By John Phillips
Photos by John Phillips/Festy Shots Photography
The main festival site has moved from the parking lot of festival organizer Mike Dianna's restaurant to The Whalehead Club, a 39 acre property with a historic 1920's art deco house adjacent to the Currituck Lighthouse. While last year's late-night shows were offered in one venue, this year's patrons had three different locations and genres to choose from. And where last year's performers alternated between a smallish tent stage and a very small deck in front of the restaurant, this year's acts alternated between two large, equally sized side-by-side stages with top grade sound and lighting. It's expanded from two to three days with the addition of a Thursday evening kickoff featuring local talent. The proceeds still benefit the festival’s namesake, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (http://www.corollawildhorses.com/). But this year, the Mustang Outreach Program (http://www.mustangoutreach.org/), which supplements the cultural arts programs in local schools with world class music performances, residencies and mentoring programs, also received support from the festival.
Here's what hasn't changed: it supports the local community (and it's well supported by the community), it's in a beautiful location, the music is a top notch mix of national, regional and local acts, it's family friendly, and it still has the feel and intimacy of a small festival. And that's just what Mike Dianna was aiming for. What started as a one-day festival with about 100 people in 2011 has grown into a three-day event enjoyed by around 1,500 music lovers. This year's festivities started with the Kick-Off Party at Cosmo's Pizzeria, right across Route 12 from the main venue. It was a free event for all locals and VIP ticket holders, and showcased two local bands (The Wailheads and The Hound Dogs Family Band) and the roots/reggae band Session Rockers from just up the road in Virginia Beach. Sweetwater Brewing had some great selections on tap, the weather was perfect, and the vibe was sweet. It was a great warm up for the main event.
Under beautiful blue skies and mild temperatures, the local band Soul House Revival got things grooving on Friday. This trio, formed in March of this year, features the soulful vocals of bassist Phillip Alcock, backed by Patrick Goller on guitar and Myles Wood on drums. They played a mix of cover and original material off their new EP "Roots" to a small but appreciative crowd. They were followed by Dewey Via, a singer-songwriter from St. Augustine, FL. His flat-picking guitar work and rustic vocals (with a washboard accompanist keeping rhythm) was the perfect prescription for some mid-afternoon hootin' and hollerin'. Next up was the Jesse Chong Band from Virginia Beach. Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Jesse Chong and featuring Bernie Lee on keyboards, Will Highton on bass, and James Dale on drums, this ensemble glided from rock to reggae to soul, anchored by Jesse's prodigious guitar licks. Shifting gears completely, Jamie Kent and The Options took the stage. With a country/folk vibe featuring Jamie Kent on guitar and vocals, this Northampton, MA group includes Killian Karlsson on guitar, Rhees Williams on upright bass, and Dan Holmes on drums. Just when you have them pegged as sort of country/pop, they throw a Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen cover at you.
The NYC power trio The London Souls stormed the stage next. The band's name is indicative of their sound, derived from British invasion bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Hollies. They presented a powerful set that included an awesome cover of "Politician". This group wins my selection as the best band I hadn't heard of before the festival. Sorry, no prize or trophy that comes with it.
It feels a little strange to use "local band" and Tim Reynolds in the same sentence, but it's true. This legendary guitarist calls the Outer Banks of North Carolina home, and his group TR3 took the stage next. With Mick Vaughn on bass and Dan Martier on drums, the crowd was treated to a sonic roller coaster ride of improvisational explorations through rock, jazz and metal. Reynolds is as physically expressive as he is musically, adding another dimension to the performance. Blown away!
Friday night's headliner was JJ Grey & Mofro, with their unique blend of front porch soul and swamp funk from the environs of Lochloosa, FL. I'm a native Floridian and have followed this band since the beginning when they were just Mofro and Daryl Hance was teaming with JJ on the guitar, and I never miss an opportunity to catch their shows. Apparently I'm not alone, because the crowd swelled noticeably before they took the stage. They broke out a couple of deep cuts like "Fire Flies" and "Orange Blossoms", and finished the show with an encore of "Lochloosa" and "Ho Cake".
As I mentioned earlier, the late night festivities were offered at three different locations. Back at Cosmo's Pizzeria there was a Jam Room hosted by Dan Martier and Mick Vaughn of TR3, while right next door at Uncle Ike's there were DJ sets by Masterglass and DJ Lex/Incean. A couple of miles down the road at Sundog's Bar & Grill, the local rock trio Formula was followed by Jody Seabody & The Whirls, a heavy prog rock group from Houston, TX. Talk about your tough choices! We tried to squeeze into Cosmo's for the jam, but settled for listening through an open window for awhile, and thought better of driving down to Sundog's.
Saturday dawned with sunny skies and warm temperatures, and the festivities kicked off with tangible evidence of this festival's commitment to the community, the arts, and the kids. A variety of acts from the Mustang Outreach Program got the opportunity to perform on a big stage in front of a crowd that included more than just band parents. It was so cool to see these kids perform! There was everything from a middle school jazz band, a solo acoustic act, a female acoustic duo, seven Fiddle Chicks, and a couple of rock bands. The guys from People's Blues of Richmond were out front encouraging them and met the kids backstage to applaud their efforts and keep them motivated.
Keeping the local connection going, the Corolla rock band Category 5 (since renamed Lunar Test Drive) took the stage. This is the only band that has played every time since the festival's inception. The band features brothers Greg and Matt Spencer on guitar, Scott McCaulley on bass and Kenny Lovell on drums playing all original, blues driven rock and roll. The skies began to darken and wind picked up as Virginia Beach's Seth Stainback & Roosterfoot took the stage. Disclaimer: I'm a little biased when it comes to this band, and I figure they'll eventually get a restraining order to keep me from stalking them. But they totally kick ass! Seth's guitar, vocals and songwriting are just phenomenal. He's backed by Larry Berwald on guitar, Steven Yewcic on bass, Jason Bruner on drums, and his dad Keith Stainback on percussion. Seth is a shipyard welder by trade and the band's latest album, "Fire and Steel", conveys that hot, gritty feel on tracks like "Burn" and "Creekside" (both featuring solos by Anders Osborne). There's also a tender, reflective side that comes through on "Nothin' to Lose" and "Foolish Pride".
The Athens, GA indie-rock band New Madrid was up next as some light rain moved in, and as they started with their first song the skies opened up, washing out their set. While the rain moved through fairly quickly, it did a number on some of the sound gear, but the crew did a great job getting everything dried off, reconnected and tested. It was really a bummer that New Madrid got bumped.
With everything back up and running, People's Blues of Richmond took the stage. This blues-rock trio features Tim Beavers on guitar and vocals, Matt Volkes on bass, and Neko Williams on drums, and they really bring it! They've been touring up and down the East coast and were voted onto the bill to play at this year's Lock'n Festival. Don't miss an opportunity to see this band if they're in your neighborhood. They were followed by Roadkill Ghost Choir from Athens, GA by way of Deland, FL. Their sound defies classification, ranging from melodic to symphonic with heavily layered guitar and synth, interspersed with hard rock breaks and riffs, and a banjo thrown in for good measure. Some might call it an acquired taste. Consider it acquired.
The Revivalists played two sets on Jam Cruise this past January, and I somehow missed them both. I will never let that happen again!! This New Orleans based group really stole the show. It's one of the most energetic shows, across the board, that I've seen in quite a while. David Shaw's vocals are phenomenal, and he made three trips into a very happy crowd to get acquainted. You were never sure if Ed Williams' pedal steel was going to tip over into the pit, and I half expected Michael Girardot and Rob Ingraham to jump off the stage with their trumpet and sax, respectively. These guys are troopers, too. When the stage lost power during their opening song, they carried on acoustically in a New Orleans march style, never missing a beat.
At this point, the second stage was unusable from the previous rain, so there was a mad dash to clear the stage and set up for The New Mastersounds. But in spite of the pressure and some lingering technical issues, this funky jazz quartet remained calm and carried on in true British fashion. And the crowd hung in with them to the end as they rolled through favorites from their expansive catalog.
The late night choices were no easier on Saturday. Down at Sundog's you had local psych rockers Zack Mexico, followed by the equally trippy band The Tills from Asheville, NC. At Uncle Ike's, you had DJ Tschnegg, followed by DJ Aung and DJ Misha. We managed to squeeze into Cosmo's for the Jam Room, hosted by Jesse Chong and Jason Bruner. After a couple of songs, they ceded the stage (the corner of the room, actually) to New Madrid! And while it was only about a half-hour slot, everyone was happy they got a chance to perform. What a great way to wrap up the weekend!
Mark your calendars now for October 9-10, 2015. You don't want to miss the scene at next year's Mustang Music Festival!