By Matt Wickstrom
Organized in memory of Pete Jones and to raise money for mental health awareness and suicide prevention, the first annual PeteFest at Jones Fields outside Louisville was a smashing success. Driving up to the festival it was hard to fathom how close it was to the bustling downtown of Louisville, with meandering roads hugged by bustling tree lines leading to the festival grounds, offering the perfect escape for a weekend of music and philanthropy.
The first band I witnessed in their entirety was Appalatin, a group blending the distinctive sounds of Appalachian and Latin American music. The six-piece that originated in Louisville provided an unexpected, upbeat tick to Petefest’s mid-day festivities on Saturday with a mix of flutes, harmonica, guitar, exotic drums, mandolin and more mingling with transitions in lyrics from English and Spanish as a growing crowd flowed into the festival grounds. The eclectic group closed their set with an over-the-top rendition of “La Linea,” a Spanish harmonized tune backed by beating drums, flares of harmonica and an ever soft mandolin.
Petefest’s Paladin stage, nestled in a quaint wooded enclosure was later invaded by female-fronted bluegrass quintet Mama Said String Band. The emerging group packed several original tunes into their abbreviated 45 minutes set, including opener “Sitting in a Bush,” “Cumberland Kin” and “Somebody Anybody,” all tunes that could appear on the group’s debut record, which recording began for earlier this week. Mama Said packs in astounding harmonies with impressive picking from mandolinist Stepp Kidd, guitarist Kaitlen Farmer, banjoist Adlai Filiatreau and fiddler David O’Neal paired with smooth bass lines from Katie Didit on additional covers of Streetlight Manifesto’s “Moment of Silence” and old-time ballad “Baby Out of Jail.”
Between mid-afternoon sets on the festival’s main Apricity stage from singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe and Maiden Radio’s Cheyenne Mize; Seymour, Indiana’s hardcore rockers These Fine Gentlemen took to the stage with a performance that included a cover of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” one of the favorite bands of the late Pete Jones.
Adding to the impressive allotment of Louisville musicians performing at Petefest was Americana artist Nick Dittmeier and his band The Sawdusters. Featuring a hard-driving, honky-tonk sound reminiscent to The Band and Turnpike Troubadours, The Sawdusters sent shockwaves of riveting pedal steel guitar through the peaks and valleys of Jones Fields with several hits of their 2016 album “Midwest Heart / Southern Blues” including “Rhythm of the Train” and “My True Love,” a catchy tune about finding love and the many obstacles that can often accompany that journey. Dittmeier also performed a couple of new songs, saying after his set that he hopes to be able to get back to the studio to record soon.
With action on the Paladin stage concluded for the evening, Lexington’s Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, hosts of Petefest’s sister festival The Moonshiner’s Ball, took to the stage as the first of four dynamite acts to close out the night. Blind Corn began their scorching set with a cover of Wilco’s “You are my Face” followed shortly after by “Raining Rocks,” a new original tune from guitarist Jory Bowling about mountaintop removal and its detrimental effects on the environment.
The group got into heavy jams in the middle of their set on “Dirty Dog,” “Sing it Proud” and a cover of The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire on the Mountain,” featuring fiery picking from mandolinist Joel Serdenis and electrifying guitar from Jeoffrey Teague. Blind Corn drew a large contingent of the crowd seeking refuge in the shade out and under the setting sun to dance and mingle, helping to set the tone for the remainder of the night.
As dusk turned to dark, the stars in the sky came out to watch the stars of psych blues-rock trio Johnny Conqueroo. The band amassed easily the biggest crowd of the day, grooving to every infectious riff from guitarist Grant Curless throughout the band’s set that included songs from their self-titled LP and debut full-length “Washed Up,” along with new material. For the young group, the career-spanning set showed just how far the trio has come with their songwriting in their few years playing together, with their instrumentals growing deeper and more intricate as they notch more shows under their belts and continue finding new ways to mesh their sounds into one another.
Despite the festival’s intimate format and a crowd of an estimated 600 attendees according to Petefest organizer Youngeun Koepke, who added the plan is to make Petefest an annual event. With an emphasis on philanthropy and showcasing Kentucky’s thriving and often underrated music and arts scene, Petefest is well on its way to stomping the stigma surrounding mental health and making people suffering feel more open about beginning what is often a difficult discussion.
View the full album from Saturday at Petefest on Facebook.