It’s a long ride from the gate at the Blackstock Festival Grounds to the rolling pasture soon to host its first stages and campers. Last week, with nine days remaining before the inaugural Blackstock Music Festival, the nearly two-mile road was still a work in progress.
For about half the trip, the gold-painted pickup rumbles across new gravel, but the second half remains a maze of dirt and potholes. The truck swings wide at one point, avoiding the construction equipment there to finish the job. The surprisingly harsh winter slowed progress, Joshua Leonhardt confirms. The festival’s organizer and founder sits calm and confident behind the wheel of the truck, unfazed by the ongoing construction.
What: Blackstock Music Festival
Where: Blackstock Festival Grounds, Heritage Road, Blackstock
When: Friday, May 30, 7 p.m.-4 a.m.; Saturday, May 31, 11 a.m.-4:15 a.m.
Price: $115-$125; $85 Saturday only; $290 VIP
More Info: blackstockmusicfestival.com
Arriving at a pristine field ringed by trees, Leonhardt’s father, David, is riding across the grass on his tractor, giving it a mow in preparation for their guests. Joshua’s mother, Teri, arrives with the crew that will take care of the much needed port-a-johns, discussing their placement and making sure the crew’s equipment can make it to the festival site.
“It’s a huge investment that we have made as a family,” Joshua says over the phone a week earlier. “My entire family has come together to put this on, and we’re all taking a huge risk financially — as well as mentally — to put this thing together. But we’re looking at it from the perspective that this could be something that could become an annual thing; that could be much, much bigger than what we’ve got in mind so far.”
On Friday and Saturday, the Blackstock Music Festival will host 40 bands on a farm and wildlife preserve about 40 minutes north of Columbia, just past Winnsboro. The lineup includes a diverse array of artists but skews toward the sprawling folk and rock styles that dominate many a large outdoor festival. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a family with no experience promoting concerts, one that could succeed wildly or fail just as mightily.
The headliners — the electronically savvy jam band Galactic and the bluegrass-extending Leftover Salmon, the placidly grand synth-rock outfit Papadosio and the aimlessly slinking producer duo BoomBox — are all proven draws, and the addition of respected singer-songwriters like Will Hoge and Mason Jennings has the potential to draw a crowd that doesn’t regularly hang out in fields vibing to tunes. But none of this guarantees Blackstock’s success.
“It’s over $150,000 in just music,” Leonhardt acknowledges, declining to elaborate on the festival’s other expenses. “You’ve got 40 bands and your top four bands are nationally touring acts. Your next 14 bands are regional and national touring acts. It’s a large endeavor.”
Besides paying the bands, Leonhardt and his family must provide the stages — in this case, two 40-by-40-feet platforms for the lineup’s upper echelon, plus a smaller tent stage and the Magic Love Bus, a specially fitted double-decker vehicle with a stage on top and on the ground. Then there’s the sound staff and required security professionals, along with other workers to sell food and beer and to help clean up the grounds after the festival wraps up Sunday morning.
Luckily for the Leonhardts, they at least own the land. The festival grounds were purchased 14 years ago by Joshua’s father, who until recently employed his son at Leonhardt Pipe and Supply, a company specializing in fire sprinkler products for corporate buildings.
Joshua, an avid festival-goer, wanted to use the land for music and made his dad a deal: If he could successfully break their business into the Dominican Republic, then he could have his event. He succeeded and subsequently resigned his post at Leonhardt Pipe, working full-time for the past 10 months as the leader of Blackstock Productions, tasked with spearheading the festival and attracting other events to the venue.
For this first lineup, Leonhardt favored quality over affordability, grabbing acts he felt would make for a worthwhile weekend, many of which didn’t come cheap. The result was a starting ticket price of $140 for the entire weekend — a cost offset by early-bird and online discounts, but a considerable chunk of change nonetheless.
Last week, Blackstock dropped its price to $115 for advance weekend passes and $125 for those bought at the gate, citing the addition of Verizon Wireless as a third marquee sponsor after Sweetwater Brewing Company and Jack Daniel’s, but Leonhardt admits that the move was also made to encourage ticket sales as the date drew closer. VIP access, which promises exclusive showers and bonfire pits and complimentary meals, costs $290. Single-day tickets, available only for Saturday, are $85.
Even considering the recent discount, Blackstock is still asking a lot for a lineup that lacks the bigger names that bolster other regional festivals. In April, North Carolina’s longstanding MerleFest asked $145 for an event that included country superstar Alan Jackson and “Wagon Wheel” originator Old Crow Medicine Show. Earlier this month, Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival charged $169 and provided performances by indie rock luminaries Modest Mouse, Spoon and The National, along with The Replacements, the reunited punk innovators who are back on the road after a 22-year hiatus.
Considering the competition and the lineup, Dave Britt, a local talent buyer who books the bands for Columbia’s annual Rosewood Crawfish Festival, speculates that Blackstock’s ticket price may prove prohibitive. His own festival, which keeps ticket prices low — $12 earlier this month for a day headlined by ’90s rock act Everclear — typically spends about $30,000 on talent.
“I went to Bonnaroo the first year, and I think my ticket — granted that was a long time ago — was about 125 bucks,” he offers, recalling the 2002 debut of the massive festival that hits Manchester, Tenn., every June. “They had Trey Anastasio and Ween, giant headliners.”
These days, though, a four-day pass to Bonnaroo ranges from $234 to $284. And while Blackstock lacks a Phish frontman, Britt emphasizes that its price point is understandable: “If you get that kind of ticket price, you quickly build revenue and reduce your risk,” he explains. “I think that any time you’re doing a festival for the first year, it’s hard to get agents to trust you and give you their top-of-the-line talent. This year will probably be a stepping stone for the festival, and you’ll see bigger headliners next year.”
True to Britt’s point, it’s vital to consider the future when evaluating Blackstock’s first outing. There will be plenty to enjoy this time out: The setting is serene, with cozy shade trees dotting the softly sloping fields — an ideal place to knock back a few brews, watch a few bands and then pitch a tent under the stars. And with 32 of 40 bands hailing from North and South Carolina, the festival is ripe with opportunities to acquaint yourself with exciting regional sounds — make time for the West African-inspired jams of Asheville, N.C.’s Toubab Krewe and the probing and spiritual folk of Durham, N.C.’s Hiss Golden Messenger if you happen to make the trip. And with $1 from every ticket going to Nourish International, a N.C.-based nonprofit focused on eliminating extreme poverty, it’s a purchase you can feel good about.
Still, Blackstock is most exciting for what it might become. MerleFest was first held in 1988, honoring the recently departed Merle Watson with a memorial concert hosted on a trailer bed. It has since grown into one of the most revered folk festivals in the country, attracting in excess of 75,000 people each year.
Bonnaroo’s beginnings weren’t quite so humble, but it is situated on a piece of farmland somewhat similar to the one Blackstock is utilizing. This year, the Tennessee festival is stacked with heavy hitters — Elton John, Kanye West, Jack White, The Avett Brothers — anchoring a lineup that could well equal the festival’s 2012 attendance peak of 100,000.
Joshua Leonhardt makes it clear that such heights aren’t expected for Blackstock, nor are these numbers that he’d like to equal. With about 300 of his family’s 1,000 acres dedicated to the festival, he has room for about 10,000 people. This weekend, he’d be satisfied with 3,500, a goal he believes is very much within reason.
“You look at other festivals, and they have 80,000 people, 100,000 people,” he says. “We don’t want to get that big. We just want to have a nice intimate crowd, and a full house would be 10,000. We are shooting for 3,500 to 5,000 people this year, and with the amount of advertising that we’ve done and the bands that we have, we are capable of doing that. We’d love a crowd of about 3,500. That would be a great crowd for this event.”
If the festival succeeds and continues to grow, the potential economic impact could be considerable. Linda Cheeks, president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina, where MerleFest is held, estimates that the festival injects $10 to $14 million annually into the local economy. And while Blackstock will be much smaller, Leonhardt says the festival will employ as many people from the surrounding Fairfield County as possible, pointing out that on top of the already contracted security and sound specialists, about 60 more people will be needed to staff the festival. But it’s also a self-contained event, a fact that Terry Vickers, president of the Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce, believes will limit its effect.
“I imagine gas stations will be the primary target,” she says. “While I would hope that the large crowd that they are anticipating in Fairfield County would come into our small towns, Winnsboro and Ridgeway, I will have to tell you that the event is just off of I-77 at exit 48, which is about 15 miles from either of those towns. But we’re very excited to have that name recognition and to have folks coming into our area.”
Ultimately, as Leonhardt points out after several minutes of entertaining Free Times’ questions about numbers and planning, this is still just a music festival — an occasion for attendees to listen and party well into the wee hours of two consecutive nights. And so long as there are people out there enjoying the festivities, he knows that his efforts won’t have been in vain.
“There’s an inherent shortage of these kinds of events in South Carolina,” he explains, “as well as a confidence issue with things that come from South Carolina, whether they be an event or a product. We wanted to try to change that perception and put together a first-class festival right here.”
Friday, 8:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Will Hoge’s biggest hit — and it’s surprising, really, that it’s his only solo Billboard-charting single to date — almost didn’t make it on his most recent record.
“Strong,” which hit No. 42 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and propelled Never Give In to the top spot on the Heatseekers albums chart, is a bonus cut, a tune Hoge wrote after the record was already done and scrambled to tack on. A midtempo rock ballad flecked with acoustic guitars, Dobro and a high-lonesome Hammond organ, “Strong” is positively Segerian in its flag-waving embodiment of the struggling everyman: “He’s a need to move something, you can use my truck / He’s an overtime worker when the bills pile up / Everybody knows he ain’t just tough / He’s strong.”
It bleeds so much red, white and blue that Chevy used it in a campaign to sell pickups.
But “Strong” is not so bellicose as to be exploitative. While Seger’s long served as a touchstone for Hoge’s AAA-leaning trad-rock — so have Springsteen and Dylan — country music has been the source of Hoge’s strongest recent songs. He wrote “Even if it Breaks Your Heart,” which The Eli Young Band took to No. 1 in 2012; Lady Antebellum recorded Hoge’s “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” on its No. 1 album Golden. But where Hoge sets himself apart from the Nashville machine is his sharp songwriting and keen nuance. If Hoge sounds like a hardworking songwriter, it’s because he is: Since 2001, Hoge’s stubbornly mined a singular path whose commercial success hasn’t mirrored his critical renown. He, flatly, seems like the kind of guy who ain’t just tough, but strong. — Patrick Wall
Hiss Golden Messenger
Friday, 10:15 p.m.-11:15 p.m.
Recently, a group of musicians who played with the late Jason Molina, leader of the far-reaching folk-rock bands Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., played a handful of live shows in tribute of their late friend. Their surrogate singer was M.C. Taylor, who fronts his own incredible folk-rock band, Hiss Golden Messenger. The pairing was an appropriate one: Magnolia Electric Co. and Taylor’s former band, The Court and Spark, had toured together. Like Molina, Taylor resists easy imagery and lazy couplets without sacrificing accessibility, delving into big themes and complicated spiritual malaise. It exists simultaneously in and out of tradition.
Among the Blackstock lineup, Hiss Golden Messenger sticks out. While nominally Hiss Golden Messenger could be considered a country act, it’s a far cry from the festival’s other twangy offerings. Taylor drapes his folk with hints of musics both cosmic and kosmische, traces of psychedelica and dub augmenting Taylor’s winning songwriting and charred-hickory voice. His presence at Blackstock reinforces his wide appeal, something evident in the flourishes on his records — consider the gospel strains and chewy flower power of Haw’s “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror),” the slow-burning Crazy Horse vibe of “Devotion,” the Stax-funky bassline that supplements the Piedmont blues of “Red Rose Nantahala.”
Taylor’s voice creeps up at the beginning of “Brother, Do You Know the Road?,” a standalone digital signal that serves as a teaser to Hiss Golden Messenger’s Merge Records debut, due later in the year. “Keep going,” he says. It’s a direction to his studio musicians, certainly, but that it wasn’t edited out seems to indicate it’s as much a directive for Hiss Golden Messenger as a whole — a timeless sentiment for a timeless band. — Patrick Wall
Saturday, 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
This Asheville-based band is a well-known entity in jam band circles, but it doesn’t fit easily within that box, shifting shapes frequently and globe-trotting in its essential influences.
Rock history is replete with Western musicians uneasily expanding their sound to include African or Eastern influences, from The Beatles’ sitar meditations to Paul Simon’s possibly exploitative use of South African musicians on Graceland, which makes Toubab Krewe’s seamless blend of Mali music and instruments with a host of other styles all the more remarkable.
Using a kora, kamelengoni and souk alongside electric guitars and ample percussion, this Krewe can slide from near-Southern rock jams and bluegrass breakdowns into dub reggae or traditional West African compositions without missing a beat. Regardless of what music they are playing, the instrumental consistency fosters a melting pot feel.
In many ways, Toubab Krewe fulfills the promise of the jam band scene, where musical exploration is prized on equal footing with virtuosity. Each song seems to spark a renewed sense of possibility for the alchemic reactions of African and Western music. — Kyle Petersen
Saturday, 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
The New Orleans-based outfit Galactic is an ideal fit in any festival scenario. Although the band grew out of the Crescent City’s funk scene in the mid-’90s, the always-evolving group has incorporated jazz fusion, hip-hop and electronic elements into its sound over the years, as it’s added and subtracted members. While almost universally beloved on the jam band circuit, Galactic has always had a largely untapped crossover appeal, as it has leveraged its show-stopping grooves to back a wide variety of rappers and singers over the years. It’s likely the band’s commitment to coloring outside the lines that has kept the group from reaching the level of mainstream success attained by a band like The Roots: Witness its most recent studio effort, 2012’s Carnivale Electricos, which updates Mardi Gras and Carnivale music in a heady 21st century style. — Kyle Petersen
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