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20 things to see at the GrassRoots Festival

The 29th annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance kicks off Thursday at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, with more than 70 bands performing on its four stages over four days.

GrassRoots can be an overwhelming experience, but if you do a little planning you’ll be able to get the most out of the festival. Here are 20 things to know about this year’s event:

1) Host band Donna the Buffalo, who released the excellent new album “Dance in the Street” last year, will play its usual three sets on the Infield at 7 p.m. Thursday, 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday, as well as back up Jim Lauderdale on the Grandstand at 5 p.m. Saturday. You’ll also find various members, especially singer-guitarist Jeb Puryear, sitting in with others throughout the festival.

Kevin Kinsella will perform Thursday night on the Grandstand.

2) One of the main things that gives GrassRoots its “family reunion” vibe is the consistency of its lineup from year to year (some see that as a negative, but I don’t). So this year we’ll once again see locals such as the Sim Redmond Band, the Blind Spots, Driftwood, Kevin Kinsella, Laila Belle, Hank Roberts, Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton, Gunpoets, Uniit Carruyo, Viva Mayhem, and many others. (One guy we won’t see this year: Johnny Dowd, who has played every GrassRoots except for 1998.)

Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad will play on the Infield Stage Friday night.

3) We’ll also see the return of regional favorites such as the Campbell Brothers (the Rochester sacred-steel gospel group that’s my all-time favorite GrassRoots act), Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (Rochester), Root Shock (Syracuse) and Mosaic Foundation (Finger Lakes), as well as others from further away: Sihasin, Keith Secola and His Wild Band of Indians (both from the southwest), Jim Lauderdale (Nashville), Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, Keith Frank and Soileau Zydeco Band, Preston Frank and His Zydeco Family Band (all from Louisiana), the Flying Clouds (South Carolina), and a few others. And I’m looking forward to seeing Feufollet (11:45 p.m. Friday, Dance Tent; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Cabaret), the Cajun swamp-pop band from Southwest Louisiana, who last played GrassRoots in 2014.

Annie in the Water will play the Infield 5 p.m. Thursday.

4) There are some newcomers this year, of course. I’m especially looking forward to Hayley Jane and the Primates (6:30 p.m. Saturday, Grandstand), a Boston-based soul-jam band; Folkfaces, an old-time bluesy jazz band from Buffalo; and Tattat (6 p.m. Thursday, Grandstand; 5:15 p.m. Friday, Infield), an experimental R&B band from Columbus, Ohio, and winners of last year’s GrassRoots Band Contest. And in a last-minute lineup change, Annie in the Water has been added to the schedule (replacing Double Tiger). The eclectic Upstate roots-rock band will perform on the Infield at 5 p.m. Thursday

Taj Mahal will perform with his Quartet at 9:15 p.m. Friday on the Grandstand.

5) I’ve heard some people complaining about this year’s headliners. Sure, we’re lacking the big names that we’ve had at some past festivals, or someone who hasn’t played in the Ithaca area recently, or at all. (I would’ve loved to see Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, who headlined the Shakori Hills (N.C.) GrassRoots this spring, also play Trumansburg, but they’re in Europe backing up Neil Young this month.) But this year’s headliners are still worth checking out, especially the Taj Mahal Quartet (9:15 pm. Friday, Grandstand), whose leader has been one of roots music’s leading advocates for more than 50 years.

Rising Appalachia will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday on the Grandstand.

Other headliners include Rising Appalachia (8 p.m. Thursday, Grandstand), the Georgia folk band led by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith; Railroad Earth (9:30 p.m. Thursday, Infield), a jam-grass Americana band; Willie Watson (7:30 Friday, Grandstand), the Watkins Glen native and co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show who has released two stellar solo albums of folk classics; Ryan Montbleau Band (10:30 p.m. Saturday, Grandstand), led by its funky, folky frontman; and Todd Snider (Grandstand, 5 p.m. Sunday, Grandstand), the sardonic singer-songwriter who has released more than 20 albums.

6) Jazz hasn’t often been on the menu at GrassRoots, but this year we’ll have the Tony Perez Jazz Quintet (12:30 a.m. Friday, Grandstand), led by its eponymous Grammy Award-winning pianist, and the Jose Albizu Jazz Trio (4 p.m. Sunday, Infield), an Afro-Cuban group from Miama. Hiphop also will be represented by Ithaca’s own Empire Kings (1 p.m. Sunday, Infield), Miami’s Ephniko (12:15 a.m. Saturday, Cabaret) and Ithaca native Sammus (8:15 p.m. Saturday, Infield), who has been based out of Philadelphia in the recent years while finishing up her PhD at Cornell.

7) International acts this year include BKO (6:15 p.m. Friday, Infield), a quintet from Bamako, Mali; Garifuna Collective (8:30 p.m. Saturday, Grandstand), a Belize-based band that draws on West African and Caribbean influences; and the Turbans (10 p.m. Thursday, Grandstand), a London-based “gypsy klezmer Turkish folk frenzy.”

Laila Belle will celebrate the release of their new album at GrassRoots.

8) Trumansburg-based Laila Belle, the original country band led by Amy and Ward Puryear will mark their release of its excellent second album, “All These Things,” at their two festival sets (1 p.m. Friday, Dance Tent; 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Cabaret). Local singer-keyboardist Travis Knapp will join them for the shows. And Saratoga Springs Celtic duo Drank the Gold – Oona Grady and James Gascoyne – will celebrate the release of their new CD “Sipping the Silver” at 3 p.m. Friday in the Cabaret; Leah and Nora of The Grady Girls will join them for the set.

Motherwort will play at the Ithaca Underground showcase in the Cabaret on Friday night.

9) Ithaca Underground, the local nonprofit that organizes cutting-edge shows, will once again curate part of the festival. Saturday, four local acts – Motherwort, La Llorona, Anamon, and the Miserable Genius – will perform from 10:30 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. in the Cabaret.

10) This year will see the return of some of my favorite Ithaca bands of the past 20 years: Plastic Nebraska (9:15 p.m. Thursday, Cabaret; 4 p.m. Friday, Infield), who have only played at their own private party the past couple of years; the Sutras (10:30 p.m. Saturday, Grandstand), who haven’t played in Ithaca since August 2017 and GrassRoots since 2015; and the TalkToMes (5 p.m. Friday, Cabaret), who played GrassRoots every year from 2006 through 2012, but went on hiatus after frontman Gregor Sayet-Bone moved South.

Mary Lorson and Billy Cote will preview songs from Madder Rose's forthcoming album Sunday afternoon in the Cabaret.

11) Mary Lorson and Billy Cote of Madder Rose will preview their band’s first new album in 20 years, performing songs from “ To Be Beautiful,” which will come out August 10. They’ll be joined by singer-trumpeter Beverly Stokes and Wingnut’s Walt Lorenzut, Zaun Marshburn and Michael Stark for set that will also include some Madder Rose, Lorson and Saint Low old favorites. (1:15 p.m. Sunday, Cabaret)

12) Native Americans are again strongly represented at GrassRoots, with familiar faces such as Keith Secola (6:45 p.m. Sunday, Grandstand), Sihasin (4:30 p.m. Thursday, Cabaret; 5 p.m. Friday, Cabaret), December Wind (6:30 p.m. Friday, Cabaret), Bear Fox (11:30 a.m. Friday, Cabaret), Jones Benally (11 a.m. Sunday, Infield) and Moontee Sinqua (12:30 p.m. Friday, Grandstand;12 p.m. Sunday, Dance Tent) offering looks into the many facets of their rich traditions.

13) The GrassRoots Chamber Orchestra will once again perform, with director Cayenna Ponchione leading more than 50 top area musicians through play a variety of classical and original pieces, including some commissioned especially for the festival. (9 a.m. Sunday, Grandstand)

14) Beyond the four main stages, there also will be performances in several other places, including the Art Barn, Kids Area, Congo Square Market (on the Leslie Puryear Community Stage), Workshop Tent and Healing Arts Area. Check those areas when you arrive at GrassRoots for their schedules. And the Fall Creek Brass Band will once again lead the annual Happiness Parade through fairgrounds at 2 p.m. Sunday.

15) Feeling competitive? Once again there will be two contests during the weekend on the Grandstand. The GrassRoots Instrument Contest will take place at 10 a.m. Friday; sign up a half hour before it starts. The GrassRoots Band Contest will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday. Entry is on a first-come, first-serve basis; sign up by finding host Alan Rose backstage as soon as you arrive at the festival, because there is a limited amount of spaces, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Credit Valentina Roldan
Elisa S. Keeler will lead her "Joy of Singing" workshop on Sunday afternoon.

16) Many GrassRoots musicians also will be conducting workshops during the festival in the Workshop Tent. For example, Belize’s Garifuna Collective will host a Rhythm & Dance workshop at 12 p.m. Saturday. Atlanta-based Barb Carbon will lead “No Limits Songwriting” at 2:15 p.m. Friday and “Crafting Great Lyrics” at 2:45 p.m. Saturday, and Elisa S. Keeler will once again give her “Joy of Singing” class at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. There are also many healing-arts workshops throughout the weekend.

17) The Kids Area will feature a passel of activities during the festival, including arts, crafts, juggling, songwriting, magic, and much more for kids of all ages. The Physics Bus, Judy Stock, Compost Theatre and Circus Culture will be in attendance, as well.

18) GrassRoots once again will have a “no glass beer bottle” policy during the festival; all attendees are also asked to put their drinks in a cup or a koozie. There are three beer and wine gardens on the festival grounds that will showcase regionally brewed beers, locally made wines and handcrafted hard apple ciders. Speaking of cider, “Cider Saturday” will spotlight the artisanal ciders of several area producers at the Ithaca Beer Garden on Saturday.  

19) Finally, keep an eye and ear out for something new. Last year, the Seratones played a great set on the Infield; I had never heard of the Shreveport garage-rock band, but they were the best group I saw that weekend. So I’m always asking people if there are any “sleeper” bands worth checking out – one or two surprises can really make GrassRoots even more memorable.

20) If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, they’ll be available at the gate: A four-day pass is $155 daily; daily passes are $58 for Thursday, $62 for Friday, $67 for Saturday and $47 for Sunday. For kids 13-15, four-day passes are $75, and daily passes are $38. Kids 12 and under get in free. Parking, both daily and for all four days, is available in the new GrassRoots lot “Across The Way” (behind the Sure Save) or at several private lots around the fairgrounds. And don’t forget to wear sunblock, carry earplugs, wear comfortable shoes and drink lots of water – it looks like it’s going to be a hot one this year!

To learn more about GrassRoots, click here