Words/photos by Bob Adamek
There were many choices on the east coast for great live music over Memorial Day weekend — from DelFest in Cumberland, MD to the Greenwich Town Party in Connecticut. However, it would have been really hard to beat the lineup and fun at Rooster Walk 10 in Martinsville, VA.
The four day festival is held on a gorgeous tract of land in Martinsville, VA called Pop’s Farm, featuring gently rolling hills, a beautiful small lake and three stages plus a VIP stage that all have their own vibe. The festival has seen steady growth and puts together a more impressive lineup every year. The overall vibe is relaxed and family friendly. Camping is available and there are many affordable rooms in Martinsville.
Like many destination festivals, the first day featured one stage and a late afternoon start, allowing festival goers a chance to get set up for the weekend and grabbing a reward of three lively sets of music and a DJ (DJWhat!) in between sets. The festivities kicked off on the coolest stage of the festival on Thursday night in the New Belgium Pine Grove, set in a beautiful stand of mature pine trees.
The Commonheart’s Thursday night closing set lifted Pop’s Farm off the ground. Playing a tribute to two of the greatest soul singers of our era, Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, sandwiched between generous portions of their own high-powered soul originals, lead vocalist Clinton Clegg poured his heart into the music, and the band responded in kind. Regular background singers Mariko Reid and Anne Celedonia took center stage to sing the Sharon Jones songs and left the crowd flattened by the depth of their vocals. The 9-piece soul juggernaut set the bar very high for the rest of the weekend with a set that created a buzz that lasted the entire festival.
JJ Grey and Mofro were the Friday night Bassett Main Stage headliners. The band was smartly dressed in suits, taking the stage for the first night of their current tour after a two-month break. JJ went deep into storytelling during “Brighter Days,” connecting with the crowd, reveling in playing to a live audience again. He talked about sharing in this moment, being present with each other and getting away from the news and the narrative of hearing that you have to hate “them” and “they” have to hate you – it’s just all of us here together, sharing this moment of music in the Virginia humidity. He had the crowd hard on his side from that moment on, playing favorites such as the soul-burning “Lochloosa” and “A Woman.” He told great stories about his grandmother before “Gal Youngin'” and “Ho Cake,” during which the band got to really stretch out with everyone playing solos.
The Wood Brothers headlined the Bassett Main Stage on Saturday night, bringing everything a headliner should: energy, passion for the music, great song writing and tremendous musicianship. The band featured songs such as “The River Takes The Town” and “Happiness Jones” from their newest release One Drop Of Truth, while also spending plenty of time combing their considerable catalogue to play fan favorites like “The Muse,” “Postcards From Hell” and “The Luckiest Man.” Chris Wood danced around the stage in what has become a fan favorite part of the night, appearing something like a vintage David Byrne: wiry, jelly-like arms and legs, looking as if he may fall at any moment, but ably supported by his dancing partner, his 1920 upright bass.
King and Strings was a much-anticipated, first-time-ever collaboration between two of the hottest on-the-rise guitarists in two different genres. Twenty one-year-old Marcus King is taking the blues world by storm, and happens to be a big fan of 26-year-old Billy Strings, a phenomenal bluegrass guitarist and equally big fan of King. For good measure, Aquarium Rescue Unit veteran drummer Jeff Sipe was holding down the rhythm for the set. The two guitar masters worked their way through songs written by each one, as well as a healthy dose of well-known cover tunes. The band played Marcus King’s “Guitar In My Hands” and String’s “Dust In A Baggie” before launching into the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” Hendrix’ version of “Hey Joe,” Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.”
The Dustbowl Revival warmed up the Bassett Main Stage for the festival headliners The Wood Brothers on Saturday evening, giving a performance that was pure joy for the band and the fans. The eight-piece band from Los Angeles has been relentlessly touring after the release of their most recent album, 2017’s The Dustbowl Revival. Many of the substantial crowd knew the band and were fully loaded for the set; most of the uninitiated were quick to become converts. The band is so high energy, propelled by the dynamic front tandem of Zach Zupetin and Liz Beebe, who spend precious few moments not in motion. Also trombonist Ulf Bjorlin’s stage presence drives the band and fans even further as he steps out as close to the crowd as he can for his dynamic solos. The song writing is first rate, as is the musicianship.
As well as their originals, Dustbowl worked through a fun group of cover songs including Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America,” Smokey Johnson’s “It Ain’t My Fault,” and one of the set’s highlights, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” In the latter the band got the women in the crowd to sing the choir part while the men sang the chorus. Dustbowl turned in a stellar set that left a hefty impression on the Rooster Walk crowd.
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds are back and touring after a brief family break, and their playing seemed more seamless than ever. For much of the set the drummer was counting off the next song before the current one was done. Versatile singer Arleigh Kincheloe expertly moved around the stage, either calling up the raspy vocal power of Janis Joplin, or a wry sexuality, wink-over-the-microphone soulfulness. The band nearly caused a riot when they broke into Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in the middle of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Another set highlight was when bassist Josh Myers took over lead vocals for Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” while Kincheloe helped out on drums and Phil Rodriguez crushed a trumpet solo. Their set on the Ballast Point Lake Stage left a mark on Rooster Walk 10.
Marcus King and Billy Strings each turned in electric sets of their own, as did Robert Randolph and the Family Band, which King and artist-at-large Ron Holloway sat in for. Richmond Virginia’s Trongone Band played a guest filled tribute to Gregg Allman on the Bassett Main Stage on Sunday, covering classics like “Black Hearted Woman,” “Ramblin’ Man,” “Blue Sky” and “Midnight Rider,” which included a beautiful a Capella opening. Victor Wainwright and the Train crushed the New Belgium Pine Grove stage and Yarn played a great set for their considerably large following on the Ballast Point Lake Stage. Yarn also closed the festival with and tribute set to The Band, with a set entitled The Last Yaltz.
Those who have never been to Rooster Walk should definitely put it on their list of must-do festivals. The laid back vibe, gorgeous grounds, friendly staff and ever-growing lineup filled with special one-time-only sets make it a must-see.