The 7th Annual Festy Experience took place at a new location this year, but The Infamous Stringdusters’ family reunion never felt more like home. Held at Nelson County Preserve over October 7-9, The Stringdusters were joined by Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, Sam Bush Band, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Elephant Revival, Fruition and many more. Here are just five of our favorite moments from the unbelievable weekend, including a run down of The Stringdusters’ multiple sets.
The Steep Canyon Rangers
After everyone had gotten a chance to acclimate to the new site and the soggy weather, The Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage around 6:30 on Friday evening, and this was the moment that really kicked off The Festy party. The heralded quintet from Brevard, North Carolina really sprinted out of the gate with intense improvisational breaks as well as mountain melodies that brought everyone into each other’s arms. Nicky Sanders was the man of the hour, hopping around like Tigger in his orange sneakers, at times literally teetering on the edge of his balance, and diving well into the realm of insanity with his slashing bow and fiddle. After a grey, rainy day, the Rangers’ ferociousness spread to everyone in attendance, and the morale carried over into the rest of the weekend.
With no need for classification, Fruition has staked their claim as one of the most exciting stringed bands on the planet. Their loyal fans at The Festy saw the band display unwavering intensity coursing through acoustic and electric instrumentation alike. Fruition played much of their varied catalogue, including quite a few from the new album, Labor of Love. Mandolinist Mimi Naja and guitarist Jay Cobb Anderson carried themselves on stage with a level of swagger that invigorated everyone in the eager crowd. They dedicated a song to the Festy called “Let’s Take It Too Far”, that really hit home to the big happy family in attendance. This was one about wandering around the campgrounds late at night, looking for a pickin’ party, and Anderson sung of the nights when a campfire song particularly moves you to “get swallowed by the beauty of the night.” The love this band has for each other was downright inspiring to behold, and with the help of West Coast pals Nikki Bluhm and Andy Dunnigan (of The Lil’ Smokies), it was very apparent that performing together is a true labor of love for Fruition.
The Lil’ Smokies
The Lil’ Smokies arrived at The Festy riding the wave of their recent IBMA 2016 Momentum Award for Best Band, which follows their win at the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition.
The Saturday late-night show on the sheltered Skyline Stage was not dampened by the all-day rain, not by a long shot. The Lil’ Smokies brought their enthusiastic energy to the stage while the crowd stomped their feet in the red clay mud of Virginia. Jake Simpson stomped his feet as well, while ripping on the fiddle alongside the powerful speed of Matt Cornette’s banjo. The Lil’ Smokies have really turned it up on the Progressive Bluegrass scene and have continued to impress at every stop of their current tour. When they were joined for a sit in by Mimi Naja of Fruition, The Lil’ Smokies stepped it up and shook the roof. The Festy fans were rewarded with amazing mandolin playing from Mimi, creating a full-bodied 6-piece sound that isn’t often heard. The pieces and sounds fit so well together thanks to the band’s impeccable timing. The matching of Andy Dunnigan’s dobro and Jake Simpson’s fiddle filled up the tent, drowned out the rain, and the crowd went wild.
The Infamous Stringdusters’ Family Reunion
Every year The Festy Experience comes with undeniable sense of community, a unifying purpose that draws people to the music, and each other. This is because The Infamous Stringdusters have hosted The Festy since its beginning, when they were making their name as a band and living in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia. ‘Dusters fans, locally and nationally, consider themselves to be one big family (or Jamily?), and this is the big homecoming, the family reunion that we look forward to each every year. Naturally, the boys showed up in a big way for their favorite fanatics, with a Friday night set dubbed “Ladies & Gentleman”, that featured sit-ins from numerous female artists that recorded on their latest album of the same name including Nikki Bluhm, Abigail Washburn and Sara Watkins. This set was highlighted by a Fleck and Washburn assisted version of the Blind Willie Johnson original, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, played in the blues style popularized by The Grateful Dead.
The Stringdusters headlined a somewhat clearer Saturday night, drawing from all corners of their catalogue and then some for an epic two-set celebration. The guys were visibly elated from the outset, especially early on in the set during “Hitchhiker”. As Jeremy Garrett sung the chorus “Buddy won’t you take me to Virginia”, he wore the grin of a young man seeing his childhood dog for the first time in years, radiating that blissful, grounded feeling that only comes from being home. The ensuing two sets had people clamoring about some of the highest on-stage energy they had ever seen from the band. Every song the played that night was a journey of it’s own, spinning through favorites like “I’ll Get Away”, “Let It Go” and “Highwayman” with a healthy mix of well-known classics such as the ever-popular “Not Fade Away” with Bluhm, and a communally sung “Jack Straw”.
One could point to the meticulous flat-picking of Andy Falco or the face-melting twang from Andy Hall’s dobro; maybe the steady bombing from the stand-up bass of Travis Book or the bewildering determination of Chris Pandolfi, or rightfully lay the credit on Garrett’s fiery fiddle solos to define this performance. What really made this show so special though, was that The ‘Dusters came together and passionately played their hearts out for their fans, friends and family, leaving it all on that beautiful, mud-covered field.
Sunny Sunday, Funday
Come Sunday morning, the sun finally peeked over the Blue Ridge Mountains to awaken campers to a stunningly beautiful, crisp and sun-soaked fall day. Even with a mid-afternoon propane explosion (in which no one was seriously injured), the bright morale of The Festy could not be held back. Fans were treated to the GarrettGrass Gospel Hour to start the day, in which Jeremy dedicated a solo guitar song to The Jamily, and led multiple ‘Dusters and guests in a spiritual Sunday performance. After gracing the main stage in their own sets, Sam Bush brought out Jim Lauderdale, Lyle Lovett, along with Bonnie Paine and Bridget Law of Elephant Revival for a touching encore, the old gospel hymn turned bluegrass standard, “I’ll Fly Away”.