It’s safe to say Clayton has heard John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” before, but probably not like the version played by reggae band Jamrock’s, one of the first bands to play the inaugural Mondo Roots Cultural Arts Festival. The words are slightly different, but the sentiment’s the same. Home is an elastic idea, maybe something you can pick up and take with you or get to when you can.
“West Jamaica, my ol’ momma, take me home country roads,” goes the rewritten version by Toots and the Maytals.
“When’s the last time you heard reggae in Clayton?” Mondo Roots organizer Dave Brown said.
Mondo Roots is an arts festival set in Clayton, but with its eye on the rest of the world. Its ambitions weren’t always so grand, though, starting as Millstock in 2000, with a handful of Clayton artists meeting behind a downtown grill. Over the next 15 years it grew into an event shutting down Main Street with dozens of artists and vendors.
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Over those 15 years Clayton changed, too. It became home to more and more people, different kinds of people, and tripled in population to nearly 20,000 and Johnston County’s largest town. When Brown and longtime Millstock organizer Clayton Visual Arts partnered on the first Mondo Roots, the aim was to fill a void that had existed for generations. Brown said there will always be demand for bluegrass and beach music in Clayton, but now, and probably for a long time, there are other demands, namely for rap, jazz, soul and funk. So that’s what he booked.
“We wanted a multicultural festival here in Clayton,” Brown said. “They have multicultural festivals in the western part of the state, we wanted one in Eastern North Carolina.”
Starting at 1 p.m., bands played until 8 p.m. on one of the hottest days so far this year. It began with a cover band playing everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Blink-182. Then came probably Clayton’s first vinyl-scratching DJ, then reggae and soul. Headliners Black Masala, which specializes in New Orleans-style funk, led a second line down Main Street before their afternoon set.
Three blocks of Main Street were blocked off and artists set up around the main stage and throughout downtown. Artists painted in the grass, on guitars and surfboards and dozens of kids left their pastel marks with sidewalk chalk. Raleigh graffiti artist Victor Knight worked on two murals as the bands played and said this was the first time he had worked in Clayton.
“This is kind of uncharted territory for me,” Knight said. Of the music playing nearby, he called it a mutual symbiosis. “Visual artists sometimes feed off of music while they’re working. Some musicians are inspired by visual artists.”
Johnston County chainsaw artist Corey Lancaster attended Millstock last year, but said with the shift of festivals, he got to bring his chainsaw and perform. Attendees gathered around as Lancaster brought an owl out of a raw log with just a few minutes of cutting, the air a mix of gasoline and sawdust. Lancaster travels up and down the East Coast for festivals and said a refocus was needed for Clayton.
“You’ve got to do something different,” he said. “There’s so much of the same old 10 by 10 [tent booths].”
Blaise Harris, who made the trip to Clayton from tiny Bunn in Franklin County, got to Mondo Roots early to support his friend “DJ Jedi.” He said he was impressed by what he saw.
“I’m all about diversity,” Harris said. “Everybody’s enjoying themselves; it’s a celebration.”
Emily Brown, Dave Brown’s wife and another festival organizer, said that the hiccups had been minimal for the first year and that more people than expected braved the heat. While it was in downtown Clayton, where the Browns live and host other events like the Clayton Shindig, she said it was really aimed at eastern part of the state.
“I think we tend to fall into ruts, to think about things as one-sided, whatever that one side is,” Emily Brown said. “Arts, for me, can encompass each person’s perspective. Hopefully everyone is taking a little bit of something different home with them.”
Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234 ext. 104; @jdrewjackson