A Great Year at The Great Blue Heron Music Festival
By Mary Mistretta
On Friday, July 3, over 6,000 festival attendees were greeted with warm air and sunny skies and the familiar, cordial sounds of the annual festival. Campers setting up their homes for the next three days were treated to Big Mean Horns, as members of Big Mean Sound Machine strolled the grounds with their upbeat and infectious sounds. Music began at 3:45 on the Main Stage with Heron staples The Tiger Maple String Band, a happening that was certainly indicative of what the rest of the weekend would include.
Despite the absolutely talented musicians always available on Friday’s lineup, Smackdab has unofficially begun the night’s festivities for some time. But anyone within ear-shot of the Main Stage prior to their set (who wasn’t already watching Max Garcia Conover) stopped down to see The Gunpoets. A rap/hip-hop group, they were a really nice addition to the standard Heron lineup. I was uphill when they began to play and was immediately drawn down to the stage. The eager crowd participated in call-and-response, paid attention to the message-laden lyrics, and happily absorbed the energy they radiated during their sets. Coming from Ithaca, NY, they are a group to look out for.
Next on the Main Stage were Smackdab. They bring the funk and soul out of a person and if I noticed people who weren’t dancing, I wondered why they came. Smackdab played their usual tunes (“Casio Love,” “Keep On,” “Gotchu”), plus a few new ones. “Squeeze” is a hot, highly danceable number that belongs to Jon Marc Johnson’s soulful voice, while instrumentals “The Instigator” and “Syrian Dance Crisis” showcase the band’s enormous talents. Ryan Ecklund bass playing with Daniel Witherspoon’s drumming carry rhythm seamlessly, while Mark Cooper and Matthew Baxter complete the sound on the keys and guitar, respectively. Smackdab was definitely one of the bands Heron goers came to see. (More on Smackdab’s second set later.)
Remember the theme song from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On?” I’d bet that 98 or so percent of the population wouldn’t want to hear it covered…unless it was by Los Straightjackets. Adorned with masks and polished suits, the surf/garage/rockabilly sound of this band had all of us skeptics appeased and channeling our sights on the stage. I have never been much of a surf music fan, but Los Straightjackets create a signature blend that makes that style of music well more than tolerable. Their playing was hardcore, and their Celine Dion rendition was absolutely amazing. It takes some serious talent to pull that one off, and this band was yet another proper deviation from a typical Heron roster.
Vancouver’s The Town Pants returned again and the audience figuratively danced their pants off. This Celtic roots group manages to keep that signature sound without making you feel as though you’re listening to a Riverdance soundtrack. Playing two brisk sets over the weekend, TTP had guests shaking it up and down the entire time.
As always, the night ends late in the Dance Tent, with Buffalo Zydeco keeping things lively well into the early hours. I was able to catch some members of Donna the Buffalo up there on my way back to camp, which made the next day even more anticipated.
Saturday: Happy Independence Day!
Saturday’s sets began at 11:30 and ran strongly throughout the day on all three stages. Hearing the tail end of Erie, PA’s Daybreak Radio in the Dance Tent, I was quite impressed with Tyler Smilo’s vocals. The band had a nice rock-country sound and depth of lyrics, which I was able to get into on the car ride home while listening to their recent EP (thanks to bass player Ryan Bartosek). I’m looking forward to seeing an entire live set.
The Buddhahood rocked the Dance Tent with Caribbean and reggae influences. In what is usually a male-dominated band makeup, the tremendously talented females tend to stand out. Courtney Balles on the tenor sax was no exception. It had been ten years since I’d seen them and they were superb then; now, they are seasoned and solid.
I decided to check out the Main Stage and encountered Kelley and The Cowboys. Here is a band that does authentic and original country music. Kelley was singing “Ooo-wah-ooo” with such charm, I felt as though I was transported to the days of Patsy Cline. They had a decent crowd for that time slot and if this is your type of music you will want to hear more.
Back at the Dance Tent Mosaic Foundation brought up some members from Buddhahood to share their set. Both from Rochester, NY, the two bands have done this in the past, and it was easy to see why they continue to do so. These collaborative guest sit-ins occurred often throughout the weekend, something we were all quite pleased with. Who doesn’t love extra horns and percussion with their reggae roots?
After these wonderful afternoon performances, Big Mean Sound Machine kicked off the evening’s music on the Main Stage with their inaugural Heron performance. This band is certainly a machine. Their melting pot of sounds will enthrall any member in the audience as they play their highly danceable, original compositions, which included some new music. The entire band played phenomenally, but Alicia Aubin’s upbeat and feisty yet deep and guttural trombone playing kept many eyes and ears on her. One of the best things about this band is watching them. When they aren’t focused on their own instruments, they have so much fun dancing that you feel as though they are in the crowd with you, a great reason for them to hammer it out later in the Dance Tent.
Next up on the Main Stage was one of the most-sought performances of the festival: Big Leg Emma. A band from Jamestown, NY, BLE have been an integral part of this festival for years. They would typically play sets on both Saturday and Sunday, but not this year. Joined by former member Amanda Barton (fiddle, vocals), Charity Nuse (mandolin, vocals); Steve Johnson (acoustic guitar, vocals); Kev Rowe (electric guitar, vocals), Corey Kertzie (drums); and Steve French (bass) played their last set together at the Great Blue Heron Music Festival.
An emotional performance, felt through their playing and seen in their faces, the band gave their all to a traditional set that included favorites “Peoples,” “California,” and “Hey Maker.” It was a very happy time though, that carried with it a sense of excitement, acceptance, and gratitude. Bringing their family and friends on stage to play and dance with them, it was obvious how important and loved their music is to many, many people.
During “Sing to Me,” long-time fans and friends of Big Leg Emma, Kevin Carr and Liz Cardwell, were invited on stage and Liz was asked if she would marry Kevin. Her acceptance was greeted with Kev Rowe asking the crowd to share in a congratulatory moment. Just like Big Leg Emma’s music, it was a special occurrence that will be remembered. They will be playing their final shows on August 22, at the Jamestown Regional Celtic Festival in Mayville, and October 2 at the Celeron American Legion Hall in Jamestown.
Aside from someone’s unlucky tent fire, the worst happening of the festival was choosing between the overlapping sets of Driftwood and Smackdab. When Driftwood began, Smackdab was a few songs deep into another rocking set, but they had not yet played their extremely awaited surprise cover. And let me tell you, the boys did not spill to anyone.
Naturally, we went absolutely nuts when we heard the recognizable chords of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” laced with Smackdab’s signature funk. Near the end of the song, no one was expecting the slip into The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” which made us even more elated. Smackdab love every minute of the Heron, and it shows. I’ve seen them jam at multiple venues but when they play at the Heron, it’s as though there is no other place they would rather be than on that stage. They are a blast every time.
Running over to catch Driftwood, I was thankful to be able to hear a few songs. The playing, singing, and songwriting of these folk rockers is extraordinary. Where much of the day was horn heavy, Driftwood dazzled with their strings. Consisting of violin, banjo, upright bass, and acoustic guitar, they will have you dancing fiercely or fiercely mesmerized. Clair Byrne on that violin. Damn. Bringing fans and children to the stage for a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land” to celebrate Independence Day, Driftwood are as fun as they are talented.
For a day that was already packed with amazing music, it sure wasn’t over yet as Jimkata took the stage for their second year at the Heron. A heavy mix of rock, jam, and electronica, Jimkata also focuses on good songwriting, taking them a step above what one might be used to from that genre. More people were dancing on the stage behind Jimkata than during any other performance, and the crowd was packed. Everyone was rocking out to “Die Digital,” “Chain Store,” and “Feel in Light,” among other fantastic jams. But when Jimkata invited fellow Ithacans Big Mean Sound Machine to the stage for a sick rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” I’m not speaking for only myself when I say that it was the highlight of the festival. It was fun had by all.
As we awaited Donna the Buffalo’s first set, Symba began playing. Symba is Ryan Hawkins and Hayley Restivo from Jamestown, and these girls were on fire. Both playing guitars, they harmonized beautifully, but Hayley takes the lead and when she sings, you listen. There are big things to come for these girls.
A yearly Heron headliner, Donna the Buffalo have been playing together for 25 years. From Trumansburg, NY, their Zydeco-roots dance music has kept fans happy and dancing the entire time, and this year was no different. Playing an upbeat set of original favorites, they fittingly closed out the Main Stage music for the night.
Sunday saw most people pack up and head home, but a lot stayed for another great day of music. Adding to the morning’s stately performances, NYS native Sean Patrick McGraw played an afternoon set before The Cabin Killers, who played as though they were well rested instead of closing out the Dance Tent in the early morning hours. Their bunch of stringed instruments kept the crowd moving in preparation for Donna the Buffalo’s next set.
Sticking around for Donna’s Sunday performance is always a treat, as it includes a ton of fabulous sit-ins. This year included Tyler Smilo, Hayley Restivo, Claire Byrne (who happened to be celebrating her birthday), and The Cabin Killers. And it’s not all Donna’s music. They will play along with their guests’ songs on the fly or on an occasional cover. It was a laid-back yet highly entertaining night of music, an obvious reason that Donna the Buffalo closes the Main Stage both nights.
While some critics expressed the want for a new lineup, the returning artists are what make the Heron the festival that it is. However, new artists of varying genres have been added to the roster in past years as well as this year. So, like every other year it can only get better.
In addition to what is probably the best collaborative celebration of local music, the festival provided a temporary home to many excellent large and small vendors. There were children’s activities scheduled all day for young ones and teens alike, and many events in the Revival Tent such as music workshops, meditation, and yoga.
The beautiful grounds are perfect for a stroll, and when I took a break from music I stumbled upon Dizzy Whoosh. A band from Erie, PA, who did not play on any stage at the festival, they were having an all-out jam session at their camper. It was a pleasant break indeed, as was the Tiger Maple Stage in the woods with amazing artists in a quiet wooded setting, complete with a café.
Rainbow Recycling helped keep the place clean, although everyone was kindly reminded to do so on their own time. And not just at the Heron, but anywhere they go. What happens at the Heron doesn’t stay at the Heron, and nor should it. We take a little piece with us and look forward to getting a little more of something special the following year. Once again, it was a Happy Heron.
Special thanks to farm owners Steve & Julie Rockcastle, the many volunteers, David Tidquist, Lori Savaree, and everyone who helped make the 2015 Great Blue Heron Music Festival a success.