V.I.P. Campfire Jam: a musician’s festival
Becca ‘Boo’ Cranwell

Regally strolling through the tidy campground in an ornate patchwork robe, a large friendly man stops by the roaring campfire to shake hands, laugh and offer swigs of moonshine to his royal subjects. The man is Hollis Dow, of Big Poppa Productions LLC, and he is the king of V.I.P. Campfire Jam II.

Musicians and friends from all over Virginia—Charlottesville, Culpeper, Fredericksburg, Blacksburg, Rockbridge County, etc—have been invited to Greenville, VA to join Hollis’ private party. It’s early November deep in the Appalachians; everyone is overtaken by the golden, orange and rust-colored leaves rustling all around. The campfire is smoldering warmly as people pass large jars of apple-pie moonshine and pick stringed instruments. They are giggling amongst one another and speaking elaborately. The fire is the central hub; it’s where people meet, drink, warm their bones and—most importantly—discuss music.

Festivarians are lounging around the fire on stumps and picnic tables patiently waiting for the music to begin. It’s easy to recover from last night’s flat-footin’ when your surroundings are this magnificent. The campground venue provides campers with electrical outlets, real bathrooms, hot showers, fire pits and a spectacular view of a duck filled pond. Big Poppa Hollis ensured his V.I.P. campers were privy to endless draft beer, snacks and meals—including a lobster boil; needless to say not a single person is in a bad mood. Everyone at the campground is a pal, acquaintance, or at least they will be soon enough. Here, conversations don’t start with “what you do for a living?” At Campfire Jam, new friends ask “what do you play?” or “when do you go on?” It is safe to say that at least half of the people here are musicians. Instruments are passed around a group just as frequently as moonshine and roasted marshmallows.

Mid-afternoon, a steady beat and funky guitar riffs fill the air; Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are first to take the stage Friday. Ears perked and feet a-tappin’, listeners make their way through the tent entryway: a tunnel filled with heady glow-in-the-dark paintings. The large white tent features a large stage, trippy lighting, psychedelic art and—best of all—heat. Fulfilling their daily duty to delight both eardrums and funny bones, the Pigeons get the crowd pumping with a little lighthearted monkey-ing around on stage and some serious funk-y-fication. An enormous goofy grin is inevitable during this Baltimore band’s show.

Now that our feet are warmed up and our minds are calmed down, we are ready for the musical transportation every festival-goer longs for. People’s Blues of Richmond rips into their audience with powerful original songs as well as much-loved cover songs, like “Beach” by Dr. Dog and a few Black Keys pieces. Soulfully intriguing lead guitarist and vocalist, Tim Beavers, flaunts his skill with a vivacious attitude: first by swinging his guitar behind his head to play and then picking chords with his teeth.

As the sun sets The Transmitters, from Fredericksburg, begin to emit the hollow pop of rocksteady-ska, a reggae-dub-esque beachy genre. Mo Marsh creates an island feel on congas while Jay Starling keeps the rhythm funky on the keys. Sharing a unique and uplifting vibe, The Transmitters are a welcome addition to the bluegrass scene. And for good reason: bluegrass shows have a tendency to wear a body down pretty quickly. Introducing reggae infused rock gives an audience the will to push through and keep dancing no matter how exhausted. When asked how The Transmitters’ genre of music fits into the bluegrass scene, Jay Starling states: “Well, I grew up in bluegrass as well. I guess the Transmitters just add another flavor to the mix.” The warm vibe the Transmitters radiate ensures nobody leaves the heat of the main stage.

Meanwhile, Funk Punch, from Roanoke, entertains guests up the hill who are patiently waiting outside the refreshment tent for dinner. Dinner and a show is a necessity, as no one wants to leave the comfort of music—particularly not for something as trivial as food. Well fed and well entertained, guests are huddled around the second stage sipping warm bowls of creamy, delicious soup, beaming and bobbing their heads while drinking in a full glass of Funk Punch.

After dinner, one of the most anticipated shows of the evening begins: Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge. Spilling out high-energy bluegrass, the Keels blend phenomenal skill, humble expression and lighthearted spirit. The crowd roars for favorites like “Culpepper Woodchuck” and are delighted to hear unimaginable bluegrass-style covers like “Wind Cries Mary” and “Simple Man.” While the music is sensational, one of the most interesting facets of a Larry Keel performance is watching the players interact with one another. Each member dances with his or her instrument. Each member also competes—jovially, of course—with one another: playing intricate riffs faster and faster. Just when you think a player might get jumbled and fumble out of the race, they all even out together—rendering a perfectly smooth transition.

Over shouts of “Jenny Keel for president” the grateful musicians bow and exit the stage to join the crowd and enjoy the rest of the evening. Following Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge is Nate Leath’s Leathal Matter. Playing what can only be described as “jam-grass-jazz-fusion” infused with trance-like fiddle; this group has a firm grasp on the sound they aim to produce, but not so firm that they’re unwilling to experiment. Twangy notes are highlighted by stunning performance by Leath, who pours out mesmerizing fiddle solos enhanced to a hypnotic flow thanks to a distortion peddle. Leath’s fiddle elevates the audience to a whole new level—a level of sophisticated meditation. Expressions of ecstasy radiate from the crowd.

Throughout Leathal Matter’s performance the musicians hand off instruments to members of other bands to share the limelight in exchange for an off-stage break. Larry Keel joins for a number of songs. And Leathal Matter’s drummer, Nicholas Falk, takes a break—handing his sticks over to Mark Schimick, mandolin player for the Keels. The ‘musical gene’ is evident in this crowd. Everyone is offered an opportunity to show the diversity of his or her musical talents.

Saturday highlights include bluegrass by David Via, Danny Knicely and Nate Leath. Rock/blues/jam by Rolling Green, featuring soulful vocals, belted out by—appropriately named—Wendy Godley. Toubab Krewe takes the stage around sundown and reels the crowd inward with exotic instruments. The kora, djembe, and conga drums, make it hard not to get sucked into the tribal melody of this Ashevillian group. You won’t be able to look or walk away from the entrancing rhythm—even if you can’t understand a single lyric (a number of songs are sung in Spanish).

Following Toubab Krewe, the Porch Pickers Brigade serenades guests waiting for lobster outside the refreshment tent. Banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin, the Porch Pickers keep frosty festivarians warm with songs that have feet tapping and heads steadily swinging. Songs included favorites from the Grateful Dead and String Cheese Incident. The audience is so involved and lost in the music; the Porch Pickers eventually have to tell us to make our way down to the main stage to see Acoustic Syndicate. “Don’t worry, we’ll be back later tonight,” the musicians insist. Everyone heads down to Acoustic Syndicate, because this is a show you don’t want to miss.

Acoustic Syndicate is without a doubt another one of the most impressive shows of the weekend. Talent in motion, this group features all the instruments you want in a good string band: steel guitar, banjo, electric bass, guitar and solid percussion. Close your eyes, listen to the down-home lyrics and upbeat melody of Acoustic Syndicate; you will no doubt see rolling pastures, brow-beaten, but grateful farmers, and the pond where you spent your summers as a kid. Acoustic Syndicate is exactly what bluegrass is supposed to be: hard-working, contentedly sorrowful, and humble.

The rest of the evening is a blur of Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge, Acoustic Syndicate, Danny Knicely, David Via, Leathal Matter and many other musicians. The main stage hosts a smattering of musical talent all night as artists trade instruments, and shift positions. Along with Larry Keel and Nate Leath, Jay Starling was a hot commodity for the collective jam sessions happening on the main stage throughout the weekend. Starling sat in on various sets including: Leathal Matter, Brokedown Boys, and the final set: Larry Keel Allstar jam, which featured fourteen artists on stage at once—all working together to boost the vibe and musical flow; leaving the audience completely awe-struck by such an impressive display of musical talent. Not only is the music amazing, one must appreciate the fact that fourteen different artists just randomly jump on stage as the mood strikes, quickly catch onto the melody and collectively add to the power and beauty of live music.

As the music comes to a reluctant halt, guests begin to filter out of the warm safety of the music tent—only to continue the party at the campfire. Mandolins, guitars and an occasional fiddle can be heard deep into the night, well into the early hours. I jump at a chance to chat up Jay Starling by the campfire. The keyboardist informs me that this is his favorite type of festival. “Campfire Jam just has a kind of ‘cheers!’ vibe about it. Everyone seems to be family. I’ve never been treated better as an artist—possibly ever. And the heated cabin and lobster are a nice touch too,” he adds with a satisfied grin. When asked what his next project is, Starling replies he, Nate Leath and several other musicians are releasing an album under the group name ‘Love Canon.’ The album titled ‘Greatest Hits vol. 2’ will be released November 21st during their show at the Jefferson Center in Charlottesville—you may also find it on itunes.

After a long night of music and partying, morning breaks and everyone begins the bittersweet realization that ‘real life’ is just beyond those fiery autumn mountains. With extreme appreciation for Hollis Dow and Big Poppa Productions aflame in every heart, each campsite is packed and cleaned accordingly.

V.I.P Campfire Jam II is a musician’s festival. Spawned by a sincere love for music and the people it touches, Hollis Dow’s vision of music, friendship, decadence and comfort came to fruition beautifully. And while he wishes more people had been able to attend, it’s safe to say everyone who attended V.I.P Campfire Jam II can’t wait for V.I.P Campfire Jam III.