Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival

…aka Harvest Fest, because that whole YMSB thing is sort of annoying to say…

A couple of weeks ago, I covered Wakarusa’s sister festival, a smaller (about 7,000 people daily, as opposed to 24,000), more mellow affair on Mulberry Mountain, near Ozark, Arkansas. I saw only bands I’d never seen, loved nearly every set, marveled at fire-dancers and thrill-seekers suspended in ariel silks (one missed loop before an unfurling free-fall and you’re dead), passed flasks around campfires and danced to music about pirates, the devil and Amelia Earheart. It was autumn in all of its dark abundance and much more my style than the blitzed-out, mud-covered zombie-walk of Waka.

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The Chocolate Drops were brilliant. They covered Odetta, Fats Waller and Blind Willie Johnson, per their mission to highlight the legacy of black America.

They talked about how slaves were the first Americans to play in string bands, and how what we think about as “old-time music” (the roots of bluegrass) came to white Americans through minstrelsy.

Hubby Jenkins played the blues because, he’s “a poor black kid from Bed-Stuy” who’s “whole life has been the blues,” but his family is from the south, and his grandparents would have stayed here, were it not for Jim Crow.

They covered Blu Cantrell, because they do “Hit ‘Em Up” more torturously-delish than anyone.

They covered Hank Williams and Pasty Cline because it was that kind of crowd.

Rhiannon Giddens sang in Gaelic, a big piece with ancient, ominous rhythms, and told us that in the 1700’s, the biggest Scottish diaspora was in North Carolina, which meant there were black Gaelic Speakers.

They made me dance and gape and weep and applaud. They melted my muscles and made a serpent of my spine.

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The Oh Hello’s are baroque folk-pop from Texas, where they do everything bigger. I think I counted 13 people on-stage, and the set-up looked like a music-store fire sale. Love how these guys use their bodies for percussion instruments. Love the punked-out banjo player who hurled up and down the stage, decimating his instrument, sometimes with a bow. Love that they have an accordion. Loved the stripped down version of the nearly 300-year-old hymn, “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing.”

I’ve heard them compared to Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, but to me, they’re more like Pearl and the Beard, except, times 10.

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Samantha Fish, a blues fatale from Kansas City, was our first set of the festival. She played a cigar-box guitar and peppered her originals with the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

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The Jayhawks had an easy rapport and an incredible set-list. Highlights included “Blue,” “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Big Star” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”  (Who needs Mark Olson, anyhow?)

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