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Red Wing Soars! Young Series has Red Rocks Moments with Flights of Dawes

3,500 voices sing along to "Red Wing" with festival sponsors The Steel Wheels and friends Mipso and others. Photo by Ruby Sky Photography courtesy of Red Wing Facebook Page.

Mipso’s charming and vivacious fiddler / vocalist / songwriter Libby Rodenbough, who’d been dressed in a startlingly tight, dazzlingly white outfit for their earlier Red Wing performance, said she almost burst (her) eardrums for a front-row dose of Dawes. at the wildly successful 4th installment of the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in mid-July. This young series, nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, met expectations of early festival grandeur by matching up the well-established with the (way) up and coming (fast). Red Wing takes place in Natural Chimneys Regional Park near Harrisonburg, VA, featuring two huge natural chimney-like limestone structures and four stages (two outdoor).

(The long weekend was in itself a metaphor for Melody – the base that music’s based on - and Harmony – the combination of sounds, chord-like building from and supporting that inspiration.)

On Friday night, rootsy, hard-pushing rockers, Dawes, riding waves of national popularity brought down the house in a show that crossed every “t” and dotted each “i” for audience rapture, with driving, yet melodic old-school rock.

This - delivered with spoken and sung appreciation of the majestic 500-million -years-old Red Rock surroundings and enthusiastic crowd by band leader Darryl McPhearson. It’s the red wing when it’s full. I’ll have a little bit of everything that brought me to you!, he croons, bringing cheers from the attentive crowd.        (Melody)

“That performance in particular was like you were in an amphitheater,” Rodenbough remembered, “It could have been Red Rocks!” her wry smile radiating across the phone wires from her home in Chapel Hill to me in Norfolk.         (Harmony)

Sea of Shirts

Dawes did this in spite of following to the stage the regionally popular Steep Canyon Rangers, made all the more famous by their often “sixth man,” the multi-talented Steve Martin who, alas, was not there. The Rangers gave a lively and deeply satisfying performance regardless. And, the Rangers over-the-speed-limit mandolinist Mike Guggino was all over the stage, up, down, and crosswise, varying speeds and stopping and starting with startling quickness.

But, even so, Dawes took the performance prize for the evening and more. The feedback I heard from friends and campground neighbors as well as in my travels (slowly in my somewhat crippled status) from one festival stage to the other, posited Dawes as an extraordinary show that was perhaps the highlight of a powerful 4th series.

I talked to another Red Wing performer, Luke Wilson of the Charlottesville-based band Gallatin Canyon, about the Dawes show, which he had come in early for: I’d seen them about five times now, and every time I see them, they blow my mind! They seem like a band better than the sum of its parts, and I always leave Dawes shows inspired by their commitment to their craft. I thought this performance at Red Wing was particularly great!

Their performance that day also illustrated a point that the new were found alongside the established artists, given the place on Friday’s distinguished roster of relative newcomers/lesser knowns Front Country, with dynamic lead Melody Walker, and Hiss Golden Messenger, both of which held their own in leading up to the headliners that evening.

Robenbough: It seems clear that the programming came from people super plugged-into the scene, really thought-out in terms of quality and range!                          (Melody)

I asked Libby about her band’s crowd. Mellow and engaged, she said. The vibe. It was really warm. With a mid-day set like that, we typically expect laid-back – picnic atmosphere, blankets on the grass. But, this crowd was energetic, more engaged with the music.   

I observed something else about the Red Wing crowds over those July days: Their shirts - more than I’d ever seen at a show or event. People wore the shirt specific to the event they were at. Everywhere you looked was “Red Wing.” (Yellow was an especially popular shirt color;  with me often looking out at a sea of sun-like yellow.) It had always struck me that at many shows, people buy that event’s shirt but tend to wear shirts bought at other ones.

Not so at this event! First in numbers, the audience sported Red Wing shirts, next, shirts on ages 3 to 63 were emblazoned with logos of festival sponsors and regional favorites Steel Wheels, , and, finally, came shirts of the performers of Year 4, like my much- praised (as I wandered the festival grounds) Sierra Hull Exhuberant Mind t-shirt signed for me by the virtuoso talent herself. 

After awhile, you were on a first-name basis with people with whom shortly before you were complete strangers. Campers also referred to their campsite families.                       (Harmony)

Red Wing Family – the Bright and Varied  

Finally, all around you flowed other family – the moms, dads, and romping, dancing, swimming sons and daughters – kind of family. You’d think it was a family celebration, perhaps planned by the “Y.”

And, with my somewhat colorful style choices – such as my brightly colored (pastel green, yellow, and pink, et al), striped, knee-high compression socks and my vividly designed cotton shirt with an Eastern (as in Indian) design with Western (American) embroidered Red Wing yoking, combined in sight with my brightly colored “walker,” probably brought me a few more new friends and family, drawn to what they found to be unusually compatible choices.

“We like your style!” one young woman stressed to me as we passed like ships in the packed and moving Music Meadow sea.

The Steel Wheel band members also worked on-site, on the festival itself. Artist Dom Flemons said: I saw the Steel Wheels extremely engaged with everything going on at the festival. When a festival is artist-run, it’s reassuring when the artists involved are available to the artists performing. It gives a wonderful, communal vibe that can’t be beat.

There were beautiful women and men. There were infinite combinations of robust and grinning children of all ages. There were large numbers of both the white-haired and the much younger tanned and tattooed. (And, some who were both!)

There were more performers in this season’s festival roster of varied race and cultures. And, I felt I saw a correspondingly more varied audience as well. To me, this only added to the family feeling.

When one would spot “proud daddy” Trent Wagler (Steel Wheels) and his fellow, locally based band members, who are joiners with him in the ambitious sponsoring of the festival, one would quickly see the bright, proud look reserved for parents.

In the closing days and hours of Red Wing, you hear a lot of See you next year! and in many cases, it will be true. It becomes one of those places where family comes back together once each summer like my family did on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at my mother’s childhood home.

Family Memories Stand Out

  • The Good Lovelies came all the way from Canada just to perform at Red Wing.
  • Aoife O’Donnell re-married a week before and shared stories of her Irish influx of family for the ceremony.
  • Aoife bringing her angelic range to a number of stages and performers, such as Amy Helms.
  • Amy Helm’s robust streaming of music (with her excellent band) from “ballsy” R & B - to Phish/Dead-like jamming - to heart-breaking ballads.
  • Her memories bringing to our collective mind that of her dad Levon, bringing my new family friend Mary Beth to tears, and jolting my memories of being next to Amy’s dad when the Band came back together at the Lone Star Café in Manhattan in the early 1980s.
  • Asked, while pushingthrough the narrow hallway to the stage, about what they’d do with their second set, Levon had said BURN IT DOWN! I still cherish the hand-written first set list, which I’d grabbed that night, having stood during the show by a Japanese fan newly arrived from Tokyo just for the concert.
  • The antique, illustrated bass (marching) drum Amy had brought down from famed Woodstock, NY, to play her dad’s famed tunes.
  • All the way from nearby Charlottesville, the good-looking, dimpled, recently married Scott Wilson and handsome friends’ Gallatin Canyon mix of bluegrass and Townes Van Zandt and their even better-looking wives and girlfriends, including the bright and perky recent bride, Christi Wilson, her petite features framed by the huge halo of a red straw hat. The guys did an admirable set, while competing schedule-wise with a headliner.
  • The Steel Wheels wonderful performances and guiding presence throughout the festival.
  • Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors performing “the song you’re obligated to play when you perform by a running stream,” Cripple Creek, complete with nearby splashing kids in swim suits. Our vivacious, 60-something friend from Portsmouth, VA, quickly crushing over Drew and his thick, dark beard and getting her picture snapped with him, bringing back to me rich memories of Drew from a brief, rushed interview and photo session I did with him at the massive gathering of the Folk Alliance International in Kansas City in February.
  • The Black Lillies lead singer Cruz Contreras saying that if their late-night crowd doesn’t see a young boy in the audience scurrying about, he himself won’t be heading home in “a long time,” the boy being his young son traveling with him and his increasingly popular band we’d seen at a Norfolk house concert a few years before.
  • The glitzy bling of beaded anti-bellum umbrellas circumnavigating audiences through the day and night, for sale from local venders on the move.
  • The blissful, handsome couple, with two sons and two daughters - all young to mid-teen ages – the parents holding hands, sharing kisses, and showing playful, day and night-long attention to their bike-riding, card-playing, and colorful, lit-up rocket-launching kids.
  • Bumping into musicians, such as prolific song writer, vocalist, and keyboardist Abe Wilson (Sons of Bill) not playing in the festival but coming from nearby Charlottesville to enjoy and check out fellow performers (while also supporting his younger brother Luke performing on Sunday.)
  • The volunteers and staff who made us welcome and cared for us so well. The Steel Wheels have two friends, Jeremiah Jenkins and Michael Weaver, who had started Black Bear Productions and who the band thought could “build the perfect meaning” of what they had wanted to do. Jenkins and Weaver are credited with most of the festival oversight and follow-through.
  • The impromptu music heard and played in the campsites. And, my surprise and appreciation of camp neighbors thanking me for my morning guitar playing/quiet singing, one calling my Red Wing rendition “beautiful” and warming my heart accordingly.
  • The fiddlers’ workshop for children and their festival concert that followed. And, other music, arts, and crafts activities for the kids.
  • Genius exists in its own fashion at Red Wing, extending further still through the food venders, clothing and novelty venders, Kleen Kanteen and other “green” emphasis, bike rides, yoga in the Music Meadow, and other not-strictly music opportunities.

Natural Chimneys Give Families Shelter of Beauty

The Festival exists yearly in the natural mountain beauty of Natural Chimneys Regional Park near Harrisonburg and Staunton, VA, accented by the towering stone “chimneys” rising from the “Music Meadow” between the Shenandoah and Southern stages.

The mountain’s stone sculptures shine in the day’s sun and are majestically, magically lit shapes at night – towers of red, yellow, purple, and blue overlooked by a sky full of stars.

And, everywhere at night are fireflies (or as we used to call them in Indiana, lightening bugs), as in the lyric from Mipso’s 4 Train:                     

                                    Up in the Catskills in the summertime

                                    Watching the fire flies rise and fall

                                    An old canary can learn a brand new song

                                    If she squeezes through the bars

Keys to Success

Another of the beauties of this year’s festival was again keeping the crowd at fewer than 4,000. I think this can only lead to increased intimacy and connection between audience and performers. Libby Rodenbough of Mipso had a slightly different take in that she said that larger audiences aren’t inherently bad, but that “they tend to lead to a more bureaucratic operation, one loosing identity.”

And, another successfully repeated feature was the Tribute, this year to singer-songwriter Guy Clark, an announcement never made until the day of the tribute on Sunday. This year’s tribute was particularly heart-felt because not only had Clark influenced many of this year’s performers, but a number of them knew him, some well like Nora Jane Struthers (and the Party Line), who had been nurtured and produced by Clark when she first arrived in Nashville. The much respected and beloved Clark passed away earlier this year.

Different Shapes of Gospel

This year’s annual Sunday morning group gospel session, with special tribute to the legendary Ralph Stanley and anchored by the harmonizing Steel Wheels, was another stone success, while Saturday had brought another, heart-pounding spiritual session of more urban and African American nature, with the stunning performance by Naomi Shelton and her Gospel Queens, something new to the festival and another key to its success.

A music aficionado friend of mine enthusiastically remarked at length as we sat listening from the adjacent beer café about the passion he found Naomi brought to each song, this having been an act he hadn’t earlier anticipated caring much about.

More Black Culture This Summer

The American Songster Dom Flemons, with his Trio, was another hit this summer, bringing his dueling bones and myriad other treasures from the American Black folk and roots traditions to Red Wing IV.

This, just prior to leaving on a European tour and just after launching a grant-backed radio series bringing to light musical traditions begun in early America, highlighted in an early episode by a tandom presentation of historic American folky renditions by the charming and energetic Dom - founding member with Rhiannon Giddens of the multiple Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s multi-talented Ketch Secor.

Standouts, I say … Season IV Was a Consistent Hit

  • I started a list of my Top Acts in and of recent years, art that has consistently rung my bells and hung charms around me. Joining that chart is the new, for me, group, Mipso, a word that means absolutely nothing, but which you can take to mean a lot of everything. They had been a group on my radar, but one which I hadn’t heard yet. Red Wing gave me the opportunity.
  • I now love the songs of this, first, Mipso Trio, now quartet (with the addition of their friend and often collaborator Libby Rodenbough), from the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill, as well as the unique way they do covers, with love, such as Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of My Shoes.
  • Their original songs harken to a traditional American song style and experience while bringing an approach and range that crosses boundaries of time and culture.
  • But, they’re not the kindest people, as when Joseph Sharp, writing most of their songs, introduced another cover, which was then kicked off musically by double bassist Wood Robinson, Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band
  • Joseph started by saying that this song (from the 80’s) was not like an old man remembering a song from the 70’s. Instead, it was a situation wherein the band members were not even born yet. Most of us in that old-man-and-woman category managed to laugh. And, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that I found myself singing along to every word, which I knew so well (Sky rockets in flight! Afternoon delight!).
  • I’d already been a fan of Dawes, but this has wavered a bit in recent years, initially introduced to them opening for Mumford and Sons in Portsmouth, VA. This festival’s show brought them into the forefront again, though I don’t know still if I’d have them in the top 3-5 like Sons of Bill and Darlingside. Mipso goes somewhere in those top numbers though, with Dawes nearby.
  • Though he and his band would not likely enter that very top echelon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Mike Taylor and company, also from Chapel Hill, shot into my upper realms of appreciation as well, bringing to the stage a steel-driving plunge of song, based, I understand, on a rich study of traditional music and a history of grunge exploration, while bringing to attention in his songs the poetry of almost unheard of Beat-era poet Lew Welch (among other writers) who disappeared into the woods long ago.
  • Libby called Taylor a local hero and described playing with him and band as another highlight specific to Red Wing as a festival.
  • Dom Lemons brings something new to the table that my wife Gayle and I will want to follow, Gayle is especially interested in the Black cowboy series he has upcoming on public media.
  • The Lone Bellow takes harmonizing on to another planet of intensity, closing their Red Wing show with the song that brought them to national attention Then Came the Morning.
  • My wife and I had recently seen another highlight of the festival, Shovels and Rope, the dynamic married couple who closed the event, in Norfolk. They don’t disappoint.
  • I was also impressed by the range of instrumental virtuosity and lyrical literary quality of Sierra Hull, another artist on my list to explore but new to my actual experience.

Just a few that come to mind. It was, indeed, a great series.

And, I was standing there. Dust was flying through the air.

Like days before when we believed in things we couldn’t see.

Oh, my red wing, take me softly

to my home now, to my family.

(Red Wing, trad., lyrics by Trent Wagler, as recorded by The Steel Wheels)

It builds culture and community, Wagler told me, speaking of Red Wing. We’re able to treat the artists well. We now have a reputation; that gets around, applying both to those on long trips and those artists from the region. We – and they – love playing for this crowd. And, we get local underwriters, very strong ones.

By and by, our crowds are really great people. Some listen to every note. Some are with their kids dancing. Some are in the beer garden. Wagler says they’ve been able to create possibility in a culture.

Our neighbors in camp asked if we hit “the festival tour” in the summers. I find it hard to imagine that pursuit with my wife and I being so satisfied by the size and roundness of the experience of Red Wing, not to mention its relative proximity and reasonable cost (another major advantage of Red Wing).

It’s hard to picture building on that, though I know there are many fabulous festivals out there from the large to small – Delfest, Floydfest, Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, the Americana Festival in Nashville, The Festy Experience, and small ones like Watermelon Fest, Appaloosa, and CromeLive! among many others.

Though, indeed, I hope to return to the Kansas City Folk Alliance International Annual Conference with its instrumental workshops, public performances, and hotel room intimate appearances that go on forever.

Our friend Gail said she didn’t want the three days of paradise to end. As a new friend we made at Red Wing, Charlie Young, an editor from New York City, said: It was an amazing range of music, one of the best festivals of any I’ve attended over the last 40 years.

Many did not want paradise to end and will follow the red wing once again in the summer to come.