Lockn Festival Review

written by Jonny Walker

photos by Roger Gupta


If you are even the least bit aware of what takes place in the music world then you know there has been quite the buzz around The Grateful Dead this year. Not being able to attend their big reunion show at Soldier Field and not being expectant to see the remaining Dead & Company shows, I leapt at the chance to see them play just a few hours down the road. Throw in an all-star cast of iconic musicians and the deal gets even sweeter. Lineups like this year’s Lockn’ music festival don’t come around too often so I leapt at the chance to go.

The original schedule had the first day of music set to begin on Thursday, however, due to inclement weather the first day was canceled. Not the most promising way to start off the weekend. With that said, the organizers of Lockn’ did a great job of finding ways to mesh a number of the bands that were cancelled into the remainder of the weekend.   As I waited in line to retrieve my tickets I spoke with some of the staff that had been camping there since Wednesday and from what I gathered the storm that came through was not the type you dance in while the band rages through the rain…we’ll get to that part later on though.

Speaking of waiting in lines, expect a rather long one for the entrance into the festival site. There is one way in, one way out, and a whole bunch of foot traffic on the road running alongside the camping grounds. Whether it was due to the influx of people that were delayed entrance on Thursday or just the sheer number of Deadheads from all across the country eager to get in, the wait is lengthy. So be sure to bring along your favorite vampire love story to read, your collector’s edition of The Godfather to watch, or at least a couple of solid playlists to listen to while you slowly creep down the shoulder of the highway because you could be waiting a few hours to actually make it to where you set up camp.

A day late, a few hours wait, and we finally made it to our campsite.  Lockn’ has the typical camping arrangements for a larger festival as such. You got your RV, tent, and car camping and fortunately, any of those selections will put you relatively close to one of the stages. Unfortunately, those other stages are going to be on the other side of the festival grounds. Numerous people brought their bikes to ride from place to place (or to ride on assorted bike trails that run along the outskirts of the main camping and performance areas) and there are shuttles to get you around if you’re willing to pay for them. The majority of the attendees were simply trucking it on foot though so I highly suggest taking the weeks before Lockn’ to get your cardio game on point, get some comfortable shoes, and maybe slide in some leg workouts in there to prepare for all the walking you’ll be doing if you plan on hitting next year’s event.

With the campsite set, crew unpacked, and music just round the bend we made our way towards the main stage; a two-stage setup that allows for bands to smoothly transition into each performance. Simply put, the music never stops. With the stage in sight the soulful sounds of the harmonica echoed across the site as John Popper, best known as the front man of Blues Traveler, played The National Anthem. The atmosphere amongst the crowd built with anticipation and excitement much like that of the feeling just before kickoff on gameday. The last notes rang out while the crowd cheered and shouted and it was off to the races.

The Doobie Brothers

The Doobie Brothers and The String Cheese Incident combined forces to open up the festival as The Doobie Incident and given the aroma floating through the crowds over the weekend, The Doobie Incident could very well be a good way to sum up the weekend…but I digress. This was one of the cancelled shows from Thursday that made for one hell of a way to get things started up with some powerhouse talent. Lockn’ is due a big tip of the hat for still showing some love to the little guys though. They had a statewide competition that allowed four regional winners to play a set on the main stage.  The two shows that stick out to me from these winners are Seth Stainbeck and Roosterfoot and a band I was first introduced to at Floydfest, The Southern Belles. You could truly feel the appreciation and gratitude that they had to be there and I can’t imagine they didn’t leave with a solid handful of new fans given their performances.

The Southern Belles

Friday’s sets played on, growing in crowd size with every show. With the sun moving closer and closer towards the horizon, Steve Earle & the Dukes led into a solo show with the String Cheese Incident and then came our first chance to get a taste of The Dead. Lockn’ came through with a slam dunk landing all four members of The Dead playing in various sets with unbelievable supporting casts. For only being in its third year, you have to be pretty excited for what’s to come in the future with names like this year’s making an appearance.

Phil Lesh

Phil Lesh & Friends led us into the night playing a number of original Dead songs and some super funky covers of classic hits with Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes frontman) on lead vocals. I vividly remember the eruption of the crowd in the moment that we all realized it was time to take a trip down “Shakedown Street”. While I was getting down to what is a personal favorite of mine, I saw one of the most beautiful testaments to the timelessness of music that I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. The other 20-30 something’s I saw, myself included, danced and reminisced as if we had been to countless Grateful Dead shows over the years. Meanwhile, I watched as those closer in age to that of my parents and grandparents danced around with childlike joy as if they were hearing these classics for the first time. Every festival or show brings new experiences, but this was truly one that I will remember till the end of my days because it reminded me just how much music can bring people together. Age, race, religion, and nationality become irrelevant when you share a common love with another individual and I can’t think of anything that does this better than that of music.

After Phil & crew came another legendary reunion show by Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen alongside a number of guest performers, including Bill Kreutzmann of The Grateful Dead. This all star collaboration was a celebration of 50 years of Jefferson Airplane which Jack and Jorma were both members of. Playing their biggest hits such as “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”, amongst others, the oldies but goodies kept coming at us as they switched stages straight into Mad Dogs & Englishmen paying tribute to the late Joe Cocker. Joined by Tedeschi Trucks Band, Rita Coolidge, and more the power that came from that stage was electric. Mind you, this is still the first day and it already feels like I’ve been walking down memory lane for weeks.

Eventually, it was high time we went and checked out the other stages. On both Friday and Saturday night Mickey Hart played on “The Woods” stage late night, which in case you were wondering, is nestled back in the woods and filled with an explosion of colors, lights, and lasers. Playing with Eoto, Steve Kimock, and Android Jones the psychedelic sights and sounds vibrated the trees and the hammocks hooked to them as the stars began to disappear behind the incoming clouds. With the last show of the night about to begin at “The Blue Ridge Bowl” we began our hike back across the festival grounds.

Umphrey’s McGee

The crowded hillside that faced the stage danced as the clouds were illuminated by the heat lightning in the distance. Umphrey’s McGee took us on a rollercoaster of sounds, jumping from a jam session straight into a hard rock tune and everything in between. The gods of thunder tried their best to drown out the music, but Umphrey’s would have no part of that. They kept playing harder and harder while the lightning flashed behind the clouds as if they were battling the approaching storm. As they finished, the crowd waited for the encore we needed to conclude the night. They graciously returned and as the first chords played the skies let loose. A torrential downpour fell from the skies that only deterred a small portion of the crowd. If you’re going to be soaked anyways, might as well dance instead of hike a quarter mile back to your tent. As the encore came to a close, the elements bowed in defeat and the rain subsided seeing that we would be here as long as the music kept playing.

After a dry change of clothes and a few hours sleep it was on to day two. We took the first part of the day to explore all that Lockn’ had to offer. Luckily, even though the festival grounds are spread out if you are anywhere near the main stage the sound travels well enough that you can roam around while still being able to clearly hear all of the music. We began by heading over to the appropriately named Shakedown Street where the majority of the vendors were located. Right next to it at The Blue Ridge bowl is where a number of the food trucks and traveling stands were located. Inside the main concert area is also a huge food court with restaurant stands, many from here in Virginia that highlighted Lockn’s attempt to keep it local.

One of the most unique things I saw while at my time there was what they called Participation Row. It was filled with booths of non-profits and social organizations there to talk with the patrons about their cause. My favorite amongst these being one called Sober Lockn’. This was a booth that had a separate camping lot as well for attendees that wanted to have a good time at Lockn’ without feeling pressured to indulge in drugs or alcohol. With all the bad press that music festivals get for drug use, it was great to see something like this to prove to the naysayers that our community is more than just a bunch of hippies doing drugs in an open field. Granted, there may be some bit of truth to that opinion but we are far more than just that. We are there to help each other out, stay safe, and share some great music together regardless of how you choose to enjoy yourself.

Once making it back to the main stage for a couple of solo shows from the past nights performers like Hot Tuna (Jorma & Jack) and Tedeschi Trucks Band, Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin frontman)  and the Sensational Space Shifters took us on a trip through the galaxies. Mixing a soulful rock and blues sound of the past with futuristic synths and effects provided for a very unique and foot-stomping show. Following them was a shift in tempo with Widespread Panic and special guest Jimmy Cliff. These two meshed together a little bit of jam band sound with a little bit of reggae and gave us all a bit of time to smoothly bob along with the rhythm.

Bob Weir

Billy & the Kids (Bill Kreutzmann’s band) played next with special guest Bob Weir on vocals and guitar. Not to take away from Robinson’s performance with Phil the night before, but it was a real treat to see Bob behind the mic. They went deep down the rabbit hole playing lengthy jams that often transitioned straight into the next song. Playing a number of the The Dead’s classics from over the years but none stood out to me more than their version of “Not Fade Away”; one of their most heavily performed songs over the years which they closed the set out with. I had been so engulfed in singing and dancing along with the band that I didn’t even notice Mickey Hart had slipped out onto the stage and had been playing along for the last few songs of the set. Could it be!?!? Are we finally going to see them all play together on the same stage? Sadly…no.  They did, however, create a perfect transition into round two of Phil with all of the remaining members exchanging smiles that felt like hugs to all that witnessed them.

As if Phil’s first day wasn’t enough, he made sure to leave the masses pleased with day two. Alongside Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers) and the legendary Carlos Santana you pretty much can’t go wrong. The expectations were high, but their energy was even higher. Playing even more Grateful classics like “Scarlet Begonias”, “Fire on the Mountain”, and another rendition of “Not Fade Away” it was as if everyone on stage were simply an old group of buddies having a reminiscent conversation using the music as their words. Phil even took over on vocals to sing Bob’s “The Other One” and let Santana remind the people just how hard he can play that guitar with a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” in which his fingers moved faster than the lightning from the prior night.

Still trying to believe the performance I had just witnessed, I stopped back by the campsite to recover and return to planet Earth for a moment before heading to the late night show. Warren Haynes apparently has a far better stamina than myself because he went straight on to jam out with his Allman Brothers side project, Gov’t Mule. The hillside danced along as Warren and the Mule rocked out with mighty vocals and powerful jams. The skies, still licking their wounds from the night before, only provided a gentle breeze to blow Warren’s hair back in true rock star fashion. Besides, we still had plenty of mud left to keep us busy.

Keller Williams

As Sunday morning rolled around I found myself slightly disappointed that I had to miss out on the first week of the NFL. Then I remembered that I have months more of that to watch and I had better get my ass to church. If Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel is ever playing at a festival you attend…GO! The genius mix of hymnal like gospel melodies with Keller’s unique sound creates a one of a kind experience. Swinging by to see The Southern Belles play their main stage set, snagging a bowl of noodles from my festival favorite Solar Café, and finding my friends I had lost in the crowd (which is rather easy to do here) I clung to each remaining show as the weekend came to a close. Slightly Stoopid played their reggae-ska jams at the oddly specific time of 4:20, and Trombone Shorty took us on a trip down to New Orleans, which was nice to have some of the bands I’ve seen play at festivals before to compliment the one of a kind shows that filled the weekend. With a return to the stage for Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, and Robert Plant to finish it all up the crowds wandered back to the campsites feeling sad that is was over yet so very glad that it happened.

Growing up listening to a number of the bands and musicians that were represented or paid tribute to over the weekend, I never imagined I would get to see them perform in my lifetime. It may not have been all the original members, it may not have been in their hay day, and it may not have been like the shows of yesteryear…but that’s just fine by me because now I have a story to tell like the numerous ones that were told throughout the festival. Years from now when I introduce my children to the music I’ve listened to over the years, I’ll talk about the weekend I spent in my home state listening to a lineup of  superstars in the annals of music. I’ll tell them about the memories we made, the people we met, and the love we shared. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll be that old guy dancing harder than the young bucks in the crowd.

So until next year, thanks for everything Lockn’. I can’t imagine I am the only one that returned home after that weekend with a plethora of emotions in my heart, none more so than that of a sincere feeling of being…Grateful.