The devil went down to FloydFest

The devil went down to FloydFest

It’s so much easier being a hippy these days. Case in point: FloydFest, a four-day summer music festival held just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Floyd.  Instead of Woodstock’s food shortages of 40 years ago, FloydFesters face a stupefying abundance of choices: local, grass-fed burgers, tempeh reubens, Thai coconut curry and, yes, sushi. Some of the food tents at FloydFest have kitchens larger than entire New York restaurants. Indeed, in the list of modern miracles that our hi-tech world has wrought, the ability to create a small, yet fully functioning and relatively comfortable city in the middle of nowhere, hold a four-day party, and then pack it up and leave, has got to rank pretty high.

“Shop your values,” reads a sign, by which organizers seem to mean, spend money at our spiritual buffet. Photos by Ashley Twiggs.

My first impression of FloydFest was that capitalism and the counterculture had reached détente, even if cell phone reception was lacking (though there was a tent with laptops and free wi-fi). Counting food, there were easily more than 100 vendors there last weekend, not to mention an ATM. Jewelry? Check. Clothes? Double check. Farmer’s market, vintage store, coffee shop? Yes, yes, and yes. Handmade butterfly wings? Of course. “Shop your values,” reads a sign, by which organizers seem to mean, spend money at our spiritual buffet. Tarot cards, palm reading, past life regressions, crystal healing and chakra balancing were available to keep the third eye clean, while yoga, Nia, Rolfing, five kinds of massage and a climbing wall took care of the body.

When I say that people were living at FloydFest, I don’t just mean that they spent four straight days there. I mean they had their mail forwarded and set out plastic flamingos. One popular choice was to hire Dancin’ Dave to set up a deluxe campsite with “comfortable sleeping bags, cots or self-inflatable pads, coolers if needed, lantern, first aid kit, water jug, and camp chairs” all included. Rent for four days ran $230 to $450 or more (the full kitchen option). So when I say that people were living there, I mean living well. We’re talking landscaping.

But do not think for a second that FloydFest isn’t all about the music. With seven stages and 82 musical acts, music played continuously in at least three places from 10 in the morning to 3 the next day. Had I known about the aforementioned real estate options, I might have gone down for the whole shebang, but the photographer and I opted instead to get a taste of the modern festival scene by hitting one full day of FloydFest on Saturday, July 25.

American Dumpster, possibly the world’s weirdest bar band, fronted by Charlottesville welder Christian Breeden, played a midnight set on Saturday that included “Viva Las Vegas.” Photos by Ashley Twiggs.

Eleven bands from Charlottesville played this year, including William Walter, voted top emerging artist at last year’s Fest. As a result, Walter and his band got to play over three days, including the opening 11am show on Saturday on the huge main stage. It’s hard to really capture a crowd early in the morning, especially one that is just waking up and eating spiritually sweetened French toast on a luminous sunny day in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But capture them he did, his clean folk/blues/rock bursting like a bubble over a large, dancing crowd. Afterwards Linda DeVito, head of development and marketing for Across The Way Productions, the company behind FloydFest, congratulated a sweat-soaked Walter.

“Two of our VIPS said that you are the best show at FloydFest,” she said, while female fans plied Walter with gifts. “We’ve never had an 11am crowd like that before!” Having played FloydFest four times now, Walter and his band are clearly moving up in the hierarchy of returning acts. “It’s a social networking opportunity,” he says of the gig. “You get to see how the guys above you are doing.”

The theme for the eighth annual FloydFest was Revival, and it was appropriate to the headlining group, Blues Traveler. Along with Phish, Blues Traveler was an original in the ’60s revival that took place in the early 1990s, out of which came today’s jam bands. In 1992 Blues Traveler started the H.O.R.D.E. Festival (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere. Better left as an acronym, huh?), which led directly to the jam band festivals that currently litter the summer months, like the massive Bonnaroo and FloydFest—both started in 2002.

Blues Traveler is fronted by the once morbidly obese harmonica-genius John Popper (who plays that thing the way Eddie Van Halen plays guitar). After reaching a career peak in 1994 with the hit “Run-Around,” they met hard times: heart surgery, death, being dropped from their label—the usual. Blues Traveler faded from the mainstream, making last year’s album and recent headlining gigs at Lollapalooza and FloydFest seem like a revival as well. But the truth is they never stopped playing, and their tight set on the main stage Saturday night proved they are still a band to be reckoned with.

FloydFest’s musical strength is that it has stayed true to its essence, folk music, while continuing to grow bigger each year. We’re not talking folk music as in Peter, Paul and Mary, but music of the folk: worldwide grassroots and traditional music that is nonetheless rooted in Appalachia. FloydFest 2009 featured a Brazilian Gospel Choir, plenty of traditional bluegrass, and the 11-piece Latin funk orchestra, Grupo Fantasma. Standouts for me were the Byrds-inspired surf/garage rock of The Sadies, The Duhks’ Cajun-accented country/soul blend, and Rooster Blues. Part of the Emerging Artist series, Rooster Blues is a guitar/drums duo from Mississippi that veers from White Stripes-style blues to spare bluegrass songs featuring only mandolin and vocals.

Ten local acts played at Floyd, which featured many of the expected (and a few unexpected) festival sideshows. Photos by Ashley Twiggs.

Unlike Woodstock, FloydFest seemed to run like clockwork (and there were no deaths or births, as far as we know). Porta-potties, nice showers, and constant shuttles to the off-site parking spelled comfort, oh yes. The 2007 FloydFest was marred by a heavy-handed police presence, but this year there seemed to be no problems. (“It’s probably one of the best things we work,” Patrick County Sheriff’s Deputy Margie Stowe said.) But if disaster did strike, there was a first aid station staffed by nurses and doctors. Several ambulances waited nearby. “We treat just about everything here,” one of the nurses said. “It’s more than just Band-aids and tampons.”

One hundred seventy staffers and 500 volunteers ran the show over the full four days. The nerve center for the whole operation was a musty and dark trailer in the middle of the festival grounds. Inside, AJ Roller, the head of administration, manned a desk with a laptop, a fax, the only landline at the festival, and 105 constantly rotating walkie-talkies. Fun fact: The radios were under FCC jurisdiction, which meant no cussing. Friday night must have made that restriction tough, as there was a 90-minute power-outage at 8:30 that prompted much acoustic jamming.

Last year’s Fest drew 15,500 people and they were predicting 17,000 for this year. “It can be a 24-hour day,” Roller says of working the festival. For the volunteers, the fun of seeing the music for free was offset, in some cases, by some truly gross jobs. Cassidy Jarrett, a petite 16-year-old from South Carolina, spent three days from noon to 4pm on garbage duty. When I talked to her, she was standing by the trashcans in a green sundress, big sunglasses, and a rubber glove. Her task was to ensure that people put their trash in one of three receptacles: landfill, recycling or compost. Whenever someone would ignore her authority, she had to fish around in the garbage can and deposit the half-eaten veggie burrito or whatever where it belonged.

“It’s not bad,” she said. “I like organizing things. I didn’t have gloves at first. Then they gave me gloves, but they got nasty. I got this one from the first aid station.”

FloydFest is a hotbed for useless talents like juggling, devil sticks, hacky sack, Chinese yo-yo and hula-hoop. A late afternoon storm on Saturday produced a perfect rainbow, but really all of FloydFest is a rainbow, an incredible excuse for people that ordinarily wouldn’t wear costumes to do so, and for people who always wear costumes to see what it’s like to blend in. Children are everywhere. Family-friendly, FloydFest almost seems cynicism-proof, as well. I found myself using the phrase “mind-blowingly fun.”

When I first got to the festival I ran into Charlottesville’s Christian Breeden, returning for a third year with American Dumpster, his on-again-off-again musical project. Breeden had ridden down in Dirty Bird, an old Hackensaw Boys tour bus loaded with numerous rusted sculptures and welding equipment. He’d set up a full-scale metal shop and during the day gave bicycle-building lessons. This year, maybe because he got on the bill rather impromptu, he didn’t have a lot of merchandise to sell. (Most acts at FloydFest are unpaid, so merch is vital if they want to make some money.)

At the end of the night, after the slick rock show put on by Blues Traveler, I wandered down to the farthest stage to catch American Dumpster’s late-night set. Their name had been oddly left off of the schedule for that day, so the only people to see them begin to play were those who had wandered there by accident.

Under a stage shaped like a circus tent, the Dump, the world’s weirdest bar band, played messy dub-like originals and covers, Breeden doing his best Tom Waits-trapped-inside-Jim Morrison routine and the rest of the band casually reining in his chaos.

As midnight neared and things got Demerol-hazy, people began to show up to the massive fire-pit near the stage, like late arrivals to a party they weren’t invited to, and sat by the fire roasting marshmallows. The American Dumpster crowd grew and grew and really got into it, so that when they played their last song, “Viva Las Vegas,” and Breeden got everyone to do a Conga line and then bounced his guitar off the stage and said Goodbye, the crowd kept clapping and screaming. It was the first true encore I’d ever seen as the bemused band plugged back in and played one more, a raggedly beautiful version of “Folsom Prison Blues” that Johnny Cash would have loved. They were right on the edge of blowing it the whole time, but they didn’t. Instead they lent a darker passion that offset FloydFest’s carefully packaged spirituality, the rusted and anarchic heart I suddenly realized the festival had so desperately needed all along.