FloydFest 8: Revival | 07.23-26 | VA

Words & Images by: Stratton Lawrence

FloydFest 8: Revival :: 07.23.09 – 07.26.09 :: Blue Cow Pavilion :: Floyd, VA

FloydFest 8
Fancy Gap. Meadows of Dan. Rolling up the Blue Ridge Parkway to FloydFest, even the names of towns ease one into a more simple time and place. Cell phones stop working long before we arrive, and weaving through lush, narrow hollows, the road is wet from a just-passed rain cloud. Turning a corner, one catches a first glimpse of the idyllic ridgeline and valley adorned with wooden stages and all manner of art, fancy and merriment as the sun shines brightly down on a perfect mid-70 degree afternoon. FloydFest's magic is evident before even stepping through the front gate.

Thursday, 07.24

After catching a moment of The Old Ceremony's opening set, Nathan Moore's solo set was first on the official agenda. Moore wittily sang about wanting to be the next Abbie Hoffman and how to "survive some grizzly summer learning which berries are safe to eat." The songwriter only learned that he was part of FloydFest's "Emerging Artist" competition as he took the stage. "If anyone needs ice or their tent set up after the show, just call me gopher," he joked. "I'll draw the line, but not where you think I would." Moore's style, reminiscent of Greg Brown, worked well with tales like the time he spotted Drew Emmitt on the street, then ran alongside him, singing. The weekend's first magical moment came when a particularly stiff breeze rustled the grass and trees behind the stage just as Moore sang about "each way the wild wind blows."

Nathan Moore :: FloydFest 8
Emmitt himself, along with Billy Nershi and band, provided the evening's next highlight with a set that peaked during a tremendous cover of Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn." The two veterans showed off the instincts that set them above the pack, masterfully handing off the solos to the next player in line. Dressed in a psychedelic purple shirt and gold Mardi Gras beads, Emmitt was clearly having a ball. The band ended the show by inviting Jason Hann on stage for a song by bassist Tyler Grant (the 2008 National Flatpicking Guitar Champion), before a rollicking "Restless Wind." About midway through the show, a woman in the front row offered up a bottle of tequila to Nershi, but it was snatched away by security as he leaned forward to take it. After the show, Michael Kang emerged from the side-stage, smiling big as he handed Billy the bottle.

For those String Cheese Incident fans hoping for some collaborative work between the members present at FloydFest, Thursday may have been a disappointment. Panjea, Kang's post-SCI project, entertained with their worldly funk grooves, but the music never came close to the epic peaks of String Cheese lore. Nershi watched from the side, but never joined them on stage.

Emmitt-Nershi Band :: FloydFest 8
It's obviously difficult to be the frontman in a band where you're not the biggest name, but Panjea's lead vocalist Chris Berry becomes borderline obnoxious at times. The songs' messages were poignant ("Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?") but the over-the-top dancing and frantic jumping between congas and the microphone by Berry was distracting and may actually hold the very capable band (Kang and Berry plus sax, bass, drums) from reaching musical points they otherwise might reach.

The night ended with a third String Cheese offshoot, EOTO on the Hill Holler Stage. Billy Nershi sat on the grass near the back and watched, and the dichotomy between his epic acoustic build-ups and the monotonous, electronic ramblings of EOTO was striking. Nershi said that SCI loved playing together at Rothbury and that he believes it'll happen again before too long. "We talked about it and understand that we all need to give each other latitude to explore our own pursuits on stage," he said.

Walking back to camp, a meteor shower decorated the night sky, ripping across the intensely bright Milky Way. Witnessing three String Cheese products in a row proved insightful. Despite all the skills Kang, Hann and Michael Travis possess, Emmitt-Nershi Band sounded the most like a real band, utilizing all their members and together taking the sound to exciting places.

Continue reading for Friday's coverage of FloydFest...

Friday, 07.24

Friday, in order of the significant memories...

Holy Ghost Tent Revival :: FloydFest 8
Is any band more qualified to pull off a cover of "White Rabbit" than Grace Potter and the Nocturnals? Potter's voice is simply unreal, much like the Grace that originally sang about that strange bunny. After an intensely rocking, tight set, during which Potter floated from the piano to the mic to a Flying V guitar, the "one more" encore stretched into five songs, including a goose-bump inducing solo rendition of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and the aforementioned "White Rabbit."

Potter's set could not have been more perfectly placed, lighting up the festival with an over-the-top rock show that followed nearly two hours of festival-wide power outage. The lights and sound died at sunset, just as Toubab Krewe was kicking off their Hill Holler Stage show. Toubab compensated with a 30-minute drum session, and many late arriving folks were none the wiser about the power situation.

When the lights didn't come back up, however, the buzz passed around about whether we'd hear any more electric music that night. It likely wouldn't have mattered, as bands festival wide grabbed their gear and set up acoustic shows across the main field. Boulder Acoustic Society perhaps benefited most, turning their scheduled beer garden set into an intimate, sing-along affair lit by torches. Out in the field, crowds gathered around the Holy Ghost Tent Revival and The Smart Brothers as they busked in the grass.

Pransky & Smith - Toubab Krewe :: FloydFest 8
After leaving the stage to wait for the power to return, Toubab eventually reemerged in the dark. Flashlights from the crowd illuminated them as Jamaican legend Earl "Chinna" Smith joined them for a long medley of percussion and reggae standards including "Kaya."

If the power had never returned, festival-goers would have been hard-pressed to complain about the sheer magnitude of the music that preceded the outage during the daytime. Last year's emerging artist contest winners, William Walter & Co., absolutely raged on the Hill Holler Stage early in the afternoon, including a super-funky rendition of "Chameleon" by the relatively acoustic band.

Holy Ghost Tent Revival's 3 p.m. set at the beer garden had a crowd dancing like it was twelve hours later, banging their heads to banjo and trombone through one fast song and epic ending after another. Holy Ghost's keyboard player Mike O'Malley seems to have really found his place in the band, and it's hard to imagine them without him now.

Yard Dogs Road Show :: FloydFest 8 by Ryan Snyder
For those lucky enough to stumble upon it or already be in the know, Forro in the Dark's Workshop Porch set of flute-led Brazilian rumba was phenomenal. The band played seated in a line. Back on the main stage, The Duhks precisely delivered jig and fiddle songs, changing time signatures seamlessly. They are undoubtedly one of the smoothest, tightest acoustic bands playing today.

The early evening hosted a two-genre dance party as The Belleville Outfit entertained an enthusiastic swing-dancing crowd at the dance tent, while Grupo Fantasma's 11-piece (including three percussionists) Latin/mambo ensemble had a huge crowd doing the rumba. The grooving beats of "Arroz con Frijoles" segued well into the drum-show of Toubab, as the power died soon after Fantasma wrapped up their show.

If there was a regret on Friday, it was having put my camera away before the Yard Dogs Road Show at 11 p.m. The band (dance troupe? acting ensemble?) is a creative spectacle, complete with sword swallowing, burlesque ladies and Mexican standoffs. Our brains fried by the insanity of it all, we stopped by the Village Stage to shake it with Forro in the Dark once more before heading to camp.

Continue reading for Saturday's coverage of FloydFest...

Saturday, 07.25

Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas
"We usually start at 10 p.m.," said a groggy-looking Samantha Crain to her late Saturday morning audience. "We had to be here at 10 a.m. I'll try to wake-up." She did and woke us up as well with her spunky acoustic rock & roll. Like MerleFest and LEAF, an early slot at Floyd isn't a lousy gig for the bands - the fans are there for music as early as it starts.

By noon, Saturday reached full-party mode, with Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas urging the main stage audience to "Take off your shoes, because I'm gonna sock it to ya!"

After a quick listen to local hip-hop/funk combo Blount Harvey, the day's first big dose of excitement came during Yarn's set in the beer garden. The band sounds more like Oxford, MS than their hometown of Brooklyn, NY. In song after song, impeccable harmonies gave way to epic build-ups that took flight behind Kang-esque electric mandolin. In the early afternoon on the festival's smallest stage, the sound Yarn gave their audience could have filled an arena.

Ollabelle, the project of Levon Helm's daughter Amy Helm, was a bit of a disappointment after Yarn's soaring spectacle. The band sounded best on covers like "Long Black Veil" and "Corrina, Corrina," but their energy seemed low and better fit for a smaller venue then their main stage slot.

We soon headed back to the beer garden for Sol Driven Train. The Charleston, SC group played heavy on the horns for what was likely the weekend's most crowded show in the beer garden, highlighted by a rollicking version of Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening" and a group drum jam.

Rain clouds approached across the mountains as the day progressed, seemingly playing to a perfect Donna the Buffalo setlist. The deluge began halfway through "40 Days and 40 Nights," followed by a perfect "Mystic Water." Although Donna's set was fairly standard, the rain and subsequent rainbow made the show magical. Tara Nevins led off "Blue Skies" just as the sun peaked back through, destined to remain out the rest of the day.

The Felice Brothers :: FloydFest 8
Saturday's champions were The Felice Brothers, who ripped the Hill Holler Stage apart like the barn they were apparently raised in. From knocking over drum sets to showering the crowd with water, if the faux-country band can keep up their New York redneck energy as their fame grows they'll have lasting power. The festival set featured favorites like "Run Chicken Run" and "Penn Station," which made the crowd scream for more. The Brothers might have obliged them had the drums not been in disarray from fiddler Greg Farley tackling them head first to close the set.

With Toubab's Friday show cut short by the power outage, the band came out Saturday ready to impress. With very little speaking or intentional stage presence, Justin Perkins focused on the guitar over the kora, almost sounding like Dick Dale at times. Favorite moments included bass player David Pransky donning a wild four-foot-tall hat made of balloons and the tune "Nirvana the Buffalo," fitting for a set that followed Donna's show on the same stage.

Although some questioned Blues Traveler as a suitable major festival headliner in the year 2009, the band proved on Saturday night that they've still got their H.O.R.D.E. tour chops. All of John Popper's past dramas haven't affected his harp playing, and while "Run Around" and "Hook" came off tired, "But Anyway" sounded good as new. Popper brought out Survivorman's Les Stroud to jam with him, and the outdoor badass/TV star showed up and held his own with America's most famous harmonica player in one of the weekend's most anticipated (and downright cool) moments.

Three days in, we danced as hard as we could to The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker before crashing hard.

Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of FloydFest...

Sunday, 07.26

Peter Rowan :: FloydFest 8
Sunday began slumped in a chair for some hair-of-the-dog with Adrienne Young's soothing voice and banjo playing. The casual, unpretentious bluegrass of her band, The Old Faithful, was perfect for the blustery, sunny Sunday morning.

The wind soon blew in more rain, forcing The Horse Flies off stage and sending much of the crowd running for shelter from the deluge. Fortunately, the Flies and the audience returned within the hour. The Ithaca, NY band plays ancient instruments, from a rough-looking banjo/ukulele to a vintage fiddle. Highlighted by "Last Train to Rajastan," their show took acoustic music and dipped it in pure psychedelic syrup. It's a wild ride.

Peter Rowan commenced the final hours at Floyd, clearly having fun throughout yodel improvisations and a tongue-in-cheek gospel tune that announced, "We're chopping down the trees for Jesus." He later told us, "This is the most fun we've had all summer," and it seemed like the truth.

After packing up, we stuck around briefly for Railroad Earth, a perfect close to an idyllic weekend.

FloydFest manages to pull off a large-tier festival (15,000 through the gates was the estimate) while maintaining a small-fest vibe. From the first songs to the last, there's never a moment when there isn't world-class music being performed, including when the entire festival's power dies. The bands just grab their instruments and take to the field, while the audience gathers around. Like so many of the bands that played over the four days, young and veteran, if FloydFest can maintain its character as it continues to grow it's inspiring to think of what awaits us in years to come.

Continue reading for a few more pics of FloydFest...

Drew Emmitt, Bill Nershi & Michael Kang
Michael Kang
Les Stroud & John Popper - Blues Traveler
Grace Potter
Veggie Food
Boulder Acoustic Society
Yard Dogs Road Shows by Ryan Snyder
Donna The Buffalo
The Duhks
Grupo Fantasma
Sol Driven Train
Drew Heller - Toubab Krewe
William Walter & Co.
Yarn
Railroad Earth

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