The Great Blue Heron Festival Takes Flight: Great Blue Heron Festival 2019 Review
The Twenty-Eighth Great Blue Heron Festival Takes Flight
Words and Images By Maggie Fry
On Friday morning as the sun comes up, the Road Warriors move from car to car, collecting tickets and attaching wrist-bands to the dedicated members of the Heron Tribe, those people who return to this land in Western New York every Fourth of July weekend for The Great Blue Heron Music Festival. This year marked the twenty-eighth festival at The Heron Farm and Event Center.
The Heron is a relatively small event, with between six and eight thousand attendees every year, but many of them have a strong attachment to the land and the festival, and calls of “Happy Heron” and “Welcome Home” ring throughout the grounds.
It’s really like a reunion for a big family that actually gets along.
Some Heron History…
Heron legend has it that the festival evolved from a Sunday barbeque with Donna the Buffalo, but Julie Rockcastle, the co-owner and administrator of the event center, is quick to correct that impression. “David Tidquist worked on the first Grassroots Festival, and afterward he was like, ‘We could do that here, and maybe with a party with Donna, a one-day barbecue thing.’ “
But that isn’t how it ended up. “We started in March of that year.” Rockcastle recalls. “It was a March that was really warm–it was 70 degrees–and we kept coming out and walking the land and talking. It didn’t take long in the course of the conversation to get to let’s do three days. So we had the same format from the first year. We never did the barbecue thing.”
The Heron Farm
People start lining up Thursday night and come prepared to start the party. The Heron rents porta-potties to be placed along the three to four miles of road where people are parked, and Amish families who live there fire up their grills and sell hot dogs, fried pies and homemade cinnamon rolls. The excitement builds until the gates open at 9am on Friday morning.
The Heron Farm and Event Center offers 200 acres of camping, some in the woods and some in open fields. The land has been a campground since the 1960s when a man named Newt Spinks dug the pond, ran the electric and water lines and opened for business. Rockcastle’s parents bought it in the 1970s and ran it as a campground for about a decade, then decided to put it up for sale.
“The land drew me; my family owned it. I came back from the West Coast and I’d been divorced and came home and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself,” Rockcastle recalls. “I said to my parents, ‘Don’t you have that piece of land in the country still?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Oh that. Yeah, we’ve been trying to get rid of it.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go look at it. I like projects.’ “
It certainly has been a project. The first Great Blue Heron Music Festival was held over the Fourth of July weekend in 1992, and it has continued to grow since then.
Buildings have been added as needed: a combo kitchen and merch building, the main stage, the Café in the Woods and the Tiger Maple Stage. Julie and her husband, Steve, have also built a house, garage, barns, and greenhouses because the Heron is also a working, certified-organic farm. They sell grass-fed beef, pork, chicken, vegetables and shitake mushrooms at farm markets in the area and from the farm store at the site. The next project is to build a bathhouse to replace the one that had to be torn down a few years ago.
Arriving at Heron Farm
The line moves slowly but steadily towards the entrance. From the top of the driveway, you can see the pond beyond the house and the main festival grounds, and if you are lucky, you might spot one of the great blue herons that gave the festival its name.
Choosing a campsite can be a bit daunting. If you want to camp with your car, you can choose the orange, purple or green areas, but many festival goers save money by parking the car for the weekend and carrying their gear to the campsite. Thankfully, tractors pulling hay wagons are available to shuttle people to various parts of the grounds.
I like to camp in quiet camping in the orange area. The first year I came to the Heron I set up along Dragon Run, the main road into the woods. Fireworks are officially banned on the site, and security does their best to keep things under control, but that year there were firecrackers going off around us until the skies opened and poured down rain. I guess Somebody had had enough, too.
After that I started camping with friends along what is known as the Wearyland Loop. When I first started camping back there, the accepted wisdom was that you didn’t attempt it without four-wheel-drive, but over the years, Steve Rockcastle and the site crew have reinforced the roads with so much gravel that getting back there isn’t a problem except in extremely wet years. Just be sure to pick a well-drained spot to set up your tent.
The festival officially started with the Tiger Maple String Band on the Main Stage at 3pm but there was plenty going on before that.
The Kids’ Tent, located at the top of the hill by the entrance to Dragon Run, has crafts and activities for kids nine and under accompanied by their parents. Over the weekend, kids can create stained glass jars, make bracelets or build their own drums, as well as listen to stories, participate in a talent show or learn about growing things with The Compost Theater.
There are activities for the older kids, too. The Teen Tent is located near the beach and offers tie dyeing classes, games, a cooking contest and daily Meet the Musicians sessions.
The Blue Heron Stages
With three stages, there is plenty of music to take in. The Heron bills its offerings as Americana, which is an extensive category including roots rock, bluegrass, country, zydeco and folk. Slyboots Circus followed Tiger Maple on the Main Stage, making their way from their yellow and blue circus tent by the Drum Circle with a parade of large puppets along Dragon Run.
The African rhythms and acrobatics of Slyboots were followed by the rockabilly sound of Aaron Lipp and the Slacktones. Buffalo singer-songwriter Alison Pipitone came on next and was followed by Jim Donovan and the Sun King Warriors. The final two acts on the Main Stage on Friday were country band Sarah Shook and the Disarmers from North Carolina and The GunPoets, a hip-hop group from Ithaca, New York.
The Tiger Maple Stage is near the Drum Circle on Dragon Run and features small acoustic acts. The music opened on Friday with singer-songwriter Ken Hardley, host of the Rolling Hills Radio program and emcee for the weekend. Hardley was followed by folk singer Graham Stone and then Little Mountain Band, who played a really rocking set and had the usually laid-back crowd on their feet. The Tiger Maple Stage closes from 7:45 to 12 to encourage people to go to hear the headliners on the Main Stage and Folkfaces played the late night slot from midnight to 3 a.m.
The third stage at the Heron is the Dance Tent, a large tent with a nice, sturdy plywood floor and lots of hay bales for sitting one out. The Dance Tent starts off every year with zydeco two-step lessons and then they are off and running. This year’s first band was Black Rock Zydeco followed by the Blind Owl Band. There was another zydeco dance lesson at 11:30 p.m. and then Buffalo Zydeco, the members of Donna the Buffalo, played until about 8 a.m.
Much More to Explore
My habit in past years at the Heron has been to park my chair under the trees on the lawn in front of the Main Stage, go get a gyro from Phill’s Mediterranean Grill and a beer from the Southern Tier Beer Tent, and enjoy the music. Unfortunately, several downpours throughout the day sent me back to camp to try and mop up my tent, but I was able to fall asleep–and wake up–to the sounds of Buffalo Zydeco.
In addition to the stages, there are many opportunities to play music instead of simply listening.
There are workshops in guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, as well as sing-a-longs and a jam session with Tiger Maple String Band. Many people bring instruments and you can hear singing and playing throughout the grounds. Members of the bands like to wander around on Friday and Saturday nights and early Sunday morning, joining campers by the fire and jamming.
You never know who you will run into!
Saturday Brings More Tunes
On Saturday morning, things wind up slowly. The Café in the Woods, which is next to the Tiger Maple Stage, opens at 7am serving coffee, muffins and, eventually, breakfast pizza. Coffee and breakfast burritos are available at the Blurito near the Main Stage, and many of the food vendors offer substantial breakfasts for those who prefer not to cook and can stomach bacon, eggs and baked beans after spending the night in the Dance Tent.
Saturday is the big music day, but there are plenty of other things to do if you choose.
The Revival Tent, located near the pond next to the Teen Tent, offers yoga, meditation, reiki, drumming and other classes of a spiritual nature.
On the other side of the Teen Tent is the Earth Stewards Tent. Instituted by Diane Clark, this is a place where you can go to learn about bats, living off the grid or sign petitions and gather pamphlets for various environmental causes. It is also where, weather permitting, Dr. Phil–no, not that one–will get out his telescope and walk you through what is up in the sky. It’s also a great place to get an introduction to something else that Diane Clark started: Rainbow Recycling.
Rainbow Recycling at Its Best
Other festivals have recycling programs, but Rainbow Recycling at the Heron is a culture.
Throughout the grounds you will see a group of containers with differently colored signs marked glass, cans, plastic, compost and utter trash. Pairs of volunteers zip around in golf carts emptying their assigned barrels and taking the contents back to the recycling center to be sorted and tossed in the appropriate container. The Rainbow Recycling crew is one of the most popular volunteer gigs at the festival and the group is very tight knit.
A few months after the first Heron, Clark ran into Julie Rockcastle and asked how things were going. Rockcastle told her pretty good. She had almost finished sorting the garbage from the festival. Diane was appalled that she was doing this all by herself and Rainbow Recycling was born.
Clark modeled the system after the waste handling procedures used at Rainbow gatherings where everything that is brought in must be taken out. Today, Rainbow Recycling is run by sisters Jennifer Riccardi and Jody Perrin and their families. Even in the current challenging recycling climate, the group manages to completely offset the cost of waste disposal for the festival by claiming bottle deposits. By composting off site, the total amount of garbage sent to landfills is reduced by a third.
Three years ago, Clark also started the Silver Heron Lounge, the last of the tents down along the pond. This was the twenty-fifth Heron and Clark started collecting and compiling the memories of people who have been coming to the festival since the beginning or close to it. The Silver Heron Lounge is a spot to sit and relax, take a break from the hustle and bustle and reminisce about Herons past.
Saturday presented a full day of music on all three stages. The Dance Tent started with Ken Hardley and Rolling Hills Radio featuring Folkfaces and Max Garcia Conover. They were followed by The Little Mountain Band, Alex Kates, Feverhawk, Folkfaces again, Uncle Ben’s Remedy and Cats on Holiday. The late night offering in the Dance Tent was Mosaic Foundation.
The Tiger Maple Stage hosted Steel Rails, Old Dawg Bluegrass, Tiger Maple String Band, a Donna the Buffalo break-out trio of Jeb, Tara and Richie, Max Garcia Conover, Bill Ward and Gretchen Pleuss and Stewed Mulligan. The Blind Owl Band played from midnight to 3 a.m.
The Main Stage opened with the Chautauqua Ensemble at 10:45 and continued with Max Garcia Conover, Janet Batch, The Probables, and Danielle Ponder from 2 to 3 p.m. About that time I went from the Tiger Maple Stage to the Main Stage and saw some of the Urban Pioneers before we had another really hard rainstorm. At that point, I bought a fantastic mushroom swiss burger from the Blurito–grass-fed beef raised at the Heron–and enjoyed that under cover backstage with a Southern Tier Lake Shore Fog IPA.
Thankfully, that was the last rain of the weekend and The Town Pants went on next. This Celtic-fusion band from Vancouver, B.C. is one of the reasons I go to the Heron every year. Their energy and enthusiasm was a perfect ramp up to Jamestown legends 10,000 Maniacs. Unfortunately, technical difficulties delayed the start of The Wailers’ set and the energy kind of fizzled, although once they got going, The Wailers presented a nice retrospective. The last band of the night was Donna the Buffalo, but it started about an hour late and I admit I was whacked and headed back to camp.
Daytime Showers Into Nighttime Lights
One of the most fun things about the Heron over the years has been the lights at night. The buildings are usually outlined in twinkle lights, colored spots are in the trees around the Main Stage and all kinds of lighted art installations can be found along Dragon Run and throughout the woods. It didn’t seem like there were as many lights this year as in years past. Perhaps the electric bills are just getting too high. I did find some fun spots at the top of the hill and along Dragon Run on the way back to the Drum Circle.
If you are a late-night person at the Heron, definitely check out the Drum Circle. There is a large fire, lots of drumming and dancing and shelter to get out of the rain. The night-time energy at the Heron is in basically two places: the Drum Circle or the Dance Tent, depending upon your personal persuasion. Both continue until well after dawn. Another area that is relatively new to the Heron is the Sanctuary. This is a group that has constructed a yurt on the Heron grounds near the Drum Circle and provides a quiet space and healing atmosphere for people who are finding the festival scene overwhelming.
Sunday Morning Starts Out Just Right
Things started quietly on Sunday morning with the Songwriter’s Circle at 11am on the Main Stage. It’s an acoustic set led by Jed Puryear and is a perfect mellow start to the day. Rebecca McIlvain opened the Tiger Maple line up at noon followed by Alex Kates and friends and John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey closed out the day. On Sunday, the Dance Tent featured Ezekiel’s Wheel, Stewed Mulligan, Black Rock Zydeco and Derek Davis.
Cats on Holiday, a swamp pop band from Cleveland, took the Main Stage around 1 p.m. Then the home-grown, Western New York musicians took over with Richie Stearns, a founding member of the Horseflies, reggae group Mosaic Foundation, and The Probables from Jamestown. Right about this time, I headed off to the food vendors and bought some spicy peanut noodles from the Solar Cafe and a wine slushie to enjoy during the final set of the festival. Donna the Buffalo always closes the Heron. Many people have left the grounds by this time and crowd is smaller, but the die-hard members of The Herd always stay for the last performance.
A Traditional Ending to a Family Festival
It is the band’s traditional practice to play a few numbers and then invite members of other bands to join them to jam on stage. This year was no exception. Some members of Tiger Maple String Band joined Donna for a couple of tunes and then there was a special surprise. Ceci Walker, the nine-year-old daughter of banjo player Barry Smith’s girlfriend, joined Donna and Tiger Maple to sing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals.” I had heard her practicing near where I was camped on Friday and was blown away by her powerful voice. Her stage presence matched that power and the crowd loved her.
I have no trouble imagining sitting at the Heron someday watching Ceci and her own band play and listening to people around me say “I remember when she was a little girl and sang with Donna the Buffalo.”
That’s the thing about the Great Blue Heron Music Festival.
It is more than three days of music and fun. It feels like a family with a history and a future.
The Heron Farm and Event Center hosts two other festivals during the summer: The Great Rhythm Revival on August 8 and The Night Lights Music Festival on August 22.
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