Close your eyes and think about a place where you feel like your absolute best self. Where the worries of the world no longer exist, and a warm calmness wraps its arms around you. Now open your eyes and look out over an endless spread of mountain tops, fields full of green grass and rolling hills, blue skies, and tree lines. This is FloydFest.
Tucked within the Blue Ridge Mountains off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the grounds spread along a serene landscape waiting for you to arrive. Friendly faces help you and your bags on to school buses for the haul to the top. This ride is filled with smiling faces and excited voices whispering, "I can't wait to get there," "I wait all year for this," and "This is my favorite place on Earth."
Arriving on Thursday, the campsite nestled in the bordering trees was already filled to the brim with tent cities and hammock hangouts. Twenty minutes later, we'd found enough space to string up our hammocks and rain guard, and it was time to get busy finding our first show.
The Dead 27's and Rebekah Todd & the Odyssey played on opposite stages with overlapping times which gave us our first schedule conflict of the weekend. Luckily, the stages were close enough to catch half of each show. The men who make up the Dead 27's are an attractive crew, with smiles that lock on and hold you in place at the front of the stage. Lined evenly across and exchanging glances, they delivered a seemingly effortless performance consistent of a band deeply connected as both professionals and best friends. The belting vocal range of Rebekah Todd was an undeniable force that could not be ignored. The winner of last year’s Band on the Rise, she earned and deserved the title, and carried herself on stage like she was already a superstar.
On my first walk to the main stage, I noticed new additions to the grounds for this year. A giant butterfly with fire antennas and flags on either side, one of which read ”breathe” and the other “liberation,” as well as a beautiful butterfly garden tent that sat illuminated by LED lights. Each year the changing theme of FloydFest brings a variety of art exhibits and permanent fixture additions such as a wooden Phoenix which was lit on fire for The Fire On The Mountain theme in 2015, a wooden archway from 2016 painted with the FloydFest logo and a platform underneath. The archway is the go to place for your festival squad photos, and a secret stage outside of the main gate that was constructed to play host to last year’s late night show with The Pimps Of Joytime. This year’s theme, “Freedom,” was exemplified by the new butterfly constructions as well as in sets of decorative wings worn throughout the weekend by attendees.
The Hip Abduction took to the main stage and had couples dancing throughout the crowd, swinging and swaying to the beat. Stages emptied out around the venue and folks made their way through the crowd to get in place for Thievery Corporation. The night was cooling down as the stage was heating up, and an energetic set with plenty of lights swept over the crowd demanding our attention and participation. Walking to Big Something, I felt like I should be winding down, but held up strong until the end of their set which closed the first night with fireworks on the final notes shooting high into the night sky.
Waking up Friday, it was clear we had slept into a serious shift in the weather. Much cooler and cloudier, the rain loomed overhead, warning me to take my rain gear along, and I listened. I covered a lot of ground, catching bits of sets by South Hill Banks, Hayley Jane & the Primates, McLovins, and Strange Americans. That afternoon, I made my way to an interview at the Speakeasy stage with the Dead 27s while my festival partner, Amber, headed over to the merch tent for a chat with Rebekah Todd & the Odyssey; divide and conquer.
The rain reared its ugly head on and off all day in that annoying way where as soon as you put your raincoat on and it stops, but take it off and it starts again. Our time with the bands provided informative and entertaining conversation as well as shelter from the rain and a few minutes to replenish our energy for the upcoming evening.
Michael Franti is somewhat of a resident artist at FloydFest, making consistent appearances on the lineup, and something about his energy and mere presence on the property radiates a vibe and excitement in everyone. I said hopefully, "The clouds will part and open up for Franti."
Lo and behold, 30 minutes before his set, the rain stopped completely. Granted, it would be short lived and would start pouring halfway through the set again. The raw energy of the show mixed with catchy sing along melodies and his captivating words kept all of the crowd, myself included, from noticing or caring about the gross weather we were trapped in.
Two bands getting a lot of chatter were TAUK and White Denim, both of whom played at the Hill Holler stage on Friday night. We had to hustle to make it but caught TAUK before it ended and instantly knew what all the fuss and t-shirts around the festival were about. Jamming through the set, lights swung all over the dancing crowd, and everybody moved until the final note hit.
The rain set in over everyone waiting for White Denim, but nobody scrambled. This had my attention. Bodies were slamming to the ground all over the steep hill stage as people moved about. These are the times where you really see what you and the people around you are made of. Every part of you wants to find shelter and somewhere dry to hide, but you know the show will go on so you'd better stay. In this case, I've never been happier I didn't crumble. From the opening song to the last strum of the electric guitar, White Denim shredded through each song, carrying all of the screaming, dancing, and cheering crowd along with them. I couldn't believe it was my first time experiencing their show, but I guarantee it won't be my last.
My expectations for Saturday, like my energy, were low, as we were in for another day of frustrating weather and cold rain, but I didn't come here to cry about it. The Jordan Harman Band was my first stop. His voice poured out over the Speakeasy tent, instantly brightening my mood. His lyrics about his loving his wife, being a new father, and living a genuinely happy life were inspirational and satisfying.
Next up, the Jon Stickley Trio jammed through their hour set and got the crowd on their feet early in the afternoon. Their unique combination of bluegrass, hip hop, and rock is a funky and contagious rhythm. I talked with the band later in the day and the expertise each member brings with their unique musical background is the key to what makes them successful.
The Buffalo Mountain Jam on Saturday night was the most anticipated set of the weekend. Led by Keller Williams, who stepped up in 2016 to quickly orchestrate the event after Gregg Allman was forced to cancel. This year, artists from the lineup including Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Larry Keel, Xavier Rudd, Shook Twins, and Baskery took to the stage performing hits from the late Gregg Allman and Amy Winehouse with flawless execution and jam band spins.
I danced all the way from the main stage to the bottom of Hill Holler to be front and center for St. Paul & the Broken Bones, my excitement couldn't be contained. As they do, St. Paul & the Broken Bones hit the stage and delivered a full set at level 11 energy. Paul's dance moves and full falsetto wowed the audience who packed the hill from bottom to top after the Buffalo Mountain Jam ended. If attendees didn't know St. Paul & the Broken Bones before Saturday night, they surely did after.
If Bob Ross could paint you the perfect day, it would've looked exactly like Sunday. It was as if FloydFest had finally washed away all of its patron's sins and the clouds had straight run out of rain. The sky was a stunning, iridescent blue, and the temperature was perfect. Bodies were littered all over the ground soaking in the sun they'd suffered without for days. Every face was smiling, and everyone had on their finest and driest threads to stroll through Sunday.
Catching sets from Fruition, Baskery, Mama Said String Band, and Shovels & Rope was the perfect mix to end the weekend. Smooth sounds and exceptional musicianship, the chemistry between Shovels & Rope as they belted out lyrics in a shared microphone, and the knee-stomping swing dancing while watching Mama Said String Band completed the memory reel I will keep from this year. It was time to pack up and go.
Saying goodbye to the mountain is always the hardest part, but the satisfaction and soul renewal you carry away is enough to get you through the 365 days between departure and return. The execution of the weekend was flawless, and the location is unbeatable. If you’ve never experienced FloydFest, make next year the year
Photos By Ragan Dickson for Bullet Music