2ND ANNUAL FLOYDFEST | 8.15 - 8.17 | Floyd, VA
Babatunde Olatunji would have been proud. The seeds he planted under African skies took root in the green fields of southern Virginia, thousands of miles away, yet right next door to his own heart. But let's back up a little, to three summers ago, as a young couple opened an eatery that became a portal between two distant lands.
Babatunde Olatunji 1927 - 2003
In the summer of 2000, Kris and Erika Hodges opened Oddfella's Cantina in the infamous bluegrass community of Floyd. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, Erika's restaurant paired with husband Kris' newly-formed Across-the Way-Productions to bring young talent and renowned musicians to the community. Eventually they envisioned an entire music festival taking place in Floyd, showcasing not only local flavors but sounds from around the globe, rarely heard in the distant mountain enclaves of Virginia. In the summer of 2002, FloydFest was born.
The 2nd annual FloydFest was dedicated to the memory of Babatunde Olatunji, the legendary Nigerian percussionist who passed away in April. Baba was not only a musician, but a music activist, founding the Voices of Africa non-profit foundation to spread the sounds of his homeland around the world while raising funds desperately needed to help those back home. One act he was especially excited about was the African Showboyz from Ghana. Before passing, he helped arrange their first visit to the United States, where he got them a gig at FloydFest. Although he couldn't be there to witness it himself, at least not in our corporeal form, his spirit was honored throughout the weekend. His foundation members even received a discounted admission to the festival.
The rolling hillsides offered an extremely convenient layout. One long, wide clearing took you past almost everything - five stages, delicious food for sale and an unusually large art and vending area. For those wishing to be in the middle of the action, you could set up camp virtually on top of the stages. There were also vast fields and woods for those looking to get away from the activity. Five different stages marked the landscape: the Main Stage, the smaller Showcase Stage, a Workshop Porch, a Beer Garden stage, and also a performance space down in the African Village. This was a special area at the bottom of a hill that featured many African artists throughout the weekend, along with a drum circle, fire pit, and its own food and craft vendors.
Since the stages were mostly all in a row, fans constantly found themselves walking past one stage to get to another, a surefire way to discover bands you'd never heard before. Many festivals offer side stages that are truly off to the side, meaning you would pretty much have to go there on purpose to see the band. But when the stages are set up so that you're walking right past them all day, you can just stand there and watch people get hypnotized by the sounds and forget all about where they were going. This I believe is one of the keys to the philosophy espoused by founder Kris Hodges. His view is that exposing people to new music they'd never heard before is the whole point. Otherwise, he says, you're simply promoting bands that already sell tickets. The artistic concept inherent in his production company is drawing people in with what they already love, and then pouring a dump truck full of new sounds into their eardrums all weekend. Sneaky huh?
At 4:20 pm the African Showboyz kicked things off on the Main Stage with their unique blend of singing and dancing, immediately bringing the energy of their homeland into their generous hosts' backyard. Their countrymen the Kusun Ensemble, also from Ghana, were getting things rolling down in the African Village, with their own song and dance sensation. Festival organizers had booked them around town in the weeks leading up to the festival, taking every opportunity to introduce their music into new hearts and minds. The roots reggae grooves of John Brown's Body followed, and the driving swing of Scrappy Hamilton got things started in the Beer Garden. Local ordinances required roping off a distinct area for beer and wine sales, but as far as distinct areas go, this was about the nicest I'd seen. Most "beer gardens" are more like "beer prisons" with too many people in too little space, all of them smoking. At FloydFest, they offered a huge space, complete with tables and chairs, trees and grass, and a large stage hosting live bands throughout the festival.
John Brown's Body
DJ Janaka appeared on the Main Stage to spin spooky tracks in between sets, a position he held down all weekend, accompanied occasionally by a belly dancer. Then it was time for Acoustic Syndicate. Joined by frequent guest Jeremy Saunders on saxophone, they tore into a thick set of rocking bluegrass before being joined by the African Showboyz for a huge drum jam which led into "Walking in Your Footsteps" by The Police. They later ran through a version of Neil Young's "Old Man" before yielding the stage back to the earth wise tones of DJ Janaka. Meanwhile, Foundation Stone was pouring their trip-hop reggae-jazz all over the Showcase Stage. But all of the energy seemed to be leading up to the evening's headliners, festival stalwarts Donna the Buffalo.
I'm pretty sure there's a federal law stating that Donna has to play at every music festival in the country. Seriously, in April I saw them 7 times in 18 days. That's just weird. Anyway, they cranked up the energy for the first night of FloydFest, tearing through classics including "Conscious Evolution" and "These are Better Days," before former keyboardist Joe Thrift appeared to lend his rub-board to "Tides of Time." Thrift's new band Man Alive! would play their first of several sets the next day. Country rock crooner Jim Lauderdale was next to join Donna on stage. Donna became Lauderdale's band for the Wait 'Til Spring album released earlier this year. They ran through the title track along with "Whoa Whoa Whoa" and "Workin' on a Building," adding a poignant country twang to their Americana groove. Then they made a surprise announcement that they'd be joining Lauderdale for his afternoon set the next day, a notion eagerly received by the enraptured audience. Thrift returned for the encore, and then the deep organic thump of Donna the Buffalo slowly faded into the mountainside. But the first night of FloydFest wasn't quite over yet – we still had the hip-hop latenight groove and aggressive dancebeats of Granola Funk Express to keep everyone going long into the night.
Donna the Buffalo
The music got started again around 9:30 on Saturday morning. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I'm not even going to pretend I made it to that show. However, I was sure not to miss Joe Thrift's new band Man Alive! Formed three years ago with his friends Nancy and Bill Shuys and David Long, they immediately made an impact in the old-time music scene, and have been generating excited word-of-mouth ever since. The key to their success may lie in one of the simple philosophies they stated: "You can never miss with a good chicken song or a good murder song."
Over on the Main Stage Peter Rowan's Texas Trio were busting out their sad cowboy melodies, including the old classic "Panama Red." They were joined throughout the set by a percussionist on some sort of variation of an African talking drum that brought a fascinating worldliness and resonance to the music. Jim Lauderdale was up next, joined for the beginning of his set by Donna the Buffalo. They ran through "Divide and Conquer" and then played "Some Other Bayou" from the Wait 'Til Spring album. "We're sweatin' up here like George Bush at a Dixie Chicks concert," proclaimed Lauderdale before diving into Larry Williams' "Slow Down," a rock chestnut from the '50s, which was also covered by The Beatles. After Donna dispersed, Lauderdale finished up the set solo.
It was now time for the reincarnation of a legendary band. In 1973, Jerry Garcia formed Old and in the Way as a vehicle for his bluegrass tendencies. Joined by David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Kahn, they released only one self-titled album, but the reverberations from that recording are still living on. Many current bluegrass fans that grew up on rock cite this record as the one that first led them down the bluegrass path. The surviving members – Grisman, Rowan and Clements – were joined by Bryn Bright on bass as Old and in the Gray performed a rollicking set of world-class music. Grisman, who was playing in his first of three different bands at FloydFest, educated us that "Before there was the Carter family, there were the Rowan Stones." The band then burst into "Honky Tonk Women" as Clements fiddled himself into a frenzy. They returned to the Rolling Stones' catalog for an encore of "Wild Horses," a song they'd first covered back when it was brand new. The crowd wasn't ready to leave yet, however, and demanded one more tune from this historical alignment of talent. The band discussed for a moment and launched into Reno & Smiley's "Barefoot Nellie," a perfect choice of accelerated bluegrass and high harmonies. The energy was so electric by the end of the set that Peter Rowan threw his remaining water all over the crowd in a fit of rock star grandeur.
By Tony Stack
Mike Marshall & Darol Anger were the next act on the Showcase Stage, and ran through a typically mesmerizing set. Their musicianship is unparalleled, yet they keep it in check through sheer application of taste, preferring always to serve the song and melody rather than simply showing off chops. Their version of George Gershwin's classic "Summertime" was a dark, moody, almost ambient affair, certainly the most abstract version I'd heard. Their set was followed on the Main Stage by FloydFest's secret weapon, the "ringers" of the weekend, a very special band from England.
Baka Beyond are a true world fusion band, where Irish and African melodies and rhythms are seamlessly woven together to create something new and unique. Acoustic guitarist Martin Cradick originally founded the band Outback in 1988, along with Graham Wiggins (aka Dr. Didg). After three records together, including 1990's Baka, they disbanded, and shortly thereafter Cradick, along with wife and vocalist Su Hart, went to live and play with the pygmies of the Baka Forest
in Cameroon. The experience galvanized them to create Baka Beyond, an eight-person onslaught of worldbeat consciousness. One of their most impressive feats is a vocal pattern where Hart and vocalist Denise Rowe join together for a percussive vocal effect, each one singing out quick blasts of direct counter-rhythm to the other, creating a spellbinding sound like nothing I'd heard before. Their set was a ferocious blending of Celtic and African traditions, rich with dance and percussion, which ended up as many folks' highlight of the weekend.
Up next was the David Grisman Quintet, soaring through glorious renditions of "Opus 38," "E.M.D.," "Chili Dawg" and "Dawgnation" among others. This group seems to encompass the whole world within the five members of the band. Equally adept in the mountains of Appalachia or the rainforests of Brazil, they always find new ways to dazzle a crowd with the sheer agility and emotion of their playing. The encore welcomed Mike Marshall and Darol Anger sitting in for "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Shady Grove."
The 8:30 pm slot on the schedule simply said "A Very Special Surprise," and when a festival this good puts something like that in their Saturday night slot, you tend to believe them. But what could it be? Too many possibilities, better not to wonder. But wonder we did, and none of us predicted what was about to happen. And although not everyone knew the name Hope Clayburn's Booty Battalion when her set started, I guarantee you no one forgot it after it was over.
Formerly of the Charlottesville, VA afrobeat band Baaba Seth, Clayburn has built a solid reputation over the last decade as a furious funkster, laying down rapturous vocals while blowing mighty chops on saxophone and flute. In 2000, she became the newest member, and lead singer, of Deep Banana Blackout. While still a member of DBB, she's also leading the Booty Battalion, which featured special guest drummer (and festival founder) Kris Hodges, who'd also sat in with the Battalion at the Steppin' Out festival in Blacksburg, VA two weeks prior. The band launched into an all-out dance party, laying down thick funk and getting the entire audience on their feet and dancing. Members of the Kusun Ensemble were on hand to add even more percussive punch, and emcees Cactus and Genesis from Granola Funk Express came out to add some rhythmic rhymes. "Today is a gift" they sang, and for the happy crowd, swaying under a big, bright moon, it was Christmas morning all night.
But the night was still young when the set was over, so down the hill we went to check out the strange rock rumblings of Spookie Daly Pride. A unique mix of rock with some off-kilter distorted swing and reggae mixed in gives this Boston ensemble a sound all their own. The goofy humor and stage antics of Spookie quickly won over the crowd, and culminated with a song about his best friend, guitarist Adam Steinberg, who happens to be the brother of Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg. After the song, Spookie jumped up, sprinted over to Steinberg, and gave him a big hug. This band is definitely worth keeping an eye on - their blend of pop craftsmanship and intense jamming could lead them to some very interesting places.
At 10:30 on Saturday night, FloydFest was positively pumping. Along with Spookie Daly Pride on the Showcase Stage, Speech from Arrested Development was laying down his soul-rap on the Main Stage, the wailing guitar of the Larry Keel Experience was soaring off the Workshop Porch, and Man Alive! was entertaining the revelers at the Beer Garden. Most multi-stage festivals narrow things down at night and feature music on only one stage. But FloydFest, realizing that fans obviously become more merry and festive as the night progresses, kept the carnival atmosphere and electric ambience alive by keeping the stages running till late in the evening. But there wasn't too much time for reflection, for we had to amply prepare for some serious musical heavyweights. One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was about to go on. It was time for latenight with Garaj Mahal.
Watching these guys play makes you feel like you're witnessing the beginning of something. You ask yourself how long you'll be able to see them in smaller venues like this. You wonder why the entire country isn't talking about them. Featuring Fareed Haque on guitar, Kai Eckhardt on bass, Eric Levy on keyboards, and Alan Hertz on drums, each member is a world-class instrumentalist. The fact that they've banded together is one for the history books. Recently signed to Harmonized Records the new label offshoot of the Homegrown Music Network, they've released a series of live records documenting their incendiary live performances. On this night, once again, they did not disappoint.
With Mars sitting in place right next to the moon, the cosmos seemed ready to accept and sanction this musical offering. After dedicating a song to the recent Northeast blackouts, they burst into a rare rendition of the Grateful Dead classic "Tennessee Jed." Hearing Fareed Haque run through Jerry Garcia's guitar lines sent a shiver through the crowd. "Poodle Factory" then led into a jam of Parliament's "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)," which featured an intentionally silly vocal rendering by Eric Levy. At least I assume it was intentionally silly, because let's face it, bald white guys named Eric should not be singing P-Funk lyrics. The band then went into a seriously weird version of "Kiss." You know it's a world music festival when a Pakistani guy from Chicago is rapping a country version of a Prince tune.
By Tony Stack
As if their set couldn't get any hotter, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger appeared to take things in an entirely new direction. The crowd was immediately intrigued, trying to figure out how their string band sounds would compliment the frenetic funk of Garaj Mahal. The answer was: perfectly. The band erupted into "Gulam Sabri," one of their best jam vehicles, and never looked back. Haque, Levy, Marshall and Anger traded licks and dueled back and forth through an astonishingly fast repertoire of notes. They dueled at regular speed, then at double speed, and then at improv speed, sending notes flying out over the audience as fast as our ears could pick them up. It was one of the absolute highlights of FloydFest to watch musicians of this caliber improvise and inspire each other in super-speed real-time.
Sunday morning came around, and everyone tried to make sense of the ridiculous displays we'd witnessed the day before. It was truly an amazing day of music, and there was still a lot more to come. Acoustic guitar tornado Kaki King got the Showcase Stage rolling, amazing the audience with her temperamental tunings, flying fingers, and percussive panache. Schooled in the traditions of Michael Hedges and other acoustic innovators, this newcomer on the scene could make a very big impact on the future of acoustic music. The Reeltime Travelers brought some old-time string band music to the Main Stage, welcoming MerleFest songwriting contest winner Martha Scanlon onstage with them to play her song "Hallelujah." They continued with a thick burst of jamming on "Kiss Me Quick, Papa's Comin'" as they blanketed the audience in the traditional, homespun sounds of the mountains.
Mamadou Diabate was up next, and provided one of the most unique and special sets of the entire weekend. Raised in Mali, Diabate plays a 21-stringed instrument called a kora, which is basically a harp-like instrument with a notched bridge like a guitar. It's played in a similar manner to the harp, but when a master musician like Diabate is onstage, it sounds more like three guitars playing simultaneously. He was joined onstage by a singer, an acoustic guitarist, and a musician playing a balafon, which is an African version of a xylophone. They played with a precision, dexterity, and attention to taste rivaling the best in American string music. At times it sounded like Jefferson Airplane's "Embryonic Journey" at 78 speed. Other times it reminded me of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's crossover albums with Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Diabate, however, had all of the crossover happening within the same band. By the end of the set, I felt like I'd just seen a Led Zeppelin concert.
Yonder Mountain String Band was next to play, and they invited Darol Anger to help dig into the bluegrass groove on "Not Far Away," Bill Monroe's "Old Dangerfield," (which also featured Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins) and "Lord Only Knows (Part One)." They paid tribute to The Beatles with both "Mother Nature's Son" and "Only a Northern Song" before wrapping things up by dedicating the encore to John Hartford with his song "Holding." The genre-busting sounds of Nickel Creek was up next, featuring the impossible mandolin meanderings of Chris Thile, the sweet fiddle sounds of Sara Watkins, and the acoustic guitar acrobatics of her brother Sean Watkins. Bassist extraordinaire Mark Schatz rounded out the group on stand-up bass as they lead the crowd through their unique blend of boisterous bluegrass. Larry Keel then led an all-star jam on the Showcase Stage which featured his wife Jenny Keel along with Vassar Clements, Curtis Burch, Tony Williamson and Danny Knicely. Afterwards, it was time for the last Main Stage set of the festival and one of the most special occasions of the weekend.
By Adam George
FloydFest had set up a special reunion concert of the 1970s version of the David Grisman Quintet. Emerging onstage with Grisman were Tony Rice, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger. Mark Schatz filled in on bass for an explosive set of bluegrass classics. But it was the encore where things really got interesting. Grisman welcomed "The Dawgestra" to the stage, as he was joined by three more mandolin players: Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, Yonder Mountain String Band's Jeff Austin, and an amazing little kid, maybe 14 years old, named Josh. Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins also came out to add some fiddle to the sound. There were now four amazing mandolin players on stage and they all took turns ripping solos and passing the jam around and around. It was so amazing that after the encore ended, the audience simply would not let up, and managed to get them all back on stage for a surprise second encore.
FloydFest had one performance left to give us, and we made our way to the Showcase Stage one last time to see the rousing sounds of the The Hackensaw Boys. This seven-piece band plays old-time music with new-school energy, revitalizing and reenergizing a traditional form of music with modern day vitality. Their groove is infectious and had everyone riding out the last moments of FloydFest with huge smiles on their faces.
And then it was over. A year of planning for the staff, months of anticipation for the fans, miles of traveling for the musicians, all over. And I have to say, looking back on it, that this may very well have been the best festival I've ever attended. The musicianship was second-to-none, the variety of different styles presented more than satisfied my short attention span, and the layout and infrastructure of the festival grounds were easy on the knees and good for the soul. This was one of those rare festivals where everything seemed to come together, amazing friends and music converging in a beautiful location. It's rare that I actually feel a sense of community at a festival. I tend to nurture those feelings in private situations more often than amongst huge crowds. But this festival truly succeeded in providing that environment. I made new friends, saw tons of new bands, and I even got a (shockingly accurate) Tarot card reading. Yup, I think Babatunde Olatunji would have been very proud indeed.
JamBase | Virginia
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