Last year, the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival debuted with a bold music line-up. While Josh Ritter delivered a spirited performance to a full house at the Haven, scattered shows by national acts, like the Walkmen and Futurebirds, were underattended. This year Tom Tom organizers are shifting the focus to local and regional bands, and beefing up the innovative programming. Still, the festival is offering four days packed with tunes between Thursday and Sunday, showcasing 60 acts from a range of genres —hip-hop, indie rock, jazz, and Americana —on various stages around downtown. Here’s a look at five acts worth your time.
David Wax Museum
David Wax Museum delivers a bridge between the string sounds of the Blue Ridge and old folk traditions from south of the border. Fiddler Suz Slezak is a former local. She grew up in Free Union, where she immersed herself in the regional old-time scene. She migrated north to attend Wellesley College in Boston and eventually met her musical partner, David Wax, a Harvard grad who spent a fellowship year in Mexico studying various types of folk music. The band emerged in 2007 with a self-branded sound, “Mexo-Americana,” that heavily employs much of what Wax learned —celebratory call-and-response vocals and foot-stomping rhythms. While Wax strums intensely on his jarana (an eight-string traditional Mexican guitar with a sound similar to a ukelele), Slezak rotates between a variety of musical toys—fiddle, accordion, and unorthodox percussion from a donkey jawbone.
The band (Wax and Slezak tour with a bassist, drummer, and occasional horn section) has built a following from coast to coast and abroad, opening big stages for the Avett Brothers and touring Europe with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Through three studio albums, the band’s sound has also expanded. The most recent, last fall’s Knock Knock Get Up, was made with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter) and finds the band adding hook-driven indie flair to the cross-cultural party. The band headlines Tom Tom’s Opening Gala at the Haven on Thursday night with support from the Hill and Wood and Nora Jane Struthers.
Wrinkle Neck Mules
It’s fair to call the Wrinkle Neck Mules a band that never reached its full potential. The alt-country outfit has local roots. Band member Chase Heard put the group together with his songwriting partner Andy Stepanian, and around the time of the 2004 debut album Minor Enough, the Mules were mainstays on the regional music scene with all of the right elements in place to succeed within the burgeoning Americana revival. As songwriting foils, Heard and Stepanian trade earnest Southern tales with complementary chemistry similar to Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers. Musically, Stepanian’s hearty growl is accompanied by a mix of jangly electric grit and the rootsy accents of banjo, mandolin, and pedal steel.
But gigs are now few and far between since Stepanian and Heard moved to Texas and other creative outlets came calling. Along with Richmond-based bandmate Mason Brent, the duo has started a line of outdoor clothing called Howler Bros. Despite the distance, the band still gets together to record. Last year saw the release of a fifth full-length album Apprentice to Ghosts. Fortunately when the band does schedule a rare run of shows, Charlottesville is usually on the schedule. The Mules will play Tom Tom’s Localmotive Stage at the Southern Café and Music Hall on Friday night with Luke Wilson and Bobby St. Ours.
Self-taught banjo-toting songstress Kelly McFarling has an authentic folk story. After traversing the U.S. and South America with her five-string by her side, McFarling landed on an open mic stage in San Francisco, where she was well-received and encouraged to keep singing her heartfelt story songs. After establishing herself in the Bay Area (and recently quitting her full-time job as a rock climbing instructor), McFarling is now on the road full-time, touring with a band and an Americana sound that mixes throwback elements of old-time with alt-country and modern folk. The showcase, though, is McFarling’s soaring, down-home voice, which will easily please fans of Brandi Carlisle and Gillian Welch. McFarling will headline the Picnic Day in Lee Park on Saturday, which also celebrates the re-opening of The Garage.
A Charlottesville music institution, longstanding brass man John D’Earth has recently unveiled a new project, Azul. The trio finds the trumpet wiz in a trio with inventive Chapman Stick bass player Greg Howard and drummer Brian Caputo delivering a range of jazz-based explorations from free form improvisations to groove-oriented jams. For local jazz fans, it’s a chance to hear new compositions and adventurous takes on old standards, like the group’s wildly chill reading of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Azul will perform as part of Tom Tom’s Jazz Stage at the Southern Café and Music Hall in an opening slot for Chicago-based brass outfit The Engines.
Shows by Charlottesville’s favorite local hip-hop act don’t happen as often as they used to, but fortunately Damani Harrison and crew are coming out to kick off Tom Tom’s Vive Arts Dance Party at Live Arts on Saturday night. As evidenced on last year’s mix tape “The Pyramid Effect,” the Beetnix can still make crowds move with conscious lyrics, fluid rhymes, irresistible beats, and unexpected collaborations—like backing vocals from bluegrass bandit David Sickmen of the Hackensaw Boys on the soulful cut “Flesh and Blood.”