Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance: A One of a Kind Festival

It has a little something for everyone

People from all over the world rolled into a small town called Trumansburg in upstate NY on Thursday, July 19 for the 28th annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. The festival works to nurture local artists while reaching around the globe to bring a world’s worth of music, introducing it to new audiences. The festival tries to do all of this while creating an environment to inspire creativity and foster community building. Some people even arrived four days early to attend the festival Culture Camp, four days of workshops on musical instruments, dance and art. The festival is known for not being like most other festivals and is joked about by locals as, “Such an ‘Ithacan’ thing,” because of its close proximity to the city of Ithaca.

Grandstand of Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance.

The festival started off sunny at the stroke of noon with onsite campers rushing in to get their preferred spots with distant recorded music in the background playing greatest hits reggae until the live music started at 1:30. Like most years at Grassroots, I spent the first couple hours setting up my tentsite, right outside one of the four stages, and in the only shady area of the festival. With it being common to hit 100+ degree days, campers want all the shade they can get!

Thursday’s biggest highlight was roots reggae sensation and headliner, Toots and the Maytals, performing at the Infield stage. They put on a show no one is going to forget, starting off with their classic hit, “Pressure Drop” and by the end of their set, the large crowd was all smiles and cheers. The other big highlight of the night was The Ithaca Bottom Boys, a local favorite who transcend falling into a certain genre with their folky twang, hinting at the background of all their songs, but with this overlaying groove that one can’t help but dance to. Their song “Some Are Beavers” had the crowd going wild as most of them either knew the words or caught on very quickly and were singing their hearts out to it.

On Friday, the morning started with yoga and the instrument contest like it does every year. The Grassroots festival schedule has an air of familiar repetition to long time attendees, but one thing attendees can always count on is the array of different genres introducing artists they haven’t heard of before, but won’t soon forget. Artists like Dakha Brakha, a Ukrainian folk quartet that left the crowd speechless. Or Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People, rooted in classic groove and soul, but expanding into so much more. During her performance on Friday, she parted the crowd from the stage, jumped off stage, and ran up and down the created aisle, pulling people from the crowd to dance with her. It was an intimate experience you usually don’t get with a festival the size of Grassroots, which has an attendance reaching around 15,000 people. It’s not every day you get a musician like Danielle Ponder dancing just a few feet from you, tripping slightly on a backpack, losing her footing, and you get to reach out and help keep her on her feet, like I got to.

Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People

At this festival you not only get intimate shows, you get to see the band members walking around enjoying the festival, like members of festival fan favorite, Uma Galera, who performed on Friday night to a huge crowd. With their Latin-infused sound, high energy, and mid-performance dance moves, they were definitely one of the most anticipated and enjoyed acts at the festival. This being their third year returning, not only were people excited to see them, but knew words to their songs. They couldn’t leave the stage without at least three encores on their Friday night and their Saturday night performances. Other big names who killed it Friday night were folk music singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and Valerie June’s unique mixture of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian and bluegrass, both of which brought in big crowds and devoted fans to their respective shows.

Saturday started with yoga once again and the band contest, a popular competition with a first prize being a slot at next year’s festival. The day then progressed through Grassroots classics consisting of many festival favorites like Keith Frank and The Soileau Zydeco Family Band, Sim Redmond Band, Donna the Buffalo, Uma Galera, and many more. And this is when the rain started. Now for Grassroots a little rain isn’t a problem, in fact it’s expected. Locals joke that the rain knows when the festival is happening and makes a point to make an appearance which, having attended it for over a decade, I can attest to being true. But the rain didn’t stop people from going out and dancing their socks, shoes and other possessions off late into the night with Keith Frank and The Soileau Zydeco Family Band playing until almost four in the morning.

Sunday came early and soggy to most people, with the rain not letting up, but that didn’t seem to phase many festival goers as they still got up bright and early for their yoga. As someone who has been attending this festival for over a decade, it’s hard for me to put into words how this festival is different than others I’ve attended. Luckily for me, I had a friend attend with me this year who had never gone before and he was able to pinpoint what is so different about it a little bit better than me. He said, “I was amazed at the variety of music Grassroots brought to the table, seamlessly blending reggae, rock, soul, dance and many other genres into a festival experience everyone can enjoy. Even going into the festival not knowing any of the lineup, I found that there was more than enough variety to always keep me entertained and excited for more.”

Apart from music, the festival also has the annual Happiness Parade, a variety of workshops with musicians and artist in the Workshop Tent, massages, acupuncture and meditation at the Healing Arts Tent, a kid’s area with crafts and games, and volunteers worked at the Kids Tent, the Art Barn, the Congo Square Market, and the Sustainability fair throughout the weekend. There were also lots of vendors both for food and arts, clothing, drums, etc. and even a changing station for cell phones run by solar panels.

The music was above par, the people attending are polite and generally good spirited, the food is good (even though it’s a little expensive), and the general atmosphere was just pleasant. The thing about Grassroots is, there really is something for everyone, and that can be seen by the different types of people that attend it. From seniors to children, frat boys to punks, parents to singles ready to mingle, American flag-wearing to hippy-loving non-showering-folk, the festival really had something for everyone. The festival was a great experience as it always is and I will definitely be back again next year.

Uma Galera
Valerie June
Valerie June. Photo by Isabella Romeo-Hall.
Grandstand view. Photo by Isabella Romeo-Hall.
Onsite tent camping. Photo by Isabella Romeo-Hall.