June 7-10, 2018 Woodmen of the World Campground Fairplay, MD   

Written By Michael Tucker

Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding

This is not a music-based review of The Blesstival: Bless the Woods 7 and that’s exactly what I set out to write—another review of a festival centered mostly around music. I’ve written several of those over the past few years, but sometimes, writing simply refuses to be crammed into a writer’s preconceived conceptual box of what it’s supposed to be and, instead, whispers (or shouts in some cases) directly into the writer’s ear that the box is not a good fit, that it’s way too small and doesn’t allow for good perspective with a panoramic view.  Don’t take that the wrong way: there was a great deal of incredible music at the Blesstival: Bless the Woods 7, and I’ll get to that in a bit. The truth alternately whispered and shouted into this writer’s ear is that this collection of words must be a glowing review of the DIY community of awesome human beings who make Bless the Woods so special. Period. It’s also about the magical little things that pull on our heartstrings to let us know we (still) live in a beautiful universe (always). But then again, it’s about the realization that sometimes the coolest, most wonderful things of all aren’t miles and miles away in some exotic, far-off locale: they’re often right in our own backyard, and when we find them, we are duty-bound to support them, or they might not stick around. Also, this is a music-based review of Blesstival because, at the end of the day, it’s the music at festivals that brings us all together.       

Isaiah Rosser of The Slim Jimmies. Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

There was, indeed, an abundance of musical blessings at the seventh annual installment of this special festival. One of the things I appreciate most about festival curator Dan Morgan’s selection of artists at these events is that he always puts together a lively mix of rock, reggae, punk, hip-hop; this year’s line-up even included a metal band!  The Vibesmen, a super energetic and fun group with elements of rock, reggae, punk, and hip-hop (who reminded me of 311), kicked off the festival in style with a lively set during which the rhythm and lead guitarists swapped musical roles back and forth. The lead singer, Nick DePietro, was awesome at keeping the crowd involved with his highly animated stage antics. They played some cool originals and then nailed the punk rock ethos of The Blesstival by playing a sizzling fun cover of The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”  They were followed by my hometown’s very own psychedelic shoegazers, The Slim Jimmies. For full disclosure, I should tell you that it’s hard for me not be biased about this band as the bass player Isaiah Rosser (who looked rad sporting Shaggy Rogers-style vintage pants on stage) is my good friend Shannon Williams’ son, and intensely interesting guitarist/ lead vocalist Austin Peck is a former co-worker of mine. The Slim Jimmies’ excellent regular drummer was away at Bonnaroo, so super nice guy Christian Hall sat in on the kit. With only two weeks to learn the songs, Christian crushed it, and it was obvious from his smiles on stage that he was enjoying himself. The three-piece played a good set including a few of my favorites off Dead; they even got weird and jammed.  I had a good time swaying to the Jimmies’ music (which takes me back to the 90’s) with my life partner and rock through good times and bad ones, Tara, and my buddy Shannon even if he was a bit of a nervous stage dad for a few moments. Knowing so many of the people on and off stage and their stories added intimacy and meaning to my time at The Blesstival. Unfortunately, Tara and I had to leave for the night after The Slim Jimmies played due to work obligations, but we knew we would be back as soon as we could make it.

Higher Education. Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

Friday’s musical festivities kicked off with Higher Education, who played a blazing set of rock/ reggae fusion in the afternoon sunshine. Next, The Ellameno Beat played a soulful, blissed out set of beachy, reggae-drenched tunes which could not have been more appropriate for the perfect, sunny afternoon. As they were unloading afterwards, I bumped into the band’s full of good vibes lead singer Reggie Froom, with whom I had enjoyed an excellent late-night campfire conversation a few autumns ago at Beast Coast Family Reggae Campout. I was touched that he remembered me, and slightly bummed that he and his band weren’t sticking around to hang out; they were, instead, heading out for a Baltimore show. Tara and I took a break from music and ended up hanging back at camp and getting lost in food and conversation—a refreshing change of pace for die-hard music fanatics like us. Later that evening, we enjoyed a super fun reggae dance party as we got down to some epically fun songs by The Elovaters from Boston, MA. One memorable song called “Sunshine” had me dancing my butt off with Tara, Shannon, and a whole bunch of friends. Closing out Friday night, the always awesome Squaring the Circle, hailing out of Baltimore, took the party to the next level with their impossible to pigeonhole sound. They played a potent set of progressive, jazz, funk, and jams, and at one point, veered into territory which sounded something like my favorite genre, jamtronica. Well-played, gentlemen!! Highlights included covers of “Eleanor Rigby” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Stoked that they would be playing another set Saturday night, Tara, Shannon, and I closed out the night enjoying wonderful campfire jams and deep conversations in the woods.  

Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding

Saturday’s music started off a hot afternoon with a chill vibe as Elusive Groove hit that mellow music sweet spot while we enjoyed some dank family potluck food with friends— you’ll hear more about that in the next paragraph. I had to leave the festival for a few hours (three to be exact) to bail out my co-workers, friends, owners at Tony’s Pizza in Williamsport who were all stuck in a majorly understaffed dilemma.  At the end of the day, Tony’s is a great small business to work for, and I have way too much respect for our working relationship to let the ship go down when I’m 10 minutes away. While I longed to be back with my fam at The Blesstival, my short shift sailed by, and I was back before I knew it. Some friends told me that a cool metal band named Invictus played while I was gone. I was a bit bummed when I heard I missed them cover Primus’ “Too Many Puppies,” but hopefully, I’ll catch them another time. Later that night, we really dug festival founder Dan Morgan’s band Secondhand’s tunes with their reggae, roots, ska, and dub stylings. Squaring the Circle brought down the house by opening the last official set of the night with a couple of Grateful Dead covers during which I learned Slim Jimmies’ Austin Peck is also a Deadhead. One of the best moments of the festival for me happened in the intimate woodsy setting of the late-night campfire jam as Tara, Shannon and I stumbled upon a female guitar player and vocalist playing a gorgeously soulful, stripped down version of Vance Joy’s “Riptide” with perfectly nuanced and subtle vocal accompaniment from her boyfriend. I love artistic surprises such as this one.  It was a perfect moment into which the three of us melted. We sat there transfixed as she played several more songs including a terrifically weird mash-up that included “Hakuna Matata,” “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” along with the folk classic “Wagon Wheel.” Afterwards when I introduced myself to thank her, I found out her name is Laura Marie (Dengler) and her boyfriend’s name is Trevor. Tara and I  absolutely plan to see more of her music. Here’s a link to her Facebook music page in case you’re curious:     https://www.facebook.com/MusicByLauraMarie

Dan of Secondhand. Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

Remember, however, this is not just a music-focused review. It’s also a piece about the wonderful community of human beings who come together to create and celebrate at grassroots events like this one. Each attendee’s vibe contributes to the overall feel of these shows. Every piece matters, and it’s truly a beautiful feeling to attend a dance party with people I know in my local community; these are people with whose joy, pain, daily lives, and struggles I am familiar. While one of my favorite things about festivals is the break from the ordinary same old, same old routine which includes meeting new and different people, one of the greatest things about Bless the Woods is that it gives me a chance to strengthen connections and friendships with people I see every day in my own community. (On a side note, each festival Tara and I experience together deepens our relationship).  Don’t get me wrong: dancing in a sea of smiling strangers who soon become friends, but whom I only see at other festivals is its own kind of cool; however, celebrating life’s ups and downs at a festival with friends and neighbors is awesome. The beautiful venue, Woodmen of the World Campground in Fairplay, Maryland is only 10 minutes from my front door, so, of course, the cool locals showed up. All around great human being, good friend, and neighbor Shan Williams arrived at the campground before us and saved us a shaded camping spot next to him. We did the same thing for our cool and kind friends Chesney Sydnor and Christian Hall (The Slim Jimmies’ drummer for the night) who live down the street and around the corner.  It’s such a refreshing feeling to have friends and neighbors in my local, super small (1.5 horse town to be exact) neighborhood with whom I get to hang out and experience live music in a hassle-free environment. I reconnected with my old friend Amy McKee-Clipp and her kids who have been through a lot over the past year, but who, nonetheless, still managed to dance and celebrate life. One of the things I love most about Amy is that, like me, she works her pain and joy out through dancing at shows. I guess you could say dancing is a part of our spiritual practice. My good fortune continued when I got introduced to an intelligent and interesting new friend Cole, who, it turns out teaches at the same community college at which I tutor. And speaking of Coles. . . Tara and I got to enjoy a nourishing (for body and soul) Saturday afternoon family potluck with the alwayswonderfulandmagical Cole Shenebeck along with her mom and kids and some other cool humans back at Cole’s enchanted vending booth. Thanks, Cole for inviting us! And last but not least, when I bumped into Nathan Crouch soon after setting up camp, I knew Blesstival was going to be a special; he’s one of those friends I see only in the festival world, but the kind vibes are strong with this one.

Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

They say the devil is in the details, but sometimes if you just look for them, there are angels there too. For me, The Blesstival was made up of a seamless series of those perfect moments of magic. There were so many: campfire jams, an amazing coconut chickpea curry made by the three beautiful souls at Ubuntu Vegan Food (I hope to see them again soon), the amazing guy walking around campsites and making sharpie drawings of everyone, deep talks with Tara, running into Sleepy Creek fam Marlena Devon and Jessica Hawkins on a late night walk at the perfect time, an awesome soul-deep sunny afternoon conversation with another Sleepy Creek fam and fellow renegade recycler Michael Law, working with a musician on a concept for album art (a first! stoked!), and getting a generous gift and a hug from Frank Allia up at the music Saturday night are just the tip of the iceberg.  One of my favorite, most eagerly longed for moments of the year — the crucially important magic moment I spot the glow of the first firefly—went down on Friday night. Perfect. Another happened while walking on The Path (if you’ve been to the venue you know why this is a proper noun, capitalized and all) with my pal, Amy when she pointed out that the wonderfully intoxicating, honeysuckle-like yet woodsy smell was the scent of blossoming Tulip Poplar trees. Later on, Slim Jimmies’ Austin Peck made my night by returning my treasured Day-Glo colored, knitted festival blanket all neatly folded after I mistakenly thought he had forgotten from whom he had borrowed it. I’d be willing to wager that there are many other Blesstival attendees who found similarly delightful angels in the festival’s details. Finally, I thought (and talked) a lot about Anthony Bourdain’s passing during Blesstival. I heard of his passing on a short trip home from the festival to walk my dog and to shower— great possibilities when you festie it up close to home. I was devastated. I’m not  a TV person, but Tony Bourdain’s wit, irreverence, and human connectedness drew me in, gave me hope, fed my soul. I ate, danced, hugged, and loved in his honor over the weekend. He will be missed.

Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

In closing, there were too many blessings—music, art, food, dancing, nature, and most importantly the human beings who came together—to mention in this review. I could go on for days. While the music was certainly great all weekend, it was a refreshing change of pace for me to not be consumed by watching sets all weekend. Having more personal interactions with my friends and other Blesstival humans was crazy cool. This year, the festival raised more than $2,000 for the Mayday Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization for those fighting Lyme’s disease. I mentioned the names of a lot of awesome human beings in this review, but the crazy truth is that there are way more names of people who rocked my world at the show I didn’t mention because this article isn’t novel length.  I challenge each one of you, dear readers, to attend a local festival and to interact with awesome human beings. So, see you at next year’s Blesstival. And don’t miss, Beast Coast Reggae Family Campout in the Fall at the same venue put on by the same folks. Meanwhile, please get out there, and “support your local festival” as my friend Shan says.

Photo by Joseph A. Nieberding.

Go on, then. Get out there.  Find the others. They are closer than you think. Take a chance. Buy that ticket to a small local festival or live music event. Enjoy life.  Dance with everyone.  Let’s keep festivals like Blesstival going for years to come.  If we don’t do this, nobody else will. It matters. You matter. We are blessed.