By the time they got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong and everywhere was a song and a celebration. Or so the story goes. Nearly everyone knows at least one or two people that claim to have been at the landmark festival in August of 1969, and maybe a few of them really were. Woodstock was monumental. It was the defining moment of a defining period in American history and symbolized the philosophy and ideals of an entire generation the way few singular events had before or have since. It galvanized and mobilized an army of disillusioned American youth and brought “counterculture” into the collective consciousness of the mainstream. It also created the summer music festival as we know it.
Those three days of peace and music in 1969 may have been revolutionary, but they prompted a wave of copycat festivals seeking nothing more idealistic than the almighty dollar. From Lollapalooza to Bonnaroo, to MTV’s homogenized Woodstock anniversary “celebration” in 1994, summer festivals have become more about money and less about idealism or even music. Although, surely the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival is the exception to the rule.
As the scope and magnitude of these festivals increase, so too does the counterculture response. While Lollapalooza owes its existence to AT&T, smaller, more high-minded festivals focused on strong community values and a commitment to great music have begun to appear in the unlikeliest of places. Like Vermont, which is generally the unlikeliest place for almost anything to happen. Just ask Springfield.
Here are a few grassroots gems that every Vermont music fan should know about.
CHAMPLAIN VALLEY FOLK FESTIVAL
August 3-5, Kingsland Bay State Park, Ferrisburgh, http://www.cvfest.org
Folk music is typically viewed as the province of aging hippies. But in recent years, the genre has been revitalized by an influx of younger talent. The phenomenon is not lost on the organizers of the Champlain Valley Folk Festival, who have made a concerted effort to reflect the trend in their lineup. This year, non-traditional folk artists such as Boston-based songwriters Laura Cortese and Neil Cleary feature prominently on the bill, as do local Americana sweethearts Avi & Celia and newgrass favorites The Powder Kegs.
“We’re looking at a broader definition of folk music,” says festival head and frequent performer Pete Sutherland. “We’re trying to let younger people know that this is their festival, too, and it should appeal to everybody.”
While there will also be plenty of traditional Irish, Appalachian and Quebecois folk and bluegrass to sate purists, the festival’s appeal ranges beyond mere genre designations. Nestled in one of the most picturesque settings the Champlain Valley has to offer — Kingsland Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh — CVFF is a rare opportunity to hear world-class musicians in a completely acoustic setting — whenever possible, the artists eschew the use of amplification. If you’ve never heard the pure aural majesty of an untainted bluegrass band while swimming in the lake, you’re missing out.
For 24 years the Champlain Valley Folk Festival has been scraping by on a nearly nonexistent budget, but through sheer determination and passion — and, ironically, the occasional artistic grant from the Canadian government — its wholly volunteer staff has managed to pull it together year after year, bringing in an impressive array of artists from across the spectrum of traditional music.
Camping is available adjacent to the park.
VERMONT ROOTS REGGAE FEST
August 23-26, Hillcrest Farm, Coventry, http://www.paramountlive.org
THE VERMONT ROOTS REGGAE FEST HAS NOT BEEN CANCELED. Reports of this long-running festival’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Celebrating 21 years, the region’s premier reggae festival is alive and well, and organizers want to make sure you know about it.
The Vermont International Reggae Music Festival in Rutland was forced to pull up stakes, but the two organizations are completely unrelated. The Vermont Roots Reggae Fest, on the other hand, has been working feverishly to put together its strongest roster yet, and promises four days of “love, music and camping.” Jah, mon.
The festival has something of a checkered past. On life support after years of problems with drugs and unruly concert- goers, VRRF was resuscitated by “The Reggae King,” Mike Lee. He took charge four years ago and has worked wonders to rid the festival of its tarnished reputation and restore the event to the glory it enjoyed under the original founder, Lambsbread’s Bobby Hackney.
It has not been an easy task, but if the festival’s lineup is any indication, Lee’s work has been worth it: international reggae superstar Kevens, the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry, ska godfathers The Skatalites and an extremely rare performance by Bob Marley’s brother, Richie Marley Booker. Local acts will be well represented with singer-songwriter Jeremy Harple, the Bluegrass Gospel Project and psycho-grass outfit The Jugtown Pirates of Lake Champlain.
VRRF is also an educational experience, as eco-friendly workshops and expositions take place throughout the festival.
Camping is free, but the event tops out at 2000 people and is first come, first served. And speaking of serving, alcohol is not allowed.
NORTHEAST KINGDOM MUSIC FESTIVAL
August 3-5, Chilly Ranch, East Albany, http://www.frontgatetickets.com
“You never know until ya go!” That’s the motto of the Northeast Kingdom Music Festival, and it’s a good one. Over the festival’s five-year history, founder Ed DuFresne and his staff have made concerted efforts to mix things up — as much to keep people coming back each year as for their own amusement. They’ve experimented with a wide variety of musical genres and, in an effort to stay flexible, even offered morning yoga classes.
Founded in 2003, at first NEKMF featured acts such as Soulive, The Slip and Tony Trishka and was admittedly formulaic. “Towards the beginning we were definitely going towards what other festivals were doing and had a pretty jam-band-heavy lineup,” says DuFresne. “Since then we’ve certainly moved away from that to try and diversify the lineup and not do what other festivals are doing.” It’s working.
NEKMF has seen continuous growth and came within a hair of breaking even last year — a monumental achievement for a small festival. “Our goal is to reach 2000 people per year and then keep it at that level,” says DuFresne. “We don’t want to blow out something huge that the community would be overwhelmed by and complain about.”
This year, he hopes to reach NEKMF’s goal with headliners like funk-punk fusion gods Fishbone, The Coup and local songstress Anaïs Mitchell. The festival will feature close to 20 bands as well as performances by Bread and Puppet Theater, The Cardboard Teck Instantute, fire sculpture à la Burning Man, and break-dancing workshops.
Camping is available, but is only guaranteed with a two-day pass. The festival is also BYOB, so load up those coolers.