TVD Live: Hot August Blues & Roots Festival, 8/17

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | With a week left until Labor Day, the sun hasn’t yet officially set on summer—but I’m already feeling wistful for those perfect days spent with good people and great music, soaking in the sun (and moon) at summertime music festivals. The past three months saw some pretty solid festivals and shows throughout the DC region, but there was no better way to revel in end-of-summer denial than with Greensky, Galactic, and Grace during the bluegrass, New Orleans funk, and rock ‘n’ roll of Baltimore’s Hot August Blues.

The combination of the lush, green setting, the dreamy weather, and the honey-drizzled organic falafel could have been enough, but the festival, this year in its 21st iteration, delivered so much more. Every act had the crowd—face-painted kiddies included—singing and dancing along. You can tell from the way festival-goers greet each other that Hot August Blues is more than just another summer concert. It’s a local tradition that folks look forward to, regardless of the lineup, year after year.

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Brad Selko, festival founder and organizer, was especially proud of the variety at this year’s event. Named the city’s best music festival by Baltimore magazine, Hot August Blues has grown from a backyard picnic to an all-day, three-stage, peace-and-love loving blowout drawing about 5,000 people to Oregon Ridge Park to take in some of the biggest and best sounds in roots and blues.

Armed with a comfy blanket and just enough money to do some damage at the snack stands, we arrived in the early afternoon while the crowd was still pretty sparse. After exploring the festival grounds with its small village of vendors, we set up a home base at the main stage between some collegiate kids in Orioles gear playing cornhole, wandering stilt-walkers, and a young, dreadlocked family with a stroller and a bottle of wine. The all-ages crowd contributed to the amazingly happy and easygoing vibes. Is it just me or does living in a big city make you forget that it’s okay to hula hoop barefoot and borrow sunscreen from absolute strangers?

With three relatively close-set stages and slightly overlapping set times, it was easy to catch a bit of everything that Hot August Blues had to offer. Oklahoma singer-songwriter-guitarist JD McPherson brought rockabilly sounds to the stage, channeling jukebox heroes like Elvis and Little Richard and setting a high bar for the acts that followed.

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Though we only caught the tail end of his set at the mini Hillside Stage, guitarist Scott Tournet put on a super high-energy show that proved his chops as more than just one of Grace Potter’s Nocturnals. Antibalas rounded out the afternoon with their danceable Afrobeats. And in the early evening, Boombox, the psychedelic DJ duo, enveloped a sizeable crowd with their seamless mixes and mashes, plus a light show that probably would have been exponentially awesome during a late-night set.

I had spent a minimal amount of time listening to the addictive strumming of Greensky Bluegrass (get it?) before Hot August Blues, and was really impressed by their lively set. The “newgrass” band is one of the country’s best, leading the way for the genre’s inevitable revival in mainstream music. The group could not have seemed more excited to be there, encouraging people to roll down the giant hill facing the stage, and getting others out of their seats to jam along.

After a day of wandering between the stages, I’d have to say my favorite show was probably Galactic—the unstoppable New Orleans funk band, fronted on this day by Cory Glover. The band was undoubtedly a huge draw for many festival-goers: the crowd swelled noticeably as the band took the stage. They launched into horn-filled grooves, playing first without Glover and then eliciting wild cheers as the Living Colour frontman strolled out. Over nearly two hours, Galactic continuously outdid themselves, playing a slew of brassy, funky jams and covers that included “Cult of Personality” and, to close out the set, “Gimme Shelter.”

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By the time headliners Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took the main stage at 8 pm sharp, the festival’s atmosphere was less family picnic, more rock ’n’ roll.  Clad in a shimmering white Statue of Liberty-esque robe, Grace Potter opened, appropriately, with “Hot Summer Night.” The ensuing setlist left nothing for want, with hits like “Medicine’ and “Goodbye Kiss,” slow jams “Timekeeper” and “Apologies,” and covers of Bill Withers and Hank Williams (“Grandma’s Hands” and “Devil’s Train,” respectively). In her typical rockstar style, Grace alternated between keys, some serious guitar, wild dance moves, and general bopping across the stage with boundless energy. For what must have been a record-setting five-song encore (FIVE), the band refused to miss a beat: Grace took the stage solo for “Stars” and an extra soulful “Nothing but the Water,” and the band came back for a crowd-pleasing cover of “American Girl” and Grace’s own anthem, “Paris (Ooh La La).”

As organizer Selko points out, and as loyal festival-goers surely know, Hot August Blues continues to grow—in size, diversity, and offerings every year. At the request of audiences past, in 2013 Selko added a video screen at the main stage for better viewing from afar, more beer variety (Baltimore’s own Natty Boh, naturally), and activities like drum circles and workshops for adults and kids.

When Selko’s not roaming the grounds to make sure all’s running smoothly, you can catch him backstage taking in the scene. A lifelong music fan, Selko says he loves seeing the shows, but most enjoys watching the reactions of the audience—many of them his own friends—down below. The best part about being in charge? Inviting his friends backstage to enjoy the incredible view.

GRACE POTTER

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GALACTIC

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BOOMBOX

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SCOTT TOURNET

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DELTANINE

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ANTIBALAS

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FESTIVAL-GOERS

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