Shenandoah of the Yard Dogs Road Show plays jazz siren amidst the troupe’s Vaudevillian spectacular. (photos by Ryan Snyder)
When Sam Bush sang the line “How in the world did we make it this far?” from “Circles Around Me” Friday afternoon on the FloydFest main stage, you have to imagine that somewhere the event’s founders gave it a quiet “Amen.” For a festival that was mired in the red during its first few years — cutting IOUs to artists instead of performance checks — its 10th anniversary this past weekend was a testament to how putting the spirit of goodwill before the profit motive can inevitably reap rewards in both regards. The festival had sold out both Friday and Saturday, with combined ticket sales of around 14,000 three- and four-day passes, but it was the atmosphere amidst one of its best lineups that made the weekend exceptional.
FloydFest is truly an anomaly among the summer festival circuit.
Few, if any other weekend music blowouts could get away with bringing back the same core group of artists, from relative unknowns to those preeminent in their genre, year in and year out. FloydFest has done so with great pickers like Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Del McCoury and Larry Keel — a nod to the festival’s residence in the cradle of American roots music — and rock and jam acts on the fringe of folk such as Railroad Earth and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Whereas larger festivals exist in a stratum of cutthroat talent-buying and callous efficiency, FloydFest has started to thrive because of homegrown loyalty. Performers wear the fact that they’re elated to be back for another year on their faces when they perform — some even shout it out from the stage — which reciprocated throughout the crowds.
If it sounds like a bunch of New Age, hippie nonsense, it probably is.
But it’s also a feeling that starts to manifest the first time a staff club car slows down to let you cross a dirt path, rather than showering you with expletives as it wizzes past inches away (see: Bonnaroo). The camping scene is a completely tolerable experience — people enjoy a few hours of sleep there, unlike the exasperating, round-the-clock Bacchanalia by unticketed locals at the MerleFest camps. You can walk into the festival grounds without being TSA’d by an overeager security thug, and you’re treated as if goodwill is not a commodity only afforded to those with high enough credentials. If going to festivals with 80,000-plus attendees often enough can make jaded shells out of the most passionate music fans, FloydFest has a way of rekindling that fire. That same giddiness one feels while winding up the Blue Ridge roads a few miles outside never really leaves. It’s stoked every time you take in the wide-angle view of the stunning blue sky overhead, only to be reminded that Taj Mahal is cranking out gritty rhythm and blues right in front of you.
And it’s ultimately the marriage of the breathtaking scenery with near-constant music that brings people back. The top of this year’s bill was stacked with the likes of Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Yard Dogs Road Show, Lyrics Born and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, but it’s the programming of lower-tiered artists that sets them apart. The festival’s Under the Radar series in particular is becoming a springboard for smaller regional acts to garner attention, and the shift in focus among the audience toward these bands has become palpable over the last few years. Central North Carolina in particular was given afforded significant representation, with the Brand New Life, the Big Something and Doby all winning over the beer garden’s captive audience.
THE TOP SETS OF THE WEEKEND
Yard Dogs Road Show — Friday night, Hillside Holler “We’re just 13 people and a chicken, traveling around the country and trying to perform wherever we can,” said the slimy Yard Dogs Road Show bassist known only as Micah D-licious near the end of their set. His tenor was a humble one, but their show was anything but. The San Francisco bohemians brought the most visually exciting and unpredictable set of the weekend, with a 75-minute extravaganza of chicken magic, Vaudeville comedy, pasties and G-strings, junk blues, and psychedelic rock. The show’s prevailing theme of liberation from inhibition manifested itself with nearly every bit. Guitarist Eenor transformed into a Ziggy Stardust-like intergalactic axe slinger, silver eye shadow and all.
Trombonist and singer Lily Rose Love lost the oily garage jumpsuit in favor of a scanty negligee in one instance, and transformed from buttoned-up prig to sultry seductress with inspiration from the Black and Blue Burlesque Revue in another. The show came with an R-rating, but that didn’t stop 20 or so 13-year olds from bellying up to the front of the stage.
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band — Friday night, Garden Stage The band’s name less a reference to the band’s size and more a reference to their… size. Singer and songwriter Reverend J. Peyton’s Travis-style picking and dizzying bellow provides the sparse melody to the band’s frantic bottleneck blues style, while his wife Breezy — built like an Eastern European weightlifter — hacks away at a washboard that inevitably ends up on fire and smashed on the ground.
Locos Por Juana — Saturday evening, Main Stage In a most serendipitous turn of events, a late flight and time spent lost in the Blue Ridge roadways on the part of Seun Kuti turned out to be a boon for the Saturday night programming. Locos Por Juana took his 8 p.m. slot and proceeded to turn in arguably the best main stage performance of the weekend. One of the knocks against Floyd’s Main Stage is intimacy — it lacks screens and the small village of EZ-Ups and kiddie tents that begin to proliferate behind the core obscured line of sight, making performers feel far off. Locos Por Juana didn’t really have that prob lem.
There was a sort of gravitational pull emanating from the Colombiano-dub-soul quintet from Miami: If the tug of their energy didn’t bring you as close to the stage as possible, it at least put your feet in motion in other ways. They used their extra time wisely as well, bringing members of Toubab Krewe up for a funky Afro-Cumbia fusion and closing out with help from Rubblebucket’s horns.
Seun Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80 — Saturday night, Hillside Holler Likewise for Seun himself, the switch worked out marvelously. The dusky ambiance was ideal for Locos Por Juana to set the evening’s pace, but the set by younger son of the legendary Nigerian activist and Afrobeat godfather Fela was meant for the witching hour. The alto sax-bearing Seun didn’t even make an appearance until 15 minutes into his set, and by then his 13-piece band had already run though numerous trumpet and trombone solos. The band took its name from Fela’s; many of them played with the man himself, and the sound was vintage. The two backing vocalists/dancers sang in the same high-pitched chant immortalized on Zombie, and among the tightly wound band was a brass section with trumpet and baritone and tenor saxophones, a foursome of percussion, two electric guitarists and a bassist. His older brother Femi is often lauded for his stage presence, but Seun’s style is as distinctive, if not more dynamic. He moves about the stage in a modified second-line, his lanky frame making his defiant sashay all the more pronounced. It was difficult to discern his originals from his album From Africa with Fury: Rise from the covers of his father that he performed, which included “Zombie” and “Upside Down”; the political themes and the groove are just as fiery. Seun doesn’t mince his beliefs onstage either. His invocation to the audience included the statement, “We’ve tried your form of Democracy in Africa for 500 years; now it’s time we tried ours.”
The David Grisman Sextet — Sunday afternoon, Porch Stage By now, you know what to expect from David Grisman: a raggedy T-shirt, a cap that says “Mandolin Café” and consummate picking. The 66-year old Dawg music pioneer sat on Floyd’s improvised porch stage early Sunday afternoon surrounded by 300 people in extra-close proximity and fielded questions, mixed bluegrass, samba, swing, and old-time into his 45 minutes, and lent some insight into the music he digs. “I listen to good music. Django, Mozart, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley…,” as he rattled off name after name. “You know, good music.”