There’s No i in Frend: Frendly Gathering in Vermont

The everpresent Frendly Gathering sign. Photos by Kaeden Hahn.
The everpresent Frendly Gathering sign. Photos by Kaeden Hahn.

“Where strangers become frends, and frends become family.”

By Brian Gage
Photos by Kaeden Hahn

If you’ve been searching for an event that combines all the elements of a great holistic music festival with a sustainability and community-based mindset, look no further than the rapidly expanding, three-day-long festival, Frendly Gathering! I attended this year’s edition, which was held from June 28th-30th at its home in Northern Vermont, but it’s never too early for you to start planning for next year!

A couple of happy Frends enjoying the day.
A couple of happy Frends enjoying the day.

Origins and a Frendly Run-Down

Put together by a crew of pro-snowboarders out west in California, Frendly Gathering was started as a small, intimate camping excursion for close friends of founders Jack Mitrani and Danny Davis to bond over the things they love the most; music, the great outdoors, boarding, and each other.

However, despite living and plying his trade for many years in California, Mitrani grew up way on the other side of the country, spending many of his formative years snowboarding in Stratton, Vermont. He decided that the festival would be better suited for the scenic and secluded green mountains of his old stomping grounds, and since its birth, Frendly has continually attracted an increasingly large amount of committed folks who have made the small gathering into one of New England’s premier music and camping festivals.

Frendly promises a weekend quite unlike many other festivals you may have visited, touting a wide variety of exciting treats for its intimately connected “Frends”.

Local art, delicious food, plentiful camping space, dance workshops, on-site skateboarding infrastructure, yoga classes, vendors of all sorts of things, and of course a massive number of fantastically talented musicians who represent all types of genres, from electronic hip-hop to bluegrass, can be found at the festival, which has recently found its home in Waitsfield, Vermont atop Mt. Ellen ski mountain at Sugarbush Resort.

Along with all of its revelrous and community-building features, Frendly is also one of the most sustainably minded festivals on the east coast of the United States, taking “leave no trace” to a whole new level.

Earth-Minded Initiatives

Frendly’s sustainability effort is spearheaded out of its famed Earth Frendly Booth, which is open from 11am-8pm. Here, they host a plethora of planet-minded initiatives, workshops, and contests to get festival-goers engaged in their mission of spreading awareness for the importance of protecting the earth from unnecessary harm due to human negligence.

With activities like “Take a Stand”, where Frends write letters imploring their local senators to take action against plastic pollution, and the “Micro-Trash Sweeping Contest”, which challenges Frends to collect as much micro-trash (cigarette butts, wrappers, etc) as they can to be entered into a raffle for some sweet prizes at the end of the weekend, Frendly Gathering hopes to maximize attendee involvement in their sustainable efforts. But it doesn’t end there…

The entire duration of the festival, volunteers take shifts circling the grounds and enjoying the music while picking up and sorting through all of the waste created. The waste is then diverted into three separate disposal receptacles, one for generic trash, one for recyclables, and one for compostable foodstuffs/materials.

The compostable refuse is then disposed of by an in-house waste hauling operation, managing to sustainably divert thousands of pounds of compostable materials that would otherwise have needlessly ended up in a landfill.

One of the festival’s many volunteers, Claire Walsh, had this to say about her first time attending Frendly:

“As a first-time attendee and sustainability volunteer at the 2018 Frendly Gathering, I was nervous that I would be an outsider to the crew and the rain, heat and mountainous terrain threatened to make the weekend exhausting and miserable. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; the sense of community at the Gathering was so strong it was almost impossible to be down about anything, especially the environment.

We all pushed through the downpours, mud sliding and humidity together. From howling at the moon with Nahko and Mihali’s audience to searching for a new friend and fellow volunteer with the VT police and other attendees (she was sleeping), the adversity only bonded us strangers as stronger frends.

And to top it off I ate amazing food and heard some of the best live music in my life so far from groups I knew and didn’t know but now love. What first attracted me was their mission to be completely sustainable, which I was able to lend a hand in as a volunteer.

Next year, I’ll be going for so many more reasons than to pick up trash and listen to music! The Frendly Gathering is truly a festival with something for everyone, and a place for anyone.”

All of the food vendors at the festival are required to supply their own compostable flatware, cups, and utensils to try and minimize their necessary footprint, with materials like aluminum foil and plastic straws being banned.

With every ticket sale, the planners of the festival plant one tree in the purchaser’s honor and all leftover tents and tarps are donated to local scout troops.

While there is much more to be said about Frendly’s planet-frendly goals, I think it’s about time to get to the heart and soul of what makes the festival so immensely popular for people hailing from all walks of life, the musical guests.

Music for the Masses

Nahko & Mihali's set on Thursday night.
Nahko & Mihali’s set on Thursday night.

The founders of Frendly Gathering are focused on attracting some of the most exciting rising talents, as well as welcoming back some time-tested fan favorites. This goal has lead to some very diverse and unique artists being brought to perform, such as Sabouyouma, a Burlington based afro-funk band featuring a phenomenal ballafonist, and The Suitcase Junket, a throat-singing one-man-band from Amherst. But at the end of the day, every artist has come together to enjoy the weekend and perform for a huge crowd of excited and welcoming folks.

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Twiddle, one of the most popular jam bands of our time calls the Frendly Gathering home, and as such returns annually to play at least one set for their loyal fans.

This year, Twiddle’s frontman Mihali Savoulidis played an additional set with his good friend Nahko (of Nahko and Medicine for the People, who also performed) on Thursday night and captivated fans with a mixture of their respective talents.

Combining Mihali’s fantastic guitar skills with Nahko’s eccentric blend of world fusion, the set was truly electric.

My musical experience at this year’s Frendly Gathering was exceptional, to say the least. I was able to take in a wide array of artists throughout my three days at the festival and discovered a great deal of new music to add to my playlists.

Thursday

On Thursday the music started late, so I caught Peace in the Valley, Sabouyouma, Smalltalker, and Nahko & Mihali. Despite the smaller number of shows, it by no means meant that they were any less awesome.

Peace in the Valley is a Vermont-based jam band on the rise consisting of four talented young men. Providing a groovy blend of psychedelic jams and classic riffs, these guys killed their set for the smaller crowd that had purchased early arrival tickets.

Sabouyouma, an afro-funk collective out of Burlington, consisted of several extremely talented instrumentalists. Some of the stand-out inclusions were a ballafonist, a fantastic percussionist, a trombonist and a xylophonist.

Their traditional West-African rhythms mixed with funk, reggae, blues, and jazz was infectious, and as I looked around, it didn’t seem like a single member of the audience could keep from at least tapping their feet to the beat.

Smalltalker is a group whose member count is in the double digits, and with such a vast amount of musicians comes a very unique fusion of sounds. Their ensemble consists of flute, sax, trombone, guitar, bass, keys, drums, vocals… and a large amount of chemistry to bring all of these separate sounds together to form the silky smooth, jazzy final product that I heard on Thursday.

And to cap Thursday off right, I was treated to my first ever glimpse of Twiddle’s frontman, accompanying his very special friend Nahko. The two of them were able to seamlessly combine their musical stylings, producing a stunning and technically impressive set that showcased Nahko’s fantastic voice and lyricism mixed with Mihali’s absurd talents on the electric guitar. While I missed a few performances on Thursday, I was still quite satisfied with what I had seen, but that was just the beginning.

Friday

Friday’s shows started earlier in the day, with the first set being at 12pm rather than Thursday’s 5pm. On Friday I was able to see Strange Machines, JUPTR, Smalltalker’s second set, Kevin Morby, White Denim, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Kamasi Washington, and Twiddle; it was a long day.

Strange Machines was originally formed in Boston and have been making a name for themselves on the East Coast jam scene. With their mix of reggae/rock, electronic psychedelia, Strange Machines were able to transfix their audience in a torrent of trippiness for the duration of their set.

Some audience members enjoying The Suffers' set.
Some audience members enjoying The Suffers’ set.

JUPTR is a five-piece, neo-soul group from Burlington who serves up a delicious fusion of hip-hop/ R&B instrumentals and smooth silky vocals that would feel at home in a swanky jazz club or a roaring festival gound alike. I really enjoyed the voice of Stephanie Heaghney, the lead singer of the band, and their set was a nice change of pace from some of the more fast-paced inclusions.

Kevin Morby, formerly of folk-rock bands Woods and The Babies, provided his personal take on folk-rock, along with some indie and classic rock components. Originally from Texas, Morby made his way up to Frendly Gathering to give us a dynamic show with hard cutting, yet reserved vocals and a classic folk sound. He recently released an album titled City Music and played a vast majority of its songs.

Dubbed “The last great rock & roll band”  by The Guardian, White Denim performs a blend of several genres of rock, including progressive, indie, garage, experimental, southern and psychedelic. Hailing from Austin, Texas, these guys seriously brought the rock up North. Their music was so unbelievably danceable and I don’t think I had enjoyed a rock show quite as much as I enjoyed theirs for some time.

Nahko & Medicine for the People is a world fusion collective comprised of six wonderfully talented members who play what they describe as “a mix of hip-hop and folk rock with a world message”. Nahko is both a rapper and a great singer, and the lyrics he writes shed light on some of the large issues in our society and our world as a whole.

However, instead of just bringing attention to these issues, he offers his take on a solution by means of helping those less fortunate and showing only love to those who we share this world with. My favorite aspect of their performance was violinist Tim Snider’s soloing. He played faster and more complex violin refrains than I have ever heard and his part in the festival is what sticks with me most to this day.

Kamasi Washington is a bandleader and tenor sax player from Los Angeles who has performed with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Lauryn Hill. His set at Frendly was an incredibly funky, jazz fest that caused quite the stir in the audience. He and his accompanying band members blew everyone away in a shiny brass blur that left all of us begging for more (and more is just what we got after coaxing out an awesome encore).

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The main event of the weekend for many of those who attended, Twiddle headlined the evening with a two-hour set. Founded in Vermont, Twiddle is the definition of an American Jam Band, complete with unbelievable musical prowess and plentiful improvisation that sets every show apart from their others.

They played many of their most recognizable tunes, like White Light, When It Rains It Poors and Lost In The Cold. The crowd was massive, filling the entire standing audience area and overflowing to the hill behind, and when it was time to call it a night at 1 am, I was still far too hyped up to head to bed.

With Friday in the past, the last day of the festival was on the horizon, and I had high hopes.

Saturday

Enjoying the day in a bubbly way.
Enjoying the day in a bubbly way.

Throughout Saturday, I saw Lowdown Brass Band, The Suffers, Suitcase Junket, Devil Makes Three, Emancipator, and Greensky Bluegrass.

Lowdown Brass Band is a Chicago-based collective that consists of a large horn and percussion section in collaboration with some very dynamic vocalists and MCs. There was no shortage of jubilation accompanying their performance, their stage presence was incredibly energetic and it definitely translated over to the crowd.

I watched complete strangers get down and boogie with one another as the horns blared and the commanding MC stole the show.

The Suffers was something else. Coming all the way from Houston, Texas (and they REALLY hammered that in), The Suffers are a soul/R&B group that must have been gifted some magnificent secret from God detailing how to create the most infectious and dance-inducing tunes I personally have ever had the pleasure of seeing live.

The band played an hour-long set, and by the time it was over, I had needed to take off my shirt due to the almost sickening amount of sweat it had absorbed from all of my sweet grooving.

“We make music for all people,” says lead vocalist Kam Franklin, and I can attest to that first hand after being in a crowd of incredibly diverse folks who were all begging for more by the time their set had come to a close.

After The Suffers’ set, I was ready to take it easy, as the sub-90 degree heat was seriously getting to my head. And while I was seated on the lawn during Suitcase Junket’s set, it gave me an opportunity to take in this impressive one-man-band’s ensnaringly smooth, yet sharp-edged voice with a side of throat singing. Suitcase Junket gave the audience a radical mix of rock ballads and festive blues, and doing it all alone was enough to sufficiently impress me.

Devil Makes Three is comprised of a bunch of native Vermonters who all went out to California to follow their musical pursuits. Their fiendish concoction of alternatively based bluegrass made for a revelrous audience, complete with square dancing, moshing, and quite a lot of headbanging.

Some Frends enjoying the view from the Pacifico Beer Garden.
Some Frends enjoying the view from the Pacifico Beer Garden.

Even though I was near the back of the crowd, everyone within sight was busting a move in one way or another, and when it came time for their political announcements regarding drug policy in the United States, it must have been impossible for those around me to hold in their shrieks of approval.

Emancipator was truly an interesting sight to behold. While I am not the world’s biggest fan of electronic dance music, the addition of a skilled violinist may have inspired a change of heart. The Portland, Oregon based producer combined his electronically generated ambient trip-hop with a couple of physical instruments, and the product was pretty radical.

Along with the music, Emancipator had an enchanting light show blasting the audience with some pretty colors, which really helped to stimulate every little bit of my brain’s auditory and visual capacities.

And last, but certainly not least, was Greensky Bluegrass. Formed in Kalamazoo Michigan, Greensky Bluegrass combines a progressive bluegrass style with jam band and country influences, creating an undeniably fresh show chock full of fiddling, feisty solos, and infectious crooning. Along with their music, they are famous for their traveling light show, which lit up the hills behind the audience with all sorts of colorful shapes and patterns.

During their set, Vermont’s law regarding the legalization of cannabis for those over the age of 21 kicked in to play, and at exactly 12 am they broke into a dank rendition of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” accompanied by Twiddle’s Mihali, which set the crowd into an absolute uproar.

All and all, Frendly Gathering was an absolutely fantastic time and I couldn’t recommend it to prospective Frends any more highly. I met some great people who I plan on keeping in contact with for a very long time and was able to hear music that I probably never would have encountered anywhere else. I plan on returning to Mt. Ellen every chance I can get to attend this first-rate festival, and I sincerely hope to see you there!

Hugs

Brian Gage is a resident of Amherst, Massachusetts and a lover of all things outdoors. He enjoys traveling to exciting new locations, attempting to take in the most beautiful natural sites he can see. He is an avid hiker and climber and can be found at the Hadley Central Rock Gym on many of his free days.