Story and photos by Matt Wickstrom
LIVINGSTON, Ky. — With a new date and location, the Moonshiner’s Ball looked to concoct a different recipe in year five, one hopefully free of the rain that plagued its spring editions in Berea and Irvine. With a move to the fall and Rockcastle Riverside, a blossoming property in Livingston owned by John Hamilton, the rest of the festival’s recipe and knack for finding emerging band’s, led by the mantra “Folk by day, funk by night” persisted with performances from Southern Avenue, River Whyless, Turkuaz, Los Colognes and others.
Funk and soul rule Friday
One of Friday’s early standouts was Lexington troupe the Baja Yetis, who welcomed special guests to the stage for a set of tight-knit, highly improvisational New Orleans-infused jazz and soul. Particularly of note was a jaw-dropping three song stint featuring up-and-coming vocalist Vivian Leigh. The fourteen-year-old exhibited maturity beyond her years on covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” Galactic and Macy Gray’s “Into The Deep” and Al Green’s “Take Me To the River.” Joining the group later in its performance was Dereck Oldham and David Napier, longtime unofficial Yetis and the two lead vocalists of funk rock outfit Driftwood Gypsy, who later played into the wee morning hours on Sunday morning.
Following the old-time string music of the Local Honeys echoing from the festival’s Forest Stage funk and soul once again ruled supreme on the main stage with Joslyn & The Sweet Compression. Vocalist Joslyn Hampton continued to show a growing confidence on the stage behind a voice that many compare to the late Aretha Franklin, and who can blame them, especially with Hampton and the band delivering groovy renditions of “I Never Loved a Man” and “Spanish Harlem.” In addition to covers from the Queen of Soul, the group also gave a funky performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” among originals “Don’t you Bother,” “Sunday Driver,” “Love on the Double” and “Honey, Be.”
Hampton has a solid foundation behind her in the Sweet Compression led by stepfather Marty Charters, a former player with Junior Wells, on guitar and Smith Donaldson, a mainstay in countless Lexington-area bands, on bass. However, taking the group to the next level are the precise drumwork of Rashawn Fleming combined with the timely keys of Steve Hollo and the over-the-top flare of the Joseph Carucci led horn section.
As night began to ascend on the Rockcastle County riverside a light rain began to fall. For some it harkened to damp memories of Moonshiner’s Balls past. However, in a change of tune the rain never built to anything of substance, proving the fall ball to be well worth the wait.
Also worth the wait, and arguably the weekend’s biggest surprise, was Memphis-based blues and soul group Southern Avenue, the first of two “bands that could be street names” at the festival. Fronted by sisters Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson on lead vocals and drums, the group displayed a firecracker like energy that screams Beale Street from the get-go, despite Tierinii feeling ill. The sisters showed off their soulful voices throughout on intertwining melodies (“Don’t Give Up” and “It’s Gonna be Alright”) nestled around infectious guitar licks from Israel transplant Ori Naftaly and jubilant keys from Jeremy Powell (“What Did I Do” and “Rumble”).
The cover game from band’s throughout the weekend was strong with Southern Avenue being no exception, offering up a slowed-down and soul-drenched imagination of The Beatles “Come Together” that helped to cap off a sparkling performance.
Bringing the main stage to a triumphant close on Friday night was Brooklyn based funk and disco nine-piece Turkuaz, a crown jewel band that the Moonshiner’s folks had had their eyes (and ears) on for years. Much like the festival’s move to the fall, the wait for an appearance from Turkuaz was well worth the wait, with the group bringing music from their newly released album Living in the City along with their color coordinated outfits and analog-infused vocals reminiscent of 70s era club music.
Stacked on stage in a rainbow array, Turkuaz continued Friday’s trend of standout female vocalists with Shira Elias and Sammi Garrett lending stellar dance choreography and harmonies on cuts new (“If I Ever Fall Asleep” and “Make you Famous”) and old (“Percy Thrills, the Moondog” and “Digitonium” off 2015’s Digitonium), bringing the crowd to a fever pitch as the band’s blend of raw power funk flowed more freely through the south-central Kentucky encampment than the ever-present moonshine.
The funk continued well into the night following Turkuaz, with the band’s Garrett joining Cincinnati native and adopted Kentucky son Freekbass & The Bump Assembly on the festival’s forest stage. The set was an emotional affair, taking place less than two weeks after Bump Assembly and former Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic keyboardist Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson’s passing.
Moonshiner’s regulars “Shine On” Saturday
While new faces to the Moonshiner’s Ball held their own on Saturday, it was a staple of festival regulars, albeit some in different formats than before, that elevated the day to extraordinary heights.
Following an early morning performance on the Forest Stage from fellow Blind Corn Liquor Picker Jory Bowling another five-time Moonshiner’s performer, Mark Charles Heidinger set sail on the festival’s main stage. Despite being at every rendition of the Moonshiner’s Ball, this was the first for Heidinger flying solo after playing the prior four years with indie-folk project Vandaveer. Heidinger brought with him an assortment of tunes, from ones newly penned for his solo endeavor and others from his days with Vandaveer such as “The Wild Mercury” and “But Enough on that for Now.” Whatever songs Heidinger performed, his vivid storytelling and fluid songwriting remained, helping to encourage late risers to emerge from their tents to join the party.
Following Heidinger on the main stage and carrying the indie folk reverberations into the early afternoon was Asheville, North Carolina’s River Whyless. Performers at year two and three of the festival, the foursome of Hallie Anderson on fiddle, Ryan O’Keefe on guitar, Alex McWalters on drums and Daniel Shearin on bass and harmonium returned after a year away sporting new music from Kindness, A Rebel, released in June. Standing out from the group’s performance was their not overdone approach, with all the band’s cogs working in sync like a well-oiled machine. Standouts from the set included “New Beliefs” from the band’s newly minted record and “Kalangala” and “Falling Son” from 2016’s We All The Light, all of which featured tremendous interplay between the exquisite fiddling of Anderson and the high-pitched, soothing vocals from O’Keefe.
Speaking of talent (and street names), soul-shaking rockers Magnolia Boulevard fired up on the Forest Stage following River Whyless’ set, with vocalist Maggie Noelle’s commanding voice acting as a siren song of sorts, quickly luring a dense crowd to the stage only to have their jaws drop to the floor at the sight and sound of Noelle’s dynamite voice paired with Gregg Erwin’s out of this galaxy guitar magistry. Noelle continues to show an incredible transformation in her confidence on stage since her days with Moonshine District, now taking command of the stage with relative ease as she and Erwin, keyboardist Ryan Allen, bassist John Roberts and drummer Todd Copeland develop a more vast catalogue of original music and a tighter groove and rapport as a group. Many of the band’s most revered originals again made appearances on Saturday including fan favorite “Sister,” “Ride,” Newport” and “Fire on the Bayou” along with covers of Joe Cocker’s “The Letter” and a surprise, first time performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot.”
Back to the Ball for the second year in a row was the lightning-fast picking action of bluegrassers The Wooks. The group received a facelift in the time passed with Galen Green and Jesse Wells departing the band and mandolinist Harry Clark joining the group. Also performed along Clark and the band’s core of Arthur Hancock and CJ Cain on guitar and Roddy Puckett on electric bass was banjo player Will Parsons. Despite the lineup changes, the group displayed a tighter groove than ever before as they celebrated the release of their sophomore album Glory Bound from a day before in front of a rowdy festival crowd.
The Wooks opened their performance with Hancock leading vocals, something he’s worked to and shown noticeable improvement on as he’s battled a hand injury, on a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” setting the stage for what was to come. From the start the group was feeding off the energy from the crowd, jamming incessantly and at times even staring one another down, almost daring the other on to kick the intensity up another notch. Throughout their set The Wooks weaved between music from Glory Bound (“Little Sandy Queen”, “Union Pacific” and a Puckett-led cover of The Beatles “Dear Prudence”) to their debut release Little Circles (“White Lines and Neon Signs,” “Night Bird” and “County Girl”) to music they haven’t recorded, showing that not even changes in lineup and circumstance can put a damper on raw talent.
Following The Wooks on the Forest Stage was Nashville rockers Los Colognes, which is indeed fake Spanish (we knew you were wondering). The group featured a heavy use of synths to round out their jam aesthetic to deliver a sound that was parts Grateful Dead, parts Dire Straits and parts surfer rock. The group’s easy-going, drawn out jams shined on “Molly B Good” and “Working Together,” but the top highlight from the set was a heady cover of The Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” rivaling the impressive Stones cover from the day prior by Joslyn & the Sweet Compression.
Following performances from James McMurtry and Solid Rock’it Boosters festival hosts Blind Corn Liquor Pickers took to the stage for a moonshine-drenched rager. The performance got off to a fiery start with vocalist Elizabeth Walker serenading on Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and peppered with covers throughout including The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Filling the spots around the cover tunes were Blind Corn hits new and old, with a preference to songs from their new album The Sentence, which dropped near September’s end including the Jory Bowling-led “Whichever Way the wind Blows,” the Walker-led “Cat and Dog” and “The Sentence” and the collaborative mashup “Popcorn Sutton,” the later of which built to a rousing set closer before the band brought their set to an exhilarating finale with “The Welder” off 2012’s Myths & Routines.
Music continued Saturday night with a trio of festival regulars in sweaty garage rock trio Johnny Conqueroo, the bombastic, dueling horns of Moon Hooch and the night owl funkateers Driftwood Gypsy before the festival drew to a close on Sunday with performances from Senora May, Mama Said String Band and Restless Leg String Band.
Festival organizer Travis Young estimates a attendance turnout of 1,200 for the gathering, an encouraging result after undergoing many changes in its fifth year. The Moonshiner’s Ball have began to build the foundation for something special along the Rockcastle County riverside, where it appears that not only the river, but a heavy flow of moonshine, will be present for years to come.