Normally the end of summer signals the sad, depressing end of festival season leaving us with only the promise that it will come again the following spring. However, festival season was not over for those of us determined enough to make the trek to Arkansas’ Mulberry Mountain Top for Yonder Mountain String Band’s Second Annual Harvest Festival and boy are we glad we did.
After overcoming extensive travel predicaments and a long, interesting drive through the countryside of Texas and Oklahoma we were finally getting close to arriving at Mulberry Mountain Top. Nestled deep in the landscape of the Ozark National Forest, the intimate venue is a tucked away gem of luscious greenery and natural beauty many don’t know exist in the depths of Arkansas. The weather is surprisingly pleasant: warm in the day, cool at night; the foliage boasting an array of fall colors turning the hillsides into a beautiful backdrop for a festival.
Lucky for this Swaager member, we arrived Friday just in time to participate in a press conferences with the hosts of the festival themselves, Yonder Mountain String Band to hear about their festival, their music, their inspirations, how they came together and other eccentricities of their own.
Press: For people who aren’t necessarily dedicated fans of bluegrass music, what do you think the draw to this festival is?
Jeff Austin: It’s the welcoming vibe of the festival, of being outside. It’s a vibe that’s a layer: you can touch it, you can taste it, you can feel it. Everyone is welcome. Everybody can participate. Everybody’s input is going to add to that vide. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are going to be here up on that stage. Split Lip Rayfield. You’re not read for this now, but you will be.
Press: Before you were a band, did y’all festival?
Jeff Austin: Oh yeah.
Press: Do you have any survival tips for festivalgoers?
Ben Kaufmann: You learn from festivals. If it’s a really crowded festival and there aren’t very many port-a-potties, I suggest against eating fiber. Stick to blocks of cheese.
Jeff Austin: I remember Hoodoo Bash in 1997, I watched Sam Bush bow to Drew Emmitt after they dueled. To see two legends battle… I was so impressionable then and seeing that is imprinted in my mind. It’s amazing to connect with friends at festivals, to watch it grow.
Adam Ajiala: It wasn’t up until we played as a group that I explored them myself.
Press: Are there any songs that you play that have special meaning for you?
Adam Aijala: Fresh songs, especially ones that you wrote, tend to have more meaning. How a song affects you depends on your mood at the time. We have some stuff in the works that we’re real excited about though.
Dave Johnston: What they said…
Press: Tell us a little about how y’all came together.
Adam Aijala: The way we formed was weird. It was out of nowhere. There was a really small window of time for us to come together; it was fortuitous. We were able to come together because of the openness of the music scene on the Front Range.
Press: How do you plan your sets? When do you usually plan them?
YMSB: The afternoon of the set. Walking around. From request we get.
If we played it the night before; we won’t play it again,
In terms of openers and closers, if we played it last year; we won’t play it again.
Even if there are only five people following us from one city to the next, we don’t want them to hear the same thing.
After having to employ the assistance of our neighbors setting up the tent and knocking back a few very cold Budweisers while listening to the Emmitt-Nershi Bandplease the afternoon crowd in the distance, we decided to head into the festival grounds to officially start our day.
By the time we reached the main stage, the crowd was waiting for Split Lip Rayfield to take the stage. This band has been around for quite sometime, they’ve successfully made music and toured for over a decade. SLR specializes in bluegrass with a punk rock flair making their sound a little bit harder then traditional bluegrass, but it makes for a great performance. They even brought out guest Jeff Austin of Yonder to play with them, we had the best seat in the house for the sunset that night with bluegrass playing in our ears.
Next to take the stage (and a favorite of Swaager) came Railroad Earth. Every time this sextet takes the stage, they bring such an energy, such a vibe, that you can’t help but be in a great mood. It’s phenomenal that they combine so many different spheres of influence into their sound. Seeing Tim Carbone rail away on that violin set us right on our way for an amazing set. Including hits such as “Mighty River” off their 2006 album Elko and “Hard Livin’” off their newest album Amen Corner really got the crowd ripping and roaring, ready for the act that came on next.
Finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for, headlining quartet Yonder Mountain String Band took to the stage to play two sets of magic for us. As for another Harvest Festival treat, YMSB had Daryl Adger, their unofficial fifth member, joined the quartet on the stage. The raw power those men bring to the stage is unbelievable, especially the one and only, Jeff Austin. It’s evident in the way he contorts his face, particularly when he’s playing an especially fast segment on the mandolin, that he’s on a whole different level.
A cool aspect of Yonder Mountain String Band, is the fact that they all share leading the songs, contributing to the music, writing the lyrics. One song Dave will lead with vocals and banjo, while the next Jeff will take to the forefront. There is a sense of camaraderie there and you can feel it just witnessing them play. Their set included “The Iron Man” led by Dave Johnston on the banjo, “Another Day” of their 2006 album Mountain Tracks: Volume 4, and their adaptation of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” which was a perfect track to hear standing in the hills of Arkansas. It was with a heavy heart that we watched them leave the stage.
We meandered over to the Harvest Tent, the second largest stage at the festival, but much smaller than the main stage none-the-less. There we found ourselves listening to7 Walkers featuring Papa Mali and Bill Kreutzmann jamming away for their late night set to close out the evening. The music kept us romping and stomping the night away until they would play for us no more, but we had no fear for another day of music would come with the rising of the sun.