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Sunday grace

The Gospel according to the Harvest Music Festival


In a weekend graced by memorable musical moments, the climax of the 2001 Harvest Music Festival didn't come, as expected, at the Saturday night peak. Instead, it was the much quieter Sunday morning that signified the heart of 2001's three-day roots-music festival.

In the sharp, clear dawning of the Fairburn festival's final day, members of bluegrass band Good Medicine shared the stage with fiddle legend Vassar Clements. Ever an elegant presence in his black suit, Clements' sweet, effortless violin added another flash of beauty to a morning overflowing with it.

"Bless this gathering, O Lord," said banjo man "Reverend" Jeff Mosier, though the moment already felt blessed. The so-called "Gospel Hour" was at first a generous outpouring, and then an exchange, of all the church that anyone needed that morning.

Still-sleepy babies yawned while their parents sat cross-legged on the ground and sang a cappella -- "This Little Light of Mine," "I'll Fly Away" and "Amazing Grace" -- all reverent and breathtaking. Sweaters and sweatshirts, added against the morning chill, began to come off as more and more people straggled from their campsites and crowded in close to listen.

Mosier, who'd been up well into the night playing with his group Blueground Undergrass, acknowledged the early hour. "Thank you so much for being up this morning," he said. "I know you're tired, and it really means a lot."

Musician Martin Brown, visiting from London, finished his coffee and said, "So many people come to these festival things to see the big jam bands and dance, but it's good to see all these people here for this, isn't it? They're here."

The weekend, however, certainly included plenty of those main-stage, giant jam bands and the attendant hours of spinning and dancing. Saturday afternoon's zydeco-juiced Donna the Buffalo was a soaring highlight on the main stage, the group's green accordion and pink violin bringing thousands out of the surrounding woods. Saturday night brought Leftover Salmon and Blueground Undergrass, who instantly inspired their usual, everyone-knows- all-the-words fervor. The night before, the onstage music ended with a knockout set from New Orleans' legendary Funky Meters.

As usual, though, quieter moments were worth seeking out. Harvest Fest newcomer Railroad Earth had traveled from New Jersey, not exactly a hotbed of bluegrass activity. Still deeply shaken from the terrorism in their region, the thoughtful, serious group brought a darkly sparkling depth of understanding to the genre. By the time Railroad Earth played its second slot at the festival, the crowd had swelled, evidence of the power of word of mouth.

Traveling even further to play was Australia's near-miraculous blues guitarist Geoff Achison. Despite suffering the festival's only noticeable sound problems -- failing electricity plunged him into darkness more than once -- Achison took it in stride and managed to make his guitars sing, chime and wail as needed. Achison gets the true believers with a gruff, suitably soulful voice, and lets everyone else in with his winking wit.

The weather, too, was a star of the weekend, crisp mornings giving way to cloudless, autumn-blue skies. In Fairburn, away from Atlanta's lights, festival hordes could watch the stars punch through the black velvet of the night sky. Dry ground made lying on blankets an earthy pleasure, especially considering the heavy rains that muddied an earlier Harvest Fest.

None of the weekend's good fortune was lost on organizer Thomas "T-Dawg" Helland that Sunday morning. Standing still for the first time in days -- if not weeks -- he smiled across the packed-in "church" crowd. "It's just been an explosion," he said, blinking in the morning sunshine. "An emotional explosion, for everyone."

On stage, Mosier was finishing up. "Thank you all," he said, "and thank God for music." The crowd rose to its feet as Mosier, in a parting gesture, raised his banjo in salute.

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