Fans get a treat at Smithfield festival

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, October 4, 2012

Last weekend’s Aiken and Friends Music Festival in Smithfield was one of those rare (though it’s an annual affair) out-of-the-ordinary events.

We attended the two-day festival late on the final day of Saturday, arriving near the start of a set by the charismatic David Orton and the probably more charismatic Sergio Webb.

Webb, in his garb of Western hat, flannel shirt and scruffy denim overalls, was like a musical prodigy mountain man from Appalachia, wringing various sounds from acoustic and electric guitars and a ukulele.

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Orton mixed a fair amount of storytelling with his atmospheric songs, which included “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” recorded by Emmylou Harris.

The music blended with the setting among cotton fields and a circle of rustic farm buildings in Windsor Castle Park. Most members of the enthusiastic and vocal audience obviously hadn’t dropped in by chance, as we almost had, but were there with purpose.

Organized by Smithfield Music, it was actually billed as a festival for singer-songwriters, and many folks were there to learn something during instructional sessions with the artists.

Americana, roots and country music appeals to me, but I’m no diehard fan — I’ve looked these artists up online for background.

Bonnie Bishop performed after Orton and Webb, and the Cincinnati-born Nashville artist was maybe 10 minutes into her performance when the power went out.

Not missing a beat, she came to the edge of the stage with an acoustic guitar to perform “Angel from Montgomery,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt.

As sound technicians scurried about flicking switches, the crowd drew in close to Bishop, swaying gently, while members of her band, The Modern Day Prophets, relaxed for a moment.

Then the sound guys got the generator going, or whatever they did, and the random tent-revival segment was over.

Bishop’s was a polished act, the type you perhaps wouldn’t expect to see in a small town. She told the story of how her regular treks to Smithfield began.

In Nashville in 2008, Smithfield Music director Jim Abicht heard Bishop perform in what Abicht told me was a songwriters-in-the-round concert.

Bishop had just moved from Texas to try her luck. Abicht approached Bishop after her set, handed her a business card, and said, “If you ever want to come play in Smithfield, call me.”

“I called him the next day and said, ‘I want to come play in Smithfield,” Bishop said. “I love this town; it’s like Mayberry.”

Abicht said that nonprofit Smithfield Music brings top-tier entertainment to Smithfield, and with the proceeds, funds youth music education in Isle of Wight County.

Festival namesake Mike Aiken and wife Amy bookended the festival with calypso-infused country rock (or that’s what it sounded like to me).