Guitar strums sounded over crowds of dancing festival-goers on Saturday, soaking up live music at a GrassRoots festival weekend that nearly went dark for the second year in a row.
Children chalked rainbows onto the Trumansburg Fairgrounds concrete as others lined up behind them to paint a mural. Parents swayed under the Dance Tent, while others caught up over music in camping chairs across the field.
About 3,000 people gathered in Trumansburg for Donna The Buffalo’s GrassRoots Festival Weekend — this time over three days on just two concert stages, a smaller version of the annual event that normally attracts about 15,000 festival-goers for a four-day celebration filled with art and music. The festival follows a series of one-night concerts throughout July, as organizers spread out the performances that normally unfold over a single weekend.
But the event bloomed once again after the pandemic canceled the festival in 2020 and nearly nixed this year’s event, too. Even with a scaled-down festival, those who attended said they were grateful to relish in live music and reunite with friends, celebrating after a year of isolation.
“Roots is usually like this,” attendee David Bolles said Saturday, stretching his arms wide as he stood under a tent with friends he met the previous day. “This year, it’s like this,” he said, pinching his fingers together.
“But the love is still like this,” Kim Belsky interjected from the other side of the tent, spreading her arms wide as she smiled.
Russ Friedell, marketing director for GrassRoots, said he was thrilled the organizers pulled off the festival after squeezing event planning into just two months — a full festival normally takes a year to plan.
In March, GrassRoots organizers postponed the full 30th annual festival until 2022, when the vaccine rollout was only just getting off the ground. But in May, the county and state signed off on the modified event — on top of spread-out concert dates, organizers also originally planned to require attendees to provide proof of vaccination.
But by the time the first festival weekend rolled around, GrassRoots lifted most virus restrictions, after New York State reached 70 percent vaccination and relaxed state-wide precautions. Hand-painted signs that read “not vaccinated, please wear a mask” remained one of the only visible markers of the pandemic this weekend.
Still, Friedell said many of their regulars didn’t attend this year, as organizers had postponed the full festival and as fears of the virus linger. The festival weekend came just as cases rise in Tompkins County, which is seeing its largest number of single-day positive cases since late March.
“We knew going into it that at least half of the regular audience was not going to come. The goal was to just give everyone something,” Friedell said. “We were missing a lot of real key GrassRoots festival experiences. There’s a lot more that did not happen. It takes way more time to plan. Even though it was smaller, it really was a very beautiful thing.”
The annual Happiness Parade didn’t march through the festival this year, and the healing center that offers meditation and yoga was also missing. Friedell said the organizers only put up about a quarter of the infrastructure they normally build to support the fraction of festival-goers.
Bolles said he missed the sprawl of food trucks that he has cherished over his seven years attending GrassRoots, as a smaller set of vendors served attendees, who were asked to keep outside food and drinks at home this weekend to support vendors after a year of no events.
But mostly, Bolles said he was grateful to be at the festival, returning each year for the sense of community.
For Trumansburg resident and long-time GrassRoots attendee Daniel Burgevin, attending the festival is more than just a fun weekend — it’s a way to celebrate life through art.
Paint caked to his hands and clothes, Burgevin reflected on the festival from the stoop of a structure that he transformed into a community art project — handing out paintbrushes to children and adults to create a colorful mural that honored Jimi Hendrix.
“His take on music was flowery and exciting and new. We love that. They decried the music when I was a boy, and now it’s the norm. We want to pass that onto the next generation of kids,” Burgevin said. “[The festival] is lots of wonderful music. We want the celebration of life. And art is that.”
Burgevin said he has attended GrassRoots since its early years, often painting at the festival. This year, after a thunderstorm damaged the festival’s Infield Stage, the structure originally intended as its soundbooth became the panels for the Hendrix mural.
“This year it’s smaller, but it’s still the same vibe. You come here, you play music, you eat well. It’s hard to find,” Burgevin said. “I remember when it started out. It rained like hell, and there were 700 people sliding around in the mud having a ball. Even post-COVID, [the festival] is pretty exciting.”
Those who were newer to the GrassRoots scene also said they were grateful to return to Trumansburg this July. Angelina Henson, who attended GrassRoots for the second time this year, said she made friends with those camping next to her and her sister over the weekend.
“Normally there’s more people and more tents. The more the merrier,” Henson said, sitting on the field between the two stages. “But it’s just so relieving to listen to live music again.”
The success of the weekend was also a relief to those who planned the festival. Friedell said he bumped into old GrassRoots regulars he hadn’t seen in five years, who moved back to Ithaca during the pandemic and reconnected with their roots.
“It was really good to be one of the first folks back and show that you can do this safely,” Friedell said. “When you have a high vaccination rate in the state we can get back to what we love to do. The magic was there.”
As GrassRoots approaches its final performances for the summer, Friedell said he saw many hugs and cried happy tears this weekend, filled with joy to hold the festival again.
“It’s good food, good music, a basic understanding that we’re not here to overindulge or hurt each other. We’re here for peace and love,” Burgevin said, taking off his glasses to wipe the tears streaming down his face. “There’s not that many places where we can celebrate it. So let’s make our own. This is who we are.”
This story was originally published by The Ithaca Voice as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.