Words by: Sarah Moore | Images by: Cameron Yeager
The Festy Experience 2011 :: 10.07.11-10.09.11 :: Devil's Backbone Concert Grounds :: Nelson County, Virginia
A full photo gallery of The Festy awaits you at the end of this review!
The Festy Experience stormed through its second year (thankfully not literally) in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Charlottesville's The Infamous Stringdusters put on the whole event on the grounds of the Devil's Backbone Brewery. The David Grisman Sextet and Toubab Krewe were among the headliners for this wickedly successful festival. From the beauty of the surrounding foothills to the interesting cuisine (crab cakes, Étouffée, jambalaya, empañadas, vegan options and more!), everything was just spot-on. And did I mention accommodations? I've never seen such clean porta-potties in my life.
|The Infamous Stringdusters by Cameron Yeager|
The acts were split up between the Main Stage, the Southern Stage, and then the High Country Base Camp and Workshop Stage, where folks could learn a bit of everything from shape-note singing (led by Stringduster Glen Garrett) to backcountry cookin'. The Workshop Stage also included several sessions from The Stringdusters, as well as other musicians focusing on specific instruments like the dobro or specific styles like the Garrett Grass Gospel Hour.
The Festy Experience was in its second year, and everyone reveled in being a part of something so awesome in its infancy. Not only were the southern charm and friendliness spot on, but with every person I met, there was more and more a sense of camaraderie.
Larry Keel and Natural Bridge played near the beginning and helped the festival get off on the right foot. Keel and his band, which includes wife Jenny on bass, have been playing for several years and calling Rockbridge County, Virginia their home. Their music is perfectly in touch with this part of the country and commonwealth. Their multi-part vocal harmonies, along with the virtuoso abilities of all the musicians, really impacted the audience, encouraging them to stand up and move in any way they felt. Whether covering traditional songs or playing their own, Keel and the band strummed and picked their hearts out right with us. Their rendition of The Country Gentlemen's "Matterhorn" was played with a certain boisterousness that flew out at you at every moment. Keel's phrasing has a tendency to seem rushed, but somehow he always arrives at the right place on time. His phrasing is very similar to Willie Nelson's. Will Lee on banjo (his father, guitar legend Ricky Lee, played with Dr. Ralph Stanley) sang lead vocals with his Piedmont tenor, making girls (and even dudes) in the audience blush. When they played "Back Up On That Mountain," Keel actually pointed offstage and said, "Right there." Being in the birthplace of the band's creative spark made the listening experience that much more enjoyable.
|Larry Keel by Cameron Yeager|
Love Cannon, a string band from Charlottesville covering 80's hits, was a fun surprise of the weekend. As you can imagine, the crowd got into their performance in a serious way. They played songs like "Take On Me" and "Don't Stop Believing" with such aplomb that the audience joined in and sang along. This sort of audience involvement was especially cool in this instance, because it built on the band's karaoke vibe. It didn't hurt that there was a gigantic bonfire right near the stage. The temperature was dropping to about 45 or 50 degrees at the time, and the fire was a welcome boon.
Railroad Earth wowed the crowd with their hootenanny style and heavy picking as the last band on the main stage Friday night. Their sound was well layered, with each instrument providing a different texture depending on the sound they wanted to achieve. They began their set with some soft glimmers of notes here and there, gradually working their way into a rustling of sounds, like a whirlwind blowing leaves faster and faster. They began with "Mighty River" as they broke free from the softness full force. Several Toubab Krewe members joined them for a very percussive and Justin-Perkins-kora-filled "Mission Man." The six-man band put on a spectacular set, and brought down the house with their encore cover of "Harvest Moon", featuring several Stringdusters.
|Railroad Earth by Cameron Yeager|
The second day showcased two sets from The Two Man Gentlemen Band, who put on one of the best shows of the weekend. Andy Bean, with his pencil moustache, and the Councilman, the straight man in the comedic duo, not only have spot-on musicianship and repertoire, but their onstage banter is clever and delightfully naughty as well. These guys also used audience involvement in a tasteful manner. Considering that a couple of years ago their live act involved passing out kazoos to every audience member and utilizing their humming skills, I was braced for the best.
The suit-clad two-piece began with "Me, I Get High on Reefer," which was an instant success with the festival crowd. Bean played a 1930 National Triolian Plectrum Guitar, which is a 4-string guitar based on a banjo of the same type from Dixieland and early jazz. This instrument, coupled with The Councilman's upright bass, provided for quite the contrast. The song effortlessly combined vaudeville with jazz and country. With a quick mouth-trumpet, Bean then sang, "I wonder who do you dream about / When you put that reefer in your mouth/ In my dream you dream of me." The duo also played "Chocolate Milk" in which the audience was asked to sing, "I will, I will" after certain lines. Of course, when it came to spelling out the words 'chocolate milk' there was a general muttering to which Bean suggested, "Not really a spelling crowd." "Tikka Masala" was a cute number that Andy described as being about Indian cuisine. He then said if anyone didn't like it they were racist, which was pretty hilarious. "I Like to Party with Girls" really displayed their skatting abilities, as they would "doodly da da" in unison with each note they played. No one left without a hankering for chocolate milk and "Fancy Beer." With songs like "(Havin' a Prescription Party) Prescription Drugs" and "I Like to Party With Girls", the duo made tawdry subjects sound dignified and matter of fact.
Sarah White and the Pearls came onto the Southern Stage next, and put on a great alt-country rock show. Wearing a white 60s shift dress, White et al. blazed through songs like "Apple in B Major" and "My Brother." The Pearls consist of musicians well-known around Virginia, including Ted "Righteous Handlebar Moustache" Pitney on guitar, under-the-radar King Wilkie, punk legend Michael Bishop from Gwar on bass, and drummer Stuart Gunter from Wrinkle Neck Mules. During "Sarah Arizona" the harmonies were on point, and White's vocals channeled Pat Benatar. Due to the excellent musicianship of each member, the band was able to jam gigantically for a single controlled minute. It left the audience wanting more. The name "Sarah" sung in the refrain is still very hard to stop humming (and not just because it happens to be this reviewer's name!). There was something very strange and haunting about watching a woman named Sarah sing the name herself.
Saturday night's bonfire was just as warm and large, but they made us wait for it this time. The temperature dropped rapidly, and those still in cute dresses from the warm day were miserable. Even I, who planned for such an event, was pretty gripey.
|The Infamous Stringdusters by Cameron Yeager|
The Infamous Stringdusters played the first of their two sets on Saturday night (they of course also appeared throughout the weekend individually for different workshops and showcases - one of the most popular sessions was the aforementioned Gospel Hour). The Stringdusters put on a hootenanny of a show and kept the energy going all night. This show included the official introduction of new mandolinist Dominick Leslie, a youthful guy that will undoubtedly bring in more young ladies as fans. The band played "Fork in the Road" and kicked off some great pickin' with fiddle player Jeremy Garrett singing lead. He shared lead vocal duties with bassist Travis Brook. Garrett sang on "Echoes of Goodbye," one of their more riling tunes. The vocal harmonies were deep and thick, and the melody wouldn't leave my brain without a fight.
Next, the horn section from the band Rubblebucket joined the Stringdusters on stage, making the string band a little bit funkier. Rubblebucket went on to close the Main Stage on Saturday night. When the Rubblebucket horns came out, the Stringdusters played a cover of The Police's "Walking on the Moon," which sounded very cool with the added depth of the horns. The trombone seared through the strings with a gritty rumbling. The next song, "Can't Put Out the Fire," included a 70's Shaft-like guitar tone and plenty of guttural horn-playing. It got the crowd pumped and ready for another set of funky music.
Day three yet again boasted sunshine and 75 degree temperatures. After a savory breakfast sandwich (crab cake, of course) The Good Lovelies took the Southern Stage. The trio of ladies - Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore - swapped instruments and stories for a feel-good way to begin the last day of the festival.
|Rubblebucket by Cameron Yeager|
When I arrived, the ladies were beginning "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which struck me as pretty cheesy and a bit embarrassing. It got even worse when the audience decided to clap to the beat. Once they played some originals, though, the sound tightened up and won me over. The ladies kept referring to their back story as having worked in a strip club, so all kinds of naughty insinuations ensued between songs. Some of their stories, whether real or made up, were far-fetched enough to leave the audience wondering. The band also revealed that they hailed from Toronto, "the most hated Canadian city." Brooks kept time with a bass drum pedal while switching from guitar to banjo, and Passmore held down the mandolin. Their three-part harmonies were spot-on and, somehow, friendly. I felt like I wanted to be friends with all three women by the end of the set. The highlight of the Good Lovelies' performance was "Lonesome Hearts," a song from their newest release, Let the Rain Fall. The country number had a 1940's quality to it, and was more than catchy. True to their shtick, the Good Lovelies left the crowd feeling pretty good.
The Wood Brothers were up next, and they were another high point of the weekend. Drummer Jano Rix was the wild card of the set, the secret weapon to the Wood Brothers' musical prowess. From awesome falsetto vocal harmonies to mastering the cocktail kit, this guy had all the extras. The trio began with "Mary Anna," a track from their new album Smoke Ring Halo. Chris Wood's upright bass played some great jazz and walking bass-lines against his brother Oliver's Tom-Petty-like Americana. When they played "One More Day" from their first album, the guys used a few great dramatic pauses for extra emphasis.
|The Wood Brothers by Cameron Yeager|
"Postcards from Hell" proved to be a somber affair, as Chris brought the bow out for some moody bass sounds and harmonica, while Rix deconstructed his kit to a bristle brush. "Shoofly Pie" picked things up again as Chris laid out a funky groove and Rix used a vertical tambourine to beat the drum. During "Luckiest Man," Rix played the melodica sparingly, but enough to make the crowd want more. It was during this piece that Chris brought the bow out again for a brief solo. Southern Ground Records labelmate Clay Cook (Zac Brown Band) joined the three guys on stage with his lap steel, lengthening the sound of the group. Rix brought out another secret weapon - a busted-ass guitar that he wore vertically and hit like a percussion instrument. They ended the set with a traditional prison work song, "Ain't No More Cane," made particularly memorable in The Last Waltz. It involved each of the three band members singing lead, and then the audience joined them for the chorus of three 'ooohs' going higher each time. It was very moving.
I look forward to what next year's The Festy Experience will have to offer, as I'm definitely going back.
JamBase | Virginia
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