When it comes to music festivals, I’m a dabbler. Barring a few must-see acts, I tend to wander from stage to stage to try to catch bits of as many bands as possible, hoping to stumble across a surprise or two. At many festivals, that approach can be exhausting, making it easy to spend more time rushing off to see the next band than being able to get a true feel for the performers.
But thanks to generous set lengths and the close proximity of stages and tents, Shakori Hills is a sampler’s paradise. During my 13 hours at the festival, I was able to catch parts of 22 acts with enough time to actually relax and enjoy the music. I even managed a couple of cat naps. Hit the jump for minute-by-minute impressions.
12:45 p.m. I arrived at the festival grounds and headed straight to the Meadow Stage to find that Chapel Hill four-piece Lafcadio had already begun their 1 p.m. set. The sparse crowd seemed to still be rousing themselves from Preston Frank and Donna The Buffalo’s marathon midnight set Friday night, though “Bones” did well to hasten the process, matching Liz Ross’ soaring, half-screamed vocal to a swampy stew concocted by guitarist Ryan Dowdy, bassist Eric Notarnicola and drummer Stevie Howell. Young girls soon flocked to the front of the stage, shaking off the drowsiness in favor of spirited spinning and dancing. Though Ross has begun booking more solo gigs, she remains at her strongest with fellow songwriter Dowdy as a foil, and the quartet’s dynamic arrangements backing them. Ross and Dowdy trade verses on “Black is the Color,” which also finds Notarnicola pulling double duty on organ and bass.
1:20 p.m. Wandered through the Paperhand Puppet Intervention performance at the Cabaret Tent on the way to see Hee Haw Nightmare. While I may be outing myself as someone completely out of touch with certain cultural circles in the Triangle, I had absolutely no idea that there was a band involved with the Paperhand project. I was definitely surprised, then, when I heard the ensemble matching elegant kora plucking with marching band percussion. After a few minutes, I decided to check out Hee Haw Nightmare, who chased a Woody Guthrie tune with a take on The Pogues’ version of “Dirty Old Town” and a good ol’ fashioned number about a trainwreck. The Ithaca, N.Y., quartet shared aesthetics with the thrashy bluegrass that’s in vogue these days but lacked the punch to really nail it down.
1:40 p.m. Moseyed over to the front porch area, where The Belleville Outfit was finishing up its swing set. It was a low-key, jazzy affair with un-miked vocals and just a couple of amps for electric guitar and keys. Casey Driessen sat in on fiddle, swapping lines with Belleville fiddler Phoebe Hunt, who was joined by her bandmates on acoustic guitar, double bass and snare drum. With just a couple dozen gathered around to watch, the intimacy and spontaneity gave it the feel of a true afternoon jam session amongst friends. I grabbed some video of their last song, a swinging cover of the Gershwins’ “Oh, Lady Be Good!”, which now serves as a reminder of the best surprise of my Shakori experience, one I wished I had caught a bit sooner. I did, however, miss the end of Lafcadio’s set—rumored to be their last (at least as we currently know them)—back on the Meadow Stage as I swung back by the Cabaret tent and caught the Paperhand Band spearheading a joyous sing- and dance-along before leading the subsequent parade.
2:30 p.m. Following a series of band contests in the morning, Possum Jenkins was the first billed act to take the Grove Stage. The Shakori newcomers spotted the Paperhand Puppet Intervention parade working its way through the back of the field early in their set and noted it as “the first time a parade has ever happened during one of our shows, but hopefully not the last.” They then delved into another hearty rocker as a pair of nearby girls celebrated their barely legal status by alternating swigs of Pepsi and Evan Williams straight from the bottle. I last saw Possum at a festival in Boone over two years ago, and the Southern rock unit has clearly improved in the interim, finding its place near the altar of Drive-By Truckers (thought not nearly as gritty). Brent Buckner’s harmonica sound seems to borrow from John Popper at times, ratcheting up the poppy feel on their breezier numbers.
2:50 p.m. While I’ll confess that The Never hasn’t exactly bowled me over in years, I was quite impressed by the trio’s stripped down set. Jonny Tunnell impressively maintained a crouch throughout the performance—brushing and beating his snare and pair of toms while stomping a tambourine—while Joah Tunnell manned the keys and electric guitar and frontman Noah Smith strummed an acoustic. The bare-bones approach—which, apparently, they’ve been experimenting with in various forms for the past year or so—worked wonders in allowing the harmonies a bigger spotlight. The threesome pulled off a boisterous cover of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” too, and Smith introduced the newish “Lonely Vampire” with a tongue-in-cheek tale of Joah trying out for the lead role in Twilight, only to get turned down after several callbacks.
3:40 p.m. After a brief stopover at the front porch for the old-time fiddle and banjo workshop, I watched The Belleville Outfit again, this time at the Dance Tent. Unlike their porch set, the Outfit was plugged in and in front of a much larger crowd. It wasaAlmost a totally different experience, but the six-piece still drew heavily from Western swing on soulful, organ-drenched ballads.
4:15 p.m. If The Two Man Gentlemen Band didn’t already make it clear they were posing as songsters from vaudeville by playing a jump blues and ragtime blend highlighted by jittery banjo ‘n’ bass, twin kazoos, and dapper period outfits, “William Howard Taft”—their quirky ode to the titular 27th president—sure did. The humorous jingle about the feats of an obese Commander-in-Chief who “made the oval office just fit for one” was a standout, while the other couple songs I caught were hampered by the shtick.
4:30 p.m. I finally saw Durham rap quartet The Beast, who didn’t disappoint, melding energetic frontman Pierce Freelon’s heady rhymes with thick, jazzy grooves courtesy of Eric Hirsh, Pete Kimoch and Stephen Coffman. Freelon shouted out to Lauryn Hill in a medley of The Beast’s namesake Fugees track and Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” while Hirsh sang the latter’s hook through his keyboard’s talkbox. The emcee also led the crowd through a soulful chorus of “We Shall Not Be Moved” during the anthemic cut “The Movement” but didn’t bother censoring the line “burn in hell Christopher Columbus” despite Monday’s holiday. Tsk, tsk guys: You’re not gonna get the day off that way. Here’s video.
5:30 p.m. On the way to the Dance Tent for The Grady Girls, I heard a bit of Asheville’s Mad Tea Party, the second kitschy two-piece to play the Grove Stage in a row. I had a nauseating experience with the Tea Party when they opened for The Avett Brothers as a quartet three years ago at Greensboro’s Flying Anvil, and I can’t say they treated me much better as a duo. They're tolerable in small doses, at least. I stuck it out through a long set change for The Grady Girls, a rather traditional Celtic group who were nothing to write home about but played solid renditions, nonetheless.
6 p.m. Chatham County Line took the Meadow Stage to a growing crowd, playing a relaxed set past sunset that proved why they’re the area’s Americana band of choice, pleasing rockers, hippies and traditional bluegrass fans alike. Between a string of selections from their last three albums, the quartet performed a gorgeous new ballad in preview of their long-awaited IV follow-up and added a rousing take on the Stones’ “Let It Bleed” to their repertoire of outstanding cover choices.
7:25 p.m. Casey Driessen began his set at the Grove Stage as Chatham County Line finished theirs. The eccentric, red-shoed fiddler predictably hopped from genre to genre with The Colorfools, his backing bass-and-drum duo. Driessen followed a mess of fiddle tunes and reels with a solo tribute to Michael Jackson, looping several fiddle parts together to create “Billie Jean” as the audience watched in amazement, many singing along by the time he added the vocal melody. Noting his location, Driessen tackled Doc Watson’s “Make Me a Pallet On the Floor.” Check the video of “The Rose Tea Waltz” from this year’s Oog here.
8 p.m. The Mammals—the husband-and-wife duo Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar—played the Dance Tent with their band, melting their voices together on tempered, soulful Americana ballads. David Gans was preaching sustainability under the Cabaret Tent, when I ducked inside, using “The Bounty of the County” to illustrate his point about buying local produce like heirloom tomatoes. He repeated the mantra from the title of his latest album, The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best. Dank.
8:30 p.m. Mike and Ruthy were plenty pretty and Gans’ folk songs were intriguing, but my energy was waning and I needed a boost. I found just that in Locos Por Juana, an urban Latino orchestra from Miami that took cumbia, reggae, salsa, ska and other styles from throughout Latin America and the Carribean and threw a party reminiscent of Ozomatli. Replete with horns and two emcees, the eight-piece intoxicated a huge crowd at the Meadow Stage, unifying the swaying, shaking and bouncing throng. Unfortunately, I only managed video of a few minutes of Locos Por Juana’s set, possibly Saturday’s best.
9:15 p.m. Christabel and the Jons provided a great cool-off at the Grove Stage, keeping up the retro vibe from earlier in the day but relying on their amiable folk-pop songwriting more than a gimmick. When multi-instrumentalist Seth Hopper laid down the mandolin and violin in favor of trumpet, the four-piece swung with a smoky jazz flavor, as on Christa DeCicco’s “Boy Crazy” duet with Miss Tess.
9:40 p.m. Unknown Tongues followed the Cajun Dance instructional workshop with their Carolina blend of Cajun and zydeco. The nine-member mass kept up the trend of long set changes at the stage, so I didn’t spend much time with them before bolting, though their sound was surprisingly authentic.
9:55 p.m. Mosadi Music, another new wave Durham hip-hop band, was holding court beneath the Cabaret Tent with its funky hip-hop and soul hybrid that leans heavily on rock, thanks to the swaggering trio that backs emcee Shirlette Ammons. Guitarist Chris Boerner and bassist Darion Alexander lifted Zeppelin riffs and made great use of their pedals, exploring sounds and textures during extended workouts of Ammons’ intelligent words. Video.
10:40 p.m. Bluesman Samuel James had the spotlight to himself on the large Meadow Stage and he was up to the task, putting on a captivating one-man show with just his steel guitar and stomping feet. He closed his set with Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” but returned after the audience clamored for an encore. James delighted the crowd with a lengthy solo, a spectacle that involved twirling the guitar around and playing it from all sorts of angles, including strumming the fretboard while bringing his slide up the neck towards the headstock.
11 p.m. Although they had two new players and a mix that did them no favors, Chapel Hill indie pop troupe Lost in the Trees seems to sound better each time I see them. Perhaps it’s not hard as it looks to reimagine pieces with such an expansive collective, but Ari Picker and company always make it seem effortless, blending orchestral maneuvers with folk-pop sensibilities and a touch of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea-style charm. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that they drew the Grove Stage’s largest crowd of the day, drawing in curious onlookers who added to the standing masses.
Midnight With muscular ’70s guitar workouts and ’50s reverb-soaked pop, The Jackets’ lengthy set tested the depths of the young band’s catalog of originals. The Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” appeared alongside rowdy versions of “Down South in New Orleans” and “Goin’ Down." Chatham County Line bassist Greg Readling sat in on pedal steel, helping fill out the guitar-driven quartet’s sound.
1:40 a.m. Closing out the night at the Dance Tent, the Duhks took the stage after yet another lengthy soundcheck. I barely made it two songs into the set before hitting the road back to Raleigh, but I knew I was missing a unique set from the Canadians, who had Casey Driessen guesting on “Death Came A' Knockin’” and Mike Merenda waiting in the wings for his guest spot.