Arriving the Thursday night before Redwing is a bit like Christmas Eve. The setup is all there, you can see the shape of still dim lights and, like a little kid, you can’t wait to go sleep in anticipation of what awaits the next day. For four years, the Natural Chimneys Regional Park has been home to one of Virginia’s favorite music festivals: Red Wing Roots. The weekend is a production of The Steel Wheels, a Harrisonburg band that devotes itself to roots music, combining the Gospel of their religious background with the traditional folk and bluegrass music of Virginia.
Since the first Red Wing in 2013, the event has packed the Natural Chimneys Park nearly to its limit. The beautiful green layout of the festival is dwarfed by the grand stone pillars. While many festivals shift and tweak their formulas from year to year in order to get the experience just right, Red Wing had their formula down pat after year one. The music is split between four total stages, with constant alternation between the two main ones, and workshops and specialty performances on the smaller ones. When asked about the continued longevity of the festival, Steel Wheels front man Trent Wagler said “We’ve never really looked back since the first year.”
This year’s festivities began Friday at noon as harmonious and soft folk duo Anna & Elizabeth took the stage, followed shortly by an energetic and fast paced performance by The Woodshedders. The colorful crowds rushed in, called to the stage by the irresistible sounds of California progressive bluegrass group Front Country, a group especially notable for the vibrant and soulful performance by their lead singer, Melody Walker. One of the highlights of Friday’s performances was that of Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Shelton, age 73, sat on stage and sang a funky medley of Gospel and soul with her two backup singers
After a show from the unique Hiss Golden Messenger, the sun began to fall, and the Natural Chimneys were lit with a fantastic colorful array of lights. The Steep Canyon Rangers arrived to perform a set of distinctly tried-and-true traditional bluegrass. Immediately thereafter on the opposing stage the greatest sets of the weekend, in my opinion, began. Jarekus Singleton, and his accompanying band tore it up with their electric, funk heavy blues rock. Afterwards audiences had an option to either keep the energy up with a set from Red Wing veterans Yarn, or to relax for the night with Dawes’ particular blend of smooth indie rock and folk. After both bands finished, The Black Lilies wrapped up the already fantastic first night of Red Wing.
Saturday was just as exciting, as two trios (Dom Flemons and John Stickley) played back to back, both delivering sets of awe inspiring song writing and virtuosity. Mipso took the Southern Stage starting slowly and then ramping up their performance as the show went on, playing fun covers and more upbeat tunes, whipping the audience into anticipation of sets by Chris Smither, The Good Lovelies, and Tony Furtado. The truly anticipated highlight, however, was no doubt the performance by event hosts The Steel Wheels. Though Trent Wagler’s charismatic performance makes him the undoubted front man, it’s hard to ignore just how much fun the rest of the band is having up there with him, leaning up into the center mike to deliver those fantastic Gospel harmonies they’re known for. Characteristic of their humility, they didn’t close their own show, but were followed by The Lone Bellow noted for their vocally harmonious and piano heavy brand of indie folk. The evening closed with a set from Mountain Heart. A new addition to the band made Mountain Heart’s show better as 5 time Grammy nominee and captivating singer Molly Cherryholmes joined the quartet on fiddle and vocals, making their show an unforgettable end to the night.
Typical festival Sundays do have a tendency to be a little less energetic, as the looming threat of Monday morning is ever present in festival-goer’s heads. Red Wing is anything but typical, as they saved some of their biggest and most anticipated performances for Sunday. Seeing as the roots theme of Red Wing ties into the very essence of musical tradition, it is fitting for the festival to have some tradition of its own. For the last four years Red Wing has always begun Sunday with a Gospel set, which is advertised as “With the Steel Wheels” the with being a huge musical collaboration, bringing up the weekend’s many guests to join The Steel Wheels in playing Gospel tunes that go back decades or even centuries.
Having properly woken festival attendees, Amy Helm, daughter of music legend Levon Helm, and her band joyously played a slightly electric blend of folk rock and Americana. Three of the last bands to play happened to be some of the biggest acts there. Recurring performer, Crooked Still front-woman, and Americana superstar, Aoife O’Donovan, captured the crowds with her uniquely soothing voice and brilliant songwriting. Before crowds even had a chance to bathe in the afterglow of her performance, they had to but turn their heads to see 8 piece old-time, blues group, Dustbowl Revival, a band that could likely turn a funeral into a swinging hotspot with their upbeat and catchy tunes. Finally, headliners Shovels and Rope ceremoniously and lovingly ended the music of the weekend.
As the fourth year ends on a successful note, with a weekend of uninterrupted and brilliant performances accompanied by perfect weather, it became clear that Red Wing is becoming a lasting presence in the Southern music festival world. Trent Wagler commented “ I don’t think the question of stopping the festival has really come up, and I think some of that is a little bit of luck, and a lot of preparation.” For me, there is certainly question either, Red Wing Roots is on my list of festivals not to miss in 2017.