Written by Michael Tucker
Photos by Tyler L. Goble of Zen Focus Photography
At just about every festival I attend, I experience a moment of clarity, and the message contained within the experience crystallizes into a sort of epiphany. At the incredible fourth Valley Fusion festival, that moment came for me at the pinnacle of the festivities during Saturday night headliner Goose’s set. I was dancing next to my friend—and one of my heroes—Doug Ferrell, and we had a brief conversation about how grateful we are to be part of each other’s festival family and about how grateful we are for the freedom to be ourselves that small festivals like Valley Fusion offer. I looked around at all the smiling, happy, dancing people and reflected on all the hugs, concern for my well-being, and sharing that took place at Valley Fusion 4 over the weekend. I cannot say thank you enough to Zack Thayer (and other small festival proprietors like him) and his staff and all the superb musicians and artists for making Valley Fusion 4 a true music lover’s paradise. Zack’s concern for the quality of each and every attendee’s experience was evident throughout the festival, and I could tell he truly enjoyed checking on everyone and everything over the course of the weekend. The care of Zack’s superb staff also made this year’s event a perfect example of how much small festivals have to offer. You all are real heroes to me for the hard work, heart, and soul you put into creating a space for all of us to be free to be our creative selves—and that includes the attendees for showing up to financially support these events as well. Considering the toxic state of America circa 2019, small festivals are so necessary right now. And now for the lowdown on what a knock your socks off music lover’s paradise Valley Fusion 4 was… Friday
As I arrived at the gate Friday morning with my forever partner and best festival buddy Tara, our experience started off perfectly when we were warmly greeted with comfortable, friendly hugs from shining souls, Elise Olmstead and Logan Clark. We drifted on into the beautiful Buffalo Gap Retreat, which was even more like paradise on a sunny weekend than it was at last year’s rain-soaked event and found a nice, shaded camping spot near the brook. We ran into tons of good friends and friendly, familiar festival faces and, many hugs later, before we knew it, we found ourselves in a music lover’s paradise. Zack’s love of excellent music shined this year like no other year—and it was obvious from Valley Fusion’s very first set by Frederick, MD rockers Jack Funk, who lived up to the high recommendation given to us by one of our favorite music fans, Darrell Champ Duvall. It’s always a good sign when the first band has you dancing, and Jack Funk’s high-energy, driving progressive funk with a legit grungy style did exactly that. Hats off! to drummer Dave Bernet for being super-fun to watch and for keeping us dancing. Next up, we made our way to Surprise Attack, who played a rollicking, loose and groovy set.
After all our early afternoon dancing, we were starved, so we headed over to Sassy Wrap’s and enjoyed a dank California Dreamin’ wrap full of cool avocado and black bean and corn salsa deliciousness. It was soon time for Box Era under the pavilion. We enjoyed their jam-inspired funky sound (notice a theme here?) which was full of cool sax and keys. Thereafter, we rushed back to the dining hall to catch one of my favorite bands from last year, Voodoo Circuit. This two-piece hailing from Morgantown has a dance worthy sound with both rock and electronic elements that seems to go beyond the capabilities of two human beings. It doesn’t hurt that Arman plays both synth and drums—not to mention the fact that his voice is another whole otherworldly instrument—while Tanner takes care of the beats and samples. Their set was a midafternoon dance party that swept us all away to “Funkytown.” Voodoo Circuit exists on the blurry borderline between human and technology, and, man, are they fun to get down to. The hard-working guys had a gig in Pittsburgh later that same night. Check them out if you get the chance!
Next up, we were treated to some cool livetronica hijinks from Schwa featuring Pigeons Playing Ping Pong bass maestro Ben Carrey along with his pal Owen Murphy. These two guys kept the daytime dance party in full swing with their fun improvisational style. It’s always a pleasure to see another side of artists we all love and respect having fun outside the confines of their main bands. We ran into Ben earlier in the day and had a sweet conversation about a very special someone we’ll see at Resonance. Midway through the Schwa set, Tara’s work buddy Tyler made it to Valley Fusion. I think it’s safe to say that Tyler enjoyed his first small festival experience at this music lover’s paradise. It was fun watching him enjoy darn near every set. We chilled and chatted while we enjoyed the awesome Dirty Grass Players who let us know we had once again arrived “Home, home again”—and there was nowhere else we’d rather be. Until, we decided to check out Valley Fusion’s awesome art gallery.
Tara, Tyler, and I grooved our way over to catch a goofy, soulful, high energy set from Cousin Earth that had the entire crowd in another dimension. I adore Melissa Raye’s super- soulful voice and don’t get me started about Joey Calfa’s ukulele. Their take on “Mario Underground Theme” was a highlight, which emerged as a sort of theme for the festival; so many bands played or teased it that I lost track. The extraterrestrial musicians in Cousin Earth even schooled Tyler on what a sandwich means to jam band fans. Cousin Earth is definitely a band to watch right now, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again soon.
Casey and the Comrades, featuring members of Big Something and The Mantras, regaled us with a blissful, jazzy celebration of a set in the dining hall building. Dang, I love Casey’s EWI sound and Ben Vinograd’s drumming was amazing as always. This was another case of getting to watch members from one of my favorite bands be playful and loose on stage. Their energy was contagious. Casey and the Comrades were the perfect band to get Valley Fusion’s attendees pumped for Friday’s main event—Litz!!!
Our night peaked with an epically funky and epically rock-n-roll set from Litz under the pavilion. Logan Clarke summed up the essence of the set succinctly by saying, “That Litz set had me feeling like I was on a spaceship.” I think they took all of us for an intergalactic ride with a potent mix of old and new songs. They gave us the cure for the late “Summertime Blues” right out of the gate, and things really kicked into overdrive with a funked up reworking of the Litz classic “Funkin Problem.” Other highlights included one of my favorites, “Morning Dew” and sit ins from bass-playing Pigeon Ben Carrey and Natalie Brooke. “Orwell at Your Doorbell,” a new song with uber-relevant lyrics penned by Dylan of Brokedown Hustlers repute, was a real showstopper: a defiant, hard rawk anthem of resistance that has been stuck in my head ever since. I have to say that although guitarist Pat Shine has been a great addition from the get-go, with this set, his organic synergy with Austin (and superb rhythm guys Logan and Nick) and tonality was palpable—and as always, Pat has that Rock Star style je ne sais quoi in spades. It’s such a pleasure to hear (and watch) this band get tighter and keep growing.
After spending some time enjoying the social aspect of the festival life including an emotionally resonant conversation with Morgann Moser, we headed back to camp and enjoyed an impromptu special set of songs from Dakota Smith (and friend) from his neighboring teepee. Dakota’s golden, soulful voice treated us to Sublime lullabies that had us feeling like we were “Walking on the Moon” as we relaxed in the cool grass. Tara and I even climbed into the teepee and chilled for a front row view next to The Sweet Life’s wonder drummer, Zach for a bit. Alas, after a beautiful Valley Fusion Friday, it was soon time to call it a night. What a perfect day at a music lover’s paradise!
Saturday Blue Hour, a psychedelic blues four piece from Virginia, started our day off right with their alternately blistering and slinky psychedelic grooves as we enjoyed our delicious cold brew from Boppin’ Beans in the Dining Hall Stage. Keys lovin’ dude that I am, I was entranced watching vocalist and keyboardist Luke Johnson’s nimble fingers tickle and pound away as he entranced me with that funky, groovy, southern-bluesy style. The rest of the band including Sean Spencer, on bass and vocals (with a terrific stage presence), Dylan Kesner’s shreddy guitar wizardry, and Devonte Walker’s danceable beats were all super entertaining—I’m just a sucker for keys!
Next, we sat out in the gorgeous early afternoon sunshine perfectly content with the cool grass beneath us and enjoyed the progressive funk sounds of Harrisburg’s Sun and Rain. Things really kicked into overdrive when part-time Sun and Rain members Mike Candela and Natalie Brooke brought their guitar and synth sorcery to the stage.
And for the two happiest surprises of the day in a row, we unexpectedly bumped into our wonderful friends Brandon Thomas and Ashley Barnes (whom we met as our camping neighbors at the Litz Ragamaru festival earlier in the summer) and shared some ecstatic hugs, and then bumped into our friends from Valley Fusion 3, Tremell and Quentin, who kept us smiling at every set, all day long.
As we walked back to the Dining Hall Stage, we ran into Taco, who told us not to dare miss Black Garlic, and introduced us to their mighty bass player, Michael Williams. Of course, we were headed there anyway…and wowza! are we glad we did! Do not miss the chance to see and hear the intoxicatingly potent, hypnotizing blend of jazz, funk, and sweet tasty, sometimes heavy rock these West Virginia gentlemen bring to their live performances. Black Garlic’s musical tastiness includes a trumpet, keys, guitars, bass, and awesome drummer Rob Gross, who is a pleasure to watch and even more of a pleasure to get down to his beats. I darn near lost my mind when they played a super heavy cover of “Time’s Up” by Tauk, (one of my favorite bands!) during which Duncan Maples on the keys really shined. I will be seeing these guys again!
We headed back up to the pavilion and soaked in the glorious prog-funk of The Phryg. There was even a glorious synth off with artist at large, Natalie Brooke. From there, we headed to the other stage just in time to catch a fresh and funky set from The Trailheads, whose high energy set had everyone grooving and dancing. Afterwards, we made our way to The Kind Thieves’ sweet, melodic set, and I enjoyed a good conversation with Black Garlic’s bassist Michael Williams. We headed over to the dining hall with our friends Ashley and Brandon, who shared a deeply personal story with us on the way.
Next, we relished a blisteringly beautiful, heavy af set from one of my favorites, Deaf Scene, which featured a debut song, personal favorite ‘Acid Fight,” and a cover of Tool’s “Lateralus.” I enjoyed seeing my friend Stevie rock out on break from her duties at the gate, and Tara’s work buddy Tyler seemed to really dig it. The Clock Reads dazzled us with their classic avant-rock, jazzy grooves, and we were not prepared for the non-stop super-duper amped-up, maximum energy exuberance that The Sweet Life presented us with. (Although, having seen them before, I should have been because, from experience, we already know there “ain’t no party like a sweet life party”).
However, Cody and Zack really outdid themselves with this set, which was a larger than life rock-n-roll dance frenzy extravaganza featuring free beverages passed around for the thirsty and a rock, paper, scissors tournament for the five hardest raging fans. They continued Valley Fusion Four’s “Mario Underground” ongoing theme and shook many butts and melted faces.
Saturday’s headliner, Goose, in Zack Thayer’s words, “a jam band that made me stop listening to all other jam bands,” brought Valley Fusion to a perfectly satisfying peak. Looking around and seeing so many of my friends—many of whom had worked their butts off behind the scenes to keep Valley Fusion running— smiling, dancing, and positively radiating happiness was magnificently beautiful to behold as Goose expertly enticed us all into their sweet, organic grooves. The set quickly became an intimately special dance party under Buffalo Gap’s pavilion. I looked around and spotted many of my favorite humans— smiling, glowing, dancing. I felt like the magic mirror person on that old children’s television show: I see Stevie and Elise and Doug and Tyler and Morgann and Jay and Nate and Bridget and Kevin. I see Tremell and Quentin and another Tyler and Taco and on and on it goes.
Tara and I received so many sincere hugs and got down and funky with so many of our friends, and I had that memorable conversation with my friend, Doug Ferrell, about this wonderful festival family which gave me the framework to start the article. Goose’s adept musicianship and mighty stage presence is phenomenal. The perfect moment came for me when they played one of my favorite songs off the excellent Moon Cabin, “Into the Myst” as I looked at my perfect partner Tara blissing out and sent out waves of gratitude to the universe for the magic of music and friendship. We glanced over at Elise and Taco and could just see their love for each other and the universe radiating everywhere. In true Goose style, the guys from Connecticut whipped out several super and clever covers, including fun takes on Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.” Man of the hour Zack Thayer gave the attendees a heartfelt and humorous address from the stage.
Goose proceeded to burn up the dance floor with a smokin’ version of the Buster Poindexter classic “Hot Hot Hot” that had everyone singing “Ole! Ole! Ole!” and celebrating like mad. There was a conga line and everything. It was fantastic. Finally, they closed out the main stage with a fitting anthem that perfectly sums up how I feel about Valley Fusion, including Zack Thayer, his hard-working professional staff, supremely talented musicians, sound people, The Regulators (my favorite security team anywhere) and delightful festival attendees: Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.” I could not say it any better: Dear Valley Fusion, “I have to celebrate you, baby / I have to praise you like I should!” —And that goes out to all of you. I can’t say thank you enough to Zack, crew, musicians, artists and attendees for making Valley Fusion such a shining example of the beauty, opportunities for intimacy, and freedom to be ourselves small festivals have to offer!