The 19th annual FloydFest took place on the last week in July in the gorgeous rolling high country hills of southwest Virginia. Blue skies and a shining sun greeted the first ever totally sold out FloydFest with perfect summer weather and not a raindrop in sight. With a theme of "Voyage Home", there was something for everyone as over 80 acts converged on 8 stages in a wild variety of styles and flavors.
The festivities kicked off on Wednesday, with several stages open to welcome the early arrivals. Festival wunderkinds Travers Brothership sailed forth with their first of five sets, the most of any band. Their thrilling funky soul throwdown was the ideal launching pad for the fun to come, tearing loose into meaty jams with solid hooks and endless bursts of energy.
Thursday saw the percussive blitz of Afro-Cuban surf rock act Chupacabras light up the lovely afternoon, while Songs from the Road Band dug deep into a tight and celebratory blast of bluegrass might. Indie folk-rock singer/songwriter Becca Mancari threw down on the main stage before a huge crowd gathered for the all-embracing Americana pop sound of Brandi Carlile. As the sun set, The Motet mowed down everything in their path, with a monstrous detonation of dancefloor funk and shatterproof grooves.
For many big grinners of the tie-dyed variety, the highlight of the whole festival appeared next, as Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band rolled in on a tidal wave of applause and didn't let up until fireworks lit up the sky. With some rare songs and imaginative arrangements, Phil's son Grahame and five others joined the Grateful Dead bassist for a lovingly reverent tour through their classic songbook. "Casey Jones" featured them taking heed of the "watch your speed" line, revving up and up with an ever-increasing tempo as the energy cranked higher and higher and the whole band threatened to careen off the tracks.
A rare combo of "New Potato Caboose," and "Cream Puff War" took the crowd back to the earliest days of the Dead's recorded repertoire, while "Terrapin Station" saw everyone sing along to the sounds of crickets and cicadas under the starry skies. The set wrapped up with a rousing "Shakedown Street" with a bit of Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" thrown in, before capping things off with an encore of the timeless pop culture summertime singalong "U.S. Blues."
A great element of FloydFest is the physical layout of the stages, which are arranged in a long strip with the massive Dreaming Creek Main Stage on one end and the rustic down-home vibes of the Workshop Porch on the other. While aiming for their next act, fans can't help but find themselves walking past other stages, constantly diverted from their plans into new and unexpected discoveries. "Who is this band?!" was a phrase heard countless times, and it never gets old watching someone uncover an unknown treasure.
Friday's highlights included the astonishingly inventive Jon Stickley Trio, who are forging new ground with their fearless arrangements and jaw-dropping instrumental prowess that skips across bluegrass, folk, jazz and more like a stone across the water. A colossal performance from potent bluegrass rockers Acoustic Syndicate led into evening peaks including the laid back soulful pop of The War and Treaty and the visionary funky blues of Fantastic Negrito. A juiced-up electric set from Hot Tuna, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary, made clear they're having as much fun on stage as ever. The country-tinged Americana of Tyler Childers drew a huge crowd before a stunning late night spectacle by Leftover Salmon, whose self-described "polyethnic Cajun slamgrass" knocked everyone into a new timezone.
Five days is a long time for a music festival, and those enjoying the entire enterprise have a look by the end like they've survived a military campaign of fun. Fortunately there are lots of other activities to give your muscles a workout and your eardrums a rest, including trails for hiking, running and biking, zip lines, slack lines, an 18-hole disc golf course, and even a cage to practice axe throwing. Those seeking to cool down with a happy splash can grab a shuttle bus to nearby kayaking, canoeing & tubing adventures on the Little River.
Saturday was stuffed full of amazing music, starting with a solo set by festival stalwart Keller Williams and his merry band of loop machines. A veritable onslaught of funk washed over the field as the supergroup New Orleans Suspects tore through the afternoon, featuring members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Neville Brothers, James Brown's band and more joining together for a joyous explosion of musical talent. The psychedelic country rockers Yarn played multiple crowd-pleasing sets throughout the festival, digging deep into their own brand of rootsy charm.
The String Cheese Incident formed more than a quarter century ago and have transformed themselves over the years in ways that most bands simply can't conceive of. Always genre-hopping leapfroggers, they now embody and embrace such a huge range of styles and forms that it sounds like a radio dial hooked up to a random number generator. They closed out their summer tour with innovative and otherworldly next-generation electro funk and bluegrass breakdowns which included Leftover Salmon jumping on stage for "High on a Mountain Top" and "Reach" and Keller Williams sitting in for hiw own "Best Feeling" with Bob Marley's "Exodus" sandwiched in the middle.
Saturday's fun past the witching hour included the chunky Caribbean funk of The Saturators, a soaring set from String Cheese keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, and an all-star studded Buffalo Mountain Jam featuring Keller Williams leading a laughing elastic band through an endearing inventory of beloved tunes. Covering everything from the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac to Talking Heads, the huge crowd on stage was a bona fide family reunion of musical compadres singing celebrations to the stars and swaying to the sounds of sonic kinship.
The last day of a festival is always bittersweet, as jubilant memories of the past few days and anticipation of the remaining fun mix with the specter of Reality Camp looming in the distance. Quickly diverting your eyes from those folding up their tents only delays the inevitable. Yet these days also add a new layer of gratitude that moments like these were possible to share, and that the future hopefully holds many more to come. Sunday's high water marks included clever country-pop songbird Kacey Musgraves, the retro-throwback country sounds of singer/songwriter Margo Price, and an Allman Brothers tribute by acoustic powerhouse Mountain Heart.
The final big show of the festival saw Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real bring the whole thing together with their diverse roots-rock extravaganza touching on a huge variety of genres and moods. Bursting at the seams with raw talent, they're one of the biggest breakout fan favorites of the past few years, and once again their performance left no pair of ears unfulfilled. Those still standing had one last chance to dance away their cares with the ecstatic deep funk of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe wrapping up the whole shebang. With weather better than anyone could expect, an arsenal of amazing bands, and an endless supply of smiles and good vibes, old friends and new memories converged into a euphoric pinnacle: a voyage home indeed.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Jerry Friend