Music-Lover's Paradise: A preview of GrassRoots 2013

July 12, 2013 by Alan Rose

It’s almost that time again. That's right, the 23rd annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is right around the corner. It starts on Thursday, July 18th and runs through Sunday, July 21st at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds.

The article I wrote last year for 14850 Magazine was pretty well-received, so the editors asked me to do it again. As always, be sure to check the official GrassRoots web site for the latest schedule and information on camping, parking, and other essentials. They've also got links to most of the bands' official web sites so you can sample what they sound like in advance and start highlighting your own can’t-miss picks.

This year promises more of the same sort of well-rounded lineup that has helped earn GrassRoots its motto, "Music-Lover’s Paradise." Familiar faces will return from last year, alongside a fairly large number of performers who will be gracing the stage for the first time, or the first time in a while. It's the sort of lineup that basically ensures that you'll miss something you really wanted to see and get virtually no sleep for the entire weekend, and neither of those are particularly bad problems.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are headlining this year's GrassRoots Festival.Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are headlining this year's GrassRoots Festival.The big headliners this year are country singer-songwriting legends Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, touring together in support of this year's excellent "Old Yellow Moon" CD. Harris's voice has been recognizable as a force, both solo and in groups with folks like Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Mark Knopfler. She and Crowell have collaborated since he joined her band in the early '70s, but this is their first duet release. They'll be at the Infield Stage on Friday night for a 90-minute set that's sure to dip into their decades of previous material.

Just before them, over on the Grandstand stage, there are two other great country-style acts. First, GrassRoots perennial Jim Lauderdale will return to show off his endlessly endearing songcraft, backed as always by host band Donna the Buffalo. Then, bluegrass-influenced powerhouse Chatham County Line will make their Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival debut after several appearances at the Shakori Hills version. Also, after a year off, rockin' country duo The Believers will be back for a pair of sets, and they're bringing along CD and vinyl copies of a new single produced by Donna the Buffalo's Jeb Puryear. Fans of the high-energy side of country, bluegrass, and the like should also keep an eye out for Mike Hansen's latest project, the Slippery Gap Boys, and honky tonk singer-songwriter Randy Dean Whitt.

Host band Donna the Buffalo will play three sets at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.Host band Donna the Buffalo will play three sets at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.And, speaking of Donna the Buffalo, they'll be playing their customary three sets, wrapping up the weekend with an All-Star Revue on Sunday night that always stretches late into the night (last year's finished up around 3am). They've released their first studio album in five years, and there's no doubt that copies will be available in the CD tent. You'll also be able to spot current and past Donna the Buffalo members on stage as part of the Bubba George Stringband, opening the festivities on Thursday as is their custom, and the countrified Jeb and Them. No doubt they'll also be sitting in with Keith Frank for his Saturday night Dance Tent overnight, Keith Secola, and others throughout the weekend as well.

Rusted Root at GrassRoots in 2009. 14850 Photo.Rusted Root at GrassRoots in 2009. 14850 Photo.Another name on the schedule that's likely to be familiar is Rusted Root. After a couple of radio hits in the '90s, these purveyors of rhythmic, danceable roots music just kept going, and they've been favorites at GrassRoots since 1992. They're back again to close out Thursday night on the Infield Stage. You may want to warm up for them with Rubblebucket, who offer a slightly more electronic take on groove music. And start things even earlier with Thousands of One's return to the Dance Tent. This Ithaca-based group blends roots, hip-hop, reggae, and soul into a danceable swirl full of positive messages.

When it comes to danceable, rootsy music, the Sim Redmond Band are among the most beloved local purveyors, and they'll be back on the Grandstand on Friday night. The area has been a bit SRB starved of late, with their annual New Year's Eve bash at Castaway's cancelled due to the club's closure last year, but the band has continued in its role as the Ithaca music scene's ambassadors to Japan.

GrassRoots is continuing its fine tradition of bringing in music from the African continent, and Mali in particular, by turning over the Infield Stage on Saturday evening to the traveling Festival au Désert Caravan for Peace. The Festival au Désert ran from 2001 to 2012 in Mali, and when cultural fallout from a civil war forced this year's festival to be cancelled, the organizers decided to take it on the road. This four-hour block will emphasize Malian blues, a sound that's very different from the various flavors of American and British blues thanks to its traditional Malian influences. The lineup features performances by guitar slinger Mamadou Kelly, who played in Ali Farka Touré's band; Tartit, a 9-piece acoustic ensemble that should appeal to people who remember Tinariwen's explosive sets at past GrassRoots festivals; and Imharhan, who share members with Tartit but have a slightly more electrified take on the form.

Fatoumata Diawara's sets on Friday and Saturday are sure to be festival highlights. The latest in a string of amazing female African vocalists that GrassRoots has introduced to its audience, Diawara mixes elements of Malian blues with jazz and folk into a spellbinding mélange that I just can't stop listening to.

Samite of Uganda will play Saturday night. 14850 Photo.Samite of Uganda will play Saturday night. 14850 Photo.If danceable African music is your thing, you already know that you should be at Samite's set on Saturday night. Back after a one-year hiatus, this ambassador of Ugandan music (and Ithaca resident) will bring his beat happy kalimba-led songs back to the Grandstand with an array of special guests. Another can't miss performance will come from Aurelio Martinez, who closes out the Grandstand on Friday. His appearance at the 2006 GrassRoots left a mighty impression, and his mix of West African and Caribbean rhythms and melodies will be an excellent nightcap.

Speaking of the Caribbean, there's a wide range of music in the styles from that general area of the world this year. On the more traditional side of things, Cortadito are an acoustic duo who specialize in Son, a rhythmic dance music from Cuba. Favorites Locos Por Juana aren't on the bill this year, but their fans should check out Miami's Suenalo, who share a similar blend of Latin flavors and reggae with a fair amount of good old R&B and funk thrown in for good measure. Another group for Locos Por Juana fans to sample is Elastic Bond, who start with a Latin music core and blend in some jazzy hip-hop and rock elements along with a strong female lead vocalist. Based on the music I sampled, I expect their set on Saturday to become a wild Grandstand-storming dance party. And the Spam Allstars, who hit the Grandstand on Friday night, add a DJ to a more traditional lineup of horns, percussion, and stringed instruments that should also stir up dust clouds.

Sophistafunk have played several gigs in Ithaca, including at Castaways and The Gates. They're making their GrassRoots debut.Sophistafunk have played several gigs in Ithaca, including at Castaways and The Gates. They're making their GrassRoots debut.In addition to the Spam Allstars, DJs and electronic music will be out in force this year. Hectorworks Soundsystem returns to Cabaret Hall for a Friday night set, preceded by local favorite DJ Cappel. The triple-threat of DJ Bill Kelly, Equanimous Minds, and DJ Richard McVey will split night-ending sets in the Dance Tent on Thursday and on the Infield stage on Saturday. And, of course, there's DJ Double A in the Gunpoets, the hugely popular, Ithaca-based positive hip-hop collective who have a Saturday afternoon slot on the Infield Stage. If you like them, be sure to check out Syracuse-based Sophistafunk, who will be making their GrassRoots debut.

The Caribbean was also the birthplace of Reggae music, and as always, there are several bands that specialize in one variety or another of that style on the bill. Returning favorites include John Brown's Body, Black Castle, and Kevin Kinsella. Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad will also return after a brief hiatus.

The Town Pants return to GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.The Town Pants return to GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.If your idea of island music includes fiddles and bodhrans, you've definitely got some options. On the more traditional side, don't miss the Grady Girls, or their spin-off Home Remedy, which adds fiddler Rosie Newton and some American influences. On the other hand, Canada's The Town Pants take the acoustic instruments and traditional song forms in a punkier direction, with a highly melodic, energetic set of songs that might just take down the Dance Tent on Thursday night. Then there are the Duhks, for whom Celtic music is just one of many influences. The recently reunited original lineup played a great show at the Haunt earlier this year, and their return to the GrassRoots stage after several years is definitely worth buzzing about.

Fiddles also play a lead role in old-timey music, and there's no place quite like GrassRoots to experience it. The old-timey scene in Ithaca might not exist in its current form if it weren't for John Specker. The standard bearer of old-time fiddle will settle in for his customary Saturday evening slot before Donna the Buffalo's set as well as with his equally talented daughters as The Speckers on Sunday afternoon. In addition to the Bubba George Stringband and the variety of informal jams that you'll find around the grounds, sure bets include veteran banjo picker Mac Benford and his band Up South; upstarts the Notorious Stringbusters, who excel at the unexpected cover; and the Dead Sea Squirrels, who are providing the musical background for both a Contra Dance and a Square Dance. 

The Pine Leaf Boys. 14850 Photo.The Pine Leaf Boys. 14850 Photo.The Dance Tent is also ground zero for most of the Cajun and Zydeco music over the weekend (though not all of it). Joining GrassRoots perennials Keith Frank, Preston Frank, and Walter Mouton this year are the traditional Cajun duo of Jesse Lége and Joel Savoy and young guns the Pine Leaf Boys, whose recent show at the Haunt served as an excellent warm-up for what's sure to be a late Friday night. And, of course, Sunny Weather continues their welcome return to active duty, putting a local spin on Zydeco and other roots music. Get to enough of these sets and you'll be able to tell the difference between Cajun and Zydeco by the end of the weekend for sure. And if it's dancing that you're after, don't miss Bobby Henrie and the Goners, who will once again provide the rockabilly backdrop for a swing dance. 

Sihasin is one of several fine Native American acts on this year's festival lineup. 14850 Photo.Sihasin is one of several fine Native American acts on this year's festival lineup. 14850 Photo.Another tradition that is well-represented by returning acts is that of Native American music. Keith Secola has been with the festival since it started, and he has released his first new album in several years since his last trip to the fairgrounds. He's a showman of the highest order, with a wide range of crowd participation and guest appearances that make each show unique. Moontee Sinquah, who played percussion with Secola for many years, will also be back with his hoop dancing sons Scott and Samson. Bear Fox returns with her singer-songwriter take on Native influences, and Atsiaktonkie will once again bring his blend of traditional and classic rock. The Jones Benally Family will dance their way into your hearts and minds as they do each year. And two members of that family, Jeneda and Clayson, will once again bring their hard rocking project Sihasin as well. You may remember them as two thirds of Blackfire. I think I might like the duo version even better. 

Speaking of hard-rocking duos, one duo who have converted to a trio in time for this year's festival is Hiroshima Vacation. The brothers Caso have added Bubba Crumrine, the dervish behind the wildly popular Ithaca Underground scene, and taken their grindcore to new levels. They're moving from Cabaret Hall to a Friday morning slot on the Infield stage this year that's sure to wake people up.

The Blind Spots step up to the Grandstand Stage this year. 14850 Photo.The Blind Spots step up to the Grandstand Stage this year. 14850 Photo.If it's the harder side of rock that you're looking for, the Ithaca area has supplied it in force, though none quite so hard as Hiroshima Vacation. The Blind Spots graduate to the Grandstand this year, and deservedly so. Their melodic rock has been packing clubs in town to increasingly uncomfortable degrees, and they've coalesced into a reliably outstanding outfit, led by singer Maddy Walsh's vocal acrobatics. Nick Bullock is bringing an expanded version of The Sound Awake back. This guitar-centric band sounds almost nothing like Bullock's previous project, Revision, but that doesn't mean that Revision fans won't enjoy this, too. The more commercial side of rock is once again represented by Mike Brindisi & the New York Rock, another crowd-pleasing Ithaca-based band. The Fly Rods come in on the countrier side of garage rock, while First North American Lunar and Park Doing explore the punkier, more experimental side. Non-Ithacans The Mad Tea also fit in the punky vein. And then there are different takes on straight ahead rock ‘n' roll from Kenny T & Wildfire and The Tin Teardrops. The Sutras offer ultra-melodic, complex music that I might call art rock if it weren't so darned catchy. And don't forget local favorite Johnny Dowd, who has continued to define a genre of his own with his latest release "Do the Gargon."

Also from the local rock scene, last year's GrassRoots Band Contest winners Kites In Space will be in Cabaret Hall on Thursday offering up their catchy, semi-acoustic, intricate gems. They rose to the top of a tough competition last year that included a couple of other bands that made the lineup this year, including the aforementioned Kenny T & Wildfire and "transformational performance artists" Answer the Muse. Driftwood are the only other past winner on this year's schedule, and their fiery acoustic sets ensure that they'll be a Grandstand standout for years to come. Claire Byrne, the fiddler from Driftwood, plays mandolin with Binghamton-base Milkweed, a folky quartet who will be making their GrassRoots debut on Saturday afternoon in Cabaret Hall.

Alan Rose and the Restless Elements playing earlier this year in Ithaca. 14850 Photo.Alan Rose and the Restless Elements playing earlier this year in Ithaca. 14850 Photo.The band contest itself happens on Saturday morning like always, featuring fifteen to twenty bands that sign up at the festival on Friday afternoon for a chance to play a song on the Grandstand stage. For the first time in seven years, contest host Alan Rose (that's me) will bring his band the Restless Elements for a Sunday afternoon set in Cabaret Hall. They're a nine-piece group that plays original, melodic, horn-driven rock with lots of hooks and harmonies.

Harmonies and hooks are only part of what make the Flying Clouds of South Carolina such a popular mainstay of the GrassRoots family. Their upbeat gospel takes on familiar music leave everyone beaming, regardless of religious persuasion. The same is true of the Campbell Brothers, who will bring their sacred steel act back to the Grandstand Saturday evening. Who says church needs to be limited to once a day?  

And then there are the singer-songwriters who are featured throughout the schedule, including Sunday morning's invite-only Songwriters Circle. Ithaca has a collection of some of the finest melancholy-sounding performers anywhere, and many of them are long-standing GrassRoots performers. Jennie Lowe Stearns and Mary Brett Lorson have been sharing stories and songs with us as long as I can remember, and both lead excellent bands. Bronwen Exter and Anna Coogan are more recent additions to the local scene, but both fit in perfectly. All four women know how to write a great song and set a mood with their arrangements.

Amy Puryear of the Double E and Uniit both made their first GrassRoots appearances as part of bands led by others and have since become beloved for their own music. The Double E veers toward country, led by Amy's gorgeous soprano voice and the guitar stylings of Ward Puryear and Jason Shegogue while Uniit weaves lullaby strumming into something almost otherworldly. Rockwood Ferry, led by Tenzin Chopak, takes singer-songwriter music into string band and jazz territories. Chopak's voice is rooted in the folk world, and the band brings them to an even earthier realm. Max Garcia Conover is a stylistic counterpart to Anna Coogan, with whom he'll share the Acoustic Café on Sunday morning in Cabaret Hall. Seth and May come at singer-songwriter from a folkier direction, and Calico Moon take a more grooving approach to it.

The Horse Flies at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.The Horse Flies at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.If your tastes lean more toward the eclectic, GrassRoots includes several performers who are too unique to classify with any individual genre. Leading the pack, of course, are long-time GrassRoots favorites The Horse Flies. Their grooving, modern take on old time fiddle music sounds like nothing you've heard before -- unless you've heard them. Plastic Nebraska, who return for their second year after a hiatus of too many years, take the Horseflies groove and apply it to electric instruments in an amalgam that sounds something like what would happen if U2 had grown up in Appalachia.

Toivo are the only band I've heard that combine Tex-Mex and Finnish music, and it's a mix that's as tasty as it is unlikely. Diwas Gurung played guitar in local band Ayurveda for many years, and he's bringing his Nepali folk-influenced music to the Grandstand on Sunday. Tzar is the jazzy, experimental duo of organist Michael Stark and drummer/sampler Willie B, who also back up Johnny Dowd. They released the punnily titled "Battletzar Galactica" last year and followed it up with a live set featuring saxophonist Moist Paula, earlier this year. Moist Paula will join them for their Friday afternoon slot in Cabaret Hall. And don't forget to spend some time with Paso Fino, a delightful band led by Diana Andersen and Shane Lamphier that adds a dollop of Argentina to its American folk roots. Andersen has a big voice in the vein of Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick, and when combined with Lamphier's harmonies and guitar flavors, they turn out something completely engaging. My only wish is that they would perform more often over the course of the year. 

And lending a touch of class to the proceedings are Sunday's performances by the GrassRoots Chamber Orchestra and Galumpha. The GrassRoots Chamber Orchestra, led by Cayenna Ponchione, have been a perfect, relaxing start to Sunday morning for the past several years. Ponchione always selects a mix of familiar and new pieces for the eclectic program, tying them together thematically. The orchestra itself features some of the finest musicians in the area, many of whom return year after year. Galumpha are the resident acrobatic dance troupe of GrassRoots. After several consecutive years of Saturday evening performances at the Grandstand, this year they move to the Infield stage on Sunday afternoon. The larger space is sure to allow them to go even further in impressing us with what the human body can do.

Nate and Kate bring their kid-friendly act back to GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.Nate and Kate bring their kid-friendly act back to GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.GrassRoots is an event for people of all ages, so in addition to all of the acts on the main stages, there is a children's area with all sorts of fun activites and performances by musicians, jugglers, and more. The full lineup will be available at the festival, but it includes such local favorites as Nate the Great, Magic Mike Stanley, Judy Stock, and Nate and Kate. This year, the Kids' Area performances spill over into the Dance Tent on Sunday morning with an installment of the popular Read Along Songs act that John Simon and Cal Walker have been doing through the Family Reading Partnership for a long time. The highlight of the weekend for many is the Happiness Parade, which will start at the Art Barn on Sunday at 2pm and move around the festival until it ends up at the Infield Stage.

And if all of that music and activity isn't enough to keep you busy, there will be an array of craft vendors, food vendors, and healing arts practitioners, not to mention a series of workshops on topics ranging from meditation and yoga to drumming and singing, among many others. Look for schedules for the Healing Arts area and the Movement and Workshop Tent when you arrive at the festival. And don't forget to leave some time (and cash) for checking out the Art Barn, which returns to a multi-artist format this year, and to take home CDs from the performers and maybe a GrassRoots T-shirt or two.

I can't think of a better way to end this rundown than the final paragraph I wrote last year, so in the fine tradition of John Fogerty, I'll plagiarize myself: Whatever your tastes, whatever your interests, chances are GrassRoots has something for you. From old favorites to the new best thing ever, from expected highlights to newfound treasures, the music-lover's paradise awaits. And it's all right at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, July 18-21, 2013. See you there!

Alan Rose is not only a constant fixture in the audience at local music events, he's a talented songwriter and performer. Alan Rose and the Restless Elements released Alan's third CD, "American Hands," three years ago. Find Alan at or on Facebook, and check out the band on Sunday at GrassRoots.


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