Coming Back To Life: GrassRoots returns for real post COVID

The 30th annual Fingerlakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance will take place at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds (2150 Trumansburg Rd) from July 21 through July 24. There will be over 80 bands of musicians present and performing, including favorites like The Infamous Stringdusters, John Brown’s Body, Galactic, Marty Stuart, Cory Henry and DakhaBrakha, and featuring a variety of genres ranging from Native American, Cajun, Bluegrass, Country, Old-time, Latin, World-Beat, Reggae, and Rock-n’-Roll. The festival is returning after a two-year hiatus as a result of the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“It feels great to be preparing for GrassRoots again,” said Maddy Walsh, lead singer of Maddy Walsh and The Blind Spots. “In the weeks leading up the festival, the buzzy energy around town is palpable. As usual, I’m prepping for multiple sets and guest spots with some different projects, so there are a lot of rehearsals, stage production meetings, always some project with spray paint. And this year we have GrassRoots Culture Camp back as well, so I’ll be spending Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday leading up to the festival at the fairgrounds teaching a singing workshop and enjoying the nightly dinners and dances between my own rehearsals. It’s amazing how one event can transform a whole region, and I give big props to the organizers, crew, and volunteers for pulling off something so large-scale that gives so many people something to look forward to.”

GrassRoots began in 1990 as a charity concert. The concert was meant to both bring awareness to and advocate for those with AIDS. It was hosted by Donna the Buffalo, The Horse Flies, and Neon Baptist. The concert was a hit, raking in over $10k in profits, and pioneering an annual GrassRoots tradition that is now in its third decade. The concert is still active in the fight against AIDS but has expanded its charitable mission to include funding and advocacy for local and international organizations in arts and education. It has also expanded to include significantly more artists and genres, creating a polyphony of sound that unites the Ithaca community with a variety of musical backgrounds.

Attendees of GrassRoots frequently return for multiple years of concerts, often having younger generations accompany them. “Because this festival has been going on for thirty years, you have someone who went to the first one, who had kids, and their kids are having kids, and they might also bring their parents,” explains GrassRoots co-organizer Russ Friedell. “You can see four generations at this family event, sitting up in their lawn chairs in front of the dance tent, hanging out all weekend. That is one of the most beautiful things about this festival.” .

Musicians also tend to return to GrassRoots festivals. “As a performer, I love our time on those stages more than pretty much any show we play all year,” said Walsh. “It”s our chance to play for the largest concentration of our hometown fans, and the festival setting inspires in them a very real kind of liberation and joy that you don’t get to see in your fans if they’re just coming out to see a show for one night. We gather at festivals to celebrate life and each other through our shared appreciation of music and art, and it’s very freeing to be there together in that celebration for several days in a row. As an attendee, my favorite part of the festival is, hands down, the Saturday night Donna the Buffalo set. I’ve been attending GrassRoots since I was fourteen years old, which means I’ve been a Donna fan for a long time. They are always on fire for their Saturday night set, and their songs, so often centering around themes of community/unity, family, travel, and love, have been the soundtrack to the better part of my life. Each year I also get blown away by some artist I had never heard of, usually one of the African or international acts, which is a credit to the people booking the talent.”

But the festival consists of more than just music performances. Unlike many popular music festivals, GrassRoots is family-oriented, even encouraging children to attend (kids 12 and under have free admission, but need to be accompanied by an adult), with spaces exclusive to kids’ activities. The Kids’ Area, which allows children to engage in creative activities with one another, has its own schedule of daily activities and performances from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day. Children’s activities include: arts and crafts, human checkers, hula-hooping, face-painting, stilt walking, and juggling.

The Healing Arts & Yoga tents offers another set of activities that all attendees can participate in. The Healing area is meant to be a place of rejuvenation. People can meditate, get a massage, enjoy a sound healing session, take a movement workshop, experience deep healing bodywork, engage in breath work, explore energy exchange, learn about meridian alignment, discover esoteric spiritual practices, and get some retail therapy from nearby craft vendors. Yoga and other movement activities are in a separate tent. Yoga is taught by Diane Fine, a Kripalu trained and certified teacher, who has led GrassRoots yoga since 1996. Fine teaches yoga poses for everyone from the beginner to the more advanced.

Attendees 21 and older can drink regionally-brewed beers and locally-made wines from three different beer and wine gardens near the Grandstand Stage on the track, to the right of the Infield stage, and in front of the GrassRoots World Café just across from the Art Barn. On Saturday, producers from five Finger Lake farm cideries will be at the World Café Beer & Wine Garden offering their small-batch artisanal ciders. Attendees can also bring their own alcohol, but no glass beer bottles are allowed inside the fairgrounds in order to prevent bare feet from being impaled by broken glass.

This year as the festival welcomes the return of internationally-renowned Ukrainian folk quartet DakhaBrakha in the midst of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the GrassRoots Festival community will build the Peace Bin: a children’s play place built out of a repurposed grain bin, in the week prior to the festival. Throughout the festival, donations will be welcomed tosupport organizations dedicated to assisting Ukrainians in their recovery. Thanks to sponsorships by The Maguire Family of Dealerships and Travis Hyde Properties, all funds raised throughout the festival weekend will be donated to charitable organizations. To help support Ukrainian relief efforts by way of the GrassRoots Peace Bin, attendees can donate at the Peace Bin itself.

GrassRoots also hosts a Culture Camp, which takes place four days before the festival, from Sunday July 17 to Wednesday July 20. These four days consist of workshops categorized into songwriting, rhythm, dance, youth, song, and yoga. There are also nightly themed dinners and dances. People can choose to immerse themselves however they choose, whether it’s the full experience, just popping in for a dinner and dance on one evening, or anything in between.

GrassRoots also has its own community outreach programs. One of them is Roots In The Schools, an initiative that aims to inspire youth. It’s a collaborative outreach program that brings musicians into schools, exposing students to local music through performance, classroom presentations, and hands on experiences meant to foster a connection to musical creativity. It’s a no-cost program to participating schools.

GrassRoots’ organization is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. It relies on over 500 volunteers in order to set up, maintain, and clean up post-event. In return for their time and service, volunteers earn their tickets to the festival itself. Eight hours of volunteering translates to a three-day pass at the festival. Anyone can volunteer, but those under the age of 18 need to have a parental consent form signed, and those under the age of 16 need to have their parent or guardian with them during their volunteer shift.

Those interested in volunteering can sign up at Tickets can be purchased at

Healing Arts