By Jan Mercker

The past 18 months have been a roller coaster for local musicians and music lovers: from a shutdown during the worst days of the pandemic to a renaissance of sorts at outdoor venues this summer. Now organizers of one of the county’s best-known benefit concerts are bringing it back to downtown Leesburg. The Crossroads Music Festival returns Saturday, Sept. 18.

Organizers are counting on an event that’s COVID-careful but lots of fun with a goal of raising thousands of dollars for area nonprofits serving children.

“The idea of being able to do something to support the community feels more important than ever,” said organizer and performer Amy Bobchek. “We’ve been really aware of and connected to the opportunity to help others with what we do.”

This year’s festival showcases original music from Loudoun favorites and new faces at nine downtown venues. Organizers intentionally chose venues with outdoor performance spaces, including the Loudoun County Courthouse lawn, Delirium Cafe, Schmidt’s Barbecue, SideBar, King’s Tavern and Wine Bar, Black Walnut Brewery, MacDowell Brew Kitchen, Dynasty Brewing Co. and Goosecup.

For the performers, all of whom are donating their time for the event, the festival is a chance to showcase new material, much of which came out of downtime during COVID shutdowns. And for local audiences, it’s a chance to spend a fall Saturday downtown listening to great original tunes before an uncertain winter rolls around. 

Bobchek and Ara Bagdasarian, who are both civic leaders and musicians, are co-founders of the BENEFIT organization, which started organizing concerts to raise money for local charities in 2017. The first two festivals took place at the Village at Leesburg retail center. But in 2019, organizers decided to shift to a multi-venue, film-festival style approach, taking advantage of downtown Leesburg’s booming dining scene.

“We’ve played with a number of different formats for this [festival]. In 2019, we really felt like we hit the winner with this idea of using downtown venues that are already open versus driving everybody to one destination,” Bobchek said.

With COVID bringing much of the live music scene to a halt in 2020, organizers pivoted again, producing a recorded holiday concert that raised $20,000 for local charities.

This year, Bobchek and Bagdasarian wanted to return to the 2019 model with some additional protocols for COVID, including “keeping it outdoors and widespread” among multiple venues with outdoor seating. 

“We’re taking safety very seriously. It took quite a bit of deliberation to decide to move forward with the event this year,” Bagdasarian said, adding that with outdoor performances, organizers felt they could reach musicians’ and audience members’ comfort levels and provide a showcase for original work.

“What makes this event truly unique is that it’s an original musical festival,” Bagdasarian said. Participants include familiar faces like Julia Kasdorf, The Train Wreck Endings and Gary Smallwood, along with new acts including the multicultural music school Notes ‘N Beats, which is home to several in-house bands, and the rising star all-girl teen band StoneCold, winner of the Loudoun Youth Battle of the Bands in 2019. Bobchek’s band Big Bad Juju will play at Black Walnut, and Bagdasarian’s band The Frayed Knots will play at Schmidt’s Barbecue on festival day.

As in 2019, tickets for the festival are optional but encouraged with proceeds going to local charities. The $15 tickets include a T-shirt and wristbands that give audience members access to specials at participating venues. Listeners will also have a chance to make additional mobile donations on site.

With all musicians donating their time, the festival is a labor of love but also a chance to get out and show off original work. Western Loudoun-based singer/songwriter Dave Mininberg is returning to the festival after making his debut in 2019. He said musicians often get asked to play gigs for free, but Crossroads was a no-brainer.

“Whenever you’re a part of a community, you want to give back to that community,” Mininberg said. He is a Loudoun County teacher by day and adds that BENEFIT’s focus on youth-oriented nonprofits is another big draw. “Whenever you’re doing something that’s going to help kids, that means a little bit more to me.”

Mininberg said he’s kept busy in the past year and has been active on the local winery and brewery circuit this spring and summer. He’s still doing 90 to 100 gigs a year. But with several of his usual songwriter festivals, including events in Nashville and New Orleans, canceled this year, Crossroads offers a chance to connect with fellow creatives—and listen to what fellow musicians have come up with in the past year. The festival’s focus on original music is a big draw for performers like him.

“That’s huge for me. When you’re a writer, your favorite thing to do is to play in a listening room, a show where people have come for the music,” Mininberg said. “When you get an opportunity like this where the whole idea is to feature people who have written, it’s my favorite type of show to play.”

Bobchek and Bagdasarian said they’re keeping a close eye on developments related to the Delta variant and guidance from the state and CDC. But, for now, it’s all systems go for this chance to catch up with local performers for a great cause. 

“The joy, the energy, the enthusiasm that we’ve seen in people has been unparalleled,” Bobchek said. “You can see how true it is that music is this coalescing power.”

The Crossroads Music Festival takes place Saturday, Sept. 18 in downtown Leesburg. Tickets are $15 and include a T-shirt and wristband. For tickets and information, go to crossroadsmusicfest.org.