Photos by Anthony Welsh
Spring… a time of awakening, rebirth, rejuvenation, even rehabilitation. With this winter being so rough, Spring, even just a taste of it, is most welcome and I can think of no way to better awaken from this long hibernation than relaxing in the serenity of a pristine park, lazing in a hammock, swinging beneath the southern pines and majestic live oaks as the sun beams dance across my face …
The 18th Suwannee Springfest at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida delivered on both counts. Unlike last year’s deluge mid-festival, this year Mother Nature was so very kind, offering warm, sunny spring days and cool clear nights throughout the weekend. And the Suwannee Springfest team brought together an array of bluegrass legends, new grass sensations, jamgrass ragers, and Americana stars that kept the music going almost around the clock for 4 days.
Springfest is a family affair that teems with kindness, respect and enthusiasm, from the producers to the musicians to the festival-goers. Many of the folks have been attending the festival for ten years or more, some have been to all, and as their families grow, so does the pilgrimage, as they bring their children, grandchildren and even man’s best friends. You’ll find the hippest grandmas hootin’ and hollerin’ next to receptive teenagers soaking in the tunes. Children taking their turns with hoops and devilsticks as men toss a Frisbee in the meadow. Friends meet with old friends and new as people dance or simply relax and take in the talent of the musicians. The whole festival has the feel of a family reunion.
Likewise, many of the musicians have played more than a few Springfests and there is a musical family at the heart of it all. Artist after artist takes the stage sincerely expressing their gratitude at being welcomed back to the festival. Rev. Jeff Mosier (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Blueground Undergrass), before beginning a Vassar Clements (“father of hillbilly jazz”) tune, explained how he wanted to pay homage to the other musicians, the music he’s had handed down to him over the years at Springfest, grateful for how much he had learned in music and in life.
“It’s just an incredible place,” he lauded, “If you’ve been here, you get it. If you try to explain it to people, their screensaver comes on. You just can’t really get it across to them. The more you talk, the more the screensaver comes on, but I’m very blessed to have been down here all these years and one of the greatest gifts was meeting Vassar Clements.”
The family feel extends between musician and audience too. At Springfest, people are actually encouraged to bring their chairs and set up in front of the stage. All are welcome to sit in any chair while it is left vacant by its owner. This goes for the hammocks strung among the pines of the natural amphitheater as well and makes for a true communal feel. There is still plenty of room to dance and hoop and play, and by sunset most of the chairs are taken up or relocated from the amphitheater floor. Why the chairs? At other venues, and even other festivals, this can be a point of contention, but not here. This crowd is serious about their music, sitting, standing or dancing. David Gans praised the festival and the crowd during his set saying, “I’m going to take advantage of the optimal performing and listening conditions here. It’s nice to play a festival where you can hear yourself think. People are actually looking at you instead of looking at each other over their beers … I’m going to take advantage of your kind attention.” Mosier echoed that in his set saying, “I told John (Keane) today, I said, you are going to play for the best audience you’ll ever play for and I guarantee I’ve played for a lot of audiences. I haven’t ever played for people like are down here, so thank you all absolutely… I mean that from the bottom of my heart”
Even when the Punch Brothers opened their set with an ethereal “Another New World,” if you could hear a pin drop in the grass, you would have, the audience was so intent on what they were seeing and hearing. Chris Thile also took note of the beauty of the venue and enthusiasm of the crowd asking why they had never played here before?
Part of what makes this festival work is the balance between cohesiveness and diversity. It’s tough to say it is a “bluegrass festival.” It is. All of the musicians and their music have some ties to bluegrass. It’s at the root of all the music at this festival. Tributes to traditional tunes and bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Dr. Ralph Stanley could be heard from almost every band. And some of the bands are traditional bluegrass through and through. And yet, it is not strictly bluegrass. It’s classical, it’s country, it’s roots, it’s rock — all mixed in together. Imagine my surprise at hearing Steep Canyon Rangers suddenly teasing Phish’s First Tube. Or the Punch Brothers playing Claude Debussey’s “Passipied.” Love Canon’s 80’s pop set would have been bizarre if the musicians weren’t so talented. Covering Tears for Fears, ZZ Top, and Human League, the standout for me was a ripping Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train.
The four days of festivities kicked of Thursday on three of the four stages: The Amphitheater, The Porch Stage and the only indoor stage at the Music Hall with early performances from Rumpke Mountain Boys, Henhouse Prowlers, David Gans, and The Duhks and poured on into late night with Bibb City Ramblers, Comeback Alice and Love Canon. With most folks arriving during the day and still setting up camp, the crowds were small. But the schedule is designed with many of the bands playing at least two sets over the course of the weekend. Even once things got busy at the Meadow Stage on Friday and Saturday, the larger bands were staggered making it is possible to see all the bands on the lineup you want at least once.
I had very few conflicts, though admittedly, I never got to the music hall except to hear the down-to-earth, acoustic stylings of Albert Simpson playing for the early morning breakfast crowd. But since many of these bands also played the smaller Porch Stage, situated between the two main stages, I was thankfully able to see many after all. The Henhouse Prowlers, a bluegrass band from Chicago, dressed in more formal attire, had an old-time feel as they mixed impeccable harmonies with lightning fast picking, not to mention a sense of humor, as they introduced a song “to lighten things up,” “Oh Carolina,” a song about murder. North Florida band, The New 76ers, also caught my attention with their folk and pop inflected new grass. The trio, a brother/sister/husband team, drew people in as they performed “Young, Wild, and Free,” a song dedicated to their 101-year old grandmother. And just as I was about to steal away, Sue Cunningham joined them on stage, and they started playing something that sounded very familiar. It was Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” How could I leave that, especially when they segued that into “Shady Grove”?
Even with the staggered schedule, Friday and Saturday were jam packed. The Irish-folk based music of Uproot Hootenanny had the party going early with “That’s Why I Drink,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and a new song I missed the title but the lyrics went something like “That’s why I drink whiskey in the morning…She’s on her way up and the whiskey’s going down.” Hmm? Is there a pattern here? The set was spirited and robust, with Brian Trews shredding the fiddle!
David Gans’ set was everything I hoped it would be. With kindness emanating from him, Gans opened with “Cassidy’s Cats,” a fusion of melodic lines from the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy,” “Dark Star,” and “Birdsong.” The audience was all grins singing with him on “Down to Eugene” and his tender, haunting “Looks Like Rain” brought many to tears. For me this was one of the highlights of the festival. Bobby Miller on mandolin joined Gans on stage for a stunning “Save Us from the Saved>Terrapin Station” before a rapt audience.
Gans’ set and the Rumpke Mountain Boys sets merged as they teamed up for Grateful Dead’s “Mexicali Blues,” Randy Newman’s “Let’s Drop the Big One Now,” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” And then it was Trashgrass at its dirtiest as RMB launched into “Just Outside.”
Super group Willie Sugarcapps from Alabama took to the Amphitheater before an eager crowd. Made up of Will Kimbrough, Sugarcane Jane (Savana Lee and Anthony Crawford), Grayson Capps, and Corky Hughes, the group, formed only a year ago, has already reached the top 10 on the Americana charts and is about to release their second album. Inspired storytellers, they opened with the group’s theme song, a tale of the fantastic “Willie Sugarcapps.” The band has already amassed a solid following but they captured new fans this weekend with their chemistry, the depth of musicality and intelligent, yet down home, old time style. With such a solid set, it’s hard to choose a highlight but both “Oh Colorado” and “Highway 42” were particularly chill-worthy.
Steep Canyon Rangers was at the top of my must see list. The Asheville-based band’s sets included songs co-written with Steve Martin like their Friday set closer “Auden Fields,” and older favorites like “Turn Up the Bottle,” but most were from their own fall release Tell The Ones I Love, including “Stand and Deliver” and “Take the Wheel”. Certainly there were rumors that Steve Martin would make a surprise appearance, but that never happened and I can’t say I was entirely sorry. Though a fan of Martin, it was a thrill to hear SCR shine on their own. Nicky Sanders on fiddle and Mike Guggino on mandolin have such precision even at speeds my ears could hardly keep up with and “Lay Myself Down” left me speechless.
Another Alabama musician, Jason Isbell took to the stage at twilight which was ideal given his se tlist of predominantly rock anthems and ballads. He began with the powerful “Go It Alone” but then slowed down the tempo, but not the intensity, as he moved into the popular “Different Days,” “Live Oak” and “Alabama Pines.” Floating through the crowd, I heard many comments about how great the music coming out of Alabama was. Living in Mobile myself, I smiled proudly, thinking, it’s about time people remembered, and recognized, the talent I have the privilege of hearing regularly. Isbell sang with such deep emotion, it was chilling, but towards the end the crowd began talter, and he picked things up again and got everyone rocking out with two Drive-By Truckers songs “Never Gonna Change” and “Outfit.”
Easily one of the best sets of the weekend was The Punch Brothers. The yells that welcomed them to the stage, prompting Chris Thile to say “Well y’all seem real nice,” quieted to near silence as the band played the haunting opening notes of “Another New World.” With each pause in the song, the crowd cheered and then hushed again…hanging on every note. A call and response not only of sound but also energy. As the tempo increased, the audience knowing what was coming, Thile took his time, building anticipation. He crouched forward over his mandolin, and I heard someone say “Here He Goes!” just as Thile launched into his rapid picking mandolin solo. At the end of the song, Thile gave the word “AHOY! AHOY! AHOY!” They had arrived! This set the tone and vibe for the whole set which included crowd favorite “This Girl” and a new song “Magnet,” both fun, not-quite-pop songs, that the hipsters ate up. But then it was time to get serious… and Thile asked, “We’re gonna play some bluegrass, how about that?” The Punch Brothers became the magnets that you could from which you could not pull away. They closed their set with an intricate and high-spirited “Rye Whiskey” that had the crowd joining in with “AHOY!”. Returning for an encore, they performed the 5-part harmony, acapello song they had done for the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, “The Auld Triangle.” Words will fail here. Simply splendid! Thankfully DaBabe did a great job capturing it on video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqkcEYN1PNA&feature=youtube_gdata_player
Floodwood, a jamgrass band that includes Al Schnier and Vinnie Amico of moe. was another band on my “must see” list, and another of my top picks of the festival. I wish they had played two sets because I unfortunately missed part of their set. I did get to hear “Revolving Door,” however, as well as a fun sit-in from Rev. Jeff Mosier. “Whiskey After Breakfast” was a crowd favorite as was their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider.” Schnier gave a shout out to the crowd, thanking all for being there, “We know you have choices…. You could be home watching Netflix tonight. You could be downloading electronic music or something… What I’m saying is, we appreciate supporing your local organic grassroot music!” (OK. So. I did see most of the set. I was just being greedy in wanting more.)
Saturday morning Rev. Jeff Mosier and friends (including David Blackmon, Sue Cunningham, John Mercer, Fil Pate, John Keane, John Marler) woke up the Meadow Stage. I stumbled up, still in need of another cup of coffee, to hear them playing “Down By the Riverside” in tribute to folk singer/Activist Pete Seegar who passed only two months ago. Basically a tribute set, the delight at hearing the music and surrounding myself with like-minded folks, woke me right up. Especially, when Mosier began to tell a story prompting fiddle player Dave Blackmon (Widespread Panic) to pull down his pants and don his Krispy Kreme boxers. The crowd was in stitches as he turned about. Mosier laughed, “Last time he wore these was on stage with Vassar Clements. Vassar looked at me and asked ‘Jeff…Is he alright?’ ‘No. He is not alright. You know that he is not alright.’ With that they played Clement’s “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” The set also included Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia’s “Black Muddy River,” which Mosier called his “rehabilitation tune,” and Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep” that they played at “IBMA approved speed” which “means it’s gonna haul ass!”
I was able to catch a bit of Aoife O’Donovan’s set who is currently touring with The Punch Brothers. This young woman had an angelic voice and an indie sound, somewhat reminiscent of Shawn Colvin but with more obvious Irish folk influences. Though I only caught a few songs, including “Pretty Polly,” a ghostly “Glowing Heart,” and “Trials Troubles Tribulations” that she put so much into she turned away at the end of the song to wipe the tears from her eyes. Obiously a meaningful song to her, she left a profound impression on the audience who could only gasp and say “that was just, just beautiful.”
Besides the four stages, Friday and Saturday, there were workshops held in the semi-enclosed, intimate Barn “stage.” I made of point of going to see both the Jim Lauderdale and Travelin’ McCoury workshops. Lauderdale’s was a songwriting session where he talked about his creative processes and inspirations. I walked in to hear him discussing how he decides what songs go on a record and he began talking about one song in particular, an a capello song. Explaining that it’s only the second one he’s done, the other was written for Ralph Stanley, he treated the audience to powerful, deeply moving “Shadow Form.” When I got to the The Traveling McCoury’s with Brett Bass (Grandpa’s Caugh Medicine), they were already shredding shredding “Shucking the Corn.” They graciously fielded questions from the audience with Jason Carter explaining what he tries to do when playing back up to vocals, Rob McCoury going over the quite impressive details of his abalone and pearl inlaid banjo and Ronnie McCoury discussing the “break” from father Del McCoury. They played “Pain in my Heart” and delighted with “What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor.”
Jim Lauderdale’s set at the Porch Stage drew a large crowd, yet it also had a very intimate feel. Lauderdale, dressed casually in a jeans and paisley button down, performed several love songs, including “I Lost You” and an “I Love You More Than I Let On” that was simply dreamy. He also did the popular “Life by Numbers” before being joined on stage with fiddle player Sue Cunningham and Jeb Puryear (Donna the Buffalo), joking that Puryear was
Sam Bush was, of course, one of the highlights of the festival. I had never seen him before so it was extra sweet for me. He lit up the stage, firing up the crowd with a fierce “Freight Train Boogie” and newgrass originator kept it going with “Vamp in the Middle” and a monster jam that started with Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’), moved into the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and then slid into Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” all tied together with sizzling mandolin solos that teased the likes of Van Halen and Phish.
It was back to back masters as Del McCoury Band took over the Amphitheater. With yet another Grammy to boast of, they delighted the crowd with old favorites and new including “Dry My Tears and Move On,” “Travelin’Teardrop Blues,” “Big Blue Raindrops,” and the audience requested, “All Aboard.” At the beginning of the set, a rather buxom young woman caught Del a little off guard when, from the front row, she started yelling and held up a sign saying to tell her a story. It was her birthday. Del teased her all through the set then finally talked about Bill Monroe calling him “Da-le Mac-CRury” and how they recorded “In Despair.”
Greensky Bluegrass had some of my favorite sets of the weekend. From their covers of Paul Simon’s “Gumboots” and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” to their originals “Lose My Way” and “Sometimes the World Sings,” the guys gave mind-blowing performances. Their energy was palpable as they threw down a breakdown with John Stickley. But it was their stunning “Worried About the Weather” with Sam Bush that left me truly breathless under the star-filled sky.
The Avett Brothers brought it as well…literally, with their own extreme lighting and backdrop in the amphitheater. There were more musicians in the band than when I last saw them several years ago at Jazz Fest. It was really quite the spectacle as bluegrass meets punk rock meets generation Y. They opened with “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey” to a roaring crowd and had everyone swaying and singing and jumping around to “Down with the Shine.” They also payed tribute to Doc Watson with a rousing “Little Sadie” and did a rousing cover of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Sam Bush joined them on stage for “Old Joe Clark,” and when they introduced him they said they had asked him “which of these instruments was he gonna play better than us?” He took the fiddle. But the guys were honored because Bush had also told them that when they got good enough he would come play with them. “Finally,” he said, “he wasn’t waiting anymore.”
Donna the Buffalo’s Saturday night set found the band on fire from the start. Talented musicians, they were spot on the whole set. You could feel the love the Herd, as DTB fans call themselves, have for the band. They just seemed to be having a great time and feeling the love from the crowd, they seemed to get better and better, if that’s possible, as the set went on. They played some of my favorite feel good songs of theirs including, “Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday,” “I Love My Tribe,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Hot Tamale Baby.”
Saturday night ended with the McCoury Jam which saw the Travelin’ McCoury’s out of their suits and into their jeans, relaxed but playing up a storm. Admittedly, by then I had also decided to take of my virtual reviewers cap and get lost in the jam. They were joined on stage by Sam Bush, Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass, Brett Bass, and John Stickley. They ended their set with the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider” and I did not want the night to end. The nights don’t end at Springfest though. The jams continue around the camp sites all night long. Some would say that is the best part of the festival! So, may you continue jamming and may we see you at Springfest next year!