A cluster of smiling faces met me at the entrance to Rooster Walk in bright yellow t-shirts welcoming me and handing over parking passes and credentials. "Is this your first Rooster Walk?" was one of the first questions asked to me, but it wouldn't be the last time. I answered, "Yes it is, and I'm so excited to be here!"
"Well it won't be your last" an immediate and almost afterthought response followed combined with a grin that spread wider on the man's face as he opened the door to the car.
No sir, it definitely won't be.
If I had any artistic capability above that of an elementary stick figure level to draw you the perfect day, I would draw the scene that was Friday. I don't so here's a verbal description instead. It was a warm but comfortable 79 degrees, the bluest skies for as far as you could see, and a subtle breeze every now and then would blow through the hundreds of trees throughout the property. Tents and RVs were situated all around the outside of the parking area down to the bottom of and on top of hills fitting wherever they could. After parking, choosing to ignore all responsibility of setting up a camp spot and stringing up my hammock, I made my way into the main grounds to check out the scene.
You know when you first arrive at your grandma's for the holidays and you walk around greeting everyone? That is exactly what happened walking into the main grounds. Staff members stretched out their arms and wore huge smiles, pulled me in for hugs, handshakes, and engaged me in convo with a genuine interest in the stories of where it was I came from then each and everyone thanked me for coming. Eagerly pointing out directions, I noticed the backs of their t-shirts had Family in place of where staff or some other job title description would normally be.
The walk from the entrance to the visible end of the grounds took about eight minutes. I stood in awe at the panorama in front of me I reached at the end, which was a breathtaking wide open lake and a stage situated directly in front of it.
South Hill Banks smooth bluegrass sounds played from this lake stage as I had my first meal. I asked other wandering patrons for recommendations on what to eat, every response was the same, "Get the spicy ahi tuna taco!"
So I did and they were all correct, it was delicious.
Finishing up my taco, the funky beats of Mason Via Funk drew me off of my seat at the picnic table for some dancing in the sunshine at the main stage. Immediately following the funky set was the sunset Susto. During this show, was the first of the unique celebrity encounters of the weekend.
Here we were singing the lyrics to "Acid Boy" swaying to the beat, and standing within arms distance behind me was The Wailers entire band. They watched the Susto set from mid-audience, with no security and no hesitation. I prefer small festivals for experiences like this. Nobody rushed them for autographs or photos. Instead, we all just danced together. They disappeared and Susto exited after a perfectly delivered set.
Anderson East and Jon Stickley Trio were up next and were the first of the evening's schedule conflicts, proving tricky for fans to choose between. Catching a little of each show, I understood why. Jon Stickley had strings screaming from the Pine stage tucked among the trees. The show's attendees were pouring sweat and stomping their feet to the non-stop, high energy flow of the set. Meanwhile, delivering a series of popular covers crossing between soul, blues, and country Anderson East's voice reached out into the crowd while his hands waved us forward to keep singing along.
The Wailers took to the main stage at 10 P.M. and that was the last time I looked at the clock. Bright yellow, red, and green lights, popular colors representative of the reggae genre, welcomed us to the set and blanketed over the band who instantly fired to life. Not a minute of the set went by without music, even as lead singer Josh Barrett talked of departed leader Bob Marley and how much he's still missed. Barrett also spent time talking to us about the Rastafarian lifestyle while the smooth grooves of familiar tunes played the background to his words. Hands in the crowd stretched out to the sky, heads tilted back with eyes closed and smiling faces, dancers wrapped themselves in their own arms embracing the warmth.
Barrett's shirt, a multi-colored long sleeve tee, had Marley's face on both the front and the back helping us never lose sight of him. Somehow, as Barrett sang to us, and we looked at him and that reminding t, it felt like Marley was there among us too. It's been 36 years since his passing, but Marley is still just as present today.
The final shows of Friday evening, Pimps of Joytime and Love Canon had fans scattering after The Wailers wrapped their set. Heading backstage, I chatted with earlier performer Susto, all of us tripping over words to describe the incredible set we had witnessed. Then suddenly the Wailers emerged from between their bus and the stage and greeted each of us, shaking hands and humbly accepting our respects for a show we expressed to them and mutually felt among us. The exchange contained a mutual praise between both bands members as The Wailers reciprocated the love and praise thanking Susto for their 7 P.M. set. A real life pinch me moment.
ShadowGrass, an up and coming youth bluegrass band lead by 12-year-old Presley Barker, kicked off Saturday morning. Downing delicious breakfast care of local festival favorite Sugar Shack, the picnic tables were packed with people who were all watching and conversing about the talent of the young group. Meanwhile, the popular and sold out Brunch, Ballads, and Beer was happening at the Pine stage with eats by 616 and tunes from acts Josh Shilling, Violet Bell, and Andrew Marlin.
Mountain Heart played their first set of the day to a mellow audience of onlookers. Posted up in the shade, I watched kids running in circles and resting parents in hammocks, while the Mandolin Orange played at the main stage. It was here the news broke that Gregg Allman had passed away and an unmistakable sadness settled over all of us. Bands took to the stage playing tribute to the legend adding songs to their set lists from the dozens of tunes in a vast catalog, or at a minimum, making mention and paying respects during their sets.
Erin and the Wildfire, Mipso, Empire Strikes Brass, and the Trongone Band pulled us through the difficult day. The Marcus King Band played their 6:30 P.M. set and popped up again multiple times over Saturday evening assisting in some of the day's most memorable cover song moments.
The Saturday evening schedule conflict between Anders Osborne and The Jammy Jam hosted by Mountain Heart had fans jogging between the sets, working to catch a little of both. The day's weather radar had threatened rain every hour forcing us to wear boots and carry rain gear in preparedness. By the time I posted up for Greensky Bluegrass at 10 P.M., I was ripping off my rain boots.
Greensky Bluegrass spread out in front of me, on a stage full of dazzling and mesmerizing lights. It was a beautiful and unforgettable set filled with fans singing along, balloons bouncing through the air, and fire dancers putting on their finest alongside the crowd. Marcus King joined the stage somewhere close to mid-set and the combo played "One Way Out" the 1971 Allman Brothers hit from album Eat A Peach. That wouldn't be the last of Marcus King, the band taking to the Pine stage again during the midnight time slot while The Motet played their show on the lake stage in front of a gorgeous light show over the top of the lake.
From there, everyone made the walk back to camp, celebrating a fantastic day of music, even if shadowed by a somber mood. At the least, we had the music and each other. Looking around we all shared that realization. Of all the places to feel this sad about Allman's passing, we were extremely fortunate it was here.
Sunday morning the VIP hospitality area was full of people telling stories from Saturday night, comparing notes of their favorite shows and moments while enjoying Bloody Mary's from Roanoke restaurateur, and mixologist Hunter Johnson of Lucky, Stellina, and Fortunato, as well as music by Violet Bell. My conversations with others who are equally as passionate about music set the tone for the last day.
Said to be a day of rest, rest I did on Sunday. Stunning oversized wood furniture from a company called Blackfeather Furniture was placed on the grounds and all weekend had been full of appreciative resting bodies. With a little luck, the famous swing at the lake stage was open for trying out, as was the double lounger. Sitting and enjoying another set from Erin and The Wildfire, who stunned the crowd with covers from Lake Street Dive, I looked around to take in the sights from the property and memorizing the scenery during my last hours there.
Yarn played the first of two sets scheduled Sunday and a little bit of rain fell over us. Then the sky opened up and the rest of the day was beautiful. The Commonheart took the early evening time slot, playing through sunset, tracks from 2016 album Grown to fans spread along the hill of the main stage on blankets and in lawn chairs. Yarn and Stop Light Observations had the 8 P.M. shows on opposing stages.
Stop Light Observations' first appearance of the weekend had fans who had been anxiously awaiting their arrival singing along with hits from the 2016 album TOOGOODOO. Yarn took a different angle for their second set impressing fans with a Rolling Stone's tribute full set in the trees. Timothy Hawley, a fan on Facebook commented in response to the show, "It boggles my mind that someone can perform an entire set of someone else's music for the first time and remember all the words." Add in the execution of energy and sound, it was a perfect finale to the weekend's shows on the Pine Grove stage.
A conversation during the weekend in the media RV is one I can't stop going back to. As a group, we are fortunate to attend various festivals in cities and states all over the country, working with people from all walks of life, and collecting an abundance of stories to share. What makes or breaks a festival is the organization, attention to detail, grounds setup, work area accommodations, and the vibe.
As a group, we compared stories of the good and the bad. Rooster Walk, we unanimously agreed, is among the best. A flawlessly executed weekend keeps the staff, vendors, media, and patrons coming back year after year. Some folks in the conversation had worked with the festival since the beginning nine years ago. The veterans told us that regardless of how things have changed and progressed that they consistently look forward to coming back year after year.
Thank you so much for having us Rooster Walk and leaving us with the same anxiousness to get back and see it again next year!
Photos By Ashley Acker for Bullet Music