It's late on a fall afternoon in 2011, and the sun is setting on Chatham County. Light filters through the trees that surround Shakori Hills' quaintly disheveled farmhouse, which serves as the office for the farm and semi-annual festival site. From one end of the home's spacious wraparound porch, I hear a bluegrass workshop struggling admirably.
After a short breather, I'm off, ambling toward the festival's large Meadow Stage, where Sidi Touré is about to perform his first of two festival sets—the only North Carolina performances scheduled on his North American tour. Descended from royal Malian blood, he plays lush African folk hinged on waves of hypnotic picking by way of acoustic guitar and instruments from his homeland. In an hour, I've gone from admiring amateurs to marveling at one of Africa's brightest talents. Of all the music festivals North Carolina provides, Shakori Hills is the only one that offers this kind of experience.
The Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance started in 2002 and now happens twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. Between Thursday and Sunday of this week, about 5,000 people will descend upon the rolling fields of Shakori Hills' Silk Hope farm. In full swing, it feels like a welcoming artistic village, where you can wander from craft displays to dance lessons, from local bands to internationally renowned legends. Shakori Hills is about more than just music, but there is always plenty of that to go around, too.
Below, several members of the Independent's music staff explain which bands you should catch and when. —Jordan Lawrence
Curtis Eller — 7 p.m. at Cabaret Tent: Few folk artists are as mercurial as Curtis Eller. He plunders through the roots music canon, fashioning a shifty sonic carnival that rarely stops in the same place twice. His most recent LP, 2008's Wirewalkers and Assassins, spans ethereal acoustic numbers akin to Dylan's low-key late '60s, banjo-powered renditions of Elvis-style R&B and stripped back acoustic takes on Tom Waits' corrosive vaudeville. It's a mixed bag that occasionally falls flat, but Eller's charisma rescues him from every lull. Also Friday, 5:45, Cabaret Tent. —Jordan Lawrence
Leftover Salmon — 9:30 p.m. at Meadow Stage: Colorado quintet Leftover Salmon has been a mainstay of the festival circuit for the better part of two decades, distinguishing itself from likeminded groups by spicing its blend of bluegrass and roots rock with Cajun and zydeco flavors. Whether picking at breakneck speed or settling into a relaxed groove for marathon improvisations, Leftover Salmon has the instrumental goods to make its loose-limbed, good-natured ditties as memorable as they are fun. —Spencer Griffith
Mandolin Orange — 7:30 p.m. at Carson's Grove: Chapel Hill duo Mandolin Orange crafts simple songs that go beyond chord progressions and vocal harmonies, leading somehow toward something pure. Using acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin and a hand-me-down fiddle, Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz allure with a heart-worn sensibility. Last year's Haste Make/ Hard Hearted Stanger combines bluegrass, rock and country for lullabies that swoon. Mandolin Orange carries an understanding of tradition and shape it into a thing of beauty. —Ashleigh Phillips
Diali Cissokho and Kairaba — 9:30 p.m. at Dance Tent: Funky, explosive West African dance grooves form the basis of this quintet from Carrboro, led by Senegalese griot Diali Cissokho. John Westmoreland's hypnotic electric guitar riffs match the fire of Cissokho's kora and charismatic vocals in English, French, Manding and Wolof. Jonathan Henderson on bass and the percussion gauntlet of Will Ridenour and Austin McCall add the backbone. Kairaba plays with new authority these days, fresh off a trip to Africa and a CD release party that raised the roof at the Cat's Cradle earlier this month. Also Thursday, Midnight, Meadow Stage. —Sylvia Pfeiffenberger
The Beast — midnight at Meadow Stage: Full-time proud Durham resident and emcee, part-time music instructor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Pierce Freelon steers this jam-heavy, hip-hop/ jazz quartet into many creative intersections. Freelon's forward-thinking lyricism merges with the rest of his band's flair for unexpected, house-party funk. Pianist Eric Hirsh brings extra sauce to The Beast as co-leader of his other band—the 13-piece Latin outfit, Orquesta GarDel—which, in the end keeps this four-man crew well-rounded and culturally explosive. —Eric Tullis
Mad Tea — 3:45 p.m. at Cabaret Tent: Asheville duo Mad Tea make garage pop catchy enough to induce a dance floor freak out. On 2010's Rock and Roll Ghoul, Jason Krekel's driving guitar and Ami Worthen's electric ukulele party together like a '60s shakedown. Whether Worthen sings about exorcising demon on "Possesed" or Krekel describes a monster's living arrangements in "Frankenstein's Den," being creepy has never sounded so boogie-worthy. Also Friday, 5:45 p.m., Carson's Grove. —Ashleigh Phillips
Music Maker Revue — 8 p.m. at Cabaret Tent: Keeping blues pioneers alive and in front of new audiences is the mission of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. This Revue showcases four artists with distinctive styles: Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen, known for her larger-than-life wigs, feather boas and electric blues; '60s soul belter and boogie-woogie piano player Ironing Board Sam; acoustic guitarist/ vocalist Ron Hunter and his tender, uplifting originals; and Captain Luke, a Piedmont bluesman with a mesmerizingly deep baritone. You won't get any closer to the roots in "grassroots" than this. —Sylvia Pfeiffenberger
Suénalo — 10:45 p.m. at Dance Tent: The sounds and styles that burst from Suénalo are as diverse and vibrant as Miami, their home. They take Latin funk grooves and spice them up with inflections of Cuban and Puerto Rican beats, Afro-pop flares and reggae sway. One second they play with the agility of jazz titans: the next, the ferocity of rock stars. The band, a crew of eight full-time musicians, has been 10 years in the making. Their eclectic tastes and passion for the movement in the music is perhaps what's made them two-time winners of Miami New Times' title for Best Latin Band in Miami. Also Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Meadow Stage. —Ashley Melzer
Revelation Mizik — 4:30 p.m. at Meadow Stage: Miami's Revelation Mizik, the first-ever Haitian band to visit Shakori Hills, plays the dance music known as compas ("konpa") with a Christian twist. The sound is the same as the secular version—bubbling electric guitars, congas, trapset drums tapping out syncopated cymbal hits, and synthesizers used to conjure horns, banjos and accordion. But these frontmen bring "the Word" in Kreyol. More relaxed than salsa or merengue, compas dancers grind hips in a sensual figure-eight, working the floor in an easy two-step. Also Friday, 6:45 p.m., Meadow Stage. —Sylvia Pfeiffenberger
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet — 2 p.m. at Dance Tent: For 34 years, Lafayette, La.'s Beausoleil has been bringing the bayou closer to the hearts of music fans. The group's acoustic Cajun jams are a wonder of fiddle-anchored traditional fair and inventive fusions of zydeco, Western swing, Tex-Mex, Caribbean calypso and blues. With a mix of mandolin, fiddle, accordion, stand-up bass and percussion, the band serves up tunes that'll have dance floors thick with movers, maybe mumbling in French. Also Sunday, 6 p.m. Meadow Stage. —Ashley Melzer
This article appeared in print with the headline "The weekender."