Music

Grace Bowers Shines at Bear Shadow Festival, North Mississippi Allstars Tease ‘Shorty’ Sequel

Under a fingernail moon, surrounded by the silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Highlands, North Carolina, JJ Grey & Mofro took a moment to soak in the beauty of this year’s Bear Shadow music festival.

“This song is about my love affair with the ocean,” Grey noted of his native Jacksonville, Florida, before launching into “The Sea,” the first tune from his latest album, Olustee. “And I know y’all got a love affair with these mountains.”

In its fourth installment, Bear Shadow has established itself as one of the premier boutique-style gatherings in the Southeast. With purposely small crowds and high-end amenities, the lineup in the rural depths of Southern Appalachia included Black Pumas, Futurebirds, North Mississippi Allstars, Grace Bowers, American Aquarium, and more. These were the highlights.

Grace Bowers comes alive.

The 17-year-old guitar phenom Grace Bowers and her band were the arguable highlight of the whole festival. During an early afternoon set, she paid homage to the crop of guitar legends who came before her, focusing not on playing as many notes as she could, but on playing the right notes to set just the right moment.

“Especially since I’m so blues-influenced, the notes you don’t play are way more important than the ones you do play,” Bowers tells Rolling Stone. “You need to have that space in between, almost like talking, because no one’s going to give a shit about what you played, no one will remember what you did if you’re just playing notes.”

While Bowers ripped through Funkadelic’s “Red Hot Mama,” and later her own R&B-infused creation “Tell Me Why U Do That,” comparisons were made by those in the crowd to the playing of Eddie Hazel, B.B. King, and Derek Trucks.

“When I was 13, I heard B.B. King for the first time and that’s what got me into the blues,” Bowers says. “I heard ‘Sweet Little Angel.’ When he starts that riff, it’s only three notes. And yet, you can hear it in your head when someone says ‘Sweet Little Angel’ — it’s that iconic.”

Immediately heading back to her home in Nashville following Bear Shadow, Bowers has big things on the horizon. “Wine on Venus” will be released in the coming weeks, with her debut album of the same name due in August. Until then, she’s looking forward to her Grand Ole Opry debut on July 30 — which is also her 18th birthday.

“When I first started playing shows, I was so nervous I didn’t even want to get onstage. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone,” Bowers says. “There was a point where I was playing every single night in Nashville. I was hustling. It didn’t matter what genre it was, I would make an ass out of myself just to get the practice in.”

North Mississippi Allstars tease Shorty sequel.

The North Mississippi Allstars rumbled through a set with their signature blend of swamp rock and Delta blues melodies. With the Dickinson brothers at the helm — six-string ace Luther and drummer Cody — the band itself will soon commemorate the 25th anniversary of its critically-acclaimed 2000 debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty.

“My brother and I started [the band] when we were kids and we’re still going strong,” Cody says. “Every moment to be up here playing and still in the game is a gift. The Allstars are recording now, too, very much in the spirit of Shake Hands With Shorty.”

The power trio weaved through a bevy of Allstars material (“Up and Rolling”) and new selections from Cody’s solo album Homemade (“Homemade Blues”), which hits the streets June 21.

“‘Homemade Blues’ is about growing up outside of Chulahoma, Mississippi,” Cody says. “And going down to Junior Kimbrough’s [juke joint] on a Sunday night, hanging out with the Burnsides and learning to play music through osmosis.”

A nod to the late, great Kimbrough simmered to the surface with the Allstars channeling the undulating tone of “All Night Long.” Earlier on, a tease of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” emerged as a gesture of admiration for Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts, who died last month.

“We think about him all the time. He was so kind to us. He became a dear friend,” Cody says. “I grew up loving the Allman Brothers. The album At Fillmore East changed my life. And getting to know Dickey was something I never would’ve dreamt in a million years growing up.”

American Aquarium (finally) admit it’s OK to go slow.

Kicking off their set with “Crier,” the latest single from the Shooter Jennings-produced album The Fear of Standing Still (out July 26), North Carolina-based American Aquarium remain a volatile mixture of indie rock, gritty punk, and searing folk ingredients.

“We’ve taken every slow step up the ladder,” says frontman BJ Barham. “Every year is better than the year before, but it has never been this gigantic moon rise. And I was always afraid to take my foot off the gas pedal, afraid of losing everything that came before it by slowing down a little bit.”

The Fear of Standing Still then is not only an album title, but also a fresh ethos and sense of self for Barham & Co., as the singer-songwriter embraces “the slow burn” of being an artist.

“You shouldn’t fear slow growth. You should only fear standing still,” Barham says of the upcoming album. “Because when you’re standing still and you’re not moving anymore, that’s when you don’t have a chance to go up. Slow growth is far better than being struck, and it really resonated with me.”

BJ Barham and American Aquarium perform at Bear Shadow 2024. Photo: Andy Feliu

The Futurebirds are leveling up.

With their wild-n-out winter tour alongside My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel and the release of the collaborative live album …Thanks Y’all now in the rearview mirror, the ‘Birds are pushing ahead full hog with a slew of new summer dates — including two nights opening for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in August — and the release of the new EP Easy Company.

“We’re tightening up the ship and we want to take this to where we’re going to be headlining bigger festivals,” says guitarist Daniel Womack.

Celebrating 15 years together in 2024, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Athens, Georgia, road dogs. With many of its original members still in tow, the raucous, devil-may-care psychedelic/indie rock act is celebrating the soul-stirring howl of “Put Up, Keep Up” and “College Try” in the live realm.

“It’s this balance between reflecting and being lost in the moment,” Womack says. “Things are good. Things are moving fast. Our frequencies have never been more aligned that they are right now, and in such a big way.”

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JJ Grey & Mofro give Nineties country its props.

JJ Grey & Mofro are nearing the 30-year mark as a band. “I’m just going to keep riding the wave,” he says. “It keeps going, keeps breaking.”

Sometimes that waves curls into Nineties country: During the band’s set, Grey transitioned into John Anderson’s 1992 country hit “Seminole Wind,” which also appears on Olustee. Both artists hail from the Sunshine State, and Grey is a huge fan of Anderson.

“He’s got such a distinct voice and I wouldn’t even attempt to try to sound like him,” Grey says. “I’ve played that song in every band I’ve ever been in. It was time to record it. It was the first thing on deck when we went to the studio and the guys just knocked it out.”

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