Huntington Music & Arts Festival #9 (an opinionated and personal summary)
I grew up in Oak Hill, OH. There wasn’t ever much of a live music scene there or if there was I was oblivious. When In the Red started playing shows (looking at you Ben Davis), it was like nothing I had experienced. The crazy teenage girl ate it up but all good things are generally short lived and usually have to come to an end.
I moved to Huntington in 2011. I flew pretty under the radar for the first few years I was there. Kept my friend circle tight. That all changed in 2015. I accepted an invite to go watch a band that would quickly become my favorite local band. The Horse Traders. With that first show, I fell into the whirlwind that is now my life.
The first year I went to HMAF, I was one of those people who went to see 2 bands and didn’t much pay attention to the others. The Horse Traders and Tyler Childers killed it, as usual. Second year was much the same, adding in Of The Dell, but this was right around the time I was getting into live music photography. I took some pictures that never saw the light of day. Ever. I grew as a live music photographer a lot over the next year and in 2017 I was asked to be on the HMAF staff and do some photography for them. Excited was an understatement.
This year, in it’s 9th successful year, I was staff photographer again but it was a little different for me. I moved to Lexington KY the weekend before HMAF week started. I knew it was going to be a lot of work to be back and forth that week but I didn’t hesitate for a second. How could I? This week of events has become so important to me it was like breathing.
On Friday, 8/31, HMAF partnered with Honky Tonk Heroes and I hosted my first open mic. I was completely overwhelmed with responses. So much so that I had to turn a couple of people away due to time restraints. People drove from as far as 4 hours away to play 2 songs in a crowded bar on a Friday night. It was absolutely amazing.
The actual day of the festival, 9/1, was nothing short of magical. The combination of seeing all of my friends from West Virginia and Kentucky (and a couple from Alabama!!!!!) was overwhelming in the very best way. It was a good way for me to say goodbye to Huntington and hello to Lexington. The familiar transition between acoustic and full band sets felt right. Backstage shenanigans and seeing all of the people I grew to love in my 7 years in West By-God felt like home.
All of the staff and volunteers were doing everything they could to aid with the minor inconveniences some rain was causing. The bands were mingling as was WSAZ’s Tim Irr, who helped introduce the bands early in the day. Tim worked so hard to talk to all of the bands and find out more about them so that when he introduced them on the mic, it was like they were all old friends.
The earliest highlight for me (and most people from what i’ve gathered) was Karis Blanton covering a Tyler Childers song. It was like WV’s adopted son was there in spirit, while doing huge things in Europe. Ducain (Huntington) followed right after her and treated everyone to a rock show, despite the rain. Magnolia Boulevard (Lexington) absolutely killed it and watching their lead singer, Maggie, give her everything to a soaking wet crowd was perfect. Patrick Stanley (Huntington) sang us some sad songs while the rain was finally letting up. Johnny Conqueroo (Lexington) was a huge surprise to a lot of people, having never heard them before. Short & Company (Kentucky) had the crowd dancing along right before Chelsea Nolan (Kentucky) shared her lyrics, including not-so subtly telling someone “you’re what rock bottom looks like”. The Dividends (Huntington) treated everyone to their smooth set-list (which was complete with a picture of our friend William Matheny at the bottom).
Will Jones (Virginia) was my discovery of the day. It was refreshing to have him play right before our friend John R Miller and his band The Engine Lights. John (West Virginia) played songs off of his new album (The Trouble You Follow) along with some old favorites. Josh Nolan (Kentucky) wooed the growing crowd with his heartfelt songs and reliably-solid lyrics. Qiet (Charleston) reminded everyone that genres are slowly becoming nonexistent. William Matheny & The Strange Constellations (West Virginia) gave the crowd their favorites and as usual, Bud Carroll and the rest of the band were as tight as ever.
Local favorite, Ona, were back this year and they definitely didn’t disappoint the crowd. With a solid setlist mixed with songs new and old, fans new and old were satisfied. Arlo McKinley (Cincinnati) was the final acoustic act of the night. The local king of sad songs brought it and then some to Huntington. Playing songs off of his debut album combined with some off of the highly-anticipated second album, Die Midwestern, the crowd was intoxicated by listening to a man sing about lost love and finding yourself. Headliner Rozwell Kid (West Virginia) came back to HMAF for the first time in a few years. They closed out the night with what can only be described as an upbeat rock and roll show. There’s a lot of passion and hypnotic energy in that band. It was a perfect end to a wonderful day at the amphitheater.
I’d like to backtrack for a minute, because I’ve left someone out. Purposefully. This is where I point out and reiterate that everything I’ve written here is strictly personal. These are my views and mine alone but I think most people will agree with me when I tell you that Justin Wells (Lexington) won HMAF this year. It’s never going to be easy to follow a favorite like William Matheny. It would never be easy to play right before a local favorite like Ona, all while people are anticipating Arlo. Justin Wells knocked his acoustic set out of the amphitheatre and all the way down that hill, into the park. There are videos floating around on Facebook of his entire performance (link) that you should really take the time to watch.
Starting into his third and final song, “The Dogs”, he started having some PA problems. His guitar was cracking and he was also having some mic issues. A lot of musicians (I’ve seen it happen so many times) would wait to fix it or become frustrated. Justin is a horse of a different color. The man stepped out from behind the microphone and walks to the front of the amphitheatre to belt out the remainder of, what his fans like to call, his anthem. It was by far, the best moment of the day. You could hear a pin drop apart from him singing “Well our souls are a little older, but you can’t tell we learned a thing // If there’s twelve that got invited, we’re thirteen // We’re the last one to know it’s over, and the first one to have to beg // We’re the dog that crawled for miles on broken legs // We’re the dregs”. The words absolutely echoed on the hill that day. It was haunting, unpredicted and most of all, it was so bold. I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for Justin. Not only as a musician but as a really great friend, but it has definitely increased after that Saturday.
HMAF 9 was a perfectly imperfect day. The rain didn’t stop the party. The after party was a mixed-genre adventure. A flat tire didn’t stop Rozwell Kid from getting to the show. People from all over came into Huntington to take part in something beautiful that Ian Thorton created almost a decade ago. I’m extremely humbled and always grateful to be included and to know the people I know. Musicians, family and friends all mesh together in my life and I wouldn’t want it any other way.