Friday, April 27, 2007

John Paul Jones and Uncle Earl

It must have been too early for MerleFest fans to be hype on Friday afternoon. At the main Watson stage, a sedate crowd watched the female band Uncle Earl perform their old-time music.
The group’s joke about Jim Lauderdale doing hot yoga in his hotel room fell flat and a fiddle tune only inspired a little girl to get up and dance near the front of the stage.

The group got its biggest response when John Paul Jones, who played keyboard for Led Zepplin fame, joined Uncle Earl, whom he produced, for the last song. They played a fast-paced ditty that got the crowd excited.

At home at MerleFest

I haven’t been to MerleFest in a few years, but when I pulled into Phisbins’ Circle at the Wilkesboro Fire Department’s campground, it felt like home. All of the guys who adopted me back in the early 2000s were still there. Well, all of the guys except Boomer, who passed away couple of years ago.

MerleFest is the huge Americana festival at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. This is their 20th anniversary. I went for two years straight, but stopped to cover CityFest, which is now defunct. When I used to go, I camped next to a group of guys from Pennsylvania, who called themselves the Phisbins. They’re lawyers, teachers and average working guys who drive down to MerleFest each year to camp. I’d say they want to listen to music, but I’m not sure they actually ever leave the campground. Why would they?

At campsite, turtle soup cooked on an open fire. The fellas took turns pouring beer from the keg, and freshly boiled shrimp sat on plates waiting to be eaten.

It’s good to be home.

Common returned hip-hop fans to their roots

No hype man, no dancers no party over here.

A hype Common, a banging DJ, a drummer and keyboardist was all it took at Grand Central on Central Avenue on Thursday. For about an hour, Common rapped and preached about hip-hop and God. The crowd filled the dance floor, singing and pumping their hands in the air.

The show, sponsored by Ciroc vodka, felt like a respite for fans who’ve seen their culture under attack in recent weeks in because of the Don Imus flap. Common talked about the importance of protecting hip-hop and recognizing its value as a form of expression for African-Americans.

Along with lectures, Common also gave fans the tunes they wanted to hear. Sporting an orange sweater over a long sleeve shirt, a signature hats and jeans, he performed “Be,” “Go,” “The Light,” “Testify” and other hits. Common’s albums sound mellow, but live he’s all energy. Sweat poured off the retro-smooth rapper as he jumped, sprinted and bounced around the stage.

The only low point of the show was his bump-and-grind segment. He brought a woman on stage and the DJ spun various slow songs while Common played the smooth talking brotha’ role and danced with the woman. He also did the obligatory medley of today’s hits and classic rap tracks, in which he and the crowd rapped together. Common improvised and tossed in names of Charlotte streets and clubs as he rapped to songs by Sean Combs, Rich Boy and others.

One of the biggest highlights of the night was DJ Dummy. While Common changed out of his sweltering sweater and shirt and into a fitted white T-shirt, Dummy made Rob Base, “It Takes Two” into an entirely new song. If you saw the DJ set during the EPMD show, this one was better. Dummy created a beat with the “It Takes Two” hook. He manipulated the records behind his back, with his nose, with his eyes closed and while hugging a girl and later pretending to be sexual with her.

In the song, Base sings, “1,2,3, get loose..” Dummy spun that and then made it sound as if Base was saying “3,2,1.” Oh, and he did “The Matrix” slow spin as well. Crazy. His set reminded hip-hop fans that deejaying is an art. It’s more than playing songs off your laptop and yelling into the mike every few minutes. Somebody has to bring him down here to DJ a party. He swears he never plays the same song twice in one night and his judging from the snipped we saw on Thursday, he could keep a party going all night.

For fans of hip-hop that moves your body and your spirit, Thursday night rejuvenated both.