Rain, severe thunderstorm warnings, and even the possible threat of a tornado did nothing to dampen the high spirits of music lovers who attended the 12th annual Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival held last weekend in Axton.
Throughout the weekend, musicians, staff, volunteers, vendors, and festival-goers alike came together on the sprawling 151-acre Pop’s Farm. The venue is a place where cell phone signal is poor at best, meaning devices were largely put away, allowing the thousands in attendance to give themselves over entirely to four days of music, food, drink, and fellowship that exemplified the simple Rooster Walk ethos, appropriate for a festival named for two men who died too young: live in the moment.
Rooster Walk organizers excel in creating an environment where there are plenty of unique moments to experience, including the creation of Artist at Large sets. Each festival has a number of Artists at Large, individual musicians brought in for the weekend to sit in on some performances and, once each full day of the festival, jam together.
The Artist at Large Band’s first jam session came Friday afternoon on the Bassett Lawn Stage, one of the largest venues at Pop’s Farm. This year’s Artists at Large were Wallace Mullinax, Ron Holloway, Roosevelt Collier, and Martinsville’s own Josh Shilling of the band Mountain Heart, and John Bryant, who left Martinsville and made his career drumming alongside the likes of Ray Charles, Joe Walsh, and Delbert McClinton.
Their Friday set, based in classic rock, and those that followed over the next two days of the festival (“jamgrass” and blues) drew large crowds, ready to experience a group of accomplished artists jamming together for the first time, having never rehearsed and, in some cases, having never even met each other prior to the festival. The music created over the course of those three sets will never be experienced anywhere else.
The other performers also helped to create some of those special moments unique to Rooster Walk. As the sun set over the festival grounds Friday night, several thousand people made their way to the Bassett Lawn Stage for one of the festival’s headlining acts, Little Feat. The energy was high as the group launched into their set—the band was scheduled to perform the entirety of its “Waiting for Columbus” album.
A slight drizzle of rain turned quickly into a downpour as the band played, but the crowd on the lawn barely diminished. Some umbrellas and ponchos were visible, but many decided to forgo rain gear entirely. If rain was a part of the moment, then they were willing to stand in the rain. Even sopping wet, audience members, old and young alike, who secured places at the front of the stage continued to dance or bop their heads to the music, the ground beneath their feet growing muddier and muddier, but no one seemed to care.
“You all look beautiful standing out there,” said guitarist and lead vocalist Scott Sharrard, looking out at the drenched crowd with a smile.
Eventually, the band decided to cut the set short as the water encroached onto the stage and stagehands rushed to protect instruments and equipment from the elements. Rain continued throughout the night, but other acts were not deterred—music and the cheers of appreciative audiences echoed through the campgrounds and across Pop’s Farm well into the night and the early hours of the next morning.
Perhaps the most emotionally-charged performance of the festival came from The War and Treaty, with the kinetic energy of the band and the soulful voices of the husband and wife duo drawing more and more listeners to the Lawn Stage as their set went on.
After the first few numbers, Michael Trotter, who fronts the band with his wife, Tanya, paused and took a moment to speak to the audience. He said looking out across the lawn at the children in the crowd was making him emotional, evidenced by the tears he wiped from his cheeks.
“If you could just do me a favor on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Texas and our beautiful brothers and sisters in Buffalo,” Trotter said of the sites of two of the most recent acts of gun violence in the nation. “Gents remove your hats, and let’s bow our heads and have a moment of silence for our country.”
Acting as one, hundreds of people grew silent, heads bowed.
As the moment ended and Trotter thanked the crowd, shouts of “Amen” rang out across the grounds, and the band launched into a heart wrenching rendition of “God Bless America.”
Later in the set, Trotter said that he served two tours in Iraq, an experience which fundamentally changed him. “I went through some real traumatic stuff and in 2017, that version of me thought he was worthless,” he said. “But it took one person to tell me that I was loved. It took one person to tell me that I belonged to them and that I was necessary and I’m here to be that one person for you,” he said, to raucous cheers from the crowd.
“You belong to all of us. You’re never alone … We belong to each other, and we’ve got to take care of one another. Laws can change access, but a law can’t change a heart. Love changes hearts, and if we stand together, if we bond together, if we are hand in hand together, nothing can separate us.
“Let’s go,” he said- his voice rising as the organ played and cymbals clashed behind him, creating the effect of a powerful church sermon. “And let’s change laws. And let’s fight for what’s right. Equality, no racism, no hatred,”—here, both Trotter and the audience were reaching a fever pitch— “no special laws on women’s bodies. We belong to each other.” The audience erupted in applause even as a few people walked away.
“With all that being said, don’t give up. You are necessary. You are the breakthrough the world is waiting for, and we love you. This song is dedicated to you, to the unseen, to the unheard, to the person that feels like they don’t matter.”
And with that, the band closed out with its hit song, “Five More Minutes.” As the last chorus was sang, “I need five more minutes to love,” Tanya wiped tears from her eyes – likely due to the raw emotion of the performance. Then, the band took its bows and departed the stage.
Later that night, Andy Frasco & The U.N. brought a different kind of musical power to the Lake Stage during a set that began at midnight and didn’t slow down until 2 a.m. Frasco invited a number of performers to join his band, including teenage guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer and Artist at Large Roosevelt Collier.
Frasco acted as a conductor of barely-controlled musical chaos, setting up energetic instrumental battles between bandmates, and once instructing his entire band to switch instruments, resulting in his drummer standing behind his guitarist, fingering the chords as the guitarist continued to strum. The raw, frenetic energy of the entire performance electrified the late night crowd.
Martinsville native T.C. Carter performed two sets on Sunday, the second of which took place at the festival’s smallest venue, the Eye Level Stage, an intimate space surrounded by trees which provide near-constant shade for the audience. Carter said his first set of the day had drained his energy, and he proposed a more laid-back experience that seemed better-suited for a hot Sunday afternoon among the trees. However, just a few songs in, the crowd’s energy seemed to electrify Carter. “Something’s about to happen,” he said. “I feel it.”
Soon after, he launched into back-to-back songs that got audience members to their feet, some dancing by their seats, others in front of the stage.
Pop’s Farm was as much a presence at Rooster Walk as the performers themselves. Walking from stage to stage across the hilly property, visitors were offered glimpses of elaborate campsite setups (one even had a kitchen sink), heard snippets of music being played by festival guests in their tents or beside the roadways, and could wander from old-growth forest to and open lakeside field in a matter of minutes.
The festival grounds took on a surreal feeling at night. Fire dancers performed during some of each night’s biggest sets, people donned neon-lit capes, headdresses, and even shoes. A juggler switched from his regular instruments to glowing balls which soared into the air, guided by his deft hands. Multi-colored lights shone on the trees by the Lawn Stage and the Pine Grove Stage while at the Lake Stage, lights directed behind the stage illuminated the trees, sometimes bouncing off and illuminating the placid lake beyond.
Overall, the feelings that permeated the grounds of Pop’s Farm during this 12th annual music festival were warmth, kindness, and joy—everywhere, people, volunteers, and artists were smiling. In the crowded parking areas, strangers struck up friendly conversations. Hour-long waits for pizza from a food truck did not draw complaints. Muddy conditions did not detract from the mood—adults and children alike kicked off their shoes to wander barefoot through mud and grass. Through the cold rain, the thick mud, and, later, the unseasonable heat, spirits remained high.
Festival headliner Grace Potter summed up the Rooster Walk experience. While opening her Saturday night set, she told the audience there is a lot of trouble in the world. Though music festivals were not necessarily the place to discuss those troubles, she said rather than being escapists, “I thought we could be universe joiners. I thought maybe instead of escaping, we could take all the love that we have and put it out into the universe together, because that’s what music does. It’s not about ego. It’s not about belonging or not belonging. It’s about a feeling that we share that only ever happens right here together.”
She sang the opening verses of the classic, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
“Think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand, put a little love in your heart,” she sang. “And the world will be a better place for you and me.”
“I know we can do it,” Potter said. “I know with the love we have here on this little hillside, we can bring a lot of love into the world.”