For nearly a quarter of a century, Durham's Festival for the Eno has been attracting thousands of Independence Day celebrators to its 300-acre site for a weekend of arts, crafts, food and music. More than 100 local, regional and national performers are spread out on five stages over three days for a $12 per diem fee. The deal is so good that year before last festival coordinator Greg Bell was worried that he and festival planners might have to look at ways to expand the site to accommodate all the celebrators that wanted to attend. But the events of Sept. 11 changed all that. "Last year with the war and the economy, it was definitely not high on my concerns," he laughs. "Two years ago and the year before, we had crowds big enough that we started having to look at ways to expand the site. The festival was down a little bit last year, and I wouldn't be surprised if this year is not as high as two years ago because of concerns like security and economy. We're still ultimately trending upward, and I think eventually we will have to address that, but I'm more worried in the opposite extreme this year."
But the festival has such a good reputation for the quality of the entertainment and the overall family vibe that it will continue to draw well despite the economy. In terms of entertainment, Bell says that although there's a long list of people he thought would be great, "nobody broke my heart." Johnny Cash and Taj Mahal were on the wish list along with John Prine, and Bell thought it would be cool to have former James Brown horn funkmonster sideman Maceo Parker, but found that "people of that caliber book so far ahead and are often abroad especially in the summer that it takes a while to figure out a good combo of three or four national headliners."
So while Eno-goers won't be gettin' down with Maceo or listening to Cash telling murderous musical tales, there'll still be some interesting sounds around. Bell is excited about Jump Little Children. While attending the N.C School of the Arts, the band sat around one night drinking while searching for a name. One friend suggested the Four Motherfuckers, but a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song, "Jump Little Children," which the band covers, got the most votes. "The song speaks of the jubilation one feels when one suddenly finds oneself ungoverned by rules and regulations," says JLC vocalist/tin whistler/accordionist Matt Bivins. "The name fit us well."
The band's sound is usually described as a mix of Celtic music and reggae. "They do have a lot of background in Celtic," Bell admits, "and I think that comes out especially through their ballads, but for lack of a better word, I'm calling them a pop-rock band, because they play all acoustic instruments." He lists band ingredients a little bit of electric lead, cello and accordion and upright bass electric and acoustic mandolin and "a tasty little trap drummer. They're each quirky looking in their own way--the hunk, and the nerd, and the artsy guy and the rockabilly guy, without it looking contrived or anything."
The band has been selling out the Cat's Cradle on Tuesday nights with $15 tickets. "Jump Little Children was on my wish list, and it took a good bit to get them," the coordinator says. "And I also think that it's gonna draw a lot of high school kids and college kids and expose them to the festival and all the environmental benefits out there and hopefully to some other good music they may not have heard before."
Another act that Bell thinks will intrigue attendees is Mabel's Boys. The Mt. Airy Group is the only sacred steel group from North Carolina. The Sacred steel tradition started in black churches in Florida, with a pedal steel taking the place of organ in worship services. Practitioners of the art including Aubrey Ghent, The Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph, who exhibited his skills in The Word (billed as a gospel supergroup that consisted of the North Mississippi Allstars plus Medeski, Martin and Wood's John Medeski on organ) have crossed over with the music, bringing it out from the churches and into the mainstream. But Mabel's Boys are not that worldly--the upcoming gig is only going to be their second or third gig outside a church. "It'll be interesting to see how they handle it," Bell chuckles. "They'll come out and they'll probably be a couple of thousand white high school kids looking at 'em, plus the normal assortment of Eno hippies and environmentalists and junior leaguers."
The Kruger Brothers, a bluegrass band from Sweden, also have Bell excited. The brothers have been the house band for Doc Watson at Merlefest the last couple of years. "They don't put on a show, they just kind of sit there and play," the coordinator explains. "Kind of old, old-style. I would call it traditional bluegrass, but they play with such a virtuosity and intensity that it transcends it--it's nothing primitive about it--it's really well executed and musically mature."
Laura Love is being described for this year's outing as "almost world music." She describes her folky sound as a mix of funk and bluegrass. "[There are] Afro-Cuban rhythms behind it," Bell says, "definitely a reggae influence--but it all comes out as folk music: very, very danceable folk music. She's got a huge following on the West Coast, and has done Merlefest a couple of times, as recently as this year." Love apparently got into a little bit of trouble this year at the Merlefest because of a political message on a T-shirt she was wearing. (On her Web site, plugging her eighth CD, Welcome to Pagan Place, Love says, "I'm really excited about this new release because it combines all of my favorite musical genres: funk, bluegrass, and despising the Bush administration!")
Al Batten also plays bluegrass, but his is of the traditional, non-confrontational style. Bell calls him "the king of N.C. bluegrass, a mentor to several generations of young N.C. pickers. Batten heads up a daylong bluegrass fest on Sunday, with one exception. "That's also the day of the African-American Dance Ensemble, so that'll be an interesting mix--a little later in the day."
Bell has said in the past that he favors an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach to the festival, but admits that for next year, the 25th anniversary, "we're gonna try to do it up big." One change that has been implemented this year is the Eno kickoff July 2 in downtown Durham in the Civic Center Courtyard outside the Carolina Theatre from 5-7 p.m. The kickoff is free and open to the public. Featured performers are Durham singer-songwriter Tracy Simon Feldman; Tony and The Magnificent Voices, a family oriented, old school vocal based, rocking gospel, eight or nine members of the same nuclear family; and the Eno River Salamanders, who Bell describes as a "warped old-time band that plays old-time and traditional music, have a lot of attitude and style that they bring to it."
Everything else remains the same. Bell says that other than adding ticket sales locations from Charlotte up into Southern Virginia, ("we're trying to make it a little easier for them and make 'em feel more welcome,") no major changes have been implemented. "I don't think we're even moving anybody," says Bell. "We just want it to be a whole lot of fun.
The Festival For the Eno takes place at the West Point on the Eno City Park on Roxboro Road in Durham, July 4, 5 and 6, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Admission is $12 per day. Advance tickets: $10 per day. Advance ticket sales run June 15 through July 3. For more information, e-mail: