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I made my way, reluctant and lonely, to Boone, NC to The Siren Mountain Jam. Enjoying the positively beautiful weather and the promise of some beautiful, power packed female music was what I was trying to remember was the purpose of my mission. However upset I might have been that I was doing this trip alone quickly disappeared as I reached the gate in a valley in the heart of Boone. A dear friend and musician performing at the festival, Sarah Clanton Schafer, excitedly ran up to me and grabbed my hand, leading me to camp with her and her other talented guests. I quickly realized this was going to be a large gathering of female proportion. If you know me personally, I tend to stick with the male population of friends I’ve acquired over the years, so spending a weekend with hundreds of amped up, estrogen-driven, feministic women was going to be a bit different from my day-to-day.
I made my way to the spectacular campground that was a perfect host for the evening sunset. All around me was pure love and togetherness even before entering the stage area.
Arriving at the main stage, I could hear the beautiful sounds of Rising Appalachia and their tribal-like tones. The duo of sexy, eclectic sirens are Leah Song (how ironic) and Chloe Smith. The two sing fierce falsetto while complimenting each others amazing a capella. The wave that comes from the two sharing notes is accompanied by their instruments. Leah is a dream on claw hammer banjo, fiddle, guitar, and tambourine. She also mixes in a little spoken word. Chloe plays banjo, guitar, fiddle and dun dun. The backbone of the two is made up by Abram Racin, on stand up bass. A young man named Imhotep plays bass drum, dun dun, m’bala, symbols, and does a few dance steps. Biko Casini is in the background on djembe and congas, while Forest Kelly beatboxes and plays washboard.
Michelle Ndegeocello took stage Friday night in the twilight of love that hung in air. Despite being one of the most talented and influential artists of her time, Nina Simone was — and still remains — an underappreciated artist. And if there’s anyone who can be considered a modern-day equivalent to Nina, i.e. a highly talented and underappreciated artist, it’s Meshell Ndegeocello. So it makes perfect sense that Meshell would pay tribute to her kindred spirit by recording a tribute project. And that project, Pour une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone is a brilliant labor of love that features not only Meshell, but some of her kindred spirits in the alternative-urban music world, including Lizz Wright and Cody ChesnuTT. Pour une Ame Souveraine, which is French for For a Sovereign Soul. I was shocked by her stoic stage presence and unwavering stare into the crowd. Her excellent band was only the beginning of my new life long love of this woman. She hit bass notes I’ve never heard with an amazing singularity and was turning heads in every direction. She covered “Feeling Good” made popular by Nina Simone, the traditional American folk song, “Sea Lion” and a personal favorite of the entire weekend, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.
The first night of Siren Mountain Jam came to an end and everyone walked, arm in arm back to their sleepy little campsites and I got the most slumber out of any festival I have ever been to. Respect was common thing at The Mountain Jam.
The next morning, I woke up early to go get some of the “all inclusive-ness” of The Mountain Jam. Ladies were setting up their booths that included multitudes of different professions. I made my way to the welcoming hanging trees and breezy shade of The Healing Gardens and the first place I noticed was “The Red Tent”. It was a lavishly decorated red covering that was inviting and emitted amazing smells of musk and sweet lavender. Red quilts and silks flapped in the wind. Women were gathering inside. The Red Tent comes from the practice of sending women during menstruation to a Menstrual Hut, Moonlodge, Red Tent. Cultural practices and beliefs varied as to whether this was a positive and nurturing thing or one of a belief that women were “unclean” and needed to be removed until their cycle was done. The stories that were believed to have been shared have been referred to as the sharing of Women’s Blood Mysteries: stories and experiences about women’s menstruation, childbearing years and menopause. Today, Red Tents, Red Tent Temples, Moonlodges are being re-created and adopted as a way and/or place for women to gather and come together to rest, replenish, connect, share stories and share their lives. I was pleased to see such a place.
I walked over to a “Healing Hands” booth and got a 30 minute back massage that rejuvenated me but also steered me in the relaxing mode. As I lay under the shade trees and watched the communion of women, there was a lady setting up an interesting set of trinkets and cards. She pointed to me and motioned me to come. I sat down at her table and she gave me my very first tarot reading, that turned out to be a positive one.
As I waited under the shade trees for the first artist to take stage, I watched some of the healing arts that took place. Qigong and Tai Chi for Self Healing with Sybil Harmon was inspiring to watch. I was also blessed to see Dancing Freedom: Self Empowerment with Lali Devine and Thai Partner Yoga with Doah Chabot & Lia Pardy. Healing arts of all kinds such as Enneagrams, healing Native American flute, couples massage and Chakra yoga took place all day! There was so much I wanted to do and so little time!
Making my way to the main stage, I walked through the artisan village which is where I spent most of my money. There were so many amazing pieces of personal, handmade art and I couldn’t refuse to support locally made jewelry, soaps and even tea! I stopped by a booth where a lady named Mary was making her rounds to talk to next door vendors. She sold soap cupcakes! They were so pretty and smelled so delightful, one might think that they were to eat! She gave me a demonstration where you take the cup-cap off and it’s a soak and the base was a bath fizz! I told her who I was buying it for- my mother who suffers from breast cancer and she talked on about how she had family suffering from the same crippling disease, how swimming was very therapeutic for her after her recovery and before we knew it, we realized we only lived 2 miles from each other in Asheville, NC. I had made a friend.
I walked on and realized I needed to get a gift for my boyfriend who was going on tour for a month. That is when I ran into Nuit Marie Moore at her booth “The Moon and The Sea”. She sold interesting little trinkets, jewelry and books. I also noticed she had some minerals and crystals. I told her who I was getting a gift for and she asked me some questions such as, “What’s his sign?” and “What type of strength would he benefit from?” She then thought for a moment and pulled out a beautiful piece of red Jasper. She gave me loads of information- “Jasper is known to protect against hazards of the night. Red jasper is very lucky for musicians and is one of the oldest known gemstones. Jasper is a strong, stable, securing gemstone and is a powerful protection against things that are negative while it easing emotional stresses, making it a wonderful gemstone to have.” I bought it immediately and thanked her kindly. I saw her later during the night, dancing to the tunes and it made me smile.
The last booth I came across was an inviting tea tent. It was a hot day, but the aroma’s from the booth wafted across the field and I was hooked. Upon entering, the lady offered me some Mountain Rose Herb Tea and I drank it, feeling the heal. I bought some tea, a stick of Palo Santo, which stands for “Holy Wood”. When burned, it is energetically cleansing and healing such as the properties to Sage. It has been popularized and cherished by many because of its heavenly presence in Ayahuasca circles. It creates a pleasant, fresh smelling smoke with hints of mint and citrus that work well in keeping away mosquitoes and other flying insects. It provides an uplifting scent that raises your vibration in preparation for meditation and allows for a deeper connection to Source. It is also said that Palo Santo enhances creativity and brings good fortune to those who are open to its Magic. She burned her own stick of Palo Santo and actually gave it to me and said “Do with it was you will”. I still have her tea and every time I drink it, I think of her welcoming, sweet spirit.
I sat in the sunny field at the main stage and listened to the first act, Samantha O’ Brien, followed by Amythyst Kiah who blew me away with her strong, solo guitar. She covered “Fake Plastic Trees” by RadioHead and totally made it her own. I fell in love with her roots, fusion music.
A newly acquainted friend, Crys Matthews came on stage with camping partner, Sarah Clanton Shafer, who is “more than just the girl with the cello”. Cello is her primary instrument but she uses it to sing. Her smooth like honey vocals venture through soul, jazz, rock and folk. Along with her quirky vocals and long hair flying in musical abandon, the rhythmic yet melodic voice of the cello provides a unique storytelling experience. Accompanying both on percussion was Maddie Fuller, who at the age of 18 is already touring and gearing up for college at the one and only Berkley! Crys Matthews sings of love, oneness, politics and those damn sexy women that sometimes wreck your heart.. She had the crowd roaring with a few of her personal songs. Although it was Cry’s set, she made her way off stage to honor the amazing musicians she invited to play. Sarah and Maddie’s duo was a touching, female-driven set. The three together were unstoppable and I hope they have the pleasure to share a stage together in the future.
The Swayback Sisters took stage next and if you’re even slightly familiar with the Asheville area, you know who these ladies are. They have been playing everything from The French Broad River Festival to LEAF to the small stage at Jack of The Wood. Laura Blackley ironically hosts “Southern Sirens” Tuesdays at 8pm. They are a perfect representation of old-school country soul. They dabble in Appalachian-style folk ballads, and dirty acoustic blues. They draw heavily on old school, and pay loving homage to musicians such as Memphis Minnie, Ola Belle Reed, and Bessie Smith. Their show was a bridge from the past to the future, with one foot firmly planted in the here and now. The trio switches instruments after virtually, every song. Trading back and forth from banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, the band says, “Some bands do yoga or pilate’s- we trade instruments.” The trio also has select older standards and re-vamped covers in their repertoire such as accapella versions of old Appalachian folk songs side by side with popular hits done the Swayback way. Laura Blackley says, “You can’t get nothing out of your art if it don’t sting you a little bit in the process. That’s my philosophy on writing songs. I’ve been writing songs and stories since I was 5 years old. I’ve been doing it as a job for the past 15 years. I specialize in love and murder ballads, ghost stories, and done-somebody-wrong songs.” Cary Fridley combines a musical mixture of roots, folk, and soul. She brings a refreshing twist to the often mundane and repetitive styles of the present music industry. Using her savvy lyrical sense, she paints her interpretation of life onto her audience as if they were the wet canvas on which she worked. The 3 ladies covered Gillian Welch’s “Thinkin’ about Elvis” Their show was a lovely hour of female harmony.
Melissa Reaves was up next. There’s only one word I can think of to describe her- Rockstar. She burst onto stage with her brutally raw voice that echoed through the woods. If you were snoozin’ before she took stage, you were awake now. Her stage presence equaled that of her powerful voice. She romped around on stage playing the hell out of her guitar that was decorated with flames. Chills ran down my spine while she drew the line between early morning singer-song writer set to afternoon straight up rock n’ roll. She put her heart and soul on that stage for your entertainment. She dabbled with a “noise box” that her band would catch up to and make an amazing instrumental calamity. During her last song, “Shook me all Night Long”, she came onto the stage in a bubble. Yes, a bubble. She jumped around in a blue bubble suit that had the crowd laughing and jumping. She dominated that stage and got the crowd on their feet. It would be fair to say she knows her chops! Her guitar playing is furiously rhythmic, her command of echo pedals (enabling her to sample herself, building up layers of funkiness) is awesome, and her voice has power in reserve, possessing an incredible, visceral attack; the combination of these elements reminded this listener of Janis Joplin, backed by Curtis Mayfield. Melissa moved across a variety of moods, mostly up tempo and got us up there with her. I am a new huge fan of Melissa and if she ever comes through the area again, I’ll be front row, waiting to see what she has in store.
During the whole bubble fiasco, she was joined by another rocking lady who was actually next on stage, Michelle Malone. A long-time fixture of the Atlanta folk music scene, Malone graduated from her previous spot on Amy Ray’s (Indigo Girls) Daemon Records and moved on to Velvel Records. The bands songs range from straight-forward rock to airy flamenco jazz to pseudo-R&B . Her talent shows in the dramatic shift from song to song but held up as an entire body of work. The melodies and harmonies are ear-catching and Michelle’s vocals are anything sugar-coated. She has a raw, pure female voice that anyone can enjoy. Malone is able to showcase her deft guitar touch with her band- Drummers Melvin Watson, Jr. and Danny Bigay alternate, and Mike Snowden and Chris Wilson tag in and out on the bass.
The day went by incredibly fast and before I knew it, I was sunburnt, hungry and excited for the headliner of the entire festival- Joan Osborn. A larger crowd gathered and night began to fall onto the little valley. The food trucks lit up and pumped out delicious smells of bratwurst, grilled veggie wraps, and stir fry- Fuel for the fun.
Joan Osborne took stage and immediately made it hers. If you were alive and remotely aware of the popular music charts in 1995, you know Joan Osborne’s name. Her debut major label release Relish brought with it mega-hit “One Of Us”, a bluesy-rock-pop piece contemplating the possibility of God walking among the everyday citizens and the struggle to maintain faith. With three Grammy nominations hot on the heels of its release, Joan seemed poise to soar.
Happily, in her mind, she retreated to a comfortable level of fame instead.
To only know that hit tune is to not know Joan Osborne’s work at all. Evolving from a heavy background in blues and soul music, Osborne’s future albums delved deeper into that love. Her latest album, Bring It On Home, is a collection of vintage blues and soul covers, and it is with that full circle audiences found themselves during her main stage performance.
With a relaxed confidence of a performer truly at home on stage, Osborne belted her way through her set giving loving homage to the night’s “Supermoon”. What better song to play at that exact moment than “Saint Teresa”?
“Oh St. Teresa higher than the moon
Reach down for the sweet stuff when she looks at me
I know any man sees you like I see
Follow down the side street movin’ single file
She say “That’s where I’ll hold you, sleeping like a child
Way down in the hollow, leavin’ so soon”.
She performed old singles for the nostalgic fans (“St. Teresa”) and “One Of Us”, done in a beautiful piano-driven incarnation that brought the crowd to its feet. What made the show particularly stellar – aside from Osborne’s pipes, of course – was the hits that were performed with a more robust full-band approach. Her set breathed new life into the material and truly allowed Joan’s vocals to shine. Covers were delivered with lighthearted banter explaining their significance. The story of Osborne’s time with The Grateful Dead and how her favorite song never made the setlist led to her beautiful cover of “Brokedown Palace”.
The musical bliss had to come to an end- after all we were in a sleepy valley. Crowds of women huddled together under blankets sipping the last of their wine, or sleeping peacefully under the bright moon. I sat and watched everyone for a while, burned some of my Palo Santo and bid the night adieu. Once again, I slept wonderfully due to the community effort of peaceful, tranquil, quietness. I woke up the next morning, well -rested and stared at the beautiful sunrise. I realized then how funny it was that I was so reluctant to come to this festival alone, and how, now that I was leaving, that I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I wouldn’t change the sense of female togetherness and the friends I made, for the world. I want to thank the people of Siren Mountain Jam for making me feel so welcome. I can’t wait to go again next year and I look forward to seeing my friends in Boone, NC.
Check out Siren Mountain Jam’s website at- http://www.sirenmountainjam.com/
See ya’ll in 2014!