Steve Winwood is a musician’s musician. He’s been hard at work since the 60’s, spanning roles from front man to studio musician and everything in between.
Bob Weir’s lyrics in “The Music Never Stopped” sounded fresh and symbolic as I sat in the Oak Ridge forest darkness at the 2014 edition of Lockn’ Festival early Saturday morning. It was 3:30 a.m. in the farm’s southeast pocket of woods, yet we looked up on slender sugar maples and white birches still illuminated from below. A three-foot tall light stand sent a kaleidoscope of colors dancing across the leaf undersides, in sync with the beat coming from our neighbors’ eight-foot cylindrical speaker tower. The scheduled music for the night had ceased over an hour ago, yet people were still dancing across the forest floor.
Before joining this late-night party, the newcomers praised and thanked our neighboring campers for taking the festival motto of “Interlocking Music” to a new level. After setting up a generator, light show and dance area, our neighbors let Bobby Weir do the rest, perhaps paying homage to the Grateful Dead member after his late withdrawal from the festival lineup. Through the forest, the lyric “But they kept on dancing” described the setting perfectly.
Becoming neighbors with these late-night woodland party-planners stemmed from both event staff efficiency and festival planning foolery. Arriving at the Oak Ridge Estate in Arrington, VA on Thursday afternoon, my camping comrades and I were surprised with how swiftly the event staff directed us to forest camping. In contrast with last year’s festival, the journey to our campground was traffic-free and direct. However, upon arriving at the Eastern Forest camping area, the free-for-all tent arrangements limited our weekend home location.
Fortunately, we met the coolest crew in the forest. They sacrificed a sliver of their camping palace and even helped us set up our gear. Those who arrived after us were not so lucky, having to drag camping equipment through the labyrinth of tents already pitched about the trees. After setting up our own site, I offered to help a man dragging a six-foot bin filled with all of his gear. He thanked me graciously as his wife struggled with a tarp that refused to fold, and assured me that his site wasn’t too far.
About 20 minutes later, past the cleared forest area and in the deep, thick woods, I felt like I’d carried a piano through a tent and grill minefield. Clearly outside of the designated camping area, the couple began pitching their tent. Neighboring tents sat on similar gaps in the shrubbery around them.
As I walked back I felt like a strand of tobacco trying to wiggle out of a cigarette. The proximity between tents and overflow from the designated camping area led our crew to guess the festival had been oversold. We’d been under the impression that a designated camping plot awaited us in the forest. Not so. Our neighbors’ campsite was at least three times the size of ours, while other campers enjoyed only a morsel of sleeping space.
Though the forest camping quarters were certainly tight, the desire for more space became irrelevant when the music started Thursday. We left our site at around 7:30 and joined the current of pilgrims heading towards the main stage Mecca. En route, we stopped to fill our water reservoirs at one of several conveniently located refilling stations throughout the farm. Dust from the gravel road ascended in a swath above the walkers. The day was still hot, and it felt good.
After this 15-minute cruise from forest camping, we arrived at what became one of the weekend’s more baffling locations—-the main stage security checkpoint. While our first security experience was pretty standard, the searches over the course of the weekend fluctuated dramatically. One day we’d walk through literally untouched, and the next we’d have every nook and cranny of our bags, pockets, and cigarette packs scrutinized. Once inside the gates, however, the security presence was virtually nonexistent. I didn’t hear any festival-goers complaining about that.
The main stage setup at Lockn’ was actually two large stages tied at the hip. As a band walked off the Oak (left) stage, the next band on the lineup immediately began to play on the Ridge (right) stage, which usually kept the set breaks under a minute. Positioning on the massive main stage field became a sort of strategy throughout the weekend—-get too close to the stage towards the end of a set; good luck getting within 50 yards of the opposite stage during the next one.
The unique set scheduling seemed fitting for the “Interlocking Music” festival, almost threading the end of one set into start of a new one. Certain sets complemented one another beautifully, like Umphrey’s McGee and The String Cheese Incident‘s four set alternation on Thursday night.
String Cheese’s uplifting, peak-oriented jams balanced the darker and weirder depths of Umphrey’s McGee’s sets well. Much like a single band playing a two-set show, String Cheese and Umphrey’s seemed to play off of one another, using each other as a musical diving board to plunge into opposite directions.
Umphrey’s McGee took the Ridge stage first in the four-punch combo. The dynamic blend of Jake Cinninger’s sinister guitar play and Brendan Bayliss’ pop-catchy vocals carried the six-man crew through much of their hour-long set. Exemplifying the current state of their musical evolution, Umphrey’s played two heavy and dark sets. The monster double-bass drum chugs from Kris Myers kept things bad and heads banging, and laid a foundation for two lively and feel-good sets from The String Cheese Incident.
Umphrey’s chilling second-set closing cover of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” put a powerful exclamation point on their two set performance. Having not played the cover on American soil in over a year, the band showed that they came to Lockn’ to have fun-—and to get a little weird.
The highlight of the night, and one of the overall highlights of the weekend, followed “Crazy Diamond” in the form of String Cheese & the Gang. In a tribute set to Kool and the Gang, String Cheese opened things up alongside the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horn section with a groovy “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging” combo. JT Taylor then brought his Kool and the Gang lead-vocal pipes out with members of his band and three sensual back-up singers/dancers. He told the audience that he’d just met the String Cheese Incident that day, suggesting they’d never rehearsed together. This made the fluidity and tight interplay between Taylor and the band all the more impressive. They sounded sharp together, moving through vocal compositions to funk jams led by Cheese’s Michael Kann on mandolin and Kyle Hollingsworth on the Hammond B3.
The group plunged into the funk with high-energy renditions of “Ladies Night,” and “Get Down On It,” as Taylor flaunted the stage presence that put Kool and the Gang on the map. Cheese and the Gang closed the set with a joyful “Celebration,” that featured plenty of back-up vocals from the audience.
The set underlined what became an overall weekend theme at Lockn’—-different generations coming together both onstage and off to celebrate music. Taylor’s 70s-era R&B/funk soul mixed so well with String Cheese’s instrumental interplay because on their fundamental levels, the bands share an appreciation for unselfish play. Their collective awareness of the properly timed, often-simple, lick or sound produced grooves and jams that spanned the generations represented on the stage.
Throughout the weekend, the audience closed similar generation gaps on the main stage field and in the farm’s various campgrounds. I watched on Sunday as a mother approached a senior man with her infant child, so the girl could play with the bubbles he was blowing. I saw a teenage kid hold back a 20-person port-a-potty line on Saturday night, so an elderly woman could cut the line and go in front of him. And I watched campground supplies pass from one group to the next freely all weekend, as if a collective team spirit had truly replaced a value for commodities with one for relationships.
With Thursday’s main stage action over for the night, our crew trekked up the hill towards the Triangle Stage for the late night Taj Mahal set. Set back about 100 yards in the forest, the Triangle Stage light-show guided the crowd through the forest darkness. Shifting through the trees and shrubs, the audience packed together on the forest mulch before the compact stage.
The blues from Taj Mahal molded well with the dark stillness of the night. The older audience members provided the bulk of the cheering, while younger people slung hammocks between trees in the back.
The scheduled music on Thursday ended around 2:00 a.m. after a raucous set of funk from Dumpstaphunk. Taking the late-night vibe to a different level, Dumpstaphunk’s double bass attack seemed to set even the trees to vibration.
Back at our forest campsite, my friends and I watched the stars and listened to soft tunes on a wireless speaker box. As we talked over the night’s musical highlights and speculated about tomorrow’s lineup, we began hearing our camp neighbor, Jeff, playing acoustic guitar. As Jeff moved into the chord progression for the Grateful Dead’s “Peggy-O,” we shut off our music and watched several people from other tents walk over to sit with him.
Jeff began singing the tune in a raspy voice that somehow stayed sweet, inspiring many campers in the area to join him on the lyrics. After several sing-along Dead tunes, a man approached Jeff’s circle with another acoustic guitar. We were soon engaged in a multi-faceted jam session, with Jeff and the new guy trading licks on guitar and the rest of us howling into the early hours of the morning.
Of course, it’s futile to make comparisons between professional musicians and late-night shenanigans in the forest campground at a festival. Yet somehow the spirit in the Eastern Woods seemed to capture the advertised essence of “interlocking music” as purely as what transpired on stage Thursday. The people who make the festival, the crowd that gives the bands a reason to step on stage, engaging in their own little musical experiment.
Perhaps the professionals caught a whisper of Jeff’s acoustic early Friday morning, because Friday marked the start of the spontaneous, collaborative efforts between bands that come to define so many festivals.
During the early-riser set at the Triangle Stage, Keller Williams picked his way through a set of Dead tunes with former Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin, String Cheese bassist Keith Mosely, Del McCoury Band fiddler Jason Carter, and dobro legend Jay Starling. Despite the late night camping fun, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass pulled many campers from their tents and into the sun with their vibrant yet soothing playing.
On the walk towards the main stage after Keller, our crew paused to watch a session of Lockn’ Yoga, an instructional series that stretched out camper’s minds and bodies before the day’s festivities. Over one hundred festival-goers sprawled about the lawn in front of the Shakedown Stage, following the directions of Karen Thomas, who founded Charlottesville’s Opal Yoga studio. We watched as children struggled with the tree pose and a couple helped one another achieve head stands in the rapidly strengthening sun. When the sweat beads began rolling off our own faces, we decided it was an opportune time to buy the day’s first beer.
Our late arrival Thursday afternoon narrowed our focus to tent setup and music, so we still hadn’t gotten the lay of the land on the alcohol front. After reports arose this summer that ABC had revoked the festival’s liquor license, rumors began circulating that it would be a dry four-day weekend. In mid-August, festival organizer Dave Frey assured fans that beer and wine would be available in the ABC-licensed areas, just as they were at last year’s festival.
Frey wasn’t lying, and shortly after passing through the main stage security checkpoint we were enjoying a round of local craft beers.
People’s Blues of Richmond, or PBR, took the stage shortly after and made me wish I’d gone domestic with my beer purchase. The Richmond-based trio thrashed their way through the hour-long set, with lead singer/guitarist Tim Beavers flipping the bird at the crowd with their set-closing rendition of “Cocaine Powder.” After playing the last note of “Cocaine Powder,” bassist Matt Volkes grabbed a Louisville Slugger and the band helped smash a television, speaker and mannequin onstage.
Beavers told me that the band hoped their manic personalities onstage showed the audience that they’re trying to make a name for themselves. The band won a spot to play Lockn’ in the Rockn’ to Lockn’ competition, in which fans and appointed judges voted to give two Virginia bands a shot at the main stage.
“We want people to know that we’re the hungriest band on stage,” Beavers said. “We’re trying to earn a spot for next year, so we play as hard as we can every single day to show people we’re on the up-and-up.”
PBR’s set exemplified another factor that made Lockn’ different from many festivals of similar scales. The willingness and desire to engage new talent and help bands gain exposure reflect the overarching community-forming vibe that the festival somehow promotes. On the back flanks of the main stage field, activist groups and nonprofits promoted their organizations all weekend. Mountain biking guides took attendees on cruises through the surrounding forests during the day. And a “Sober Lockn’” campsite and area on the main stage field allowed abstainers to feel within their element.
The crowd swayed graciously in a cool breeze as String Cheese took the stage for their first Friday set. Reminding the audience of Thursday night’s Kool and the Gang Tribute, Michael Kann worked in a distinct “Celebration” tease towards the end of “Way Back Home.” Sam Bush then kept the collaborative vibes going, joining Cheese to weave fiery fiddle runs into the rustic flavor of “Colorado Bluebird Sky.” Kann injected a Talking Heads “Crosseyed and Painless” tease to close out String Cheese’s final song of the weekend.
Phil Lesh & Friends‘ Friday set could not replicate the energy void left by the String Cheese Incident. The set started very slowly, with murky jams and little dynamic movement. Their set on Saturday night ended early for a lighting warning, and overall their performances were underwhelming. John Scofield played well, as did Warren Haynes, but it was a pick-your-spot style of playing that failed to replicate the communal jamming that defined the Dead. When Warren played with the Allman Brothers for the final set of the festival, it was clear that he felt much more at home in his Southern-rock/blues wheelhouse than in Phil & Friend’s more experimental zone.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band played the first Triangle Stage set on Friday after Phil. It was strange seeing them on stage so late at night, as they usually play festivals as the sun begins to dip below the horizon. They catered their songs to the atmosphere, toning things back a bit and leaving room for space with no playing. It was a nice preview set for their main stage act on Saturday, which featured their usual blend of bleeding slide guitar from Trucks and soulful vocals from Tedeschi.
On Saturday morning, three friends from Richmond restocked our crew with beer, food, and a virgin perspective on the festival environment. After entering the main stage field we paused and watched a group of two middle-aged men and three women take comic turns at hula-hooping. They took pictures of each other and laughed at their own ineptitude, as an older hippie woman gave them pointers.
The spectacle reminded us that people attend festivals for different reasons. Our crew, and a large portion of the audience, was there for the music. Jam-addicts and music lovers in general schlep their camping gear across the country to watch musicians of demigod status flaunt their chops. But another portion of the audience is there purely for the cultural experience. The people on stage matter less than the segment of society they attract, because the audience represents the real show.
This group of hula-hoopers wasn’t listening to the music. They probably didn’t even know who was playing, or who would play later that day. Yet the opportunity to enter a strange yet welcoming culture brought them to Arrington. Their reasons for attending Lockn’ were neither better nor worse than those of the music-lovers–they were simply different. They exemplified that the music is truly only a piece of what made the weekend such a spectacle.
Phil Lesh & Friends’ Saturday evening set was cut short by a lightning scare. The festival organizers cleared the main stage field and ordered the audience back to their campsites and vehicles. After close to an hour delay, with little rain or lightning, Widespread Panic took the stage with the legendary Steve Winwood.
The combination of Panic’s grit and rocking interplay with Winwood’s soaring stage presence and voice repacked the main stage field. Randall Bramblett added sax fills and solos throughout the set, and took most of the leads before Winwood emerged on stage. Panic opened their set with Junior Kimbrough’s “Junior,” and segued into the Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” The first vintage Panic tune came in the three-spot, with a nasty “Fishwater,” that featured lead guitarist Jimmy Herring and Bramblett trading blistering solo runs.
As soon as Winwood approached the stage he owned the set, with the emotional duo of “Glad” and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Phil and Friends played “Low Spark” the day before with Warren Haynes on vocals, but with Panic backing him up, the Traffic legend showed the audience how the song was meant to be played. Other highlights of the set were “Can’t Find My Way Home,” Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and the set closing “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
The only thing that could have surpassed Saturday’s Panic/Winwood set was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Closing out the main stage music, Petty and the Heartbreakers did just that, drawing the largest audience of the weekend. Petty’s voice and the band’s sound were impressively clean as the segued through hit after hit. The highlights from the set are too many to mention, but the crowd energy peaked during “American Girl,” the last song played on Saturday’s main stage.
Those who left Oak Ridge on Sunday morning missed some of the weekend’s best music, with the lineup of Grace and her Nocturnals, Willie Nelson, Wilco, Panic, and The Allman Brothers.
The first headlining set on Sunday was also the weekend’s sexiest, with Grace Potter telling the crowd, “We’re going to get all of our ya-ya’s out.” Grace and the Nocturnals threw down a loose and rocking set of music, setting the stage for Willie Nelson’s laid back 90-minute set. Grace showed her chops on the guitar and the Hammond B3, most notably on her moving solo rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
The Allman Brothers‘ position as Lockn’s final set of music felt especially poetic. After announcing in June that the band will end their legendary 45-year career this October in the Beacon Theatre, Lockn’ marked the Allmans’ final festival performance ever. Warren Haynes announced that the set would be dedicated to Brian Farmer, Warren’s longtime guitar tech and dear friend. Each member of the band honored Farmer with a t-shirt of him throwing out the double middle finger.
The band started off hot with a “Statesboro Blues”/“Done Somebody Wrong” combo, with Derek Trucks and Warren sharing the solo space. The real meat of the set came with “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post.” Warren played arguably his best solo of the weekend on “Liz Reed,” only to be followed by a phenomenal slide solo from Trucks.
I left with the only remaining member of my crew shortly before the Allman Brothers Band finished. The fear of traffic tore us away early, but knowing we still have six nights of Allmans at the Beacon in October was somewhat comforting. As we filed out of the venue and back to my truck, it felt like the Oak Ridge Estate itself had deflated. The joy and energy that flooded so many faces over the weekend had largely disappeared, reminding us that real life waited for us in the morning.
Though the second annual Lockn’ Festival improved exponentially on the first, it made it much more difficult to finally drive away from the farm. Speeding up on the highway felt like leaving home and driving to a place that somehow made less sense. The thought of Monday in Richmond made me sick to my stomach, knowing a full year must pass before Lockn’ 3.0. It must have been instinct that took over as I slid a Grateful Dead greatest hits cd into the player.
“The music never stopped.” Sing it, Bobby. That’s the stuff.