As you cross over the Anacostia River on Benning Road NE or East Capitol Street NE, you may not be aware that the bridges rest on Kingman Island, a snake-shaped sliver of land created by dredging in 1916. On Saturday, however, the sixth annual Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival will give you plenty of reasons to explore this nature sanctuary as more than 40 musical acts — including such headliners as Larry Keel, Kingsley Flood and Cabinet — perform on six different stages.
The festival is a fundraiser for Living Classrooms, the nonprofit group that oversees the city-owned island and hosts field trips there for neighboring schools. The organization uses the money to maintain the island’s eight miles of trails, remove trash and invasive species, and improve infrastructure for a growing number of visitors. And what better way to do that than to host rural music performances in meadows and woods — even if a densely populated city is never more than half a mile away?
“The wildlife has really come back to the island,” says Steve Mutschler, Living Classrooms’ managing director. “We have deer, foxes and nesting bald eagles now. The southern meadow is filled with wildflowers. . . . We thought a bluegrass festival would attract a green-themed, outdoorsy and peaceful audience that would fit the setting. We never thought it would grow as much as it has.”
The first festival attracted fewer than 300 people, but last year 13,000 people showed up, and the organizers are prepared for up to 20,000 this year. Those are remarkable numbers for an event that limits itself to booking talent with ties to the greater Washington region. Chris Naoum, the director of Listen Local First, a spinoff of the Think Local First business group, says that the festival’s promotion of area musicians is almost as important as its advocacy for the nature preserve itself.
“We said, ‘Let’s set it up so you can walk around the island and hear music everywhere you go,’ ” says Naoum, who is responsible for booking the festival’s music. “That’s what we implemented three years ago, and it’s been growing ever since. We added the Americana stage last year and discovered people were willing to walk half a mile or a little more to get to the other stage, because it’s a beautiful walk with vendors along the way. This year we added one more major stage and built up the other stages.
“Because of those extra stages, this was the first year we did a call for musicians, and we were blown away by the huge number of submissions we received — and most of them were really good. There’s more talent around here than people realize.”
Keel, who grew up in Warrenton and now lives in Lexington, Va., is a good example of that talent. Keel, a two-time winner in the guitar competition at Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, has recorded with Keller Williams, toured with the Yonder Mountain String Band and had a song recorded by the Del McCoury Band for a Grammy-winning album. Keel is grounded in traditional bluegrass but continually tries to expand its boundaries; his latest album, “Classic,” for example, includes original songwriting, extended improvisation and a reggae number.
“We play bluegrass,” Keel says, “but we also write songs about modern subjects, stretch out on our solos and throw in unusual covers, like a Bob Marley song. If that grabs younger listeners and pulls them into bluegrass, that will help preserve bluegrass.”
The festival added an Americana stage last year to accommodate the growing number of folk and bluegrass-influenced bands who have added amps and drums to the rural storytelling tradition. Headlining that stage this year is Kingsley Flood, a Boston band whose lead singer and chief songwriter, Naseem Khuri, has lived in the District since 2009. The sextet has built strong followings in both cities with its Billy Bragg-like folk-punk sound.
“I love the storytelling troubadours like John Prine, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, but I also like playing my acoustic guitar really loud and noisy,” Khuri says. “Maybe the result is a cross between alt-country and punk, but whatever it is, it’s a perfect reflection of how the people in our band grew up.”
Kingsley Flood’s recent five-song EP, “To the Fire,” is the first of three releases slated for 2015. Another EP will follow in June, and a full-length album is due in October. This crowded schedule is a result of Khuri’s recent songwriting binge. Whenever he has an idea, he says, he sets out on foot from his Mount Pleasant home and winds his way through Petworth, or down to Dupont Circle, or all the way to Capitol Hill. He composes as he walks.
“I need movement when I write,” he says. “It’s a weird dance, because you have to be focused on what you’re writing, but you also have to be open to outside stimulation. The result has been a lot of songs. We have a lot to say, and we feel we’re hitting our stride musically. We said, ‘Who knows what will happen next year, so why should we wait? Let’s put out everything this year. Let’s seize the day.’ ”
Perhaps you’ve seen Khuri, lost in thought as he strolled down a D.C. sidewalk in recent months. If so, you may finally get to hear what he was thinking when Kingsley Flood plays the festival on Saturday.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival
Saturday, noon to 8 p.m., at Kingman Island. Festival entrance is at the back of RFK Stadium Parking Lot 6. Free parking is available at the stadium. 202-799-9189. www.kingmanislandbluegrass.com. $20.