The Jeff Austin Band headlines SpringDig on May 4, 2019. (Photos by Chester Simpson; Words by Michael Tucker)
SpringDig is always a special event for me because it’s the first festival of the year that I attend; on top of that, my lovely partner Tara and I have the great honor of working hospitality for the bands and crew of the event which means we provide them with food, cold drinks, and a comfortable area to chill, recharge, or practice. And so, we were happy to be at Sleepy Creek SpringDig 2019 on May 3-5 in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
It is always an honor to provide some modicum of comfort to the hard-working musicians and crew members who make Sleepy Creek events so memorable. These amazing human beings spend a great deal of time away from their homes so to give them as much comfort, to make them feel cared for, and to make them feel as “at home” as possible is our mission. It’s the least we can do to give a little something back for all the joy they bring into our lives. When our friend and rock-n-roll photographer Chester Simpson walked past our campsite and asked me if I would write a review of the festival to go along with his pictures, it was another great honor to say “yes” and to collaborate with such a brilliant artist. After all, as Chester later told me backstage, “We’re documenting history.” So, here’s the Sleepy Creek hospitality guy’s review of music at SpringDig 2019.
Due to the nature of my job, there is always much to do on the first day, so I often mostly just hear the music from backstage with occasional trips out front. In other words, there is always an excellent soundtrack to go along with the hustle and bustle backstage.
As Tara and I were prepping food and chilling cases of beer in coolers for traveling troubadours and stage hands with our friends and real MVP helpers of the festival Stevie and Doug, I heard a fantastically adorable arrangement of The Beatles “Octopus’s Garden” being performed by the Sweet Maple Singers. I took a break in front of the stage and enjoyed watching the lovely Jasper Night (who was wearing delightful 11 ears) playing a gorgeous (!) harp along with Robbie Mann and John Devine. Tara really appreciated their stylish cover of They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Then, it was back to the grind until the sultry, soulful sounds of female alternative bluegrass band The Fly Birds lured me back out front like a moth to a flame. Somewhat reminiscent of Rising Appalachia because of their oh so soulful vocals, The Fly Birds are a unique local band from the Maryland/Virginia area to keep your eyes — and ears — on. We went back to preparing North Carolina pulled chicken sandwiches, Jambalaya, and chickpea coconut curry, and then the energetic, Baltimore-based Dirty Grass Players hit us with a Pink Floyd cover, “Time.” The deeply resonant lyrics Home Home Again/ I like to be here when I can along with those dirty, dirty skilled musical chops once again pulled me out front, and I thought about how although I haven’t always appreciated it —in fact, for years and years, I ran from it — bluegrass feels like coming back to a place where I belong.
You see, I grew up with my dad and his buddies pickin’ and playing bluegrass tunes around the kitchen table, and while I still adore the bleeps and bloops of jamtronica, the brilliant level of artistry and technical musicianship of Sleepy Creek’s bluegrass bands never fail to blow my mind. I raised my PBR high in the air and sent some love to my Dad in far-away Alabama.
As our jobs slowed down in hospitality, Better Off Dead kicked things off with one of my favorite dead tunes, “China Cat Sunflower” and we finished up the night’s work while grooving to their fun set. It was super cool talking to these entertaining guys after their set, and we chatted for a bit about the ongoing restoration process of one of our favorite small local venues, the Shepherdstown Opera House.
Afterward, we stayed in front of the stage for Friday’s musical highlight which came with the super-nice Rumpke Mountain Boys’ set. These Ohio boys always do it up right with their trash-grass dance party style. The fact that they played one of my personal favorites tunes from their catalogue, the rollicking “Molly,” and the rest of the night “ran through my fingers just like sand.” It was time to put our feet up and rest for a big Saturday.
Saturday started with our traditional trip into Hancock for supply replenishment. When Tara and I got back, we had the pleasure of meeting the larger than life personality of Joe Keyes, who was wearing gorgeous traditional African garb. As we started our real work for the day, we grooved around to the funky, rhythmic sounds that the fine gentleman on stage with Joe Keyes and the late Bloomer Band. We’re talking a super-fun, midafternoon dance party.
Up next, Stephen Lewis and the Big Band of Fun kept us dancing while we worked with their high-energy funk and hip hop complete with loops and horns. This band was one of those Danny Moore Secret Weapons that the crowd was talking about all day long.
For me, the musical revelation of SpringDig 2019 came with the Jon Stickley Trio. The gorgeous sounds this North Carolina three-piece made literally forced Tara and me out in front of the stage. The gorgeously epic progressive sounds produced from a guitar, fiddle, and drum were way more than the sum of their parts, reaching an impossible grandeur of sound for three people — and somehow forming phantom bass sounds. I have never heard such grandiose, mind-melting sounds from an acoustic band; they veered bluegrass music into Consider the Source territory then into EDM territory while hitting every shade in between. They played an utterly transcendent set, and I can’t wait to see them again. Don’t believe me, just ask lights maestro Mike Chappell.
Unfortunately, we were at crunch preparation time during bluegrass superstars Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn’s set to watch, but we enjoyed the intricate melodic picking and strumming from backstage, and Tara and I are lucky enough to be attending Resonance this fall where Leftover Salmon will be playing. Afterwards, we enjoyed backstage conversations with the incredibly nice human being and awesome conversationalist Jeff Austin about rock legends The Cure and Stevie Nicks and with Chester Simpson about Jerry Garcia and Patti Smith as we continued prepping food and filling coolers with our heroes and helpers Stevie and Doug.
Finally, it was time to go get down out front with headliner The Jeff Austin Band. We danced our butts off with Stevie and Doug as the former Yonder Mountain String Band played his mandolin with alternating punk fury and subtle complexity. Jeff’s vocals came pretty darn close to matching his virtuosity on the mandolin. Jeff and band played a stellar set, and during their exuberant and face-melting rendition of the John Hartford, gravely voiced classic “Boogie” I looked over at Tara, Stevie, and Doug and marveled at the fact that there is no other crew I’d rather boogie-woogie with than these beautiful humans. To top it off, I don’t think Tara and I have ever met a more gracious and appreciative musician than Jeff Austin. After Jeff’s set, we hung out talking backstage for a bit, and it was time for the Sleepy Creek Super Jam featuring Jeff Austin, Drew Emmitt, Andy Thorn, Jon Stickley, and just about everyone else.
Not for lack of enjoyment of the incredible music on the stage being performed by the awesome players, we walked back to camp ready to climb into the comfort of my tent with Tara.
Although tired, wet, chilly, and with aching feet, my heart was full of joy and totally refreshed. I was proud of a job well-done, and we had certainly boogied our butts off during Jeff Austin’s spectacular set. There was nothing more I wanted than to cuddle up with Tara and to listen to the rest of the night’s music while lying down in warm comfort. As I went to the car to grab toothbrushes in preparation to get horizontal, the musicians on the Sleepy Creek stage began playing a perfect rendition of an old favorite that could not have been more appropriate for the weekend. Take me home, Country Roads, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Momma, Take me home. Those sweet sounds of an old favorite had me singing along at the top of my voice despite my aching body. Truly, my cup runneth over. I am so blessed to have found this place where I belong.
In closing, in these troubling times of division and dehumanization, music festivals provide a space where we can put aside our differences, whether political or otherwise, and connect on a human level through music, and, in my book, there is not a more diverse place to do that than at Sleepy Creek. You see, the usual festival crowd never fails to show up, and, of course, the down-home West Virginia campground folks show up too; after all, their Sleepy Creek home away from home provides the space for these well-loved and well-thought out events. It just goes to show that despite our misconceptions, we can all get along despite our differences.. and when the music plays, sometimes we even dance together. Please come out and support your local festival.
I’ll see you in the fall at Sleepy Creek’s Harfest, if not before. Lastly, here’s a big shout out of thanks to my lovely partner Tara and to my friends Stevie and Doug for being such a great hospitality crew.
Here are some pictures of Sleepy Creek SpringDig 2019 on May 3-5 in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. All photos copyright and courtesy of Chester Simpson.