Blue Cow Arts Pavilion / Floyd, VA

Photo by Roger Gupta
Photo by Roger Gupta

FloydFest has situated itself in an idyllic slice of the Appalachian countryside, surrounded by sinewy back roads and big red barns housed in fields of buttercups. Campers get intimate with Mother Nature at this festival, as butterflies flutter around tents each morning. Come nightfall, silver bats dance overhead in a sky decorated with all those constellations I learned in middle school, at the Planetarium. Living in NYC, with all that light pollution, we forget about this sort of beauty.

FloydFest, now in its 16th year, preserves Appalachian music in the Irish and Scottish tradition like strawberry rhubarb. Auspiciously, it was a chance not only to see favorite performers multiple times, but also to see how they operated on various stages. Friday night the Wood Brothers rocked the summit of Hill Holler, while Saturday afternoon saw the band on the intimate Ferrum Workshop Porch.

Colorado’s Elephant Revival made their FloydFest debut Saturday on the Main Stage with an additional set on Sunday. Bonnie Paine, that nightingale of a voice, stole our hearts with each and every nuance. With a washboard around her neck, she epitomized the folk look, and, with her band members, created transcendental folk music. The songs in her six albums teach us what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. That transcendence unfolded on “Grace Of A Woman,” as the banjo player seamlessly transitioned to pedal steel, painting a kaleidoscopic musical landscape. As their set came to its final minutes, the band received the green light to satiate the crowd’s ONE MORE SONG!-chant. Paine sang a capella on a “Richie Havens’ song my mother taught me.”

Floyd fest 4Two and a half months of non-stop touring failed to wear thin the Banditos’ three-slot festival set. Lead singer, tambourine shaker, and lone woman of the group Mary Beth Richardson is confident and affecting; her powerhouse of a voice is near ignition for much of the performance. There’s something to love about a vocalist who’s cut her teeth singing in church choirs, something so pure and ceremonial about it, that while when Richardson sings, all eyes are on her, but all six of the band as a whole work together cohesively, a testament to the commitment they share when it comes to their craft. Though they tip their Stetsons to Muscle Shoals and a raunchier CCR, among others, Banditos lay down their Alabama roots; they’ve clocked in 600 shows in just three years. For their finale, a raucous rendition of “I Put A Spell On You” showcased an interesting outlaw country lilt. Richardson jumped into the crowd, surrounded by cell phones that recorded every last bit of it. It was obvious three songs in, Banditos would be one hell of an act to follow.

Jay Rutherford and his Nashville mates form Los Colognes, a five-piece rock outfit touching on Dire Straits, JJ Cale and the Grateful Dead. This quintet’s reverence for dad rock shines through its buoyant chord changes and vivacious stage presence, making them an act to be experienced live. Come Saturday, the watertight rhythm section of drummer Aaron Mortenson and bassist Gordon Persha kept bodies moving, while Chuck Foster’s handiwork on the keyboard helped Los Colognes expand minds. Then there’s Rutherford, whose words are replete with expression to the point where you’re bopping along, and suddenly think, “Holy shit! This song is about my life!”

The band played to a sparse crowd for the first 15 minutes of their set, but, as if summoned by the gods, girls in flowing white with hemp purses slung across their chests, men in Wrangler jeans and Harley Davidson T-shirts, and dreadlocked dudes reeking of patchouli ran to the stage at that first riff of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” The band transitioned seamlessly into the song from its own material (“We didn’t even plan on playing the song; it just sort of happened,” the band later admitted) and helped the crowd to relate to a band they had never heard of. A Bowie cover, as well as their stab at Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” was a lofty undertaking, but Los Colognes were effective.

Oakland, California-bred folk sisters, the T Sisters, fit right in with the vibe of FloydFest, having grown up with an affinity for the mountains and hiking. Together, on upright bass, washboard, guitar and drums they create gorgeous harmonies both sonically and visually. On “Woo Woo,” their sassy bluegrass soul shined; men in the crowd stood with their mouths agape…so did the women. Had it been the 1960s, these girls would be up front and center at a gospel church, using their voices to mend the wounds of civil injustice. Watching them perform with that undeniable bond of sisterhood, I wished my sister and I had started a band. The T Sisters concluded their set with a Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” to illustrate their versatility and penchant for classic rock.

One of the best things about a festival is the ability to mobilize and expose yourself to such diversity in a short span of time. One minute, you’re having french toast and a vanilla stout in the Beer Garden listening to “Breakfast With the Mule” and the next, you’re running across a field—trying not to spill the lemonade you just bought—to follow that ragged guitar on Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Thank you, Steepwater Canyon for playing that tune.

From an ecological standpoint, FloydFest stands on a pedestal. Solar power charging stations allowed patrons access to their cell phones, but by the second day on that mountain, surrounded by such beauty, you realized you needed little, if any, connection with the outside world—unless it was to upload a video of Bruce Hornsby on Instagram to make your friends jealous. Silver commemorative Klean Kanteen pint mugs that read VIRGINIA IS FOR MUSIC LOVERS replaced the need for unnecessary mounds of plastic (36,000 cups per festival to be exact), Red Rooster provided raw pasta as coffee stirrers, and free water-filling stations encouraged guests to use their own refillable water bottles. Even the showers preserved water; instead of continuously running water, you’d squeeze a lever when you needed to rinse off. And even if a Port A Potty isn’t the most ideal commode, we felt we were doing our part for the planet with each stall presenting a decal on the foot that read: Every day portable restrooms save 125 million gallons of water.

At FloydFest, both the organizers and guests agreed that everyone should be treated with respect. Hundreds of people left their $700 cell phones charging in a tent, despite signs warning us that nobody would be manning the station. When I had to make the long trek to an off-site parking lot, a friendly bearded man in a 4-Runner offered me a ride back to camp. He turned out to be the Operations Manager of the festival, and as we drove through the winding roads to camp, he shared his trajectory with the festival. Beginning in catering, working his way through the bar and VIP areas, became familiar with the festival, and, after running into the couple that run FloydFest, he was offered the job.

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As we drove through the entrance of the festival, a security guard told us that Gregg Allman was hooked up to IV at a Roanoke Hospital, and would not perform. I’m named after an Allman Brothers Band song, and was very much looking forward to his set. Fortunately, Warren Haynes and his Ashes to Dust band played a 10-minute “Jessica” to fill the void. Leftover Salmon and Keller Williams also paid tribute to the ailing singer in a super jam session coined “Buffalo Mountain Jam.”

FloydFest has rejected the industry tropes that prescribe what a festival should do and showcase. Its devotees, drawn to the festival by its grassroots approach, carve whole identities out of it. One morning, as I sat and listened to a bluegrass band play around the burning embers of last night’s campfire, a mother called after her toddler named Harper. “She was conceived at this festival three years ago,” she said, smiling. On the festival’s final day, another hopeless romantic got down on one knee and popped the question to his lover.

Back in the ’60s, a band of musicologists ventured to remote parts of the Appalachian region in search of musicians unaffected by modern music. Today, it seems you have to make a similar trek when it comes to music festivals. Modern society has turned the festival into something to be scoffed at (just watch Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” at Coachella). Thank you, FloydFest, for keeping it all about the music.

—Melissa Caruso

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