Number nine… number nine: FloydFest is as fab as it gets

by Ryan Snyder

Somewhere, someone’s idea of paradise lies nestled atop the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge highlands, punctuated by 95-degree temperatures quelled by a persistent zephyr and set to the backdrop of some of the finest country, rock, funk and jazz groups in the country. Hopefully, that person found it in a corner of

Floyd, Va. over the weekend, as the 9 th annual FloydFest proved that not all festivals on the cusp of their 10-year anniversary are taking a step back in terms of quality.

Of course, the man everyone came to see was Levon Helm, iconic drummer for the Band and throat cancer survivor, who clearly doesn’t take any performance for granted. From the moment he leaned over to shake the hands of the kids backstage as he ascended the ramp, Helm poured every ounce of his being into his set. As far as his incomparable and oncepowerful voice goes, sometimes he has it and sometimes he doesn’t. That Saturday night he didn’t, unfortunately, but just having Helm on stage is a gift that can’t be overvalued. Helm is still a drummer of peerless quality, however, returning to his earlier traditional grip for much of the set, driving the engine of his incredibly talented band with the same visceral charisma that he splayed out all over The Last Waltz.

He had plenty of vocalists all around him to pick him up when he needed it, though. Helm sounded good on show opener “The Shape I’m In,” but he needed guitarist and longtime Bob Dylan associate Larry Campbell to carry the Dylan classic “Blind Willie McTell.” Helm’s affectation was most sorely missed during “It Makes No Difference.” While the sweet voices of Teresa Williams and his daughter Amy lent their own unique qualities to the piece, little can replace the heartrending plaintiveness that deceased Band bassist Rick Danko, and subsequently Helm, brought to it. Helm did find his voice briefly during set closer “The Weight” during the “Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day” verse, which even in its depleted state felt just as powerful as the mighty bellow of guest Alexis P. Suter.

Suter, a frequent contributor to Helm’s Midnight Rambles, gave two potent performances of her own on Saturday, one a more subdued set on the Porch Stage and another a blistering late-night blues and gospel melee in the Dance Tent. Virtuoso guitarist and mandolin player Danny Knicely joined her eightpiece band for the intimate porchfront performance, which was the introduction for many to her unbelievable baritone/bass. The look of pure anguish on her face as she sang the blues was almost as enthralling as her voice, which can only be described as an honest-to-God force of nature. For her later set, she donned a flowing white choir robe as her band plugged in for searing covers of Marvin Gaye’s “I’m a Ram” and Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard to Go.”

Great covers were in no short supply all weekend long and speaking of terrific voices, festival closer Grace Potter & the Nocturnals cranked up Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” early in the set before closing out with a feedbackdrenched “White Rabbit.” Tom Waits’ “Cold Water” got the grassy treatment from Friday headliner Railroad Earth, while the Mumbles juked it out. Ultra funky singer Oliver Nichols of Soulhound lit into “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” but few could touch what Brooklyn’s Soulive, one of the greatest young jazz groups on the scene, had in store for their Friday late night set.

“We’re going to play you some of our favorite songs,” said drummer Alan Evans after finishing up “Tuesday Night’s Squad.” “I mean these are all our favorite songs, but these are songs that someone else wrote.”

Guitarist Eric Krasno had just laid down a funked-up cover of the Beatles’ “Get Back” the night before with his other band Chapter 2, but the opening licks of “Come Together” on Krasno’s wah’d-out Gibson ES-335 were the prelude to arguably the most memorable 60 minutes of the weekend. It’s hard to imagine that more cerebral versions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Something” have ever been played outside of the Fab Four, but Soulive’s devastating version of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” seriously tested the notion that anyone can play a Beatles’ tune better than the band themselves.

Other highlights: • Sweetest instrument of the festival?

The Jason Spooner Trio’s namesake guitarist wielded a beautiful Gresch 2-tone green Anniversary edition.

• Love was in the air during the Mantra’s Thursday afternoon show, as Keith Allen led his friend and gear tech in proposing to his girlfriend. The kicker? The lucky fellow showed her a photo of the ring rather than risk losing it at the festival.

• Quote of the weekend goes to Chapter 2 drummer Adam Deitch. When asked by a fan while perusing the grounds if they were camping he replied, “Camp? We’re national — no, international — superstars. You can’t get no damn room service in a tent!”

The sultry Grace Potter is hotter than Sunday afternoon during her closing set. (photo by Ryan Snyder)