The Infamous Stringdusters and Sam Bush Band jam at the 2017 Festy Experience – photo by Teresa Gereaux
This is the first of two reports on this year’s Festy. We’ll also have a lovely photo essay and report from Gina Proulx later this week.
The 2017 Festy Experience at Infinity Downs Farm in Arrington, Virginia is a celebration of bluegrass and Americana music. The Infamous Stringdusters are the main attraction for many Festy fans and they did not disappoint. The band played three sets throughout the weekend plus a visit to the Almost E-Town stage, hosted by E-town’s Nick Forster. The Stringdusters’ energetic shows are a combination of lightning fast picking, amazing singers and ripping instrumentals. The band also has wonderful harmonies on songs like This Old Building and Let It Go.
Stringduster set lists include many originals as well as songs from other bluegrass songwriters. Originals were too numerous to name but included, Gravity, Maxell, 1901 A Canyon Odyssey, High Country Funk, Rivers Run Cold, I Run to You, and A Hard Life Makes a Good Song, written by Jon Weisberger and ‘Duster Jeremy Garrett.
Stringduster sets always include several bluegrass classics, such as Molly and Tenbrooks and Hit Parade of Love, and Festy weekend included plenty of great covers. The Stringdusters will be releasing an album of cover songs later this month titled Undercover, Volume 2. Their sets through the weekend featured several of these, including Stash (a Phish song), Get Lucky from Daft Punk, Old and in the Way’s Hobo Song, Merle Haggard’s I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, the Allman Brothers’ Jessica and J.J. Cale’s After Midnight.
Just about every band covered Tom Petty songs during the weekend. The Stringdusters, joined by mando-master Sam Bush, played American Girl, a song they’ve done many times before. The Drive By Truckers offered up an incredible cover of The Waiting. Traveling McCourys prefaced their version of Love is a Long Road with a story from Ronnie McCoury, who said they once met Petty, who told Del McCoury that his version of the song was his favorite cover of any of his songs.
Sam Bush referenced the sad events of Las Vegas and thanked fans for coming out for live music. He invited fans to join him in making a statement by singing Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. It was a powerful moment as everyone in the crowd joined in song. Bush later played a new song called Stop the Violence.
Bush played to a packed crowd under a full moon, which led to a hot version of Howl where the Festy crowd howled happily along to the chorus. Bush clearly loves to perform and his passion for the music is easy to see.
Nick Forster and Danny Barnes played throughout the weekend. Forster, of eTtown fame and Hot Rize, hosted the Almost e-Town stage doing short interviews with artists between songs in a workshop setting. The duo played several times throughout the weekend as a duo and with others like the Stringdusters, with Joan Osborne and with Della Mae and Traveling McCourys. Barnes is a great songwriter and his Get It While You Can is a favorite at Stringduster shows. It was nice to hear him sing it too with a different delivery, but still every bit as fun!
Female acts featured prominently on the Festy lineup. Bluegrass women included Della Mae for several great sets as well as IBMA award winner Sierra Hull. Folk rocker Ani DeFranco and singer extraordinaire Joan Osborne, who is touring with a set of Bob Dylan songs, also headlined the main stage.
The Traveling McCourys grounded Saturday’s schedule with a hot bluegrass set. Ronnie McCoury talked about how some bluegrass fans came to the music through the Grateful Dead. He related how he came to know Dead music through Old and In the Way. Several bands marked this intersection of the Grateful Dead and bluegrass. The Stringdusters played Not Fade Away and The McCoury’s covered Brown Eyed Women. Even Emi Sunshine got in on the Dead, wrapping up her show with Sugaree.
The Jerry Douglas Band presented a rocking set of grassy spaceyness. Jazz and folk influences took on a new form in songs like Hey Joe, a Billy Roberts song that became a Jimi Hendrix classic.
Emi Sunshine and the Rain is a family band fronted by 13-year-old Emi, who has a voice like a grown up soul singer. Her set included several original songs and unexpected covers, like Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. Emi also served as the emcee for the Blue Ridge Outdoors stage.
Dori Freeman did a great set of traditional music, much of it with roots in Virginia through the Carter Family and others. Phoebe Hunt and the Gathers was another great show. Hunt and her band are talented musicians, and she shared a positive message.
The Garrett Grass Gospel Hour is always a highlight of Festy. Curated by Jeremy Garrett, the uplifting Sunday morning set led off with Garrett and his guitar on I Believe, a song he wrote with Mountain Heart’s Josh Shilling.
“They say black, white, left and right, but I believe somewhere in between. We’re all sisters and brothers and love one another then it’s all not just a dream. We can live and die in harmony. It’s that easy. That’s what I believe.”
The Gospel hour always includes a jam by Festy artists. Daniel Lawrence Walker sang John the Revelator. Sarah Siskind, Nick Forster and Danny Barnes joined Garrett and Travis Book for several numbers, including Jesus on the Mainline. Phoebe Hunt and Dominick Leslie also contributed to the set along with the Shook Twins and Bonnie Paine from Elephant Revival.
Emi Sunshine took the stage with just her ukulele and amazed the audience with her rendition of Buddy Miller’s Fall on the Rock.
Garrett sang his beautiful Lean on Love, another song that perfectly addresses what is needed in today’s divided and often heartbreaking world. The set then closed with Danny Barnes leading the audience and all the performers in Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Amen to that!
Festy was warm and sunny and full of great music and beautiful fall scenery. The Festy community of fans and bands make it special. Lots of friends from years past reconnect at Festy and welcome new friends each year as they share their common love of this music. Kudos to Infinity Downs and all the Festy crews and vendors for a great event!