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Love in the air, on the stage at FloydFest

by Ryan Snyder

BY RYAN SNYDER ryan@yesweekly.com

You have to treat your lover right if you want to make Lover’s Rock, sang Joe Strummer in the London Calling deep cut. It was a ubiquitous inclusion in the FloydFest house music over the weekend, and also redolent of the clever “Lover’s Rock” branding campaign driving the Blue Ridge music festival’s 11th year. A Virginia tourism booth ensured almost everyone who came was sporting headgear reminding us whose state it is; for the first time, FloydFest offered Leon Phelps-inspired pimp pads called Love Shacks, no doubt taken advantage of by the first couple to be wed on site; and the massive wooden “LOVE” fixture by the front gate became the iconic Facebook pic of a good number of attendees.

With impressive cosmetic and structural improvements and its largest, and maybe best, lineup ever, FloydFest aimed to make lovers out of the 20,000 or so who spent the weekend amidst its idyllic, rolling hills. It loved and it rocked, but even the smartest branding can be ripe for send-up. As familial an environment as FloydFest is during the day, it’s known to get a little edgy in the evenings, and not even the integrity of the festival itself was spared from Friday night’s awesomely R-rated set by the rambunctious punk-jazz trio the Dead Kenny G’s.

“Welcome to FreudFest…. FreudFest is all about sex,” snarled the band’s wild-eyed saxophonist Skerik to the 1 a.m. Garden Stage crowd. He introduced himself as BF Skinner and his shirtless, tattoo-laden counterpart Mike Dillon as Noam “Chimpsky,” as Dillon threatened to drop his four-mallet vibraphone style in favor of simply whacking it with his manhood. “Think about what that means for a minute,” Skerik mused.

The glorious excess of snark in their set was pegged by a parody of Ween’s parody of Motorhead, their opus to marathon drug abuse, “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night,” somehow rendered even more abrasive by Dillon’s guttural vocals and Skerik’s squealing sax. For those who outlasted the dance-a-thon by Latin hip-hop fusionistas Locos Por Juana’s past 3 a.m., it was the solid favorite for the night’s anthem.

Skerik and Dillon were a pervasive presence through the festival’s first two days, partnering with Marco Benevento and Galactic’s Stanton Moore as the psych-funk outfit Garage a Trois late Thursday evening, and later joining Galactic for a set led by Living Colour frontman Corey Glover. With Dillon on tablas, Galactic and Glover reinvented the funk-metal standard “Cult of Personality” with explosive trombone supplanting Vernon Reid’s classic guitar riff. Glover might have put on 24 years and a few gray hairs, but his voice rang out with untainted authority, concluding the song by speaking its FDR quote sign-off.

Thursday’s amazing star power didn’t peak with Glover’s spot, however. The most celebrated set of the entire weekend came just before on the main stage, as Jackson Browne was joined by a corps of musicians young enough to be his children in Jonathan Wilson, Los Angeles indie rockers Dawes and Sara Watkins, though it’s not exactly clear which side was most edified by the collaboration. Browne seemed to defer almost entirely to Watkins as he joined her for her late afternoon solo set, and let Wilson dole out assignments for their electrified take on Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns & Money.” It was still Browne’s show, however, as the famed Topanga Canyon songwriter opened with a solo rendition of “The Pretender.” It was a song missing from the setlist of the rest of his tour, rendered with a sense of irony as his arsenal of 16 guitars sat racked up behind him, each tuned for a different song. “An embarrassment of riches,” he called it, though he could just have easily been referring to the embarrassment of talent collected onstage.

The North Carolina-born Wilson had just flown in from Spain that day follow ing a summer-long gig in support of Tom Petty, and his own set a few hours before offered “Desert Raven” and “Can We Really Party Today?” more assertively than their normally hushed deliveries. A gifted songwriter and an underrated guitarist, Wilson seemed to share Jackson’s inclination toward guitar excess, though the sounds he wrought from his smallish collection were more measured and causative than the haphazardness with which Browne toggled through his gear.

FLOYDFEST 11 HIGHLIGHTS

• It’s incredible how Toubab Krewe seem to reinvent their sound with each and every tour. The Afro-Appalachian fusion label hardly seems to apply to a band that absorbed profound dub influences from their time spent with Earl “Chinna” Smith, and boasted a pronounced Latin bent as up-and-coming jazz heavyweight Pedrito Martinez joined them on congas.

• Martnez’s own sets were among the most danceable of the weekend, with Cuban conguero’s arrangement of percussion, keys and bass channeling island luminaries from Sabu Martinez to Beenie Man — “Who Am I (Sim Simma)” ranked among the best covers of the weekend, complete with Martinez keeping up a crazy percussive pace while turning a pair of imaginary keys to his Beemer. He was joined by Toubab Krewe tour mate Weedie Braimah and the band’s percussionist Luke Quaranta at times, but his own ridiculous solo skills put him on another level than either.

• Ricky Skaggs’ Sunday afternoon porch set was supposed to be a copresentation with Jerry Douglas, who turned out to be under the weather. No matter, though. Skaggs favored storytelling over picking, musing on the incredible tale behind his beloved Pee Wee Lambert mandolin and his recent performances in Nashville with Barry Gibb, suggesting the Bee Gee is on the verge of a career reinvention a la Lionel Richie.

• Winston-Salem-born gospel powerhouses the Mighty Wonders held what was essentially a Pentecostal revival Sunday afternoon in the Dance Tent that featured a rare appearance by the 1950s group’s founder Clarence MacMillan. The septuagenarian MacMillan remained seated the entire set, but it was a challenge to keep up with his shuffling feet as he shouted out praise to a soundtrack of deep-funk wah-wah guitar and horns.

• Two steps forward, one step back seems to be the FloydFest mantra. Credit to the founders for continuously reinvesting into music and infrastructure — the wooden deck by the Hill Holler Stage was a really nice addition — but it was hard not to run into a Sunday arrival cursing the hours they spent waiting in the interminable shuttle line. The last-minute release of tickets no doubt contributed to the logistical failure, but hopefully that extra cash flow will be reinvested into more seamless transportation. Given the history of FloydFest, rest assured it will.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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