Haymaker Music Festival, Spotsylvania, VA- 5/7 & 8
Haymaker Music Festival, held on beautiful Oakley Farm in Spotsylvania Virginia will most likely be remembered for the weather, but that doesn't mean that things didn't turn out just fine for all involved. We rolled into the festival under bright blue skies with the temperature soaring into the eighties. After a quick campsite set up we were ready to get the festivities underway for the first major festival of the season, at least in this neck of the woods. After emptying the cooler of a few cold ones, we headed over to catch MOFRO, the first main stage act of the festival, and given my recent exposure to their soulful southern sound, I was hell bent on catching them.
I'm a recent MOFRO convert, and have taken to their swampy funk like a gator to glades, and they proved to be the perfect lead in to what would be a raucous weekend of music. I rolled up during a ripping version of "Blackwater" and immediately felt like the summertime was finally upon me. Unfortunately, that wasn't all that was nearly upon me, because one of the most violent storms I would ever encounter was right around the corner.
During the tandem of "Lochloosa > Florida" I looked up to my left and saw thick black clouds beginning to move in. "Maybe they aren't coming this way," I thought to myself and closed my eyes and went back to dancing. When I opened them a few minutes later the line of darkness was much closer and only a fool would think that they weren't coming straight for us. JJ Grey commented before "Air" that they liked the rain, and it looked like he may have sealed the deal. Many fans started to head back to the campground to prepare for the impending doom, but I opted to stick it out. For lesser bands, maybe not, but for MOFRO, I was staying put. The promoters got a little scared as the wind started to pick up, and at the end of the song JJ got tapped on the shoulder and the gig was up, nearly thirty minutes short. This caused the crowd to scatter as dense black clouds wear nearly on top of us, accompanied by gale force winds. A near panic broke out as people began running back to the campground, the dusty road that lined Oakley Farm now turned into a miniature dust storm kicking dirt and gravel into the air so thick one could hardly see. I paused on my trek back to the tent to contemplate using the port-a-john before deciding that was the last place I wanted to be in a possible tornado.
As buckets of rain were unleashed onto the festival I returned to a campsite in shambles, rain fly blown away, tent nearly ready to follow suit. The campsite's centerpiece, a brand new dining gazebo belonging to my sister and her boyfriend was tossed three rows of tents away and crushed into a mangled heap of tarp and frame. I took my tent down, recovered the rain fly, and stuffed it into a ball under my car and then rode out the rest of the storm from the relative comfort of drenched clothes inside of my car. After a half an hour or so the rain began to let up, and before long, the clouds began to part and the sheer darkness of the sky began to recede. At that moment the entire festival contigent, almost exclusively taking cover within their vehicles, began to honk their horns in a cacophonous celebration to a storm weathered. Folks began to get out of their cars and assess the damage, many campsites laid completely to waste. Word spread that Little Feat was canceled on account of the storm, but Leftover Salmon would play their timeslot in the haybarn, a half barn that would be more protected from the elements than either of the stages. Some folks were a little bummed at the cancellation, while a brilliant double rainbow formed over the festival letting everyone know that things would turn out fine.
Salmon took the stage around eleven o clock after a number of hours spent drying out the camping gear and cooking dinner. They drew a hearty crowd to the haybarn. These folks had been through a lot, and they were ready to get the show back on the road. Salmon provided two hours of their genre-bending jamboree. The crowd delighted in a long Bob Marley medley that started in "Soul Shakedown Party" ended up in "One Love" with Vince Herman providing a little "War" in the middle. All in all Salmon is playing in fine form, though the playing of their frontline was sometimes muddled by the sound in the tin roofed barn. Drew Emmitt was on fire as usual laying his heart on the line with every step to the microphone. Personal highlights were a smoldering "Shenendoah Breakdown" and "Down In the Hollow", but more than anything, this set was about getting back to the music.
The late night band for the evening, Southern California's space funk superstars Particle, were the group on that evening's docket that generated the most buzz among the fans. Discussion of the band's predilection for late night marathon sets had many abuzz at the possibility of the show lasting all night. In the end, the band only played a two hour plus set, but delivered the most hard hitting jaw-dropping music of the festival's opening day. The group had evolved into a polished jam machine, each tune an experiment in energy and just how far they can push the audience. Many who were seeing Particle for the first time stood around with their mouths agape. The setlist, as per typical Particle this time around consisted mostly of tracks off of their recent debut, Launchpad. Though they didn't end up playing until dawn, this music freak wouldn't have been there to see it, because by the end of the night, Particle throttled what little energy I had right out of me and I crashed in the car, in hopes of a new, drier day to follow.
On Saturday, I woke up to a brilliantly sunny day, and went about setting the campsite back up. The festival grounds began to resemble a refugee camp more so than usual, with almost everyone drying out something on the hoods of their cars or on improvised clotheslines. By the time everything was in order I decided to wander a bit, and I was glad I did. I returned to the haybarn stage which had hosted the previous night's festivities and I found a much different scene. Gone was Particle's futuristic funk, and in its place sat a lone young songwriter by the name of AJ Roach who delivered some of the most memorable performances of the weekend. Roach, truly gifted at the art of songcraft, was one of those gems that you stumble onto and immediately become thankful you did. He played a tune called "Talkin' California Recall Election Blues" that perfectly summed up the entire debacle in the form of the talkin' blues popularized by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. His set also included "Grandaddy" the song he won the 2004 Chris Austin Songwriter's award for at this year's Merlefest. This is an artist to look out for.
Next, I stumbled past some wrecked dining canopies (the festival mascot, by this point) and checked out a set by the DJ Williams Project on the Oakley stage. Their funky jammed out groove proved to be a relaxing soundtrack to lazing about in the sun, something that I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do at this festival. The set was upbeat and drew a large crowd ready to get down, but I could only play it as lazy as possible. I opted to skip Percy Hill, and ambled back to the campsite to kick it and rest up for Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust.
An hour or two later, when I could pull myself away from the sunshine and campsite relaxation I meandered down to the main stage area in time to catch Reid invite Joe Farrell of Percy Hill to the stage for a take on "Skyline". The Assembly of Dust has hit its stride finally getting out from under the shadow of Strangefolk and becoming their own band, and one that can rip it up at that. The "Honey Creeper > Oxbow > Honey Creeper" segue was deft, and one of the set's many highlights. Reid performed "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Shame" solo and acoustic, the first being one of the more talked about numbers the rest of the day. Their set provided a perfect tone to what was turning into a well-received sunny day. When the Assembly of Dust had drawn to a close most of the main stage crowd headed over to the Oakley Stage to check out Philadelphia's Brothers Past. The group instantly got the grooves going, though I only listened half attentively as the group seemingly alternated between poppy sounding songs and hard hitting "organica". All in all they delighted the audience who had gathered to cheer them on. For me, I was just killing time till the Del McCoury Band came out.
The first seriously large crowd of the weekend gathered at the main stage for Del and the Boys. Virginia farm country sits at the heart of the bluegrass world and this was evident at the raucous reception that the McCourys received. After each number the crowd would erupt so passionately that Del would look up sheepishly, like he himself was shocked at how well received each number was. This group is as good as it gets in the genre and everyone is encouraged to take in their show at least once. Throughout the course of their hour and half set they worked through a number of classics to which the crowd sang and danced enthusiastically. It finally felt like we were at a festival again, as opposed to unwilling participants in weather related disaster movie.
I headed back to the campsite to cook up some dinner and rest up for what would be a whirlwind night of music that would start will Keller's one man band. The main concert field was packed to the brim when I returned. Keller welcomed like a hometown hero returning from war as he jammed for a minute before slipping into his festival inspired ditty "Porta Potty Girl". Keller's set included many of his live staples such as "Love Handles", "Above the Thunder", "Airport" and "Celebrate Your Youth" and covers of "Johnny B. Goode", "I Want a New Drug" and "Sultans of Swing". The set began to steamroll towards the finish when Keller busted out a cover of Nirvana's "Lithium". The crowd, of an age raised with Nirvana, supplied the trademark Cobain wailing from the original version. Keller followed with the two biggest fan favorites he had under his belt, "The Best Feeling" and "Freeker By the Speaker" and the crowd was jubilant. His encore was a percussion loop driven rendition of Sublime's "What I Got", which delighted anyone who wanted to sing along loudly, which most people did. All told, Keller's set was a solid one, driven by endless loop jams that at time began to get a little stale. When the man really needed to connect, he dropped the loops and just went at it with guitar and voice, and in those moments, was fantastic.
The first late night act of the night were the Drive By Truckers, a group that I was not familiar with at the beginning of their set, and was a dyed in the wool believer in by the time their set came to a close. This band is absolutely on fire. Driven by three distorted guitars their brand of edgy southern rock was just the thing I needed to blow my mind. Patterson Hood, their gravel voiced front man, was captivating with his low slung Gibson SG and his songs of the south. By the end of their set, a blistering "Let There Be Rock", which had me screaming with fists clenched in the air, I was convinced that I had just witnessed my new favorite band for the first time. By the time they left the stage in a whirlwind of whiskey and feedback, I felt an unwavering feeling of gratitude that I had managed to come across this band. They are the real deal.
The last act of the evening was Tea Leaf Green, who supplied the festival's final notes. This band was good, though after the all out throttling given to me by the Truckers, I came away unenthused. Their sound mixes elements of a number of genres including an interesting little rap number called "Snoop Dogg Why You Don't Puff No More", but I found myself heading back to the tent before their set was over.
The weather the next morning was sunny and beautiful as I packed up the campsite and prepared to embark on the journey home via the winding two lane roads of Virginia farm country. It was a good feeling to have one festival under my belt and summer still around the corner. If Haymaker was a sign of things to come, it was a good one. As I bid adieu to Oakley Farm I thought that I would surely return.
Aaron Hawley is ready for summer already.