When I wrote the Sterling Stage cover story (New Times, May 18-25), I hadn’t attended a festival at Sterling yet. I could relate to the experience from prior festivals I’ve been to including Spaghettifest in Virginia, a very similar event in ideology and size. I could catch the same distinct feelings that like-festivals instill in their attendants from everyone I interviewed for the Sterling article. I knew the feelings they were talking about.
When I went to Spaghettifest for the first time, I was a junior in college at James Madison University and my professor Mickey Glago was running the operation with his Midnight Spaghetti & the Chocolate G-Strings bandmate, Seth Casana. We were encouraged to help out for extra credit in our Concert Production and Promotion class and I was there to review the weekend in the woods for my college paper, The Breeze. I had heard about the festival and was familiar with many of the bands as I was becoming more known and versed in the local scene as The Breeze’s music writer, but I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as the culture, set up and actual experience of being there.
I also didn’t have a group of friends willing to come along. So I went alone.
I didn’t know what to expect. Who I would meet. What it would be like. Nothing. I picked up a tiny tent and a CamelBak from WalMart and went. My mom was not excited…especially when my phone stopped working because I was in the middle of nowhere.
But she didn’t have a thing to worry about.
I found my way around the grounds quickly, saw more bands than I could keep track of, made friends with everyone I talked to and was absolutely heart-broken to see it end and have to leave. There is something about these festivals, about the personality of the people that attend them, that make them completely unlike anything else.
This weekend I got another taste of that. From the moment I met my camping neighbors, it was instant comfort. They had one of the best campsites I saw all weekend with a huge tarp hanging high above the campfire so we could stay dry as we sat around it and the rain came down on Friday night, May 27. They prepared pancakes, rice and beans, hamburgers and shared with absolutely everyone they could. They even made signs directing strangers to the site with caution tape tied to trees to show the pathway, just so they could share.
It’s funny what happens when your phone barely works and you
don’t have your iPod and there’s no TV around and all you’ve got is a campsite,
a typewriter (don’t ask me why, it was just there), music down the hill, lots
of rain, mud and each other. It reminded me how diluted our relationships get with all the superficial distractions we have around us. People get brave behind keyboards and depend on texts rather than face-to-face conversations. We bury ourselves in emails and absorb ourselves in media--taking us away from what's directly in front of us.
It’s incredible what happens, when you let all of that go.
In only a day I’d call all of those neighbors friends.
Now, place that as the backdrop to some absolutely amazing, non-stop music, and you’ve got a killer weekend.
Though it rained Thursday and Friday and the mud made walking anywhere a significant challenge, it didn’t stop more than 1,300 people from coming out to the festival. By Saturday afternoon I fully embraced my inner hippie and walked barefoot everywhere, bandanna slung around my head, hair piled, glass-blown ring on my finger and hemp around my ankle. It felt good.
I bounced back and forth between the tent and main stages and loved band after band, easily claiming, “This is my favorite band,” at least three times. And even between the bands, random jams and drum circles popped up everywhere.
Artists painted and created in the “artist village” between the pine trees and tents sprawled out in front of the main stage with food and other art, jewelry, clothes, etc. for sale between giant puddles.
A few favorite acts were The Garafolo Brothers--twin brothers whose harmonies couldn’t be more perfect. They were absolutely entrancing and refreshing with their instrumentation that included a trumpet, guitar, shaker and drum. They also managed to throw in some interesting covers including their closer, Danzig’s “Mother,” adding a comment about, “What’s a folk set without some metal?”
MiZ – Lead by singer and guitarist, Mike Mizwinski, the group came out with a folky, earnest singer/songwriter vibe similar to one of my other favorite indie guitar boys, Jay Nash. But when MiZ broke into all-out, gut-wrenching blues, he proved he’s got so much more to offer than a few sweet bluegrassy songs. Seeing another young guy with a guitar-- typical. Seeing a young guy rip the blues up like he did--priceless.
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds – There’s been growing trend in music of girl-lead bands with groups like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings popping up more and more on bills all the time. They all have their own trademark sound, Potter with her heart-breaking looks and killer voice and Jones with her forceful pipes booming over her massive band. I liked what I had heard from Sister Sparrow previous to the festival and knew she was a cute girl, but seeing her live was a whole different animal. Her stage presence was just immense and her powerful, but acutely controlled, voice and bouncing energy all over the stage were entrancing. The band behind her was tight and talented, but dwindled in comparison to her shine. Her voice live has a better tone, more round and full than it comes across on records and the band has more personality when you see them all moving about the stage. And it was funny, the harmonica player that stood beside her for much of the set was incredible and fun to watch, but once Sister Sparrow started jumping around in her tiny red tank, mini shorts and cowboy boots, I’m not sure anyone noticed him.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch every act of the weekend, but from what I saw, heard and experienced, the line-up was flawless. Promoter and producer Eric McElveen has a keen ear for quality and an amazing ability to book bands back to back that are each different in style, but similar in talent. The festival’s flow was perfect, especially considering the muddy conditions--perhaps the worst they’ve ever seen in the festival’s 17-year history. As soon as the music stopped on one stage, it began on the other and from my perspective there was never a moment to be bored--just overwhelmed--because there was always something to see, hear and do and endless people to meet.My only disappointment was not seeing more people in front of every stage given the caliber of performers. They all deserved a bigger crowd for the shows they put on and with 1,300 campers present, that shouldn't have been a problem.
Regardless, kudos to the crew that made it all happen, especially all those who ran sound for such an impossible operation (how did you do it in all that rain?). The good feelings were maintained, the music was amazing and the experience was memorable. My feet are still dirty and my car is still spattered with mud, inside and out--and I love it.
Sterling’s Festival of the Arts on June 17 -19 can’t come soon enough.
*Check back soon for pictures*