Review: Music On The Mountaintop 2009

The 2009 edition of MotM featured three stages, two of which were situated in a large main concert area. This setup allowed for a constant flow of music from the most well-known acts on the bill, and the result was overwhelmingly satisfying. I arrived just as Boone’s own Lost Ridge Band was treating the steadily growing crowd to a down-home version of Phish’s Bouncing Around the Room. When the song ended, another Boone band, The Native Sway, could be heard performing Runaway Jim on the third stage. It was an auspiciously Phishy start to a gorgeous, breezy day.

Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band took the main stage way ahead of schedule and proceeded to get the audience’s juices flowing with their unrepentant, classic funk rock. The family atmosphere that dominated the daytime hours was in full display during the Booty show, as kids took control of the prime front-row spots and danced hard. The band didn’t water down their show musically, though, and the funk hit long and hard.

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The Booty Band core – bassist Al Ingram, guitarist/keyboardist John Paul Miller, and multi-instrumentalists Greg Hollowell and Derek Johnson – have persevered through a multitude of drummer changes and the loss of a principal songwriter in Josh Phillips. However, they’ve constructed their most interesting lineup yet with the addition of Mary Frances on keyboards and vocals along with Lee Allen on drums. Frances brings several fresh elements to the mix, phenomenal keyboard skills and stirring vocals among them, and Allen could be the best Booty Band drummer yet.

Frances offered a sweltering vocal take on Bill Withers’ Use Me, but mostly contributed toe-curling keyboard work while the band tore through high-stepping funk numbers like a cover of The Junkyard Band’s Sardines and Pork and Beans, along with a cache of their original tunes. The lineup changes haven’t changed the expressive soul of the Booty Band in the least, and they’re still one of the most enjoyable groups in the land to watch.

Knoxville, Tennessee’s The Dirty Guv’nahs brought their soul-infused Southern rock sound to the second stage, and they reminded many attendees of The Black Crowes. With plenty of vocal and instrumental swagger and a collective eye trained on a brand of boozy, bluesy guitar rock, the band provided an invigorating musical backdrop to an inexplicably gorgeous afternoon. They closed their set with a riotous version of Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright, making their intentions clear with a very representative and well-tailored cover choice.

The regional showcase continued with the clean, lean and mean bluegrass of Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers. Their style is up close and personal, so while those of us gathered near the front of the stage never sensed a problem, many later complained of poor sound in more removed locations. Up front is the place to watch this band – that way their instrumental and vocal dexterity is not lost in the distance.

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Tight and tuneful throughout, Steep Canyon Rangers exhibited their influences through covers such as a requisite Bill Monroe tune along with Bobby Charles’ Tennessee Blue and the blues standard Don’t Ease Me In. They’re a personable lot when it comes to stage presence, with sharp suits and a timeless style of performing. Principal vocalists Woody Platt (guitar) and Mike Guggino (mandolin) shared a mic at center stage, while the rest of the band – bassist Charles Humphrey III, fiddler Nicky Sanders, and banjo whiz Graham Sharp – easily moved in and out of vocal range, never missing a step. Their original songs have earned them a place in the hallowed halls of modern bluegrass and acoustic music, and they’re worthy of the praise that the finest groups in the genre have garnered.

The only act I heard that I wasn’t already familiar with was Do It To Julia, who changed the tone of the festival with their eclectic, restless rock sound. All five members come from diverse musical backgrounds, and the resulting product is wildly dynamic, category-defying music. Eager to please the increasingly raucous crowd, the quintet showcased their energetic side, especially near the end of the set. Having already staked out a front-row spot for the next band on the main stage, I could still feel the vibrations coming from the charging music and stomping crowd at their stage. I wasn’t blown away by their performance, but they’re young and they’ve got a lot going for them, like willingness to include almost any musical possibility, endless energy, and a charismatic female out front.

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Acoustic Syndicate was next on the main stage, and there’s nothing like seeing them in such a location. With a majestic setting and interesting weather contributing to the already electric atmosphere, the band conquered the mountainside with a woefully short but altogether engaging set heavy on old favorites. In what turned out to be a special treat, Syndicate featured a first-time formation, including all of the McMurry clan (Steve on guitar, Bryon on banjo, and Fitz on drums), jam journeyman and bass veteran Chris Q and Mars Farris on electric guitar.

Largely unknown outside of the high country, Q and Farris have plenty of history between them. Q provided bass for once-prominent jambands like The Recipe, Hypnotic Clambake and Jiggle the Handle, while Farris has contributed guitar to Syndicate albums and live shows for quite some time. While bassist Jay Sanders and saxophonist Jeremy Saunders were missed, it was fun to watch Steve McMurry communicate with Q during extended musical moments, and Farris’ guitar lent a nice crunch to the set’s most intense moments.

A soaring Try As I May led off the set, and the band worked out some sound issues during this signature tune. Picking songs that span their entire career and every album, they followed with the funky Crazy Town, the fast paced free-flowing combination of Fleeting Moments -> Neighbors and one of their oldest gems, Critters. The metaphorical lyrics of Critters contain the passage “I can’t get myself out of the rain,” and the enraptured crowd was about to show Mother Nature that it takes more than a drizzle to divert its attention.

As the band’s beloved cover of North Country Girl brought breezy vocal harmonies and blustery solos to the stage, a stiff wind drove the most minute of mists across the concert grounds. The primal feeling of standing on a mountainside in the chilly rain while a hometown boy – one Steve McMurry – wreaked havoc on an acoustic guitar added another new, memorable element to the already fantastic day.

The band’s monstrous, Carolina-centric bluegrass-rock fable Brown Mountain Lights seemed to make the wind gust harder and the drizzle fall just a little more, as Farris and the string-slinging McMurrys laid solo after solo on top of the song’s accommodating chord structure. After the haunting, exhilarating Brown Mountain Lights, the band placed the emotional Sweetest Breeze – complete with an extended jam brought on by a broken string – in front of a fan-requested closer of Pumpkin and Daisy that sealed the deal on another stirring Syndicate show.

The weather shifted again, leaving us with a clear, cool, calm night by which to enjoy Sam Bush and Keller Williams. Stellar performances were to be expected from these world-class artists, but none could have anticipated the numerous collaborations that occurred.

Already solidified as a representative artist in the world of acoustic, country, and bluegrass music, Sam Bush continues to make his way around the universe with the utmost professionalism. No band sounded clearer, more in tune, or tighter than Bush’s all day long, and the guy flat out knows how to entertain. His nonstop set included some of the diverse covers that he’s so well known for (Little Feat’s Spanish Moon, Bob Marley’s One Love), bluegrass burners (Ridin’ That Bluegrass Train, Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms), and his own brand-new, radio-friendly originals (Blue Mountain, Circles Around Me).

As the band took the stage for the encore, Bush proclaimed that Keller Williams would help the band out on a song that’s “fun to play, fun to sing, and fun to jam on.” Up On Cripple Creek is certainly all of those things, and musicians and audience alike reveled in the song’s yodeling refrain. The beloved Band tune was a perfect way to end Bush’s diverse set.

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Keller was to close out the day, and there was no hiding the fact that Bush was going to sit in, as one of the crew sound checked Bush’s mandolin while the stage was being readied. The show itself was one of the most concentrated doses of Keller magic that I have seen, and I’ve been watching him perform with great frequency for 13 years.

Despite my considerable experience with his catalog, he still lugs around more instrumentals than I can keep tabs on, and it was one of these monstrous solo guitar workouts that opened the set. The exhaustingly impressive instrumental neatly gave way to Bounty Hunter, and Williams barely stopped for the next hour, as usual covering an enormous range of musical ground. A tale of evasion and death, Bounty Hunter was spiced up with brief forays into other renegade songs – Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive and the Allman Brothers Band’s Midnight Rider.

An enchanting loop creation – in which Williams utilizes an array of guitars, drum pads, samples, and machinery to create an ever-growing rhythmic collage – preceded Sam Bush’s appearance. The duo ripped through a highly caffeinated version of Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm before offering the second Little Feat cover in as many sets. Sailin’ Shoes is a staple of Bush’s live shows, and it was obvious that Williams was chomping at the bit to share the stage with him for this effervescent tune.

Suddenly, the day was almost over. Williams extended the vigor of the set with his pulsating dance-party tune More Than A Little, which is possibly the world’s most funk-worshipping song. If there was a ministry of funk, they might play this song as some sort of invocation, as the lyrics lend themselves to a celebration of all things funky. Williams even threw a little regional variation in for the locals – “Funky sweat like fever, fever that’s here to stay, funky sweat like fever, you can smell it down Asheville way ’cause that s**t is funky!”

Another essential KW tune, Kidney in a Cooler, put the setlist over the top before Williams began an impromptu rap about the end of the show, cops and Sam Bush. The transition between Bush’s stage setup and Williams’ one-man cornucopia of instruments had put the previously timely event behind schedule, and the last set would be all too brief as a result. Williams made the most of the situation, however, jovially rhyming about Sam Bush talking to the cops on his behalf, trying to get him a few more minutes.

After checking on his allotment of minutes, Williams offered up the most inspired version of Celebrate Your Youth I’ve ever heard, telling the assembled throng, among other things, “You’re all so young, celebrate your youth. They’re gonna cut the power off in one minute, so…celebrate your youth!” Williams made the best of a tricky situation and provided an amazing end to an amazing day.

Music on the Mountaintop 2010 has already been scheduled for the same date and location, and after attending this year’s edition it’s no surprise. The town of Boone would do well to hold on to and foster the event, which this year became the largest music event ever staged in the picturesque town. There’s a dedicated and enthusiastic team of people and a cavalcade of top-notch artists ready to make the festival a treasured yearly tradition.

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