The Festy: Not Just an Experience, but a Place to Call Home

“You sing from a different place when you sing from home,” noted singer-songwriter Nathan Moore when describing his experience as a performer at the 4th annual Festy Experience.   With the festival’s location nestled among the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this commonwealth-bred musician may have been speaking to his central-Virginia roots; but his insight reveals something much more than that.  With The Festy Experience, host-band The Infamous Stringdusters have partnered with The Artist Farm and Cerberus Productions to create what can’t be described simply as a music festival, nor generalized merely as an “experience.”  Rather, they have cultivated a space where music, community, recreation, and local culture come together to create “the place that [we all] call home.’’

Watch videographer, Matt Bobeck’s flying high perspective:

Like the Stringdusters, if one thinks of home as a place to “still [one’s] restless mind, as a place where [one] likes to spend some time” then, come Columbus Day weekend, the concert grounds at The Devils Backbone Brewing Company in Nellysford, Virginia have proven to be just that.  When three consecutive days of overcast skies and intermittent rain can’t compromise an idyllic Virginia Fall and a weekend of quality people, food, drink, and music, the boys of the Stringdusters have done something right.  They have created The Festy Experience with their fans in mind, in such that the moment one sets foot on the grounds at the Backbone, undoubtedly so, it will be “a place [one] longs to be.”

Compared to other festivals that take place throughout the course of the summer, The Festy Experience is unique in that the music isn’t the only thing that draws people in. Organizers have taken the traditional music festival model and have crafted it in a way to make The Festy a one-of-a-kind Experience, reminiscent of a relaxing weekend get-away, rather than a super-energized festival where large crowds, plastic waste and cramped camping make for much of the mainstay.  With the purchase of a weekend-camping pass, festival goers received two shower tickets that could be used at one of the several shower locations on site.  And better yet, camping passes also included a complimentary Klean Kanteen stainless steel pint, used when ordering a Stringdusters’ Ale from Devil’s Backbone or when filling up at one of the many water filling stations offered free-of-charge.  The festival’s dedication to sustainability doesn’t stop there either.  Relay Foods, a locally-based online grocery store set up the festival’s Food Tent and helped many of the local food vendors source their ingredients from near-by farms.  Recycling and compost bins were stationed throughout the festival’s grounds, and instead of waste in the landfill, the fest made an effort to build soil – a precious life source at risk of depletion in the festival’s agricultural-rich mountain valley.

While the festival didn’t officially begin until Friday, festivarians looking to secure prime camping posted up Thursday night and fared the rain for what would become one of the musical highlights of the weekend.   Returning Festy favorite and IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year, Della Mae, hosted a jam session at the Southern Stage.  Their Festy kick-off set featured many Della Mae originals, but it wasn’t until they broke into “traditional bluegrass mode” when things really got started.  The Infamous Stringdusters made their debut performance at this year’s Festy, joining the ladies of Della Mae on stage – and the weight of the ten band members together wasn’t what maxed the capacity of the stage, but rather the combined synergy and undeniable talent that fired from the heat of their strings.

Come Friday, the Stringdusters’ Andy Hall led the Opening Ceremonies on the Main Stage, and Upstate-staple Cabinet appeared at The Festy for the first time.  Tim and Nicki Bluhm made the first of several appearances scheduled to take place throughout the weekend, and Canadian outfit, New Country Rehab brought their unique spin on traditional form to the Southern Stage– blending fiddle and vocal harmonies with electric guitars and full-set percussion, and the result was surprisingly seamless.

“The Festy does a great job of representing women,” noted Aoife O’ Donovan during her set at this year’s fest, and much of the Friday line-up was a pure representation of this sentiment.  Nicki Bluhm, Della Mae, Lake Street Dive, Joy Kills Sorrow, and David Wax Museum were performing acts whose strong female backbones showcased the emergence and integrity of women heard throughout music today.

Marco Benevento kicked off the evening performances, “blending technology with raw musicality” to offer a taste of an otherwise unfamiliar sound heard in many of the other scheduled weekend performances.  Yet there is a thread that ties Marco’s ambient piano melodies to the other roots-inspired acts on the Festy bill – a uniqueness in style and a defiance that moves his music beyond set rules and traditional form.  Wearing a Tiger Head to support his newly released album, TigerFace, Marco brought an electic spin to the Friday night line-up, and as crowds headed to the Southern Stage to catch David Wax Museum’s set, conversation was buzzing over the New Jersey native who had just transformed the otherwise twangy sound of the Main Stage. Listen to Marco’s set on archive.org

As crowds gathered to camp to slug down a cold one and fill up the pack in preparation for the Stringdusters’ headlining set, there was magic happening at the Southern Stage.  Man Mountain, the best band you’ve never heard, played a reunion set – featuring Festy coordinator and Cerberus Production’s Justin Billcheck on drums.  They had an “extra old school, college extra-curricular inspired” sound, and those that stuck around grooved steadily to their set, but the volume of the sound forced most to the fire burning bright just outside the expansive, white tent.

Just as the Stringdusters know how to throw an epic weekend-long party, they are also shaping up to become one of the most loved progressive bluegrass outfits on the scene today.  They’re a band that gets better and better each time, and their hard work was extremely evident during their Friday night set.   JJ Cale’s, “After Midnight” made an appearance early on.  “The Hitchhiker” featured a “Shakedown Street” tease, but later on the set revealed the band’s staple cover of, “He’s Gone” lead by bassist, Travis Book.  Fiddle player, Jeremy Garrett, introduced “Hey You,” as the oldest Dusters tune, and the prowess of his fiddle told the story from there.  “Heady Festy” was an appropriately placed jam to bring to The Festy Experience’s opening night.  They closed the set with “No More to Leave You Behind,” with a drawn-out, haunting introduction featuring Andy Hall on dobro.  The set’s encore signified that the weekend was still young, and as folks made their way back to camp, the lingering sounds of “Keep on Truckin” came as a steady reminder. Listen to the Stringduster’s set on archive.org.

“I love all of the bonfires happening all around,” noted Nicki Bluhm when performing with the Gramblers at the Southern Stage. These bonfires made for The Festy’s  forested late night venue and as one walked through camp, double mandolin, fiddle, and washboard jams lasted well into the morning hours – featuring fans and band members alike.  At The Festy, there is a heightened sense of transparency and all barriers are broken down.  Performing bands coexist with dedicated fans, and the result is pure beauty.  The scene that is exists through this interaction creates community – a vital element to living healthfully that otherwise is left unseen at other festivals seemingly of this kind.

Campers awoke Saturday morning to the married sounds of rain pattering on the tent fly and feet pounding along the forest trails.  The Blue Ridge Burn, a 10k/5k race, kicked off early that morning and all proceeds benefited the Southern Environmental Law Center.  As much as The Festy Experience is for music lovers, it caters to the outdoor enthusiast, as well.  Festival sponsor, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, set up a climbing wall for kids and set up shop, offering under prepared attendees shelter from the steady rains via Gortex brand.   They also offered a series of outdoor workshops that took place at the festivals designated workshop stage.  Yet outdoor living skills were only a fraction of the various workshops offered at this year’s festival.  From Growing Garlic to Drumming, from Permaculture Design for Families to Hatha Yoga, beyond the music, The Festy had a little something for everyone.  “They [The Infamous Stringdusters] know who their fans are and what they’re into,” said Workshop Stage Manager and Dusters’ Sound Manager, Drew Becker.  “By having the workshop stage, we aim to draw in families and give our attendees an opportunity to experience more while at the festival.”

Pennsylvania native, Dante Bucci and his hang drum mesmerized the crowd Saturday afternoon on the Main Stage.  His performance couldn’t have been more appropriate, as the soothing sounds of this steel-drum influenced instrument transpired a water-like element that fit perfectly well with the drizzly onset of the day.  Music from Aoife O’Donovan, Chris Jones and The Night Drivers, and Sunliner (featuring Sarah Siskind and Travis Book) carried crowds through much of the day, but the anticipated performance of Chris Thile and Michael Daves, followed by John Scofield and the UberJam Band are what brought people out of the wood works and over to the Main Stage.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves unplugged the stage with their highly entertaining mandolin-acoustic guitar duo and memorable sounds of “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms”  lingered in the back of the mind, well after the conclusion of their set.  John Scofield and the UberJam Band lifted the clouds and spirits from the moment they graced the stage.  A heaviness in the air that subsided, there was a break in the clouds, and for the first time all day the crowd wasn’t hit from above with drops and drizzles.  “I Brake 4 Monster Booty,” an UberJam original, struck a memorable chord during the set.  This funky dance number transformed the energy of the entire crowd and Chris Pandolfi (ISD) said it best when he remarked, “What an unbelievable pleasure to see John Scofield play here right before us at The Festy.”  Unbelievable it was.

One unbelievable thing lead right into the other.  Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad isn’t just an favorite, they are loved and adored wherever they go; their performance at The Festy couldn’t have proven this to be more true.   Giant Panda took the Southern Stage by storm, and even the most die-hard, strictly bluegrass  fan was uncontrollably dancing.  “Missing You More” and “Pockets” were two memorable grooves, and the crowd was literally begging for an encore come set’s end.  “Panda, Panda, Panda,” was a chant that lasted well-after the band had vacated the stage, and  in the end disappointed fans slowly trickled over to the Main Stage to see the Dusters final performance of the weekend.

Any disappointment that lingered over from the Southern Stage quickly faded as the Stringdusters kicked the party into full gear.  “Black Rock,” a high powered instrumental woke up the crowd early on.  Jeremy Garrett dedicated the Virginia-inspired tune “The Place I Call Home” to all the lovers, and personal favorite “Long and Lonesome Day” followed suit.  Chris Pandolfi described the performance as an “experimental set where anything could happen.”  This statement couldn’t have been more appropriately placed – immediately following, the band broke into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” with Andy Falco taking vocal lead.  Surprise guest John Scofield then joined in, performing his original tune, “Kelpers”, then staying on to accompany the Dusters in a “dirty” version of “Put Out The Fire.”  Charlottesville-based DJs, Grits n Gravy spinned tracks during the set break. Listen to the Stringduster’s set on archive.org

The band announced the beginning of the second set as “bluegrass time,” and a heartfelt “Try and Try” struck a chord from deep within – the track featured Andy Falco on guitar, and a solo by Chris Pandolfi on banjo stood at the forefront.  “Three Days in July” and “Won’t Be Coming Back” were two Dusters tunes that provoked energized sing-alongs.  Covers of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” rounded out the set.

On Sunday, the Southern Stage was transformed into a rustic, Southern steeple as The Garrett Grass gospel hour went underway.  This Festy tradition has become, without a doubt, a fan favorite.  Members of ISD joined in with family members and more, playing on a series of traditional gospel tunes that portrayed a core sense of morality, belief, and values – all through the ringing of chords and strumming of strings.  In response to the weekend’s weather, Sarah Siskind and Travis Book performed a noteworthy Siskind original, “Didn’t It Rain,” and Andy Falco joined Jeremy Garrett for an inspiring rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  Song books in hand, the entire Garrett family joined together on stage, and the strength of their bond was easily heard.   Towards the end, Jeremy Garrett joined in with another family – the Stringdusters themselves, and the powerhouse quintet drove the hour home.

“One of my favorite things about The Festy is that I can always count on discovering a new band,” said festival attendee Trevor Piersol.  “I always trust the Dusters to find bands that are under appreciated, but extremely talented.”   On Sunday, emerging acts like the Jon Stickley Trio, The Hill and Wood, James Justin and Co. and Boulder-based acoustic rock outfit, SoundRabbit fit this sentiment dead-on.  It’s only a matter of time before these acts, as well as the many others showcased throughout the weekend at The Festy, ring a more-than-familiar tune in the listener’s ear.

One of the most attractive elements of The Festy Experience is the festival’s dedication to source locally –  and this does not limit itself simply to food and drink.  Nathan Moore and Brian Elijah Smith are two Virginia natives whose Sunday performance sang clearly from both the heart and home.  Hometown friend and musician Ethan Hawkins joined the duo on mandolin and the trio’s performance of “Have Guitar, Will Travel” aka “The Festy Song” made a lasting impression on the crowd.

For most of the weekend, the rain limited itself to a steady drizzle, but during Nicki Bluhm and the Grambler’s final Festy set, it really began to pour.  Dedicated fans fared the adverse conditions to witness a powerful cover of “Take a Little Piece of My Heart.”  Stringdusers’ Chris Pandolfi joined the Grambler’s on “Squeeky Wheel,” and Andy Falco warmed up his electric as the band closed with fan favorite, “Little Too Late.”

The rain continued as JJ Grey and Mofro took the stage, yet no one seemed to pay any mind.  Hula Hoopers spun and danced joyfully in the mud and JJ Grey entertained the crowd, interweaving spoken word and story-telling with the richness of the band’s southern sound.   Tunes like “Everything is Bad” and  “This River” ignited the cold, wet crowd and an encore of “She’s On Fire” showcasing the band’s impressive horn section dried the place out completely.

Andy Falco and Chris Pandolfi closed out the Southern Stage, performing together as the Founding Fathers.  Sporting trucker hats and thick-rimmed glasses, the two traded in their acoustics for electrics giving a new taste to what these progressive bluegrassers typically have to offer.  Tunes like the Beatles’ “While my Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Duster’s original “Fork in the Road,” intrigued the crowd. Andy Hall joined the mix for a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy” and Pandolfi kicked up the energy switching back to banjo for a most unusual spin on “Angelina Baker.”

Much of the energy of the Founders’ set carried over as fans anticipated the appearance of returning Festy favorite, Railroad Earth.  The New Jersey-based six piece warmed up with an easy-paced “Storms,” but the energy quickly changed as they moved straight into “Happy Song.”  A rockin’ version of Tim O’Brien’s “Walk Beside Me” created the perfect juxtaposition to the acoustic renditions otherwise heard by campfire throughout the weekend. “Untitled 12” was a track that triggered unstoppable dancing among the Sunday evening crowd and “Black Elk Speaks” exposed RRE’s rock n roll roots with struggle and strife infused lyrics and heavy, haunting electrified sound.  The tune “Ska Jam” was debuted for the first time; Andy Goessling’s sax work struck a memorable chord, as did Tim Carbone and his squealing fiddle.  They closed out the evening with a “Sing To Me” encore, and what ensued was beauty as faithful fans stood “side-by-side singing a song.” Listen to Railroad Earth’s set recorded by Taper Timme.

The music may have been over, but the spirit of The Festy Experience was not.  A small campfire burned brightly, like the spirits of the crowd gathered around it behind the stage.  As stories, songs and laughter poured freely from a mass of commemorative stainless steel pints, a capstone celebration of an incredible weekend was well underway.  It was a star-less night, damp and dark with a slight chill in the air – yet those still standing  paid no mind, for after all Sunday is a time for family, and at what better way to spend it than at a “place [to] call home ?”