Our buddy Matt Sury went and caught the Festy Experience (which we previously dropped a few photos from), and we’ve finally wrangled together all the amazing coverage that him and fellow friend and photographer Matt Manzano put together. Read on for their recaps from the weekend plus a ton of photos from the event including shots from Toubab Krewe, Brett Dennan, The Infamous Stringdusters and more…
The Infamous Stringdusters hosted their second annual festival a few weekends ago and dubbed ‘The Festy Experience’. While not attending the first year, I had heard good things about this somewhat ambiguously named camping string-fest.
The drive in is a good tip off that scenery will be a very nice perk to the weekend. The site is burrowed in the hills of Central Virginia. Specifically on a road filled with wineries and breweries that set a pretty carefree tone. The last brewery you come across is actually the site of the festival, at a place called the Devil’s Backbone.
There were two stages here, the Main Stage and the Southern stage. The main stage is a permanent fixture next to the brewery. I actually got caught up multiple times staring at the gorgeous all wood stage itself throughout the weekend. The Southern stage was sponsored by a nearby Charlottesville venue the Southern Café and Music Hall. Ironically the tent had striking similarities to the actual venue because it was roughly the same size and hosted a lot of central VA bands through the weekend.
My musical night Friday started off with a personal favorite Larry Keel. This set rocked. Larry is surely a gifted guitar player, but it’s mostly that his sets are straight up fun. He toted a 4-piece band including his wife on bass, but the biggest surprise was his incredible dobro player. Perfect upbeat set to start off the night shows.
The two stages rotated sets, so after this we headed over to see local favorite Love Canon String Band. This band is headed by the past frontman of Old School Freight Train. Love Canon also backed Josh Ritter for a while, including at last year’s Festy. They played two sets that night and effectively turned this tent into the party area. Love Canon plays exclusively 80’s bluegrass covers, but not really what you would consider bluegrass. They had a good feeling of half impressive performance and half cheesy sing-a-long fun. Everyone was loving it.
Toubab Krewe came up next on the main stage and people started swarming into the festival area. Toubab repaid the favor by putting on quite a show. They were the perfect act to accompany nightfall. A nice full sound including bass made the crowd really start to move. There were some mic noise issues, maybe because of their very unique instruments. Luckily, nobody cared because they completely owned and never really slowed down from their initial jam.
The end of the set brought one of the major highlights of the weekend. The Stringdusters and Larry Keel joined Toubab to make for an insanely full stage. At first I thought this would be a bit of a mash of too many sounds. I was proven wrong when they busted out a perfect opening jam that led into a cover of ‘John Hardy’. It’s tough to say anything other than it was awesome. They played off each other well and Toubab’s instruments were a fun addition to a mountain string jam.
The last major act of the night was Railroad Earth. I’m not as familiar as I should be with this band, but learned a lot through the set. They gathered a pretty large crowd that formed into a first true festival crowd of the weekend. Meaning that people were pressed up against the fencing and singing along to every song. They are pretty slow and chill, but progressed into some more upbeat tunes through the 2-hour set. A favorite moment was when Railroad Earth’s frontman saw “some Toubabs” come to the stage and they formed “Toubab Earth”. The addition of Toubab’s percussionist was pretty sweet and gave the band a bit of a needed punch. The set was ended with some Stringdusters added for a great finale including a Neil Young cover of “Harvest Moon”.
Official night of music over…..but wait, it’s only 11:45pm? This is where The Festy starts to earn the title of being an ‘Experience’. With music ending early for a festival, there was nothing to do but wander the camp grounds and find the camping jams. There were some good ones (and some bad) but most impressive were the camper set-up writer’s night tents. This general feeling was aided by the allowing of campfires. Pretty unique for a music festival and perfect for when the air got just a bit cold in the night.
Waking up in the morning continued to enforce the idea of this being an ‘experience’. The first thing we noticed was exactly how close we were camped to a road with a long planked wooden fence. On the other side was a Festy sponsored 5K run that I was definitely not a part of. Main act music didn’t start until 2pm so we took time to survey the site in the daylight. There was a separate stage away from the main stage area and connected to a nice little building. Here they had yoga classes, showcases and workshops. This included a set with the Stringdusters Andy Falco (guitar) and Chris Pandolfi (Banjo). It is also rumored that the attached building hosted acoustic video sessions of many weekend acts, so be on the lookout.
This place is gorgeous. Somewhat feels like you’re in a grassy canyon with green mountains on all sides. The Dusters had arranged for plenty of little shops, local organic food hubs, children’s play area and a rock-climbing wall!
The food and drink were particularly awesome. Crab-cakes, organic bagel sandwiches and real Cajun gator nuggets were some of the food highlights. The beer offerings were an equally awesome treat. The local host Devil’s Backbone brewery offered 4 delicious brews and also invited people into the main brewery building. Here you could sit during the day on the outside patio and enjoy the full bar/restaurant experience. Local fan favorite brewery Starr Hill also offered an amazing lineup (maybe 6) of drinks. A favorite quote came as I heard a guy order a Bud Light and ask “what is all this fru-fru stuff?”
The Saturday music was great. Jim Lauderdale had the first set with a solo performance. Didn’t draw the biggest crowd but he still threw some good stuff down. Lake Street Drive had a fun little performance that was perfect for a nice October afternoon. This was a new band for me but did not fail to impress. This fun little group continued to remind me that the festival was hardly a bluegrass festival. Instead more of a gathering of string bands that like to stretch out of traditional tunes while still using traditional instruments.
However, Emmitt-Nershi band provided a blast of the somewhat traditional bluegrass that many had come to see. They gave an up-tempo string performance and killed it. I watched this one from afar while getting grub, but it was awesome to see a classic semicircle of strings around just a few mics. It got even better when some Stringdusters joined in the fun. I’m guessing they’ve done some practicing with their combined tour coming up. It showed.
Brett Dennen was a pretty well placed set between Emmitt-Nershi and the Stringdusters. Never having really dug into Brett Dennen, I was happily surprised at how laid back and enjoyable the set was. Somewhat poppy but with good songs and a nice little crowd to enjoy with. Dennen was a bit bundled up and my crew was reminded of the cold nip that was beginning to form. So we headed back before the end of the set to bundle up.
Then came the Stringdusters. Everyone loaded in to make the biggest crowd of the weekend. Many had day passes specifically to see this show. They rocked it. Started out fast with high-energy jams. This was admirable as they were technically releasing their new album “We’ll Do It Live”. They were dead on with the album title and did not disappoint at all. Mixing in the new songs, they also spread around favorites like “17 cents”. One hot topic of the weekend was the departure of mandolin player Jesse Cobb. Luckily, newly announced fill in/potential permanent member Dominick Leslie was awesome. This kid is young but was really impressive as the band gave him a little showcase during the show. They lived up to the hype of having your own festival, mixed in fan favorites, new songs, and bluegrass traditionals. It was also very cool to add in a small brass section at the end provided by the last band of the night.
That last band of the night was Rubblebucket. Whether it was the excess of Devil’s Backbone IPA’s or the funny highlighter scarfs tied around the mic-stands, they were awesome. This band was a mystery to me in the lineup, but as always that is often the best part. Rubblebucket was unlike any other band at the festival and completely rocked out on stage. It had been a long day of music so the crowd was not up to full speed, and some bluegrass fans were thoroughly confused. They had an addictive female lead singer that bounced around with the 2-man horn section. The other half of the band seemed to be the guitar-bass-drummer combo. These guys were in-sync with each other the entire set and were very much technically impressive. It’s hard to describe their sound so just check them out.
Saturday night officially ended without enough strength to check out the campfire jams. However I did hear rumors of Stringdusters roaming the campgrounds adding their picking skills to the get downs.
Sunday was a bit of a slower day. There seemed to be less of a day-pass crowd. Music started out with a local friend Carl Anderson. He’s really grown in the past few years and put together a pretty sweet set. Nice and smooth on the nice Sunday afternoon. We then checked out the Canadian all-lady band The Good Lovelies. They really had a great sound and also provided a hilarious impression of Bob Dylan’s Christmas album.
To be honest, The Wood Brothers were my most anticipated show of the weekend. They did not let me down. Having just released a new album that I had not heard, I was super surprised to see a drummer!! This was an excellent addition and they honestly blew me away. They took old songs and somewhat remixed them. Usually hating when this happens, this time I could not slap the dumb grin off my face.
David Grisman is amazing. This guy is old school as hell and has played with an incredible list of people stretching from bluegrass to jam. He is also a pretty funny guy on stage. David Grisman Sextet had a wonderful set. Very progressive but still had that twang of traditional skill. His Mandolin was superb but the favorite of this had to be the flutist.
Then again came the Stringdusters to close the festival out. They took this set a little slower than the night before. This was nice because it had been a taxing weekend. They really showed skill in some of these ballad-ish songs rather than just trading off solos. This seemed to be more of a showing of the new album.
It was great when David Grisman was invited onto the stage. This set a bit more of a jamming tone and pumped up the crowd. After this they continued on the spree of pumping out complete songs all together. This set definitely had more of a concert-venue feel to it. They wrapped it up with a ‘Deep Elem Blues’ cover and a 10 minute jam that failed nobody in the crowd. The festival was then officially concluded by a bagpipe outro on stage. A bit odd? But a perfect ending to what I can only sum up as a nice little weekend.
See you next year Festy.
PHOTOS BY MATT SURY: