It was said over and over this weekend: Wildwood Revival is special. It’s a small festival that feels like a big family reunion. Taking place on Cloverleaf Farm in Arnoldsville, Ga., right outside of Athens, it’s an annual treasure trove that brings together the best of the music that defines us. While it could be simply labeled as a folk festival, it’s truly so much more. The lineup captured rock, Americana, Appalachia, cajun, singer-songwriter, blues… Whole families showed up for the festival, and the range of ages seen dancing on the floor of the open-air barn was beautiful. Artists attended other artists’ sets, the big ones being The Lone Bellow, Gillian Welch and Houndmouth. There was a distinct lack of pretense and an overwhelming sense of family everywhere— in the music, the crowd and the organic popsicles.
Athens Cowboy Choir—The Athens Cowboy Choir opened the festival on Friday evening. No need to wonder if their name is just an ironic banner for a too-cool hipster group of dudes who play keytars—they’re a literal choir of cowboys. From Athens. Ten of them occupied the petite Wildwood stage, singing about the lows and highs (mostly lows) of life in the wild, wild west, completely dressed for the part in cowboy hats, bolo ties and fringed chaps. They played renditions of cowboy classics, including a cover of “Do Not Forsake Me: The Ballad of High Noon” from the 1952 film. The Athens Cowboy Choir is the very best kind of cover band. They’re sweet, nostalgic and they sound great, likely due in large to the fact that most of them are indie music veterans. Among its talented members are JoJo Glidewell (Of Montreal, Modern Skirts), James Huggins III (Of Montreal, James Husband) and Jay Gulley (Modern Skirts).
The Lone Bellow—Wildwood Revival is a family reunion, and The Lone Bellow solidified it by holding their soundcheck directly before their set. It was routine and messy, something that they surely don’t invite an audience to witness on a regular tour. After the soundcheck, frontman Zach Williams said, “It’s hot, ya’ll. It feels good. The kind of weather you fall in love in.” And with that, the band launched into their set, mostly comprised of songs from their most recent album, Then Came The Morning (released in January 2015), with a couple of new songs and some crowd-pleasers from their first release. If the weather was the kind you fall in love in, then The Lone Bellow makes the kind of music you fall in love to. The harmonies of Williams and bandmates Kanene Donehey Pipkin and Brian Elmquist are earnest and sincere. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun, though. Au contraire. They covered Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” getting the amused crowd to provide the “do-do-doos.” Couples danced despite the heat and tight space and children ran wild. The Lone Bellow gave Wildwood everything they had, letting us in on why it’s called a “revival.”
SUSTO—SUSTO is a young folk rock outfit from Charleston, S.C. that kicked the day off at noon with a youthful energy. Their Bible Belt roots are evident with gospel-infused choruses and references to the “way beyond the blue.” The four guys and girl can rock, though, and 20-something angst lingers in heavy percussion and lyrics like “I don’t why I can’t find a lover.” The 5-piece band released their first album in 2014 and expect their second to be out in January.
JP Harris—While JP Harris is a self-proclaimed country singer, he shouldn’t be confused with the twangy pop dominating country radio these days. Dressed in a wife beater to show off his extensive tattoos and cowboy wranglers, he was down-to-earth witty and sarcastic. One of his songs, “Badly Bent” was featured in a movie called At Any Price. “It was flop,” he prefaced, referring to the film. “Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron and it flopped. I bet they still got paid though.” His music is that of a backwoods honky tonk, and it’s a shame that it’s not the standard anymore.
Indianola—Indianola is exactly what the college girls in high-waisted shorts came for. Four good looking dudes playing vintage-inspired folk rock about “drinking and making bad choices.” Like a Black Keys from the bayou, lead singer Owen Beverly’s smooth voice was riddled with bad boy rasp and rebellious twang. The band is relatively new, though Beverly has years of experience as a solo act. They’ve landed opening spots on tours with Lera Lynn and Shovels & Rope this fall, and their debut album is on the way.
Legendary Shack Shakers—The words “wild,” “rambunctious” and “energetic” only begin to capture the four men of the Legendary Shack Shakers. Their fast, unbridled booze blues shook the crowd into alertness and it was impossible to keep still during their set. Frontman J.D. Wilkes is all that a frontman should be. Red and dripping, there wasn’t a piece of him left ungiven to the audience.
The Hackensaw Boys—Where the Legendary Shack Shakers brought their energy from a Deep South saloon, The Hackensaw Boys brought their fast and furious sound from the Appalachian mountaintops. The music was homemade and messy and jiggy as Grandpa playing the spoons after a gulp of moonshine. Along with the expected fiddle and upright bass, The Hackensaw Boys made use of a “charismo” as well. If you haven’t been living in the hills since 1930, a charismo is a wearable percussive instrument that straps to one’s body and is made from a license plate, a hubcap and a group of tin cans, top to bottom. Their stage presence was as good-natured and wildly friendly as their music, and songs were frequently prefaced with statements of goodwill and bits of wisdom. “It’s nice to have a friend when you need one. It’s better to have a friend than an enemy,” said David Sickmen, guitarist and vocalist before the Boys crashed into their anthemic finale “We Are Many,” from their April release, aptly named Charismo.
Big George Brock—Big George Brock was the definite wild card of the day, bringing the most authentic, hardcore blues to the barn. He is, in fact, the King of Blues. That’s what his gold cape labeled him, anyway. He played a loud and commanding harmonica, and his “lady friend” sang Aretha-like soul alongside him.
Gillian Welch—When Gillian Welch sings, people listen. The day may have been packed with firey drums and charismos, but Welch and her partner of more than 20 years, David Rawlings, brought the barn back down to earth with their easy string-picking. It’s the kind of music you imagine was born in a barn after long days of work and sweat, so it was right at home echoing off the tin walls and wood beams at Wildwood Revival. Hearing Welch sing is like hearing your mother sing—her low, effortless voice tells of hurt and brokenness in a way that reaches inside you and makes you hurt, too. She and Rawlings played a good bit from their 2011 release “The Harrow & The Harvest,” but she also reached back and played fan favorites like “Orphan Girl” and “Miss Ohio.” It would be an understatement to say that Welch pioneered this new Americana movement that ultimately brought more than 1,000 people out to see these bands playing the music of our roots. Welch reigns as our quiet queen, a voice proving that folk music can weather any high or low in trend.
Sammy Brue—Sammy Brue eased us into the day on Sunday morning, playing his coffee house acoustic at 10:30 A.M. In his grandpa cardigan, glasses and brimmed hat, he sang about love and loss with wisdom far beyond his 15 years. His style is heavy on picking and his voice is reminiscent of The Tallest Man on Earth. He didn’t strive for any feats of showmanship, saying, “Sorry I’m not very talkative. I’m shy and awkward.” But as my photographer pal Mitch pointed out, who isn’t at 15? His songs were full of simultaneous experience and purity, strikingly honest and unapologetic. His last song was even written for his grandmother.
Ancient Cities—Out of North Carolina, Ancient Cities brought head-banging funk rock to the barn. The space filled up quickly with bodies as their fun psychedelic sound travelled. The addition of city garage rock was a nice variation in the Wildwood lineup.
Thayer Sarrano—Thayer Sarrano is a lady of many talents, playing her electric organ and electric guitar simultaneously and belting a sweet voice comparable to that of Stevie Nicks. Her style is dark, heavy and rootsy, with lyrics like a southern Evanescence (in the best way).
Nellie Pearl—Nellie Pearl is a certified all-American band with songs that hop genres from surfer rock to upbeat country. Heavy on guitar solos and rippling sweet harmonies from the guy-and-gal pair lead vocalists, the sass was tangible and the energy remained high.
Aaron Lee Tasjan—In his gold-sequined suit, Aaron Lee Tasjan looked like he might burst into a candy-striped country tune, but the singer-songwriter from Nashville sang hard-truthed tales punk in lyric and backroad barroom in sound.
Lost Bayou Ramblers—The night was kicked up cajun-style before Houndmouth’s closing with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a group of Louisiana boys with an affinity for French words and carousing the stage like maniacs. Louis Michot shined with lightning-fast fiddling, and an accordion and triangle helped make the group’s sound even more distinctly Creole. For the set finale, they started a conga line of sorts, sauntering around the farm while playing to collect donations for Louisiana flood relief.
Houndmouth—Closing the weekend at Cloverleaf Farm was Houndmouth, a far cry from most of the Americana and roots music that dominated the weekend. The guys of Houndmouth look like they belong in the brat pack, young and wild, saxophones and raging guitar solos infused in their sound. They transformed the barn into a house party with the best band on campus. Sound difficulties delayed the set and put them on a tighter schedule, but the crowd was welcoming nonetheless, belting the lyrics to the standouts like “Black Gold” and “Sedona.” Frontman Matt Myers was a wonder to behold as he slid easily in and out of a falsetto and shredded his glittery guitar. Houndmouth pushed Wildwood Revival over the edge, the very essence of “going out with a bang.”
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The Lone Bellow
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Legendary Shack Shakers
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Legendary Shack Shakers
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The Hackensaw Boys
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The Hackensaw Boys