When writing reviews you are always advised to not write in the first person as you are supposed to be objective and not let personal feelings interfere with the critique of the event, album, or music at hand. But sometimes the best way to truly express how special something was is through your own personal feelings. Strings & Sol 2013 was one of those events.
The past decade has seen an explosion in the number of music related festivals; seemingly every plot of land with the room to throw up a stage and let people camp has hosted a festival at some point in the past ten years. The new hot-trend lately has been the advent of the destination festival. Group a couple of like-minded bands together and find some exotic location at a resort that is willing to host a horde of music fans looking to get away from the cold-weather of the winter months and boogie their butts off on the beach. Then give it some kind of nifty play-on words name like Mayan Holidaze, Strings & Sol, or One Big Holiday – and viola you have a destination festival. Now with that being said, one would be a fool to think that is all that it takes to start one of these festivals. The logistics and planning that goes into an event like Strings & Sols must be staggering. And to pull it off as flawlessly as the folks at Strings & Sol did is even that much more impressive. But it is not simply great planning, cool locations, and good weather that make people drop $1000s and head out of the country for a week. There has to be something more.
It would be easy to sum up how amazing an experience Strings & Sol 2013 was in a few sentences. It was in Mexico. The resort was unbelievable. The stage was set-up on the beach which allowed bare-foot dancing in the white sand while the waves gently rolled in next to you. Leftover Salmon, as did the other four bands that were present – Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, and Keller Williams & the Traveling McCourys – killed it all weekend with help from Little Feat’s Billy Payne who was a surprise guest for the festival. But that would not do justice to the personal experience it was. For people to make such a trip there is something more that draws people.
My wife and I got married a few months back. Strings & Sol ended up being a belated honeymoon for us. One our favorite songs is Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Midwest Gospel Radio.” It is a beautiful piece of music that meant so much to us we used it extensively at our wedding. It is a song that no matter when we hear it brings goose-bumps and the memory of the wedding rushing back. Needless to say it is a bit special to us. On the flight down from our home in Baltimore to Mexico my wife asked me if she thought Yonder might play “Midwest Gospel Radio,” at some point. With the confidence of the set list coinsurer that I think I am, I answered, “I don’t know, they don’t play it that much so I would not count on it.” Friday afternoon during Yonder’s sunset show, I had left to grab a couple of drinks by the pool bar. I know what you are thinking, “Why would you leave?” In my defense the pool was mere steps away from the beach, you could still hear the music from the stage, and I couldn’t find a waiter on the beach (yes, there were waiters on the beach delivering drinks during the music. I know how awesome). As I waited for my cerveza and wife’s mudslide, I heard the first few simple gorgeous notes of “Midwest Gospel Radio.” I grabbed my drinks and sprinted back towards the beach not wanting to miss this moment. With drinks in hand I hurdled the small set of bushes between the pool and the walkway to the beach. I shimmed my way through the crowd and made it to my wife whose smile was lighting up the whole beach. She reminded me of my doubt in hearing this song, and then added “this just made my trip.” The addition of Billy Payne on keys and Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling on saxophone only served to bring the song to life that much more. And it was in that moment, as we stood there with goose-bumps on arms, that the real reason that people travel such lengths to go to events like this; the music. It is the music and the deep connections we build with the bands and songs. It is the power to hear a song and be instantly transported back to some living changing event. It is ability to have every memory you have flood back through the simple sound of a couple of chords.
It would probably be safe to say that not everyone on the beach during “Midwest Gospel Radio” had the same reaction as us. But it can probably be said that all who attended Strings & Sol found their own personal moment of music that reminded them why they came all this way to see some bands play some tunes. And at Strings & Sol this year there were plenty of them.Â It might have been getting to hear Leftover Salmon blast through a couple of Little Feat tunes, in “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and “Dixie Chicken,” as Billy Payne sat in with the band. It could have the appropriate festival opener of James Taylor’s “Mexico” by Greensky Bluegrass. It could have been the way Keller Williams and the Traveling McCourys played through a raging rainstorm that cut short their set to then quickly move inside to the lobby bar and pick up exactly where they had left off in “Mullet Cut.” Maybe it was the simpler things that stirred your soul like the playful afternoon session of Name That Tune Bingo at the pool with Keller Williams, Vince Herman, and his son Silas or the quiet intensity of the afternoon picking clinic with Ronnie McCoury and Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling and John Skehan. Maybe it was the way your favorite band seemed to be enjoying the music being played even more than you. Looking over and catching Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt grooving on the beach during Yonder Mountain String Band’s afternoon set. Or seeing the guys from Greensky getting-down when every they were not on stage including a Mexican wrestling mask adorned Dave Bruzza holding court at the pool bar during the raging beauty of Railroad Earth’s transcendent headlining Friday night set that was a true highlight of the entire fest. Over the four days of music there were limitless moments that stood out. Some obvious for all to see, some like “Midwest Gospel Radio,” more personal and less obvious. But regardless of what your highlight was, Strings & Sol provided plenty of them.
The beauty of live music is the unexpectedness of it. The twist and turns a familiar song can take live on stage that grow even more hair-raising when a band brings guests on stage and allow them to do their own unique thing. Every festival seems to feature sit-ins, but at an event like Strings & Sol with the tightknit relationship’s that many of the band’s share when combined with the loose relaxed atmosphere lead to an abundance of guest appearances. There was the ubiquitous presence of unannounced guest Billy Payne who lent his touch to every band through the weekend. A surprise sit-in from Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins with Greensky Bluegrass during “Lose My Way” made it seem like anything was possible. It was a common occurrence to look to the stage and see fiddler Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury, and Greensky’s Anders Beck jumping onstage to provide a couple of tasty links to the proceedings. There was the guest laden “Franklin’s Tower” during Leftover Salmon’s headlining set which included Billy Payne, Keller Williams, Ronnie McCoury, and Jason Carter which was a fifteen minute sensory overload. While it seemed everyone got in on the sit-in vibe of the event, the true MVP of the sit-in’s was Railroad Earth’s fiddler Tim Carbone who seemingly never left the stage throughout the entire festival. He was with Keller and the McCourys as they blasted through John Hartford’s “Vamp in the Middle,” just as he was onstage through most of Leftover Salmon’s shows. He also joined Yonder for a number of songs during their three shows including a healthy “Traffic Jam” > “Rag Doll” > “Traffic Jam.” He was even there late-night at the lobby bar as an impromptu picking-session sprang up with band mate Skehan and some of the contestants from the picking contest held early that day.
Regardless of what your moment was, you were sure to find one. And when you did, and you got those goose-bumps and you danced with your feet in the ocean and your smile lit up the beach you knew why you had come. It was not for the sun-kissed pool, or the all you could eat food, or all inclusive bar. No, it was none of that, it was quite simply for The music.