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.