Monday, September 12, 2011

Floydest X - July 28 - 31 - Floyd, VA

This year's Floydfest was billed as "Floydfest X - The EXperience" but for me the theme was more about passing musical legacies to the next  generation. This was the tenth annual Floydfest (thus the "X") and the ninth consecutive Floydfest for me. This is absolutely, hands down, the best organized festival in the most beautiful setting that I have eXperienced, the tenth edition brought even larger crowds than years before, but the venue and the organizers handled it eXtremely well. The beautiful setting along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County Virginia includes at least nine stages, ranging from the ever so intimate Virginia Folklife Workshop Stage to the stunning Dreaming Creek Main Stage. Throughout the four day festival there is superb music being performed on each of the stages and as a festival goer your challenge to see and hear as much of it as you can. 

We started on Thursday with two raucous sets by Trampled by Turtles and Old Crow Medicine Show. Trampled by Turtles has the traditional bluegrass instrumental lineup, but they play really, really fast. Their singing seemed to be much better than the last time I saw them. These guys are a lot of fun and I heartily recommend them. Old Crow Medicine Show is one of our favorite bands these days and at the Floydfest they delighted the crowd with a two hour set. They started out played each song straight through without any long instrumental solos or "jams", however this changed over time as Willie Watson commented "2 hours is a long time and our songs are so short. We're going to bring out every thing for you tonight". Soon thereafter they did a very nice spacey jam, but not really very long. They played several new tunes (I probably don't have these names right) "Carry Me Back to Virginia", "Tobacco Farmer Song", and "Levi" which was about a guy from southwest virginia who was killed in Iraq. As they played that song I thought of the soldier who sent a very moving email to the Floydfest organizers. He explained how he was on tour in Iraq and would not be able to make to the festival this year. I highly recommend you read it (click here).  A week or so later I was disappointed to see posted on the Old Crow website that they were taking a performance sabbatical to "seek health and wellness in the coming months". I certainly hope that they find it and are making great music again soon.

Bicycling by the Festival on the Blue Ridge Parkway
On Friday we went to the Virginia Folklife Workshop Stage to see Sam Bush. The Workshop Stage provides an amazing opportunity to see top notch performers up close and in an informal setting where folks can ask questions and learn about the person behind the music. Here's a picture that I took of Sam playing (along with guitarist Stephen Mougin) that shows how close you are to the artists (there is no zoom in this picture).

Sam Bush and Stephen Mougin
The workshops are hosted by Jon Lohman, who is Virginia's "State Folklorist" and director of the Virginia Folklife Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Jon does a good job of spurring the discussion with the performers and then getting out of the way to let them play. 

To kick things off Jon asked Sam if he was considering another run for the presidency and Sam said perhaps, if he could convince Senator Arlen Spector to join him. Then they would have a "Bush 'n Spector" ticket... Har Har.  Sam spent some time talking about how he got started playing the mandolin when he was a kid and he demonstrated some of his playing styles, comparing and contrasting to other well known mandolin players. As he was doing this I looked out at the audience and noticed how many young people were there. And I got to thinking how when Sam was young, he watched Bill Monroe and other players of that time, and he has eXpanded and grown their music in his own way. How many future musicians were sitting this audience, and would say 30 - 40 years from now "I remember seeing Sam Bush back in 2011 and that's what got me started in music"?

Later in the day I listened to Railroad Earth at the Porch, it was good but their Smilefest set is still number one in 2011 for me. 
Railroad Earth
Later on Saturday we watch Cyro Baptista and Beat the Donkey, who are a crazy group of musicians, with a heavy emphasis on percussion. Then our friend whipped up a great meal of shrimp, clams, and burgers at his deluXe RV, Thanks JD! The evening (for us at least) concluded with a very entertaining set from Robert Randolph and his Family Band. They were joined by the guitarist from New Monsoon and our old friend Sam Bush on the fiddle. 

I knew from studying the schedule that Saturday was going to be a Hot Tuna day. We started off with a terrific Hot Tuna acoustic set on the main stage. They really seemed to be enjoying themselves and the feedback from the audience. 

Hot Tuna (acoustic, Barry Mitterhoff not shown)
Rodger and I enjoying the Hot Tuna show
After Hot Tuna, we stuck around the Main Stage to hear Donna the Buffalo, they were sounding tight as ever, but after a couple of songs I chose to hike back to the Workshop Porch where Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff were joined by Larry Keel for more acoustic virtuosities. This was another exceptional Workshop session, Jon asked Jorma what was it like to be a teenager in Jefferson Airplane during the 1960's, and he replied that he has two perspectives. One: "How could anyone let me go out in public dressed like that?" and Two: "It enabled me to have a career as a folk musician."  Jorma has obviously long ago left the Jefferson Airplane and that type of music behind and now eXpresses a different artistic vision through Hot Tuna and his solo projects. But he was happy to talk about it and they played some great tunes at the Porch, Jorma seemed particularly impressed with Larry's guitar playing skills (he said "I need to go home and practice some more!"). 

I walked back from the Porch to the John Updike Social Pavilion, taking the same route that Jorma must have taken (in his chauffeur driven golf cart) to get back to the artist area. We passed by the Kid's Stage, where bands (often teenagers and kids) play age appropriate music for the young ones. As I passed by the band was playing "Somebody to Love", the Jefferson Airplane hit from 1967. I wondered what Jorma was thinking when he heard that as he rode by. Again the younger generation, taking the music from the previous generation and passing it on down the line.   

Later in the day we listened to some Taj Mahal and then more Hot Tuna, this time the electric version. Saturday evening concluded with one of our favorite live acts, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. She completely delivered on the Saturday night headliner responsibilities, with a big rocking show, full of energy and exciting performances. I was perpleXed by the absence of Catherine Popper (bassist), there was some other woman filling in for her (and she missed 3 or 4 songs in the middle of the set). They did a nice acoustic song and they continue to work and improve what I call the "space jam", some extended instrumental/improvisational sections that I first heard at the 930 club in March and didn't particularly care for. But now these arrangements have gotten better and they seem to work on the bigger stage. When they kicked into the Jefferson Airplane classic "White Rabbit" that has become one of their concert staples, I was so hoping that Jack and Jorma would join them on stage, but I guess that was really too much to ask for. Anyway Grace and the boys put on a spectacular performance to conclude day 3 of the festival.

The festival planners did a good job of programming Sunday's musical entertainment around the current titans of bluegrass/acoustic music, with performances by Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, David Grisman and Del McCoury. Peter Rowan did a funny song about the Tea Party, his vocals are stronger than ever. Tony Rice has had a tough time with his health over the last few years but his guitar playing continues to be masterful. He brought out David Grisman for some nice mandolin and guitar duet playing, but I missed that because I had headed back to the Workshop Porch for an up close and personal session with Del McCoury. This began with a nice interview by Jon Lohman with Del. Del explained how he began his interest in music at a very young age listening to his parents play and going to concerts with them. Then he brought out his band, which includes two of his adult sons (Ronnie and Rob). Ronnie is one of the best mandolin players in the business today and he explained that after he learned to play at the age of 13 his father immediately had him in the band and touring with him.  This was the clearest example I had seen all weekend of the theme of passing the musical heritage from one generation to the next.  

"Musical Mount Rushmore" - Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Del McCoury
photo: Rick Hartman 
After the Del McCoury session on the porch, I made it back to the main stage to hear the David Grisman SeXtet, and their wonderful mixture of bluegrass and jazz that is best described as "dawg" music. 

So for four days we spent time in the mountains of southwestern Virginia with friends and family and heard a wide variety of old and new music. Over and over I heard the musicians eXplain their musical heritage and how musicians from years ago influenced them to become the artists that they are today. I'm comforted in knowing that in the years to come, the children of Floydfest will be creating more beautiful music that was inspired by this summer weekend in 2011.