Photos by Jamie Kastriches
This was my first Springfest, but Suwannee Springfest 2013 may just turn out to be one of my favorite festivals. It was also my first camping festival flying solo. If anyone was paying attention to me when I arrived, they would have gotten quite a laugh at me setting up camp in the dark late Thursday. I did pretty well too, except that somehow the tarp did not arrive with me, and I knew that there was rain in the forecast. Time was not my friend all weekend. Everything took much longer than I expected. The rain-soaked me and much of my gear through. I missed an opportunity to interview a particular musician. I tried to take photos, which only served to fog my camera lens. I lost my credentials. I lost my bankcard. And, it turned out, I set up camp next to some critter’s hibernation hole.
It’s all right. Let there be song…
The first band I heard was Red Baraat. And yes, heard, not saw as I found myself hammering stakes into the ground to the beat of Indian dance music and then thinking, ‘Hey, isn’t this supposed to be a bluegrass festival?’ I heard the next day that they put on a great show at the Meadow stage. Really got the party started. I missed it. It would not be the last set I would miss.
Friday morning, though, things seemed brighter. Music is everywhere from campers playing around their fires to the many musicians that camp for the weekend and breakout in spontaneous jams. Some of the best moments are those “found,” and as one of my friends said, are “those intimate sessions with the headliners out and about in late night jams.” Even by my own campsite, which was a bit out-of-the-way, I woke both Friday and Sunday mornings to music from two campsites: one, a banjo playing SOSMP regular, the other, one of the bands who were set up down by the river a short distance from me. Who was that anyway? How exhilarating to wake up to the sounds of gentle pure picking wafting through the air.
I rode my bicycle to the festival grounds past the dogwoods blooming through the still sleeping pines, past the primitive campers, their tapestries hung and lining the path in a colorful array of psychedelia, past children laughing and playing, past the parked VW buses. I thought, it even smells like festival season is here. It wasn’t patchouli; it wasn’t pot. It was the smell of fresh, new spring air, away from stench of the city. I felt a warmth, like I was about to be with family. Coasting up to the Meadow stage, I knew I was right. There was small crowd gathered at the stage but people of all ages playing throughout the Meadow. Balls tossed, kites flying, and yes, the requisite hooping. It was as if everyone, except my critter-neighbor, had come out of hibernation. Red Clay Revival was on stage where Doug McElvy, Jr. was yodeling about southern pines. Yes, this is a bluegrass festival after all! And there is Wildman Steve on washboard too! This was one of the bands (I shamefully admit) I didn’t know but had checked out on the Springfest playlist on Spotify. These guys don’t hold back singing “She’s hot…I’m ready…” Ok, so maybe it would be “family,” if not strictly “family-oriented.” Joined on stage by a mandolin trio of Fil Pate (Applebutter Express), Brian Fowler (Bibb City Ramblers) and Bobby Miller (Virgina Daredevils), they finished their set with an enthusiastic Swing Low, Sweet Chariot adding a verse: “We will all burn one together when we go, We will all burn one together when we go, There’s definitely weed in heaven, I’m gonna go and tell my brethren, We will all burn one together when we go.” Yep. That’s my kind of family. The family spirit was elevated at the Amphitheater where Spirit Family Reunion was on stage. I only caught the end of their set but this young group delivered their song On My Mind with a restrained maturity that was compelling and heartwarming.
Back at the Meadow, where there crowds were starting to grow, the Hackensaw Boys turned up the heat with their rowdy, fierce sound that had everyone dancing and clapping. These guys make you want to find the moonshine, even if you are not a drinker. Lined-up across the stage, each bouncing or foot stomping as they play, they were a wall of non-stop, talent and energy. Not even a kite getting clipped on the stage rafters, leaving the string strewn across the audience’s heads, slowed them down. They thrilled the crowd with some new songs, By and By and Can’t Catch Me. There was one woman who thought perhaps they shouldn’t play a particular ‘dirty song,’ Kiss You Down There, with so many children there. Oops! I kindly pointed out that it was probably ok. The kids were running around oblivious to the song lyrics anyway and she agreed.
Dread Clampitt, brought their laid back Florida attitudes, explaining that they write their set lists on pine-pollen. Their upbeat, rocking style, kept the family fun going as they played Sisters and Brothers and Learning to Live, and, by request, Bayou Country. They also unofficially re-kicked off the party with Drunk Driving Song, announcing “Its 5:00! Get the party started!” That same kind of easygoing feel, the disappearance of that invisible wall that separates performer from audience, continued throughout the weekend. It was nothing for someone to walk up to the stage between songs and ask Dangermuffin, “Hey, where are you guys from?” South Carolina. Of course, you know a band is good when people start asking questions. I got to Dangermuffin just as they were welcoming Tony Furtado on the stage, and this little deadhead couldn’t have been more tickled to throw off her bag and start dancing to Franklin’s Tower. This band moved from bluegrass to rock and into their dreamy, 200 Degrees seamlessly. Then there was another special guest: “Keller!” ”Keller!” First, they did an amazing jam of the band’s song Redemption and then a surprising Jump in the Line (Work Senora)>Iko Iko>Jump in the Line that had everyone jumping… including Keller!
After some shopping — some ‘ugly skirt’ browsing, purchasing a couple extra tapestries at Indo, and oh yeah, those tarps at the general store — I headed back to camp for episode two “ How do I get a tarp under my tent without taking the tent down or stepping on the critter hovel?“ Some hummus, some wine, a change of clothes… it would be a chilly evening… and I was back in time for the second half of Bill Evans Soulgrass at the Meadow. I thought the crowd there a little small. I can only guess that many people chose that time to refuel before the long night ahead. but there would be sets I still can’t believe I missed. Still, for each of those there is a gem found. This was one. I never would have thought a fusion of jazz, funk and bluegrass (and a few others too) would be possible, let alone, truly stunning. Take saxophonist Bill Evans, add an electric guitar, a fiery banjo and a drummer with grainy, funky vocals and you have the indescribable jams — weaving and layering genres — solos and conversations — each building on the last until even the audience is out of breath, especially the mind-blowing Time. And then time it was… to go see Leftover Salmon. Except that as I was leaving, they began to play The Weight… I couldn’t leave. Neither could anyone else.
Dashing over to the Amphitheater, I found a few festie friends, and an enthusiastic crowd dancing to Leftover Salmon playing Liza. The sun was just setting and the lights behind the tie-dye backdrops made them seem to swirl and transform. Darol Anger played almost the whole set and the dueling fiddles with Drew Emmit during Aquatic Hitchiker was just the start of the fete! “Did you ever see a Suwannee get carried away?” Vince Herman sang in Tu Na Pas Aller. They were joined by Keller Williams and Larry Keel and some Teen Angst that had everyone singing along, especially the “folk singer” part, and they served up a killer jam that had everyone on stage jumping. Vince and Drew were on fire during Falling Sky and with each song you could feel the energy between the stage and the audience feed off each other. From start to finish, this band was fired up and the crowd was boogieing. This first set of Leftover Salmon also had some of my favorites: Morning Sun with Andy Thorn and Darol ripping it up and leading Vince to yell out “Festivaaaaal,” On the Otherside , with Steve Sandifer of Dangermuffin, that had me doing a “happy dance” and of course, Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie that had everyone doing a happy dance.
Heading to the vendors for a quick snack, I had to stop to hear some mad slide guitar. It was Tony Furtado playing Cypress Grove. When his band returned to the stage, Darol Anger joined him as well for a few songs including a gorgeous Peggy-O.
It was then back to the Amphitheater for some Keller and the Keels! I had just seen Keller about a month before –solo and loopy– but acoustic Keller, for me, is the best. This night he was with bouzouki. It would be the only night I would see the Keels. They kicked it off with Are You Ready to Rock and then sent me into giggles of delight with the Star Trek Jam. I was hoping for a Bird Song, but let the silliness ensue. After all When your High… or Hepped up on Goofballs… Natural Bridge joined them for Another Brick in the Wall and the crowd went wild when Peter Rowan joined them with a sing-a-long, Lonesome LA Cowboy, and a most moving Wild Horses. It just wouldn’t have been a family affair, however, if the Travelin’ McCourys didn’t also come to play. Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, and Jason Carter, along with Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt piled on stage and thrilled the audience playing Born to be Wild. They closed out their set with Pumped up Kicks.
At the Meadow, Cornmeal was well into their set. My jaw dropped at the sight and sound of Ali Kral working her magic on the fiddle. I’m not even sure what song it was, River Gap?, but whatever it was, it was hard-hitting, furious, rock-infused bluegrass. I stood mesmerized as she dug in, stomping and sawing, bow fraying then flying through runs with the precision of a classical violinist and the sound of an electric guitar. When they launched into Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold, the crowd let out a roar. The only thing that turned my head away was the sight of a hulu-hooping Winnie-the-Pooh!
The night finished out with the Travelin’ McCourys. But even without Del, and even though only Rob and Ronnie are actually McCourys, there’s no doubt they are ”family.” It comes through in both the tightness of their playing and their camaraderie. To me, ending the evening with more traditional bluegrass was perfect, and it seemed that the crowd felt just the same. There was nonstop hootin’ and hollerin’ as the guys were driving hard through Squirrel Hunters to Train 45 to Florida Blues. And the crowd couldn’t contain themselves when they played Waylon Jennings’ Lonesome, On’ry and Mean with Ronnie’s precision picking and Carter’s sultry baritone vocals. After which, Ronnie says, “Let’s hear it for Jason Carter… sometimes known as the Cobra …Cobra Carter (laugh).” On Bill Mon, it was clear why Cody Kilby is national flatpick champion. And Ronnie and Rob? Do I have to say it? Perfection. Guests were not scarce here either: with Jim Lauderdale they played Slewfoot, with Peter Rowan A Beautiful Life, and with Darol Anger and Bridget Law we got a devil box threesome with Vamp in the Middle. People were yelling out requests. I didn’t have to yell, I think they read my mind as I got one of my favorites, a searing Shady Grove!
Everyone knew the rain was coming and Saturday morning saw my fellow campers and I scurrying to hang tarps overhead. No one wants it to rain, but who are you going to complain to? Do you complain and pout, get flustered by the chaos, or enjoy what is there? By early afternoon the Meadow and Amphitheater floor were already pooling. The Porch stage would go on as scheduled as long as possible. They would start moving bands to the Music Hall. Everyone would play, but the schedule might change a bit. We’ll keep you informed… I’m still not sure everyone played. And trying to figure out who was where and when was impossible. It would pour then ease to a drizzle for a bit then pour again. I’m sure some folks left. There seemed to be fewer people around on Sunday than Friday. I do believe the festival could have done a bit more in keeping everyone informed by posting information on Twitter or Facebook, though they did try to make regular announcements. This could have been an awful experience, but for those that stayed, it instead became a series of special moments that were as much about the people as it was the music.
“Let’s just go down to the Music Hall and hang out there,” turned out to be a great suggestion. The hall was packed both with people and the dynamic sounds of the Sarah Mac Band. Playing a mix of originals and covers, Sarah Mac’s earthy, yet powerful, voice and cool stage presence seemed to capture the crowd and keep everyone grooving as they played Bill Withers’ Use Me. I had really wanted to see Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. I’m not even sure they played, though I heard their workshops that morning had been amazing. But hearing Mac’s expressive, soulful voice booming out as she sang a Summertime that surely would have made Ella Fitzgerald proud, was something I was glad I had not missed.
I also caught some more of Tony Furtado. There wasn’t a song he did that I wasn’t loving. As he introduced Stagger Lee, myself and the group of around me simultaneously let out a chorus of oohs and aahs … “Oh, I Love Stagger Lee!” And I was entranced by his performance of Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home. Furtado is also a gifted songwriter. His original tunes The River Song, Bet On the White Horse and Can’t Lie Down, were all testament to this both musically and lyrically. His blending of elements of traditional folk and bluegrass with a contemporary bent, make this talent a thoroughly enjoyable indie artist. As there is no cell signal in the Hall, I stepped out briefly towards the end of his set. I returned to a different scene. Furtado’s mic had gone out. The band was still playing. Furtado still singing his heart out. And the audience? They had moved up to the stage to hear him. I don’t even know what song it was but it was a profound moment. It was really emblematic of not only what the rest of the festival would bring, but of just how resilient and forgiving people can be when they want to.
All weekend I only heard two true complaints. One was just silly. The other was about the lighting at the big stages. I could see that. As I moved around the back and middle areas of the Amphitheater, I saw the lighting behind the backdrops was spectacular and had just the right amount of ambiance, but then the lights would shine onto the crowd. Considering the bands, the style of music, and what the crowd expects, the lights could prove a distraction. This crowd doesn’t really want or need a huge light show, especially one that blinds. You want to be able to see the pickin’ and fiddling! Having said that, I did think that during the Born to Be Wild Jam, for example, or during Cornmeal’s show the lighting was totally appropriate. But I heard no one complain about the rain. Just put on your raincoat and boots. Or wait to dance in the mud. No one complained about equipment glitches — there were actually quite a few over the weekend. And no one complained about chaos. Just roll with it…
I couldn’t find the Larry Keel and NaturalBridge anywhere, but hey there’s the Travelin’ McCourys singing about Corn Liquor over at the Amphitheater. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that! I found a much smaller, wetter crowd than the previous night, but kicking up some mud and every bit as enthusiastic as the band played Long Journey Home and a very fitting Walk Out In the Rain, especially as it started coming down hard again. Taking shelter at Betty’s Boutique, I did find Jim Lauderdale playing to a small group of brave souls at the Porch Stage. I Lost the Job of Loving You rang out loud and clear and Lauderdale’s singing Patchwork River cut through the rain.
The rain began to ease again and The Mosier Brothers and Peter Rowan were setting up at the Amphitheater. I rode furiously back to camp to grab my camera. I don’t know what I was thinking. I tried to take some photos, but it was futile, even as the rain slowed to a trickle. This was one of my favorite sets of the weekend. Maybe because I decided to throw off my reviewer hat (and bag and poncho) in favor of a hoop, or maybe it was because this was definitely a jam-lovers set, or maybe because the band had that same attitude … let’s just have fun and kick the rain’s ass. Peter Rowan came out with his electric guitar. With Johnny Mosier also on electric guitar and Jeff Mosier on electric banjo, it was time for serious kickgrass. They did a 14+ min Mule Skinner Blues that had them jammin’ down the line, followed by Dublin Blues that featured an incredible solo from fiddler Dave Blackmon (Bluegrass Underground/Widespread Panic) and had everyone singing along with Jeff Mosier. Then they launched into Rowan’s Pulling the Devil by the Tail. I’m hoping one of the taper’s got this set — it wasn’t posted as of this review — because this is the kind of set I know I’ll want to listen to over and over again. If that wasn’t enough to make everyone forget the rain, or just not care, they segued into an unexpected Not Fade Away. The crowd burst into wild joy. They ended with an explosive Midnight Moonlight with a jam that was so hot that it had people shouting expletives.
With the sun setting, Donna the Buffalo, who have played every Springfest, kept the party going with Hot Tamale Baby, even as it started to get colder and the rain picked up again. The exceedingly talented Bryn Davies (Rowan/Rice Quartet) stepped in for new dad Kyle Spark on bass. Nobody brings the family feeling like DTB. This band has a devoted following like no others… and no rain would keep the “herd” away. Much of the set seemed, quite appropriately then, a dedication to family including Family Picture, I Love My Tribe, Conscious Evolution and The Ones You Love. The band, sensitive to the crowd dancing with umbrellas, kept the set lively, sticking to many of the fast-moving, feel-good favorites like Blue Sky. Tara Nevins thanked the crowd several times during the set commenting “You’re a very hardy bunch… I commend you,” and at one point inviting everyone to come back to seek shelter in their tour bus. Everyone seemed to be bobbing around and enjoying themselves, sharing smiles and nods through the rain which, although it had slowed for most of the show was now picking back up again.
I suddenly decided I needed French Fries. After hours of playing in the rain, I was hungry! I was soaked through. I was cold. I was sore. I jumped on my bike and headed for my dry sleeping bag and long john’s. They were about the only things that weren’t wet. It was then that I realized I lost my bankcard and my credentials. The rain sounded like a snare drum on the tarp. There was thunder and lightening. I was not going back out. And then, all snuggled in, staring at a giant spider over my head, I heard music. It was Old Crow Medicine Show. I was missing the headliner. I was missing Sol Driven Train. I was missing Leftover Salmon’s Stanky Suwannee Jam. I would be missing the jam at Bill Monroe’s Shrine. Booooo. Hissssss. I knew what I was missing too. I could hear the music, I could hear the cheers.
Some of my friends did make it though. It was chaotic and wonderful, they said. Old Crow. Well, they killed it. They were right on with Alabama Slammer as people sloshed around in the mud. It sounded like mountain jamboree meets mosh pit and a lot of fun! The one thing everyone seemed to be talking about from their set the next day was This Land is Your Land. I can’t imagine there was no Wagon Wheel… and I could have sworn I heard a CC Rider …. So that must have been some performance, because no one mentioned either of those songs.
Leftover Salmon’s Stanky Suwannee Jam had one of my friend’s raving about Steam Powered Aeroplane. I’m told the whole set was video recorded, so that is something I am looking for to seeing. Folks on Sunday were also talking about The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Light Behind the Rain. I’m also told that some of the musicians on stage that night included, Jeb Purveyor, Ali Kral, Bridget Law, Lyndsay Pruett and Darol Anger, with the fiddlers and many of the other musicians heading over to the Shrine where the jams went on til the wee hours.
Sunday morning came and the sun began to peek out from the clouds. I will have the afternoon to let everything dry out. Good! There is a message … my credentials have been found. Great! My bankcard? No. But it hasn’t been used either. Terrific! The critter is still asleep. Awesome! Throwing on a pair of jeans over my long john’s, I headed to the café. There’s a musician playing there every morning … Albert Simpson. Just Albert, his acoustic guitar, beautiful voice, and laid back vibes. He had just started Sugaree when I walked in. People called out request after request and he cheerfully played something for everyone as well as a couple of his originals. I could have listened to him for hours. It was so peaceful. Yes, I had missed some rockin’ sets the night before, but to make them I would have had to have missed the fun of the earlier sets, and I would have slept through this, another gem.
Sunday had me running, happily, between the Music Hall, where they had decided to move all the bands scheduled for the Porch Stage, and the Amphitheater. Peter Rowan – back on acoustic — took to the Amphitheater stage with friends. Darol Anger played most of the set, and they were joined later by Bonnie Paine, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale and Bridget Law. But Rowan also brought a few other folks along, at least in spirit, as he paid tribute to some of the greats he played with over the years. Swimming in the Deep Blue Sea, he explains is a song he wrote about Jerry Garcia’s love for the sea. Then it’s Vassar Clements as he tells about a conversation he had about Vassar’s love of bluegrass and plays Lonesome Fiddle Blues. Next, with some brief musings, it’s a Doc Watson Kind of Morning. There’s a Carter Family tune and, of course, a Bill Monroe song, Sitting Alone in the Morning. The whole set was just beautiful, tender and moving and what a gift to have Rowan bring the whole family together that afternoon.
With most people still at the Amphitheater, understandably now basking in the warm sun, the Music Hall still had a nice size group of people awaiting Nikki Talley. As she and her guitar/bass player husband Jason were finishing setting up, people milled about. But as soon as she let out the first line of Wade in the Water her incredible pipes had everyone’s attention. Her vocals were so controlled, booming and dirty and then smooth and silky, a touch of twang, a touch of vibrato, spot on. When one of her guitar strings broke, Nikki pulled out her banjo and launched into the traditional Railroad Boy. The girls got chops!
Jerry Douglas took to the Amphitheater stage with a new dobro that he explained he wasn’t sure about so he didn’t take price tag off it yet. Sometime during his set, the crowd decided he should keep it. Douglas and his band laid down a mixed set of bluegrass, blues and even jazz. “We’re gonna do a little song for you now,” he tells us, “by a band called Weather Report. They were a nice bluegrass band, but they didn’t tell anyone about it.” His set included Leadbelly’s On a Monday, but it was two originals that stood out for me. Here We Are started out with what sounded to me like hints of Norweigen Wood, but then built-in to a full-blown rockin jam that ended with a rare drum solo that was so killer even Jerry turned to take his hat off to drummer Doug Belote. My only complaint was that it wasn’t long enough. The second was a bluesy song called Sunday Afternoon Man that had echoes of Sitting in Limbo. Back into some fast and furious bluegrass, Jerry and fiddle player Luke Bulla threw down spellbinding solos.
This set was definitely for the Jam lover’s and saw the festival back in full swing. The painters were back out, hippie chicks hooping in the last patches of mud, guys juggling devil’s sticks, folks chillin in the hammocks, and all the right smells.
Back in the Hall things got just plain HOT! The Mosier Brothers kicked off their set with I’ve Endured which was appropriate after the storm and a smokin’ Old Dangerfield. I stood with my mouth hanging open through each solo as Dave Blackmon, Jeff Mosier and Johnny Mosier, all on acoustic, just tore it up. I knew right away this would be a special set. The Mosier Brothers are always fantastic but they were particularly on fire this weekend. Must be that Suwannee water… With each song the crowd at the front of the stage seemed to grow exponentially. Traded their acoustics for electric, they played Nothing Like a Hundred Miles, which starts as contemporary bluegrass, but then here comes Johnny Mosier, and suddenly the place is rockin! The number of musicians on stage grew during the set too. Bobby Miller joined them. “Let’s Do You get a Line, I’ll get a Pole (Crawdad Song) and Lemmings?” This had everyone out of their seats, clapping and singing along. Then Peter Rowan joined them and we got the most exquisite Cold Rain and Snow. “Wow” “That was something else!” The yells in the hall were almost deafening, but the best was yet to come… Add to the talent on the stage the musical wizadry of cellist Rushad Eggleston (Tornado Rider). Even as the crew scrambled to make sure everyone was plugged in, Jeff Mosier announces that it’s time for a train ride! All aboard the Orange Blossom Spatial! If I start thinking about what was the best musical moment of the weekend, I’m at a loss. There were too many. But of the most memorable, this was one. This was strings on fire as they drove it down the line with bass player Winn Sizemore keeping them on the tracks : Jeff, Peter, Bobby, Johnny, and then to Rushad and Dave, face-to-face stand-off! It was incredible. Please, Please tapers, Please!
Springfest officially ended with a second set from Donna the Buffalo, and you guessed it, loads more guests including Doug McElvy Jr., Bobby Miller, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale, Rushad Eggleston and a few others I’m sure I am missing. The jamming went on for over two-hours. As always they brought the Positive Friction. The whole set had a feeling as if everyone had exhaled. (take that how you want) It was time for me to cut loose again, grab some wine, grab a hoop, dance with my “family” and party on! One more time to Pull the Devil By the Tail and head off Across the Way. Remember though family… Tara Loves You!!
One Last Song…
I leave this one for the end. This was for me the most special moment of the festival, musically and emotionally and it is giving me chills to even write about.
Saturday I stepped outside the Music Hall to make a quick phone call. I saw the musician I was supposed to interview, but by the time I could get off the phone and try to chase him down, he was gone. Instead, I found myself in front of the Barn at the Music Farmers Workshop Stage where the Rev. Jeff Mosier was sitting with his banjo talking to a group of perhaps 20 people, some sitting, some standing. I stood just at the outskirts, my back to the steady rain.
The Rev. was talking about some of the great bluegrass musicians. As he began talking about Jerry Garcia and a song that meant a great deal to him, well, to both Garcia and Mosier, I knew what was coming. I had heard this before, but this time was different. He began telling the story about Jerry falling into the diabetic coma and how, when he came out, he couldn’t remember how to play and had to relearn everything. Black Muddy River was one of the first songs Jerry remembered. It was also one of the last songs Jerry ever played.
Now, it wasn’t just the soft voice or tender manner in which Mosier told the story that made it memorable. As he’s talking, Mosier says “Jerry,” and the wind suddenly picks up with an eerie Whoosh, slamming the rain against the barn. Mosier looks up and ponders the ‘presence.’ He continues with the story, and again says “Jerry” and WHOOSH, another gust. “Hmmm…well if you believe, I don’t know what to believe,” says Mosier. A third time…”Jerry” … WHOOOOSH… By now we are all giggling a bit, shaking our heads, looking up, looking back at Mosier, shivering as chills run down the spine. Well, it was rumored that the Grateful Dead could control the weather…
“You don’t need a thing to be grateful…” — Rev. Jeff Mosier