Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, Dwight Yoakam, G. Love, and More McDowell Mountain Music Festival 3/30/14
I love music festivals for one simple reason: there are always surprises. And the final day of McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 on Sunday was filled with said surprises for the eyes and ears as I watched it unfold from the very beginning to the very end. Some acts I could rely on to please my ears and others I did not expect, nevertheless, I chose to cover Sunday at MMMF because of the sheer diversity of the day's lineup.
In turn, I was richly rewarded for my choice. I wasn't surprised by the light turnout at the start of the day, as it was 11:30 on a Sunday morning, after all. It was impressive that I was up at that hour, honestly, but as the day rolled on, the crowd grew stronger and increasingly larger and filled the field at Margaret T. Hance Park by the afternoon/
Since I like being in it for the long haul, was there early and one of the enticements was that The Wiley Ones were opening the festival on the main stage and they couldn't have been more deserving of that honor. I honestly can't think of a more joyful band to set start your day at a festival than The Wiley Ones.
Frankly, their music and the charitable work they do inspires me continuously and watching them on a festival stage performing so many of my favorite songs inspired me further. They opened with "Kill It With Love" and went through a stream of should-be singles such as "Shallow Water," "Sick of the Scene," and "Seize the Day."
Bassist Jay Nottingham gets the award for best sunglasses of the day, while Phelan Parker is distinguished by being the only DJ to scratch on the main stage all day. Josh Montag was totally in command of the drum kit and of course Sam Wiley was the ringmaster, spreading joy to all with his lyrics of positivity and perseverance, and in a rare treat his sister Cristiana joined them on stage. It was an excellent start.
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And then I got my first surprise of the day. I had never heard of West Water Outlaws in my life and I didn't check them out as I should have before the show. In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't do any research, because I wouldn't have been as absolutely floored by their performance as I was.
Hailing from Boulder, Colorado this blues drenched rock outfit had my rapt attention from the start of their set to the finish in no uncertain terms. They dip rock 'n' roll in the blues and electrocute it. Imaging if you through Jack White, The Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin, and Sam Cooke in a blender, the musical result would be this band. "Blame Yourself," "57", "Something Wrong," "The Goodbye Song," and "Feeling Come Back" were simply brilliant. Blake Rooker's vocal range and prowess was one of the best things I've seem all day and Will Buck's lap steel cannot escape mention.
In the end, I bought everything they had to see at the merch stand. Let it be said that I may have to take a road trip to Boulder to catch them again. I would love to see these guys on a bill with Mergence and Banana Gun to give everyone a run for their money.
I swear to God I wrote about the next main stage band, Donna the Buffalo, nearly 20 years ago and looking through teenage writings, I was right. Nevertheless, they presented the only jam band set of the day, and it was heavily steeped in a danceable upbeat groove.
There is no doubt that this crew from upstate New York exudes positivity in all things they do. As they played through their catalog it became apparent that vocalists Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, had very different compositions depending on the voice.
While Puryear's were more folk-laden and rang echoes of the Grateful Dead, Nevins were more pop influenced, more melodic, recalling a Fleetwood Mac vibe.
Regardless of who the vocalist was, my favorite songs featured either Nevins' mastery of the violin or her ability with the accordion. The compositions that invited a zydeco/Cajun feel were absolutely outstanding because they were in fact, literally, outstanding. There was no appropriation here, just a sheer enthusiasm in the diverse world of sound that is Americana. They kept me on a solid groove for quite some time.
Then it came time for the heavy hitters of the Sunday lineup to take the stage, and starting that run of magnificence was G. Love and Special Sauce.
They're another artist I hadn't written about or seen in decades and it was a refreshing treat to take the Wayback Machine and just chill out to some very familiar tunes from my youth. Looking through the other end of the telescope it's easy to see where so many artists took G. Love's special mix of soul, blues and hip-hop with catchy pop hooks.
It's been twenty years since their debut and nearly a decade since they performed together and I have to admit they were better than ever. Let's get some perspective, in the early '90s, Beck informed the rock world that they could incorporate rap elements into their songs with great efficacy, and G. Love always seemed to me to be the first hearty offspring and is still.
I love hearing the old stuff, especially "Cold Beverages," but there were two things I love best about the set. One was a cover of Cream's classic "Strange Brew" which was, to say the least, unexpected and completely mind blowing, and the other was a brand new song from their latest album that drops later this month.
I will tell you this much, it was the best song in the entire set. It takes what G. Love does best and then amplifies it, drenches it blues and wailing guitar and washes it with a sense of guts and grit. It was enough to make me excited for the new release of Sugar, that's for sure.
Surprise number two: I apparently love Dwight Yoakam. I know, right? I didn't see it coming either. Now, maybe it was because of the alt-country warm-up of the Tommy Ash Band on the local stage earlier in the day as they rode through an Americana-rich set of originals and covers that my mind set was right, but I did not expect my brain to react to his set so fondly.
I am not outwardly a fan of country music, or rather music that calls itself country, because of what it's become in recent years. I'm a fan of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and George Jones, apparently due to those exact influences I'm also a fan of Dwight Yoakam. I was riveted by his set.
Many hours on, I'm still not sure if his set wasn't the best of the day and I was taken aback at how he won the crowd over and kept them in his grasp. Hell, I felt honored just to attend the set alone. You see, this is how country should be; this is how it should sound, with that heartfelt lineage started with Hank Williams and handed on down, true country with a heavy hint of honky tonk and a steady dose of rock'n'roll to boot.
He opened with "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" and it exploded from there with covers of Elvis' "Little Sister" and a scorching version of "Suspicious Minds," Cash's "Ring of Fire", as well as The Beatles' "Act Naturally" in the mix. It was an amazing surprising set for me and he presented himself as a consummate professional. In the end, this may have been my favorite set of the entire event.
Closing the evening was the Grammy Award-winning duo of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. There was a reason I wanted to see the Sunday edition of MMMF and this was it. I took no notes. I know that sounds silly, but I was in this to just feel the music of that set and I was not wrong.
I didn't want to be distracted by writing down everything Ben said or catching song titles on this set, no, I wanted to feel it in my bones, in my heart and it was the final surprise.
Ben Harper has been one of my favorite solo performers for sometimes, but his collaborations throughout the years have proved to be even more powerful as though he is something of a human catalyst. So it is true of his collaboration with harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite. Hearing this team on Get Up! is one thing, but catching it live in an amphitheatre situation is an entire different ballgame.
There is something of a certain rooted earthiness that this duo belted out in the final act of this three day festival and everyone I saw was smiling or dancing or simply laying back and enjoying the waves of these precious blues wash over them. When the show ended the crowd demanded more, and they got Harper to return to the stage and perform solo material that would further warm their souls, and warm their souls they did.
If nothing else can be said, we all left the final day of McDowell Mountain Music Festival with smiles and warmed souls.
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