Written by: Kathy Moore
Photos by: Cryptical Photography (Dave Cunningham)
Even though Sleepy Creek Presents throws three festivals a year, I still get giddy when it’s time to pack- –it’s like going back home to a big family reunion- the hugs, kisses, stories, and laughter begin as soon as you pull into the gate. There is so much more to Sleepy Creek than music-the vendors are top notch, the food is delicious, the campground owners and the members are welcoming and fun, the setting is absolutely gorgeous, and the music lovers are the most genuine and loving folks I have met.
Sleepy Creek on the Potomac Campground is located in Berkeley Springs, WV—nestled between railroad tracks and where Sleepy Creek joins the Potomac River. Campground owners and hosts Dave and Cyndi Zembower go above and beyond in assuring that the facilities are outstanding. In the years that I have been attending Sleepy Creek Presents (SCP) events, I have seen many improvements- notably the fire pit and the sandy area in front of the stage. The firepit is a great gathering place—it provides much needed warmth during the rainy days and nights, and it is large enough to seat many people. It is close enough to the stage that you can see the music, and far enough away so that it is not a distraction if you are at the stage enjoying music. The sandy area in front of the stage is a great spot for kids. Sleepy Creek is very family friendly—it’s the venue where I’ve seen the most kids. The huge sand box in front of the stage gives the children a safe place to play while their parents can sing and dance to the music. Sleepy Creek has that “it takes a village” vibe-we all look out for each other.
Harfest 2018 was my favorite SCP fest yet—the combination of warm, sunny skies, a killer lineup, and beautiful people with huge smiles created a magical atmosphere. Danny Moore, the event coordinator at SCP and member of Sleepy Creek resident band Brokedown Hustlers, really outdid himself this year with the lineup. From the Kind Thieves to Larry Keel, from Shelf Life String Band to Pappy and Po, the variety of musicianship was outstanding. We are so lucky that we get to witness what we do on this stage—Larry Keel along with 10+ musicians, Pappy Biondo playing three sets, and Shelf Life String Band melting faces on the late night stage. SCP productions always run smoothly-from checking in, to leaving, the staff and volunteers do an amazing job. The work that they put in to a festival so that we have the best time possible is not to be dismissed. Hats off to the crew!
Harfest stretched over four days-with music from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it Thursday evening for Mudcracker. I’m really looking forward to catching more of his sets- the last time I saw Jay was at the Private Party in July and he killed it. After a beautiful Friday afternoon drive and easy arrival to the campground, we unpacked and set up camp as Uncle Jake & the 18 Wheel Gang were playing. Making your way to the stage takes time—so many hellos and hugs and catching up with everyone. We made it just in time to see Muskrat Lightning begin their set-this 4-piece rock & blues outfit lit the stage up. Made up of two former members of G-13 and two young members, they got the party started. It was great to see people’s shoes off, toes in the sand, smiling and dancing so early in the day. The Plate Scrapers took to the stage next and the not surprisingly, the area in front of the stage began to fill up. Well known to SC regulars, this 5-piece bluegrass band has gathered quite a following. With Dr. Fiddle sitting in, the energy was kicked up and feet were moving. They closed out their set with “Flying Car”, a crowd favorite. It felt great to have my feet in the sand, the sun in my face, and dance and sing to this song. Following the Plate Scrapers were the Kind Thieves. One of my favorite sets from SpringDig 2018 was the Kind Thieves’ late-night set, so I was very happy to see them on the bill for Harfest. These WV natives know how to throw a party. Their set started as the sun was going down, and by the time it was dark, the place was packed. Their high-energy, beautiful melodies, rocking jams, and interaction with the crowd really caught the attention of many, and I’m sure made their mark in many peoples’ memories. The Kind Thieves’ renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” and the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” were entrancing. These tunes showcased the bands’ harmonies as well as their talent to brilliantly cover two songs of different genres. The Kind Thieves did an excellent job of getting the crowd ready for Brokedown Hustlers-Sleepy Creek’s resident band. Their high-energy set included many crowd favorites such as “Ooh Wee” and “Girl in the Red Hat.” The music was so infectious that one couple even got up on the stage and danced. With a new lineup and a new sound, Strung Like a Horse returned to Sleepy Creek to headline Friday evening. Having won over many fans at their debut at SpringDig 2017 and at Harfest 2017, this high energy band continues to impress. Clay Maselle’s distinct vocals rang through the air and the band’s harmonies were showcased in their hit “Storm of You.” Closing out the night on the late-night side stage was Pittsburgh’s Shelf Life String Band. I knew banjo player Joe Dep from his time with Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers and I had been looking forward to seeing him for some time with Shelf Life. Their set was jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, and face-melting. To have six musicians play so well-orchestrated, never noisy, and never competing for the spot light is no easy feat. I love watching musicians play and Dep’s unassuming lead on banjo and his direction of the band were hypnotic. This band deserves more recognition and I’m hoping to see them on the main stage at Sleepy Creek in the near future.
Saturday’s lineup was just as impressive as Friday’s- starting out the day was Mateo Monk who played a beautiful, mellow set that perfectly fit the slow and tranquil start to the day. We made our way up to the stage to catch Kick & Banjo– Brian Gorby (Nugget from the Hackensaw Boys) and Patrick Biondo (Pappy from Cabinet). The connection that these two have is unmistakable- playing their own unique blend of banjo, drums, and percussion, the groove was infectious and brought folks up to the stage area. This was an exciting beginning to a Pappy and Keel filled day. As is tradition at Sleepy Creek festivals, a brass band was scheduled to play in the afternoon before the parade. The Empire Strikes Brass brought in the funk as kids and parents started appearing in their costumes. Danny Moore’s love for brass bands comes from his marching band background – he played trumpet and tuba in high school and even the Army tried to recruit him to play tuba. He shares his love of this genre by having a brass band lead the parade that winds throughout the campground. If anything comes to mind when one mentions Sleepy Creek, it’s trains and parades. The small size and convenient layout of the campground allows you to enjoy the parade and the music without having to leave your campsite. A much needed break was in order for the afternoon, so we headed back to camp to rest and refuel so that we had the energy for another late night of music. Being able to relax at camp and still enjoy the music from afar is a huge advantage. While we made dinner and enjoyed the company of friends, Richmond, Virginia’s South Hill Banks took the stage.
Pappy returned to the stage with his cousin, JP Biondo (of Cabinet fame) as Pap and Po. These two have a great connection with each other and with the audience-there was a lot of talking, laughing, and interaction with the fans. As they played their guitar and banjo, their ability to read each other was obvious. In addition to being top-notch musicians, they have such likable personalities that it is easy to see why they are adored by so many. Returning to the Sleepy Creek stage after Pap and Po was the Larry Keel Experience. Keel, his wife Jenny on bass, and Jared Poole on mandolin have been on fire since adding Poole. This was probably the tightest set I have from these three. Keel is a captivating performer-his unique flat-picking style and his distinct voice is ever evolving. Playing a few covers and several originals, they closed out their set with an old favorite, “Culpeper Woodchuck.” Next up was the Larry Keel and Pappy Hour-All Star Jam which, according to one fan, “…exceeded my already ridiculously high expectations.” Joining Keel and Pappy on stage were a myriad of musicians-at one point I believe I counted 13. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but Keel was able to take command and orchestrate the individual players and kept it cohesive. Ending the music for the night at the bonfire jam was the West King String Band. They played a solid set of music with Larry Keel sitting in, kicked up the energy, and kept everyone happy and dancing late into the night.
The music never stops at Sleepy Creek. As the festival goers were packing up and heading home on Sunday, Bat’s Dynamic String Band set up at the bonfire for one last goodbye. It used to be bittersweet leaving- thinking that I wouldn’t be back for another six months for the next fest- but I’ve made so many friends here, and I’m lucky enough to regularly see them at other festivals and shows. Sleepy Creek has created a beautiful community of music lovers and it will always be my favorite festival venue. I’m already counting down the days until SpringDig.