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The Art of Cool advances, Hopscotch gets its hip-hop

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Cicely Mitchell knows that her birthday is quickly approaching, but on Monday afternoon less than 36 hours since the end of the inaugural Art of Cool Festival, she can't remember if it arrives on Tuesday or Wednesday. It might even be today.

"That's how crazy it's been," says Mitchell, laughing. "I've lost track of my days."

Mitchell admits she's tired and hasn't had much opportunity to sleep since the festival she co-founded with partner and trumpeter Al Strong ended late Saturday night. But she says she's relieved, too: Despite a torrential downpour just as the festival launched its outdoor opening party on Friday night, there were no catastrophes to report. And after fretting over stagnant ticket sales during the months leading up to the two-day, nine-venue festival and worrying whether the event could make it to year two, Mitchell has already started to think about talent and setting dates for next year. Though the books aren't closed yet, she's happy to report that The Art of Cool Festival will advance—most likely during the last weekend of April 2015.

"I don't know if we broke even ... but we have everyone's attention. People have sampled the product for the first time, and even if we did lose money, what we have gained is peoples' support," she says. "People now know what it is."

The programming this year did involve something of a low-commitment sampler for the skeptical: On Saturday afternoon, a few thousand people stretched blankets and towels on the green lawn beside DPAC, watching brass-band sets and clapping along with soulman Cody ChesnuTT as hordes flowed past for a Durham Bulls game next door. Those free portions enticed many people, Mitchell says, to buy their tickets during the festival itself, pushing the organization toward its goals. And next year, they'll use their nonprofit status to build a base of donors, much like Full Frame or the American Dance Festival.

But for Mitchell, the pinnacle of the weekend had less to do with the cash drawer than what she saw on stage Saturday night in a very full Carolina Theatre, for the Carolina Soul Tribute. Under the leadership of violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, a revolving door of vocalists and instrumentalists—Nnenna Freelon, Marcus Strickland, N'Dambi—paid tribute to Tar Heel natives John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone. Watching Freelon and animated singer Bilal share the stage during the program was the moment for which she'd been waiting, the instant in which she felt nearly three years of preparation coalesce. Mitchell wants such programs, in which North Carolina's deep roots in jazz and its offshoots are connected to its present-day vitality, to become a staple of The Art of Cool Festival.

"It touches on the preservation portion of our mission as The Art of Cool," she says. "But we tried to find a fresh way to tell the story of this music in North Carolina."

That, in essence, summarizes the success of the first Art of Cool Festival at large.

IBMA PICKS PINECONE

After three decades of booking, promoting and proselytizing for folk music in North Carolina, PineCone has earned a promotion. The Raleigh-based nonprofit co-produced last year's popular Wide Open Bluegrass on a volunteer basis, but they've earned a contract from the International Bluegrass Music Association to produce the early October festival themselves this time.

PineCone will book the street fair that brought 140,000 people to downtown Raleigh last year, as well as the headlining shows in the convention center and neighboring Red Hat Amphitheater. William Lewis, PineCone's executive director, says the core mix of street stages and tents designed for dancing will remain unchanged, though there are preliminary plans for "smart growth," including an additional stage should funds allow it.

"We have a tremendous demand, from both the patrons and the artistic side. Bands heard how great it was last year and want to be involved," he says. "And if we get good weather, we'll have good numbers."

Two weeks ago, IBMA offered the first tease of this year's talent by announcing 30 acts that will participate in the Bluegrass Ramble, the organization's nocturnal takeover of downtown Raleigh clubs. Last year, the Ramble extended into the weekend, but the clubs sat relatively empty on Friday and Saturday nights after all the free tunes outside. This year, the Ramble will run from Tuesday, Sept. 30–Thursday, Oct. 2 only, with clubs volunteering for after-parties during the weekend if they haven't had enough bluegrass.

Though the bulk of the talent hasn't been announced, tickets are already selling based on last year's experience. PineCone will begin announcing major acts in mid-May, Lewis says, followed by the full talent slate for the ticketed portion of the festival in late June. They'll hold the roster for the free street-fair portions until August.

A MUDDY SHAKORI HILLS

Oh, the joys of homeownership: In December, the founders and organizers of the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival completed the purchase of their 75-acre grounds. And, of course, during their first event as landowners, it rained so much on the third day that moving about for the rest of the weekend required balance or an appreciation for a good fall in deep mud. Still, co-director Sara Waters says that Shakori Hills continued to inch toward its 9,000-attendee goal, though the weekend weather stopped them just short of that number after record-breaking presales.

"It could've been spectacular, but because of the rainy Saturday, it was only really good," she says. They'll get another shot at the benchmark when the festival returns to Silk Hope Oct. 9–12, a week after IBMA's main event in Raleigh. —Grayson Haver Currin

HOPSCOTCH ADDS HIP-HOP

Two weeks ago, when Raleigh's Hopscotch Music Festival announced the lineup for its fifth anniversary in September, the slate didn't pack very much hip-hop. But remember, this is the same event that introduced its first-year headliner, Public Enemy, with an unannounced marching band. Surprises are to be expected.

But this week, Hopscotch unveiled a third headlining show in City Plaza for Thursday, Sept. 4, the first time the festival has hosted such a big event on its opening night. Topping the bill is De La Soul, the smooth and classic hip-hop trio that debuted with 3 Feet High and Rising, roundly considered one of the genre's masterpieces. De La Soul actually visited the Triangle last year, performing at DPAC with Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J. At this Raleigh appearance, rap tandem Toon & The Real Laww will open.

"Once we knew we weren't going to be able to use Memorial Auditorium, our thoughts shifted to really focusing on the Plaza," explains festival director Greg Lowenhagen. "Our hip-hop past is very strong. With all of these artists that we've had in the first four years, we've built up expectations."

—Jordan Lawrence

This article appeared in print with the headline "Festival notebook"

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