Highberry 2017 Standouts: Opal Agafia, Floozies, DSO, Marcus King Band … and BUBBLES!
I attended Highberry Music Festival over the weekend leading up to the Fourth, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The national touring acts who performed all brought their best performances, the vibe among the fans was friendly and relaxed, there were literally tons of activities for adults and kids alike, and The Farm – Eureka Springs is a gorgeous setting for a festival event. (With a great disc golf course, year-round camping for a low nightly fee, close proximity to Beaver Lake, Table Rock Lake and the White River, and with downtown Eureka Springs being a 15-minute drive away, The Farm is a fabulous setting for anything.) In addition to this recap, be sure to check out our Top 100 Pics from Highberry 2017!
THURSDAY AT HIGHBERRY
Thursday’s best set came from Eureka Springs-based group Opal Agafia & The Sweet Nothings, performing next-to-last on the tent stage. After kicking off their stellar performance with a soft and moody “Old Ways of Living,” the band launched into high gear – as did the crowd – a couple songs in. The addition of a drummer (Derek Russell formerly of Dirtfoot) for this performance lent her already-outstanding alt-folk sound lots of additional power and impact and really helped everything sound tighter and more polished. The band of gifted musicians she’s been touring with occasionally rotates in a position or two, but the drums really tied it all together, and they instantly became an ensemble deserving of main stage booking.
Opal’s original tracks “Hawk Above My Head” and “Yard Sale dress” are huge crowd-pleasers; the new track “Them Bones,” released on June 20, went over OK with the packed audience, but it’s still pretty new. In our opinion, Opal Agafia & The Sweet Nothings doesn’t belong in the tent after this show: Every song was a huge sing-a-long for the crowd, and her audience size matched any non-headliner that played on the main stage all weekend. That’s an impressive feat in itself. It was clear, though, that Opal and crew owned Thursday at Highberry.
Following the Sweet Nothings was Isayah Warford’s & Paul Benjaman’s Oklahoma-Arkansas All-Star Jam (pictured above), featuring bandleader-virtuosos Warford and Benjaman with the infamous Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers, Brad James, Andrew Bones, Aaron Boehler, Dave Renko, Jeff Gray, Django Porter, Teddy Sablon, Dave Gesualdo, Jeremy Ervin and Matt Beach. The set didn’t start till midnight, but their awesome jams kept most of the Sweet Nothings’ audience dancing till the wee hours. Favorite tracks included the Jimmy Cliff song “The Harder They Come” (I daresay Thursday night’s version rivaled any of the many covers recorded by the likes of Jerry Garcia Band, Keith Richards, Madness, Cher, Rancid, Willie Nelson, moe. and many others), and the final, encore track, “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma” of JJ Cale fame, which had even the most exhausted partiers back up and dancing again.
FRIDAY AT HIGHBERRY
Friday’s music was on the main stage, led by Flow Tribe followed by Earphorik. Our attention was seriously grabbed by Aqueous, a groove-rock quartet out of Buffalo, N.Y. While pretty laid-back most of the set, they won over a lotta Highberry hearts with excellent musicianship, strong originals and a spot-on cover of Steely Dan’s hit “Peg” off their 1977 “Aja” album.
Perpetual Groove was up next, and the JamCruise veteran anthem-rock band from Athens, Georgia, didn’t disappoint, with a great light show to complement their jamband-fan-fave originals. PGroove doesn’t do a lot of covers, but when they do, they blow minds. This proved true with their version of NIN’s “Closer” toward the end of their Highberry set.
The crowd’s main stage fave Friday was undoubtedly The Floozies, whose brother-duo paused their epic electro-funk, EDM-leaning set early on for a quick on-stage marriage proposal, disguised as a raffle giveaway till the unsuspecting bride-to-be got on stage. It was pretty sweet. Even sweeter was the effect of a half-hour light rain falling through the rays of light projected from the stage across the festival grounds (see the amazing pic below by Collin Taylor of LiveEditsLab). The Floozies’ Chandler Thomann is probably the most talented festival lighting director I’ve seen yet.
Not soon to be forgotten was the Jade Cicada DJ set in the tent late-night after The Floozies, proving that dance parties are more fun with a ceiling… LOL. Something about the energy of all those fans reverberating around the tent, and the fancy light-art projections manned by Deadhead Production staffer Mark Lewno and several volunteers, made the late-night show the best party of the weekend thus far.
SATURDAY AT HIGHBERRY
Saturday’s main stage acts threw down from the get-go, starting with Aaron Kamm & the One Drops. The three-piece reggae-funk-blues act based in St. Louis nailed it, led by the fantastic bass shenanigans of Andy Lee Dorris. Great set! Following sets by folk-jamband Old Shoe out of Chicago (featuring guest guitarist and vocalist Scott Tipping of Cornmeal and Backyard Tire Fire) and funk-soul supergroup The Nth Power of New Orleans, the much-anticipated headliner Dark Star Orchestra kicked off at 8 p.m. DSO, the nation’s leading Dead tribute band, almost always creates great music by replicating setlists, song-for-song, of past Dead concerts. Occasionally, they’ll throw in their own favorite or cover here or there. But, 99 percent of the time, DSO recreates past Dead shows.
But this performance was different – much to the delight of the huge crowd assembled to hear DSO’s stellar take on Dead songs. Instead of choosing a previous Dead setlist to play, DSO made their own setlist for Highberry out of the most popular and best Dead songs out there. It was a great choice, and made us Highberry attendees feel pretty special, particularly those of us who never saw the Dead and aren’t really that into their more obscure tracks. We didn’t have a thing to worry about; anyone who’s ever listened to classic rock radio knew a majority of the upbeat songs DSO chose for Highberry, and the performance quickly became a classic-jams dance party, even for those of us who aren’t committed Deadheads.
Halfway through DSO’s three-hour time slot, they took a break for a Deadhead Productions/Highberry fireworks show that was fabulous! (We’ve got plenty of photos of that in our Highberry Photo Recap gallery, too!)
DSO’s version of everything Dead is GREAT, but their “version” of the Dead’s female crooner Donna Jean Godchaux, Lisa Mackey, is in our opinion better than the original (yes, we dare!); Mackey’s first-set take on Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” is still ringing in our ears. It was simply goose-bump outstanding.
DSO’s Highberry setlist:
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo
Black Throated Wind
Ramble on Rose
You Ain’t Woman Enough
The Music Never Stopped
Rubin & Cherise
The Other One (verse 1)
The Other One (verse 2)
Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad
If I Had The World To Give
Black Muddy River
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
After DSO, the late-night DJ dance party featuring CloZee once again proved my theory that a ceiling makes the music and the energy irresistible. The tent was packed to overflowing, the music was great, the vibe was wild, and the dancing was non-stop. Meesh’s pop-up set later outside an RV near the main stage was no less fun!
SUNDAY AT HIGHBERRY
Sunday was hot and sunny from early morning, and we’re afraid it kept a lot of folks otherwise interested in the main stage acts from coming out of their campsites for the day’s first two acts, the talented alt-bluegrass acts Clusterpluck and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. HHG absolutely stole the entire weekend at last January’s Ozark Mountain Music Festival with their explosive, progressive music, catchy melodies, and lovable lyrics. Sunday’s music was no different; unfortunately their crowd size and reception was a bit milder due to the insufferable 90+ temps and unforgiving sun.
It began cooling off a bit and severe storms were threatening by the time Sunday’s best act took the stage. The Marcus King Band was undoubtedly one of the most impressive bands to play at The Farm thus far. The crowd was particularly big, especially considering the dark clouds and impending doom of rain on the horizon. MKB has an incredible sense of dynamics; lead singer and guitarist King sounds like Sam Cooke + Steve Marriott and makes his instrument sing like Mountain guitarist Leslie West. Comparing MKB to other Southern rockers like the Allman Bros or Gov’t Mule is what we’d consider low-hanging fruit; this group offers much more heavy Stax soul mixed with late-era Humble Pie than anything Capricorn Records ever put out. Honestly, MKB sounds like they just emerged from a time machine, circa 1970 U.K. rock radio: killer vocals and guitar work. This version of white-boy soul doesn’t feel forced (like many white guys playing soul-heavy rock do), and we loved it.
Next up on the main stage schedule was George Porter Jr’s The Funky Meters; unfortunately, storms with heavy lightning and rain forced the cancellation of that set.
A couple hours later, after the worst weather passed, Sunday closer Pink Talking Fish took the stage for a 90-minute set. The four-piece features music from Pink Floyd, The Talking Heads and Phish in a manner that allows the music to flow in a natural progression. PTF included Pink Floyd tracks “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” and Phish hits “David Bowie” and “Tweezer,” with an extensive layer of improve jams tying it all together. During the encore, PTF rocked out Phish’s “The Lizards” from the Gamehenge saga. Nice main stage closer for a great weekend of music!
After a long night of celebratory shenanigans, Handmade Moments (not on the schedule but traveling in the region for some shows around Arkansas) performed a “secret surprise sunrise set” for those winding down from the weekend of craziness. Good times.
A special thanks goes out to the all the musicians, artist, vendors, volunteers, and staff at Deadhead Productions & The Farm for putting together a great festival for music fans of all ages. The tent crew did a fab job as well; thanks go out to Roger Koenigseder, Michael Brinson, Elijah Brinson, and Mark Lewno. Special shout-out to grounds crew chief Cody Vance and his crew! Amazing job, guys!
The next opportunity to experience live music at The Farm is Hillberry – The Harvest Moon Festival, scheduled for Oct. 12-15… We can’t wait; the schedule of national touring bluegrass, progressive bluegrass and jamgrass acts is one of the best we’ve seen in years!