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by Steve Heilig, June 23, 2011
Late on Friday afternoon, winding carefully towards Boonville through the lovely hills on Highway 128 near metropolitan Yorkville, we saw a car upside down next to the road. There were plenty of people standing around and they looked strangely calm, so we did not stop, figuring nobody was hurt too bad — unlikely though that seemed. But before we pulled into town, multiple ambulances and police had sped by in that direction, lights flashing. We hoped for the best.
Good thing I don’t believe in omens, as this one would have been wrong — the rest of the weekend, at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, went off without a single negative deed nor word witnessed by anybody I talked with. Even the climate was ideal — just beating this week’s heat wave.
The music is the main draw, of course, and one can’t catch it all between the two stages and dance hall barn and lawn, so herewith are a few highlights seen and heard.
South African singer Vusi Mahlasela, aka “the voice,” spellbinding a too-small crowd on the smaller stage Saturday evening with just his singing and guitar — so beautiful that a rough and tough Texan I was listening with was moved to tears. Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo, exiled former ally of the despotic Mugabe, looking rather frail but chanting hypnotically over a spellbinding band.
Toots Hibbert channeling Otis Redding, 45 years after he coined a term with a song titled “Do the Reggay.” But The Cables, four singers reunited onstage here for the first time ever, predated even Toots and sang sweet ‘rock-steady’ — a brief but sweet form of 1960s Jamaican song that bridged the 1950s jazz-based ska and reggae itself — backed by the very fine Expanders, a Los-Angeles-based retro band of reggae faithful. But a yet even older group, The Jolly Boys, played mento, a musical form that predated even ska and features a banjo, likely a first at SNWMF. “These guys have been together since 1956 and they are not tired yet!” said the MC, but they updated their signature sound with cover versions of Steely Dan, Sade, even the talented train wreck that is Amy Winehouse (“Rehab”!). Even the guys from The Cables were dancing and singing along out front.
There was more fine roots reggae from 1970s stars Horace Andy, Brigadier Jerry, and Pablo Moses, a hypnotic set from relative newcomer Taj Weekes, a tough roots offering from and a superb show by pioneering chanting star Dennis Alcapone, accompanied by the sweet singing of British star Winston Reedy and a very fine band. As festival founder and honcho Warren Smith noted in these pages a couple weeks back, it gets tougher to find and bring the old guys back, and beyond that worthy effort he strove to bring in some acts that appeal to a younger demographic, which seemed to work. They did sell more tickets than ever, and the crowd seemed even more youthful overall — although it certainly is an all-ages event, and the perspective could just be through my aging eyes.
There was stirring African drumming and dancing, and the annual parade of Brazilian percussionists and dancers on stilts. And much more, including lots of Latin-flavored music on Sunday afternoon but by then I was toast and had to go back to the swimming holes at Hendy Woods, even though the river and banks were overcrowded with families and noisy partiers — the water still felt very fine and even the non-swimming dog dipped.
If there is any fault to find with the people who come to SNWMF, it might be that some of them still leave litter. But early Sunday morning, there was Gretchen Smith again, be-gloved and picking up trash along 128 in town. This seems akin to a CEO doing the company composting. I heard of only a few altercations and arrests — in fact, maybe fewer than on a usual non-festival summer weekend — it would be ironic if bringing a few thousand music lovers into town cut the crime rate? In any event, a couple of uniformed law enforcement authorities sat sipping coffee outside the Mosswood where we started each day, drinking fine coffee, reading the news of the melting-down world that seemed so far away, and watching the groggy human parade. And it can be a fetching one — one attendee was heard to remark that somebody could make money selling a “Girls of SNWMF” calendar. We searched out the fine food at Mis Potrancos for a third time, eating in the next-door saloon with the local brew on tap — a sweet arrangement that even the dog appreciated on a hot early evening. And late one night, even though not really hungry, we had to seek out the fresh and tasty tacos outside the Redwood Drive-In — at $2/per, a superbly sabroso deal.
A more smiling and polite gathering you will not find, anywhere. A posting on the SNWMF.com open ‘phorum,’ commenting on my AVA interview with Warren Smith re-posted there, said the festival “brings out the best in humanity.” Another, a first-timer, said, “It really goes a long way towards restoring my faith in humanity.” Is this asking a lot from a music festival? Maybe. Anyway, the wristband they gave me to allow access to the show read simply “Peace. Love. Music.”
Can’t argue with that.