The cool, damp, and small music festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is no more. It has been replaced in the past couple of years by a festival of sunshine, dust, and much larger crowds. However, the mountains, relaxed vibes, and great live music - at least for the time being - remain. Every year Across-the-Way Productions has improved the facilities, ironed out kinks, and managed well the growing numbers in attendance. But scaling is seldom straightforward or fool-proof. If the cheek-to-jowl camping and the Saturday evening crowds are prologue, Floydfest is quickly approaching a crossroads of size and, unfortunately, purpose.
Having attended the last seven of the nine Floydfests, I am noticing a declining percentage of attendees who seem to be there for the music. (It seemed over 90% early on.) Many give the impression of buying their tickets to party in the mountains with their friends; others are there to see, and be seen. These are long-standing and honorable human desires; they have their place. But it remains an open question if Floydfest can maintain the main attraction that drew me there in the first place: accessible, first-class live music of all descriptions in a relaxed friendly environment.
This year - besides the cast of thousands - it was only me and Anita. She had been unable to attend last year due to a severely mangled toe; but despite having a knee operation this year only six weeks earlier, she toughed it out, icing her swollen knee at every opportunity. Missing this year was my daughter (she of the food processor and home-made baby food), who blogged about it anyway, Donna The Buffalo, and A Joyful Cup, vendors working from a converted school bus who had provided early morning coffee and smiles as far back as my Floydfest memories extend. Not exactly replacing them, but a welcome addition, were the folks of Floyd's Red Rooster Coffee Roster. They provided free high-quality, fair trade coffee behind the stage and joined the festival vendors near the Garden Stage entrance. Nice folks. I bought some beans; you can too.
We camped near the main stage just a few feet from the loop road, aided by Anita’s Handicapped tag. We had driven up Wednesday night and stayed in a B & B in Floyd to get an early shot at a camp site with as little up and down as possible, close to potties, food, and the music. That turned out to be a very good idea. We were quickly surrounded by this year's new friends, tent stake to tent stake.
Before I launch into the music, here is a visual example of what makes Floydfest and the people who put it on so special. This is the Pink Floyd Garden Stage. Notice dead center a few feet out is a tree. Most folks would have cut it down to provide a better sight line for both the performers and audience. But it remains. It was there first, does not really interfere with the music. So they let it be. Where else but Floydfest?
For me this year’s main music lineup attractions were The Levon Helm Band, Railroad Earth, and GPN. I had heard of, and wanted to hear, several others, including The Budos Band, my nephew Kevin's excellent recommendation, and Old Crow Medicine Show, my daughter's Don't Miss! suggestion. As usual, most performers were complete unknowns to me. But first...
My old friend Tom - since elementary school - owns an electronics store in Johnson City, TN. On my all too infrequent visits he invariably takes me into his high-end listening room to sample some amazing musical recording. This spring he surprised me by playing a homegrown cd by a local group of ETSU college students. They played both traditional old-time mountain music plus originals based in the same genre. He liked it. I liked it too. He showed no interest in parting with the cd. He told me that he had talked with the fiddle player and found that she grew up in North Carolina, north of Durham, not far from where we had spent our youth in southside Virginia a generation earlier. Back home I found their website and learned they were scheduled to be at Floydfest. I was delighted. So Friday morning when The Barefoot Movement opened the’s Workshop Porch, we were there. Their music was as good, bright, and fresh as I remembered.
They played three more times, all on the VIP stage to a smaller crowd. I talked with various band members several times over the week-end, learning that Noah, the fiddler, had attended Floydfest 2 when she was a high school freshman and wondered at the time what it would take to get behind those Performers Only signs. Now she knows. Her story - to me at least - is a fulfilled promise of Floydfest, passing on the music. They were recording their first full length cd this past week. I wish them well; may the Movement continue. I hope to see them at Floydfest 10. Here is a video I made of them on the VIP stage...
Returning from two years ago were the Rockridge Brothers, who describe themselves as Sweden's "Old Time Appalachian White Collar Punks." What a bunch of guys from Stockholm are doing playing traditional Appalachian music, I just don't know. But they are playing it with skill, care, energy, and obvious respect. They are much more confident on an American stage than two years ago when I first heard them, working on more than their English. They opened the Hill Holler Stage Thursday at 4. Fun too. Listen/Watch them on YouTube.
Returning from last year was Jesse Chong. I voted for him as best artist in the Under the Radar Contest last year. This year too.
Kevin's Budos Band rocked the main stage with their "Staten Island instrumental afro-soul" sounds mid-afternoon Friday. They were much more musically worthy than Thursday night's closer, Galatic, about which nothing more will be written.
Railroad Earth, about which I have blogged numerous times, closed Friday night. It was the first time I had heard their new bass player. While it will always seem odd not to see Johnny Grubb on the stand up, the new guy - Andrew Altman - fits in quite nicely. As usual they stretched out a bit musically Friday night for the Floydfest crowd. Earlier in the day RRE minus Todd and Carey played a bluegrassish set on the Workshop Porch. The boys then beat it to upstate New York to play Sunday at Donna the Buffalo's Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival.
Saturday was full of surprises. First were the freshened mountain winds that had been mainly absent the first two days. The constant movement of air helped moderate the effects of the unusually warm, sunny weather. Second was the strong progression of performers all day on the main stage. Sol Driven Train, William Walter, The Hackensaw Boys, Adrienne Young, Bearfoot, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba from Mali, J. J. Gray & Mofro, Old Crow Medicine Show, Kat Mills, and The Levon Helm Band. And joining Spiral this year was Miss Kitty. Here was the price of admission in one day, in one place. I am truly at a loss as how to blog about this Saturday lineup. In different ways, all just lit up the stage. Amazing. I slept well that night, probably with a smile on my face.
Occasionally the moment transcends the music. Floydfest had such a moment Saturday night when Levon Helm took the stage. His place in American musical history has been long secure, his contributions well noted. And even though the throat cancer that could have easily killed him a decade ago has taken away his distinctive Arkansas tenor, one can still find him at 70 years old behind a drum kit, time suspended, leading his band on a Ramble. Seeing his smile and sharing that stage with him Saturday night is something I will not forget. An aside...
I never saw The Band, but I have seen all of its members. They were the Hawks, backing Bob Dylan on November 28, 1965 when I saw him at the old Washington Coliseum. Helm quit the band after that show citing the continuing hostility to Dylan's new electric music. He returned after about a year of working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Good choice. All I have now to remind me of that show is a handbill for Dylan's upcoming show in Norfork I picked up on the way out. The closest I will come to seeing the Band was last Saturday night.
Sunday for me was striking camp, Tiff Merritt, and getting ready for Grace Potter who was to close from the Hill Hollar stage at 4. I have blogged before about GPN, with growing amazement. I had seen Grace live twice since Floydfest last year (Wilmington & Richmond) and I have found myself down front each time. Since last year GPN has truly been swept up in the starmaker machinery, to borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell who knew what that meant. Rolling Stone has discovered them. Hollywood Records (Disney) is heavily promoting GPN and the new record. They are all over YouTube. They have recently been "musical guests" on Boob Tube talk shows (Leno, Kimmel, Good Morning America, Ellen). GPN's cover of "White Rabbit" was featured in Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. Disney again. And probably by design, even though the newly enlarged band is starting to sound like The Nocturnals w/Grace Potter, on stage she is heating-it-up. Writers are straining to find comps. My current favorite is from Amazon.com,
"Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are like a modern-day version of Tina Turner stroking the microphone in a spangled mini-dress while fronting the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers."Well, that certainly clears up things.
Grace is certainly on "Some Kind of Ride." With all the energy sapping attention of her band's growing stardom I can only hope she manages to keep her head together, remembers that at the bottom it is the music that matters. I hope she makes the time to write, what I consider her most basic strength as an artist. I wrote almost a year ago,
"I don't know if Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are the future of rock and roll. But if the music has a future it will be someone like Ms. Potter who keeps it alive. "I still think she can pull it off. She's "Got the Medicine."
So Sunday I was down front again. GPN came out and again there was no place on earth I would have rather been. The band looked like it was having as much fun as the audience, maybe more. Grace was not quite as steamy as on Brown's Island, but the sun was still shining and there were children about. I did get a few shots of the band, enough to fill up my memory card. Here is the best of the lot. What a way to end the week-end.
The musicians highlighted above were probably less than 10% of those at Floydfest I would have enjoyed hearing. Every year my biggest Floydfest regrets revolve around thinking of those I missed, and some of my friends and family not there to share the music with me. Maybe next year. Which leads me to...
I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Erika Johnson, Co-founder and Director of Floydfest behind the main stage Saturday. She said they were planning something special for next year's 10th anniversary. Maybe a Best of Floydfest. I wonder if she is considering adding a hurricane, fog, or a power outage;) Better get your tickets early. I will.
By acclimation the Best Camper award this year goes to Mr. Scott, Anita's new Prius. The spaceship hatchback comfortably carried us and all our gear, the SatNav provided directions (which proved unexpectedly useful), and the mileage was exceptional. He endured the four-day layer of dusk with dignity and even found a rainstorm to drive through to wash it off before we reached home. One smart vehicle, one great week-end.