Weekend With the Herd: A Review of Virginia Key Grassroots
So I’ve done a few live reviews, but this will be my first festival that I’ve ever posted about for this site. In fact the Virginia Key Grassroots festival is the perfect festival for me to review first, because it’s so brand new. This is only its fourth year as a festival, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem that its audience is growing. The size of the audience won’t matter to me as long as the festival can keep itself afloat. See Grassroots is a festival that originally started in Trumansburg N.Y. almost twenty-five years ago and they’ve also produced a festival in Shakori Hill N.C. for over ten years. It would be really nice to see if the Virginia Key Grassroots could last as long as Trumansburg Grassroots has. Anyway, enough of my wishful thinking. I was at Virginia Key for the music and the fun. The festival lasted from Thursday to Sunday, Febuary 19th-22nd and it really is a hefty weekend. Music can go from eleven to about four in the morning. To me this shows that they really give me my money’s worth. the festival is presented by a band I love dearly named Donna the Buffalo, who host at Trumansburg and Shakori Hills. The band not only hosts this great festival, but happens to have a following known as “the herd”. This festival isn’t just about Donna the Buffalo, but rather about the diversity of music that surrounds it besides Donna.
Thursday: The festival started around five thirty on Thursday with a small four piece bluegrass band from Binghamton, named Driftwood. Driftwood has been one of my favorite band’s to see at Grassroots Virginia Key, because it’s the only festival where I get to see them. They are really amazingly talented musicains and were a wonderful choice to kick off the festival. They played on other days, but I was particularly impressed with their set on Thursday because it sounded as though they had grown as a band, since the last time I saw them. For instance they started with an original entitled “I’ve Got a Secret” and before they really delved into the melody of the song there was this really nice instrumental at the beginning of the song. They added something that wasn’t on the album, but still fit in the song. Besides their improvement musically the band has this great vocalist and fiddle player by the name of Claire Byrne. the other memers of the band, includeing Dan Forsyth (guitar), Joe Kollar (banjo), and Joey Arcuri (bass).
After Driftwood rocked things the night continued with tons more music within the four stages of the festival. In fact one of the other highlights of Thursday was with Jim Lauderdale and Donna the Buffalo. These guys did a few tunes off of of their album, which were “Wait ‘Til Spring” and “Ginger Peach”. I’ve seen these guys together before, but it’s always fun to see them again, due to the way Lauderdale can captivate an audience. Besides theses two songs, they performed a new song and fan favorite. The new song, unfortunately needed to be worked up a bit more, but the favorites, “The King of Broken Hearts” and “Halfway Down”, were fantastic.
Friday: Friday was the first full day of music at Grassroots, and I started with a singer/song writer named Nikki Talley. While Talley was great my day really began with a band called The Blind Spots from Ithica. These guys mixed soul with trippy sixties sounds. They reminded me a bit of The Doors. There was no other band like these guys at the fest and that allowed them to stand out. The band’s soul flavor was really helped by the fact that they have this great lead named Maddy Walsh. The band’s keyboard player David Openshow gave off the trippy feel the best.
AJ Ghant also played Friday. He’s Col. Bruce Hampton’s new guitar player, but it was really nice to see his solo project. His band was really talented and happen to include two backup singers that energized the audience. It was a total set full of blues rock and rather loud. The dance tent was the perfect place for Ghant he had the whole place rockin’.
Another group that had the dance tent was rocking was its last act, which was Big Mean Sound Machine. This ten piece band had the tent going till four thirty in the morning. With a four piece horn section and three rhythum players, along with guitar bass and keys really knew how to keep an audience up and moving. Their entire set consisted of instrumental tunes and they had such a baig band sound and style when they played that also made then a unique band. These guys had such a tight horn section that one of the horn players would come up with a litle bit and the others would autimatically follow. This improvisation gave them a jazz touch, besides their big band feel. These guys, like The Blind Spots and Driftwood also hail from upstate New York.
Saturday: Saturday consisted of many of the same bands that I had been seeing throughtou the weekend, but also brought in some new ones such as Rubblebucket as well as Richie Sterns and Rosie Newton. While these were two of Saturday’s highlights I started my day off by listening to this great traditional Cuban band named Cortidatio and then I continued with Suenalo, a really hip and funky Miami band. Suenalo also played Thursday, but they changed it up a bit for the Saturday set. In fact they brought some special guest on stage for their Saturday show. These special guests were from this camp that the band helps sponsper called Guitars Over Guns. Guitars Over Guns is a camp that shows young troubled kids the life of music over a life of crime. It was realy great to see the kids come out on stage to sing and rap for the audience. Of course the band did pull out some originals before the kids came out, such as one of my favorites, “Come Home”. This tune is off of their second album and has this great New Orleans sound to it.
Richie Sterns and Rosie Newton were just great to listen to on Saturday night. They did a few Towns Van Zant songs, as well as doing some traditional numbers. These two are really fantastic to listen to just for the fact that their music is so simplistic. All it is is a banjo and a fiddle, but they make it sound so much more magical when they play to where they almost entrance the audience. Richie Sterns writes most of their material, while Newton throws in an old time fiddle tune every so often. Sterns is a rather depressing, but beutiful writer. For instance in a song entitled “Ribbons and Boes” he song begins, “If I could choose the way I was to die, I would go falling through a hot summer sky.” why anyone would think about how they’d like to die is beyond me, but the remainder of the verse has such a gorgious image attached to it that I tend to forget the first half.
So Sterns and Newton were amazing to watch and to listen to, but soon it came time for what I would consider the headliner for this Grassroots, rubblebucket. These guys were so much fun to watch. Their lead singer, Kalmia Travar really has an amazing way of connecting with the audience. She has this whole idea of being more interested in the crowd than in her band, but still manages to keep in time with the band. Besides this there is a massive amount of energy that she exudes while on stage. The band’s trumpet player, Alex Toth also exudes this energy. At one point in the set he began running laps on stage. Their guitar player, Hersey is a really entertaining rhythum player.
Sunday: Sunday was the final day of the fest, but it was a long final day since the music went til two in the morning. I started my day off by seeing some Driftwood and then caught this African musician named Morikeba Kouyate. This gentleman played one of those big African gords and had a great band backing him up, which included a guitar player, abasist, a guy on percussion, and a drummer. There’s nothing like listening to great authentic African music because it sounds like no other genre in the world. That pure authentisity was what Kouyate brought to his set, and it was powerful.
While Sunday was the end of the fest it’s lineup included many bands thaqt had played previous days, but like Kouyate, there were some acts that only played on Sunday. One of them was a group from Tampa/ St. Pete. area called The Apple Butter Express. Their set consisted of a good mixture of orignals and covers; covers included “Big Old Jet Airliner” (Steve Miller) and “Whipping Post” (The Allman Brothers). Now with Sunday comes the big jam at the end of the fest, which I said lasted til past two. The host for the jam is always Donna the Buffalo, who always do a great job of including as many musicians as possible. It does begin, however, like a regular Donna show. The band comes out plays a few originals and then invites guests up. I was rather surprised at the songs they chose to do, particularly on Jeb Puryaer’s (lead guitar and vocal) par. He chose to play “Push Comes to Shove”, which is a song off the band’s first album, as well as their live release from the American Ballroom.
“Push Comes to Shove” happend to be the only real original surprise, but what went on after was a whole nother story. Driftwood came out and jammed on Steve Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'”. After this occured it was about midnight and the fest had gotten the loud ordinance rule handed to them. Fortunately the music could still continue, but the monitors and microphones had to be turned off. Once this request went into affect the horn section from Big Mean Sound Machine broke out into a secoond line and the jam continued. All I have left to say that this jam was absolutely amazing and tons of fun.
I had to make a concious descion when writing this review to make sure I included as many bands as possible, so while I may have seen every set a band put on I had to pick that band’s best set. For those bands that only played once I had to pick the best of the best and it was a really hard descion so plese understand I saw tons more than what is written here.