Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Red Wing Roots Festival - Mt. Solon, VA - July 12-14

The Red Wing Roots Festival is a new festival in the Natural Chimneys Park near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is hosted by The Steel Wheels, a great four piece ensemble with deep connections to the Harrisonburg area. First time festivals can be a treasure or a bust, depending on how well prepared are the organizers and how many patrons are in attendance. This one was a real treasure, the Natural Chimneys Park is a beautiful site and the organizers were ready but not overbearing with too many rules and regulations. It was well attended but by no means crowded, I'm sure in the future there will be more and more coming to this one.

We arrived a day early on Thursday and were assigned one of the huge RV sites. Three of the four adjacent RV sites were occupied by tent campers, which gave us even more open space. We walked around the park and saw the Natural Chimneys, a natural geological formation that towers up to 120 feet, and the nearly dry North River. That evening there was a big downpour, but we were comfortable and dry in the cozy confines of the Pinnacle. The next day was clear but the rain had turned the North River into a raging torrent.

Pinnacle Base Camp

North River after a night of rain

This festival is described as a "roots" festival and, for me at least, each of the three days of music had a separate theme. Friday was a bluegrass day, each musical act that we saw had close ties to this southern genre. We say New Country Rehab, a band from Canada that plays high energy original songs. Then it was a great set by Virginia native Larry Keel & Natural Bridge. I always enjoy Larry's shows and he seemed particularly inspired this day delivering some of the best guitar picking of the weekend. Joining him on stage was Jay Starling on the dobro, he's the son of the Seldom Scene's John Starling. The Steel Wheels did a late afternoon set on the smallest of the festival's four stages, it was packed with festivarians and the band did not disappoint. There was lots of audience participation with little kids up near the front being called upon to help out. This set was one of the musical highlights of the entire festival and it propelled the Steel Wheels on my "must see again" list. 

Steel Wheels on Friday       image from DJBWeblog
Next the bluegrass theme continued with Tim O'Brien, a great writer with a deep catalog of well known songs. He's no slouch as a musician either and for this performance he was solo, playing guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. Tim was followed by a band we've seen several times over the last few years, Brooklyn based Yarn. They're not a bluegrass band but more rock and roll and they performed a high energy set of great originals and covers. Next up was the Duhks, a band from Canada that plays their own original interpretation of folk, old time, and Brazilian samba (!?!).  They were a lot of fun and seemed to be happy to be performing again after an extended hiatus from touring. The bluegrass day finished up with what has to be the best band performing bluegrass today - The Del McCoury Band. These guys are true professionals and they did not disappoint the Friday night crowd. As always they encouraged folks to shout out requests and each of the five talented musicians took turns shining in the spotlight. 

The Steel Wheels are very much into bicycling and on Saturday morning they hosted three bike rides. One for mountain bikers, one for serious bikers that was 40 miles and included a climb to the top of Reddish Knob, and a more casual 15 miler around the Shenandoah Valley. I wimped out and chose the more casual ride, Eric and Jay of the Steel Wheels joined us and we had a very nice ride. We were unable to complete the full planned circuit due to a road being closed due to high water, but it was fun anyway. Next year - I'll be ready for the Reddish Knob!

Bikers gathering for the morning ride

Here's where we turned around on the bike ride
If there was a roots theme for Saturday it might have been "singer/songwriter".  We caught Nathan Moore, a Staunton native, who tells stories and sings original folk type songs. He was followed by Scott Miller, also from the Shenandoah Valley, who was very entertaining. I may be biased because he is also a W&M grad, but he really got my attention with his song about a Chevy Citation with an 8-track player (my mode of transport in the late '70's).  From there we wandered the grounds and caught some of the Wiyos (old time folk and blues), our friends from Crozet - Yankee Dixie, and JD McPherson. Then as the sun went down the Steel Wheels did a great set on the main stage and were followed by the Sam Bush Band. We've seen Sam plenty of times before but we were pleased that he's updated his festival set to include some different songs, including the Beatles "I've Just Seen a Face". And of course no Sam Bush show would be complete without some weather, just at midnight when the set was ending it starting to drizzle, three minutes later we got a full downpour on the walk back to the Pinnacle. 

Sunday started slowly with a very casual Robin and Linda Williams performing a set of their original songs. Then we watched a demonstration by the Virginia Wildlife Center on raptors and birds of prey.  Then the roots theme for Sunday seemed to swing into jazz from the early twentieth century. Wayne "The Train" Hancock is most often compared to Hank Williams, and he did his fair share of old time honky tonkin', but there was definitely some Western swing going on there too.  Pokey Lafarge was a lot of fun, it really sounded for a while like we were transported back to the 1920's as the trumpet and clarinet provided a background for Pokey's superb singing voice. The Steel Wheels made their last appearance of the festival, bringing on stage many of the musicians that had played before them and then it was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to close things out. I had seen them before, even earlier in the week on the Jimmy Fallon show, but they surprised me with the energy and excitement that they brought to the festival's final set. From the very first note they were energetically playing a much more modern approach to the traditional form for which they are known. 

Pokey LaFarge
This was a great festival, the Steel Wheels and their management team have done a superb job of organization and putting together a lineup that taps from the local Virginia music as well as the "roots" that are still so vibrant and relative today.  I look forward to Red Wing Roots 2014.