“Voyage Home” was the theme and caption of FloydFest 2019, and it encapsulated the sentiment of those who have been attending the festival for the past twenty years. Strangely enough, it was also befitting to those who were attending the Virginia music festival for the first time, as they too found their home at the weekend event.
Located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway in western Virginia, the five days of music easily exceeded all expectations. This was the first year that all ticketing options were sold out which means that the secret may be out–FloydFest is a top tier festival that should be ranked among the country’s best.
A wide range of music can be heard at FloydFest, ranging from Americana, bluegrass, rock, and country, in addition to lesser-known styles such as Romani-punk, neo-psychedelia, and circus music. Of course, there were plenty of artists who fall under the all-encompassing moniker of “jam bands.” Make no mistake about it, if you are a jam band fan, this is a festival for you.
This year, perhaps more than any other, heard plenty of Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir/John Barlow songs from the Grateful Dead catalog to fill the air. Local Virginia musicians formed The Dead Reckoning, and they opened the festival on Wednesday night with great aplomb. Another group boringly named, The Jam, offered up Dead tunes with plenty of improvisation. Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass featuring Charlottesville-based string band Love Canon played what can be considered the perfect Sunday afternoon set, as one of their performance highlights included a mash-up of “They Love Each Other” with “Cumberland Blues”. Keller made the two very different tempos of the Dead tunes merge together rather flawlessly as if they should have been the same song all along. Love Canon also made sure to play their recently-recorded bluegrass/reggae version of “Touch of Grey”.
As a Deadhead, the crowning jewel of this year’s lineup was Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band. Lesh played Thursday night and gave it his all for the entirety of his two-hour set. The founding member of the Grateful Dead brought it back to the 1960s with early Dead cuts including “Truckin’”, “New Potato Caboose”, and “Till the Morning Comes” in the first half of the set. “Brokedown Palace” was played in the middle of the set, making for a pleasant surprise to hear rather than its usual encore performance. Fireworks lit up the sky before than band wrapped up their set, but not before Lesh donned an extravagant top hat designed with a “Steal Your Face” logo which someone from the front rows had given him. With a big smile sporting his new headgear, Lesh and the band proceeded to finish their set with “U.S. Blues”, and Grateful Dead fans rejoiced.
FloydFest staple Leftover Salmon played two sets across the weekend. Their late-night performance on Friday was filled with energy and blazing jamgrass tunes that had everybody moving. Their following afternoon set on Saturday was certainly more mellow and heard the band play a mix of songs from their latest album, Something Higher. Those two scheduled sets weren’t the only ones which members of Leftover Salmon participated in. A new FloydFest tradition has developed over the last three years known as, the Buffalo Mountain Jam.
Gregg Allman was a headliner of the festival in 2016 but the day before he was scheduled to play he had to be hospitalized and thus his set was canceled. Many musicians, led by Leftover Salmon, decided to step in for Gregg by assembling an all-star cast of musicians to headline, and thus the Buffalo Mountain Jam was born. This was their fourth year, and they just seem to be getting better and better. In addition to members of Leftover Salmon, this year’s Buffalo Mountain Jam also welcomed Keller Williams, Trout Steak Revival, Keith Moseley, vocalists Caitlin Krisko, Eric Lunsford, and Nora Jane Struthers, along with many others who hopped onstage even if just for one song. Keller Williams was the unofficial leader of this ensemble, and it was fun to see him direct all the participating musicians. From nonchalantly yelling “E minor, D major 7” and other chord progressions, to taking the microphone in between songs, Williams captained this Buffalo show impeccably. He made sure to mention the Jeff Austin at least twice, making sure to honor the legacy of the late bluegrass/folk musician.
The Saturday headliner was The String Cheese Incident. After a fun recent run at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and having played two nights at The Peach Music Festival in nearby Pennsylvania, one had to wonder if the band could keep the momentum going for their FloydFest appearance, which also acted as the last scheduled incident until late September. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. SCI opened their set with an old school one-two punch of “Round the Wheel” and “Missin’ Me”. As one could surmise from the Buffalo Mountain jam, collaborations abound at FloydFest, and this was no different for this String Cheese set. The band closed the set by inviting up their fellow Coloradans Leftover Salmon to play “High on a Mountain Top” and “Reach”. To open the second set, the band brought up Keller Williams to do his original “Best Felling” with Bob Marley’s “Exodus” sandwiched in between. Cheese rocked until the last minute of their allotted time slot. When 11:00 arrived they exited the stage, only to be brought back by the raucous crowd cheering and hooting and hollering for more. Even guitar player Michael Kang said, “The organizers were gracious enough to let us come back up here for one more even though our time is up.” That doesn’t happen too often at festivals, which are usually held to strict set times that need to be followed. So the band played a ripping rendition of “Colorado Bluebird Sky”. By the end, Billy Nershi changed the lyrics to “Floyd Virginia Bluebird Sky.” The crowd started singing along, and soon the band faded out, leaving the crowd singing as Jason Hann maintained the rhythm with one hand holding the drum stick and keeping the beat, the other held a cell phone to record the crowd singing along.
FloydFest had so much more good music over the span of the five days. The Motet brought their funk, old rockers Hot Tuna played both an acoustic and an electric set. The War and Treaty displayed showmanship that excited the crowds. Lukas Nelson demonstrated that he has music running through his veins. Much like his father, he knows how to entertain a crowd. Perhaps the most unique band this writer witnessed was Bella’s Bartok. Words cannot describe them, but suffice it to say they are not to be missed.
Even with all the music, there was still plenty of other activities going on around the festival to keep on entertained between performances. Hiking, biking, jogging (yes, jogging–a 5k is held on Sunday morning), kayaking, tubing, disc golf, arts, etc. The list goes on and on. This festival has it all, and most importantly, good vibes were felt around every corner. Everyone was having a great time. Some of the negative aspects of the festival scene were conspicuously absent from the affair. All in all, FloydFest 19 was a success to the utmost superlative degree. Don’t miss it next year!
Scroll down for a gallery of photos from this year’s FloydFest courtesy of photography Daniel Ojeda.