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Essential listening at this weekend's Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival

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Sharon Jones deserves what she has. Perhaps the most exciting performer on this bill—and with a rock-solid backing band, The Dap-Kings—Jones spent most of her adult life merely wishing she had a music career while she worked on New York's Rikers Island and as a guard in an armored car (holy shit) until her mid-40s, when her first Daptone Records release dropped. She's a tireless entertainer in the classic Motown vein.

Accordingly, many of the most exciting artists on this year's Shakori roster are women. Aimée Argote and Christy Smith, who perform as Des Ark and The Tender Fruit, respectively, compose beautifully damaged, razor-sharp post-folk. And the spacious, ambitious cello and banjo-driven jazz-folk of New Orleans' Leyla McCalla refers as much to old Harlem as the old bayou.

Shakori has a solid tradition of giving stage time to the stars of afro-pop. Organizer Jordan Puryear says the only time the festival's refusal to put boundaries between performers and fans was problematic was when Oliver Mtukudzi played in October 2007. "He's such a superstar in Zimbabwe, it's like if Elvis (played)," Puryear laughs. "And these Zimbabwean women, they were ready to rip some of his clothes off and take them with them."

This year, the fest is Sidi Toure's only North Carolina stop on his first U.S. tour. The Malian guitarist's Sahara blues technique is clean and precise. His 2011 album Sahel Folk came out on Thrill Jockey, typically known for indie -rock releases; it features impressive songwriting, with natural acoustic drones and rhythmic U-turns quick enough to give math-rockers pause.

In keeping with Shakori Hills' family focus, Sandbox brings its collection of new and re-imagined toddler jams. And 14-year-old blues guitarist Lakota John Locklear shreds on standards many times his age.

Raleigh's Peter Lamb & the Wolves play acoustic jazz harkening to that genre's pre-war pop era, with more focus on Fats Waller or Joe Turner than Coltrane or Gillespie. Not only does the band cover Tom Waits' "Temptation" without ruining the song (a common fault with Waits covers), but the rendition even adds to the dialogue by injecting a twisted neo-soul-in-a-speakeasy vibe.

Special mention goes to Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, even if this one's a bit of a "well, duh!" for Shakori's target audience. The members of this bluegrass-fusion jam band have all gone on to individual stardom, with excitable young bassists now prattling about Victor Wooten the way new guitarists do about Hendrix or Clapton. The rarely-touring ensemble covers a middle ground between Weather Report, Parliament/ Funkadelic and who knows what else. It ought to be a trip presented in the middle of a field of Chatham County red clay where more than a few toddlers roam.

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