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Photo: Scott Affens

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary

May 4 marks DC’s 10th annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival, one of the city’s most iconic music showcases. However, this particular happening wasn’t formed with a singular effort to deliver more music to the District; instead, the organizers intended to draw attention to one of the city’s most unique features: Kingman Island. Nestled between the banks of the Anacostia River, the Kingman and Heritage Islands are home to wildlife and natural resources unlike any other in the city.

This year’s festival is slated to bring another talented lineup to DC, featuring prominent performers like The Dustbowl Revival, Ballroom Thieves, Hackensaw Boys, Odetta Hartman and more. As always, proceeds from the event go toward supporting stewardship of the islands, as well as educational programming.

“We wanted to drive people to the island because at the time, it seemed like no one knew it existed,” says Lee Cain, the director of Kingman and Heritage Islands for local nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, of the festival’s beginnings. “Over the years, it’s helped us gain momentum and enhance opportunities for our hands-on education programs.”

Cain says the festival, brainchild of DC’s Ward 6 and Living Classrooms, saw only several hundred attendees its first year. Now, Kingman draws crowds up to 8,000 each spring.

“The first one was like 300 people, a band and a keg of beer,” Cain says with a chuckle. “Then a few hundred more, and a few hundred more. In 2015, it went from 1,200 people to 6,000 people. It was amazing because all these people were coming to Kingman and the Anacostia River. People discover this amazing wildlife in our backyard. [The festival] really lives up to its purpose.”

Volunteer participation has also risen steadily as more people get acquainted with the festival and its mission, says Living Classrooms Director of Communications Michelle Subbiondo. With more people helping and enjoying the annual shindig, resources have gone toward improving the island.

“The island has grown and changed along with the festival as it morphed from a dumping ground to a lush animal and plant oasis thanks to our students and volunteers,” Subbiondo says. “Now, we’re among the top festivals in DC. It’s been quite a ride, that’s for sure.”

Despite the foot traffic and vendors providing goodies for patrons, Kingman doesn’t stop maintaining its eco-friendly zero waste initiatives during the party. The campaign began in 2016 with help from the city and organizations like the Sierra Club, which helps manage waste during festivities.

“I’ve been working in this field my entire career, and trash is the one thing that people don’t like,” Cain says. “That’s one of the things that is exciting because it’s not a polarizing issue. That’s a lot of waste not going to the landfill and there’s literally no trash on the island the day after. That’s an exciting blueprint.”

With 10 years in the rearview mirror, the organizers have no plans of slowing the momentum. However, with a finite amount of space, more people may be a tough ask; but that doesn’t mean it can’t continue to thrive in other ways.

“We have a few things on the table for future years,” Subbiondo says. “Perhaps bringing in some big-name talent or introducing new genres of music, expanding the event to two days, [and] including more educational opportunities to get people really immersed in the island. Time will tell how this all unfolds, but one thing we can guarantee is that the island and community are always our first priority.”

As for this year, with the festival enjoying a pivotal anniversary, there’s no plans to deviate from the successful formula of lots of music, beer and food trucks. With that being said, Cain does expect some costumes of a very specific variety.

“It does fall on May 4, so I’m wondering if people will show up in Star Wars gear.”

Join Luke Skywalkers and Darth Vaders at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on May 4 from 12-8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$100. For more information about the festival, visit www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info. For details about Living Classrooms and its mission, visit www.livingclassrooms.org.

Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Photo: Oscar Merrida

Oh He Dead, DC’s Next Big Indie Soul Band

No one really died. When Oh He Dead singers Cynthia “C.J.” Johnson and Andrew Valenti first formed the band in 2014, Johnson wrote a ballad about a boy she’d fallen in love with. In the song, she walks in on him cheating, pulls out a gun and shoots him.

“About a week later, we had practice,” Valenti says. “It dawned on me to ask, ‘Whatever happened to that guy in that song that you wrote?’ She responded, ‘Oh, he dead!’ We all died laughing.”

After collecting themselves, the then duo decided to immortalize the phrase, resolving to begin their journey into the music business together. Their first big break came at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival in 2016, and it was all the confirmation they needed to keep going.

“I think it was a very pivotal show in our trajectory where we looked at each other afterward and felt like, ‘Okay, we can do something with this,’” Valenti says.

Oh He Dead will be playing this year’s Kingman Island Festival on May 4, but fans may be surprised by what they hear. The once strictly country folk band has transformed into what is perhaps best described as indie soul. Their new sound is much groovier, with an R&B base.

“Someone in the crowd [recently] told me that people were grinding at one of our shows and I just started laughing,” Valenti says. “I never thought I would be in a band where people would be grinding to our music.”

They cite the addition of new band members as the primary cause of their evolution. Guitarist Alex Salser brings his jazz background to the group while bassist John Daise offers an R&B influence.

“I think everyone has a unique skill and knows what their role is,” Salser says. “It’s been really special to utilize each other’s different talents. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s fighting for the spotlight like in a lot of other bands I’ve played for.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Johnson’s strikingly smoky, textured voice that lingers long after she’s stopped singing. It’s no surprise to learn who she idolizes and emulates most as a vocalist.

“My inspiration was definitely Fleetwood Mac,” Johnson says of her influences during her formative years. “I listened to them a lot in high school. I love Stevie. Her voice is just something, that raspy voice. I was like, ‘I want to be like Stevie!’”

Though difficult to categorize, Oh He Dead’s unique sound has earned them a growing fanbase in the DC area.

“I think the reception we’ve gotten from our crowd [in DC] has been super encouraging,” Valenti says. “We played Union Stage last week. There were over 300 people in the crowd, and I don’t think any of us have had that kind response with original music.”

Oh He Dead seems to have finally hit their stride, finetuning their sound and discovering their own audience. The band is currently working on their debut album, which they plan to release this year. As far as their hopes for the future, Johnson puts it best.

“I want to win a f–kig Grammy!”

Learn more about Oh He Dead at www.ohhedead.com, follow them @ohhedead, and catch them at Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on Saturday, May 4. Tickets start at $35.

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Photo: Mark Raker

Celebrating the Past, Preserving the Future at the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival is returning to DC on June 9. In its 9th year, the festival has grown in popularity annually, and features a wide variety of bluegrass, folk and Americana artist spread across several stages. However, this isn’t your usual for-profit celebration. The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival helps fund outdoor educational programs that enrich the lives of thousands of kids in the DC area, and puts a premium on environmental sustainability and protecting the island’s rich habitat.

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival represents both a celebration of American music and a commitment to protecting our natural lands and wildlife.

Kingman Island (and its counterpart, Heritage Island) were created in 1916 from material dredged out of the Anacostia River. Now just over a century old, you’d never guess they were man-made; the islands are covered in lush green native plants and is home to various wildlife, including foxes, possum and even wild turkey.

Since their creation, the islands have had a long and complex history, and today they remain protected.

While they are owned by the city, Kingman and Heritage Islands are managed by Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, an organization dedicated to helping kids connect with the natural world.

“We do lessons geared toward orienteering, teambuilding and habitat restoration, including in the Anacostia river,” says Lee Cain, Director of Kingman Island with Living Classrooms. “Between 2,000 to 3,000 kids come to Kingman ever year. We’re trying to make an effort to get kids to make a connection to their local park.”

Cain says another major focus for Living Classrooms is workforce development and helping young people in the neighborhood advance their careers by working on the island. Those enrolled in their summer youth employment program learn native plant identification, habitat restoration and trail work. It’s not just kids who get involved at Kingman.

“Fifteen-hundred volunteers, a year, do trail maintenance, habitat restoration and other things to improve the park,” Cain says.

The bluegrass festival helps Living Classrooms continue its work in Southeast DC and beyond. But it went through some growing pains: “there used to be a ton of trash left after the festival,” Cain says. Organizers put a zero-waste initiative in place, which resonates with many of the festival’s performers.

“They’re trying to be very sustainable,” says musician Crys Matthews, who lives in Herndon, Virginia. “A lot of that stuff is really important to me – I use zero-carbon footprint packaging with all my cd’s, so it’s great to be sharing and creating with like-minded folks.”

Silver Spring musician Dom Flemons agrees.

“It’s something that, on top of being an excellent experience for a musician, is also a very worthwhile cause that they are trying to accomplish with the festival,” he says. “It’s twofold: You have lovely nature, and a reteaching of people in the DC area of how to reconnect with nature and how to really learn sustainability.”

Both Flemons and Matthews are performing at the festival for the second time and taking new steps with their shows.

Matthews is an accomplished musician and songwriter from North Carolina who infuses folk, bluegrass, jazz and other genres into her work. She played last year’s festival solo. This year, she’s bringing her band.

“I’m looking forward to getting to play with them on that stage,” she says. “The space itself is a neat area, nestled and hidden away in the craziness of DC.”

Having been in the area for eight years, “the music scene is pretty incredible,” she says. “It’s very different from back where I lived in the mountains of North Carolina.”

Flemons is a co-founder of the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has traveled around the nation and the world presenting traditional folk and roots music to diverse audiences. He’ll be presenting a new performance at this year’s festival.

“I had this idea for quite a while to present the American Songster review  a multi-act program that would feature several different songsters from different parts of the world and the country to be able to present their music,” he says. “It will feature songs they have in their repertoire, as well as one song I will curate and ask them to perform.”

The festival features more than 30 bands playing on five stages this year, as well as an artist market and food trucks. While festivals by their very nature bring high foot traffic and disturbance to the island, Cain says the sustainability measures in place help protect its habitat. Festivalgoers get their own reusable cups, and “80 percent of the waste from the festival is either composted or recycled, and we’d like to get to 90 percent,” he says.

Location is also important: the festival will take place in the island’s most resilient meadows, protecting species like the Virginia mallow, a Maryland endangered plant that can be found on the southern portion the island. Holding the festival at this time of year also gives the plant life the benefit of a full growing season, and thus faster recovery and regrowth afterwards.

The festival, Living Classrooms’ educational programs and the volunteer programs on the island all help raise awareness about this unique oasis in the Anacostia River.

“If we don’t expose people to these resources, they quietly disappear,” Cain says.

The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival beings June 9. For more information on the festival, islands or tickets, visit here.

Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 202-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info