There's a special moment that happens at only the best music festivals, a point where the "real" world finally fades away, receding into memory like a movie seen long ago. When the music, vibes, smiles, blue sky and green grass utterly overwhelms you, and life becomes a simple joy of frolicking with friends in the fields and dancing under the moon. Happiness in its purest form. Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival makes this life-affirming dream a reality.
The 11th annual Rooster Walk, named after two childhood friends of the founders who passed on to the great gig in the sky, took place over Memorial Day weekend amid the sunny skies, shimmering lakes and rolling hills of southern Virginia. Six stages of top-notch rock and bluegrass acts lit up the countryside for four days of awe-inspiring music, special guest stars and unexpected cover songs. With tons of room to dance, long two-hour headlining sets, short lines for everything, and easy access to the front row, it's truly a music lovers' paradise.
The festivities started Thursday night with a headlining set by the joyful psychedelic country rockers Yarn, who returned on Sunday for a riotous full-throttled tribute to Van Morrison, complete with a powerful horn section and the velvety vocals of guest singer Lizzy Ross. Friday got rolling with an electrifying set by C2 & the Brothers Reed which was wonderfully juxtaposed by the mind-bending bluegrass of South Hill Banks. The indie duo Shovels & Rope followed with an explosion of energy that many fans marked as the highlight of their weekend, filtering blues, country and more into their rock solid singular sound.
Big Something's set featured three guest guitarists including artist-at-large Roosevelt Collier, but it was the teenaged Isaac Hadden who brought the biggest cheers and the widest eyes from the crowd. Settling perfectly into the thickest of grooves, his raw talent and exquisite taste left no doubt that the world will soon be learning his name and dancing to his muse. Turkuaz brought their trademarked, multi-colored funk onslaught to close out the main stage with a dance party of epic proportions, setting the highest of bars for any band seeking to make the audience move and scream. As the clock ticked long past midnight, the dynamic and melodic Fireside Collective set up in the field for a late night set of heart-warming, foot-burning bluegrass that kept the crowd carousing far into the evening hours.
Though easy to be entranced by the endlessly magical music, Rooster Walk also features a huge roster of other fun activities to complement your weekend. Disc golf, hiking trails, slacklines, healing arts, and shuttles to nearby canoe and kayak outings are all available. Kids are an important focus of the event, with not only their own stage but a slip 'n slide, drum circles, lawn games and more, all dedicated to the budding festivarians among us. Rooster Walk also plays a big role in the local community, with scholarship awards and a musical instrument program confirming their commitment to enriching the lives of their neighbors through music and art.
Saturday's lineup launched with the sunny afternoon Americana bluegrass stylings of The Steel Wheels. The frenzied lap and pedal steel detonations of the Roosevelt Collier Band followed, featuring guitar wunderkind Marcus King sitting in for an over-the-top outburst of stringed delight before Marcus' own band ripped the crowd into little pieces and reassembled them in his own musical vision. A brief rain delay was the only weather hiccup of the weekend, and the set time was lengthened to accommodate all the notes that needed to be played.
The Saturday main stage headliner was Galactic, whose bottomless New Orleans funk covered the crowd in a hypnotic haze and left no toe untapped. Ghost Light and Runaway Gin both played midnight sets filled with soaring guitars and kinetic keyboards, insuring that Saturday night spirits remained high and mighty. Deep into the evening, renowned drummer Jeff Sipe's new band State Birds assembled on the grassy hilltop high above the lake to serenade the swooning, smiling fans with jamtastic jazz fusion and massive instrumental eruptions.
Sunday saw a festival field filled with new friends sharing recent musical revelations, and a bubbling energy in the air about the headlining set to come. But first there was a full day of sonic delights to be had, highlighted by the astounding bluegrass extravaganza of guitar prodigy Billy Strings and the old-time bluegrass celebration of Steep Canyon Rangers. Then it was time for the unique and highly anticipated pairing of King & Strings, featuring Marcus King and Billy Strings in just their second ever performance together, the first having happened a year ago at Rooster Walk after organizers dreamed up the combo that made the musical world shudder with delight.
With a huge band backing them up, they tore through a two-hour spectacular, covering everything from George Gershwin's "Summertime" to Neil Young's "Down by the River" to Pink Floyd's "Breathe." With such an impressive collection of talent on stage, the entire world of music was at their fingertips, with the possibilities limited only by their imagination. The Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" led into Son Seals' "Funky Bitch", the eternal crowd-pleaser "Iko Iko", and finally the soul jazz classic "Compared to What" to wrap up the festival. Rooster Walk is truly a special festival, a coalescing of the elements that make music festivals a slice of heaven on earth - a place to hear new sounds, dance new steps, and meet new loves under the moonlit stars.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Jerry Friend