Arriving at the festival around 11am the following morning—and popping the tab of that first cold brew around 11am—my photographer Dustin Brown and I set up camp and got mentally prepared for the weekend that was in store. I couldn’t believe how perfect the weather was: 70 degrees and sunny.
The first show of the weekend was Greensky Bluegrass out of Michigan. I had seen Greensky a few times before, and I swear every time I see them they are twice as good as the last time I saw them. It’s hard to write into a sentence the words that I associate with this band, so I’m just going to list them: uplifiting, atmospheric, explosive, goddamn. They did a great a job of setting the tone of the whole festival for me, and brought out the closet Springsteen fan in me when they did a beautiful rendition of “Atlantic City.” From there, it was a quick trip back to the campsite for a beer or two, then onto newgrass staples Hot Buttered Rum with ex-Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral. They put on another great, high-energy show. I had never listened to much HBR before, but I could tell that Allie Kral was a welcomed addition, both by the band and the fans. From then on, it was onto the late night festivities.
Now I have seen Les Claypool play with a number of different bands: two times billed as just Les Claypool and twice again with Primus. I had never seen Claypool like I did last Thursday, as the Duo de Twang. Claypool played an acoustic, resonator bass alongside the other half of the duo, Bryan Kehoe, on resonator guitar. The music that came from the stage was I guess what you would expect from a stripped-down, acoustic Les Claypool set—because you can’t really expect anything. The two on stage swapped stories around a fake campfire in between the songs they played, which included an old Primus favorite “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”, BeeGee’s cover “Stayin’ Alive”, and some guttural noises that probably don’t have a name. Yonder Mountain String Band, or the Yonder Mountaineers as Les Claypool referred to them, made an appearance on stage for the familiar tune-turned-jam “Dueling Banjos” (made famous by the movie Deliverance). From then on it was on to the Harvest Tent for the full Yonder Mountain String Band set.
Yonder Mountain String Band. Late night. In the tent. Fucking killer. Yonder came out to prove why they are the ones hosting this festival. Getting in many of the crowd (and some of my) favorites right in the beginning , they came out strong with “No Expectations”, “All The Time”, “What The Night Brings”, amongst others. About midway through the show, Anders Beck, dobro player from Greensky Bluegrass, sat in for the remainder of the set. Anders did a beautiful job providing those long, sustained sounds that Yonder looks for when they play with guest musicians. With Anders, we got a great “Kentucky Mandolin” and a “Traffic Jam > Fine Excuses > Traffic Jam” sandwich. The “Half Moon Rising” in the encore had the whole tent singing along, and ending the Thursday night.
Harvest woke up Friday to another beautiful morning, just a little more brisk than the day before. I was able to get my head straight from the night before just in time for Dirtfoot. Dirtfoot is one of those bands that I will be sure to catch at every Harvest Festival I go to (I was disappointed that their only late night set was during Yonder’s set the night before). They are just an embodiment of raw, crude energy that gets everybody flailing their arms around and bumping into one another, even at 2 in the afternoon. After Dirtfoot, Dustin and I headed up to the Barn for the press conference that day. I guess I hadn’t mentioned it before this, but we had never done anything with the media before this festival, and sitting in on the press conferences was some of the highlights of the festival for me. There were no questions or answers that stood out in particular, it was cool just watching the bands at the conference (that day was Tedeschi-Trucks, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Turnpike Troubadours) converse and talk about their influences, concerns, etc.
When we got out of the press conference, I noticed two things: 1) the temperature had dropped and 2) it was raining. This was bringing back bad flashbacks of last year’s Harvest Festival. The forecast didn’t predict rain, so I thought it would definitely blow over (it didn’t). Luckily, none of the music was cancelled. The next band I made it to that day was Head for the Hills. They had completely flown under my radar up until that point. It was like if Rush suddenly decided they were going to start playing on the bluegrass circuit. Face-melting. All of the members can play, but I remember specifically the guy on electric mandolin, Michael Chappell. Sounds like an electric guitar, rips like a mandolin. After Head for the Hills, it was already time to make it to the main stage for YMSB. Yonder played another great set, coming onstage with an unfinished “Peace of Mind” into “Boatman.” It could have been the light rain on the mountain, maybe the people, maybe the whiskey, maybe other things, but one of the highlights for the entire weekend was when Yonder played a jaw-droppingly beautiful cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” about halfway through the set. Jeff Austin sang the verses, while the chorus was comprised of the four part harmony of the band. From there, the band kept the energy up with songs like “Rag Doll” and “Damned if the Right One Didn’t Go Wrong”, a “Girlfriend is Better” cover, then wrapped the whole thing up finishing “Peace of Mind”. We still had a long night ahead of us from there too.
Tedeschi-Trucks Band provided a much-welcomed electric blues sound to the festival. The band, knowing their festival-crowd, opted for heavy, mind-numbing, and at times dissonant jams several times throughout the set, provided mostly by Derek Trucks. Susan Tedeschi’s sultry voice had the whole audience begging for more, and she was able to show off her soloing skills as well several times throughout. Railroad Earth provided the first late night set in the tent that night, and kept the energy up for the crowd that decided it wasn’t too cold and/or wet. I mentioned earlier that Greensky gets better every time I see them, and the set they played after Railroad Earth is no exception. They were on fire. Paul Hoffman on mandolin and Michael Bont on banjo really showed up to play, showing they deserve to be brought up in any conversation about great pickers. I’m saying it here now—Greensky Bluegrass will have a festival of their own in the next few years, and I can’t fucking wait.
After shivering my ass off most of the night, waking up to the warm sunshine on Saturday brought to mind the Dead cover from the night before. It was another beautiful day on the mountain like Thursday; Friday was a literal freak of nature. I got up that morning and headed down to the Backwoods Stage to get some free breakfast at Chompdown. When I got there, Dirtfoot was playing another set—score! Before the press conference that day, I was very lucky to be able to catch the self-described "transcendental folk" of Elephant Revival at the main stage, and the two workshops the members of YMSB did that weekend. I was a little upset that I was going to miss Steep Canyon Rangers, but excited for today’s press conference with Railroad Earth, Elephant Revival, Beats Antique, Matt Butler and Al Schnier (moe.) for Everyone Orchestra, and the Yonder Mountaineers themselves. Dustin and I made the trek back up to the barn (we really should have just payed the two dollars for the Festicab). Again, I really enjoyed just listening to the artists converse with one another and getting the opportunity to know them a little more as people rather than just performers, even though Yonder had to leave before I could ask my question about each member’s multi-instrumental-ism.
After the press conference, Dustin and I went to go watch Gangstagrass, since he was going to interview them after the show. Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of rap/hip-hop. That said, Gangstagrass puts on one hell of a show and can play their asses off. Their dynamic bluegrass/hip-hop hybrid brought a huge crowd to the tent, and made a fan out of a skeptic. I went back to the campsite after Gangstagrass to rest for a little bit, since I knew I had another long night ahead.
For a lot of people seeing a band once at a festival, out of the two or three sets they play, is enough. And don’t get me wrong, I love branching out and seeing new bands too. But it’s too hard at Harvest. I HAD to see Railroad Earth again after the night before, and Saturday night blew me away even more. RRE had the whole crowd dancing by the end of the show, and closed appropriately with “(Smilin’) Like a Buddha.” The first time I did not go back to my campsite to grab (and chug) a few beers in between the shows the whole weekend was in between the RRE and Yonder sets on Saturday. Me and my buddies were riding the rail for this one. This was Saturday night Yonder--the do-over for the 1500th show we were supposed to get last year at Harvest. We got two incredible sets from the festival’s namesake, with Tim Carbone (violin) and Andy Goessling (guitar and saxophone), both from Railroad Earth, joining them at the end of the first set for “Raleigh and Spencer” and “Two Hits.” They came out strong in the second set with the face-paced “Ramblin In The Rambler” and just kept building the energy from there.
Immediately after Yonder ended, Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra started in the Harvest Tent. If you ever get the chance to catch an EO, do it. It’s really one of the coolest projects out there right now. Matt Butler acts as the conductor of a group of musicians, with this one featuring members of Elephant Revival, Railroad Earth, Al Schnier of moe., and Jeff Austin of YMSB. All of the music created onstage is completely improvised, with the band being directed by cues and words on a whiteboard by Butler. Butler makes a conscious effort to include the audience in the improvisation, making the show more of a communal experiment/experience than a performance. The weekend was catching up to me and I could barely stand by the end of it, so I missed Andy Frasco. Oh well, another place, another time.
That was it, the next morning we packed up and went home. I left my sanity on the mountain, guess I’ll look for it when I get up there again next year. But I have nice bruise on my forearm from banging on that rail as a souvenir.
Words: Brennan Powers
Photos: Dustin Brown & Neil Ferguson of The Horn
©Grateful Music LLC