LEAF Top Five
Black Mountain/Lake Eden, NC
May 8-11, 2014
Twice a year, Camp Rockmont's bucolic alpine valley hosts the multifaceted Fest. From May 8 through 11, LEAF sold out to 6,500 capacity crowds each day, with a further 1,000 attendees on Saturday as part of the non-profit's educational Schools and Streets outreach program. Amid a kaleidoscope of impassioned poetry slams, late night techno DJs, stilt walking faerie processions and kids zip-lining overhead, focus remained on transcendent live music. Here's a look at who brought the funk:
Spinning a vortex of jack-hammer beats, Bollywood violins and a sensory overload multi-media show, percussionist Tommy Cappel, multi-instrumentalist David Satori and ballet-trained whirling dervish Zoe Jakes unfurled their bombastic, solar plexus rattling road show. Based on the trio's current albums - A Thousand Faces Acts 1 and 2 - The Beats' performance was as much Broadway extravaganza as dance-rock show. Think The Lion King pitched to a hipper room. Shape-shifting from Mata Hari to burlesque fan dancer to Tibetan temple goddess, Jakes took center stage. Yet there was a slight rigidity to the trio's explosion of sound and vision, with mystic middle eastern projections and pummeling ethno-electronica marking time while Jakes effected multiple costume-and-persona changes. Wisely, the trio slipped free of their time-table, inviting the horn section from funk fusion band Empire Strikes Brass onstage to pump more groove and elasticity into their crowd-pleasing set.
Stirring and shaking a potent cocktail on Punjabi bhangra, Crescent City brass and Brooklyn funk, Red Baraat was all about the groove. Pounding out skittering, skip-a-beat Go-Go rhythms on a double-sided dhol, group mastermind Sunny Jain led the eight piece ensemble on corkscrewing, rapidly increasing jams that whipped across the rain-sodden Lakeside Stage dance floor like a monsoon. Energy and variety enlivened the drums 'n horns configuration - snake charmer sax, heroic trumpet, surging Afro Pop trombones and Jain's hip hop clarion calls led a galloping charge over an elastic ribbon of bass and percolating percussion. As the moon broke through a scrim of clouds, Jain and his crew levitated, jumping in unison ever higher onstage. The crowd, now a sea of waving hands, was entranced and invigorated by Red Baraat's potent magic - a truly international dance fusion.
"I'm gonna part y'all like the Red Sea," Bootsy Collins peered out over star spangled shades at the jam-packed Lakeside tent. As his supple and enormous band - at one point there were at least 14 people onstage - vamped to Bootsy's "Touch Somebody," the slap bass master who inspired a generation of players clambered out into the crowd and pressed the flesh. "People say I'm crazy to get out here with you without security," said Bootsy, "but y'all are my security." Earlier, Collins, still spry at 62, proved his nimbleness on his instrument, peeling out twanging, licorice whip runs and searing Hendrix-styled psych blues solos on his gaudy bass. Clad in spacesuits, Bootsy's band and battery of back-up singers turned on a shiny dime from smooth and soulful to blistering and funked-up. The glitzy retro 70's show served as spectacle, recalling the goofy, self deprecating glamour of Parliament/Funkadelic's glory days. Yet when Bootsy switched on his raw-edged, soulful gospel-flavored vocals, he truly touched the heart.
Boukman Eksperyans, Haiti's premiere rhythm, soul and reggae band, were a key player in LEAF's global youth cultural education program, teaching traditional island dance and music to 12 Haitian youths. Completing the circle of cultural exchange, the Haitian kids trouped onstage to perform with Eksperyans under the big Lakeside tent Friday night. As touching and transcendent as that show that was, Eksperyans' Sunday gig in the intimate Barn was even better. For this show, the band partnered with a group of Asheville area school children whom they had tutored in their country's tradition of folklore, heritage and kicking out the jams. After percussive numbers dominated by the traditional Haitian drums kata and maman, the band continued sans kids. Sunny as the Caribbean, as winding as the mighty Congo, the band's twisting compositions incorporated zydeco-tinged keys, pin-wheeling funk guitar, rattling polyrhythms and folk storytelling as dancers portrayed headstrong daughters versus disapproving mothers through mime and motion.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
It's a long way from LEAF's Lakeside stage to the mud hut in the Guinea refugee camp where a documentary team first stumbled upon the All Stars. What hasn't changed is the band's mission. From their start, rising from the ashes of Sierra Leone's disastrous decade-long civil war to bring music to the people, the All Stars continue to keep the flame. Sunday afternoon, the band unleashed their heady mix of roots reggae, Afro-pop, West African rhythms and rockin' blues on a half-filled tent. The venue was soon packed with an audience transformed into a motion blur. Front man Ruben Koroma traded joyous, reggae styled vocals with youngest member Black Nature's fluid raps and smoothly soulful singing. As guitarists Jahson Gbassay Bull and Ashade Pearce uncoiled winding hi-life lines and fingerpicked blasts of psych blues, the melodies remained sun dappled, despite the lyrics often serious intent. Introducing the galloping "Rich but Poor", Koroma said, "Don't go to war. It's never a problem solver." - a fitting message for a celebration of global dance, music and funk.