Anyone who has ever attended a multistage music festival—from South By Southwest and Coachella to North Carolina's own Merlefest and the rookie Hopscotch—knows that conflicts abound. It's no different at Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, the twice-a-year fest held just outside of the Chatham County crossroads community of Silk Hope.
Maybe it's a case of two must-see bands playing at the same time or bidding a favorite band farewell mid-set to head across town, or across pasture, to see another favorite. I've experienced that pain firsthand, and I know it hurts.
Below, I consider a potential conflict from each of the festival's four nights and offer unsolicited advice on what might satisfy best. These aren't the only battles to consider: On Saturday night, for instance, there's the faceoff of the Sarahs (Jarosz vs. Carrere). On Sunday, expect a vintage music showdown between the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Big Al & the Marching Rams.
View the complete bill, a PDF of potential heartbreak. And remember the words printed at the bottom of the schedule: "Thank you for understanding that schedules can be subject to change." Maybe things will work out after all.
Claim to fame: coining the term "soulfolk"
It's not much to ask, is it? At festivals and elsewhere, it'd sure help if the artists were visibly labeled in Recommend if You Like terms. Maybe RIYL T-shirts could be required wearing. For the Milagro Saints, those shirts would need to be extra long in order to sport a lengthy list of names like Van Morrison, the Waterboys, Joni Mitchell, The Band and Fairport Convention. It's all rather sophisticated stuff, just rustic and rootsy enough that you can locate its soul. In the DANCE TENT.
From: Southeast Michigan
Claim to fame: living up to the term "Gothic Americana"
It's not much to ask, is it? At festivals and elsewhere, it'd sure help if the artists were visibly labeled in Recommend if You Like terms. Maybe a barcode-size stamp on the forehead could be required. For Frontier Ruckus, that stamp would read Palace Brothers (courtesy of the All Music Guide), Sufjan Stevens (ditto) and Neutral Milk Hotel (Rollingstone.com). You know, rather stark stuff, but still warm enough that you can locate its heart. In CARSON'S GROVE.
DECISION: Let's begin with an easy solution. The start times for these two bands are staggered by half an hour, so catch half of each set.
From: Gloucester, N.C.
Since: early '90s
Claim to fame: N.C. Mardi Gras
Bryan Blake and company have been at it for close to 20 years, and it's just a matter of time before they're known. The quartet mixes instruments (accordion, fiddle, rub board, pedal steel, you name it) and musical cultures (Cajun, zydeco, country and western, rhythm and blues) so much that if Unknown Tongues doesn't play something that hits a sweet spot, you're just not trying. Consider this: Blake and his multi-instrumentalist wife, Barbara, are so committed to the music that they host an annual Mardi Gras celebration on North Carolina's Crystal Coast. In the DANCE TENT.
From: various N.C. points
Since: early '90s
Claim to fame: laid-back good times
Vocalist/ percussionist Shep and company have been at it for close to 20 years, and it's just a matter of time before they go pro. No need to risk getting lost in a maze of subgenres and fusion genres—with The Amateurs, you can say the band plays reggae and leave it at that. If you don't find yourself swaying, either you're just not trying or, more believably, you've flatlined. Consider this: The band is so committed to the music that it used to reside in a place called the Reggae Express Shop in Wilmington. In CARSON'S GROVE.
DECISION: Pick a spot. Let one leg two-step (which, sure, is probably technically impossible) and the other rock steady.
CHATHAM COUNTY LINE
Claim to fame: infallibility and versatility
By the time I finished listening to Wildwood, the fifth and latest release from Chatham County Line, I was officially convinced that the group could do no wrong. Actually, CCL had me at its country-gospel take on "I Shall Be Released" from its 2003 debut, but consider the band's perfection now official and enduring. The quartet configures itself like a bluegrass band, and wins awards as such, but it could just as easily be considered an acoustic roots-rock band. And Dave Wilson and the guys sing rural songs—of crops and Woody Guthrie and Philco radios—without a hint of condescension or tourism. At MEADOW STAGE.
JUSTIN ROBINSON & THE MARY ANNETTES
From: the Triangle
Claim to fame: versatility and infallibility
By the time I finished watching Justin Robinson and his Carolina Chocolate Drop mates on a recent Saturday night at Duke's Reynolds Theater, I was officially convinced that he could do no wrong. In addition to the usual trio heroics, Robinson flawlessly delivered an a cappella version of what he called "an Afro-Puerto Rican standard" and teamed with Rhiannon Giddens to unleash a windstorm of fiddle-and-voice Celtic hip-hop. Even his hair was versatile, moving from freestyle to a bun over the course of the night. With this quartet and its art pop of violin and banjo, Robinson showcases yet another side of his musical personality. At the CABARET TENT.
DECISION: Postpone thinking about this battle by checking out Audra Mae, a sweet-singing and good-rocking festival wild card whose set starts a little before those of these two acts. Then flip a coin.
DONNA THE BUFFALO & FRIENDS
From: Trumansburg, N.Y.
Claim to fame: making zydeco-bluegrass-reggae-folk-country rock
It's their party and they'll close if they want to. OK, so it's technically not Donna the Buffalo's festival, but Shakori Hills is based on the GrassRoots Festival that the band rolled out two decades ago near Ithaca, New York. Its members remain the spiritual godfathers, -mothers, -sisters and -brothers of Shakori. And Donna the Buffalo's anything-with-a-groove sound serves as the perfect wrap-up of everything you've heard over the previous 50 or so hours, like a movie being re-enacted over the closing credits by a different, mega-skilled troupe. This is as close to a guaranteed good time as can be offered, especially for diehard Shakorians who have hung on until the end. At the MEADOW STAGE.
Really, could anybody compete? About the only thing you could do is create a supergroup out of Sunday's other acts, but all of those folks will be up onstage with Donna the Buffalo at some point anyway.