July 23rd through 26th I attended my fifth consecutive Floydfest. All have been different; all have left me with wonderful memories. By now I know enough to expect the unexpected. One would think that mindset would have prepared me for this year. It didn't.
First, instead of attending with several carloads of relatives, this year it looked like it would just be Anita and me. Then, about a month before, Anita badly damaged a big toe. I will spare you the details and photos. As Floydfest approached it became evident she would not be able to go. We had hoped Anita's niece, husband and daughter Rachel (A former Best Camper) would be able to take the tickets. They bowed out the weekend before the festival was to start. With not enough time to to sell the two (rather expensive) tickets, I decided to go by myself. I then offered my daughter the other ticket. A few months pregnant and having not been feeling all that chipper, she had decided weeks ago not to attend. But she reconsidered mid-week and told me she would meet me on site Friday evening. So Thursday morning early I pointed Buster, Anita's old truck, north.
I had decided before I left that I was going to try camping in the woods this year to avoid the sun-baked heat of field camping.
But by the time I arrived, about four hours after the gates opened, many of the best sites were taken. Undeterred, I found a spot and managed - with some passerby help - to get the tent in place and the camp established. This photo makes the site look flat. It was not. Still the trees did provided shade and it was very convenient to the music, food, and porta-potties. I then wandered about in search of the music.
My first surprise was the Jesse Chong Band from Virginia Beach at the Hill Hollar stage as the sun was going down. They were just smoking. Sure, the guy could play and his band was tight, but what impressed me were the arraignments. There was always something interesting going on with the beat, the rhythm. Here is a sample on YouTube. His website also has videos. None really do justice.
The next day I happened by the Garden Stage and caught the last part of the set by Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers. If someone can kick some serious musical butt sweetly, it is Samantha. I took the photo to the right the next day when she played the Hill Hollar. Difficult to categorize, Samantha's music has an edge that belies her demeanor and the familiar forms her music takes. Her website has videos also.
After Malindi arrived and was settled in we walked about as the sun was setting in search of more music. Then Floydfest went dark, quickly, mostly. Actually a fuse blew on a power line off-site and for about two hours the festival was operating on a few backup generators and batteries.
So what happened with thousands of festival goers and seven stages? Simple; the musicians played and sung acoustically, and the audiences mellowed around them. Read about it here.
While walking back towards the Main Stage we stopped by the Children's Universe where we heard the Barcelona Institute of Gospel. They were singing in the dark without their microphones everything from Proud Mary to Billie Jean, J.S. Bach to a song from the Lion King. The arraignments to bring the young singers from Spain to the U.S. had been made by a Floyd County Virginia Tech student, details here. Malindi and I sat in awe. Someone had a video camera and posted part of their performance on YouTube. As we walked away I felt as if nothing could top that. I was (again) wrong.
I had heard that Friday night's closing Main Stage band, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, was pretty good. As the festival electricians were patching together enough emergency power so the band could take the stage and we were taking our seats on the side stage (a benefit of those expensive tickets) the local power company restored power to the site. Late, but now with full power, the show would go on. When Grace and her band hit the stage it was as if one had shaken up a hot two-liter coke bottle and then ripped off the cap. I had seen and heard bands on that huge stage for four previous festivals. I had never questioned if the stage was large enough, until Grace Potter. Friends and neighbors, they almost took the roof of that sucker. She sounds like a combination of Janis and Bonnie Raitt, with all their energy but with a better feel than either for a ballad. Her band could have been playing full tilt at Woodstock or almost any venue since. Timeless rock and roll. Playing mostly originals with a few covers that they well honor, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals just get it. It may be too late to catch them in a small club again, but catch them if you can. Mp3s of that performance can be found at archive.org. It is worth the download. I was awestruck, again.
It proved difficult to top Friday night. But for about 25 minutes Saturday afternoon...
I had first heard Donna The Buffalo at Floydfest 4. More or less joining their Herd, I had probably listened to them a dozen times since. But Saturday was special. As they took the Main Stage at 5 dark clouds rolled in. By the second song the wind was blowing a hard rain across the stage soaking us all. Donna played on. It got worse. Donna played on. The rain rendered Tara's violin bow useless and she wisely left the stage looking like she was fleeing an unvoluntary wet-T-shirt contest. Her band mates played on. Equipment started to fail. The band played on; the audience kept dancing. When I realized they were not going to stop I set my camera on video mode and captured a few minutes. Those videos became my first YouTube posts - here and here. Electrical power outages? Wind and rain? Not a problem at Floydfest.
Of Saturday night, no comment. Blues Traveler brought additional gate receipts, but that was about all. As my mother always reminded me, "If you can't say something nice...."
Sunday morning at 10 found me in the Pink Floyd Garden Stage for a short set by local (Blacksburg) singer/songwriter Kat Mills. She is a Floydfest regular and so I hope she remains. Motel Blues, Saturday; what a wonderful way to start the day. After she finished I made my way to the Virginia Folklife Workshop Porch to wait for Peter Rowan.
Rowan is a legend, with a wide and deep musical heritage that defies categorization. Born in Boston, he formed a Tex-Mex band in high school. He played with Bill Monroe in the mid-196o's. He then joined David Grisman in a folk-rock band, Earth Opera. He played in the rock-fusion band Seatrain in the early 1970's and then recorded a one-shot album with Grisman, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, and John Kahn, Old and In the Way. According to Rowan's website it remains the biggest selling bluegrass album of all time. His song from that album, Panama Red, recorded later by a Garcia side project, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, is iconic.
Since the seventies, Rowan has traveled widely, playing almost every kind of music imaginable - and a few beyond - including reggaebilly. But he always seems to come back to front porch music and bluegrass. And on Floydfest's small Workshop Porch Rowan parked himself Sunday morning, sang several songs, told some stories, and then played a short set with his bluegrass band prior to taking the larger Hill Hollar stage at 1:30. Later Rowan joined Railroad Earth on that stage for a version of the mountain standard, the Cuckoo.
Railroad Earth closed out the festival, playing until past 6 pm. I have written so much about them over the years anything more seems unnecessary. They have remained a Floydfest staple, bringing their very American eclectic music to a very eclectic American gathering. Sufficient to write that they played well and it was great the see the guys again. We have tickets to see them again next month in Charlotte.
There were dozens of wonderful performers at Floydfest I have failed to highlight: The Emmit-Nershi Band, The Duhks, Grupo Fantasma, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Olabelle, Adrienne Young and Old Faithful, Doug and Telisha Williams, William Walter & Co., The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker, the Lee Boys. And then there was Spiral. All deserve space on someone's blog, just not mine this time around.
I could also mention the wonderful food the folks from Chicago served behind the main stage. I could highlight the helpful volunteers who made us all feel so welcome. The vendors who add so much were out in full force this year. I could mention the couple who dreamed up Floydfest and then made it happen. Maybe next year.
Best Camper this year goes to my daughter, despite her needing to find a port every 30 minutes. It was a special treat to once again share Floydfest with her. Like Grace Potter and her Nocturnals, Malindi gets it. Driving rain and power outages, rank potties and two bands you want to hear scheduled at the same !#@**! time, all are just ingredients in the gumbo. All are a part of that experience of becoming just a bit more alive than usual, of being with thousands of friends you just haven't met yet, of being for one long week-end a year in that Virginia state of grace, Floydfest.