Roots and branches of popular music at Hotline’s MusicFest

BY PETER HUMMERS | I caught three bands at Hotline’s Summer MusicFest Saturday, the Sandy Mountain Boys, Acoustic Nukes and Formula. They provided an entertaining musical history lesson in miniature, from Bluegrass to post-Beatles psychedelia.

Booths were set up on the perimeter of Roanoke Island Festival Park featuring photography, jewelry, pottery, bags and even carved and painted wooden fish.

Kim Rock of the Outer Banks Karate Academy was on hand with her “How to Fight Like a Girl” exhibit about self-defense.

Across the field you could buy water, soda, beer, burgers, hot dogs and such local tasties as soft-shell and crab-cake sandwiches, fried shrimp baskets and fried flounder.

A few red umbrellas were set up that sprayed misty water underneath for hot patrons, noted by Bill Ray of the Sandy Mountain Boys as a good example of out-of-the-box Outer Banks thinking. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and the rain is always cooler inside the umbrella.”

The Outer Banks SPCA/Dare County Animal Shelter had a tent full of goodies for four-legged family members, a few of whom were also in attendance, and one of several raffles held that day.

The stage was adorned by a portable public-address system with two towers flanking the stage, each holding 12 speakers. In front of each tower were three subwoofers, all delivering an impressive, natural sound through the clear air.

Kitty Hawk Aero Tours’ biplane circled overhead.

The afternoon’s music commenced with the Outer Banks’ own Sandy Mountain Boys, who opened to a sparse audience that hadn’t quite congealed.

A.C. Wescott on guitar, Mark Criminger on mandolin, Steve Gray on banjo, and Bill Ray on bass began with a low-keyed bluegrass breakdown, and a few pilgrims began to edge closer to the stage (at least as close as there was shade). They collected some good applause from the gathering audience.

Gray announced the Flatt & Scruggs tune “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”: “I’ll play some Scruggs-style banjo and A.C. will sing flat.” Warmed up by the first number, they played this powerfully and loud, Gray delivering a good approximation of Lester Flatt’s tenor vocal.

The sound system broadcast this acoustic goodness without any distortion; indeed, the set sounded as it would have around a campfire, say, but across the whole park.

The newcomers to the park were now heading straight toward the music. Ray’s running commentary kept things interesting between numbers. “Here’s a bluegrass medical fact. Doctors say, if your parents didn’t have any children, chances are you won’t either.”

Their set was strictly traditional and mighty tasty. It included the Country Gentlemen potboiler “Legend of the Rebel Soldier” — “Will my soul pass through the Southland?” sings a condemned prisoner “in a dreary yankee prison.”

They took on the fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream,” despite a distinct lack of fiddles in the band. It began with a baroque 4/4 time guitar, mandolin and banjo counterpoint accompanied by bowed bass, before breaking into a hot 1-3-beat breakdown. The biplane reappeared and circled the stage as if coming in for a landing.

Kill Devil Hills’ Acoustic Nukes were next, featuring Brian Lee on mostly acoustic guitar, Stephan Carbocci on electric bass, Matt Calhoun on bongo drum, and Dave Ferrara at a drum kit.

They played tuneful power pop; the dynamic music had some good changes and the acoustic textures were nice, providing a continuum from the Sandy Mountain Boys.

For one song Lee strapped on an electric Stratocaster for a single-string solo and Ferrara got on the cymbals to make up for the lack of a chording guitar. Other songs featured solos on the acoustic guitar; some songs featured a few instrumental verses without a solo voice. The music was such that the structure of these songs alone provided enough interest for breaks.

On some songs Lee attacked his acoustic as if it were an electric, on others he played a jazzy chorded style. The Stratocaster came out for a mid-tempo electric blues “about the beach” with a tip of the hat to Jimi and Stevie Ray. Acoustic Nukes made a good bridge from the Sandy Mountain Boys to the next band, Formula, also from the beach.

Formula was a more typical rock band, with Matt Hoggard on electric guitar, Jason Ribeiron on bass and Jayson “mole” Hicks on drums. Ribeiron and Hicks launched a bass-drums assult while Hoggard tweaked the settings on his Les Paul. When he joined in, the piece picked up in tempo, punctuated by some unison declensions and some very tight playing, not unlike Primus meeting the Mothers of Invention playing “Third Stone From the Sun.”

The music ebbed and flowed into discrete ensemble sections, similar to the jams of the original Fleetwood Mac blues band. At seven minutes there was a short vocal over a blues figure. After a solo came some more “Fighting for Madge” and an abrupt but well-resolved ending.

Next was a quick song over an ascending chord structure with a perfunctory vocal between the really impressive instrumental sections. The biplane reappeared but couldn’t make a dent in the sonic roar.

The band harkened back toward the Sandy Mountain Boys with a backbeat country number “about a Colorado ski trip” that put me in mind of the Dixie Dregs‘ “The Bash,” which might be called country-jazz fusion.

As with all three bands, vocals were few and far between. And as it was impossible to make out the words anyway, Formula’s vocals served well as another instrument. One of few legible vocals was “drifting … so far away.”

An explicit nod to history was Formula’s beautiful cover of “Dear Prudence” in essentially the Beatles’ arrangement, but with the dynamics turned up to 11. The building guitar solo owed nothing to John or George, but I’m sure they would have loved it.

Formula is a band conscious of rock music history while pointing hard into the future, as a solid band will. As the rock critic Richard Meltzer once said of the Byrds, you could hear the earth turn in their music.