Rooster Walk 7 Debuts New Venue

You know that feeling when you pull out a jacket you haven’t worn in a while, reach into a pocket, and find money you didn’t know was in there? That’s a mild approximation of how I felt when I found the Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival essentially in my backyard. It’s inexplicable that I’d never heard of this festival until this year’s seventh edition, but it showed up in my feed when three local bands on the bill began publicizing it. I wasn’t planning to attend, since I’d just returned from a festival in Florida on Monday, but by Tuesday I’d arranged the time off from work and bought my ticket. It turned out to be one of the best spur-of-the-moment decisions I’ve ever made.

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Festival organizers William Baptist and Johnny Buck put the festival together in 2009 to honor the memories of two friends (Edwin G. Penn, nicknamed “The Rooster,” and Walker Shank) who died separately during the same year, thus the name Rooster Walk. According to Johnny, “When we put on the first festival, we had no idea if there would be a second, but it’s turned into something much bigger than we could have imagined.” He credits their success and longevity to the strong community support, not only by their volunteers but by the sponsors as well. “While it will always be a memorial to Walker and Edwin, it’s also a big community family reunion,” says Buck. “People who move away for college or work know that when they come back on Memorial Day weekend, that all their family and friends will be here.” Daniel Baptist, William’s older brother, mentioned a conversation with one of their volunteers that confirms that sentiment. “He told me that at other festivals he’d worked, people are there for a particular band or two, but here, they come for the festival. For Rooster Walk.” Their slogan, “Appreciate The Present,” encourages everyone to enjoy the moment and be thankful for every day.

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After six years at the Blue Mountain Festival Grounds in Franklin County, the event moved to “Pop’s Farm” in Axton, VA this year. The 160-acre site was owned by the late William F. “Bill” Franck, a local textile manufacturer who developed the property as a gentleman’s farm, installing the trails and even building the lake that graces the venue. During the year leading up to the festival, countless volunteers, supported by private donors and contributions from large local corporations, prepared the site. And for the first year at the location, there were no apparent issues. Traffic flowed freely, the facilities were well maintained, and not a complaint was heard.

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There are some notable things about this festival. First, it’s the most well-sponsored event of its size that I’ve ever attended, and virtually every sponsor was from the Martinsville-Henry County area. Second, the production values were top-notch from the stages to the sound and, for a photographer like myself, the lighting. Third, they have the most positive, friendly, helpful and well prepared volunteers that I’ve ever encountered. More on that later, but let’s get to the music.

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I didn’t arrive until Friday, so I missed The Shack Band, Southern Culture on the Skids, and The Mantras, who performed on Thursday. By the time I got settled into my campsite, it was time to catch Mighty Joshua at the Valley Star Credit Union main stage. A reggae band from Richmond, VA they certainly got the crowd moving with a mix of original tunes and covers. They were followed by Big Daddy Love at the Bassett Furniture lake stage. This five-piece band from Winston-Salem, NC is nothing but fun with their mix of rock, roots and bluegrass. They featured a keyboard player during the festival that added a new dimension to their sound. Their latest CD, This Time Around, is definitely one you want in your collection. Next up on the main stage was Dangermuffin, a three-piece group from Folly Beach, SC. They’re billed as a beach music group, but that’s an inadequate and misleading classification for the trippy tunes this trio lays down. Just pick up a copy of their latest release, Songs for the Universe, and you’ll see what I mean. They put on a great show.

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Herd mentality is usually used in a negative way, but not when it’s time to stroll back down the hill towards the lake stage for Donna the Buffalo. It’s hard to describe or classify this band’s music. Sampling equal parts of Cajun, rock, folk, reggae and country, they produce their own original roots jam that is highly infectious. It’s hard to resist the urge to kick up your heels, spin around, or sway back and forth to their rhythms and melodies. They’re one of my all-time favorites. Friday’s headliner, Lake Street Dive, took the main stage next. This indie-pop band out of Boston is experiencing lots of mainstream success behind the release of their latest CD, Bad Self Portraits. They delivered a slick, well-produced set: a little over- produced for my taste. Bridget Kearney is an absolute beast on the upright bass, and Mike Calabrese is an incredibly versatile drummer and vocalist. The crowd really enjoyed their set.

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After a break to recharge my batteries, I joined Yarn‘s set in progress at the lake stage. Before I got there, I could hear the sounds of a badass keyboard player, and I thought to myself, “Yarn doesn’t have a keyboard player.” Turns out Josh Shilling of Mountain Heart was sitting in, wailing away on the organ and filling in on vocals. As I got closer to the stage, I could see Mike Sivilli of Dangermuffin was also sitting in. It turned out to be one of the best performances of the festival. With a gutsy, rootsy brand of Americana that tends towards the country side, Yarn knows how to get a crowd going. Oh, did I mention they’re from Brooklyn? Yeah, these city boys know about grits. The night concluded with Particle, the popular electrofunk quartet from Los Angeles. As Johnny Buck introduced them, he noted that Particle was Walker Shank’s favorite band and how gratifying it was to have them perform at the festival. The band obliged with a scorching, mind-blowing set that they subsequently dedicated in Walker’s memory.

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I stumbled out of my tent around noon and shuffled down the hill, then up again, to grab some breakfast. I strolled up to the Sugar Shack, a vendor that advertised breakfast all day, and ordered up a fried egg sandwich. I was wearing my Orange Blossom Jamboree t-shirt, a festival I’d attended down in Florida the week before, and the owner recognized it. Turns out she lived in Stuart, FL for a few years, and we knew some of the same people. Small world. She recommended the homemade chutney on my sandwich, and it was delicious. Fortified for the start of my day, I started walking towards my car to get my camera gear. After Jack, a trio of beautiful young ladies that I assumed were yet another blue/new grass group, started warming up their vocal chords. With an a cappella version of En Vogue’s Giving Him Something He Can Feel! Wow! I grabbed my gear and got my tail down to the lake stage as quick as I could. Their Facebook page lists the genre as “Hot folk.” I’d have to agree. I wandered over to the main stage to catch the second Yarn set of the festival. Maybe it was the daylight, or perhaps it was because I’d only had one beer (so far), but it wasn’t the set from the night before. Not a fair comparison, I know, but it was a different crowd from the late night group, and they loved it.

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Anthony Rosano and The Conqueroos, a rockin’ blues quartet, took the lake stage next. They were the first of three bands from the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area (my home) performing at Rooster Walk. With Anthony’s scorching guitar licks counterpointed by Jack Campbell’s harmonica, this band knows how to get the party started. Check out their CD Get Rood, and you’ll know what I mean. The Steep Canyon Rangers were next up on the main stage. A household name among traditional bluegrass aficionados, the 2013 Grammy winners delivered a great two-hour set. While it was enjoyable, it didn’t really blow me away. That happened next at the lake stage when Charleston, SC’s Stop Light Observations lit the fuse on their set. Their music is powerful and enveloping. The lyrics are deep, emotional and thought- provoking. And the stage presentation is spectacularly energetic, with band members changing instruments all over the place. Their anthemic Break Them Bad Boys Down is a perfect example. I now consider myself one of the Purple People.

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I met a couple earlier on Saturday who were only there for the day, and for one particular reason: to see the Yonder Mountain String Band. Obviously, they weren’t alone. Yonder has been one of the most popular acoustic/newgrass bands on the festival circuit for several years. With Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff “officially” joining the band earlier in May, YMSB solidified themselves as a five-piece band. So I wasn’t surprised when the crowd swelled quickly, or when the couple I’d met before showed up right on the rail, ready for the show. And they didn’t disappoint, delivering an epic set that showcased the band’s harmonies while still giving each player room to stretch out with some extended jams. My night ended with Big Something, the funky electro rockers from Greensboro, NC. They’re one of my favorite bands, and I’m always happy to catch one of their shows. They’ve been touring heavily behind the release of their latest CD, Truth Serum, and they featured songs from that collection including “Megalodon” and “UFOs Are Real.” The lighting crew began projecting their special effects onto the lake and trees behind the stage, adding to the trippy environment. The set also featured my favorite cover, “Maggot Brain,” which eventually rolled into “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group. What a great way to end the day! If you missed these guys or, like me, can’t get enough, schedule a trip to their own festival, The Big What?, scheduled for 25-27 June in Mebane, NC. Two of my colleagues, Scott Hopkins and David Lee, will be there to cover the event.

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I had to rise a little earlier on Sunday morning. The second of my local bands, Seth Stainback and Roosterfoot, was playing the lake stage at noon. So, splash some water on your face, grab another Sugar Shack breakfast, and get down to the stage. Anyone who knows me also knows that I love this band. I’m sure I’ve reached stalker status, and I’m expecting a restraining order any day now. I never get tired of seeing them or hearing them. Seth’s songwriting and soulful vocals coupled with Larry Berwald’s virtuosity on lead guitar will have you singing and dancing. Their latest CD, Fire and Steel, is an epic disc produced by Anders Osborne and engineered by Warren Riker, and you should get yourself a copy and, as Seth says, “Tighten Up!” After they finished, I strolled over to the main stage to catch Mipso. This young, four-piece string band was born out of idle picking sessions when the members were freshmen at UNC Chapel Hill. Their sound is rooted in traditional Appalachian bluegrass, but those roots have spread beyond the path into new territory, and I really enjoyed what I heard. Judging by the size of the crowd and their applause, they agreed with me. Next up on the lake stage was the Jon Stickley Trio. I’ve enjoyed listening to this Asheville, NC band since I first saw them at Suwannee Springfest in 2013. With Jon on acoustic guitar and Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle, a newcomer would assume they were in store for some bluegrass/folk tunes, and there’s certainly traces of those genres in their musical DNA. But this stew also contains nods to jazz, punk and hip-hop. They can lull you into a calm, peaceful state with one tune, then knock you out of your chair on the next with Jon and Lyndsay shredding a high-tempo number, anchored by Patrick Armitage’s solid back beat. It was an incredibly enjoyable set.

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Before Rooster Walk, I’d seen the band Mountain Heart once in late 2012 when they came to the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, VA. The lineup included Barry Abernathy, Jim VanCleve, Clay Jones and Josh Shilling. Seth Taylor may have just joined the band at that time, but my memory isn’t that good. They were known for their traditional bluegrass sound and their playful, self-deprecating banter on stage. As I stood near the rail at the main stage waiting for their show, a woman who turned out to be Josh Shilling’s mother noticed my cameras and wanted to make I got some good shots. I had my back to the stage as the band was announced, so when I turned around what I saw did not match my dated mental image of the group. Josh Shilling was there, but the rest of the group was changed and decidedly younger. The old expression “This isn’t your Daddy’s…” wasn’t adequate. This wasn’t even MY Mountain Heart. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t keep track of a band, but don’t think that I’m complaining. This youthful quintet that includes Seth Taylor on guitar, Aaron Ramsey on mandolin, Jeff Partin on upright bass and dobro, and Molly Cherryholmes on fiddle is a superb set of musicians who comfortably straddle the bluegrass/newgrass fence. With Shilling switching between guitar and keyboards, there’s a definite soulful aspect to their sound. We were also treated to a track of Molly’s current solo project that was a hauntingly beautiful departure from the band’s norm.

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My one major regret from this festival is that I barely spent any time at the New Belgium stage. Tucked away in the pines off the main entrance road, this small stage hosted some of the lesser-known acts in a very comfortable, shaded environment. One band that I did catch for a couple of songs was Butterhouse, a local quintet that covered funk, rock and post-punk styles. I believe it had been a while since the group played together, but they and a very supportive crowd were happy to be there for the reunion. Other fine acts on this stage that I caught snippets of included Kings of Belmont (headliners of the inaugural Rooster Walk and the only band to play in all seven), Mason Via, Empire Strikes Brass (who also led a kids parade through the grounds on Sunday), Annabell’s Curse, and The Southern Belles of RVA. After a couple of Butterhouse tunes, I headed to lake stage for a session of The Congress. These guys from Richmond, VA rock, and their stage presence is awesome. It really starts with Jonathan Meadows, the wild-eyed, animated bass player with the long, red beard who carries the bulk of the vocal duties. Throw in Scott Lane’s thrashing guitar licks, Chris Speasmaker’s evocative work on keyboards, and Mark Leavy’s energetic drumming and you’ve got a ready-made party. As I stood there taking it all in, they moved into a song that I thought I recognized from the opening notes as “Que Sera Sera,” a song made famous in the late-50’s by Doris Day. (Go ahead, I’ll wait while you listen to this youTube clip: Well, let’s suffice to say that Jonathan Meadows crooned a gusty, bluesy version that was about as far from Doris Day as you could get and still recognize the song.

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My final hometown band, Major and The Monbacks, were the last band to take the main stage. Starting as a high school garage band in Norfolk, VA in 2008, they’ve evolved from a college frat tour staple into the full-time touring band you see today. When I first saw them in late 2013, they were sporting the neatly groomed, blazer-and-college-tie look, and the music was a bit throwback in style. My, how they’ve matured! The hair is a little longer, the blazers and ties are gone, and the music, while still true to their retro-rock roots, is stronger and edgier. They definitely know how to engage a crowd and get them on their feet. They’ll be touring aggressively behind their self-titled, full length CD, so make sure you check out their schedule and catch one of their shows. And stay tuned here for some more in-depth news on this band in a future “On The Rise” article.

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The honor of closing out the festival went to People’s Blues of Richmond. This manic trio features Tim Beavers on guitar, Matthew Volkes on bass, and Neko Williams on drums. Their music is loud, in your face and, at times, cacophonous. The lyrics are dark, sexy and vulgar. Their intensity is absolutely amazing and infects every crowd they play for. Their shows are both a musical and visual spectacle as Tim plays his guitar behind his head or with his teeth, constantly breaking strings, while Neko assaults his drum kit and Matt keeps everything anchored in the pocket. I absolutely love this band. Since I made the decision to make the four-hour drive home after their show instead of camping Sunday night, their 2013 release, Good Time Suicide, was on repeat in my CD player the whole way. I wasn’t drowsy even once!

I always have regrets at festivals. Besides missing most of the music on the New Belgium stage, I also regret not taking time to tour the rest of the grounds at this beautiful venue, hiking the trails, play laser tag, or dancing at the silent disco. I regret not checking out the kid’s area (very kid-friendly festival) or catching any music at the VIP stage. But I certainly don’t regret coming to this festival, and here’s a perfect reason why. I was waiting for a golf cart to come to my campsite and ferry all my stuff back to the parking lot. A young man named Ian showed up and began helping me load. As we headed for the lot we talked about the festival, and his pride in what they’d accomplished was evident. He had seen me around the venue with my gear and was eager to see the results. After we unloaded the cart, I extended my hand with a tip for his efforts. He wrapped both his hands around mine and pushed the money back, saying “I don’t want your money. I do this because I love this festival, the people who put it on, and what it represents. I want you to save that money for gas to come back again next year.” Well, Ian, those bills are in a jar on my dresser, and they’ve already got some company. I’ll see you next year.

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