Sawyer Fredericks’ powerful voice wowed the fans at the American Music Festival this weekend where an estimated 2,200 gathered to hear the winner of last season’s “The Voice” competition. “I don’t think he can do any wrong,” said fan Debra Marks who drove up from Albany with a friend for the festival. Fredericks was part of Rock Saturday’s seven-band lineup that included blues guitarist prodigy Quinn Sullivan, who made his national television debut as a 6-year-old on the Ellen show.
Saturday’s attendance at the American Music Festival for the Lake beat last year’s figures, according to festival organizer Robert Millis. The count was down for Country Sunday, but overall, as a production, the festival, held Sept. 26 and 27 on the Festival Commons in Wood Park, Lake George, New York, was a success — “We got past that magic point we needed to…”
Saturday opened at noon with High Peaks Band, a Saratoga Springs-based jam band that has been a local favorite for a decade. Opening with High Peaks Band, says Millis, “…continues our tradition of always opening any given fest day with a local act as a sign of support to the local music community.” High Peaks Band warmed up the gathering crowd for the second act on the bill, Blotto.
Blotto, a 1980s pop/parody band, took the stage to the sound of musket fire from the adjacent Battlefield Park where reenactors were staging the Battle of Lake George. Blotto’s set list included fan favorites, “My Baby’s the Star of a Driver Ed Movie,” “Goodbye, Mr. Bond,” and “(We Are) the Nowtones.” Blotto brought their entire entertainment package to the stage at Wood Park, combining jokes, comedy and audience interaction with their music.
They closed with their biggest hit, “I Wanna be a Lifeguard.” Beach scenes in the “I Wanna be a Lifeguard” video were filmed a few steps from Wood Park at the Lake George State Beach (Million Dollar Beach.) At the time, music videos were a new concept. The “I Wanna be a Lifeguard” video has the distinction of being one of the first videos shown on MTV when it launched Aug. 1, 1981.
Big Mean Sound Machine followed, switching up the mood with a blasting horn section and afro jazz-funk fusion. By the time Quinn Sullivan took the stage, the two-acre festival grounds were buzzing with people. The VIP section, a 750-seat area in front of the stage, was filled. Festival attendees were spread across the grounds in camp chairs and blankets. Vendors in the Food Truck Rodeo, which offered a variety of foods, including gourmet grilled cheese, cider doughnuts and deep-fried Oreos, were doing a brisk business. Children were twirling Hula-hoops and throwing Frisbees.
The activity froze when Sawyer Fredericks, with his cascading blonde hair and bowler hat, walked on stage and opened his mouth. Singing from an open-air stage at the foot of a 32-mile-long lake did not weaken the strength, depth and range of his voice. He sang several unreleased original songs; (he spent part of last month in L.A. recording.) He also covered songs he performed on TV, including the one that earned him a spot in the competition, “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Following Fredericks’ performance, Reggae band Crucial Fiya took the stage, although their audience had shifted to the northern end of the grounds where a line, three deep and fifty yards long, formed to get Sawyer Fredericks’ autograph. Day one closed with Kung Fu, a funk dance band.
Country Sunday opened with the North & South Dakotas, a band that Millis believes will be a breakout band from the area. The five-man band brought its audience to the front to dance to some fast-paced bluegrass, and then brought it down with a bluesy feel. Driftwood was second on the bill. The Binghamton group, on stage with upright bass, banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar is a string band with a rock and roll/soul feel. The picking itself was impressive, and got feet moving throughout the crowd.
Three songs deep into their set, fiddler/vocalist Claire Byrne unleashed her voice on “Before I Rust,” pushing the entire act up a notch. Their cover of “Be My Baby,” (The Ronettes, 1963) was strong enough to kick up some wave action on Lake George. Imagine a Wall of Sound with banjo.
Donna The Buffalo, a festival favorite, is a country jam band, with fiddle, banjo, accordion and a loyal group of followers known as “The Herd.” Their brand of Americana had festival goers shucking their shoes and dancing barefoot in the grass. When Tara Nevins picked up her accordion, a Louisiana vibe issued from the stage.
The final two performances of Country Sunday are both nationally recognized up-and-coming acts. Kentucky duo Sundy Best, whose November 2013 debut at the Grand Ole Opry got a rare standing ovation, bring strong songwriting skills to their rock-influenced Kentucky bluegrass. Sundy Best, fresh from a gig in Boston, took the stage as the sun was lowering and the crowd was thinning, but their performance was strong despite the small audience.
Austin Webb closed the festival with an energetic 18-song set. The Nashville songwriter-turned- performer bounded onto the stage, calling the remaining festival attendees that were scattered throughout the grounds up front to the VIP section. Webb’s show was worthy of a 20,000-seat stadium although the crowd had dwindled to less than 100. He utilized the entire stage, pacing from corner to corner, striding upstage to join his drummer, and then back to the center mic to address his audience. He sang his two hits, “Slip on By” and “All Country on You,” as well has some new, unreleased originals. He knocked a cover of Petty’s “American Girl” out of the park.
The American Music Festival for the Lake debuted last year as the inaugural event of the new Festival Commons in Charles R. Wood Park. Millis says that year two showed increased attendance and revenues, and the festival “dramatically increased the number of overnight hotel stays locally.” The festival received occupancy tax funds from the county with this out-of-market benefit in mind. As for thoughts on next year’s festival? Millis thinks price may have been a factor in the lower attendance on Sunday. “When we come up for air and start thinking on next year in three or four months,” says Millis, “we’ll take a fresh eyes approach.”