Read our report of The Festy Experience 2017 near Arrington Virginia
The 8th Annual Festy Experience
October 5-8 2017
The Blue Ridge Bowl at Infinity Downs Farm, a 387-acre property in Arrington, Virginia at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The lineup comprises a nice blend of national and local roots music acts:
The Infamous Stringdusters
Sam Bush Band
The Jerry Douglas Band
The Travelin’ McCourys
Danny Barnes & Nick Forster
Garrettgrass Gospel Hour
Sarah Siskind & Sunliner
Phoebe Hunt & The Gatherers
Sierra Hull has just been awarded another IBMA gong for Best Mandolinist (the first female in that category). She is a ‘young veteran’ of the business by now, with a debut at the Grand Ole Opry at the age of ten and a first record contract inked just three years later. An amazing talent whose new album, the well-acclaimed Weighted Mind being only her third and the first release for five years. Her set was a long one, featuring Ethan Jodziewicz, the accomplished bassist who played on the new album. The music cast a wonderful net of material, including her new songs, jamming instrumentals and covers (including some Loretta Lynn).
The highlight for me was Nick Forster (guitar) and Danny Barnes (banjo), who were joined for much of the set by Infamous Stringdusters’ members Travis Book (bass) and Jeremy Garrett (fiddle). The magic of the playing was only matched by the smiles of the participants, all obviously having a heck of a time.
Forster is a member of acclaimed and ground-breaking contemporary bluegrass band Hot Rize who released ten albums and toured worldwide full-time for over twelve years. Nick conceived the idea of eTown, the popular weekly radio variety show now heard coast-to-coast. Forster has played recording sessions for various artists like Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Kathy Mattea. He also is an a Grammy-nominated record producer. His child eTown is here at Festy this year, under the moniker ‘almost eTown’.
Barnes is a stellar banjo player, singer, and composer whose music is influenced by many diverse genres, particularly and interestingly, some pretty manic styles such as punk. He was a founding member of the Austin trio the Bad Livers and has collaborated with Bill Frisell and Dave Matthews, to name but two. In 2015, Barnes was awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, due to his innovative and distinctive stylein recognition of his role as “one of bluegrass music’s most distinctive and innovative performers.” If, Iike me, you have not have heard of him until now, some of that might be due to him quiet, self-effacing manner. Later on, I commented to him that he looked like he enjoyed being on stage, his quick response was: “No, I don’t enjoy being on stage, I just love playing the banjo”.
Other acts caught were the enigmatic, rhythmic and visual Beats Antique and Tara Mills and Jimmy Stelling.
The Infamous Stringdusters provided us with an intimate set on almost eTown, but more on them below.
Carl Anderson was the find of the day. A native of nearby Charlottesville, he is now a resident of Nashville. His full band on stage really took care of business (although Anderson later told me that they had never played together before). If you are looking for a descriptive genre, maybe think Jackson Browne with a harder alt. country edge and a twist in sentiment. Great songs with the authentic front man whose just turned thirty exhibiting a genuine and embraceable humour. Highly recommended.
The Infamous Stringdusters were from around these parts but have since spread themselves a little, with Brevard North Carolina now their base (home of Mountain Song Festival – read about my visit there last year) but they are hometown picks for sure. In fact, they form the backbone of the schedule. Members comprise guitarist Andy Falco, banjo man Chris Pandolfi, Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Travis Book (double bass) and together they are formidable. Roving around the stage with ease, they break out of any restrictions that other bluegrass outfits may feel hidebound. A set list with plenty of covers, all of them distinctive and cleverly chosen. The band’s jamming was spectular.
Sarah Biskind did a nice almost eTown show which led to Della Mae who swept the crowd off their feet, plenty of talent and…just think…how many all-female bands make a sustained career in ANY form of the music business. They boast many quality vocalists, a contagious exhuberance and obvious cameraderie on stage. Plenty of great playing (of course) – it is notable that guitarist Courtney Hartman was recently nominated for Americana Instrumentalist of The Year (Charlie Sexton won in a tough field).
The Sam Bush Band was down at the Blue Ridge stage which was a blast, as I now expect from this mandolin troubadour who I have seen many times, always full of class, excitement and eager to please. The band tonight included regular member, the impressive Stephen Mougin on guitar and Scott Vestal (winner of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize for 2017). A great version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” by Allen Toussaint, strong songs from his new album Storyman included “Transcendental Meditation Blues” and the uplifting “I Just Wanna Feel Something”.
This belonged to the Drive-by Truckers, a ninety minute blast that ended my day. I had seen them at the Cannery Ballroom as part of AmericanaFest just four weeks ago (it seems much longer) but tonight surpassed that by a home stretch. Perhaps due to the beautiful setting here and my proximity to the stage hence the ‘immersion factor’. The light rain started almost at the same time as their opening greeting. They were pretty angry in the lead up to the release of their last album, the elegantly-simple titled American Band and that was BEFORE the US Presidential election and its aftermath, not to mention a number of controversies and incidents down South during 2017. Tonight they really wanted to make a statement. And so they did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley strode the stage with a Southern Rock majesty. This correspondent spent most of the time in the photography pit. A recent song “This Perilous Ride” was potent, a blistering version of one of my favourites “Ronnie and Neil”, the driving “Ever South”, “Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” and the closing protest “Hell No I Ain’t Happy”.
Elephant Revival provided much depth and many layers. Sarah Siskind & Sunliner includes partner and bassist for the Stringdusters Travis Book. Now Siskind is an accomplished songwriter, having others cover her songs including Alison Krauss who re-worked two tunes. If you are a fan of (or like me just watch for the original music on offer) of the TV series Nashville, you will have heard quite a number of Sarah’s songs. She confessed during the introduction of one tune that she wrote it for the series, but decided to keep it for her own projects. Siskind has been another great find for me at The Festy and that, folks, is a considerable draw of events like these. The rapport between her and Book on stage is a great satisfaction to behold.
I was won over by Ani DiFranco set. I have found a little too much going on in some of her recorded material, too many layers and tempos in which to get cosy. But in a live setting, the material was visceral, Ivan Neville of the Neville Brothers was supreme on keys providing FUNK-a-plenty. There was folk (nods to Woody Guthrie and Florence Reeves) and plenty of fire in her lyrics about important issues, both political and gender-specific.
Elephant Revival went to almost eTown and then I sped down to the Skyline Tent for The Travelin’ McCourys. Both this outfit and its near alter-ego The Del McCoury Band have been a feature for personally for many years now. Just about the first time I saw the DMB was at Preservation Hall during a Jazz Fest weekend in New Orleans. Both bands played sets and then, incredulously, played together. Question: How do true-to-the core New Orleans jazz and bluegrass outfits go together? Answer: if you are good enough to cut it…brilliantly. The biggest challenge that night was not musically, but spatially – those who have been to the Preservation Hall will know what I am talking about. The Total Tennesse Tour has recently traversed quite a lot of terrain and it included the DCB at the Grand Ole Opry a couple of weeks back.
A mouth-watering day, one in which I started to really settle in this delightful place and event.
While still being in the sensory spell of the Drive-by Truckers’ show from last night, I slowly prepared for the final day of The Festy. Today was Sunday. The first show was a Gospel showcase led by Stringduster fiddle player Jeremy Garrett. It was very attractive but at 10.30am too much of a challenge for this four-week traveller. And I missed the Family Yoga session as well!
I did, however, make if for the Dori Freeman set which was a treat. Maybe I’ve seen her four or five times now and her voice rang out in the sleepy, perhaps a little hungover, tent. Partner, percussionist and banjo player Nick Falk added some depth to the Appalachian and old-time yet impressively original country tunes, along with some nice covers. Freeman’s new album Letters Never Read is out soon and you can read my review here.
Over to the almost eTown tent for an interview and an intimate, short set from Phoebe Hunt followed by The Shook Twins who led a siren-like set showcasing some new material from a forthcoming album with Niko Daoussis adding some flavour on electric guitar with some rap, sweet melodies, folksy humour and piercing harmonies. A soulful rendition of “Son of a A Preacher Man” closed off proceedings.
Another treat which kept me smiling for thirty minutes was Nick Forster interviewing dobro maestro Jerry Douglas. As Nick recounted, Douglas’s credits include fourteen solo albums, fourteen Grammys and 10 IBMA awards for best dobro player. He left junior high school to go on the road with a band called The Country Gentlemen where he met Forster. A great rapport on stage between two close friends and musicians with mutual respect. Douglas played a whirlwind instrumental, then jammed with Forster and Danny Barnes. A joy.
I caught a little of Joan Osborne doing the songs of Bob Dylan then, moving easily among the much smaller crowd onto the Jerry Douglas Band. A new album What If represents another significant departure and music adventure for the redoubtable musician with jazz fusion, Douglas party vocals and some highly inventive covers. You can read more about the new release here.
A quick look at Love Canon and it was time to pack up, apologies to Billy Childs for missing his, last set.
The setting …is truly breathtaking. On a farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the air is clear, the trees are just starting to turn into their kaleidoscopic hues. Although it has been dry around these parts, it is still verdant and far from my ‘Sunburnt Country’.
The format…is just about my festival favourite. Two main stages with performances back-to-back, a short stroll between them and no music bleed that is the bain of many such events. One, the larger, is an outdoor stage, the other a cosy tent. The addition this year of a third venue, the eTown tent, provides a cosy retreat and an intimate alternative.
The weather…was just about perfect, despite some sour predictions. A little rain on Saturday night and then Sunday evening which looked more long-standing as I left.
Getting around…was easy, with the biggest crowds on Saturday night but no trouble. Thursday and Sunday were positively roomy.
Family friendly and warm, knowledgable patrons…tick
The Music…was remarkably good, ranging from blue-note bluegrass, to country, through roots, folk, alt. country, fusion all the way to glorious Southern rock. All the good music stuffs for a healthy diet. After all, the line-up drew me here, it’s a fair way from Nashville where I ended up, and certainly not in the right direction to go home tomorrow to Melbourne Australia.
The Festy is an Experience, one in which I urge you to participate at some point.
Sincere thanks to:
Michael Allenby, Festival Director
Erin Scholze of Dreamspider Publicity
Betsy and Peter Agelasto for their amazing kindness in opening up their beautiful home for this travel-weary Australian, and
The volunteers…on the gates, at the stalls, doing the merch., looking after guests and the press, parking. (NB No security required here!). Hats off to you all!!
Now I should go and pack for the long journey home, via Richmond VA, Denver CO, L.A. It’s been a hell of a month…
The Festy Experience started in 2009 and is a partnership between Allenby’s Virginia-based company, The Artist Farm and The Infamous Stringdusters and it offers more than music. This will be The Festy Experience’s second year at Infinity Downs Farm, which is conveniently located just 35 miles south of Charlottesville and 30 miles north of Lynchburg, adjacent to the site of LOCKN’ Festival. The property features outdoor amphitheaters, open fields, campgrounds, hiking, and over 7 miles of biking trails. Stay tuned for more information about outdoor activities and workshops.
Read our report of The Festy Experience 2017 near Arrington Virginia