Every year, on the last weekend of July, I drive south with a car full of childhood friends laughing and singing our way through Southern Virginia. As we curve back and forth down the Blue Ridge Parkway, I await my first view of FloydFest from above. The rolling green mountaintop, the wooden stage frames and green roofs, the people, cars, and tents coalescing into one.
Despite intermittent rain and clouds, FloydFest delivered its 17th year, offering an eclectic mix of music and activities centered around the theme “Freedom.” A giant wire butterfly, rainbow wings spread wide, decorated the center of festival grounds. Other new installations included a butterfly house where live monarchs flitted back and forth, perching on kids shoulders , and an immersive art wall posing the question “what does freedom mean to you?”
Last year’s “On-the-Rise” winner, Rebekah Todd & the Odyssey, started FloydFest17 off with a bang Wednesday night. Channeling her inner Janis Joplin and Grace Potter, Rebekah Todd electrified the Beer Garden stage to a crowd of early arrivers.
To festival-goers surprise, the late-night party Wednesday surrounded a small DJ tent setup amid the many food vendors. Hula hoopers and poi spinners rocked out to DJ jams while the taco truck served up late night treats. FloydFest17 had begun.
Music got off to a late start on Thursday as attendees flocked in and wooded campsites turned into multi-colored tent villages. The Lil Smokies opened the Main Stage, wowing the crowd with a melody-driven bluegrass unique to the Blue Ridge. Davy Knowles, a British king of blues, followed with soulful guitar riffs — a reminder that every set at FloydFest brings something different.
The Hip Abduction rocked the mountaintop’s magic hour, jamming out feel-good dance beats as the sun lowered and air grew crisp. Thievery Corporation’s trance-y beats and BIG Something’s endless grooves kept attendees dancing into the night.
FloydFest woke to cloudy skies and strong gusts of wind Friday morning. Though the rain was inevitable, festival-goers were prepared with tent tarps, ponchos, and the best of attitudes. Friday’s downpours were reminiscent of FloydFest 2012, or “RainFest,” where parking lots flooded and energetic sets unfolded in the covered spaces.
Indeed, amidst a downpour festival-goers lined the covered Speakeasy Tent’s floor early Friday afternoon to hear The Stash! Band, put on a totally unique set. Fronted by professionally trained acoustic bluegrass guitarist, Stash Wyslouch, the Stash! Band created modern takes on old favorites like “Turkey in the Straw…on Acid” and a variety of original metal numbers played with bluegrass instruments.
The Stash! Band’s set reminded festival goer Emily Balcke of her favorite FloydFest memory: 2012 On-the-Rise winner Megan Jean and the KJB’s Speakeasy performance. As a torrential downpour unfolded, Balcke remembers running into the Speakeasy Tent, to hear Megan Jean and her washboard covering Beyoncé. “Everyone was soaking wet but just totally embracing the moment: listening and dancing like nothing else mattered.”
The rain personifies what makes FloydFest great: the total openness of festival-goers to end up anywhere, at any time, to hear anyone. FloydFest is not just about the headliners — it’s the discovery of the unknown.
Friday afternoon, Zach Deputy, played his first of many sets at the Main Stage. Deputy moved from reggae to soulful ballads to funky dance numbers like “Put it in the Boogie,” proving his diversity and depth as an artist. By Deputy’s last set on Saturday afternoon, a huge crowd had amassed at Hill Holler Stage, dancing and cheering madly for the one-man-show. Word had spread on the mountaintop; Zack Deputy was a new FloydFest favorite.
Tauk rocked Hill Holler Stage Friday night with ambient psychedelic jams. The hollowed-out hill acts as the perfect natural amphitheater presenting every attendee with a great view. At night at Hill Holler the crowd moves as one; a human mass grooving this way and that to airy guitar riffs and twirling lights.
The Steel Wheels started Saturday off with a powerful roots-y set that paid homage to Virginia, the Blue Ridge, and the people that make FloydFest great. The quintet closed the set with a moving a cappella version of “Rain in the Valley;” as Trent Wagler stomped a rain stick against the stage the clouds grew darker.
Saturday at FloydFest was a day of women: proudly unapologetic groups female friends and sisters fronted the different stages. Femina, a group of young women from Patagonia awed a Main Stage crowd with impassioned Argentinian ballads, raps, and rhythms, that celebrated life, love, and all that is being a woman. Baskery, a three-part sister set from Sweden rocked a Beer Garden Show while HONEYHONEY’s talented Suzanne Santos left a Hill Holler crowd cheering for more. FloydFest’s resident sister act, Rising Appalachia, concluded the afternoon on the Main Stage crooning out socially conscious folk tunes.
A first-time festival goer from North Carolina, watched Xavier Rudd literally bring the sun out Saturday afternoon with his simple yet powerful words and multi-instrumental jams. “Xavier made me remember freedom is being who you are and doing what you feel at every moment. That’s so easy here” she said.
After FloydFest17’s final downpour Saturday night, St. Paul & the Broken Bones electrified Hill Holler stage. The hill was packed from bottom to top as Paul Janeway’s falsetto broke the night air: he hit unimaginable pitches, rolled on the ground, and had the crowd going totally crazy.
Turkuaz kept the late-night crowd dancing with an energetic Beer Garden set, followed by a totally rad DJ spinning out the side of his vintage Volkswagen van. Festival-goers of all ages danced till the morning hours, high fiving the unknown DJ when he finally called it quits.
The sun was out to stay on Sunday. Festivarians laid in the grass, chatting and taking in rays, the beautiful harmonies of the Shook Twins echoing throughout the mountaintop. Fruition got people dancing despite tired legs and Shovels & Rope made goodbye bittersweet.
FloydFest has changed over the years. Global Village, the trippy late-night stage and its all-night bonfire and drum circle, has been replaced with a luxury Yurt Village and bonfire “curfew.” The number of retail vendors has multiplied and corporate sponsors like Geico and Virginia Lottery obstruct the view with large tent setups.
At the same time, the festival is featuring more nonprofits than ever before, has balanced growth and environmental stewardship impeccably, and from a festival goer’s eyes is flawlessly run. Despite years of growth, headliners, and national recognition, FloydFest remains a down-home gem of the Blue Ridge.
As its tagline goes, FloydFest is: music, magic, and mountains.