Various Artists - Grassroots Stages

Filmmaker Michael O’Connell has crafted a touching and heartfelt portrayal of the music and people behind the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, NY. The annual non-profit four-day festival has been raising money for the fight against AIDS for 15 years, and recently expanded to create the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in Silk Hope, NC. Not just a concert film, O’Connell concentrates heavily on the people behind the music, including extensive interviews with festival organizers Jordan and Jeb Puryear among others. Jeb is one of the lead singers and guitarists for Donna the Buffalo, making them the quasi-host band of the festival.
Performances are frequently cut up with interview snippets, letting the energy of the volunteers carry over onto the vibe of the music. Also featured is extensive coverage of the mayhem of the festival grounds, from healing arts tents and face painters to dancing revelers and office workers. The festival is run almost entirely by volunteers, and the film focuses heavily on their involvement and outlook. A natural extension of nearby Ithaca's progressive mindset, the GrassRoots staff is an optimistic group working tirelessly to create a clear sense of community for the weekend.

The first concert clip on the dvd features nouveau zydeco accordionist Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band performing "Dr. Jim." The GrassRoots Festival is famous for its all-night zydeco dance parties, but this clip shows Frank laying down his thick Louisiana funk in the rarely seen daylight hours. The crowd dances and spins to the washboard wailings and accordion acrobatics. The dark country funk and progressive trancegrass of the Horse Flies follows with "Three Shoes (at the Bottom of the Sea)." Jeb Puryear perfectly sums up their singular groove with his meditations on old-time music in general: "It has the ability to create a hypnotic revolution in your psyche when it really gets going."

Jeb's band Donna the Buffalo is up next with the chunky changes of "Positive Friction." The lyrics encapsulate the energy, fitting to perfection the intention of the creation: "Yes there's a certain vibe that's circulating in the air / Cast from all the energy that emanates from everywhere / Ah, such a lovely truth beginning to unfold / It's our brothers and sisters all coming in from the cold." The South Carolina soulgroove of The Flying Clouds follows with their gospel-tinged rendition of "Old Cotton Fields." The distant downcast drama of Jennie Stearns Band's "Seasons of Dreams" is followed by the mesmerizing African rhythms of Samite's "Soroti Boys Song."

John Specker's fiery fiddle solo stomp through Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" leads to Keith Frank's interminably funky "Buck Bayou." Keith's sister Jennifer Frank unleashes a science fiction bass solo over the top, launching the zydeco mothership straight into outer space. The mood settles down again with the slow churning of Jennie Stearns Band's "Get Around Behind." This time the vocals are handled by her husband Richie Stearns, who also plays banjo with the Horse Flies among other musical adventures. Donna the Buffalo invite a group of little kids onstage to dance around during the weightless loping bounce of "Two Feet Tall" before the Horse Flies return with the piercing dirge "Sally Ann." The dvd wraps up with the slow, shuffling lament of Donna the Buffalo's "Seems to Want to Hurt This Time," an uncharacteristically sad yet poignant tune.

The lyrics from Donna the Buffalo's "Positive Friction" seem to best reflect the hearts and minds of the organizers and volunteers of the festival: "There's a family growing / I've seen it with my own two eyes / There's something that we're all knowing / I hope it's spreading like a wild fire / Back to a place one might call home." And for those of you watching on dvd, there's these further words to take to heart: "We have our own heroes / They're dancing in the living room."

-- Paul Kerr