A fan’s guide to cooking up a stellar Festy Experience

Turn off, tune up, and drop in to the three-day Festy Experience in Nelson County. Photo: Tom Daly. Turn off, tune up, and drop in to the three-day Festy Experience in Nelson County. Photo: Tom Daly.

It’s all about your approach. Literally. Wherever it is you may be coming from, once you hit Highway 151, master your anticipation. Ease off the gas, let the windows down, huff you some of that crisp mountain air, and scope the vibe.

Check the backdrop. The rolling Blue Ridge is vibrant green, idyllic, a tree line that sings. The mesmerizing quietude is a potentiate of ancient energy. Take it all in. Open yourself to it. Realize this is the sound that underlies and inspires the music you will be dancing your ass off to for the next few days and nights. That’s The Festy Experience.

The site of The Festy Experience is one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous backdrops I’ve ever seen. Last year, on the opening Friday night, ’round about sunset, I found myself parked in front of the main stage, taking it all in. The brewery looked so inviting, so lodge-like. The stage had a rough-hewn feel, like an erector set. The vending booths exuded a carnival-esque glow. And overhead the sun disappeared slowly behind a ring of mountains, saluting the rising moon. Stars needled through the sky, all of it backed by a soundtrack of shit-kicking, progressive bluegrass.

Which brings us to our next point: the music. Like it’s highly esteemed curators, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Festy Experience’s roots lie in the old school, downhome dynamic of a traditional bluegrass jam. The event seeks to showcase the most forward looking, avant garde innovators of the genre. Which is to say: here you can experience some serious vanguard mojo; jazz is in the air. While every band gracing the ticket is well worth an evening’s drive, three groups in particular set my neck hair to prickling.

The always thrilling, envelope-pummeling hosts, The Infamous Stringdusters, have just finished recording the highly ambitious live/studio deluxe album, Silver Sky (to be released Oct. 16), and are playing the festival after pouring so much time and effort into conceiving it. They also happen to be one of the most consistently smoking bands I’ve seen.

Stated bluntly, Larry Keel is the greatest flatpicker alive. When it comes to innovation, the man is bending, deconstructing, revamping, and absolutely reimagining every last preconceived limitation of the form. Performing alongside his wife, bassist Jenny Keel, and Keller Williams—the prankster-prince of the jam scene— Keel is bound to be quirky, intriguing, and nothing short of thrilling. Remember, Keel is fresh off a stint of guitar-slinging with the Yonder Mountain String Band. And, coupling this with Mr. Williams’—not to mention the scene-at-large’s—propensity toward spontaneous collaborations, we can, quite reasonably, expect some breed of mind-bending sit-in. Leftover Salmon is a freaking legend; statesmen of the jam-grass revolution. If you miss this band you are making a grave, potentially unforgivable mistake.

Underlying all of this is the festival’s devotion to a healthy, community oriented vibe with a 5K foot-race and a mountain bike challenge—featuring trails that Travis Book, bassist for The Infamous Stringdusters, helped to cut and maintain himself—a rock-climbing wall, and morning yoga sessions.

Last, and perhaps most important to consider, there are the people. Festivals as eccentrically niched as this one attract a milieu of genuinely marvelous, diverse, and interesting characters. Add to this campground fires, the all-inclusive, extended family-esque ambience, and your late night wanderings will be rewarding: campfire jam ses-
sions abound; big-name musicians are always unexpectedly dropping in. Who knows the magic you may venture onto.   —Eric J. Wallace

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The Festy Experience/Concert Ground at Devils Backbone Brewing Company/October 5-7


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