A Day At Friendship Music & Arts Festival
Behind a set of unassuming storage lots on Georgia State Route 115 lies Starbridge Road, a simple gravel lane that led me towards a lovely piece of country property in Murrayville, Georgia. It was at this scenic location that the annual Friendship Music & Arts Festival had already been taking place for two whole days. As I came to a fork in the gravel pathway, a campground had sprung forth like an oasis, populated by a plethora of tents, a handful of food and merchandise vendors, and a beautiful lake occupied by event creator Ryan Brown and his enthusiastic dog.
These festivities seemed wonderfully hidden from the rest of the world and perhaps that is by design. My invitation via Facebook listed the event as private, with those specifically invited being encouraged to bring their friends and expand the guest list. My invitation came from Chip Jones, one of the founders of the event and a recognizable face for many musicians and open mic veterans around the metro Atlanta area. About six years ago, Ryan, Chip, and several other friends began what would eventually turn into a 3-day outdoor musical retreat.
"This was all kind of Ryan's brain child," said Chip. "It basically started at his place as a house party. We only really moved it beyond our friends' houses just last year."
Although the founders were busy running the show and coordinating with one another via radios, it didn't stop them from getting in on the festivities. Chip, playing lead guitar through the classic Fender combination of a Stratocaster and a Deluxe Reverb amplifier, performed the first set of the afternoon with The Lively Exchange. The performance had a notably smooth Southern feel complete with bluesy harmonies, an Allman Brothers cover, and even a haunting solo violin piece that made me think of visiting old Civil War battlegrounds in my younger years.
The second set began shortly afterwards on the smaller stage, with a simple tent covering the band from potential rainfall and the drummer nearly hidden from view on a raised platform. At 1 P.M., an energetic jam band called Potch began the first of three different sets. Each set featured only one song, but each song morphed and swirled into different sections, surprising the audience by lacing guitar harmonies and rhythm sections together that seemed to appear out of nowhere within the frenzy of improvisation. Occasionally, their friend Ben, a classically trained trumpet player and relative rookie to jam band performance, would step to the microphone and play soaring lead lines over the top of their grooves.
Right around 2 P.M., Donna Hopkins took the main stage with a few members of Genetically Modified Orchestra, the band that took the very same stage only a couple of hours later. While Donna fit in very well with the feel of the other more laid-back Southern bands in attendance, she also introduced a more raw bluesy foundation that set her apart. Her throaty guitar tones and husky voice, paired with a cool harmonica player, were a nice change of pace to a lot of the major key tonalities of the Southern styles being performed. The Alabama native found herself many new fans on Sunday afternoon, myself included.
When the rest of Genetically Modified Orchestra took the stage to play their set, they showed off perhaps the most impressive vocal harmonies of the afternoon. With multiple members taking lead vocals and playing particularly befitting instrument solos, nothing ever seemed out of place. The most underrated performance, in my opinion, was by GMO's keyboard player, who did a wonderful job creating a subtle framework for each song with airy, atmospheric chordal work.
It was around the time that the Donna Hopkins set was winding down that I ran into Chip Jones again, who at this point was already looking the part of someone who had spent the weekend running a campground festival. While clearly a little tired and sunburned, he was very happy with how the event had turned out.
"This is really amazing honestly," Chip told me. "We're just so happy with how far this has come and with how much of a community has grown from this."
Before I left, I made sure to thank Chip for his hospitality. He grinned and pointed out that I had a bit of an attendance streak going at two years in a row. Having played this event in 2017 and having been a spectator this year, I can say with confidence that I look forward to my third appearance next summer.
Having only attended the final day of the festival, I only got the opportunity to see a few of the incredible live performances that went on throughout the weekend. Make sure you also check out these other bands that performed on days prior to my arrival:
Photo credit: Drew Thomas