One of the most encouraging trends in the modern music industry has to be the rise of the eclectic festival: For instance, the nation's mega-festivals—Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella—have grown steadily into the molds of their European counterparts, welcoming a wide, diverse swath of bands onto the same stages. It's a chance for discovery and a place for fundamental similarities and differences to shine. But, mostly, it's just more fun that way.
Two of this area's premier music festivals—Shakori Hills' biannual gatherings in the Chatham County woods and Durham's Festival for the Eno every July—have both taken substantial measures to broaden their scope this year: Festival for the Eno shook complacence from its bookings this year, breaking from the old and familiar to test the waters with young acts like The Future Kings of Nowhere and Midtown Dickens.
In its way, Shakori Hills has done that all along, inviting a mixed bag of locals and nationals to its several stages and tents. But this year—thanks to the three-piece blaring rock charge of Des Ark, the seared folk pastiche of Megafaun and the jazz-plus ease of Durham-based, world-praised singer Nnenna Freelon—the festival is reaching further beyond itself than ever before, while holding tight to its roots-driven past. We present 16 bands that reflect the unified breadth of this year's well-designed Shakori Hills lineup and give us hope for the festival's continued vitality.
HAW RIVER ROUNDERS (6 P.M.): Playing jug band music with a ramshackle, seemingly improvised aesthetic, the Haw River Rounders combines washboard, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and accordion in an unwieldy hillbilly vaudeville. Blues, ragtime and old-time blend beneath the Durham quartet's big-top, transporting audiences to a loosely swinging country juke joint.
"Together we know over 100 songs, so each and every show is fresh and unique," says Rodger Lenhardt, who spends the band's sets perched behind a washboard augmented by cymbal, tambourine and a percussive coterie.
Besides playing a few originals by fiddler Chris Mankoff, the group mainly covers songs from the '20s and '30s, which it will delve into during various impromptu performances: "We love the camping and the late night jams at the Jolly Roger Camp at the top of the camping meadow." Shakori Hills is not about specific performances for the band, though it does have an on-stage gig. Rather, it's about building and participating in the community. In the process, the quartet has become an institution at Shakori Hills. They'll judge this year's band competition, which they once participated in. Banjo player Ed Witkin even designed the solar-power system that the festival's Solar Project will use this year. —Andrew Ritchey
Also on Thursday
JOHN SPECKER: old-time solo fiddle music fills a room and your heart (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.; Friday, 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.)
THE EVERYBODYFIELDS: beckons a peaceful psychedelic haze to rest over its indie folk (10:30 p.m.)
JULE BROWN: distorts the blues into a dark, surreal bog of guitar and voice (10 p.m.)
SAMANTHA CRAIN (8:45 P.M.): Samantha Crain's appearance this weekend in the Chatham County woods represents the confluence of several unlikely storylines. The most basic subplot here is Crain's heritage: A 21-year-old Choctaw descendant raised in Shawnee, Okla., Crain's just one of a small if strong set of Native American musicians who've succeeded outside of folk music restrictions. Indeed, her music—which builds from a gentle, bedroom-storyteller base, like Cat Power young and stable—is best at its most expansive, as when her backing trio, The Midnight Shivers, wraps her diminutive, distinctive coo in trotting rhythms and atmospheric guitars. The five tracks on Crain's debut EP, Confiscation, bleed into one another, connected sonically as though they are chapters of a leather-bound book sharing the same page. It sits as well in Americana as it does indie rock spheres, its earnestness and longing for redemption playing nicely against a cool, temperate backdrop.
The same can be said for some of Crain's labelmates, as her appearance in North Carolina isn't an accidental circumstance of tour routing. Early this year, Crain began working with Dolph Ramseur, who's successfully pushed acts like The Avett Brothers, the everybodyfields and Bombadil through the same circuits. With Ramseur's aegis, Crain's climbed steadily in the region. She first played North Carolina in 2005, picking up gigs at a Hickory record store and a coffeeshop in a town so small she can't name it. Since, she's played several area club shows and recorded her first full-length at Asheville's Echo Mountain. Let's hope such storylines keep leading Crain and her perfectly poised sound within earshot of Carolina. Crain also plays Saturday at 9 p.m. —Grayson Currin
Also on Friday
DES ARK: back in band form—hard, heavy and resplendent (5:30 p.m.)
HOLY GHOST TENT REVIVAL: lives up to its name, resurrecting swing and zydeco with a party-pit shot of rock (Thursday, 11 p.m.; Friday, 3:45 p.m.)
TOUBAB KREWE: Asheville jam band makes good on stateside explorations of African music (11:30 p.m.)
NNENNA FREELON (8 P.M.): Song stylist isn't a term you hear much these days. It feels more a souvenir from the heydays of your Ella Fitzgeralds and Sarah Vaughans. But it's a tag that tends to find its way into write-ups on six-time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon, and one that fits as well as the elegant gowns in which she glows on stage. She's a modern singer, for sure, but she's also part of a classic tradition and proud of it.
But to call Durham-based Freelon a jazz singer is only partially correct. She is that, but also much more. Possessing a flair for interpretation and a disinterest in drawing musical boundaries, Freelon sets the stage for vocal thrills and surprises. On 2002's Tales of Wonder, for instance, she put her stamp on selections from Stevie Wonder's brilliant catalog, while 2005's Blueprint of a Lady was a Billie Holiday tribute.
In that spirit, it's fair to call her latest release, Better Than Anything, a celebration of Nnenna Freelon and her, well, wide-ranging song styling. On the record, she bounces from bop to pop, from Nat King Cole to reggae, from Cole Porter to gospel, gloriously comfortable in whatever musical garb the song demands. With so much in the closet, it will be fascinating to see what she comes up with for the Shakori Hills crowd. —Rick Cornell
Also on Saturday
DEL MCCOURY BAND: The quintessential bluegrass voice backed by an all-star (but only partial-offspring) band (6 p.m.)
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS :The joyous sound of banjos and fiddles, rags and stomps—and history (4:30 & 9 p.m.)
THE BELLEVILLE OUTFIT: A Django-meets-New Orleans name, and a swinging, jazzy, rootsy sound that fits (Friday, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, 1:30 p.m.)
THE DUHKS (5:30 p.m.): For the fourth straight year, Winnipeg, Manitoba's The Duhks will make the October migration to Silk Hope. Banjo player and occasional vocalist Leonard Podolak says the festival's an annual treat for the band because it simply seems different: "Even though it's a festival, it feels like a family picnic with world class music—what a real folk festival is supposed to feel like," he says. "There is no sense of who's the most important—everyone there is—and that's why we like it."
A similarly inclusive spirit has kept The Duhks strong through a tumultuous 18 months. Before releasing its fourth album, the band replaced frontwoman Jessee Havey and percussionist Scott Senior, recruiting fellow Winnipegians Sarah and Christian Dugas to move the band forward. Podolak says The Duhks had known the music of the Dugas siblings for years. "When Jess left the band, I had to make one phone call," he says. "Six months later, when Scott left, there was no doubt who would replace him." Sarah's sultry rasp mirrors Havey's voice a bit, while Christian is a more straightforward player than the world-influenced Senior. The band continues to fuse traditional musicianship and modern sensibilities, then, as when Sarah spits rapid-fire French raps over a Latin rhythm on "Magalenha" or digital programming mingles with banjos and fiddles on "Mighty Storm." That's inclusion, all right. The Duhks also plays at 1 a.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Friday. —Spencer Griffith
Also on Sunday
MIDTOWN DICKENS: Durham folk-ish quartet can play it silly, but its more solemn numbers burn with the muted intensity of the changing leaves (2:15 p.m.)
BOULDER ACOUSTIC SOCIETY: Melds newgrass with jazz as it dabbles among the tenuous borders between several roots and folk subgenres (Saturday, 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30 p.m.)
THE CAN KICKERS: High-flyin', free-wheelin' old-time glee from New London, Conn.; hollering and dancing expected (Friday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 6:30 p.m.)