I've been to a lot of music festivals, including Bonnaroo, Lockn,' New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands. I've seen incredible music at all of those, and I usually have a good time, but there's always a downside: bang-your-head-on-steering-wheel traffic bottlenecks, $15 Bud Lights, lukewarm fast food, overzealous police, hard drugs, loudmouth-drunk broheems, wookies, inadequate port-a-potties, litter, extreme heat and torrential downpours. I'm not sure how the organizers pulled it off, or if the stars were just perfectly aligned, but FloydFest 18 had none of those drawbacks. It was, hands down, the best festival I've ever attended.
Nestled high in the Virginia mountains, FloydFest has a nice layout of two larger stages for headliners, a medium-sized indoor performance tent, and a few smaller stages for on-the-rise artists that are still building their fan base. You can easily walk from one stage to another in a few minutes. Beers are only $6, and there's no Bud or Miller. It's all hand-crafted beers on tap from independent microbreweries, and there's a wide variety of them. Everyone gets a steel mug that clips on their belt, and that's your refillable beer-stein for the duration of the festival, so there's no plastic cups strewn across the grass at the end of each day.
The food is delicious and locally-sourced, offering everything from wood-fired pizza to Thai noodles, vegan dishes, grass-fed burgers, seafood and burritos, all cooked right in front of you for a reasonable price. Floydfest has a great recycling and composting program, and I saw no litter on the ground. It's also very family-friendly, with lots of play areas and activities for kids, as well as organized outdoor excursions such as mountain biking, river tubing, hiking, disc-golf tournaments and yoga classes. The weather was perfect, sunny in the day and dropping into the 60s at night. And most importantly: the staff, security, vendors, musicians and attendees were incredibly friendly, considerate, polite and upbeat. Everyone was getting their positive groove on, especially T-Rex!
With music happening on multiple stages, all day and night, it's impossible to see, much less review, all of the live performances, so I'm just going to run through some highlights. After attending an interview with Lukas Nelson on Thursday afternoon, I got to enjoy a double feature of two of my favorite bands: Gov't Mule, then Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. The surprise icing-on-the-cake was when Lukas joined Gov't Mule for a cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Right after Warren Haynes sang the line "a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand," the band immediately locked into "Machine Gun" by Jimi Hendrix (which literally sounds like a machine gun), before returning to the chorus of "Free World."
After Mule's set ended, Lukas & POTR delivered the best performance I've ever seen by them, playing their hits, but also fearlessly stretching out into intense jams, before closing with Tom Petty's "American Girl." On Friday afternoon, I was blown away by Antibalas, a Brooklyn-based ensemble that's very influenced by Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat. A mix of guitars, bass, organ, conga drums, and a great brass section, they had everyone in the crowd dancing joyously.
The closing set on Friday was Greta Van Fleet, the young Michigan band that no one had heard of before a year ago, but is now climbing the charts and getting major media exposure. The night before their FloydFest performance, Greta made their TV debut on NBC's "The Tonight Show." The Led Zeppelin influence was just as apparent live and it is on their recordings, and they delivered an impressive, high-energy set, especially for a band of kids who are barely out of high school. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Greta Van Fleet can forge their own path, and not get permanently typecast as "that band that sounds like Zeppelin"
On Saturday night, I got to see Travers Brothership on the beer garden stage, and they killed it, running through a mix of originals and choice covers such as "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Statesboro Blues," and "It's Your Thing." Led by twin brothers Kyle and Eric Travers, this Asheville, NC band is one to watch, and my pick for best "On The Rise" band of FloydFest 2018. Saturday's headliner was Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Jason is one of the best American songwriters around now, and his band is top-notch. Isbell's set ranged from full-on rock, like "Cumberland Gap" and "Never Gonna Change" to delicate acoustic ballads like "Vampires" and "Cover Me Up."
The last performance I saw was also the most fun: the "Buffalo Mountain Jam" which closed out Saturday night. A collaboration between Keller Williams, Leftover Salmon and Antibalas, the mostly-bluegrass musicians tossed out one whimsical curveball after another like Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." The Guess Who's "No Sugar Tonight," and The Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," the latter of which morphed into the Andy Griffith Show's theme song. Antibalas led the crowd through Fela Kuti's "Open and Close," with members of Leftover Salmon dancing like goofballs. It was a hilarious finale to an extremely well-run festival of great music and positive energy.
Review & Videos by Alex Marsh
Photos by Jerry Friend and Willa Stein