Mountains, Music & Magic at Bear Shadow 2023: RECAP

Beginning in April, the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau in the mountains of western North Carolina is resplendent with signs of spring. Wildflowers and forests begin painting the area’s rolling hills and mountains in brilliant shades of green, pink, blue, purple, and yellow. Critters that slept or flew south for the winter begin returning along with flocks of tourists and seasonal residents escaping the Southeast’s heat. Sure to join this list will be Bear Shadow music festival, a boutique event focused on celebrating the beauty of The Plateau and the joy of music.


Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Solidifying its place among the Southeast’s must-see music and destination events, the third incarnation of Bear Shadow was a rousing success by any standard. Taking place April 28-30 on the bucolic grounds of Winfield Farm on Scaly Mountain outside of Highlands, NC, the festival featured a diverse lineup headed by alternative giants Spoon, chart-topping indie rockers The Head and The Heart, and Grammy-winning Americana stars Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key

As if these luminaries weren’t enough to pump up attendance, organizers brought in a jaw-dropping cadre of emerging talent that included singer-songwriter Lissie, indie outfit Fruit Bats, bluesman Myron Elkins, funk and soul raconteur Neal Francis, award-winning bluegrass cohorts Woody Platt & Shannon Whitworth, and ferocious folk rocker Amythyst Kiah. The festival earned bonus points for bringing in the sublime team of Americana up-and-comers Wyatt Flores and fiddler Kenzie Miracle to serenade attendees on a mountain hike (more on that in just a bit).


Neal Francis at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Produced in partnership with non-profit organization Highlands Festivals, Inc. and Eleven Events, Bear Shadow offers attendees so much more than just astonishing music. Part of its mission is highlighting the awe-inspiring beauty of the Cashiers-Highlands Plateau and Highlands, a sleepy little mountain resort village built around the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors along with five-star amenities like farm-to-table restaurants, boutique hotels, historical sites, art galleries, unique shops, botanical gardens, parks, museums, a performing arts center, and more.


Highlands Botanical Garden shot by Dalia Jakubauskas

Attendees who were lucky enough to score limited tickets to several sold-out daytime adventures including “Live Stream,” an exclusive fly-fishing trip led by Woody Platt, and two separate “Summit and Sound” events (guided hikes with heart-stopping  mountain vistas and live music as the payoff) were not disappointed.


Myron Elkins at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key

Friday’s activities got underway with a hike to the Brushy Face Preserve, a stunning example of old growth forest containing some of the region’s oldest White Pines, hemlocks, red maples, rare flame azaleas, and more. Led by naturalist guides from Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, hikers were wowed by breathtaking views of Satulah Mountain and a mesmerizing acoustic performance by Myron Elkins perched atop a cliff overlooking miles of rolling green forest — an auspicious start if there ever was one.


Amythyst Kiah at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

A big part of Bear Shadow’s appeal is the relaxed intimacy of the venue, a 50-acre farm seemingly in the middle of nowhere nestled among the towering, verdant hills of Scaly Mountain, NC just a few miles down twisting mountain roads from Highlands. Festival attendance is capped at 2,000 participants daily with nary a bad spot to view the fest’s only stage.


Bear Shadow 2023 shot by Dalia Jakubauskas

Vehicle traffic was kept to a minimum with a limited number of parking passes sold for each day. For the carless masses, free shuttles ran continuously from Highlands to the festival grounds and back. A decent selection of area food, drink and local vendors was available to supply attendees with most everything from artisanal small plates and barbecue to blankets and puffy jackets for chilly mountain nights. With preserving a pristine, natural environment in mind, smoking was off limits across the entire venue — a real plus for many.


Lissie at Bear Shadow 2023, 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Opening a festival is a tough spot to be in for even the most seasoned act, but Lissie wasted no time conquering Bear Shadow. Friday’s crowd were already plentiful by the time the Iowa-based songstress took the stage with her tight band (bassist Megan Mahoney, guitarist Toni Lindgren, keyboardist Dayton Brock, and drummer Luke Anderson) backing her. Tearing into 2016’s hauntingly beautiful “Hero,” Lissie quickly established who’s boss as the handful of yakkers in the crowd went silent. Giving no quarter, Lissie reached further back in her catalog for 2013’s “Further Away,” unleashing the implacable force of the band’s rhythm section and channeling a bit of Stevie Nicks for the bridge.


By then a good number of the audience were on their feet and making their way to the front of the stage to fully soak in an unforgettable set that included selections from her sumptuous latest release Carving Canyons, a revealing collection of songs chronicling an emotional period in her life. That emotion burst through in all its raw honesty for “Flowers,” “Sad,” “Chasing The Sun,” and the beautifully melodic title track “Carving Canyons.” With the crowd in the palm of her hand, Lissie left us with the sunny, Fleetwood Mac-tinged “Night Moves” and the hard driving, country-soaked tune “Little Lovin’” — fittingly about the region’s Appalachian farmers. Anyone that wasn’t a Lissie fan before this was now.


Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Lissie would be a hard act to follow, but Fruit Bats, the project of singer/songwriter Eric D. Johnson, did an admirable job delivering a buoyant performance that showed just why they’re one of the best-kept secrets in the indie-rock world. Currently touring in support of their newly released album A River Running to Your Heart, Johnson, the only permanent member of the group, and his excellent touring band treated the crowd to a breathless selection of tunes off the new record and more. Johnson and company’s effusive renditions of “Waking Up In Los Angeles” and “Rushin’ River Valley” captured the sense of place so central to Johnson’s music. The breathless set barrelled through standard bearers, blending vocal harmonies and blazing rhythmic guitar strokes for “Shane” and, finally, “Humbug Mountain.”


Spoon at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

It’s a rare treat to see Spoon, one of the world’s most enduring alt-rock bands, in an intimate setting where fans are free to get up close and personal. True to form, whether playing before 20 or 20,000 fans, Spoon delivered an unrestrained performance that lifted up a substantial part of the crowd both literally and figuratively. Charismatic band leader/singer/guitarist John Britt Daniel immediately wrapped fans in the sonic brilliance of “Wild” off last year’s Lucifer On A Sofa, Spoon’s tenth album and one of their most ambitious works to date.


John Britt Daniel of Spoon at Bear Shadow 2023 shot by Meg Camille

“I Turn My Camera On” was an exercise in the power of spare rhythms with Daniel’s multi-talented bandmates (Jim Eno on drums, Alex Fischel and Gerardo Larios on keyboards & guitar, and Ben Trokan on bass & keyboards) delivering seamless harmonies. Dueling keyboards took front and center on “My Mathematical Mind,” which exploded into a crescendo of rhythm and abstract guitars.



And so it went — a mesmerising 90-minute performance that spanned much of Spoon’s groundbreaking 20-year career including “Don’t You Evah,” “Got Nuffin,” the crowd-pleasing anthem “Do You,” and “My Babe” — the latter an irresistible invitation to sing along. These shape-shifting innovators will remain at the cutting edge of music for decades to come.

Kenzie Miracle & Wyatt Flores at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

A brilliant, clear Saturday greeted festival goers with several dozen fortunate souls making the trek up Satulah Mountain Preserve to take in the dazzling scenery and music provided by young Americana impresario Wyatt Flores and gifted fiddler and vocalist Kenzie Miracle. Our guides led us along an historic ox cart trail, through a tunnel of mountain laurels, and up to the 4,543-foot summit covered in 300-year-old dwarf oak as well as several rare plant species.

There’s something profoundly stirring about listening to music stripped down to its honest best in the midst of nature’s gifts. Oklahoma natives and Nashville transplants Flores and Miracle were flown in exclusively for this brief performance, and they didn’t waste a minute producing magic and tugging on heart strings. The sweet acoustic set drew from Flores’ growing catalogue of stand-alone singles including “Travelin’ Kid,” “Way Back Home,” “Burning Bridges,” and “Please Don’t Go” — songs mined from honest emotion. Beautifully sung in the classic storytelling spirit of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Gordon Lightfoot, the tunes reflect Flores’ lived experience and skill as a songwriter. The small crowd sat riveted and noticeably touched. I’m sure they had the same thought as me — “How lucky are we?” 


Myron Elkins at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Later that afternoon, Myron Elkins opened day two at Winfield Farm with a seismic performance that puts the young country/blues-rock phenom squarely in the company of blues prodigies Marcus King, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Jonny Lang. Elkins and his band (guitarists Caleb Stampfler and Avery Whitaker, bassist Nathan Johnson, and drummer Jake Bartlett) hit the stage with guitars blazing. It took exactly 45 seconds for jaws to drop and the uninitiated to come to their feet.


Elkins and company muscled through a selection of heavy-hitting tunes, including choice tracks from his formidable debut album Factories, Farms & Amphetamines released in January. Elkins’ raw, earthy vocals, guitar chops, and serious songwriting skills veered among bluesy country (“Mr. Breadwinner”) to soulful introspection (“Hands To Myself”) and country twang (Wrong Side of the River) before letting fly a barnstorming rendition of “Factories, Farms & Amphetamines,” the album’s title track. Elkins and his bandmates left the crowd thunderstruck with the ferocious rocker’s “Nashville Money” and a dose of unflinching blues with closer “Old Trauma.” Plan on Elkins’ star shining brightly for decades to come. 


Neal Francis at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Pianist, singer/songwriter and guardian of the groove Neal Francis turned the funk loose on a crowd already primed to dance. Standing over his Hammond A100 organ and Hohner D6 Clavinet with a whammy bar on top, Francis turned his lanky six-foot-plus frame into an extension of his keyboards. Opening with 2020’s “Don’t Call Me No More,” Francis immersed fans in the tune’s New Orleans sensibilities before diving into the Crescent City-influenced grooves of “How Have I Lived” off his critically acclaimed masterwork Changes.


With Francis’s exceptional bandmates (guitarist Kellen Boersma, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Collin O’Brien) laying down a thick carpet of funk and fury, Francis launched into an extended version of The Brothers Johnson’s 1977 classic “Strawberry Letter #23” as the crowd just lost it and filled the space in front of the stage to boogie down. Shifting gears to 2022’s banger “Very Fine (Parts 1& 2) each musician on stage burned incandescent. Francis had more in store with the title channeling Allen Toussaint for “Changes’ and “She’s A Winner.” By the time Francis left us with John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” we were deliriously satiated on the piano man’s soulful funk and ’70s vibes.  


Matt Gervais of The Head and The Heart at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

As darkness fell, chart toppers and indie folk heroes The Head And The Heart took the stage for their headlining set filled with light and the return of co-founder, guitarist, and vocalist Josiah Johnson, who amicably departed the band in 2016. To kick off the 90-minute set, lead singer/percussionist/guitarist Jonathan Russell offered up “Every Shade of Blue” (the title track off the band’s fifth full-length album issued in 2022) to an audience already well acquainted with every word of the hit release. Young faces dominated the crowd, with their elders singing along and matching their youthful counterparts’ zeal word for word.


The Head And The Heart Fans at Bear shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Exploring a full range of emotions, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Matt Gervais took over on “Don’t Show Your Weakness” complemented by glorious harmonies from the rest of the band. Absent from tonight’s performance was the band’s violinist, vocalist, and Gervais’ wife Charity Rose Thielen, who was caring for the couple’s new baby (their second) and cheering from the sidelines. While she was missed, the remaining band members, including bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley and drummer Tyler Williams, put in an energetic and uplifting performance.


The Head And The Heart at Bear Shadow 2023 shot by Jrodconcerts Media

The hits kept coming including a joyful sing-along for “All We Ever Knew,” the folksy harmonizing of “Honey Come Home” with Johnson on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, the hip hop-influenced pop hit “Missed Connection,” and the playful “Down In The Valley” among others. A soaring rendition of 2013’s “Shake” teased a prelude to a three-song encore that covered the ethereal “GTFU,” a haunting version of “Virginia (Wind In The Night),” and one last chance for the deliriously happy crowd to sing along and sway in unison. Indie music’s preeminent stars delivered nothing less that a wholly satisfying set.  


Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Bluegrass music is ubiquitous in these mountains, and no one does it better than the husband-and-wife team of Woody Platt and Shannon Whitworth. The pair make their home not far from the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau and draw inspiration for their music and art from the area’s mountainous environs. Opening Sunday’s festivities after a one-hour rain delay, the two were welcomed like the local  heroes that they are. Platt, a Grammy Award-winner and founder and longtime member of the bluegrass outfit Steep Canyon Rangers, shares his love of singing, songwriting, banjo pickin’, and guitar playing with Whitworth, a talented multi-instrumentalist in her own right who is also a successful painter and designer.


Backing the pair were inspirational musicians Bennett Sullivan on pedal steel guitar and banjo and legendary bluegrass double bassist Barry Bales rounding out the quartet. The skies cleared, and the sun came out as the band broke into Platt and Whitworth’s pensive “You Are In Love with Me,” a country tune penned by Whitworth. 


Shannon Whitworth, Barry Bales and Woody Platt at Bear Shadow 2023. shot by Dalia Jakubauskas

As an avid fly fisherman, Platt returns again and again to water as a central theme in his life and music. Picking up the pace on “Like The Rain” and “Confluence,” a flowing instrumental about rivers coming together, Platt’s passion shone through punctuated by Bennett’s steel guitar and banjo. Whitworth captured the essence of Appalachia on “Here But Never Home” and “No Expectations,” both tracks off her sublime album No Expectations released in 2007. With Platt contributing perfect harmony, Whitworth left us with “Come On Baby,” another divine tune from No Expectations. It was the perfect start to what would become a perfect day.


Amythyst Kiah at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Amythyst Kiah is a firestorm of passion whose music speaks to the human experience with a brutal kind of honesty that can’t be ignored. Kiah unleashed “Black Myself,” an incendiary rocker that earned her a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song, in 2020. Backed by bandmates Chris Collier on guitar and vocals, Hunter Mulkey on bass, and Austin Drewry on drums, Kiah launched into “Fancy Drones,” a beat-driven tune from her latest album Wary + Strange, released in 2021. The power of Kiah’s voice grew with “Hangover Blues,” another selection of the album. “Opaque” thundered with slow rhythmic beats before Collier let fly some fiery guitar licks for “Empire Of Love,” a new song co-written by Kiah with singer/songwriter/producer Sean McConnell. 


By then the crowd was on their feet and raging. Kiah continued to pummel the atmosphere with raw emotion for “Wild Turkey,” a heart-wrenching account of her mother’s suicide by drowning when Kiah was just 17 years old. The mood lightened when Kiah invited the audience to sing along to “Sugar,” a Tori Amos tune performed wonderfully heavy on the guitars by Kiah and company. 


The finale featured “Trouble So Hard,” a traditional gospel tune originally recorded by Dock and Henry Reed and Vera Hall in 1937 and reimagined by Moby as “Natural Blues” in  1999. Eyes closed and breathing deep, Kiah hypnotized with her own version that culminated in an extended ovation from the crowd. Kiah’s star is sure to rise to stratospheric heights by the sheer force of her deep-rooted, unrestrained talent and soul.


Jason Isbell at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Bear Shadow’s celebrations culminated in a standout performance by headliners and Americana titans Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The phenomenal set included staples such as “24 Frames,” “Last of my Kind,” and “Super 8.” Isbell and the sensational 400 Unit (Sadler Vaden/guitar & vocals, Jimbo Hart/bass & vocals, Derry deBorja/keys, and Chad Gamble/drums & vocals) charged out of the gate with “What I’ve Done To Help,” a powerful, moody work off 2020’s Reunion.


Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

Isbell’s wife and member of the 400 Unit fiddle player and vocalist Amanda Shires was absent from today’s performance, but the band filled in the gaps with aplomb. Another track from Reunion, “Overseas,” was an electric odyssey resplendent with Isbell demonstrating his skill on the guitar. “Alabama Pines” a fixture of the band’s set lists, is a drifter’s lament about a man desperately trying to hang on to what was once his. While the song is over a decade old, Isbell still sings it with raw intention connecting it to today’s lost souls. 

It was so satisfying to hear “Death Wish” from Isbell’s forthcoming album Weathervanes. Deeply layered, the song builds to a crescendo over Isbell’s compelling vocals. “Cover Me Up” also climbed that mountain with each member of the band member demonstrating his prowess as individual musicians and as a unit. Isbell finished us off with “Decoration Day,” a tune from his Drive-By Truckers days that never fails to elicit at least a few tears from the audience. 


Recognized as one of music’s great modern storytellers, Isbell’s lyrics and voice have always been a huge part of his appeal. But there is no doubt that the 400 Unit, a band in sync with their bandleader as well as each other, is an indispensable part of Isbell’s success. The band’s closing set made for a memorable end to a glorious weekend. 


Bear Shadow 2023. 📸: Andy Feliu for Lock & Key Productions

To top off the weekend’s festivities, $25 of every ticket will be donated to Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Volunteer Fire & Rescue and The Resource Institute, two area non-profits dedicated to safety and preservation of The Highlands-Cashiers Plateau. In 2021 and 2022 Bear Shadow donated $20,000 to local organizations including the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust and Highlands Biological Station. 


Props go to Eleven Events partners and organizers Casey Reid and Christy Medford along with their dedicated staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly to create magic. A shout out also goes out to all the local sponsors and vendors like Hilary Wilkes, co-owner of Highland Hiker, who took us on guided hike revealing some of Highlands’ stunning natural secrets. Bear Shadow is a class act and a must-see for music and nature lovers seeking a highly civilized and intimate destination event. We can already hear the mountains calling us back. 


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