Photos courtesy of Living Classrooms and Scott Affens
After visiting 10 National Parks last fall, I realized I hadn’t explored many of the green spaces in D.C. I decided to start with Kingman and Heritage Islands Park, which splits the Anacostia River in half. A friend joined me at sunrise and we made our way through the swampy trails. On our way out, we noticed a poster promoting a local music festival. I made a mental note of the date and promised myself I would go.
On May 13, I returned to the park for the eighth annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival. This year’s festival featured nearly 40 regional bluegrass, folk and Americana musicians on five stages scattered across the island. All proceeds directly benefit Living Classrooms, the island operator and festival host, which provides ongoing educational programming for disadvantaged youth and young adults in the D.C. and Baltimore regions.
Besides the traditional music festival perks (beer stations, liquor tents and food trucks), festival-goers could also jam-out with fellow pickers and strummers, kayak along the river, and take an education boat tour. There was also a kids tent with face painting, games, giveaways and a magic show. If you needed to take a break from the music, there was a wide variety of options to choose from that went beyond just food and drinks.
The most impressive and eco-friendly feature of the festival stemmed from Living Classroom’s partnership with the Department of Energy and the Department of Public Works. For the second year in a row, the festival promoted recycling and composting best practices with its Zero Waste initiative. Besides giving each guest a plastic, reusable cup to sip from, all vendors used recyclable or compostable containers. Volunteers were available at each trash pod to help festival-goers sort items into the correct bin and answer any questions. Prior to the Zero Waste initiative, more than 100 trash bags were needed for clean up. This year, only two trash bags were needed.
Going into the festival, I recognized a few names I was excited to see again. This year’s lineup was incredible for a one-day festival and included Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Town Mountain and Dom Flemons as headliners.
Out of the 10 or so bands I saw, The War and Treaty had the most infectious onstage presence. Mixing snippets of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Respect” and “This Land Is Your Land” into their songs, The War and Treaty knew how to please the crowd with an autoharp and without playing full-length covers. At one point, they asked the crowd to hug a stranger, pointing out that we never know what another person might be going through at any given moment. While the audience struggled to get Michael and Tanya’s signals to clap along, everyone I saw felt and embraced the magical energy coming from the stage.
I noticed an equally politically-centered, but perfectly articulated, performance from Elena & Los Fulanos, who were nestled in-between trees on the Heritage Stage. Elena made reference to her two identities, as an immigrant and an American, and asked the audience to sing along at the end in Spanish. Despite missing band members, Elena even got a dog named Jackson to bounce and dance along to songs like “Carolina.”
Across the island on the Meadow Stage, I found Walter Martin of The Walkmen singing about how his life would be as a tiger. Martin forewarned the mostly young adult audience about his animal-focused, Raffi sing-along set before settling into one of the scarier of songs, “Rattlesnakes.” Nearby, a group of young girls were ecstatic, jumping up and down to the simpler sounds of the festival. Martin’s set was perfectly timed and in tune with families who wanted to catch one final performance before calling it a day.
On the Half Shell Stage, I found myself drawn to the sounds of the Ampersand String Band, who are based out of Maryland. I enjoyed the drawn out chords in “Dog Days,” but also found myself tapping along to the more energetic “Long Road to Travel.” Thankfully, the Half Shell Stage was located on the bridge between Heritage and Kingman Island, allowing listeners to whole-heartedly stomp the wooden beams beneath their feet. No one lost a boot to the hungry mud on that stage.
Other notable performances included By & By, Run Come See, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen and Town Mountain. By & By brought the Shenandoah Mountains to the banks of the Anacostia River with their impressive vocals, smooth-as-honey string playing and arms-wide-open stage energy. I thoroughly enjoyed the debut of their latest single, “Wait For Me.” While By & By had me with their fiddle solos, Run Come See swooned me with the fluidity of their slide guitar.
Later in the day, Frank Solivan brought his dad up on stage to play banjo with Dirty Kitchen. Their rendition of “Pretty Woman” was quite easily the biggest crowd pleaser, as people instantly started singing along. Towards the end of their set, the sun began to peek through the clouds and people began to point and wave at its rays.
As the evening came to a close, those who stayed for Town Mountain knew why: it was time to join arms and twirl around friends. While I enjoyed their latest song, “Lazy River,” what I found most impressive was Robert Greer’s ability to pull out a brand new string and repair his guitar while singing.
All in all, I left the festival inspired by the local initiatives, energized by an amazing variety of musicians and happy to have once again explored the Anacostia watershed. As Jonny Grave so beautifully noted, “If you stick it out long enough in the mud, you’ll see the sun.”