The boys in Holy Ghost Tent Revival turned me on to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion two springs ago, when I was hanging out in the studio with them. “It’s great,” they said. “You should go.” A couple of months later, Josh Daniel from the New Familiars told me the same thing. Last August, Ian Thomas, who’s not in this year’s line-up much to my dismay, told me to stay at exit 278. Or something like that, I can’t remember now. So shep. and I considered the reasonable ticket price — $40 for a weekend pass, cheaper if you buy before the end of July, which we never manage — and the reasonable lodging prices ($130 split a couple of ways, for two nights, if you are willing to call a million places), and we took Azula the Little Red Toyota Of Doom up to the Tennessee/Virginia border last September for something other than a car race. (Who knew they had anything in Bristol besides car races? Not me! They also have a rookie league baseball team.)
It’s not the most high-profile nor the most famous roots music festival in the States; but I don’t think it really needs to be. I think the devotion, of the people who know about Bristol, to the festival is what makes it great. The devotion of the musicians, too — last year I saw plenty of performers standing at stage’s edge, watching other bands perform. (The most surreal moment: turning my head during Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s Friday night mainstage set to see Jason Isbell — who followed them, and who did not draw half as well as they did — standing on the side of the stage, watching them raptly. Talk about trippy.) The whole weekend is run with a military precision, food is plentifully available (so is beer), everyone understands that the Tennessee/Florida game must be watched on Saturday afternoon, and the port-a-potties were as tolerably decent as going to the bathroom in a small portable box ever is. In short: this year’s Reunion is one of the things I’ve been most looking forward to since last year’s finished, and behind the jump, I’m going to give you some of the musical reasons why.
Boulder Acoustic Society: Colorado’s gypsy-folk-Americana band are the only people I’ve ever seen play the banjolele — a ukelele-sized banjo — and featured probably the only mohawked drummer at last year’s Reunion. 2009’s Punchline came out on the excellent indie Nine Mile Records — hi, Rick! — and the band is at work on the follow-up. They don’t play in the NC much so I was doubly happy to see them on the Bristol line-up, the only chance I’ll get to shoot them all year.
Carolina Chocolate Drops: traditional done exceedingly well, the Drops close the Reunion with a 5:30 mainstage show on Sunday. We won’t catch that show — they join the Avett Brothers and Reckless Kelly on the list of bands I keep not seeing — because we’ll already be heading home, but if you’re still in town, you should. Justin Robinson alone would be worth seeing them — I saw him with another project a few weeks ago and he’s amazing — and when you add his bandmates Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, the reasons to love them and their new album and its Blue Cantrell cover just increase.
Christabel & the Jons: a band that’s shared stages with a lot of my personal Bristol favorites, I don’t know much about these guys beyond I think I’d be into them.
The Deep Dark Woods: Canadians who draw a lot of their complexly layered sound from predecessors the Band; even if I hadn’t been in the middle of an epic thinking-about-the-Band shift when I first heard them last month, I’d have heard it in their harmonies and melody lines. Somebody loves Robbie Robertson, and that’s okay.
Del McCoury: I don’t know anything about Del McCoury except that supposedly he’s amazing. So I’m going to try and see him. Can anybody sell me on him?
Dr. Dog: Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog need no introduction if you’re familiar with indie rock and the roots musicians who love it, but they are a band that previously occupied a spot on the same list as the Avetts, Reckless Kelly, and the Drops. This time I’m not going to miss their Friday night headlining set, no way, no how. And if you’re not already excited to see them, go grab the newer-than-the-new-album tracks that they’re releasing for free here.
Drive-By Truckers: one of the best rock shows in America, if you like their music. And if you figure that, for the $40 weekend pass price, I’ll see, say, 15 sets over the weekend (if not more), $2.60 for a headlining Truckers set on Saturday night sure beats the ticket price for their show at the Lincoln in Raleigh the next night ($20+).
The Drunk Uncles: I want to see these guys because they have an awesome name, the end.
Felice Brothers: with or without Simone, who may or may not be with them (new album, new baby), it’ll be nice to check off the Felices, too, from that list of bands that keep eluding me. 2009’s Yonder Is The Clock is a tremendous album that I often forget the deep beauty of; “Cooperstown” is one of the best little heard songs of last year.
Holy Ghost Tent Revival: beloved beloved beloved band of my heart, we may or may not catch their sets this weekend, because they play the NC regularly (though not as regularly as they used to) and we can always see them closer to home later on. But if you haven’t seen them, do it. They really are one of the best live bands out there today. (Daytrotter just posted a stunning session with them, available here.)
Hoots & Hellmouth: with the departure of Andrew ‘Hellmouth’ Gray to pursue some solo projects, I’m curious to see how the foot-stomping hair-raising roots-pop of Hoots & Hellmouth sells; behind Sean Hoots, probably pretty damn well, I’d imagine.
The New Familiars: of all the bands I see regularly that are deeply beloved to me, the New Familiars are the most musically talented of them. Part rock and roll, part Americana, part-Phil Collins & Fleetwood Mac covers, all foot-stomping sing-along good time, they’re into their second year as a tighter, most focused four-piece, and I never miss a chance to see them.
Sarah Jarosz: I think everyone out there knows more about Sarah Jarosz than I do, but I know she’s got a great voice and a killer track on this year’s Shel Silverstein tribute, Twistable Turnable Man, and as noted above, I can see her for an approximate cost of $2.60. Win!
Shake It Like A Caveman: what I said about the Drunk Uncles? Same goes for these guys. That’s a name.
The Two Man Gentleman Band: funny, irreverant, two-man songs about presidents, historical disasters, doin’ it, and badminton. Now featuring more kazoo. Very excited to see these guys and pick up their new album, Dos Amigos Una Fiesta.
Unknown Hinson: the one and only undead king of country and western music. Hinson is funny as hell, supremely talented, and unlike anyone else you’ll see all weekend at Bristol.
Are you going to Bristol? Would you like to buy me a beer? You can DM me @brandnewkindof and tell me what set I’m likely to find you at. Are you not going to Bristol but have a deep love of someone on the performers list that I’ve missed? Leave a comment. Are you a band playing Bristol who’s not on this list? Want me to catch your set or take photos? Email me, asdonkar AT gmail DOT com, include a couple of .mp3s or a place I can download some music, and I’ll see what I can do.