Monday, November 7, 2011

Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Fest: Fun For the Whole Family

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The sunshine we had ordered up was delivered right on schedule. The hammock had been hung. Our bodies deposited snugly inside were gently swaying to the strum of Mike West’s guitar and Katie Euliss’s old-timey croon and bucket bass. Their sounds blended together to cook up the bluegrassy vaudevillian punk rock jambalaya known as Truckstop Honeymoon. As I peeked over the edge of my swinging cocoon I was surprised to see a rainbow colored community of tree dwellers had quickly formed, surrounding us in three-tiered splendor. We were interested to learn that our fellow arbor loving companions belonged to a group from Tulsa, Oklahoma called Let’s Hang! They were incredibly friendly, inviting us to look them up if we were ever in Tulsa and laughingly suggested that we start a Minneapolis chapter of the group. The good weather, beautiful location, great music, hammocks, and friends new and old all added up to a very enjoyable experience at Yonder Mountain Harvest Festival.
For the 2nd year in a row, Yonder Mountain String Band energetically hosted and headlined the 6th Annual Harvest Music Festival at the beautiful Mulberry Mountain Lodge and Events Center in the heart of the Ozark National Forest of Arkansas October 13-16, 2011. This 650 acre playground is capable of not only sustaining large festivals such as Wakarusa with its estimated attendance of 20,000 to Harvest Festival’s more intimate 7,500 capacity, but is also an outdoor recreationalist’s dream destination for fishing, hiking, disc golfing, canoeing, ATV and horse trails. The rugged beauty of this location is aptly paired with an equally entrancing and lively lineup of some of the best pickin’ musicians in the folk, bluegrass and americana scene today.
As we wandered through the gently falling sun dappled autumn leaves, an expertly picked line of melody wove a delicate path through the trees and into our eagerly awaiting ears. This was the Ozarks at its finest. Besides 3 foot-stomping nights of Yonder Mountain String Band, this year’s lineup included dance-inducing and awe inspiring acts by the likes of Railroad Earth, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, 7 Walkers featuring Papa Mali and Bill Kreutzman, Cornmeal, Trampled by Turtles, Todd Snider, Great American Taxi, Mountain Sprout, Elephant Revival, Dirtfoot, and Split Lip Rayfield among many others.
Rock the Earth, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, national public interest environmental advocacy organization committed to the protection of America's natural resources through partnerships with the music industry, started off the festival on Wednesday along with river-rafting experts Turner Bend and the Shimon Presents Work Exchange Team to lead a "River & Road Cleanup.” Conscious Alliance also joined in on the greening and community efforts by conducting an "Art That Feeds" Food Drive to benefit the River Valley Regional Food Bank (Fort Smith, AR), which was used to provide food to nearby residents recently displaced by tornadoes earlier this summer. Conscious Alliance, a Boulder, CO-based national 501(c)(3) non-profit, operates through ongoing, grassroots food collection and hunger awareness programs throughout the United States, primarily by organizing food drives at concerts and music events.
Also adding to the charm and delight of this festival was The Roost Family and Children’s Area and Music Stage. Each day was greeted with a namaste as children and adults alike were led in a morning yoga session, followed by planned daily workshops which included interactive art, drum circles, meditation, hoola hooping and poi lessons, glass blowing, environmental responsibility workshops, and pickin’ competitions. There was also a stage in the area showcased many musical genres including rock, jam, funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae and children’s music. Many of the activities were led by Quixotic Fusion School of Performing Arts, a sister company of Quixotic Fusion and the Vibe Tribe of Kansas City.
The Roost was also the destination where you could get up close and personal to learn tricks of the trade during workshops put on by many of the amazing musicians who performed at this year’s festival. A special Q & A was held with members of Railroad Earth, a songwriting workshop with Elephant Revival, That One Guy revealed his magic, Cornmeal and Greensky explained how they turn a rock cover into a bluegrass song, and Bela Fleck enchanted us with his lightening fast fingers on the banjo.

Some of my favorite moments of the festival included getting an intimate look into Bela Fleck’s mind during his workshop at The Roost Stage, and seeing him perform with Victor Wooten and the Flecktones on The Main Stage. During his workshop, Bela wove banjo licks, stories and advice into a beautiful musical tapestry. I was interested to learn that he does his warm up to the classical music of Bach, a wonder to hear when played upon the strings of the banjo. Usually a quick paced song is selected, unless he is feeling tired and a slower but equally technically challenging Bach piece is used. He also explained that he does his warm up standing rather than sitting because most of his performances are done standing up, logically reasoning that all the angles change depending on the position of the body. When practicing, he breaks down the tunes and isolates the trouble spots. Most people, when they practice, play the parts they are already good at over and over, but his advice is to “practice the stuff you’re not good at and don’t lose heart. Don’t be afraid to go slow. Embrace slow, slow is what makes fast good.” He also reminds us to breathe, often writing the word “breathe” in his manuscripts every few measures. At times when he feels like he is sucking and struggling to get through a piece of music, he’ll get to the end and realize that he had been holding his breath. He also warns of the dangers of using caffeine before a performance, which can only lead to increased nervousness. He ended the workshop with a haunting piece of music he learned while traveling and filming the documentaryThrow Down Your Heart – Bela Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa, which he described as “taking a calculus exam that went on for a month.” At the end of the month, he confessed that he didn’t know what had happened. Reflecting upon the musicians he played with in Africa, Bela excitedly said, “I got home and listened to the tapes and it sounded amazing, mostly because they were amazing!”
Another highlight of my experience was learning new tricks and making new friends while at the hoola hoop workshop led by Miss Conception and other members of the Vibe Tribe KC. While there I met an adorable little girl in a green tutu named Josie. She sassily informed me in her infectious southern accent that she had made her own hoop and proceeded to demonstrate all the fabulous tricks she knew how to do, giving me pint sized pointers as she swung her tiny hips from side to side. When I found her she looked little blue. When I asked what was wrong, she stated, “that woman has my hula hoop!” After rescuing her hoop, I hugged her and kindly thanked her for the lesson as Mom thanked me for helping to end a particularly dramatic moment in her day.
Besides being wowed by Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten, I discovered many other amazing bands that I had not yet heard of. Of particular interest, Matthew and the Atlas from London, England were currently on a 20 date US tour, spreading their lovely Brit-icana sound from coast to coast. It was a welcomed change from the foot-stomping bluegrass that permeated most of the stages thus far and led me to stop and stare in awe. The music was entrancingly, achingly beautiful and felt as it had seeped from the pores of my very own skin, breaking out to tell a story that I have lived a million times in the unique but familiar sounding gravel-filled voice of Matthew Hagerty. I am eagerly looking forward to catching them one more time at First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis this November along with another of my favorites from this year’s festival, The David Mayfield Parade.
A fair amount of respect between musicians was noted as legends and mentors all joined in on a stage-sharing game of musical chairs. Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band gave a special acknowledgment of gratitude and awe to the masters he had looked up to his entire musical career with whom he now had the honor to share a stage with. How inspiring it was to witness as these amazing musical craftsmen all played together, sharing their skill, passions, and wildest dreams. The love and talent could be felt coming from the stage in waves of color, sound, and light as we did our best to take it all in, letting it flow through our bodies and out through our tapping toes, creating new dance steps we could only have dreamed of.

Article by Wendy O'Sunshine
Jayme Halbritter Photography
1224 Quincy St. N.E., Studio 245
Minneapolis, MN 55413