Under Friday evening’s full moon at FloydFest, rock icons Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew stood on the festival’s main stage with funk/soul act Turkuaz and launched into a 40th-anniversary ode to the Talking Heads’ groundbreaking album Remain in Light. As the two men tore into the classic “Once in a Lifetime,” strangers and friends alike reveled in the celebratory feeling of finally being back together.
“Music feeds something about the human soul, human nature, and people,” Belew told Rolling Stone backstage. “It makes people feel better about themselves, and about life — that’s the reason I’ve always done this.”
“It’s about people just being together. You can really feel that togetherness here at FloydFest,” Harrison added. “It’s so nice to be able to fuel that mutual enthusiasm again.”
Dubbed “Odyssey,” the 21st incarnation of FloydFest once again took place in the depths of southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Held July 21st to 25th, the event was an immersive scene that felt partly like a long-forgotten dream and partly a taste of the new normal with acts like the Avett Brothers, Billy Strings, Goose, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nicole Atkins, Leftover Salmon, and Molly Tuttle taking the stage in front of audiences starved for live music.
Normally, FloydFest hosts approximately 14,000 attendees throughout the weekend, but the 2021 edition was reduced by 20 percent to ensure the safety of guests, staff, and performers. Backstage access was limited and masks were required by anyone involved with stage production (although masks were not required for attendees and vendors).
“With the Delta variant increasing, we’ve seen certain artists circle back to us and request stricter Covid-19 protocols backstage — mandatory masks, no non-production backstage, no onstage viewing by VIP patrons,” said Brian Paul Swenk, media director for FloydFest. “And we came up with our own Covid-19 protocol, including backpack surface-sanitizing sprayers. The Virginia Health Department was very impressed with our plan, and gave us the green light to hold the event.”
With local and state Covid-19 protocols constantly changing, opportunities for up-and-coming acts to play have been scarce. Before the shutdown, Billy Strings and Goose were already on their respective paths to breaking through. By embracing streaming shows when audiences weren’t allowed, both artists propelled themselves to headlining slots at festivals and sold-out venues as live music returned, and they made the most of their time at FloydFest.
Strings was arguably the most talked-about performer of the event, making his FloydFest debut in front of a roaring crowd of thousands on Thursday night. The six-string ace’s set weaved together his original material (“Dust in a Baggie,” “Pyramid Country,” “Wargasm”) and traditional numbers (“Black Mountain Rag,” “Groundhog,” “Shenandoah Valley Waltz”), easily bridging the divergent styles. It’s no wonder he’s racked up so many high-profile collaborations lately — he’s an absolute sponge for music and history, willing to crash through creative barriers and duck down different avenues of possibility.
Goose’s set took place Friday night on the Hill Holler stage, with a palpable buzz surrounding the Connecticut jam band’s arrival at the festival. Led by frontman Rick Mitarotonda, the group has become a guiding light in the scene thanks to their keen musicianship and freewheeling improvisation, something they regularly demonstrated with their popular livestreams during the shutdown.
“It’s all about connecting with the people, staying focused on the music we’re making and want to create,” Mitarotonda said of their festival debut. “As difficult as this time has been, there’s been so much reflection for so many people. And, with that, I think a lot of people value live music as much as ever.”
In addition to live music, people were pleased to get a dose of laughter, absurdity, and sincere hilarity when the cheekily named Sexbruise? performed sometime around 2 a.m. on Saturday. A collection of Charleston, South Carolina, musicians/comedians, their wild performance gave shades of the Lonely Island and the Black Eyed Peas as they sang about trying to get laid in one’s Ford Taurus, offering tribute to Dr. Anthony Fauci in a soon-to-be-released single, or performing other pandemic-themed tracks from their Covid-69 album.
“We started this project as a way of coping with our day-to-day stresses, but we’re finding that our music resonates with more and more people who need that kind of relief,” said Sexbruise? singer/drummer John Pope. “Sure, this has been the darkest year we’ve ever had, but turning the whole thing into a joke has been really empowering.”
FloydFest also elevates dozens of local and regional acts each year through its “On the Rise” competition, which puts them in front of audiences and grants the winner a mainstage performance the following year. Many former winners and runners-up were present this time around, including Abby Bryant & the Echoes and Travers Brothership, who both gave fiery performances.
A frontrunner for this year’s “On the Rise” award, Russell County, Virginia’s 49 Winchester plugged in at the quaint Workshop Stage on Saturday afternoon and drifted into an hour-long whirlwind of alt-country and southern rock. Before they packed up their gear to head across campus to another stage for another set, they paused for photos and conversations with a group of newly made fans.
Also making several appearances throughout the weekend, Andy Frasco & the U.N. brought energy and excitement wherever they went. With his larger-than-life personality, rock/soul singer Frasco conjured a revival of sorts during the jam-grass bonanza at Leftover Salmon’s appearance at Hill Holler.
“We take things for granted when you do it too much. And when you get a year and a half to not be able to do that, you become present again,” Frasco said. “A lot of musicians get burnt out. But, if you take a step back, you realize that this is all worth it — all of it.”
Leftover Salmon’s showcase also welcomed guitar wizard Larry Keel for a special cover of Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” with vocals by Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry of Acoustic Syndicate, who is currently working on a new album with his group. But it was Leftover Salmon’s singer Vince Herman who captured the feeling of being reunited at FloydFest after so long, and the uncertain, sometimes thrilling sensation of what it’s like to reconnect and enjoy music.
“We’ve got so much to make up for — as humans, and as performers,” Herman said. “People realized a lot of things when the ‘Giant Stop’ happened. And when you stop, what’s going to cause you to start up again? Music will rev it up. You do that, get used to seeing people, having conversations with strangers and it doesn’t feel scary. Hopefully, we can keep this going, because playing music is fun — just like I remembered.”