A touch of Silver: GrassRoots turns 25

July 14, 2015 by Alan Rose

Summer has taken hold in the Finger Lakes, and the 25th annual installment of the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is upon us. Running, as always, on the next-to-last full weekend in July (Thursday July 16th through Sunday July 19th this year) out at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, GrassRoots will celebrate its first quarter century by doing what it’s always done: blending the familiar and the new into an event that is uniquely GrassRoots.

That’s not to say that the organizers are ignoring the fact that this is a milestone year. They’re celebrating the 25th anniversary in many ways, including a Fashion Show on Thursday night featuring GrassRoots T-Shirts from years gone by, and a big, festival-stopping celebration on Saturday night. This is also the 20th year for the Healing Arts at the festival, and there will certainly be even more celebrations built around that.

And it’s also not to say that there’s nothing new on this year’s schedule. Sure, there are plenty of familiar faces, but there are at least a couple dozen bands or solo performers who will be here for the first time. “More of the same” in this case leaves plenty of room for change. It’s a combination that’s worked well for the festival for its first 24 years, and year 25 appears to be no exception.

With so many performers from so many genres spread across four stages that run almost constantly for four days, it can be easy to overlook an old favorite or miss checking out a group that becomes your new favorite. It happens every year -- that band that only played once or twice during the weekend that nobody had heard of beforehand and nobody can stop talking about afterwards. They’re usually buried somewhere in the middle of the list of bands on the festival web site, sitting there unassumingly between the headliners and the locals, ready to leave you speechless. It’s what the GrassRoots organizers have always done, and they do it so well that we almost take it for granted. 

So what do they have in store for us this year? Read on!

One thing that the two top-billed performers have in common is that they defy attempts to label them easily. Steve Earle plays country music in the same way that Trombone Shorty plays New Orleans brass band music. It may be a convenient shorthand to help music store clerks file their albums, but it’s imperfect at best.

As those who have seen him at the State Theatre during his appearances there over the past decade know, Steve Earle has been as likely to veer into hard rock as country over the course of nearly 30 years. His catalog is traditional enough to include a bluegrass album recorded with past-GrassRoots performer Del McCoury and folky enough to win a Grammy for a tribute to Townes Van Zandt. His latest, Terraplane, is solid blues. But he’s also been unafraid to court controversy, from his early-career highlight “The Devil’s Right Hand” to the more recent “John Walker’s Blues.” And yet he can also be tender, as on “Fearless Heart.” Just when you think you know what to expect from him, he ventures off in a new direction, excels at it, and somehow makes it fit with what’s come before. No matter where he goes with his set on Friday night, I’m looking forward to the ride.

Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue will certainly bring Thursday night to a rousing crescendo, but if the name has you expecting a set along the lines of what the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band have brought to GrassRoots Festivals past, think again. Sure, the brass band tradition is part of what Trombone Shorty does, but he serves it up alongside healthy portions of funk, jazz, and even ska. The only sure thing is that nobody’s going to want to sit down during this set.

And if the funky side is where you’re at, don’t miss Saturday’s appearance by The Family Stone. I managed to overlook them the first several times I read through the schedule, but a good friend clued me in, and an internet search confirmed that this is the core of the band that backed up Sly Stone on such hits as “Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music.” Based on the samples I listened to online of their recent material, sitting will not be an option during this performance, either.

Thousands of One at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.Thousands of One at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo.Get to the Infield Stage early to catch Miami’s Nag Champyons, who will blend a bit of reggae in with their own funky sounds. They’ve got a set on the Grandstand on Sunday, too. The Flying Clouds are back with their high-energy praise music on Friday and Saturday. And you’ll also want to be at Thousands of One’s annual Dance Tent party on Saturday. It’s a tradition.

Traditions of all sorts are a big part of what GrassRoots is about. Some of those traditions come from nearby, like the Old Timey music with which the Bubba George Stringband kicks of the festival each year. Mac Benford (playing with his current band Up South) and John Specker (who performs solo and with his family band, The Speckers) were among the players who sparked the Old Time revival in this area decades ago.

The Dead Sea Squirrels, The Buvas, and The Notorious Stringbusters grew up hearing that generation and have each taken a different direction in making the music their own. Rockwood Ferry uses string band music as a launch pad for broader explorations that sometimes veer toward jazz or even alternative Rock.

Red Dog Run, the collective of Richie Stearns, Rosie Newton, Jim Miller, and Jed Greenberg add more of a country spin to it (Richie and Rosie will also play a duo set). And if you like them, you should definitely check out Locust Honey, a North Carolina-based group who will also remind you of Gillian Welch and Freakwater.

Driftwood at GrassRoots.Driftwood at GrassRoots.Past two-time GrassRoots Band Contest winners Driftwood also draw from the well of this musical tradition, and they’ll be back in the Dance Tent and on the Infield. They were instrumental in helping Cabinet, from northeastern Pennsylvania, find a foothold in Ithaca by sharing bills with them here a handful of times. I’ve loved both Driftwood and Cabinet from the first time I heard them, and I’m delighted to see Cabinet finally get their first slot at GrassRoots, Friday on the Grandstand right before Steve Earle. In addition to solid musicianship, both bands also feature top-notch songwriting. If you like either of these bands, also check out last year’s Band Contest Winners The Ruddy Well Band during their Friday evening set in Cabaret Hall. Also consider checking out The Brothers Comotose in the Dance Tent on Saturday evening. They remind me of the more melodic side of the Avett Brothers.

Count on a healthy dose of Donna the Buffalo throughout the weekend.Count on a healthy dose of Donna the Buffalo throughout the weekend.While some GrassRoots traditions live on unchanged through the years -- like host band Donna the Buffalo’s sets on Thursday and Saturday evenings and their big All-Star Revue to close things out on Sunday -- some have been slightly altered. Festival favorite and prolific country songwriter Jim Lauderdale will be playing on Thursday evening rather than his regular Friday slot. I’m sure that Donna will be backing him up once again. And if three sets of Donna, two sets of Bubba George, a set of Jim Lauderdale, and other guest appearances aren’t enough Jeb Puryear for you, he’ll also be leading Jeb and Friends on Saturday morning and teaming up with singer-songwriter Ralph Roddenbery on Sunday. Roddenbery has a set of his own on Friday as well.

GrassRoots also has a fine tradition of finding excellent musicians from all around the globe, and this year is no exception. Morikeba Kouyate, from Senegal, is a master of the kora, a harp-like African instrument that can range in moods from hypnotic to rocking. He has sets on Thursday and Friday. Tamikrest are another in a long line of Malian musicians to play the festival. They take the desert blues that made Tinariwen such a popular group at past festivals and punch it up with electric blues stylings more reminiscent of Boubacar Touare. Their Friday evening set on the Infield is sure to be a highlight for many.

Samite at GrassRoots.Samite at GrassRoots.Samite returns to his regular Saturday night slot on the Grandstand with songs driven by his kalimbas and his sweet voice. His roots are in Uganda, but he has called the Ithaca area home for years. And then there’s Lo’ Jo, who are virtually indescribable. I’ve listened to several songs and read their bio and there are so many different things going on that there’s no way to summarize what I’m hearing or reading. It’s so multi-faceted that all I can say is “Try it for yourself.” I definitely intend to.

Sim Redmond on the Grandstand stage.Sim Redmond on the Grandstand stage.Samite is not the only Ithaca-based performer drawing from international styles of music. The Sim Redmond Band count folks like Thomas Mapfumo as influences and have parlayed that into tuneful songs with structures that are just loose enough to be jammy and just tight enough to keep their sets zipping along. The Big Mean Sound Machine have been wrapping their very large lineup (over a dozen members at any given time) around instrumental afrobeat music to large acclaim for years, and they’ve got three sets this year.

The Grady Girls are providing the only Celtic music of the weekend (aside from the aforementioned Dead Sea Squirrels’ Contra Dance set on Friday). Gabriel Tavares & Sisu Powder the Moon take songwriter/guitarist’s eastern-influenced melodies up a notch, similar to the other collaborative venture he has led, the Thins. And Toivo play a blend of Finnish, Tex-Mex, and a wide range of other music that defies easy categorization almost as much as Lo’ Jo’, though in different ways. They’re familiar players around the local scene in a variety of bands, and all of that shows up here in a danceable mélange.

Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad.Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad.The local and regional scenes are also responsible for the reggae and dub that appear on this year’s bill, starting with long-time favorites John Brown’s Body and the slightly younger Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad from Rochester. Kevin Kinsella will be back, shortly after a rousing evening of music under the State Theatre marquee backed by the Analogue Suns, as will the Elliot Martin-led Black Castle, who boast dual drummers as part of a lineup that's a veritable who’s who of local players. Joining in for the first time are Rochester’s Thunder Body.

Keith Frank and Soileau Zydeco on the Infield.Keith Frank and Soileau Zydeco on the Infield.There are generous servings of Cajun and Zydeco music, as there have been from the very first year. Keith Frank and his father Preston will both be back, with Keith’s band finishing out the night in the Infield on Thursday and going all night in the Dance Tent on Saturday and Preston’s band holding down the Infield in the late afternoon Friday and the Dance Tent around the same time on Sunday. Walter Mouton  returns with his Scott Playboys for a Dance Tent set on Friday and a Grandstand appearance on Saturday. He’s semi-retired now, but always finds a way to make it back to Trumansburg (even when the airlines don’t cooperate). Also returning is Cedric Watson, who has played at GrassRoots and in Ithaca with a variety of projects over the years. This time around, he’s closing out the Dance Tent on Friday with his band Bijou Creole and then teaming up with acoustic bluesman Blind Boy Paxton on Saturday. 

Sihasin.Sihasin.Native American music and dance have also been part of GrassRoots since the beginning, and this year is no exception. Keith Secola & His Wild Band of Indians have a pair of sets, including their traditional Grandstand-closing marathon on Sunday. Drummer and hoop dancer Moontee Sinquah returns for sets on Friday and Sunday, too. Atsiaktonkie, who has been playing at GrassRoots either solo or as part of December Wind for as long as I can recall, will have a set in the Dance Tent on Sunday. And the Jones Benally Family will be back again on Saturday morning, and the hard rocking sibling duo Sihasin, who have grown to be favorites in recent years, have a Friday evening set on the Grandstand on Friday and Sunday morning set in the Infield to help wake people up. New this year are A Tribe Called Red, who take traditional chants and drums and combine them with electronic beats and samples.

Electronic music fans will also be happy that Telekinetic Walrus are back again this year. This Miami-based collective was one of the big buzz bands last year, and they’ve got nighttime sets on Thursday and Saturday. Also returning from Miami are Lanzallamas, who mix traditional afro-cuban instrumentation with samples to create an updated form of salsa, cumbia, and more that’s still recognizable and utterly danceable. They were one of the bands that I didn’t expect to enjoy last year based on the paper description but who wowed me in real life. This year they’re joined by Nativos Jammin’ Orchestra, a less electronic group that shares a member or two and covers similar stylistic ground. I expect that I’m going to enjoy their sets on Saturday and Sunday even more than the Lanzallamas sets, and that’s saying a lot.

Cellist Hank Roberts.Cellist Hank Roberts.On the more eclectic side of things, keyboard wiz Marco Benevento will be bringing his machines to the Dance tent on Saturday night. At the same time, in Cabaret Hall, the unparalleled Johnny Dowd will be back, at least in part to promote his new CD, That’s Your Wife on the Back of My Horse. But you never really know with Johnny. World-renowned jazz cellist Hank Roberts also defies expectations year after year in the best possible way. Then there’s Plastic Nebraska, whose sound is so distinctly their own that attempts to describe it never quite work. There’s a bit of the Horse Flies in there (who, sadly, aren’t able to be here this year), a bit of what U2 would sound like if they’d grown up in upstate New York, and a whole lot of magic.

Magic -- or illusion of various sorts -- is just what we’ve come to expect from Galumpha, the acrobatic dance troupe who have been performing at GrassRoots under one name or another for years. And if dance is your thing, you should also check out the freestyle dancing of Storyboard on Thursday night. He’s up right after The Gunpoets, whose conscious hip-hop will be a highlight of a Thursday that’s stacked with some of the biggest names on the local scene.

Don't miss Sophistafunk!Don't miss Sophistafunk!If you like the Gunpoets, don’t miss Saturday night’s Infield-closing set by Sophistafunk, and for an early taste, catch them under the State Theatre marquee on Wednesday night as part of the Downtown Ithaca Summer Concert Series.

Thursday also features electro-jammers Jimkata, who’ve turned into a touring machine over the last few years. They’ve been livening up their sets with a light show and props that make their performance a more interactive experience.

The Blind Spots.The Blind Spots.The Blind Spots were to have played their last set with keyboardist David Openshaw on Thursday. They’re still on for Thursday, and David is (sadly) still moving on after GrassRoots, but the band added a second set on Saturday afternoon. Both will feature their now-familiar rocking sounds and Maddy Walsh’s unparalleled vocals.

Second Dam performing a couple of years ago.Second Dam performing a couple of years ago.And speaking of unparalleled vocals and moving on, Friday night at GrassRoots will be the last chance to see Second Dam perform. This sextet of Ithaca College graduates prominently feature violin, cello, and ukulele in their intricately crafted sound, lending it an almost orchestral sweep, but they’re built upon a foundation of solidly rocking drums, bass, and guitar and pushed forward by powerhouse lead vocalist Wolf Weston. They released their second full-length CD at a farewell show in May, but were lured back by the invitation from GrassRoots to reunite for one final time. There’s no way I’m missing this one.

Rock in its many flavors is well represented on this year’s schedule. GoGone play good time original rock ‘n’ roll with classic influences. Bobbie Henrie & the Goners are straight up Rockabilly, perfect for swing dancing, as is their collaboration with members of local gypsy jazz collective Djug Django (who have held down a Wednesday night slot in the space that’s currently Lot 10 for so long that the venue might as well just be called Djug’s Delight). And Luke G & the Candyhearts have a real talent for the sounds of the Doo-Wop era, with a delightful mix of originals and covers that will have you singing along.

For the more adventurous, Alter Koker bring sounds from the underground to the Grandstand early Friday afternoon. It’s a brooding sound they call “regressive rock” that’s unaccustomed to daylight. At the opposite end of the day, the Sutras return to close things out with theatrical aplomb. Leader AJ Strauss is a musical polymath, and a Sutras set is always an adventure for crowd and band alike.

First North American Lunar.First North American Lunar.The chameleonic Park Doing and Tom Gilbert’s experimental First North American Lunar overlap sets in the Cabaret in the middle of the day. Follow them up with Grey Gary, the duo of Shikhar Bacharay and Tom Burchinal, both Ayurveda alums who trade off on guitar, drums, and vocals in a fine, catchy, slightly off-kilter sound. Speaking of catchy, brothers Chris and Hayden Frank can’t help but be catchy in their current project, The Nepotist. You might remember Chris as the guitarist from IY (aka New Neighbors) and Hayden as the bassist from The Sauce (aka Cities). They bring the best of those projects, plus tight sibling harmonies, to their latest musical adventure. 

If you prefer things more straight up, with a side of twang, check out The Fly Rods kicking off the Cabaret Hall stage on Thursday. Long-time friend of the festival Don Bazely writes words that mean something set to tunes that are reminiscent of Neil Young, the Replacements, and Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones. The Christopher Gerard Band have a bit of a twang in their rock stew, too, as well as a penchant for topical songs. For a stronger side of twang, look no further than Kenny T & Wildfire, and for a bit more jam in the mix, check out Calico Moon. And if you’re looking for something that’s a little of all of the above and none of the above at the same time, it’s the Falconers who will be your must-see. Upright bassist Bess Greenberg (formerly of Milkweed) and acoustic guitarist Jimmy John McCabe (formerly of Yolk) share vocals and split the difference on their influences (old timey and bluegrass on one side, and grunge and alternative rock on the other) to deliver something that is delightfully different yet instantly familiar. It’s a neat trick.

Bronwen Exter is performing Thursday night.Bronwen Exter is performing Thursday night.One of my favorite aspects of GrassRoots has been the family of female singer-songwriters who have emerged over time. Jennie Stearns has been playing her finely nuanced songs at the festival under her own name since the first year I attended, and regardless of the band behind her, she has always been a personal highlight. Mary Lorson has been playing at the festival for a long time under many guises, too, and she’s been working on a new project lately that she first previewed at last year’s festival. It’s a contrast from her piano and guitar-based jazzy rock, and different from the more acoustic Soubrettes sounds, yet fits in well with all of it. Bronwen Exter and Anna Coogan are relative newcomers to the circle of friends. Both are excellent songwriters with strong voices that they also lend to other projects. Bronwen veers more toward the moody and jazzy, whereas Anna tacks a bit more toward rock. 

Amy Puryear has been involved with GrassRoots in many ways and through many musical projects over the years. Her latest, which underwent a name change from the Double E to Laila Belle earlier this year, bears its first fruit in the form of a self-titled, crowd-funded CD that will be released at the end of the band's Saturday evening set in Cabaret Hall. I’ve been looking forward to owning some of these songs for years and can’t wait to add a copy to my library. Their set will followed by a solo set by Uniit, another woman who has appeared in numerous musical incarnations over the years. Her gently melodic songs will leave a smile on your face and a warmth in your heart. And new to the festival this year is Brooklyn-based Kelly Britton, who’s got a bit of rock and a bit of gospel in her acoustic blend.

Add in the usual instrumental wizardry of the GrassRoots Fiddle, Banjo, Guitar, and Mandolin Competition on Friday, the unpredictable diversity of the GrassRoots Band Contest on Saturday, and the classical and new music sounds of the GrassRoots Chamber Orchestra followed by the collaborative GrassRoots Songwriters Circle on Sunday morning, and you’ve got a full slate of music over the course of four days.

So, what’s left to do but get yourself packed and head on out to Trumansburg for four full days of Music Lover’s Paradise? I’ll see you there.

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