Blue Heron Welcomed Perfect Weather With a Weekend of Great Music

Co-Written and Photographed by: Thomas Sgroi and Brennan Fischer

The Great Blue Heron Music Festival in Sherman, NY in its 23rd year brings out friends and family every year right around our Nation’s birthday. The cars, trucks and campers were lining the streets a day before the gates opened to get that perfect spot come Friday morning. As soon as 9AM came they all began beeping their horns signaling the start of what was going to be an incredible weekend. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful and the music was the perfect pairing for the event. Friday’s music started promptly at 3:45PM and was timed to when all the campers had their tents up, campers parked and anticipation was at its peak.

Tiger Maple String Band started the event off and from then on music seemed to flow seamlessly through the next three days. Smackdab entertained the crowd with their soul driven jam that seemed to get everyone up and moving for the evening with Plastic Nebraska following suit. The Town Pants and The Horse Flies finishing the night strong – both bands that were welcomed back to GBH with rave reviews. Friday night tends to be the longest night and for good reason, Donna The Buffalo packs the dance tent at 1AM with their alter ego Buffalo Zydeco, which over the years seems to have strayed away from straight zydeco, to an impromptu jam session that will last until the breakfast hours or in this case 8AM. I spoke with DTB keyboard player, Dave McCracken before the show and he told me how the band lives for this Friday night/Saturday morning slot. He said, when he joined 8 years ago he remembered going in blindly to play, thinking it was going to be a normal set, little did he know that he would be playing until the sun came up, but he loved it and continues to do so.

Photos By: Thomas Sgroi

As Heron-goers shook off the first night’s remaining hangovers and got their dancing shoes back on, Saturday afternoon brought a steady lineup of traditional and world-music influenced bands that kept fans out on the field of the Main Stage, in the Dance Tent, and back in the woods at the Tiger Maple Stage. The Ragbirds  out of Ann Arbor, MI brought a very eclectic sound to the stage, with influences from West Africa, Spain (played a saucy tango), Ireland, Romania, and all over the globe. They describe their style as “infectious global groove.” The adorably petite, flower-wearing lead singer, Erin Zindle, seamlessly transitioned musical modes from Celtic to Roma (Gypsy), and back to American grassroots fiddle, with nothing left wanting in terms of passion, power, or fluency in these diverse musical languages. The Ragbirds are very unique group in that all members play percussion (in addition to their primary instruments), which made the them the ideal mid-afternoon opener to get the audience hyped and moving their feet again. Percussionist Randall, “the Hitman” Moore got the crowd jumping and dancing with an amazing conga solo. Add to this formula a killer cover of the Talking Heads’ “Nothing but Flowers,” and you’ve got yourself a great start to day two of the Great Blue Heron.

Overlapping time with the Ragbirds in the Dance Tent was the Celtic-folk/rock favorite Town Pants, by way of Vancouver, Canada (those Celts are everywhere!). Town Pants struck me as a seemingly odd name for a group wherein two of the band’s five members wear kilts and one was wearing a skirt. Regardless, this band owned the stage and pulled listeners right into the alcohol, fun, and folk induced-frenzy that they embodied on stage. Brothers Duane and Dave Keough toasted with the audience (multiple times), told jokes, and kept that whiskey-fire burning with an energy unparalleled at the Heron. Enthusiastic percussion, a solid string section, and an infectious stage presence were hallmarks of their delivery. Band frontman Dave Keough announced mid-set, “I’m officially a Heron lover,” much to the audience’s chagrin. Fans sang along with the simultaneously sweet and touching, yet funny, “Sailor Song”, whose chorus was – “When I said that I loved you I was drunk but I meant It anyway,” you gotta love sailor romance. The Town Pants held audience attention and kept them shouting “Oi!” throughout the set as the band pleased the crowd, with covers of modern rock songs, played Celtic-style. Featured were “Sorrow,” by Bad Religion and a KISS original,  “I Was Made for Loving You”.  In a heartwarming gesture near the end of their set, the two brothers even brought their aging father on stage to sing a traditional folk song…a lovely nod to the classic Celtic lust for life nostalgia and familial adoration.

Driftwood  was nextt on the must-see lineup for the festival – a strings-only quintet of bluegrass/folk/americana musicians that just keep evolving their sound with increased sophistication. Driftwood has always wielded the power to get crowds jumping and stomping with fiery bluegrass passion – especially during fiddle solos by the much beloved and talented Claire Byrne. But at Blue Heron, Driftwood proved that they can just as easily fill the air with a soft, tranquil, and beautifully sad sound, and fully utilize the powers of simplicity and silence. The minimalistic bass tapping, and lovely guitar picking on songs like “The Carburetor and the Steam Engine” invoked bittersweet images of sadness. Their fade-outs on songs like “Goldmine” were so moody and sweet you could hear the hairs on the audience’s necks stand up. Bravo indeed.

Back at the Dance Tent, positive, inspirational, and groovy roots rock reggae poured out of the tent like a sweet melody.  The culprit was Mosaic Foundation, a group of ethnically diverse and talented musicians based in Rochester, NY and formed in the Finger Lakes region. This band played last year at Great Blue Heron with a warm reception and once again, they did not disappoint. Listeners couldn’t help but follow suit as lead singer Yao Foli, or “Cha Cha” sang about music and love-making in “put on my dancing shoes”. Cha Cha, a native Ghanian, used Mosaic’s deep groove and funky rhythm to extol his virtues of peace, education, cooperation, community, and spiritual unity. The highly animated Cha-Cha spoke and sang of lending a helping hand, how “education is the most powerful weapon,” and reflected on the profound wisdom that someone else’s struggles and pain are not external, because in a spiritual sense, “someone else is me.” Of special note were the sharp, precise, and paradoxically energetic and laid-back percussion parts provided by Bryan Davis. His interplay with drummer John-Paul Nawn and the droning chords provided by the rest of the band kept the audience swaying and bouncing throughout the set.

As the sun drew near to the horizon on Saturday evening, Big Leg Emma brought their big sound to the Main Stage. Big Leg Emma is a rock/country/folk/bluegrass outfit, hailing from Western NY. Their sound blends a full, rhythm driven backbone with a country-style vocal sweetness and soul (courtesy of vocalist Charity Nuse) that stir up thoughts of sweet tea and back porches in summer. While Big Leg Emma plays definitively structured songs, they also weren’t afraid to jam out. Solid, funky, double-stopped bass lines by Miguel Morales and an anticipatory, super-fast rock drum solo by Corey Kertzie were especially memorable. This group employed elements of popular (in contrast to traditional) music, and expounded on this talent of making songs catchy and danceable by covering songs people know and love. “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd and “Papa Was a Rollin Stone” by the Temptations, all made it hard not to join right in and love Big Leg Emma. And, this is just what Claire Byrne of Driftwood decided to do when she sat in and shredded her fiddle right along with this good-time band. Also, in keeping with the family-friendly nature of the Great Blue Heron festival, Charity brought her pre-teen son on stage to play the djembe for the last few songs of their set. It’s a family affair at Great Blue Heron!

Once darkness fell, the glowing electronic lights and digitized sounds of Jimkata drew listeners away from their campsites and into a world where nature and technology fuse. Jimkata is one of the very few bands that successfully blend analog, live instrumentation with trippy electronic effects and synthesized beats. Especially impressive was how drummer Packy Lunn perfectly balanced his live drumming with simultaneous synth drum tracks and sounds, creating a unique percussive texture that was neither electronic dance music nor rock, but somewhere in between. Although Jimkata could definitely be considered psychadelic, their melodies and solos (especially those played by guitarist and keyboard player Dave Rossi) were always pretty and pleasant, and never discordant. Now that Jimkata has been on the national touring festival circuit, the young (circa 2012) Ithaca-based band has proven that they will only get better with time. Jimkata’s greatly improved cohesiveness and increasingly polished and definitive sound, will carry them on the cultural wave of electronic music until it just isn’t cool anymore.

At the peak of the evening’s euphoria arose Donna the Buffalo, the legendary folk/country/zydeco/jam group that helped birth festivals like Great Blue Heron and Grassroots Music Festival in Ithaca. Donna is both reliable and prolific. With a performing history spanning over two decades, a massive compendium of songs both original and traditional, a dedicated and growing fan base known as “the herd,” and a busy national tour schedule, Donna the Buffalo does what they do well, and they keep on doing it. Their music is the ideal for family festivals for many reasons. Their songs are deeply steeped in the timeless sounds of the American vernacular, yet they manage to remain fun, danceable, and relevant (never old-timey). Their clear and tasteful tones are always smooth and easy on the ears, and their music conveys an especially unique energy that always makes people feel good. This vibe could be described as happy with a twinge of sorrowful wisdom. This seems best expressed through the mellifluous voice and stoic presence of Tara Nevins, and the mournful and reflective lyrics of Jeb Puryear.

Photos By: Brennan Fischer

Sunday is typically reserved for the older crowd and seems a lot more laid back then the previous days. With most of the crowd cleaning up their campsites and leaving throughout the day its more of a quieter time. The day also seems to have a great ending with some perfect groups closing it out. The Hindu Cowboys asked to come back after their successful Sunday last year and bring a great stage presence with great music and a fun and entertaining wit. Last year they played alongside a 2-foot tall Batman figure which at times would play the theme song too and Jam with, this year the same Batman figure presented itself from the crowd and again joined the group on stage as part of the groups band mates.

The Hindu Cowboys really make sunday a fun day and are very talented musicians. Big Leg Emma played a for a second time in as many days, bringing their jamming and the fans who wanted more the previous day got what they were looking for. Donna The Buffalo closed out the day and the festival and you wouldn’t want it any other way, the group has taken this festival and really let it evolve into something magical over the years. The group and the festival go hand in hand in bringing friends together for a good time filled with great music. It was bittersweet for the festival to come to an end and I’m sure that along with the entire audience, I left feeling thankful that this great band, and its friends and family helped found such an enjoyable and feel-good festival. Happy Heron everyone.

Photos By: Thomas Sgroi