One can’t write a review about a festival at the Suwannee Music Park without starting it off with, “Way down upon the Suwannee River!” The Wanee Music Festival, held April 15-17, in Live Oak, Florida, is no longer North Florida’s little secret. After last years record crowds, this year’s festival broke all attendance records – the Wanee Festival fan page on Facebook swears that there were only 16,000 tickets sold, one offical at the festival (he had a festival badge with the LN for Live Nation) told me a good estimate would be 20,000, which is the park limit and a local law enforcement official estimated that between 25-30,000 people attended this year.
With recent dry weather and a multitude of people shuffling their way around the music park, there was a constant cloud of dust in the air. However, most preferred the heat and dust to last year’s mud and rain.
This years festival kicked off on Wednesday evening with some local acts, but the real music began Thursday afternoon with an extra half day of music then past years. I arrived on site about 2 hours before the music was to start. The festival entrance had been moved off of the main road to a smaller side road in an effort to prevent traffic congestion. Live Nation, the festival management, had to have realized the number or pre-sale tickets that had been sold to make these changes from years past. There were plenty of volunteers to direct you on which way to go once past the entrance. After parking to pick up my tickets at will call, the lines were short and moved quickly.
With tickets in hand and back in my car, volunteers pointed me down a narrow dirt, or should I say sandy road, back into the primitive camping area. From here you were completely on your own. What signs that were posted were of little to no help at all in pointing you in any direction. Here I spent the next 20 minutes driving around just trying to get to someplace I would recognize, not knowing how far I was from the stages (and this was my 4th year at this event).
I finally got to an area I knew. Although any spots with shade had already been claimed by those who arrived early, there was plenty of camping. Lots of folks had roped off areas, either to save spots, or like some I saw were using it as a field for recreation.
There are other options for camping with full hook up camp sites and water and electric only camp sites that are all much closer to the stage, but these come at a premium price. Something new this year, in the field where day parkers usually park, were generator camping sites. These were free and there were many RV’s and car campers camped there.
The festival is set up with two stages. The main stage, called the Peach stage, was more or less in an open part grass and part sand/dirt field. In years past, even with the Allmans or other headliners playing, I have never seen this field more then half full. This year would be different; when Widespread Panic and the Allman Brother’s played, the field was near capacity. The stage is open in the back with a natural back drop of fine Florida Live Oaks covered with Spanish Moss.
The second stage, known as the Mushroom stage, is set in a natural amphitheatre under a full canopy of shade trees. Between many of the trees folks would tie up hammocks to relax and groove to the music. Want a break from the music? Go down to the famous Suwannee River, one of Florida’s wild blackwater rivers. The campground even provides canoe rides.
This year saw the largest “shakedown street” in the festivals history. Food and drink vendors were in abundance. The middle of the walk, between stages, was the primary vendor area, although there was a small number of vendors around each stage too.
In order to buy food and drinks you have to purchase tickets separately. In years past this has been an issue because these booths were in short supply. Not this year, I rarely saw a line for either tickets or food and drinks.
What drew the record crowd this year was a stellar line-up of artists. The usual hosts, the Allman Brothers band, were joined by Widespread Panic, the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band, the 7 Walkers Featuring Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Papa Mali, Stephen Stills, Warren Haynes and his band Gov’t Mule, and Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, joined by original Ratodg members Jay Lane and Rob Wasserman, just to name a few of the headliners.
The party really started Thursday afternoon. Leading off the festival was Greg Allman’s son, Devon Allman and his band Honeytribe. Honeytribe is a power trio that plays a bluesy rock that you can really move too. You can definitely tell Devon has the Allman genes – his skills on the guitar shines as well as his vocals.
Also on the bill Thursday night was Col. Bruce Hampton, long time mentor to many famous musicians in the jam band scene, accompanied by his band the Quark Alliance. Col. Bruce enlisted as his drummer Duane Trucks, brother to Allman’s guitarist Derek Trucks and nephew to the Allmans drummer Butch Trucks. Once again the Col. surrounded himself with superb musicians. Allman’s drummer Butch Trucks sat in for Duane for a song to the delight of those in attendance.
Also playing Thursday night was Steve Molitz (who has served as keyboardist for Phil Lesh and Friends) and Particle. Florida native and journeyman guitarist Matt Grondin sat in with the band and demonstrated why he is an up and coming force in the music scene. Capping off the evening was the great George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.
Kicking off the music for the breakfast set on both Friday and Saturday on the Peach stage was the Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio. Rodgers, so into playing music for the festival goers, actually started his set 15 minutes early each day to showcase his and the bands skills. On Saturday Kofi Burbridge sat in with the band playing the Hammond B3 and flute. Why doesn’t this band have a larger following? Bobby Lee Rodgers is an amazing singer/songwriter with a song catalog in the 100’s, his guitar skills are amazing, the sound he gets from his 1960’s Gibson semi-hollow playing through a Leslie amp, which is normally used for organs, is so unique
Filling out the rest of the afternoon on the Peach Stage was like a who’s who of jam, funk and blues, the 7 Walkers, featuring Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman and New Orleans own Papa Mali, who played a mix of Grateful Dead tunes and that soulful funk that Papa Mali is well known for. The Wailers playing many of their great tunes – inspiring the crowd to get up and move. Stephen Stills bringing many of his famous tunes from the Crosby, Stills and Nash and Buffalo Springfield era. At age 65 Stills can still bring it. His vocals started out rough but once he got warmed up his vocals were reminiscent of the 60’s and 70’s. Stills demonstrated considerable skills on the guitar (something that he typically doesn’t get the recognition he deserves), while playing these big beautiful blonde Gretsch guitars. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir along with original Ratdog members Rob Wasserman on bass and Jay Lane on drums billing themselves as Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane Are Scaring the Children, played acoustic versions of many of the great Dead tunes
Despite all these great acts happening on the main stage you couldn’t forget about all the great music happening on the Mushroom Stage. One of the highlights of the festival was Oteil and Kofi Burbridge joining forces with the Lee Boys. This was such a joyful set, as all the players obviously enjoyed playing together, and it showed on their faces, as well as in the music being produced. Up next, the North Mississippi Allstars. Cody Dickinson would have a busy weekend playing drums in NMA, guitar in Hill Country Revue, drums in The Word and washboard in the funk jam. His brother Luther would be busy too, making five appearances playing his guitar. As for NMA, the environment of the park just seemed to suit the boys’ hill country blues so perfectly.
Widespread Panic took the stage around 6:30 just as the sun was setting. The Peach stage crowd filled the field in front of the stage and as the first note was played, the crowd moved as one. Jimmy Herring, as usual, was just tearing up the frets on his guitar. Bassist Dave Schools was animated, as usual, moving all around the stage; quite a feat for a big man. A highlight had to be “Chilly Water”. When the chorus hit and lead singer John Bell belted out “Chilly water!”, it almost felt like rain as so much water was thrown into the air. But I’m sure it felt good to the crowd after being hot all day and covered in dust. Another special moment had to be the “Holden Oversoul”, which worked you up into a frenzy and took you to a peak and then dropped you over a cliff to the slow rhythmic keyboards of JoJo Hermann followed by the familiar bass lines of Dave Schools for “Stop N Go”. It was nice to hear Jimmy Herring slow it down a little and work the slide during this song. As usual in this song Schools takes his turn at a solo and ripped off a fine one. “Stop N Go” flowed into a nice version of “Diner” with Sonny Ortiz leading the way.
After Panic, a dash to the Mushroom stage to see rock legends, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassidy and their band Hot Tuna. This is rock royalty, as these are a couple of the originators of the San Francisco music scene with the band Jefferson Airplane.
The Allman Brothers had a tough act to follow in Widespread Panic, but follow it they did. They played a great two and a half hours of music with many guests showing up to lend a hand. Just about each member of Panic joined in the fun as well as Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars. The dual guitars of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks rival that of original members the late Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.
Ending the Friday night festivities (what turned out to be a very late night) was Gov’t Mule. The band started some 45 minutes late, but finally took the stage starting out the night with some Pink Floyd covers, and later in the set, threw in some Jimi Hendrix teases of “Third Stone From the Sun”. Kofi Burbridge and Matt Grondin also joined Mule on a couple of tunes.
Saturday began as mentioned earlier with the Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio on the Peach Stage. The trio got the crowd up and moving. Most of my day was spent here at the Peach stage. Hill Country Revue with Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars playing guitar in this band took the stage next without NMA’s Chris Chew on bass, but apparently new bassist Doc Samba, according to the HCR web site. Big Chris did join in with the boys half way through their set, however.
Following HCR on the main stage was rock icon, the 69 year old Dr. John. The Dr. still has that same recognizable voice and can still tickle the ivories, switching back and forth between his grand piano and Hammond organ.
Next up on the Peach stage was a special gathering of talent calling themselves The Word. The band was made up of the North Mississippi Allstars, Robert Randolph on both pedal steel and guitar and John Medeski on the Hammond organ. The theme of the set was, “Can I get a witness?” The band played some of Randolphs “sacred steel’ music, and some funky tunes, just to keep up with the funk happening on the Mushroom stage, where Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and later the Funky Meters were playing. The Word even dabbled in some bluesy rock to some country sounding tunes.
At this point word had gotten out that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings were stuck in Europe, unable to get a flight out due to the Icelandic volcanic dust storm, so the Funky Meters moved up to the Dap Kings time slot and there was now going to be a funk “jam” at the Mushroom stage. At one point there was Ivan Neville on organ next to JoJo Hermann of Widespread Panic on piano, with Ian Neville on guitar, Oteil Burbridge from the Allman Brothers on bass, and Cody Dickinson on washboard. Also contributing to the jam were members of Dumpstaphunk, the Meters, Luther Dickinson, Bobby Lee Rodgers and Matt Grondin all on guitar and Kofi Burbridge lending his hand on keyboards
Now it was time to try to get back over to the main stage for more Panic. With the crowds so large, it was a chore to get from one stage to the next, taking at times up to 20 minutes to make the trek through the mass of humanity.
Widespread Panic once again did not disappoint. The highlight had to be the run of songs Jack > Bust It Big > Driving Song > Love Tractor > Jam > Driving Song > Jam (with Luther Dickinson on guitar) > Slippin’ Into Darkness (Luther still on guitar) > North (with Warren Haynes).
Now it was time once again for a dash back over to the Mushroom stage to see another rock icon, (there seemed to have been a lot of rock icons here this weekend, could be one of the reasons there were almost 30,000 on hand). This time it’s 66 year old Johnny Winter. Johnny could barely walk on stage without aid, but once he sat down and picked up that guitar there was definitely nothing wrong with his hands and fingers, he hasn’t lost his touch on the guitar.
With the crowds being the size they were you had to leave a stage early just to get to the other stage in time for the beginning of the sets. So it was back over to the Peach stage for the second night of the Allman Brothers, who once again, were joined by Panic’s John Bell, Dave Schools and JoJo Hermann. Also making a special guest appearance was Johnny Winter.
Finally it was time to close the festival out with what looks like now has become a tradition, the Derek Trucks/Susan Tedeschi Band.
What a way to kick off the festival season, a stellar line up, beautiful weather (except for the dust), great people (a local law enforcement official explained to me that this crowd was better behaved then the country music festivals held there) and of course great music.