical exploration.
After pitching a tent (har!), I strolled through the festival grounds, located on the site of a farm in Silk Hope, NC, only 17 Miles from Chapel Hill as the crow flies. I found myself at the Dance Tent, in the midst of a swathe of enthusiastic fans of a local phenomenon known as Holy Ghost Tent Revival. A rollicking seven piece acoustic group hailing from Greensboro, NC where they formed in college, their uproarious music conjures images of 19th century riverboat dances and Dixieland hootenannies, full of triumphant banjo strumming and enough screamy vocals to equal any self-respecting punk band. These guys nearly brought the house down, literally, as every one of the hundreds of onlookers couldn’t help but jump and jive for over an hour non-stop.
Above all this festival was about discovery for me, and that was made most clear by the next group I saw, called Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers. The Oklahoma based group played to a somewhat placid cluster of onlookers but I was blown away by the powerful throaty vocals coming out of this slight woman with raven black hair. Backed up by a traditional guitar-bass-drum trio, she crooned out song after song displaying an unbelievable set of influences ranging from Radiohead to Cat Power to Mazzy Star. I would best describe it as alt-country/singer-songwriter in genre, but her live show really is beyond words. Poignant lyrics washed over me in waves while next to her the lead guitarist made brilliant use of a simple reverb peddle to create some of the most mournful and simple solos I have ever heard. I’m officially on the Samantha Crain bandwagon, look for me walking around campus with her t-shirt on, its got a skunkallo on it (buffalo that’s drawn like a skunk). Also please check out her record, it’s called The Confiscation, and although only a 5 song ep, it is a great introduction to her sound, albeit no replacement for the live act, and you’ll be glad you got a hold of her music.
I finished off the night by salsa dancing to Puerto Rican favorites Plena Libre and then crazy white-boy flailing to the awesome twang and pop of the kora and ngoni from the West African inspired Asheville group Toubab Krewe, who put on as good a show as ever, bursting with energy and life.
The next morning, after a great night’s sleep in the crowded woods, I made my way to the main stage for a unique performance by a group called the Belleville Outfit, an old-timey ragtime band from Austin, Texas whose sound harks back to the prohibition era swing clubs and men dancing in ridiculously nice suits and shiny shoes. I was also lucky enough to witness a part of western North Carolina’s Appalachian culture, namely Clogging, courtesy of the Apple Chill Cloggers, who performed complicated routines tirelessly.
UNC senior Caleb Rudow and UNC alum David Hamilton tapped their toes and clicked their heels with the best of them and, might I add, looked smashing in their suspenders.
Next it was time for a crash course in slam poetry, courtesy of an immensely talented UNC student. After twenty-odd poets performed in the slam poetry competition, I was lucky enough to hear Kane Smego, an award-winning poet and UNC student who was also last year’s poetry slam champion.
Kane proved why he is one of the most exciting and talented artists in the country by magnificently delivering a piece, entitled “X Chromosome”, dealing with patriarchy and rediscovering the connection to ones feminine side, beginning with the emphatic verse “I pledge allegiance to my X chromosome”. His poetry was a treat to hear as always, he is one of the most gifted writers I have ever heard, instantly conjuring up memories of Saul Williams with his smooth style and unassuming air. If you graduate without having heard him spit his magic, you’ve truly missed out on a UNC treasure.
From there it was a whirlwind of musical giants and raucous dance music, beginning with Del McCoury, arguably the elder statesman of bluegrass music. A Grammy winner From Nashville, Tennessee, but born in Bakersville, NC, and marking his 50th year making music, McCoury has not lost his style or his spirit, playing a fantastic set completely comprised of requests and suggestions yelled from the crowd.
He was good natured about forgetting the lines to an old favorite, “Moneyland”, sneaking offstage to his guitar case and returning to deafening applause after relearning his own song. He played such classics as “Vincent” and “Lights Coming Over the Hill” and exceeded all my lofty expectations.
Then it was back to the Dance Tent for local favorites the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose banjo-fiddle music rips through audiences with its sheer velocity and virtuosity. They are an anomaly in this day and age; drawing heavily from traditional Piedmont musical heritage to craft their upbeat string-band sound, “Cornbread and Butterbeans” is a particularly infectious heel-kicker.
The end of my night was Donna the Buffalo, an American Festival institution, a band that is socially conscious and yet completely danceable. They actually started the Grassroots Festival 18 years ago outside of Ithaca, NY in order to raise money for local charities and showcase the sounds of talented musicians. Now, years later, they are still going strong with their singular brand of zydeco-boogie-roots rock, and in my opinion its never sounded better. Their memorable and inspirational songs are lyrically accessible and yet display their considerable musical talent.
Alls well that ends well, and although some bad apples stole half our food and an empty cooler from us, my Shakori experience was never dampened by rain clouds or low spirits. I thoroughly enjoyed every performance I saw, and was fortunate to learn as well as observe. The atmosphere at Shakori Hills is relaxed and while it continues to grow in size in its 6th year, welcoming roughly 7500 music lovers on Saturday alone, it is far from discovered, rather it remains a gem tucked away near Pittsboro, NC, just waiting for you to unearth it and be a part of its magic.