Photo by Ian Rawn

The fifth annual LOCKN’ festival’s opening day was marked by both solemn introspection and communal joy, as bands, fans and organizers alike acknowledged the political unrest and tragedy in nearby Charlottesville. At the same time, the festival’s Thursday invocation still highlighted the weekend’s unifying musical spirit. The night’s most reflective moment came just before The String Cheese Incident’s second set. As the band stood arm-in-arm at the foot of the stage, Bill Nershi echoed LOCKN’ co-founder Peter Shapiro’s earlier call for solidarity in the face of adversity.

“We want to say for those of us that don’t feel that same hatred toward each other, we need to be united. We need to stay together more now than ever,” the guitarist said on behalf of the band. “The more that we can stay together, be together united, the more the people who are preaching the hatred and the ugliness and the violence will feel like they’re on an island. Let’s love each other more than ever now. And be kind to each other. Take care of each other.”

The group then performed an expansive version of their song “Shine,” which opens with the fitting lyrics “All we need is a little love to get through this time…”

Earlier in the day, thousands of music fans from near and far descended upon Infinity Downs Farm, eager to enjoy a jam-packed weekend of live music, friendship and community. An overcast morning slowly turned into a beautiful, sunny afternoon as crowds steadily filed into the festival grounds. Music wasn’t scheduled to begin until 7:15 p.m., but there was still plenty to do. While some shopped or enjoyed a cocktail, others checked out the life-size rendering of Terrapin Station in Garcia’s Forest or took a stroll around Participation Row. You may have even spotted former Grateful Dead manager Sam Cutler shaking hands and signing copies of his book.

“I love LOCKN’. It’s one of my favorite festivals,” he said, smiling. “The music is always pretty fucking sensational…It gets better and better each year.”

As the sun began to set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, Deadheads sprawled out lazily on the main stage lawn to watch a full rebroadcast of the Long Strange Trip documentary. The festival was then inaugurated by LOCKN’ co-founders Peter Shapiro and Dave Frey. The two partners spoke to the crowd in front of a large American flag with a collection of law enforcement officers and service members volunteering at the festival. Acknowledging the recent events in Charlottesville, Shapiro relayed a message of collaboration and unity: “Everything that’s done here, we just want you guys to know, while there’s people here from everywhere, the heart, the soul [of LOCKN’] comes out of these Blue Ridge Hills, comes out of the great state of Virginia,” he said to cheers from the audience.

Frey, a Charlottesville resident, then took centerstage, recognizing the first responders present. “I have the honor of introducing some of the finest people and our heroes here in central Virginia,” he said. After a heartfelt moment of silence, the Mount Zion First African Baptist Choir from Charlottesville led soulful, spiritual renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “America The Beautiful,” before ending with the triumphant “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Kendall Street Company, one of the winners of this year’s ROCKN’ to LOCKN’ competition, took the main stage afterwards, raising the crowd’s energy with frontman Louis Smith and guitarist Ben Laderberg’s acoustic/electric interplay and lively, technical breakdowns. Kendall Street Company had a number of fans in the audience (they originally formed at the nearby University of Virginia) and during a break between songs they sent their love to the “beautiful, loving and kind” city of Charlottesville.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

By 8 PM, Umphrey’s McGee jumped into their first of two sets on the main stage. The prog-jam band, returning for their third LOCKN’, seemed immediately comfortable, laying into a mid-set “Mantis” jam to their fans’ delight. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” guitarist Brendan Bayliss said to the crowd. “Let’s have a great weekend.”

LOCKN’s turntable stage then gave way to the String Cheese Incident. The Colorado bluegrass outfit immediately jammed out the intro of fan favorite, “Restless Wind,” and then launched into a series of high energy songs that kept their supporters jumping for joy. “We’re so glad to be out here spinning on this stage with our friends Umphrey’s McGee,” Bill Nershi joked later. Nershi seemed in great spirits throughout the night, bouncing back strong from a case of benign positional vertigo that caused him to miss a recent show in Oregon. (As his bandmates noted later in the night, it was the first time he’d missed a show since co-founding the group 24 years ago.) “Ya’ll are putting out too much energy,” Nershi joked to the animated crowd.

Throughout the evening, UM and SCI kept the momentum bouncing back and forth on the main stage. Umphrey’s second set opened strong with a “Wrong Guy” > “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” jam and remained consistent and dynamic before closing out with “Remind Me.” If the group’s first set showcased the band’s prog-jam abilities, then their second set also highlighted their more delicate compositional abilities and psychedelic prowess. They also offered their always fun, funky take on Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy,” which seemed to rhythmically connect their set with their stagemates and fellow David Byrne disciples String Cheese Incident.

The festival’s first collaboration came during the String Cheese Incident’s second frame. Bayliss, Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins and percussionist Andy Farag joined SCI on the Allman Brothers classic “Jessica” as a tribute to Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman. They closed with the spirited “Colorado Bluebird Sky” giving thousands of howling music fans plenty to talk about as they walked over to the Relix Stage for a late night party with The Disco Biscuits.

Opening with “Hope”> “Save The Robots” and jamming deep into the night, the Biscuits closed out a phenomenal night one for LOCKN’ 2017. The show marked not only the Disco Biscuits’ first appearance at the festival, but also their first show in Virginia in six years. As Thursday night slid into early Friday morning the band focused on middle-period material including “Strobelights & Martinis” and “Gangster” and continued to play to a sprawling crowd.