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Monday, October 22

Review: Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival - Oct 11th-13th, 2012 - Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Arkansas

Photo: Grav Welton
Harvest Festival is Yonder Mountain’s annual music celebration held every Fall in the aesthetic confines of Mulberry Mountain.  It always bolsters an engrossing line-up and this year was no exception.  Past festivals have delivered the perfect ambiance to soak up the extraordinary sounds reigning from all directions.  This year, although suffering from a few hiccups, still rendered a tremendous experience. The biggest problem, ironically being Mother Nature herself who usually paints this event in the best light, instead reared her frightful side in the form of severe thunderstorms.  A massive front moved in Saturday night and cancelled Y.M.S.B.’s 1500th show just four songs in, which essentially ended the festivities.  This year’s vibe also at times resembled a county fair more than the musical paradise of years past.  Despite these observations, it was still a remarkable weekend on the mountain with sublime music.
Every day’s schedule was packed full of talent on all four stages.  One could literally wonder around with no certain destination and phenomenal music awaited at every turn.  Thursday was no different, as each unique stage hosted an array of gifted acts.  The first day got serious with Dumpstaphunk’s inspiring set on the main stage.  The New Orleans funk was a nice change of pace from all the insane picking that took place all afternoon.  The show had the masses dancing while the sun took shelter behind the awe-inspiring mountains.  Ivan Neville and company also delivered a festival highlight in the form of their brilliant cover of David Bowie’s, “Fame”.  The Punch Brothers followed and displayed their progressive bluegrass to the delight of many.  Rushing over to squeeze in some of the iconic, Larry Keel, was well worth the sprint, as his mesmerizing fingers did not disappoint.  Soon, it was time for the masters’ of the ceremonies nightly headline show and the majority of fans gathered around the main stage.  The hosts did not disappoint on the inaugural night, offering a two-hour set full of vigor.  Darol Anger joined the band for the entirety of both performances on the fiddle, while other coveted musicians sat in often.  Jeff Austen returned this gesture and then some, as he sat in seemingly with every act over the weekend.  It would in fact be news if he did not sit in with a band, as his welcomed chops made appearances frequently.  If he wasn't so talented, it would have been comical.  He even took part in the surprise of the day, which transpired in the form of Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra.  The genius conductor took a stage full of bluegrass artists and produced a psychedelic roller-coaster   He easily turned in the most impressive performance of the day with the help of a stage full of musicians that transformed his spontaneous suggestions into pure bliss with no genre left unexplored.  It was an ideal way to end the first helping of music.  Most called it a night, while others skipped on to the next stage, as the music would beckon the sun, this and the night after.
On Saturday, most awoke to the dreaded sounds of raindrops on the roof of their respective habitats.  The steady shower was relentless and lasted all afternoon.  It did not cancel any music, but it sure made a complete mess of the grounds.  Unfortunately, the footing stayed a sloppy mess for the remainder of the festival.  This did little to damper spirits, as the weather was expected and most planned accordingly.  Jay Nash kicked off the second day by taking advantage of the only stage with a roof.  He entertained a surprisingly large turnout with his authentic one-man show.  Luces Nelson had the faithful dancing in the rain with his refreshing band, while most took shelter and got primed for an epic night of music.
The rain stopped, therefore everyone pressed on towards the main stage with extra pep in their step to see the legend, Sam Bush.  He showcased his insane mandolin picking abilities by performing a catalog of the songs ranging the span of his lustrous career.  It was an ideal way to soak up the rainy blues before things got weird.
Mickey Hart was slated to play next and the crowd got adequately prepared while his elaborate stage was being assembled.  His band beyond description was on the verge of delivering a spiritual two hour experience and putting its stamp on the festival.  
Still on the road supporting his celebrated release, Mysterium Tremendum, Mickey’s astounding set was like a shot of cocaine that rushed over this mainly bluegrass festival.  This was the first time I had seen them since Tim Hockenberry was replaced with the versatile, Joe Bagale.  This switch took a dangerously good band and transformed them into legendary.  They had the crowd captivated with the first note, turning the muddy grounds into a dance floor.  The soulful singer Crystal Monee Hall’s voice pierced your soul while the band played an ideal mix of new songs and Grateful Dead classics.  The rhythm section including Dave Schools of W.S.P. was awe-inspiring, while lead guitarist Gawain Mathews shined all evening.  Mickey is certainty going further with his current band and their bravura performance was easily a defining set.
Y.M.S.B. had the daunting task of following the fire on the mountain, with their nightly headlining set. In years past this would not be a difficult task, after all, the festival has their name on it.  But for reasons unknown, this particular weekend was a celebration of all the acts, with less emphasis placed on Yonder.  Nonetheless they turned in an impressive set, perhaps holding back the fireworks for the milestone show that unfortunately never materialized.  The rest of the evening was Harvest Fest at its best. Leftover Salmon kept the party going with a welcomed show, reminding everyone that they are the pioneers of the sound this festival prides itself on. Cornmeal followed with a stage full of special guests and raged until the sun rose.
Thanks to Slip Lip Rayford and Moonalice, Saturday got off to a crackling start, musically.  But as the skies grew angrier by the hour and the forecast calling for the end of the world, the mood of the crowd was becoming deflated.  The storms stayed at bay, allowing the North Mississippi All-Stars to shine.  Luther and Cody Dickinson, with new bass player Lightin’Malcom (who is an outstanding guitar player and performed earlier in the festival as such) put on a musical showcase.  
They are easily one of the more diverse bands on the scene and certainly gained some new fans by displaying their musical prowess.  Each member is a virtuoso on any instrument, as they practically played them all during their epic set.  Leftover Salmon followed on the main stage bringing their constant liveliness.  Even with a revolving cast of special guests, it seemed to lack the energy from the midnight set just sixteen hours earlier.
It was becoming painfully obvious that the crowning set of the weekend was not meant to be, as warnings about the incoming storm came across the P.A. like nails on a chalkboard.  Yonder’s 1500th show was also their shortest.  After only four songs we were told to take cover in our cars and pray.  Five hours of marinating in the comfort of my vehicle and witnessing the 60 mph wind gusts acquire my tent, we were convinced to begin our mildewed journey home.  It was reported that Wookiefoot played the Harvest tent later that morning; however, it’s safe to say the festival certainly ended on a sour note for most.
Even with this year’s hardships, it was still a supernatural weekend.  This particular festival, collaborations are the norm, not the exception, and the musicians have as much fun has the fans.  It is nothing short of musical paradise.  It’s the only spot on earth where a life-sized puppet of Hunter. S Thompson dances to bluegrass at night, and you can discover the wonders of nature by day.  This mystical mountain boasts activities galore, including stunning nature hikes, fishing and a full Frisbee golf course.  I implore you to go spend a little time on the mountain next year, for it is one of the last true musical secrets left.
Words: Kevin Long
Photos: Ellis Jones IV and Jake Kreulen

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