July 22-25, 2010
The Deal: Four-day celebration of musical diversity set in the Virginia mountains.
The Good: Even though it's home to some of the coolest roots music from around the world, 2010's FloydFest offered little shelter from Saturday's sweltering heat. There was little shade to be found on the 80-acre site nestled on the side of a mountain just off the Blue Ridge parkway.
Festival goers seeking sun relief clustered around the tents erected over the sound booths at the various stages. But it didn't affect the enthusiasm of the estimated 14, 000 attendees. Even a half-hour delay past the posted start time 9 p.m. for Levon Helm did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the sweaty celebrants packed shoulder to shoulder for his Saturday night show.
And unlike Helm's '08 Merlefest show when nearly half the crowd left midway through his magnificent set because he apparently was too rocky for their tastes, this Floyd Fest crowd stayed till the last note of Helms encore, I Shall Be Released thundered from the speakers. Helm's latest discovery, blues belter Alexis P. Suter blasted out a solo on The Weight that had the crowd cheering lustily. With a tone and timbre that matched Mavis Staples performance on the song on The Last Waltz. Suter provided a fitting finish to Helm's top notch set.
There was an anxious moment when Helm sat silent throughout the first song, with some wondering if his throat cancer problems had resurfaced. But it turned out he was only suffering from a cold and soon was croaking away, a bit froggy, but as strong as ever. When he started to sing, the crowd roared its approval, shouting out declarations of love and support throughout the set. Ironically, most of this crowd wasn't born when Helm first achieved fame with The Band. But his Grammy winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt have attracted a new generation of roots music lovers who had come to worship raucously with their newly anointed roots minister.
Although Helm's show drew the biggest crowd of the day, gems were scattered throughout the grounds on the smaller stages. Suter's late afternoon performance at the Virginia Folklife Workshop Porch stage was stupendous. With the lungs of Koko Taylor and the soulful moan of Mavis Staples, Suter's blend of gospel and blues backed by a nine piece band blew the crowd off their benches. Joined by African lute player Bassekou Koyate, Suter's set exposed the African roots of blues. Led by Koyates wiggly, percussive leads on several jams, she improvised lyrics that were better than most blues classics.
The Brooklyn-based Wiyos dished out a variety of genre-bending music from Hokum to honkytonk to country to rockabilly in the dance tent. When not busy playing blistering blues harp or rocking out with mutated kazoos, frontman/former clown Michael Farkas kept busy with an array of bizarre percussive instruments fastened to the mikestand. Pedal steel Teddy Webber added new dimension to the jug band selections as well as mighty fine cry in your beer accompaniment on the honkytonk and country offerings
Joe Pugs sound, hard-edged folk rock with a country tinge, is reminiscent of John Prine, as is the quality of his material.
The Low Anthem provided neo classical hippie folk to a sparse but enthusiastic band of supporters.
The overall vibe was a hipper take on Merelefest, showing more roots than grass. Although the festival
was kid friendly during daylight hours, adults got a little rowdy around the big stages as the night wore on.
The Bad: Needed a bit more signage to help find the place. Even though explicit directions on the Web site got you to the festival the only onsite markings were tiny flags about shin high at the main entrances. Hard enough to spot during daylight hours, they were nearly impossible to see at night. It would save a lot of time and frustration bouncing along rutted dead end gravel paths if there were some signs posted along the way as well.
The Verdict: Great place to hear a variety of roots and world music for a fair price. Plenty of food vendors, larger portions than most festivals offer for the same prices. Plenty of room to pitch a tent so you dont fall off the mountain after visiting the beer garden that runs night and day. Come early, stay late and plan to come back next year.