Shhh… Don’t tell anybody
I’m 35 years old, and I’ve never been to a class reunion. But I haven’t missed a Grassroots Music Festival since I started going back in 2000. Though it’s been ten years for me, I was late getting on the Grassroots train after its beginnings in 1991. I used to spend what small bit of vacation time I had during the summer catching Phish shows around the country, until my brother convinced me I needed to check out this fantastic little annual event in Trumansburg, New York, just outside of Ithaca.
Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, as it’s officially known, was established by roots rock band Donna the Buffalo as a fundraiser for AIDS research. The festival has grown over the years, now bringing in an average of 20,000 people per yearly four-day span. USA Today called Grassroots “one of the ten best outdoor festivals in the country.” But, if you don’t live in upstate New York, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it.
Our group of originally 7-10 buddies has grown with the festival: now thirty enthusiastic die-hards with a formidable camp setup. Our veritable shanty town includes a full kitchen and bar, our own eight-piece band, and an ever-growing extended family that now includes significant others and children. (You’d know us as the yearly “trashcan turkey” roasters, but that’s another story). The fun begins Tuesday night, when we send a volunteer land grabber to hold a spot in the lengthy festival entrance line along a gravel back road. Though the gates don’t open until noon on Thursday, the latest any multi-vehicle group should arrive is 10am. The grounds fill up quickly, making the land grab a sport of its own.
We’ve been camping at the same spot for a few years now and we’ve all grown quite fond of our temporary home. This year was no exception. We secured our spot with little trouble, locking down enough room for seven cars, thirty people, and at least a dozen tents. It can get a little dicey. Those of us who arrived early have to keep encroaching campers at bay.
This is really the easiest festival in the world in a lot of ways. For starters, there’s a grocery store right across the street. Daily trips are a bit easier than trying to figure out how much beer 30 people will drink. The facility is basically a decent sized park in the middle of a small town. There are four music venues within the park, all of which are five minutes away from each other and our tents.
By mid afternoon the music starts cranking up. Donna the Buffalo is the main act at Grassroots, they play three sets throughout the weekend beginning on Thursday at seven. The band has gone through some line-up changes over the years, but they continue to crank out a high energy set time and time again. We caught a little bit of that and then it was off to pay homage to a true legend of outlaw country music, Merle Haggard. He’s showing his age up there but he’s still belting out his classics.
Arrested Development was next, but most of us skipped out on that to play some music of our own. There’s some real good pickers in our entourage, who have really gotten much better as the years go by, my brother Andy being one of them. A consummate player already, he learned how to play a ferocious fiddle in about a year. It’s gotten to the point where people stop by and watch us play on their way to see the paid performers. There are probably about six or seven musicians in our herd that can and do play professionally and another ten that are good enough to strum along (I’ll put myself in the latter category, and I barely make that).
As the years go on our late night “R” rated fun has turned into a “PG-13” good time. I was one of the last people awake on Thursday night at about 2 am, unheard of a few years ago.
Friday morning was wet. Real wet. My girlfriend Elizabeth and I woke up to a leaky tent. This is her first year at the festival and she handled the unpleasant weather like a champ.
Some folks checked out some late morning square dancing with the Dead Sea Squirrels. Let me tell you something, if you haven’t square danced in a while, you should. It can be a great time with the right lady by your side. (A side note here, my brother Andy may be one of five people in America still writing square dance songs … he called a square dance of his own later that night.)
Next up, the Flying Clouds. They’re a regular act at Grassroots, their high energy gospel infused funk gets the crowd going every time. Great performers, great time.
Along the same lines are the Campbell Brothers. These gents have been playing an intoxicating brand of funky soul music featuring pedal steel guitars before anyone even heard of Robert Randolph. If there’s one can’t miss band at Grassroots, this is it.
Saturday morning featured the musical stylings of John Specker and his two lovely daughters in a group known as The Speckers. It was nice sit down show with the band treating us to a thick set of old-timey fiddling.
Saturday evening is reserved for our annual Turkey in a Trashcan. My father showed it to me and my brothers years ago, we’re not sure where he got it from, but we do carry on the tradition in his memory. The recipe is simple really. Drive a stake into the ground->put a turkey on it->put a trash can over it-> line the outside of the turkey with charcoal->light a match->serve in two hours. Comes out perfect every time.
Saturday night is all about the late night dance tent. No Grassroots festival would be complete without shaking your butt to the zydeco dance party with The Franks, members of Donna the Buffalo and whoever else wants to show up and rock out. The rhythm is infectious and you really can’t help but dance and until you’re too tired to do it anymore. The band plays until five or six in the morning, the brave souls who trade sleep for party time rub their eyes as the sun starts to beat down on the festival grounds.
This festival is about so much more than music. As our group has gotten older, we’ve all got a little more mature. Some of us are married, some of us have kids, some of us bring those kids for a day or two. Grassroots is like a family and class reunion all it once. Speaking of which, my 20 year is coming up in 2012 and I may actually go when the time comes, as long as it’s not the third weekend in July.