Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange: photo by Ron Wray
A little dynasty sits musically in a lush valley between Blue Ridge Mountain tops. During Labor Day weekend, the Ukrainian siblings in the band Scythian host a rich experience of Greek, American, Croatian, Ukrainian, Irish, and other sounds. In its fourth year, Appaloosa Music Festival has grown rapidly to over 7,000 guests and more than 20 artists and bands. It’s a very homey, friendly environment, with new acts joining and others returning. Mandolin Orange and Celtic Storm were headliners this year, while Six-String Soldiers joined Scythian on stage for one of the festival highlights, as they just killed it. Appaloosa is quick and quiet, yet full of life, and it leaves you feeling on top of the world.
If you’re anywhere near Washington, D.C., especially, but also Richmond, Virginia, or, well, anyplace in the world, don’t miss it. Located in Front Royal, Virginia, it’s small enough to be quite cozy, and yet have a stellar enough lineup to be exciting. It has a mix of the new and the returning, a spicy international flair, and Scythian’s Dan tells me there are continuing efforts in diversification. There is currently an emphasis on bluegrass and Celtic, but all rootsy artistic, cultural, and racial diversity is encouraged and sought-after, Dan said, as will be in evidence at next year’s festival.
Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka are first-generation sons of Ukrainian immigrants, and Scythian from the start has evidenced a search and love for the “old time, good time music” of many cultures. Scythian is another boy-girl group with three siblings, the two brothers and a sister, Larissa. They find ways to transform all they do with an abandon and energy that brings the guys circling around the stage while playing, guitar to flute. Larissa makes a radiant corner, on her bass and cello, which the fellas move to and from. I’m not sure I can remember a band that has such radiant, open smiles through much of the performance. Then at times, they can move you deeply, as they sing and play in a line of focus and feeling. They do a mix of vocals and instrumentals and a combination as well of original and traditional.
“It used to be a horse ranch”, Dan said of the site of the festival, Skyline Ranch Resort, as horses and llamas walked by in the adjacent pasture, “and Appaloosa seemed like a good choice for a name, had a good sound. We can now study other places as organizers. We grew up here, and it’s so beautiful here, we didn’t want to leave. The first year, we had 3,500, then 5,000, and now over 7,000. It used to be a bluegrass scene here in the DC area, so we’ve built on that.
“We started the Appaloosa Blue Ridge Foundation, the girl behind you started at four, now she’s fourteen and performing here. We’re trying to rediscover our musical roots. I have seven sisters and two brothers. We weren’t even a band when we started. We liked Irish, Eastern European, old time-good time, and we became a band by accident, with DC our roots. My mom went to Julliard, she taught us all of our instruments, but we got burned out, discovered folk, it was a new awakening. We always had that folk spirit, our parents were immigrants, the stage chemistry was inherent, otherwise, how did we know how to spin and not hit each other? We really feel the instrumental, in addition to our vocals, has a role in roots music, a story can be told in the instrumental, makes it really run, a challenge to make it engaging. We tend to do one cover, but the rest is original. My brother Alex writes the majority of the songs.”
All three siblings in the band were trained in classical music, and the brothers each played Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center as classical artists, with Alex having studied in Japan under the famed Dr. Suzuki, developer of the Suzuki Method.
“Another of our projects is Cake for Dinner,” Dan said, a children’s project we have. And, the industry is changing, tread water or you sink, you have to find ways to engage listeners.
“Being from a big family,” he continued, “we love kids, and we love our siblings. A lot of friends have siblings with disabilities. My brother’s wife works with kids with disabilities, she works with people with a wide spectrum of disabilities, and the music has awakened them. You see people with disabilities, there’s a certain openness of the heart we wish we had. It’s amazing to see them performing and to see their joy, we want to do that here.
“We played with Chocolate Drops our first year. Rowan, the bass player is a friend of mine, he taught me to play the bones. We’d have Rhiannon if she’s wasn’t so expensive. We want to get more diverse artists and are doing field research, hey, what bands are out there? I would love it. It’s now much more diverse in the volunteering here, people finding out they find something to relate to. We want this to be a real music community, want it to happen organically, we’ll have some pretty cool bands coming out of Memphis next year.”
Just then, several members of the Hillbilly Thomists walked by in their long, white robes. “Brother Justin,” Dan said, “he knew he was called in a different way. They have a vow of poverty, they literally own nothing, live their lives serving people. I knew him in Nashville a long time ago. Now it’s their third time here, and they charted this year, as high as number three. He never charted with RCA, but now he’s charted.
“It’s nice to have two or three bands the crowd knows exactly what they’ll get,” Dan continued, “but then it’s good to have a number that are a real experiment, like building a gigantic tree fort, works sometimes, not others.”
When I asked him what they, themselves, are listening to, he said, “Flook, Irish, whistle players, if I’m upset, Flook, or nervous, I listen to Flook, three whistles and flutes at once. Or The Accidentals, they liked us on Facebook, and we checked them out and asked if they’d open for us, then they came out to the festivals, exploding, signed with Sony, over 1700 shows as 18-year-olds.”
Town Mountain blusters and rocks out in a roots folk and country manner. They bring a swagger and look like they’re fresh off the country-store front stoop. At the same time, the songs, carrying an authentic Waylon swing, have content that’s thoughtful within the swing. There was a good bit of dancing during their set, and those seated were mostly in motion as well, swinging heads, arms, etc. The guys are kind of like that, authentic and agreeable.
Humming House has a deceptively lovely sound and way with the lyric. Their songs are lovely, but, like Town Mountain, their stuff brings out the dancers and swinging and swaying bodies. Lead singer Justin Wade Tam stands out at 6’4” and commands your attention throughout. In listening more to their new album, I’ve been fascinated and captivated with their fresh sound and moving songs.
“They reached out to us cold here, but now we’ve played here several times. We’d played a number of clubs in the area, Jammin’ Java, 9:30 Club. We recently did a state department tour in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, it’s the oldest running cultural exchange program, started with Louis Armstrong, this goes to unusual areas. It was a really cool experience to see that part of the world. And, we’ve done the folk-music cruise in the Caribbean three times.”
What are they listening to?: “River Whyless has a great new one, Phoebe Bridgers, Bedoin was amazing, Birds of Chicago, they’re sweethearts.”
Based in Nashville, they all went to Vanderbilt, but came from all over. “Justin does most of the songwriting, but we may co-write,” they said, “it becomes Humming House when we start to do charts, add the different colors, arranging, all talented.”
“Dreams help me, start as background,” Justin said, “loose conscious moment, where is this coming from? I feel like we’re pretty analytical, as opposed to looser, our new record “Companion” is a lot of existential searching, hope and trying to find things out. Now, there’s more instruments, a lot of equipment, it’s growing in a way that makes sense, more electric, more in the folk-rock genre.
“Our biggest influences, there’s a lot of diversity, the Beatles is a common thread, some very Beatles moments in the latest album, Paul Simon a big influence, we’re definitely a melting pot of sorts, I’m definitely classical, that plays a part, but I was also in a hip hop band in high school. I grew up in Southern California, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Early on, there was an Irish night. We tried a lot of things. It was soon a question, can you play 90 minutes, my wife did her masters in Dublin in Irish poetry, finishing her masters, so the Irish made sense,” Justin continued, “We do roots stuff, but have indy-rock influences, eclectic. Would get bored if stayed in one box. We like to push boundaries, this is getting too comfortable, need to push the boundaries. We’re glad to be here, Scythian kind of hand-picked bands to come, we’re flattered, it’s awesome.”
Six-String Soldiers have a surprising mix and can swing in a variety of ways for four guys of varying ages and a gal who brightens them up. I don’t expect a group of soldiers to bring out a Blind Faith tune, but they did. They are an acoustic group, doing music from rock to country to bluegrass, and are part of the U.S. Army Field Band based in Fort Meade in Maryland. They tour the world with their music, and this was a third visit to Appaloosa. While they do all covers now, they will likely be introducing some original songs as well. Their playing with Scythian was almost breath-taking. The two bands work off each other and with each other with abandon and joy.
Mandolin Orange is becoming a national favorite and getting attention it deserves for lovely songs, interesting and meaningful lyrics, and quietly attention-grabbing delivery. Emily is clearly pregnant now, but it hasn’t affected her performance. The couple brings their all to their sets. There is a deep, quiet beauty to their tunes. The centerpiece, the couple Andrew and Emily, have added a little versatility to their sound with the addition of some band members. But the focus remains the clear and moving harmonies of the duo.
I’m sorry to have missed Celtic Storm, but I heard they didn’t disappoint the crowd. The band, which played the band on the sinking ship in the movie “Titanic,” is largely resident in the U.S. now, but their music is primarily Celtic in nature, with a heady mix of traditional and original.
Upstate, Fireside Collective, and Karikatura, among other artists showed their individual touches, flourishes, and beauties. Each had their ways of making their music fresh and inviting. The list could go on, many fine performers, artists, and bands bringing a fresh, rich musical world to a lovely natural setting. There are a lot of festivals these days. But, this is another one that’s proving its worth behind the diligent efforts of one family and the helpers, paid and volunteered, they’ve found to help them in this dynasty in the Blue Ridge. A royal setting of sound within natural beauty, songs reaching notes to the breathtaking tops of surrounding mountains and into the hearts of thousands of fans.