UPDATE: Congratulations to Megan Jean and the KFB for winning Floydfest’s Under the Radar series! Can’t wait to see you at the main stage at Floydfest 2013, hopefully with a new album and a new band in tow. (And congrats to Spirit Family Reunion for their third place finish. I’m sure we’ll see y’all again as well.)
Mr. Universe is back where he ought to be: Off the road! What a July that was! I have a whole backlog of stuff to share with all of you lovely readers, and a month before school starts. I will do my best to get back to posting at least once a day and talking about presidential museums, the Revolutionary War, music, teaching, and a whole lot more that I’ve been thinking about.
The next few posts are going to be dedicated to my four days and three nights at the always wonderful Floydfest. Floydfest is located on a massive property in Floyd County, Virginia, located on the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia. The celebration of roots music is now in its 11th year, and past headliners have included the Old Crow Medicine Show, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, the Avett Brothers, and Grace Potter, to name a few nationally known acts. This year’s lineup was particularly packed, and included Jackson Browne, Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Drive-By Truckers, Matisyahu, Galactic, Brandi Carlisle, the Punch Brothers, and many more which I will highlight in future posts.
I want to take this post to highlight two of my favorite performances of the whole weekend, each of which came from lesser known performers in the Under the Radar series.
Floydfest is exciting to me, because of the opportunities it gives young musicians to demonstrate what they can do for a large and receptive audience as part of the Under-the-Radar series.
The rules are simple: Floydfest gives you a stage (generally for two sets of 45 minutes apiece) and a spot in the merchandise tent to sell your CDs. Floydfest attendees then vote on which musician in the UTR series they like the most. The winner of the contest gets a package of audio equipment, guaranteed studio time, and a guaranteed main stage performance at the festival next year. 2nd place also gets equipment and a slot in the festival next year. Now here’s the catch: None of the musicians in the UTR series are getting paid for their efforts. Now my union self has some serious problems with that, but I’m hoping that most musicians are able to break even on album sales.
A Taste of Carolina Across the Bridge- Spirit Family Reunion
Many of the artists were local or regional favorites (Grass Monkeys from Roanoke, Farm Vegas from Richmond), while others came from further away.
The artist who may have traveled the longest way for the series was Spirit Family Reunion.
A quick listen, and you might imagine these folks learned their craft at the feet of the Old Crow Medicine Show in the mountains of North Carolina. But in fact, all of the musicians met each together at the Beacon School, a prestigious public school in Manhattan, and now live in Brooklyn, home to a thriving folk music community. This is bluegrass-inspired music with a strong backbeat that distinguishes them from many another roots revival band you’ll find in towns big and small across the country. Each of their songs features beautiful and ragged harmonies and tight musicianship, particularly on fiddle and banjo. And give them a stage big or small and they still stay close together so they can truly play with each other.
What really makes them stand apart are their lyrics. This is a smart and earnest band that uses word play and imagery but never hides behind it. Their songs deal honestly with broken relationships, death, and loneliness, as well as joy and love in ways that uplift the soul. You won’t leave one of their shows downhearted or dejected, and you may even feel the spirit yourself. In short, this is life-affirming music.
Spirit played two sets on Thursday and Friday, the last one in the afternoon at the main stage. Each one met with large crowds and enthusiastic applause, and their album sold out within 15 minutes of their last set. The band members, though, took the time to bring new albums and talk with the crowd of fans and sign autographs, despite needing to make the over 12 hour drive to the Newport Folk Festival to play a Saturday morning set. This is a band that will be making waves in the roots music community nationwide. They are touring the northeast, and I hope to see them opening for Del McCoury in Prospect Park this Saturday. Their new album is No Separation, and reflects everything that is great about their live show.
From Nashville, here is a live performance of “When My Name is Spoken.”
“A Punk Band in 1927”- Megan Jean and the KFB
So Spirit has built a following for themselves in New York. Here’s a band, though, that came to Floydfest virtually unknown outside of their homebase of Charleston, South Carolina, and quickly became the hot conversation of Floydfest.
Megan Jean (who plays guitar and washboard, while keeping the beat on a bass drum behind her) joined her husband (who holds down the standup bass and occasionally banjo) in 2004, and quickly tired of the New York scene. Sow hat’s one to do when they’re tired of New York town? Why, sell all your possessions and live in your car, of course?! These musicians are true troubadors, playing over 200 shows a year, and refusing to compromise their music for a record deal or national exposure. As a result, they have given us a unique blend of ragtime, gypsy music, blues, and other music that just can’t be classified. What brings it all together is Megan’s thunderous tenor, which could easily fill the room without the microphone. With it, you can hear it from far off into the night. As I did walking from avante-garde jazz band Garage a Trois to get my position at the front for Jackson Browne. I walked into the dance tent and was blown away by what I was hearing, and danced for a solid 20 minutes before getting a look at the Pretender himself at the main stage.
Well turns out I wasn’t the only one who had the same thought. The next day, when Megan performed a second set there in the afternoon, the tent was packed. I am no expert at estimating crowds, but I’m going to go ahead and say at least 1000 people were in the tent or outside it, getting their groove on to the performance. Again, no one had heard of her before this show, and sheer word of mouth led to one of the highlights of the whole festival. The cheers inside the tent after every song were deafening.
Megan Jean herself was stunned, at one point saying “Y’all look like you’re here for a real band.” Her articulation of why she loves music and why she rejects commercial music (she refused to go on talent shows, because many execs insisted she be an “American Adele”) only earned her further adoration from the festival goers. Far as I know, she was the only UTR contestant to get demands for an encore.
Afterwards, dozens of people crowded the stage for autographs, and her album sold out at the merch tent. People who had never seen her before expressed total love for her and her show. And I think it’s because Megan is unlike anything out there right now in all sorts of ways. Too much of mainstream music and society pushes women to write songs about one of two things: boning dudes or having your heart broken by a dude. And hey, nothing against either of those things as topics for songs, but there are other parts to the human (and woman) experience. If you’re a woman who breaks out of that and finds a third way forward, you will find a huge and adoring following and for good reason.
So here’s hoping that this becomes Megan’s breakout performance. Her debut album is Dead Woman Walking, and you can find it at her website. The album is great, but be sure to see the live show when it’s in town, because that’s where she really packs a punch. Southern friends, she will be touring the southlands this month. Many thanks to Lua Wells for getting some of her Friday performance recorded. Here’s a particularly rhythmic piece, inspired by the beats of Congo Square, called Voodoo Doll.