How BLANK explored its “Wild” side on two days of the five-day event in the pristine Blue Ridge Mountains
By John Flannagan
When first approached to cover FloydFest last year, I have to admit to having reservations. I can be somewhat of a music snob, and country and bluegrass don’t grab my attention as often as maybe they should. At the time, I thought that this festival was just that: a festival featuring just those kinds of music held in the mountains of rural southwestern Virginia. It wasn’t until I arrived with my son last year that I realized it was so much more than that.
A family-oriented gathering that features musical genres culled from places all across the globe, FloydFest truly is a mind-opening experience. From the natural beauty of the surroundings to the surreal realization that you’re attending a festival on a mountainside, it is an extravaganza for the senses from the get-go. Not to mention the fact that the people it attracts are fantastic souls there to have a great time while treating both each other and the festival grounds with the sort of respect that quite frankly is missing in today’s world.
And the music, well … I came to find out that it wasn’t all country and bluegrass. There was world music, blues, jam, jazz, swing, and rock – mighty, mighty rock. I’m a rocker at heart, so when FloydFest dropped this year’s lineup last winter, I knew I would be going back. With acts like Jason Isbell, Greta Van Fleet, Antibalas, Foster the People, Tyler Childers, ZZ Ward and countless others, amazing range and diversity were on full display in 2018 – all in what feels like a quaint environment.
The beauty of FloydFest, in fact, is that you never feel cramped or uncomfortable; open and airy, temperatures usually range from the low 60s in the evening to the low 80s in the daytime – although most days they stay in the pleasant 70s, solidifying the feeling of comfort. While calm and easy are the venerable festival’s main vibes, it still was able to unleash on countless occasions its “Wild” side, the theme for this year, by changing at night to a much more lively affair with late-night shows featuring a who’s who of performers. This year’s installment featured sets by Greta Van Fleet, Antibalas, The Native Howl and others in which energy oozed from the crowds and the artists alike.
All of these factors are contributing to making FloydFest worthy of an annual pilgrimage. For me, this time was one in which I was able to include more family (my wife attended for the first time) and friends (three of our best friends and one of their sons). The experience resulted in memories that will last a lifetime and hopefully will lead to more shared recollections down the road.
Highlights: Omegawolfe, Antibalas, Magnolia Boulevard, My Radio, Leftover Salmon, Foster the People, Greta Van Fleet, The Broadcast, The Native Howl
Overall headliner Foster the People played an evening set on Friday, much to the delight of my 8-year-old son who really enjoys “Pumped up Kicks.” (But, I mean, who doesn’t, right?) They helped teach him the virtue of patience, too, by making him watch their entire set before playing his jam. It paid off in the long run, though, as he and his buddy danced with delight to the popular tune. Truly one of my highlights was seeing the whippersnappers enjoy a real rock show. As for the adults’ take, Foster the People were a little too chatty and overtly political at times on this evening, which was met with mixed reviews and chants of, “Just play!” Sound wise, however, the popular band lived up to its headliner status by rocking the main stage for nearly two hours.
One of the greatest aspects of FloydFest is the bountiful amount of undercard performers that play on numerous side stages. One such act that actually won a fan vote as best up-and-comer was Magnolia Boulevard out of Lexington, Kentucky. The bluesy five-piece ripped through an hour-long set at the Pink Floyd Garden Stage, led by frontwoman Maggie Noelle on vocals and guitars. Magnolia Boulevard was the first true under-the-radar find of the weekend, and it’s a band we look forward to hearing more of in the next year or so.
Another peripheral act I discovered on this journey to Floyd was My Radio. Another five-piece hailing from the Blue Ridge area, it was different in that the band brought a big pop sound to the festival, much to the surprised delight of the crowd that caught the raucous set at the Deschutes Brewery Libations Tent on Friday evening. Much of the crowd was very vocal, yelling its approval throughout the show and demanding more even after it was over. It was easy to see why the group has opened for the likes of Blondie and The Psychedelic Furs.
The buzz around the mountain on Friday was undoubtedly reserved for the youngsters from Frankenmuth, Michigan, Greta Van Fleet. Attendees of all ages could be overheard talking about the group, mispronouncing their name, telling someone where they spotted them earlier in the day and the like. Playing an ideal midnight time slot to a packed house on the Hill Holler Stage, Greta Van Fleet delivered in full force and proved why the hype was warranted.
After Shaky Knees in Atlanta, this marked the second time this year that I was fortunate enough to catch the band, fresh off making its late-night television debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” the previous evening. On this night, the lads seemed ready to blow the top off the mountain. Each song was played with such gravitas, it sounded like they felt like it would be the last time each were heard, ending with thunderous crescendos and displaying the breadth of their showmanship.
Jake Kiszka showed off by playing guitar behind his back, and his twin brother Josh belted out notes in a way that surely had not been seen and heard before in the 20-year history of FloydFest. The group led off with the ever-popular “Highway Song” and never stopped, playing for an hour and a half and sending the crowd away buzzing again – this time over the performance it had just witnessed.
The last highlight of Friday (and maybe the most jaw-dropping performance of the entire weekend for me) was The Native Howl. Self-described as “thrash grass,” the Howl kicked down every traditional myth about bluegrass, playing an almost Irish-jig-meets-speed-metal interpretation of the classic style. At one point, frontman Alex Holycross polled the audience, asking, “How many like bluegrass?” Half the audience cheered, but then it roared when asked, “How many like metal?” Clearly enthused themselves, the band members from there took us on a journey of styles and speed that was almost indescribable at times. For anyone camping nearby, there was no sleeping until they finished at 3 a.m.; for the rest of us, there was no sleeping until much later than that as we struggled to collect our collective breath.
Highlights: ZZ Ward, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Buffalo Jam, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Antibalas
If Greta Van Fleet were the clear winners on Friday, then picking Saturday’s winner was much harder, as performances by ZZ Ward, Jason Isbell and Antibalas were some of the best shows I’ve seen in quite some time.
ZZ Ward proved on Saturday evening that she is a force with which to be reckoned, unpacking beautifully crafted songs and featuring a strong backing ensemble. Her voice, charisma and looks commanded the attention of the crowd throughout the set and were matched only by the lightning-quick solos provided by her touring lead guitarist, who stole the show at times. Ward proved to be an excellent table-setter for the rest of the evening heading into the later hours.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit were next up on Saturday evening. Even though I always know what I’m going to get with him, somehow I still always leave saying, “Wow, that was a great show!” Isbell was on point from the start, and when he dropped “Decoration Day” in the middle of his set, I was completely convinced it was a success. The 400 Unit was as steady as ever; the collective rounded out the excellent songwriting by putting on a clinic of musicianship, jamming and weaving as expertly and warmly between slow and fast songs as good as your grandma making you a scarf for Christmas.
There’s a new wave of country-rock outlaws that evoke memories of Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Haggard, but the names now are Isbell, Stapleton, Sturgill and Childers – and it’s Isbell leading the pack. The crafty singer-songwriter is at the absolute peak of his game right now, and he left no doubt that he is the face of (real) country today.
Antibalas may have been the hardest-working band at FloydFest this year, having played their third show of the weekend late on Saturday night to a packed house at the appropriately named Throwdown Tent. Show after show at the Throwdown was a party, but especially the late-night sets. Playing until 3 a.m., Antibalas’ Afrobeat jams and worldly trance held sway over the crowd, which danced the night away.
Belting out chants in which the audience would echo along, the group laid down infectious percussion and bass grooves throughout the duration of its hour-and-15-minute set. This was a show reminiscent of Atomic Bomb! at Bonnaroo several years back in the respect that all the step-counters had to have been off the charts based on the serious dancing that was put in during this set. Antibalas was the most pure fun I had at a show during this FloydFest, which is the reason why I caught two of the band’s three shows on the weekend.
Other highlights on Saturday included Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, another speed-grass type of band, who flew through their material in a well-crafted manner. Their style reminded me of Trampled by Turtles at times and was a real treat to witness.
Rounding out the evening’s highlights for me was the annual Buffalo Mountain Jam, which included Leftover Salmon, Antibalas and Keller Williams, among others. Pouring through a set of popular covers, the crew played Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” in a nod to the festival’s theme before going into a reggae version of “War Pigs” led by Antibalas. From there they played “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and even threw in some Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” for good measure.
Needless to say, this was one of the most fun sets of the weekend, and it had everyone in my crew smiling and singing along for the entirety. The annual jam session really is the true essence of FloydFest, where artists and fans alike are communing, enjoying the music and simply getting lost in the moment.