Rooster Walk 8 Review
May 26-29, 2016, Martinsville, VA
Written by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Tom Wickstrom
Virginia IS for lovers — music lovers that is. With Memorial Day weekend serving up some of the year’s most delectable music festivals, fans throughout the country flocked to Rooster Walk 8 in Martinsville for top cut musical acts spanning all genres, including Lettuce, Cabinet, The Revivalists, Town Mountain, The Motet, Sam Bush, and a handful of others.
Along with a musical lineup that would make any festival-goer salivate was the pristine backdrop of Pop’s Farm as the setting for Rooster Walk. The open, rolling hills of the festival grounds provided beautiful natural amphitheaters at both the Radial Main and Basset Lake stages, while lanky trees provided a relaxing, intimate setting all weekend at the Pine Grove stage, sponsored by New Belgium Brewing.
A weekend bursting with epic collaborations, jams, and overall artistic expression began Thursday night, headlined by Pennsylvania new-grassers Cabinet and local Virginia grunge-rockers People’s Blues of Richmond. Patrick Biondo and Cabinet came out of the gates setting his banjo strings on fire with “Susquehanna Breakdown” in honor of the festival of the same name they took part in the week prior. Following “Breakdown” brother and mandolin fiend JP Biondo took the lead for fan-favorite “Tower.” As the sun began to creep toward the horizon, Cabinet broke into another instrumental, this time “Pike County Breakdown”, a classic written by bluegrass pioneers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. As the sun finished its descent and the moon arose to glow bright in the night sky, the Biondo boys and Cabinet kicked it over to Jami Novak and Josh Karis for an epic drum and percussion session before the entire band retook the stage for two more songs, including “Celebration” to close out the set — and what a celebration it was.
With Cabinet setting the tone for the weekend to come, energy began building throughout the early-bird crowd for the opening night’s main act — People’s Blues of Richmond. The trio from Richmond, who many refer to as a cross between The Black Keys and Led Zeppelin, have an aura and energy on stage unparalleled by most musicians. Guitarist and front-man Tim Beavers can absolutely shred on the guitar, and hops around like water boiling in a saucepan on stage. The band performed a number of hits off their upcoming album Quit or Die, out June 10, including the aforementioned title track, “Richmond City Hangover Blues”, and “I Understand”. About half-way through PBR’s set bassist Matthew Volkes ushered fire dancers to the stage, further cementing the reputation the group has given themselves as being “carnival rock”, and contributing to the band’s all around performance, which encompasses far more than just music.
Friday brought with it more sun and the first full day of music for the weekend. Martinsville natives Doug and Telisha Williams of Wild Ponies rocked the main stage as the sun blistered down on Pop’s Farm, all in support of their new album “Radiant”, which released on May 13. The whiskey-loving husband-and-wife duo were joined by the spunky Megan Jane on drums. The highlight of Wild Ponies’ set came during the trio’s performance of “Massey’s Run” — an original tune detailing NASCAR legend Richard Petty’s first win (and second overall) at Martinsville Speedway in 1960. Following Wild Ponies was Annabelle’s Curse, a pop-grass outfit from Bristol, Tennessee. Led by mandolinist Carly Booher, Annabelle’s Curse performed graciously on the quaint V.I.P. stage at Rooster Walk in an unexpected turn of events, as they ran into vehicular troubles on their way to the festival, having to swap set times and stages with Wilmington, North Carolina’s L Shape Lot. While such a setback would rattle the temperament of some less-composed musicians, the members of Annabelle’s Curse thrived with the curveball thrown their way, knocking their set out of the park, providing one of the festival’s biggest hidden surprises.
Keeping the brothers theme alive after the Biondo brothers and Cabinet set the Pine Grove stage aflame the night before, Acoustic Syndicate, led by brothers Steve, Bryon, and Fitz, took command of the Basset Lake stage Friday evening. The group was joined nearly halfway through their set by native Virginian and flatpicking legend Larry Keel, who reappeared later in the night to join Sam Bush during his headlining main stage set.
Succeeding Sam Bush was seven piece funk army The Motet, whose lineup was recently shaken up with the departure of front-man Jans Ingber. However, new front-man Lyle Divinsky has stepped into the role with a pep in his step and energy that could blast off to the moon. Divinsky danced and grooved all over the stage during the group’s set, which was chock-full of hits from The Motet’s upcoming album Totem, out July 8, including the single “Damn!”
Saturday at Rooster Walk was the epitome of a musical heaven, with so much good music happening all at once, leading to constant decision-making and coercing the people in my group to leave one stage to head for another. Bands such as Yarn, Town Mountain, Jeff Austin Band, Rayland Baxter, Billy Strings, and Tab Benoit dominated the early and mid-afternoon, while The Revivalists, Lettuce, and others kept everyone raging long into the night.
As the sun began to fall, David Shaw and The Revivalists took hold of the Lake stage, creating a one-of-a-kind backdrop for their New Orleans jazz-infused rock. Shaw and company opened their two-hour set with “BTBD”, the closing track off their 2014 record City of Sound, which was followed up by performances of hits “Keep Going”, “All in the Family”, and “It Was a Sin”, among others.
Also performing at the same time as The Revivalists was a bluegrass super-jam, a sight to behold for anyone fond of string instruments. The jam was led by Town Mountain, and featured sit-ins from Larry Keel, Jeff Austin, Billy Strings, Jon Stickley, and others. Even more mesmerizing than the super-jam itself was seeing all the musicians taking part chatting and picking in circles with one another backstage. Here were all these amazing musicians together in one spot, listening, watching, and appreciating each other’s craft. It was truly a sight to behold.
Once the super-jam came to a close, Lettuce was ready to serve up the crowd a side of funk-filled vegetables. “Get Greasy” off the group’s newest release, 2015s Crush, opened up the set and got the crowd loose and ready to groove. Throughout the band’s set, bassist Erick Coomes could be seen wearing a hat reading “Human Being,” but with how Lettuce was grooving Saturday night I somehow doubt that.
As Saturday came to a close, stormy clouds began to move their way into the area, leaving Rooster Walk Sunday damp and muddy, but not dampening the spirits of those who opted to stick around for the festival’s final hoorah for 2016. Sunday was a day largely for showcasing local and regional talent to the Virginia and Appalachia region. Exceptions were 21 year old guitar phenomenon Billy Strings and Yarn, who closed out the festival with a rockin’ set on Sunday night featuring hits off their new album This is the Year which guitarist Dave Christiana and his band-mates were celebrating the release of on Friday, effectively making their Rooster Walk shows the official album release party(s).
Another group of Martinsville natives comprising the group Left Hip Pocket performed on Sunday morning. The group of complete strangers met whilst picking together at local Martinsville establishment Mtn. Jax and immediately clicked and gelled together musically.
Year after year Rooster Walk grows bigger and better than the year prior. With the rousing success of Rooster Walk 8, the festival’s ninth iteration upcoming in 2017 is sure to be a hollering hootenanny you don’t want to miss out on. Strut your stuff and flap your wings on down to Rooster Walk!