This year marked the 24th annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance and everyone in attendance at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds from July 17-20 knew they were taking part in something truly special. Every year, the Grassroots Festival donates the proceeds to local charities, not-for-profit organizations, and other groups in need. Musicians, artists, local vendors, and live music lovers alike come from far and wide to partake in this breathtaking event that gives back to local communities like few other events of its kind. From international music legends to newly started local businesses, all parties involved in the Grassroots Festival are doing their part to make a difference.
The extravaganza began on the Wednesday before the festival started, as Jeb and Tara of Donna the Buffalo and Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys kicked things off with the Pre-Grassroots Special Concert on the beautiful Grandstand Stage. Even though the festival was still a day away, you could easily feel the excitement and anticipation brewing on the fairgrounds.
Noon couldn’t come soon enough on Thursday, with people lining up and down the street, all waiting to get their wristbands and let the festivities begin. Within a matter of hours, nearly every campsite was filled as festivalgoers began to mill about the grounds, sampling some of the many types of cuisine and taking a gander at the various vendors. Finally, at 1pm sharp, Bubba George Stringband took to the Infield Stage to open Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance 2014. Bubba George is made up of a group of life-long friends whose greatest love is to play folk and bluegrass music, which is exactly what they did.
Often times, a Thursday night of a festival is a time when people are still getting settled in and maybe resting up for the weekend ahead, but at this year’s Grassroots, you would have thought it was a Saturday night, as folks filled every inch of dancing room available to flail about and belt their favorite lyrics until they could do so no longer. Local bands were a plenty, with the 585 and 607 areas being well represented.
Kevin Kinsella plucked his light, bouncing acoustic melodies that inspired spontaneous dancing and smiles throughout the crowd. Following Kinsella, Thousands of One performed their progressive hip-hop lyrics, accompanied by multiple music styles, including roots, acoustic jam, and funk. The Blind Spots began not long after at the Grandstand, but many stayed to lock down a spot for Donna. Since the very beginning in 1991, Donna The Buffalo has been headlining Grassroots, drawing some of the biggest crowds at the festival. Donna plays varying styles, but they started off with some slower songs such as “Siverlined”, warming up their fans for what they had in store for the rest of the weekend.
The Grandstand was the place to be, with a stacked lineup including Driftwood, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and Sophistafunk. Driftwood, like Donna the Buffalo, started off with their down-tempo songs. Giant Panda picked up the pace considerably, bringing more people from the stands to dance. Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad jammed some feel-good dub with their song “Love You More”, going very well with the warm Grassroots vibe. Late night heated up quick as Sophistafunk took to the stage. As soon as the first deep, funky bass note by Adam Gold was dropped, there was no doubt that the party was in session. Sophistafunk rocked the Bandstand for nearly two hours, with positive lyrics by Jack Brown and backed by tight rhythms that anyone can get down to.
After a cold night, morning broke on Friday and began to warm things up. Even though the music hadn’t started, there was still plenty to do on the festival grounds. Some took part in morning yoga to revive their sore muscles after a hard night of dancing, while others found their center in an open meditation in the Workshop Tent. Throughout the weekend, there were many other educational gatherings and workshops, focusing on drumming, dance, healing and more. Grassroots is about more than just music, it’s about art of all forms and engaging in the fullest experience life has to offer. And for the young ones, the kid’s area was open all weekend with music lessons and face painting.
This year’s Grassroots festival was different from many years past in one very noticeable way. The weather was exceptional, with temperatures near 80 degrees and rain just managing to hold off for the most part. Many people who had attended the fest before were commenting on just how lucky we were, compared to the scalding heat and torrential rains of past years. Even though it was not terribly hot, many people still took refuge in the beautiful river that runs behind the offsite camping area. The water was divine as many people meandered their way through the gorge. However, as nice as it was, local police were taking advantage of poorly marked areas that were off-limits and gave out thousands of dollars in fines to unsuspecting festivalgoers, putting a damper on the weekend for some.
Musical highlights for the day came in all genres. Ithaca’s Big Mean Sound Machine performed in the Infield, playing a mix of dub and Latin music with the depth and complex rhythms they have become known for. For those interested in music from around the world, Locos Por Juanas had everyone’s hips moving to their lively Columbian tunes. At the same time, another Grassroots veteran, Sim Redmond Band took to the Grandstand. Sim played a combination of African and Caribbean inspired songs, bringing a sound that has evolved over the decades. The main attraction for the night was undoubtedly John Brown’s Body. JBB has been a roots/reggae staple in New York and across the country since the mid ’90s and still never fails to put on an unforgettable performance.
As if Friday hadn’t been busy enough, with one top-notch band after another, Saturday would prove to be equally thrilling, if not more so. The day started in the Grandstand with the annual Grassroots Band Contest. This year’s winner was The Ruddy Well Band. The group specializes in folk music and will be a performer at next year’s festival. Driftwood played a considerably more upbeat set, pleasing their many fans that had been itching to dance since they saw them Thursday. More international music was in store with Samite and his East African music and Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate. Joey and Sekou are a French and American duo, having a very distinct sound that combines a 21-stringed African instrument called a Kora with American hip-hop lyrics.
Galumpha, an acrobatic comedy act from Ithaca, brought smiles to many with their silly antics and impressive human sculptures. To contrast Galumpha’s lighter fare, over in the Infield, Anders Osborne was playing his good ol’ rock n roll, and even some Southern blues with “Louisiana Rain”. John Specker drew quite an impressive crowd, though it was likely that many of them were reserving their spot for Donna The Buffalo’s second set. The band sounded completely different, with a radically different set-list that featured more electric guitar and big choruses. To close out the night, Keith Frank & The Soileau Zydeco Band played the Dance Tent until the wee hours of the morning.
As night turned to day, there were a surprising number of people out and about, many taking part in kickball at dawn. Sleep would prove to be a hot commodity on Sunday, as many groggy campers took advantage of the opportunity to peruse vendors, tasting some of the diverse selection of food, or check out the Art Barn and other artistic displays at the venue. The annual Happiness Parade began shortly after 2, with at least a hundred people carrying totems and a giant dragon processing around the grounds. Everyone stopped to enjoy the beat of the drums with a flute playfully tooting and children dancing about. It was just as fun to see, as it was to be a part of.
Returning for a second time was The Gunpoets, a local group with bold lyrics supplied by two MC’s. Jen Middaugh joined the rebel rappers before returning to sing with Sim Redmond Band directly following The Gunpoets in the Infield. For those who stuck around, or at least knew that the best was being saved for last, stayed for what would prove to be the best jam of the weekend. Around ten, Donna The Buffalo & Friends All-Star Review took to the stage for their last performance of the weekend. The night could not get better as one guest band after another joined them on stage. First John Specker’s soulful fiddle, then Big Mean Sound Machine’s funky bass, Hindu Cowboys, and Driftwood. The set was filled with classics like The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and many other well-known covers.
After hours of musical bliss, Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance 2014 came to a close. As it has been for the last 24 years, this Grassroots will not be soon forgotten. And not only by those who attended, but by the countless people who will benefit from the donations being made to The Ithaca Free Clinic, Roots In Schools, and many more. Grassroots sets itself apart in being a music festival that has a lasting impact on thousands of people and the local communities, and still provides a superb array of outstanding artists.
All photos by: Brennan Fischer