Nestled among the rolling peaks of the Appalachian Mountains sits a plateau speckled with patches of forest and open pasture. And for the 15th year in a row, this plateau hosted Floydfest, a five-day music and arts festival that brought together the likes of musician and fan, adventurer and dreamer, old and young, and everything in between.
This bubble of fun, connection, and community sits on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about a half hour from Roanoke, Virginia. And what you are faced with upon arriving is a special aura that stems from the creators, vendors, attendees, but most importantly the bands, uniformly carrying their unique sounds and a distinct energy. Inspired by the music and passion of the Grateful Dead, this festival focuses on the hungry artist and the “roots” band, and truly excels at providing intimate spaces for these musicians to unleash their spark on spectators.
As an attendee, you come across bands like The Forlorn Strangers, whose journey to Floydfest came after a successful Kickstarter campaign and 16 months into their first tour. Briefly delayed by some technical sound issues, this upstart Americana band spontaneously played an intimate acoustic set among the crowd in the Speakeasy Tent.
Music? Check. Magic? Check.
Throughout the weekend, spectators also saw established musicians; from artists like Bruce Hornsby to Warren Haynes to Anders Osborne and company jamming out an extended version of Fools Gold as the sun slipped beyond the ridge.
According to co-founder of the festival and the main securer of talent, Kris Hodges, Floydfest tries “to pick music that is more on the roots side of things. It keeps it real. It doesn’t separate the artist from the crowd.” He continues, “We are all people here.” And one thing Floydfest absolutely does, that can be tough to find in the growing market of corporate-run festivals, is foster that connection between artist and fan.
Floydfest drove that connection deeper at the Workshop Porch. At this sweet corner of the venue, fans could ask their favorite artists questions, and artists could answer with stories and insights. Often, these artists would then play a song inspired by the conversation, or improvise an extended piece composed of running chords and off-the-cuff melodies.
Shakey Graves at the Workshop Porch, Photo Courtesy of Holly Warfield
This feeling of inclusivity stretched out to envelop the design of the stages, too. Each of the 9 performance spaces (10 this year, if you include the Pimps of Joytimes’ secret “Lost in Time” set at 2am) were carefully crafted to create an intimate setting between artist and attendee.
From the Garden Stage, nestled between forest campgrounds, that saw The Hip Abduction showering their shaded fans with tropical, funky, afro-beat reggae jams, to the Libations Tent who hosted the Screaming J’s and their out-of-this-world intensity and charisma. And it didn’t stop there. Hell, a SECRET STAGE was created and tucked down a narrow path amongst the trees, and no one was the wiser until the day of the set.
At the end of the day, aside from the welcoming and magical environment, most people are there for the music. The headliners, the up-and-coming bands you know in your heart are at the cusp of being a household name, and the bands that “you knew about before anyone else” can all be found here at Floydfest. You’ll see the neighborhood kids, Of Company, who are still in high school and jamming out in their garage; and you’ll find Shakey Graves, a fantastic storyteller and a gifted musician. You’ll see Nahko and Medicine for the People sharing their songs interlaced with messages of inclusiveness, Con Brio creating a dance happy energy that reminds you of Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars, and you’ll wake up to Elephant Revival’s soothing and uplifting melodies.
In further support of up-and-coming artists, Floydfest’s “On the Rise Competition” gives an extra kick to their carefully selected bands. Walk into the Speakeasy Tent, and you’re guaranteed to fall in love with a band you’ve never heard of. Give them a vote, and if they win the competition, they are locked in a set the following year at the main stage in addition to a top-of-the-line set of microphones, a merchandise package, and $2,500 to spare.
Also, when you frequently attend multi-day music and arts festivals, like I do, you often find yourself in a sea of 20-somethings, with what feels like no cap on the attendance. At Floydfest it felt like the festival was built just for me, it wasn’t overcrowded, there were plenty of 20-somethings, but they weren’t alone. With a mission to “…sell a limited quantity of tickets to the highest quality event experience, bar none, celebrating music, art and life in an intimate, visually stunning environment,” this festival reached every age group.
For example, there was a stage strictly dedicated to “Jr. Artists”; those kids who haven’t yet seen high school but whose impassioned dreams are still intact. And they got to be just as much a contributor to Floydfest as bands like the Monophonics. You would find these Jr. Artists playing live sets at the Imagine Stage, or even speckled throughout the grounds, propped up with their guitar and singing a Beatle’s cover.
And here’s one for the road; you know how at festivals with multiple stages, the two bands you really want to see are always on at the same time? Floydfest fixes this in a way that you don’t see at other big-time festivals, by lining up almost every band for at least two sets on different stages. For me, this was a major x factor. I wasn’t forced to choose. Also, if I wanted to see a band twice, I could, and because the performances were on two different stages, the experiences were completely different.
Raw music was fundamental to the core of the festival. Magic bloomed in every corner, thanks to the detailed design of the sets. And a mission with the priority of creating quality experiences before attendance numbers. All in all, this festival hit the trifecta.
With those three ingredients, Floydfest ‘16 rocked the mountaintop. Don’t miss out for what’s in store next year.
Check out these additional images courtesy of Ojeda Photography
The T Sisters at Hill Holler Stage (above)