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CukoRakko: The Southeast's Best Kept Secret October 12, 2018 12:00

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Words by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Photos by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography 
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If you've paid the slightest bit of attention to this website in the last three years, you're well aware of my affection for CukoRakko Music & Arts Festival and Horse Pens 40. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with the Cuko team in early 2015, and it didn't take long to realize the impact that this festival would have on my life. What once started as a tiny, grassroots festival featuring predominantly Alabama-based bands has evolved into a bi-annual showcase of incredibly diverse talent from across the southeast and beyond.
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Each year, I leave that beautiful property thinking, "How can this weekend possibly be topped?" and the bar continues to be raised. I'll be the first to say that the team at Big Friendly Productions absolutely crushed it yet again, and their work never ceases to amaze me. And I would be remissed if I didn't mention that this festival would not be possible without the support of the title sponsor, Land Rover Jaguar Birmingham, as well as Birmingham's Avondale Brewing CompanyTrimTab Brewing, and Cahaba Brewing Company.
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We should probably start off by talking a little history on Horse Pens 40HP40 is a privately owned outdoor nature park located in St. Clair County near Steele, Alabama. The park is situated atop Alabama's third-highest mountain, Chandler Mountain, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The park is known among the rock climbing community as a premier bouldering site in the American Southeast
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The natural rock shelters located in Horse Pens 40 have seen over 15,000 years of human habitation. The park contains ancient Indian burial grounds dating from the earliest inhabitants of this area, all the way up to the time of the Cherokee removal known as the "Trail of Tears".  During The American Civil War, the site was used as a hiding place for horses and their owners wishing to avoid invaders from the north and the Confederate recruiters and "bushwhackers". Once it was discovered by Confederate forces, Horse Pens 40 was then used for the storage of supplies to be used by Confederate troops as they passed nearby.
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It was home to one of the first outdoor bluegrass music festivals in the country, and by the 1970s had grown to be one of the largest in the world. The park served as a venue showcasing many legends of the bluegrass genre including Bill Monroe, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, and Norman Blake. Emmylou Harris made her first public appearance at Horse Pens 40, "standing barefoot on a wooden door propped up on the rocks." During this period, the park was designated by the Alabama State Legislature as "The Home of the South's Bluegrass Music".
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Now, let's get down to the nitty gritty. Those who were lucky enough to make the Thursday night pre-party witnessed something truly special. Winston Ramble and The Pearl each laid down powerful thirty-minute sets, before joining forces for a full hour of blazing hot Grateful Dead covers. The level of collaboration was borderline overwhelming, with special guests such as Davis Little (Little Raine Band), Desmond Sykes (Tragic City), and Connor Broome (The Broomestix) joining the party early and often. A tremendous amount of Alabama talent was on hand for the opening set, only to be followed by Doctor Ocular of Johnson City, Tennessee. I was shocked to learn this band formed in late 2016, as their combination of acid jazz, jamtronica, and roots rock had a very cohesive feel all night. 
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Watch Ramble On Pearl perform "Shakedown Street" here:
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Video by Home Team Photography
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The Jauntee and Skydyed made the trek all the way from Colorado, and it's safe to say that they both left their mark on Alabama. Many of us had gotten our first taste of The Jauntee the previous weekend at Saturn Birmingham with Twiddle, and thankfully, we got 90-minutes this go round. A product of Berklee College of Music, it's clear that these guys will continue to climb the ladder of the festival scene.
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One of the most dynamic sets of the weekend came from The Fritz. This was just an all out dance party from start to finish. Frontman Jamar Woods straight up owns the stage and works a crowd about as well as anyone I've seen. It's rare to see the front man standing up behind the keys and synth, but these guys are far from you're average band. A combination of fresh originals, as well as covers of Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime," Michael Jackson's "Black or White" and "Don't Stop 'Til Ya Get Enough," and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" will certainly remembered for years to come.
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Watch video footage of The Fritz performing "Life During Wartime" here:
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Video by Isom Morgan Photoraphy
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Friday night was capped off with a surprise late night set from The Illuminators, a brand new band out of Birmingham. You wouldn't believe it if you were there, but this was the band's first official public performance. These spontaneous late night collaborations will be amongst my best memories of the weekend. Members of The Fritz, The Jauntee, and the Tragic City horns even joined in on what seemed like a three-hour dance party.
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Saturday began with Huntsville's Lamont Landers Band, a recent finalist on 'Showtime's Live at The Apollo'. I had heard a fair amount of hype about these guys, and festival attendees were buzzing about their performance all weekend. Early James & The Latest was one of the more intriguing acts on this lineup for me. I can't get enough of their sound, which has been described as "a mishmash of blues, country, folk, and jazz with crooner-esque styling." Whoever came up with that hit the nail on the head. You've got to hear the pipes on (Early) James Mullis. You won't forget him.
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After catching Steady Flow at the CukoRakko Fam Jam back in May, there was quite a bit of anticipation for this set. This band hits you with an onslaught of upbeat funk from start to finish, with some of the funkiest riffs you'll find. It would be impossible to make it through 90-minutes of Steady Flow without a little movin' and shakin'. Guitarist Tanner Brown's use of the talk box adds an especially fun element to the table, as seen during the band's creative spin on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Thankfully, this wouldn't be the last time we saw Brown on stage shredding. 
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Watch footage from Get Rhythm's drum circle here:
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Video by Home Team Photography
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I try my best to stay in tune with as many bands as possible, but there are always going to be a few that slip through the cracks. The New Orleans Suspects were a perfect example for me...until Saturday night. They're easily one of the most seasoned, accomplished groups to play this festival, and I haven't stopped listening to their music since leaving. Specific highlights came in the form of songs such as "Let's Get It Started," "Cocaine Jane," and a cover of The Wild Magnolia's "Peace Pipe." Do yourselves a favor and give those tracks a whirl.
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Following the Suspects, Skydyed took the festival in an entirely new direction, and I couldn't have been more impressed. While one could classify this band as 'jamtronica', a simple term couldn't possibly do them justice. Their placement as the final band on Saturday night couldn't have been more fitting. As I stood in front of the stage and looked around the amphitheater, hundreds of people were getting down in ways I can't even describe. It was a perfect picture in many ways. 
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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend came from The Talismen, the youngest band to ever hit the stage at CukoRakko. The Montgomery-natives are scattered across three different colleges, but you would never know it. The original plan was for two thirty-minute pop-up sets under the pavilion, between sets on the main stage. It didn't take long to decide that these guys deserved an additional late-night set. Word quickly spread across the festival grounds, and the band took full advantage of the opportunity.
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The level of improvisation displayed on The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup," Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle," and Phish's "Chalkdust Torture" was ridiculous. Tanner Brown, Wildman Steve, the Tragic City horns, and others joined in for Kool & The Gang's "Get Down Tonight," which was sandwiched perfectly with Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing." Equally as impressive were a few Talismen originals: "Strange Man" and "The Lawnchair Song." Get ready, because you'll be hearing a lot more about this band in the future. 
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Watch The Talismen performing "Chalkdust Torture" > "Whole Lotta Love" > "Chalkdust Torture" here:
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Sunday started off with one of Birmingham's hottest acts, The Brook & The Bluff. This was a new band for me, but after hearing of their recent signing with The Paradigm Agency, I knew that we were in for a treat. This band's unique sound and beautiful harmony vocals made for a perfect early Sunday set. Another Birmingham act, Eat a Peach, would take the stage next and lay down a scorching 90-minutes of Allman Brothers Band classics. All five members of this band also perform with the Black Jacket Symphony, and I can't imagine there is a better ABB tribute out there. You can see for yourself with the video footage of "Melissa" below. 
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Watch footage of Eat a Peach performing "Melissa" here:
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The living legend Charlie Hunter would then close out the weekend with his amazing trio. I had been waiting to see Charlie perform live for many years, and he was even better than expected. Watching this guy essentially play bass and lead guitar simultaneously is nothing short of mind blowing. For this performance, Hunter was joined by Grammy Award winning drummer Derrick Phillips (Hank Williams Jr.) and Ms. Dara Tucker, whose vocals had all of Horse Pens 40 melting. This was yet another Sunday that we'll all be talking about for years to come. 
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At the end of the day, I just can't say enough about this festival and the team behind it. I consider it one of my greatest honors to be involved with CukoRakko. Having the ability to live out these magical experiences at Horse Pens 40 is something that I will never take for granted. I can say "thank you" enough to the Schultz family for their willingness to share this magical property with us. The CukoRakko family is beyond special, so I won't even try to cheapen it with words. You know who you are. And for everyone else, if you ever have the opportunity to witness live music at this incomparable venue, I advise you run, not walk, towards that opportunity. Until next time...
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The Road to CukoRakko: Lamont Landers Band September 28, 2018 13:24

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Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
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Photo by James Champion
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If you're a music lover in Alabama, you've more than likely heard about an amazing grassroots festival known as CukoRakko Music & Arts Festival. Founded in 2014, the festival has been held twice a year at Horse Pens 40 in Steele, AL. As we prepare for another unforgettable CukoRakko weekend on October 5th - 7th, we're sitting down and getting to know a few of the performers on the 2018 Fall Festival lineup. For our thirdinstallment, we caught up with Lamont Landers, front man of one of Alabama's hottest acts: Lamont Landers Band.  You can catch Lamont and company kicking things off on Saturday, October 6th. See below for the full interview, as well as video footage of the band performing their tune "Into the Fold."
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Lamont Landers Band got rolling back in 2014, correct? Tell me about how this thing came together. 
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Lamont: Yes sir. Back in 2014, most of us we're going to the University of Alabama. A mutual musician friend of Kevin (Canada) and mine had asked me if I would be cool with him putting a band together, and of course, I jumped at the chance. He got Kevin on a gig and since then, other members have came and gone, but Kevin was day one. Kevin knew our drummer Bowen (Robertson), and I met him out and about playing around Tuscaloosa.
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We stayed there for a couple of years; playing every bar in town, I moved to North Alabama...eventually landing in Huntsville. Kevin moved to Decatur. Bowen moved to Nashville. Somewhere along the way, we met the final piece of our band, the glue, the x factor: Jaraven Hill, our bass player. 
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I see you guys are from Decatur. North Alabama has certainly been known for it's musical roots. How much of an impact did the whole Shoals scene make on you as a young musician?
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Lamont: The Shoals had an indirect influence for sure. The music that came out of that area and the impact it had has resonated with me my entire life. It certainly made the dream of having an impact on the world through music, even while being from Alabama, seem entirely possible.
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The band recently made a big splash on 'Showtime at the Apollo'. How did you find yourselves in that position? What type of impact has this exposure given the band?
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Lamont: It was a surreal thing. It all happened through e-mails and stuff behind the scenes that led to us getting picked to be a part of it. It has provided us with some level of credibility, in the sense that if you can play the Apollo Theatre and walk away unscathed, then you can play just about anywhere in the world.
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We're living in a much different musical era these days. Things have changed quite a bit since we were kids. Tell me about the advantages and challenges this presents to a young, up-and-coming act.
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Lamont:  You're 100% right. Times have changed. I sometimes feel like I was born in the gap between generations as far as the music business is concerned. The advantages are: you have every tool at your disposal to try to make it, the business is decentralized, and if you can make it on your own, you hold all of the leverage.
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The disadvantage is that when everyone is making noise, literally and figuratively, it's hard to filter through that. There are no barriers to entry now. You don't have to be a musician to be a "musician." Sometimes all it takes are streams of consciousness or a slew of disingenuous Instagram posts and, you'll be lauded as some visionary.
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This was supposed to have a point, oh yeah, to the kids who are up and coming. Just stay true to yourself, play the game the way you want to play it, and if you make it you make it. If you don't, you can at least say you really lived life and had fun doing it.
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What's on the horizon for the band as you look towards closing out 2018?
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Lamont: The good stuff. We are finally releasing our debut album, by the end of November at the latest. We are extremely proud of it. It's been a labor of love, and I think displays our growth as a band over these last four years. 
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You'll be performing on Saturday, October 6th at CukoRakko Music & Arts Festival. What can attendees expect from you guys?
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LamontAttendees can expect some of the finest funk & soul music in Alabama, paired with a dash of tasteful musicianship. They should expect a good time. 
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Watch Lamont Landers Band perform "Into the Fold" here: 
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