The 13th annual Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival was held in the rolling green fields of Pop's Farm in southern Virginia over Memorial Day weekend. Hatched in tribute to two fallen friends, the vibrant and immersive event has grown into a homecoming for a loving community that congregates for four days of music, celebration and renewal set against a backdrop of big skies, shaded groves and a tranquil lake. Half a dozen stages offer listeners a rich and diverse musical journey, and the festival also offers a large menu of outdoor adventures, healing arts and kids activities to enrich the experience.
Many festivals feature an Artist-at-large sitting in with various acts throughout the weekend, but Rooster Walk upped the ante with no less than six masterful Artists-at-large, including drummer Jeff Sipe, saxophonist Ron Holloway, multi-instrumentalist Josh Shilling, vocalist/guitarist Erin Lunsford, harmonicist Robby Carden, and bassist Jake Dempsey. Not only did they sit in and jam out with countless bands throughout the weekend, but together they comprised the Rooster Walk House Band and played magnificent themed sets focused on the '70s, jamgrass, and a rousing tribute to Jerry Garcia.
The fun fittingly commenced Thursday with a long Open Jam on one of the beautiful side stages in the forest, before the TC Carter Band tore into their energetic blues-based rock to raise the decibels. Erin & the Wildfire followed with a scorching set of hot rock including a combustible cover of Prince's "I Wanna be Your Lover." Possibly the hardest rocking act at Rooster Walk was The Stews, and once they burned down the house all that remained were Kitchen Dwellers. The Montana jamgrass maestros shared their lively and innovative improvisations in fan favorites like "Gypsy," "This Time" and "Wise River" to top off the first night of festivities.
Friday fired up with the sweet vocals and fleet fingers of ShadowGrass, who welcomed the day with organic originals and fondly greeted covers such as "Cold Rain and Snow," "Midnight Rider," "Rich Girl" and "Mr. Charlie." Next up was the captivating sound of Songs From the Road Band, whose originals and reimagined classics passionately proclaim their love for both the past and future of bluegrass. The Rooster Walk House Band came up next, with a '70s set featuring pop paragons from artists including Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and John Prine.
The Tony Rice Tribute was a heartfelt hoe-down hosted by the virtuosic Jon Stickley alongside his bandmate violinist Lyndsey Pruett, mandolinist Mark Schimick, bassist Charles Humphrey and several guests. Many of the musicians on stage had played with Tony, and their love and inspiration was on full display through legendary tracks like "Cold on the Shoulder" and "Old Train" in tandem with beloved gems "Ginseng Sullivan," "Blackberry Blossom" and "Nine Pound Hammer." The exuberant glee of Empire Strikes Brass led into the revelatory wonder of Daniel Donato's Cosmic Country, a rising juggernaut rightly lighting up sonars with an inventive blend of traditional country music positively infused with cosmic psychedelic rock to create expansive sonic landscapes bubbling with inquisitions and revelations.
Friday rolled on with the high octane country/bluegrass hotspot Wilson Springs Hotel followed by the extraordinary horn-based R&B explosion known as St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Alabama's ambassadors of classic soul delivered a stirring show mostly built around the powerhouse vocals of Paul Janeway while also exploring intricate instrumentals throughout the set, including on a version of The Beatles' timeless "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." The funky soul of Sneezy led an uplifting dance party in the woods before the massive funk and tight grooves of Orgone appeared over the Lake Stage. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong capped off the evening with an inspired set of hard-hitting and ecstatic psychedelic jams, and welcomed special guests for a tear through "Proud Mary" as a salute to Tina Turner.
Saturday started with the amazing up-and-coming Isaac Hadden Organ Trio's bottomless groove and a solo set from Greensky Bluegrass' Paul Hoffman. Next up was an enthusiastic and inclusive set from Yarn featuring Dangermuffin guitarist Mike Sivilli for the entire set along with Hadden at times to total three over-the-top guitarists intertwining and inventing together. A ravenous blues rock set from guitarist Brandon "Taz" Niederauer followed which saw him shredding not only songs but also multiple strings throughout his wild set. The delicious vintage soul-rock of Neal Francis led into the intense 8-piece supernova Trouble No More, an Allman Brothers Band tribute featuring guitarists Taz Niederauer and Daniel Donato plus Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel in one of the peak performances of the weekend.
The evening peaked as Greensky Bluegrass welcomed pianist Holly Bowling to join for their entire show, turning in one of the most layered, textured and gorgeous sets of the festival. Greensky Bluegrass covered the sky and grass while Holly painted the scenery with sunsets, eclipses and Northern lights. A Hoffman/Bowling duo performance of "Windshield" was among the most sublime moments ever witnessed in these fields, and fans sang and danced along with other favorites like "Past My Prime," "In Control," "Demons" and the eternally romantic "Grow Together." The evening ended with the endless well of imagination and sonic artistry called Doom Flamingo, the synth-funk dance-rock shapeshifters who morph into different animals with each song. Led by the unconstrained energy of singer Kanika Moore, they triumphantly commandeered the full moon for a thunderous set that left the ground shaking.
Sunday unfurled with emerging bluegrass stalwarts Into the Fog ripping through their sensational self-penned songs alongside fiery covers of David Grisman's "E.M.D." and Pink Floyd's "Money." Next up was Southern rock legends The Marshall Tucker Band offering their signature soulful blend of rock, blues and country, followed by rising jam-rock stars Neighbor, whose eclectic set touched on jazz, funk, psychedelia and all points in between. The four days flew by, but the festival finale was finally upon us. Yarn has a Rooster Walk tradition of devoting a show in honor of another act, and tonight's appearance as Bruce Yarnsteen proudly carried on the custom. Welcoming members of Dangermuffin, Sol Driven Train and of course the Artists-at-large, they tore through classics like "Glory Days," "Hungry Heart," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "My Hometown," and "Atlantic City."
These highlights of course only scratch the surface of all the music, dancing, artwork, scenery and new friends waiting to be discovered at Rooster Walk. With proceeds going towards a variety of local charities, it fosters a spirit of community that permeates every aspect of the event. The sentiment is widely shared among the smiling faces that returning to Rooster Walk feels like coming home, and when it's time to leave the best way to say thanks is to bring the love felt here back into the real world. That's what the founders hoped when they created this festival in tribute to their old friends, and we can honor them by sharing this spirit with the new friends we'll meet.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Willa Stein