The French Broad River Festival returned to its serene stomping grounds in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains on May 5-7 for its 20th rendition. Just a couple of miles from a well traveled Appalachian Trail crossroads and 35 miles from the region’s musical hotbed of Asheville, Hot Springs, North Carolina has been the annual host for the FBRF since 1997. In the midst of a rainy week in the mountains, the French Broad River was swift and swollen as folks poured in for the weekend.
With dozens of trail heads and river access points within just a few miles of the festival grounds, the family friendly FBRF highlights the regional love of outdoor sports equally as much as that for good music. Festival goers filed into town fully equipped with rafts, kayaks, canoes, and mountain bikes; any and everything the outdoor adventurer needs to get their kicks. Friday found the festival grounds amidst a third straight day of rain, but it would take more than a little mud to subdue the veterans of the swampy spring fest.
Friday afternoon’s musical menu was loaded with local flavor. Emma’s Lounge helped welcome folks with their space age folk wave amidst a brief break from the rain. Asheville’s veteran boogie grass brigade, Brushfire Stankgrass, provided some foot-stomping fusion, and Josh Phillips Big Band threw down in impressive fashion for there first ever show together.
Keeping dry under the massive tent that covered the “flood stage,” Asheville’s finest brass band-super group Empire Strikes Brass funked the Friday tribe into the night. Swinging smoothly through genres and busting through boundaries, ESB touched on everything from reggae to ragtime through a super hot set of originals and covers. An epic cover of Outkast’s “So Fresh And So Clean” set a rowdy tone for night one.
Giving folks time to mosey from the hot and hoppin’ tent back out into the cool and wet evening, Pennsylvania’s Cabinet patiently picked their way onto stage to close out the night. Regulars to the FBRF, they eased into their set with a nice reggae vibe to warm up the night. From there the boys jammed and picked, stomped and hollered their way through a rightfully rambunctious two hour set. It was a full-on Friday night ho-down down pour capped with favorites like “Sharecropper’s Son” and “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.“
An impromptu tiki-torch jam session, featuring an array of Asheville musicians, kept the good vibes flowing next to the gushing river until the sun came up and the kids came out to start another muddy day.
Saturday morning broke to lively chatter and a few long overdue rays of sunshine. Train whistles and tandem bikes would be the tune of the morning as kids of all ages got up and at em early. The now roaring river had the eager and adventurous up and rolling to put in for some pre-party paddling. Charleston, South Carolina’s Sol Driven Train showed the children of the French Broad family some love with a high noon roots-rock, positive vibration-before leading them on a march through the grounds. Despite the return of the relentless day-drizzle, Asheville’s wonderfully weird Snake Oil Medicine Show succeeded in getting the midday tribe “nice and oily” with their eccentric blend of island, mountain, jazz, and rag time sounds- a blend upon which they have been working for over 20 years.
Just about supper time on Saturday, the French Broad family was settling into what was sure to be a wild one. The appetites for the boogie were set to be served with nearly six hours of a Keller and the Keels sandwich. Eager to be experienced, the Saturday night tribe gathered under steady rain to catch the legendary flat-picking fisherman Larry Keel and the Larry Keel Experience. Larry was joined by wife and bassist Jenny Keel and special guest Jay Starling on the dobro. Faster than most, and stranger than the rest, Larry sent the Saturday night spinning. Favorites like “Lizard Lady” and “Fireball” accented the set, and Jenny and Larry’s (who were celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary) loving banter left us sure we had been “experienced.” Long time friend/collaborator, and fellow Virginian, Keller Williams, playing his “jamdolin,” joined the Keels on the stage, setting the picking into an even groovier gear. As promised, Keller and the Keels had the now gratefully giggly family boogying on the hill with a set of specially spun covers like “Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown” and the Grateful Dead’s “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”
After another short break, just long enough for folks to re-stock and change into dry socks, Keller returned to the stage for his solo set. The master of musical indulgence, and keeper of the vibes, K-dub perpetuated the party to its fullest potential. Full tilt, with fire pits and tiki torches now lighting the field of the main stage, the French Broad faithful had found their place of celebratory contentment. Keller classics like “Freaked By The Speaker” brought the tribe together and a killer cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” sent them raucously roaring and rumbling into the night, without a chance of shaking the tune from their happy heads.