Written by Tyler Davis
Photos by Matt Smink
Pop’s Farm is situated about 50 miles south of Roanoke, VA. The gorgeous property hosted the Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival this past Memorial Day Weekend. We found ourselves on this beautiful landscape of wooded pine groves, open rolling pasture and a lake- a hard to beat set up for a 4-day music festival. In it’s 9th year, Rooster Walk has carved itself out a spot as one of Virginia’s premier summer festivals. Creating a reputation of a festival that delivers a solid lineup each year, this year would be no different. Reggae pioneers The Wailers were set to headline the 10pm slot Friday night, with Greensky Bluegrass in position to deliver the headline spot Saturday. I knew we were in for a treat, but as I’ve learned, the smaller, lesser known artists can often be who leave the biggest impression.
The forecast changed about 6 times leading up to the event. It rained all week at Pop’s Farm, so I arrived Thursday to a soupy mess. RV’s stuck in the mud, rain boots and ponchos- “here we go.” Positivity is key during these situations. “Well we made it so let’s do this!” Storm clouds gave way to blue skies the following morning, so we were in the clear for the rest of the weekend.
I made the effort to get to the festival Thursday just to see Billy Strings. If you’ve never seen just plain ol’ Billy or any iteration of his rotating band mates play a show, I suggest you jump in head-first. This is pure, raw, high-energy progressive bluegrass. This kid can flat-pick like Doc Watson and has stage presence like Robert Plant. You may have never seen a full on head bang during a set with all acoustic string instruments- but it happens, every show. Opening with a roaring “Little Maggie,” the tone was set for a blazing hot 2 hours of bluegrass. As if the show could’ve gotten more awesome, Eric Krasno came out and played several tunes with Billy and his 4 piece. Krasno’s buttery-smooth licks on top of the raging bluegrass was just pure magic. “Meet me at the Creek,” “Train Train,” “Shady Grove,” song that were all just torn apart by the artists on stage. “I could leave the festival satisfied after that,” I heard walking through the crowd. Never miss a Thursday!
Friday began with blue skies, mimosas and breakfast burritos. My cousin Clark rolled in from Danville about 1pm. Another good friend, Katie joined us shortly after. If you can spend time at an event like this with family, it makes it all the more meaningful. We trotted down to the main stage and caught a female foursome, the Fernandez Sisters serenading the crowd on the lawn. A natural bowl with the stage at the bottom, the natural acoustics were brilliant.
We decided to retreat back to the Pine Stage to get out of the sun. Tucked into a cozy pine grove, this intimate little stage (where I saw Billy the night before) became a respite during the weekend, accompanied with all the $5 New Belgium you can pour down your gullet. GOTE was in the middle of their set as we walked up, ripping up some Grateful Dead tunes as well as some original material. The growing crowd was grooving pretty well. After swinging by camp we headed to see Eric Krasno Band and had a blast. More bluesy than his playing with Billy Strings, just what you need on a hot afternoon. The Lake Stage was adjacent to the main, but with the pristine mountain lake as the backdrop.
Once again back to the Pine Stage, Jon Stickley Trio was playing a great rocking set. Another artist that will change your mind about acoustic instruments needing to be played soft and delicate. Hailing from Asheville, this trio has been making waves as exceptional pickers all over. I cracked a joke about them being just alright, but we walked away all smiles to what we had just witnessed.
10PM, time to praise Jah with The Wailers. Drummer and founding member Aston “Familyman” Barret was joined by original Wailers Junior Marvin and Donald Kinsey. The sound was crisp, the steel drums tuned to perfection- this was the real deal reggae show and they didn’t let us forget it. Dropping all the classics, the band had the crowd energized and lively. I was truly impressed and loved every minute of it. We then found ourselves back at the Pine Grove for a late night set from Love Canon. Bluegrass’d up versions of 80’s hits?? What could be better? We sailed away on wings of 80’s glory well into the night.
Saturday brought promise of blues, funk, bluegrass, southern soul- a guaranteed feast for the senses. Our day really began with Erin & the Wildfire, a stirring blend of acoustic/electric with a front woman whose vocal range dances somewhere between Adele and Aretha. They were killing it.
Checking my phone that afternoon, I then found out about the passing of icon/legend/southern rock pioneer Gregg Allman. I didn’t want to believe it, I didn’t want to tell anyone and ruin this amazing time we were having. But it had to come out. People started finding out and sharing the news. It was an incredibly unique environment to be in, finding out about the death of an individual that essentially helped to create this music scene we are immersing ourselves in. Fans, staff, artists, vendors, production- we are all part of this thing and had each other to rally around such sad news. The first band to shake up their set list and pay tribute to Gregg was Marcus King Band. What couldn’t be a more metaphorical passing of the torch to a guitarist and band that calls themselves “soul-influenced psychedelic southern rock.” In addition to originals off their self titled album, the group played a smoking “Hot’Lanta” and delivered an emotional “Whipping Post.” It was something special.
As would be the following set, Anders Osborne, the hometown hero of New Orleans. Seasoned from a rough and tumble life of high’s and lows, Anders pours every ounce of his soul out onto the stage, every. single. show. Anders started his set off acoustic, alone on the stage. “I thought you said this guy was a rocker,” I believe Clark said. “Just wait.” Wicked beard sporting bass man, Carl Dufrene Jr. and six-string master Eric McFadden joined Osborne on stage in addition to drummer Brady Blade. This outfit has so much energy and they compliment each other perfectly. It’s like they’re all crazy on their own but together they push out this amazing sound. Highlights of the set included “Love Has Taken it’s Toll > Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The tributes to Gregg continue to pour in and it just makes everything better. Also “Louisiana Gold,” with McFadden shredding the mandolin. I wanted to get front and center for the following set by Greensky Bluegrass, but we stayed for every single minute of Anders Osborne’s set if that tells you anything. As we made our way over to the most anticipated set of the weekend for me personally, the air about the crowd was just pure happiness and joy for what we were all witnessing on this day. Greensky Bluegrass, progressive bluegrass powerhouse was just stretching their legs on a tune called “Worried About the Weather.” As a big storm rolled in way off in the distance, we could see lightning dancing through the clouds. I could not think of a more unreal backdrop and during the Greensky set! The boys jammed “Weather” for about 8 minutes before dropping into “Miss September” the lead off track on last year’s Shouted, Written Down and Quoted. What came next is what dreams are made of. The band welcomed Marcus King onto the stage, “We made a new friend today folks and we want him to come up and play some music with us,” shouted dobro master Anders Beck. Subtly, Anders says “send this one out to Gregg,” The band + Marcus then starts the opening lines to “One Way Out” by the Allman Brothers Band. The whole field of the main stage was hurled into a transcendent boogie of joy and emotion. It was incredible. Marcus and Anders battling and trading licks on the tune was nothing short of fantastic. The take off jam vehicle “Don’t Lie” was next in rotation. 18 minutes of pure awesome. Marcus and Anders again, battling and really exploring some Duane Allman/Dickey Betts sounding riffs. Joey Porter of The Motet then joined the band for 2 songs. “Workin’ On a Building” and “Could You Be Loved.” After seeing The Wailers the night before, why not keep the reggae rolling? This set was the one I came to see. You can feel it when you walk around and see stunned faces and wide-open mouths of folks that are witnessing this show for the first time. “These guys are blowing this place to pieces!” I’ve been seeing this band for 5-6 years and everything about them continues to blow me away. Due in part to the community that rallies around the band in support and borderline obsessive fandom, Camp Greensky. “Campers helping campers.” Tickets to shows, trading of merch, just general all around welcoming folks that are all there with the band as the common interest.
The Motet was set to take the stage next. I challenge you to stand still at one of their shows. Good luck with that. Their brand of funky get up and shake your ass tunes is exactly what was needed after Greensky took us out into bluegrass outer space- a little brass after all that grass. Deep bass pockets and keyboard grooves were the theme here, led by energetic vocalist and sax player Lyle Divinsky. He has a unique way of working the stage and getting the crowd up and into each song.
Asheville’s own Empire Strikes Brass wrapped up the festival for us with an impromptu second line around the Rooster Walk campfire. I believe an “I’ll Fly Away” sing-a-long was done for Gregg. I’m walking away from this festival a huge fan. The production quality, the lineup, the people, the atmosphere, everything about it was top of the line. This event started in memory of two friends and they are absolutely paving the way in their names. I will definitely be back next year. Join in on the fun in southern Virginia, I promise it is worth it.