As Thursday night melted into Friday morning at Floyd-Fest’s Hill Holler stage last week, a dream had become real for John McBroom.
The Deadhead owner of FloydFest got to see and hear one of his idols, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, playing at his festival. Lesh and his Terrapin Family Band’s set capped a day in which festival organizers announced that all four days of the July 24-July 28 event had sold out. That’s an estimated 15,000 patrons each day, said McBroom, in his first full year as full owner of the musical circus.
He is the new owner, but McBroom is far from a Floyd-Fest newbie. He invested money in it during its first two years. In the years that followed, he would run the Streamline Hill Holler Stage, become production manager for the full festival, and spend last year as its chief financial officer. He bought out most of FloydFest creative director and co-founder Kris Hodges’ end of it prior to this year’s run. Hodges remains as creative director.
That’s not to mention McBroom’s on-site performances. His newgrass band, Blue Mule, has played 15 FloydFests. In recent years, other McBroom-affiliated bands, the rock-leaning GOTE and appropriately named M.C. Broom and the Jam, have played and built audiences. He frequently performs duo-style with his old friend and FloydFest partner, Hodges.
“I may have more experience than anyone at seeing this festival from every potential angle,” he said.
He put his back into it, as well. In a Thursday phone call, McBroom remembered building the decks of the Hill Holler stage, some 15 years ago, with his friend Patrick Halpern. As they sweated, they dreamed out loud. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was dead, but Phil Lesh was still alive. McBroom, who plays both guitar and bass, pined to see Lesh on the stage he was building.
After the set, 15 years later, he got to meet his hero.
“It was so good to give thanks, and to get thanks,” McBroom said. “He said, ‘Thanks for keeping the music alive.’”
Lesh’s July 25 performance showed that he is still fully in control of his idiosyncratic bass guitar style. That and 2019 triple-Grammy Award-winner Brandi Carlile’s electrifying Dreaming Creek Main Stage show — which preceded the Terrapins’ — were just the beginning of highlights in a long weekend that included relentlessly moderate temperatures and sunny weather.
Soul-slinging hot-singers The War & Treaty, Grammy-winning, hyper-edgy, modern bluesman Fantastic Negrito and outlaw country rising star Tyler Childers were among July 26 highlights. Jam-band festival favorite String Cheese Incident played its first FloydFest, doing two sets at the Main Stage on July 27. And fest-closing Sunday featured neo-honky-tonking Margo Price and yet another 2019 Grammy winner, Kacey Musgraves, on the main stage, with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real shutting down the Hill Holler stage.
Nelson, a son of Willie Nelson and a central figure in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” remake, with Lady Gaga, writes some great songs. His “Find Yourself,” featuring harmony vocals from the aforementioned Price, was one of the best originals to blast from the Hill Holler speakers. But his cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” was not only a FloydFest highlight, but probably the best, most layer-revealing version that this reporter ever heard.
Video will not quite do it justice, but here is a really good one anyway, via youtu.be/LR4f1wDul0c. Having been Young’s backing band of late, Nelson and his band of play-for-the-song aces seem to have soaked up some of the great man’s juju.
Other musical highlights, including some with Southwest Virginia ties, went nationwide this week, when Rolling Stone online released a list of the “10 Best Things We Saw.” Along with national stars Price, The War & Treaty and Childers, the article name-checked Erin Lunsford and Josh Shilling.
Stone’s Garret K. Woodward wrote of the Allman Brothers tribute set that Henry County native Shilling and his band, prog-grassers Mountain Heart, rolled out on Sunday: “Arguably one of the finest pickers in Nashville, guitarist Seth Taylor stretched out during ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Midnight Rider,’ with keyboardist Josh Shilling (on the Hammond B3 organ) channeling his inner Gregg Allman for a rollicking ‘Dreams.’”
Lunsford, a near-perennial in recent years at the fest, turned in great sets with her band, The Wildfire, on multiple stages — as usual — but Woodward caught her during the annual Buffalo Mountain Jam, late Saturday/early Sunday at Hill Holler: “The jam reached its peak when Erin Lunsford (of Erin & the Wildfire) howled into the heavens during ‘Country Roads’ and Caitlin Krisko (the Broadcast) soared on a riveting version of ‘The Letter.’”
As FloydFest 19 Voyage Home launched with a move-in day on July 24, it was clear that more media was on-site than ever before, both from national and regional publications and freelancers working for the festival itself. If reporters could (kind of) get away with calling it a “best-kept secret” in years past, the quick sell-out and glowing attention from the nation’s top mainstream music publication showed that it is anything but a secret.
Much credit for that goes to the ongoing work that Hodges does every year, booking the music. It was always his main job, but as a co-owner he had to keep an eye on other aspects of the event, as well. Now, still holding a 15-percent stake in FloydFest, he’s free to do what he does best — build a wildly diverse musical lineup that draws a wide diversity of music lovers.
“Kris is still listening to all these crazy stations, asking, ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ ” McBroom said.
That is great news for festival-goers from Southwest Virginia — and far beyond.