The Festy Experience Review
Oct 7-9, 2016, Arrington, VA
Written by Diane Farineau
Photos by Jody Carbone
If you were to save one of the very best outdoor musical festivals for the end of the season what would it be called? It would be called The Festy, sponsored by the Infamous Stringdusters, and attendees would naturally be called Festivarians. What would happen if Mother Nature decided to spin a massive hurricane through Nelson County, Virginia the weekend of Festy 2016? Festivarians would put a couple more tent stakes in the ground; throw on the boots and rain gear and get right on with having a kickass time….and that’s exactly what happened at the seventh Festy Experience held at the Blue Ridge Bowl (on the Oak Ridge estate in Arrington, Virginia) this past weekend. If that name rings a bell, perhaps it’s because you remember the beautiful and beautifully appointed property owned by the dynamic duo (Dave Frey & Pete Shapiro) where you were rockin’ at Lockn’ earlier this summer. Previous Festys were held up the road at the Devils Backbone Basecamp and Brewpub (where the inaugural Hoopla was held earlier this month), but taking advantage of the larger venue at Oak Ride, the ‘Dusters and their management team, The Artist Farm, pulled out all the stops to amp up their signature event this year. While you but can’t predict the weather, what was predictable, however, was how really well Festy 2016 planners and attendees would “deal” with what Mother Nature was handing out, and the very best distraction was what, in my opinion, was the strongest line up yet.
Friday night highlights included banjo legend Bela Fleck and his lovely wife Abby Washburn, followed b a one-two singer songwriter punch, first with Sara Watkins, and then Mary Chapin Carpenter, both of whom are touring on recent releases. Asheville’s beloved Steep Canyon Rangers delivered a rocking side stage set and warmed up the crowd for the hosts’ first set of the weekend. The Infamous Stringdusters, consummate hosts that they are, included Abby Washburn, Sara Watkins, Sara Siskind and their good friend and Festy regular, Nikki Bluhm on stage during their first performance. It was starting to get a little misty late into the evening, but that didn’t stop the Festivarians from giving the late night lineup their full attention; local favorites Lord Nelson, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades and finally an awesome performance by Cabinet rounded out day one. (That was just day ONE!)
I would be remiss to not mention a key player in the weekend’s activities, festival Master of Ceremonies (and multiple Grammy Award winner) Jim Lauderdale. I’ve been to events where there were well known MCs warming up the crowd with a bit of oft ignored banter, but Lauderdale played, and played some more, and continued to play before many of the weekend’s other performers, and then he played with others as well as giving an artist workshop. It was an unexpected and lovely addition to the lineup. (He has a very recently self-released album, This Changes Everything, check it out!)
Saturday morning greeted revelers with a little wind, a little rain, and a whole lot of bluegrass and country, with opening act Gallatin Canyon, followed by prodigy EmiSunshine (If she doesn’t ring a bell, stop reading and go look up EmiSunshine on Youtube or something so you can say you knew about her when. A festival highlight for me was watching her hula-hoop backstage while Fruition was playing) and then country, gospel star Lee Ann Womack. The Jon Stickely Trio signified a shift in gears and they amped the crowd up with their very special and hard to define brand of jazzygrasshop (I made that up). JST has recorded material for a new EP and is launching a Kickstarter to help them get it out to fans. Energized fans rolled from that stage to the other for the North Mississippi Allstars with Anders Osborne, highlighting work from their recent collaboration Freedom & Dreams. Do you love Fruition? I’d heard them before but I think they got lost in the shuffle for me, until I saw them again this weekend. Fruition is a rising star five piece ensemble from Portland, OR. With three lead singers they move deftly from upbeat rock to haunting soul and blues numbers. Check out “The Meaning” from their recent release Labor of Love to get a feel for them. The musicianship and the harmonies are really tight, belying the fact that they have spent a number of years touring and tuning up their performance.
Saturday night showcased the Infamous Stringdusters at their best, with a two set performance punctuated by guests from earlier in the day.
Hurricane Matthew huffed and puffed Saturday night while Festevarians were tucked in their tents, but sunrise showed no damage, and proving that with a little straw and a lot of coffee all things are possible, Sunday was off and running. The Festy is unique among many weekend festivals in that it occurs on a three day weekend, and the Sunday lineup shows no signs of suggesting that attendees should pack up and leave early. A gospel medley got everyone in the right frame of mind, followed by sets from Dar Williams, Elephant Revival and David Wax Museum. Prime time Sunday evening brought Lyle Lovett back to the main stage, where he has been several times, only this time with fellow troubadour Robert Earl Keen. Described by Festivarian, Grace Littleton, as “an intimate coffee house vibe,” Lovett and Keen spent their time on stage trading stories, jokes and songs. This kind of performance fits beautifully at The Festy where attendees have a true love and appreciation for singer songwriters, and these are two of the best. The evening could have ended there, except friend Sam Bush was waiting in the wings, as was Rubblebucket to bring the entire weekend to a finale crescendo.
My hat is off to the Dusters and event producer Michael Allenby, their incredible event staff (and the amazing and intrepid Vendors) for another weekend well done. Where experience and expertise shows in these events is not so much in how things go when everything goes right, but how things go when everything doesn’t. At several points during the weekend staff had to stretch to manage the unexpected and they did so with the grace and efficiency for which they have become well known and are to be commended. The test of moving this great event to the beautiful Oak Ridge property has been passed with flying colors.
If this is not a festival you’ve attended and would like to get a feel for the incredible kind of line up The Dusters pulled off, you can still find it here: http://www.thefesty.com/line-up