In its inaugural year, Anastasia Music Festival was an intimate affair, nestled in the ancient Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida. It was one of those rare festivals, with plenty of room, and where everyone was on the same page, giving musicians and music lovers an environment to engage in a communal celebration of each other. While centered around bluegrass and Americana music, there was also plenty of diversity, with notable performances coming from three generations of the McCoury Family, David Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience, Sam Bush Band, Fruition, Elephant Revival, Jeff Austin Band, Cabinet, the Jon Stickley Trio, Mandolin Orange and many more.
The spirit of the weekend was plainly manifested by one band in particular, Fruition, who was all over the place at St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Fruition’s fire is fueled by love, and that fire burned hot during their three sets, multiple collaborations and constant presence at the other shows, setting the tone for a weekend chock full of passionate musical performances. Before I dive into some of those other acts, I felt compelled to explore the folk-rock magic that Fruition brought to sunny St. Augustine, all the way from Portland, Oregon.
The opening night was a little frigid by Florida standards, but Fruition warmed things up by headlining a welcoming party to no more than a few dozen devoted Fruity Freaks of the Universe. They played an early “Labor of Love,” in which they really arrived at that harmonious pocket that sets them apart from all others, and locked in the crowd for a great show to come. A soulful “Early Morning Wake Up” saw Kellen Asebroek digging deep vocally, and then Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” was an absolute home-run, there being no holding back at this point. This was followed by the mesmerizing “Mountain Annie,” then a blistering “Boil Over,” and finally the ferocious, hard-rocking “I Don’t Mind” to end the night.
Fruition’s afternoon set on Friday was decidedly more mellow than the other two, seeing a grassier and folkier side of the band at times. There was however a sped-up version of “Somehow, Someway, Someday,” which had “a lot of pepper on it” according to Jay Cobb Anderson, and then a haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” At the end of this set, they brought out violinist Bridget Law from Elephant Revival to lead a soaring climax on “Come On, Get In,” and then some of her bandmates, Bonnie Paine, Dan Rodriguez and Darren Garvey, lended a few percussive hands for a primal, inspiring “Way That I Do,” in which Mimi Naja shouted an enthusiastic “Yes!” as Anderson sparked the opening notes of the Fruition anthem, and the fire raged from there.
The third Fruition set of the weekend happened Saturday afternoon, commencing with “Meet Me on the Mountain,” an enticing call to communion, which is exactly what this show felt like. “It’s a rare, actual love song, not like a heartbroken, after-the-fact love song, an actual love song, so soak it up,” said Naja as she led the way into the heart-warming“Beside You,” with Lyndsay Pruett of the Jon Stickley Trio on violin. In the same sense that Mimi meant “Beside You,” is an actual love song, it became quite clear to me that Fruition, is an actual love band. Jon Stickley trotted out to help Fruition turn things up a notch on “Fire,” which spun into a dizzying, heavy metal-influenced jam before flaring back up into the chorus. “There She Was” came filled to the brim with funk, and a hefty sampling of “Another Brick in the Wall” to add some flavor. Giving us what they called a special festival treat, the iconic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” spread a wave of jubilance throughout the audience before the set ended with two essential Fruition staples, “Take It Too Far,” and “The Meaning,” sending us forth with the simple teachings of the latter, that “life is for the living.”
After the Stickley sit-in, Naja declared JST her favorite “hip-hop-metal-grass band,” an ode to the undeniable fact that the Trio is making completely unique music, and doing it very well. Every time they played at Anastasia, Naja could be found front and center with the rest of the devoted fans that flocked to their shows throughout the weekend. Jon Stickley Trio features Lyndsay Pruett on violin, Patrick Armitage on drums, and Stickley on guitar. They combine hip-hop drum beats with spell-binding flatpicking and sizzling violin solos that will take you on an epic magic carpet ride from India to Ireland, and everywhere in between. The wizardly timing this band employs is almost super-natural, as Stickley and Pruett will lock into one hypnotic soundscape that will draws audiences into an endless improvisational labyrinth. The Trio treated fans to a few songs off of their highly-anticipated album, Maybe Believe, due for release May 12.
David Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience was a literal exhibit of bluegrass history, as the legendary mandolin player took us through the formative years of old-time and bluegrass music up into the progressive variations that are so popular today. These lessons came between songs, which mostly had a connection to whichever era he had just talked about. It was amazing to hear this historical perspective from Grisman, as he was one of the original musicians to explore the connection of bluegrass and jazz, which led to his mystical style of mandolin playing, known as Dawg Music. A very cool addition to the band came in the form of young phenom Billy Strings. The guitar player had joined the band the previous evening in Asheville, and they brought him down south to play Anastasia as well.
Elephant Revival was a grandiose spectacle on it’s own, a band that is so spiritually in sync with each other that the music always seems to have one pulse among a wave of emotions. This was some of the most creative music we saw all weekend, the highlight being when they returned the favor to Fruition, inviting them up on stage for a ceremonious “Grace of a Woman,” which had fans clapping and singing in unison, and set the stage for Bonnie Paine to drop right into a stirring vocal performance on the raw, almost-tribal chant “Rogue River.”
To no one’s surprise, the most electrifying set of the weekend came from The King himself, Sam Bush. Bush started out the set in true rebellious fashion with “Play By Your Own Rules,” and “Riding That Bluegrass Train,” as the pioneer of progressive bluegrass customarily changed the chorus to “newgrass train,” towards the end of the song. After introducing the Sam Bush Band, they busted out Allen Toussaint’s “Sneakin’ Sally,” as made popular by Robert Palmer and Phish. This really got the juices flowing before a sentimental, heart-warming “Circles Around Me.” Bush and the boys then wasted no time, exploding into “Great Balls of Fire,” a Jerry Lee Lewis rocker that has been a staple in his catalogue since the days of Newgrass Revival. After everyone got some much needed “Howlin’ at the Moon,” out of their systems, they closed the set in a big way with “Ol’ Joe Clark,” featuring teases of “Midnight Rider,” “I’m Your Captain,” and “I Just Want to Celebrate,” before the jam was all said and done.
Another presence that was constantly felt throughout the weekend was that of the McCoury family. The torch-bearers of bluegrass showed up to Anastasia in full force, with multiple performances each from the Del McCoury Band, The Travelin’ McCourys, The Broomestix, and The Grateful Ball, a collection of Grateful Dead tunes played by an ensemble of the Travelin’ McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band. The Broomestix are an R&B/soul/funk jam band out of Nashville, made up of teenagers, none of them over the age of 21. This 10-piece group of mostly childhood friends have some serious chops, and an infectious camaraderie on stage that has everybody rooting for them. The connection with the family comes from their lead guitarist, Evan McCoury, who has carved out a reputation as a great electric guitar player with the Broomestix, vastly different than his grandfather Del’s acoustic rhythm style (their hairstyles are also slightly different).
Evan also lent a hand in the Grateful Ball set, playing alongside father Ronnie and his maniacal match on the mandolin, Jeff Austin, with their respective bands as well. There were ten musicians on stage for this set, as they did the highest acoustic justice to such songs as “Cumberland Blues,” Franklin’s Tower,” and “Friend of the Devil,” which saw the whole band passing around solo breaks, culminating in a captivating jam. Ronnie led the way on an awe-inspiring “Althea,” and they finished with a strong “Scarlet Begonias,” into “Fire on the Mountain.” The Grateful Ball could not have been a more appropriate way to cap off the weekend, as, as much as anything all else, Anastasia Music Festival was about “strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands.” The weekend came to an end as all festivals should, with a campfire pickin’ party, deep in the ancient woods of Anastasia.
For a full photo gallery of Anastasia Music Festival, please check The Poke Around’s Facebook page.
Written by Richard Oakley
Photographed by Barbara Conner and Laura Guinessey