Floydfest 2015: Fire On the Mountain Review
July 22-26, 2015, Floyd, VA
written by Jonny Walker
photos by Roger Gupta
For those of us who are seasoned festival goers, that first festival of the year feels like the excitement you have as a child anticipating all the presents you’re going to receive on Christmas day. I’ve been to a number of music festivals across the country, but this year was my first time attending the one right in my own backyard: Floydfest. I’ve always opted to attend the larger festivals with the biggest names in music. However, when one of my closest friends told me she and her boyfriend were coming in from Austin, TX to go to Floydfest, I figured there couldn’t be a better time to check it out.
The trip to Floydfest is like none other. Instead of the slow moving lines on the side of the highway or moving inch by inch through the check in, you ride along the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. The road curves around the sides of the mountains, offering some of the most picturesque views of Southwestern Virginia that you can get. It feels more like you’re heading to a nature retreat than a music festival. When we got to the top of the mountain and reached the campgrounds, the usual fields full of tents that I expected to see were nowhere to be found. That’s because even though there are some camping areas out in the open, much of the camping is done by walking through the surrounding woods to pick your spot.
After setting up camp in a wonderfully shaded area back in the woodlands of the mountain, we headed towards the stages to check out the opening shows of the weekend. Wandering through more wooded campsites, expecting to eventually emerge to see the long lines at the security checkpoint, I instead walked right into the thick of the actual festival area. The proximity of camping to the stages is overly welcomed by those of us that have had to trek up to a mile just to make it to the music. Even when you decide to leave camp and head to a show, you skip over the usual search and pat down that is usually at most every festival. The staff and festival attendees share a mutual respect and love for the event that garners a trust between the two and makes for an agreement of Floydfest allowing you to have a good time with the expectations that you allow your fellow festival goers to do the same.
The music of Floydfest fits the locale perfectly. Being located along The Crooked Road, a bluegrass and folk music trail through SW Virginia, a good portion of the lineup includes bands influenced by the Appalachian Mountain music. It was hard to walk too far without hearing a banjo or a fiddle coming from one stage or the other. With music legends like Emmy Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell and musicians such as Grace Potter and Leftover Salmon trying to cement their name in music’s annals there are some real powerhouses to be seen. Floydfest does a great job of bringing you bands that are on the rise as well showcasing bands like The Midatlantic and The Trongone Band trying to make their name known across the music world.
If you wanted to take a break from the tunes for a bit, there was plenty to occupy your time with from tour led hikes and biking to strolling through the numerous art and clothing booths, many of them being local. Even if you wanted to blend the two together you could catch a workshop like the hoop lesson taught by 2014 female hooper of the year Rachael Lust that was within earshot of the music going on at the nearby Hill Holler stage. When the festival starts to take a toll on your body, you could hop over to the Healing Arts area for a massage or reiki session. When it was time to refuel there were a number of options from Floyd’s very own Dogtown Roadhouse Pizza (which throws their own party at their vending spot) to the flavorful vegan and vegetarian options at Solar Café.
My first day of music began with a trip to the main stage to see the one man music machine that is Keller Williams. With a slew of instruments surrounding him on stage, he jumps from the bass, to the guitar, to the beat pad to create a truly unique show. From there we waited to see the powerful duo that is Shovels & Rope. With nothing but a drum set and a few guitars, these two switch places throughout their performance highlighting just how diverse and talented they really are. Having danced a good bit, my crew and I were rather parched and in need of some libations to quench our thirst so we headed to the Speakeasy Tent – A beer garden with couches and tables that is modeled after the underground speakeasies of the 1920’s and has a very close and intimate relation to the stage. The music there seemed to fit the design of the tent as we stumbled upon one of my favorite performances of the weekend. Blair Crimmins & the Hookers have an old timey ragtime sound that mixes with a New Orleans jazz band and plays so hard you’d have to be deaf to stand still during their performance. When the stage could no longer contain their energy, Blair and the brass section hopped off the stage and started a parade through the audience which then turned into a conga line.
After being so energized by the performance of the Hookers, a few of us decided to head back to our camp, grab our own instruments, and head over to one of the “Open Jam’s”. All throughout the weekend, there were multiple occasions and events where festival attendees could perform and collaborate in their own musical endeavors. Everything from the Open Jam, where you bring your own instruments and make music on the spot with whoever else decides to jam along with you, to an open mic, and even a talent show. If you didn’t have your own instrument or didn’t even know how to play one, there were numerous workshops throughout the weekend from ukulele’s to African drum circles where you would be walked through the methods and play along with the rest of the workshop.
Finishing out day 1 (Floydfest actually began on Wednesday, but the full force of the event kicks in on Friday) was the strong voiced music of Brandi Carlile who finds a way to capture your heart with what seems like songs that were read from a journal. Aside from her golden pipes, she paints pictures with her lyrics of what seems like stories that come from her travels. This led straight into the fantastically ever evolving Leftover Salmon. These guys know how to jam out and really blow you away with their own blend of bluegrass, jam band, and southern rock.
I woke up on day 2 feeling for lack of better words, very, very, very sore. When you spend the majority of your days in an office and then jump straight into a day filled with walking and dancing all over the place, your body definitely notices it. Not to worry though, because each morning Floydfest offers multiple yoga classes. After a few sun salutations and plenty of other deep stretching positions my body was back in action. The mornings at Floydfest are filled with classes like yoga and meditation as well as informative classes on topics like herbs and mushrooms that you can participate in before starting up your day filled with music.
After stopping to watch people take their hand at swinging on a trapeze (yes, there was an actual trapeze and safety net set up for you to swing on) I headed back to the campsite for what was one of the most pleasant surprises I could have asked for. My friend who came in from Austin was glowing as her mother hastily waved me back to the Cosmic Unicorn. The Cosmic Unicorn was what we named our campsite. This is something fun that I do at every festival and I encourage everyone to try it as you can have a lot of laughs coming up with your name for home base, but I digress. As I walked under the shade of our canopy, my friend held out her hand and I noticed a certain ring that had not formerly been there. While I was gone her boyfriend had proposed to her and she had happily said yes. The two of them met at Floydfest years ago while volunteering for the event and the romantic man that her now fiancée is decided there wasn’t a better place to pop the question. Inside the festival area there is a giant sign that reads “LOVE” and it really does fit the vibe of the festival. Whether it be the love of music, the love that the artisans and food vendors put into their craft, the love shared between complete strangers helping one another out, or two people who decided to spend the rest of their life together you can feel the love everywhere you turn.
The excitement of the engagement kept us at the Cosmic Unicorn for a while, sharing the excitement with all of the friends and family that had come along for the weekend. Eventually we headed back to the stages and were immediately drawn towards the sounds of a brass band that you could hear a quarter mile away. As we approached the Hill Holler stage the sight of a gigantic Tuba stood out and lured you in like a shiny piece of gold glistening in a creek. The Pitch Blak Brass Band is a 10 piece band based out of Brooklyn that had a sound that was a bit of a change from the folk and bluegrass that dominated the weekend but boy did it seem to fit right in. They jumped around from hip hop, to jazz, to smooth vocals and brought an energy that made you want to jump up and down like you were bouncing on a trampoline.
With dark clouds looming we headed over to the Pink Floyd Garden Stage to see Major and the Monbacks. If you’ve never heard of this band, be sure to check them out. They have a sound of their own that you don’t hear too often anymore. This band of 20- somethings sound like they hopped out of a time machine and decided that they were going to mix their retro tunes with what was new and hip. The clouds began to let out a light drizzle that prompted the lead guitarist to quote “Maybe if we play hard enough the rain will go away.” As they began their next song the rain started coming down harder, but the harder it rained, the harder they played. Not one person seemed to mind the downpour as getting soaking wet was worth the show these guys put on. Needless to say, after their show we were all rather drenched and couldn’t tell whether it came from the rain or the sweat from boogieing down.
After returning to camp and a quick change of clothes we ended up wandering around meeting and speaking with fellow festival goers. One of the most beautiful things about Floydfest is the wide range of people that you meet there. Most festivals I’ve attended are filled with people in their teens through their thirties, but this festival covers the entire age spectrum. From young children there with their parents, to college aged kids and those in their middle aged years, all the way to the old timers who have been going to music festivals since they began in the 70’s you are blessed to hear stories and tales from all corners of the world and eras in which they were lived. I spent a good while conversing with a couple in their 60’s who said they have been coming to Floydfest all 14 years that it’s been put on. The kind, old man with whom I was talking told me “If I’m fortunate enough to still be on this earth come next year, you can bet I’ll be here for the 15th year.”
We eventually headed back in for some more shows and ventured back into the Speakeasy Tent to hear The Southern Belles. This band has a unique way of playing through their whole set and making you feel like there were at least three different bands on stage. All three of them making you want to get down. Then came an explosion of energy, lights, fireworks, and music from the main stage as Grace Potter mesmerized the audience with a stellar performance. Drawing the largest crowd I’d seen thus far, the audience was entranced by the performance and before you knew it an hour and a half had passed and the show was over.
On the way back to camp, the sound of Dark Side of the Mountain drew us in as it sounded so close to the original Pink Floyd sound we know and love. Multiple musicians from the weekend, including Grace Potter, joined in to pay tribute to the band for which the Garden Stage was named after. Covering the classics and some of their lesser known songs, I was blown away by how much I fell in love with hearing the covers of one of rock’s most heralded bands. Sounding so much like the original, while adding their own flair, this show was truly one of a kind.
The last day of a festival is always bittersweet, as you try to take in as much as you can before it’s all over. Having left the mountain for a breakfast in downtown Floyd with the newly engaged couple’s families, we returned midday to catch Greensky Bluegrass. These guys really captured the folk feeling of the festival and were followed up by a band that did the same. The Devil Makes Three, a trio of storytellers to say the least, put on such a foot stomping show and have the lyrics to have you singing along before the show is done.
Emmy Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell finished out the Main Stage performance and you could feel the presence of a true legendary act on stage. With a crowd filled with people that had been listening to them for years, to those who were being introduced to them for the first time it just goes to show how music is timeless and can cross every border of age, race, and culture. The Garden stage held most of the music as the day was winding down with the Christian Lopez Band, The Black Lillies, and the almighty, powerful voice of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds closing it out.
They say home is where the heart is. After spending a weekend filled with great music, seeing my friend get engaged, meeting people who were so loyal to the roots of this festival, and discovering what this festival was all about I truly fell in love with Floydfest. I left a little piece of my heart up there on that mountaintop, so that when next year rolls around and I return to Floydfest, I’ll be coming home.