Roanoke Times music reporter Tad Dickens and photographer Emilee Chinn bring you live updates from the five days of FloydFest 2019 Voyage Home.
'Tiny Bus Concert' provides 'amazing acoustic space' at Floydfest
Live music fans who dig the internet have heard of such programs as “Jam in the Van” and “Tiny Desk Concert.” A small group of folks at FloydFest, working this weekend to record and produce live music videos in a converted school bus, are jokingly calling their program the “Tiny Bus Concert.”
Every act in FloydFest’s “On the Rise” contest roster will have done a live performance by Sunday in the 2002 Thomas Built vehicle. At least one special guest act — Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, also known as Hot Tuna — took seats on the bus to lay down a couple of acoustic blues songs on Friday afternoon.
The frequent FloydFest performers, inducted into the Rock Hall as part of Jefferson Airplane, were impressed with the experience.
“We were just talking about this little thing we did on the bus right now, what a really amazing acoustic space it was,” Kaukonen said. “You go inside a metal bus, and you think it’s gonna suck. But it didn’t. So our experiences here have always been extremely positive.”
This experience started with Sam Calhoun, FloydFest’s chief operating officer. He bought what had been an auxiliary use school bus in Baltimore. He had Roanoke artist David Rakes give it an exterior paint job reminiscent of the bus on the TV show “The Partridge Family.” Then Calhoun and some friends renovated the interior.
“I kind of had the idea in the same ilk as ‘Jam in the Van’ and ‘NPR Tiny Desk Concert,’ ” Calhoun said. “I think it’s kind of cool to have archived footage of what we’ve done here.”
To make video recordings happen, Calhoun went to longtime FloydFest partners Press Press Merch, which sponsors the bus, and to Peluso Microphone Lab, which is a sponsor for the On the Rise contest. Peluso’s Chris Newitt said that the company was happy to provide microphones, and suggested upstate New York-based Beehive Productions, which uses Peluso gear in its work, to record and produce the videos.
“Our specialty is the anti-studio,” Beehive’s Jeff Oehler said after the Hot Tuna session. “We travel around and we’ll pop up in a bus, a warehouse, a rental house, an alley. We did one recently on an upper deck of a ferry in New York City. We like to run around and do crazy things with cool mics.”
During the Hot Tuna session, music from other stages was blasting into ears outside the bus. You won’t hear it on the video, when it comes out on FloydFest social media channels after the festival — even though some bus windows and its door were open, Newitt said.
“We just listened to it, and it sounds real good,” he said. “I was afraid there would be a lot of bleed through from the other stages we’re hearing, but the environment in the bus, and the proximity of the mics to the instruments and the performers, was pretty bulletproof.”
It should work out well for the “On the Rise” acts competing in FloydFest’s annual patron-voted contest, as well, Newitt said.
“You give them an opportunity to get a lot more visibility through the videos we can produce,” he said. “Then all the patrons, when they go home and are longing for more FloydFest, they’re going to get to tune in and see these artists perform and really shine. We’re excited for the On the Rise guys.”
Images from Thursday, the first big day of music on the mountaintop at the annual FloydFest gathering
String Cheese Incident, celebrating 25 years, to headline FloydFest with two sets
The rare band gets through a long history with all of its original members still onstage. For Colorado jamband The String Cheese Incident, that’s the case through 25 years. String Cheese, instead of replacing members, has simply added a couple.
The band’s willingness to grow and change musically has made it one of the country’s premier jam acts. Its standing through a quarter century is such that it is still capable of doing a three-day run at its home state’s national treasure, Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The band will headline FloydFest for the first time, and in a first for the festival, String Cheese Incident will play two sets — one an hour long, and the other 90 minutes, at the festival’s main stage.
It will be SCI’s FloydFest debut, but not the first time that band members have been there. In 2009, guitarist Billy Nershi was part of the Emmitt-Nershi Band; fiddler/mandolinist Michael Kang was there with Panjea; and drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann performed as EOTO. Only keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth missed the fest that year.
Band co-founder Nershi said he looks forward to returning with String Cheese, particularly since Floyd-Fest delivers a different set of genres than most festivals the band plays.
“A lot of the big festivals that we do kind of go toward the electronic side, and what I remember about FloydFest is that it’s a little more rootsy,” Nershi said. “There’s more bluegrass, and it feels like you’re playing in the South. The style of music that you’re going to hear down there is gonna be more acoustic, more Southern rock, more bluegrass.
“For me, I love it, because it opens up the door to a lot of the kinds of music that I like to play with String Cheese, to do a set that’s a little more geared to that style.”
Not that The String Cheese Incident is, or ever really was, a bluegrass band, despite what some loose histories recount.
“People always would say that we were a bluegrass band, but I think that was more because of the instrumentation,” Nershi said last week from his home in Denver.
“There was a bit of bluegrass being played, but it was always kind of like newgrass, [David] Grisman kind of stuff. Even back then, we would do some Afrobeat and Latin music. I think it’s easy to just lump it up and say it’s bluegrass, because I was playing acoustic guitar and Mike was playing mandolin and fiddle.”
With an expanded lineup — Hollingsworth came on in the mid-1990s, and Hann joined in 2004 — the sonic palette has grown, Nershi said.
“Kyle has a jazz background, as far as he went to school for jazz piano,” Nershi said. “He’s got a certain style that goes beyond jazz — funk, Latin, and now more of these kind of rock anthem tunes he’s been writing. So his presence has definitely changed us from the very early days, with the bluegrass/newgrass stuff that we were doing.”
Hollingsworth has his own act scheduled for a FloydFest set (see accompanying story).
“Jason brings his own talents on percussion, and he has a real good knowledge of a lot of different styles of music, particularly African,” Nershi said. “His djembe playing is probably his greatest skill, I would say. He and [Michael] Travis have been doing their EOTO thing, which is electronic. Jason has been programming drum tracks with the band. We started doing some electronic music soon after he joined the band.”
SCI has released three singles recently, covering much stylistic ground.
The most recent, “All We Got,” has disco, electronic and Afrobeat vibes. “Bhangra Saanj,” which preceded it, features the band Beats Antique and mines Indian classical music. The first of them, “I Want You,” features Dobro man Andy Hall of Infamous Stringdusters. Nershi wrote “I Want You,” a country-rock number that summons up feelings from the 1970s.
“We bought a studio together out here in Colorado that we’ve been rehearsing at, recording at, and also serves as a place to keep our gear,” Nershi said. “Everything’s under one roof. We made a commitment to each other to do a lot of writing and recording together, so that things don’t get stale for us or for the fans.
“I think with bringing material in and writing material and ideas in general, we’ve stayed pretty open to try out different things and not be inclined to say no too quickly to any idea. That’s why we play so many different styles of music in the course of a night, and our recording has been the same way.”
FloydFest 19 Voyage Home begins on Wednesday; here is our guide
The last full weekend of July is approaching, and with it, another version of FloydFest.
This one features two Saturday night, main stage sets from The String Cheese Incident at the top of the bill (see centerpiece story). Other high-profile acts include Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, leading his Terrapin Family Band; recent Grammy Award winners Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile; up-and-coming country music singer/songwriter Tyler Childers; bluegrass fusionists Leftover Salmon; and roots music darlings Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito and Lukas Nelson.
That’s just the top of a bill that features 58 acts covering a wide range of genres. Twelve others are competing in the On the Rise fan-voted contest. Sixteen others will perform at the Children’s Universe section of the event.
It’s like an amusement park or fair, except with live music instead of carnival-style thrill rides. There’s no way you’re going to see and hear every act on nine stages, even during FloydFest’s five days — even if you’re camping on-site and can go without much sleep.
The best one can hope for is to plan it out well enough to catch as much as possible. This reporter has done at least a dozen FloydFests and found that, no matter how much planning happens, plans will disintegrate, but that presents opportunities to be surprised by any number of other things happening at the FloydFest site.
With that in mind, here is what I am looking forward to each day. Note that the list doesn’t include the On the Rise acts, who play for free of their own accord, for the chance at prizes and exposure. I wouldn’t want to play favorites.
This is move-in day for campers, if you’re staying for the whole thing, and it’s a great day to relax and enjoy the scenery before things get busier. Nothing happens at the main stage, but the ever popular Pink Floyd Garden Stage (which was once upon a time the festival’s only beer garden) will host the top two finishers from last year’s On the Rise competition — winner Magnolia Boulevard and runner-up Travers Brothership. Other music on-site includes American Aquarium, in a VIP-only set behind the main stage.
Carlile, whose “The Joke” won the 2019 Grammy for American roots song, will close the day’s action at the Dreaming Creek Main Stage, with Lesh and his band following at the ultra-vibey Hill Holler Stage. American Aquarium is on Hill Holler earlier in the day, as is funky Colorado act The Motet. Rowdy bluegrassers Old Salt Union will be on the Pink Floyd Garden stage.
High-quality bands with Roanoke Valley ties, Erin Lunsford & The Wildfire, and My Radio, have sets at the Libations Tent. Lunsford, who has become a FloydFest perennial, has a remarkable voice.
Modern bluesman Negrito (Hill Holler), outlaw country man Childers (main stage) and gospel-leaning The War & Treaty (Hill Holler) are all spaced out enough on this night that one can catch them all, and that’s a great thing. I’ve been captivated by Childers (at last year’s FloydFest) and The War & Treaty (opening for Lauren Daigle at Berglund Performing Arts Theatre), and cannot wait to hear Negrito, whose most recent two releases each took the Grammy for contemporary blues album.
Prog-grass pioneers Acoustic Syndicate play a late afternoon main stage set. FloydFest staple Keller Williams and his daughter, Ella Williams, will perform together at the Children’s Universe Forever Young Stage, after South Carolina duo Ella & Mary. The Motet will hit again in an early Saturday set at the garden stage. Another fest staple Leftover Salmon, has a Throwdown Tent show set for the early Saturday hours, while Roanoke Grateful Dead tribute band The Dead Reckoning will be jamming into Saturday as well, from the Libations Tent.
The Ferrum College Workshop Porch, typically loaded with compelling music, stories and workshops, will host The War & Treaty at 4:30 p.m.
Twilight will be turning to night as DJ Williams’ Shots Fired plays the Hill Holler stage. Williams was a FloydFest regular in earlier years, with DJ Williams Projekt, and he has gone on to play with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (see Sunday highlights). Jazz-funk and soul deluxe.
After Williams, the fourth version of the Buffalo Mountain Jam is set for the holler, with its organizers, Keller Williams and Leftover Salmon, joined by Trout Steak Revival, which will also play that evening at the Throwdown Tent.
New Orleans Suspects are among the main stage acts preceding String Cheese’s two-set show. After String Cheese closes, its keyboardist, Kyle Hollingsworth, leads his own band in an early Sunday show at the Throwdown Tent stage.
Yarn, Nora Jane Struthers and Hot Tuna will go back to back to back at the Workshop Porch.
Henry County native Josh Shilling and his Mountain Heart mates should provide many highlights in a Hill Holler set. Jon Stickley Trio is likely to do the same in a late afternoon garden stage set. The two progressive bluegrass acts slightly overlap, with enough time to catch significant portions of both. But there was never a Saturday that didn’t end with some regrets over what was missed.
A Mountain Heart tribute to the Allman Brothers Band (Hill Holler) sets things up for honky tonker Price (main stage), Williams and his Grateful Grass lineup featuring Love Canon (Hill Holler), 2019 best album Grammy winner Musgraves (main stage), Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real (Hill Holler) and festival-closing funk shenanigans at the garden stage from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
Morgan Wade & The Stepbrothers — part of a FloydFest “Local Love” long weekend lineup that includes GOTE, The Floorboards, Dharma Bombs, Blue Mule and Solacoustix — will do two sets, in the afternoon and evening, at the Libations Tent. Not quite as high profile as the two String Cheese sets, but if you hear a powerful and high voice blasting from that tent, you should go check her out.
More images from Thursday, the first big day of music on the mountaintop at the annual FloydFest gathering
Porch performance, discussion provoke audience to think at FloydFest
On a sun-soaked, moderately warm Saturday at FloydFest, an Americana/country band called Yarn played on a stage built to resemble a country shack’s front porch.
They faced at least a hundred folks sitting and listening, with about that many more standing on the periphery. Yarn has played a few FloydFests, but the Ferrum College Workshop Porch stage was new to the group and its frontman, singer and songwriter Blake Christiana.
“This is weird,” Christiana said. “It’s like a festival with a listening room.”
And a bit more. For many years at FloydFest, the stage near the event’s entrance has been the site of moderated discussion and learning sessions. Yarn is one of dozens that have picked and sang, and answered a moderator’s questions.
Jordan Harman, director of the Music Lab at Jefferson Center, in Roanoke, has for three years been the guy asking questions into a microphone at stage right. At the music lab’s afterschool program, he teaches young people about writing songs.
Harman has been a touring musician, and he still writes and sings soul and blues songs. He performs in Southwest Virginia, including sets at this year’s FloydFest 19 Voyage Home.
Harman said that he researches the bands he interviews, and draws from his own experiences to engage with them in front of the often large live audiences that gather at the Workshop Porch.
“But a lot of it is from when the artists get here, just meeting and talking and hanging out with them,” Harman said. “Through my experiences … you get to this common place so you can ask questions and it can be a comfortable conversation between us, instead of it being just a moderator asking questions.”
Christiana said after the set that his band has been involved in a few such situations, such as the Nashville, Tennessee, show “Music City Roots” and NPR radio program “Mountain Stage,” typically recorded in Charleston, West Virginia. He said that performance-time dialogue with a host or moderator can lead him in a direction his shows might not normally take.
Yarn’s performance on Saturday of their number, “American Dream Dyin’,” is an example. The song, which he introduced to the crowd as a “bleak” one, is not one that would work at a bigger stage, where audiences want to be rocked more than provoked to think, he said.
“So it’s nice to have an afternoon to tell a story and tell a sad song,” he said. “I dig it, and Jordan led me in that direction.”
It wasn’t all bleak. After Harman suggested audience members might have questions, one of them got band members to share personal history, including what inspired bassist Rick Bugel to take up his instrument.
He said it was from watching John Paul Jones in the Led Zeppelin concert documentary, “The Song Remains the Same.” Bugel then broke into the bass part for “Whole Lotta Love,” with the band jumping in for a few bars.
Christiana, whose voice is good but wouldn’t be mistaken for Robert Plant’s, said, “I can’t sing that,” then went to falsetto for the line “you need coolin.’ ” Laughs broke out onstage and among the crowd.
Band members jokingly teased an all-Zeppelin set for their late afternoon and night sets.
Yoga starts out morning at FloydFest
Many FloydFest revelers wake up each morning at the festival looking to their apps or festival guides to find out what’s next. Many others are consulting one hangover cure or another.
On Sunday morning, at least 100 took advantage of yoga instruction.
Most of them appeared familiar with the moves, as instructor Thea Vincenti guided them with a positive tone through such poses as cat tuck and tilt. Two other women roamed the large covered space with Vincenti, whispering instruction and helping with form.
At least one participant was struggling through. Kaden Short, 11, lay still on his stomach as his mother, Myriah Davis, whispered encouragement to him, then walked back a few feet. He was on her yoga mat. His sister, 9-year-old Jordan Short, was nearby, an experienced poser.
It was Kaden’s first time trying yoga, and the first FloydFest for him and his sister. Davis came last year, and this year brought both her kids with her from their family home in Athens, Ohio.
“It’s amazing. I love it,” Davis, a regular yoga practitioner, said of the morning practice and the festival itself. “It takes [the children] out of their comfort zone. A lot of them need the experience of calmness to start their day.
“I’m going to come back every year.”
A wide range of ages worked through the second of two morning sessions at the festival’s Throwdown Tent, hearing advice from Vincenti that was applicable beyond the mat.
“Notice those catches and hesitations and stutters, and just breathe into any of those [things] you’re feeling,” she said.
About shakiness during the demanding exercises, she said: “It’s a way that the body releases deep tension. [You’ll feel] a little vulnerable, but try to stay with it.”
Onstage, a Floyd-based band called Bhakti Kulani played about 90 minutes of original music best described as folk/raga, with lyrics drawn from multiple chants including Arabic, Jewish and American Indian. The band’s dynamic was typically quiet, so as not to drown out the teacher.
Jeff Tiebout, playing guitar and singing lead and harmony vocals with the band, is the yoga sessions’ organizer. He has been in charge of it since the first FloydFest.
Tiebout, also an instructor (Vincenti was among his students), recalled that back then, he might lead a session with four people.
“And that may have included myself,” he said.
On Saturday, about 80 showed up for each of the two morning sessions, Tiebout (pronounced t-bow) said. About 50 came to each session on Sunday, the festival’s final day, when lots of customers are moving out.
“So over these years, I’ve watched it grow into what this is,” he said.
Live music has rarely been part of the early sessions, but Tiebout hopes that it will more consistently be in the mix.
Dorian Clowers, 34, of Roanoke did one of the Saturday classes and one on Sunday.
“It feels so good to check back in with your body after you’re running up and down the hills,” she said. “We’re literally parked at the bottom of this gigantic mountain, so hiking up and down is hard on your body. It feels good to just stretch it out. It’s also kind of a quiet time in a very loud environment.”
As the session wound down, Vincenti encouraged the participants to live from their hearts, with an inner smile. Yoga practice enables them to be in contact with themselves, she said, but it’s important to look outward, as well.
“You don’t know how much your kindness and your sweetness mean,” she said. “It’s powerful.”
More good advice for life beyond the mat.