SUWANNEE SPRINGFEST SURPRISES
Humble when compared to other gatherings, this festival varies the vibes
Call it Bonnaroo South. Or Telluride East. Or both, with a sprinkling of the Newport Folk Festival, Merlefest and the Americana Festival tossed in for good measure. Humble Suwannee Springfest has yet to reap the recognition and appreciation that some of those bigger and more venerable festivals have managed to attain, and indeed, being that it’s in its 18th year, it can only be due to the fact that perhaps it’s a slow burner. Clearly, it’s not for lack of location; held outside Live Oak Florida — practically on the banks of, yes, the same Suwannee River Stephen Foster once celebrated in song — it’s easily accessible from Jacksonville, Tallahassee and all points south. And, for that matter, many points north “There’s so many musicians here from North Carolina, it looks like half the state took a field trip,” Steep Canyon Rangers’ Woody Platt was heard to remark to fellow state mate, Town Mountain’s Phil Barker.
Still, the Springfest — one of several gatherings held at the lovely Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park year round (the biggest being Wannee, an annual festival begun 18 years ago and curated by the Allman Brothers) — remains relatively small compared to the aforementioned gatherings, a source of pride for the predominantly Florida-based crowd that return year after year in a show of steadfast devotion. Despite the modest numbers — between 5,000 and 5,500 attended this year — it’s an eclectic bunch of attendees, a family friendly crowd of all ages and backgrounds. There are hippies and harbingers of a forward-looking populist approach, young and old alike. Tie-dye is the predominant fashion statement, both in terms of garb and as a staple amongst the various vendors. Were it not for that, as well as a certain shared enthusiasm, it’s easy to imagine that many of those present might be bankers or lawyers in their day jobs, given the fact that, along with a sizeable throng of young people, there were plenty of folks with greying locks, if, in fact, they had any follicles at all.
So much for that age-old adage, youth is wasted on the young. Clearly, that’s not the case here. Want to imagine your grandparents getting into a groove? Springfest can make it happen.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a first rate assortment of bands, all of whom come courtesy of Paul Levine, who’s been booking the various Suwannee festivals for the past eight years. Levine’s intention to add a younger element to the musical mix has paid off; this year’s event, held over four days, March 20 – 23, took a nod towards up and coming Americana acts, many of them if the bluegrass persuasion. As always, Donna the Buffalo held court for the band’s faithful, but they also shared the various stages with some other festival veterans as well — Steep Canyon Rangers, the Sam Bush Band, The Avett Brothers, the Del McCoury Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and Jim Lauderdale, along with relative newcomers like Aoife O’Donovan, Town Mountain and the Punch Brothers in particular. “That’s one of the special things about this festival,” Sam Bush would later remark, referencing the musical variety. “It’s bluegrass, it’s country, it’s Americana, it’s Rock, and practically everything in between.” It’s a credit to Levine’s acumen — as well as the festival founder and organizers — that Springfest is able to consistently offer such a diverse roster.
Of course, part of the reason has to do with the lovely setting, consisting of an expanse of meadow, a naturally shaded amphitheater and a collection of rustic buildings, all of which are surrounded by an overgrowth of swaying Spanish moss. “This is one of the reasons I wanted to play music for a living,” Bush remarked, pointing to the scenic surroundings. The fact that it’s the first major festival of the year doesn’t hinder the interest either.
Happily then, the music measures up to the surroundings. Spread among four main venues — the Amphitheater and the Meadow Stage being the largest stages, with smaller shows taking place at the Porch Stage and the indoor Music Hall — the sounds are nonstop. And, unlike many other festivals, few choices have to be made when it comes to the choice of who to see and when. The sets are well planned, so that when one must-see act ends, another begins elsewhere. The lesser-known acts still suffer of course; as always, the crowd tends to gravitate towards the bigger names, making for sparser crowds in the smaller settings. Still, with lengthy breaks between the bigger bands, there is ample opportunity to catch many of the newer artists as well.
On Thursday, Springfest offered a quiet soft opening with Town Mountain, SOSOS, Whiskey Gentry and the Duhks among the main attractions. By Friday afternoon, the activity intensified, with a string of topnotch acts — Willie Sugarcaps, Steep Canyon Rangers, Jason Isbell, the Punch Brothers and Greensky Bluegrass taking their turns in the Amphitheater. Even so, two days in, the ambiance was remarkably mellow. Some people in the audience even had a full recording set-up readied from their vantage point a few rows back, unimpeded by any restrictions on recording. Steep Canyons’ Graham Sharp also noted the laid-back vibes, which found some of his bandmates discarding their usual formal stage attire. “This makes me glad I wore a jacket,” he remarked, injecting some irony into the otherwise casual confines.
Steep Canyon Rangers’ superb set, mostly made up of songs taken from their new live album recorded with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and from their latest studio effort, Tell The Ones I Love, led into another incendiary set performed by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Indeed, Isbell’s anthemic tunes further elevated the energy. However, the high point of the evening, at least as far as the crowd was concerned, was the performance by the Punch Brothers, who started their set by noting that this was only the fourth time in their eight year history that they were playing in Florida. Happily, they gave the crowd a quick primer, demonstrating their versatility with material that ran the gamut from a catchy new song called “Magnet” to an unlikely read of a classical composition by Debussy, as performed with mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and stand-up bass. What’s more, it was front man Chris Thile’s bemused facial expressions and over-arching body language that ensured they left the crowd entertained and amused.
Saturday found the energy elevated even further, with superior sets by Jeff Mosier, Aoife O’Donovan, The Honnycutters, the Sam Bush Band, and the Del McCoury Band, whose rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning” stood out overall. Both Greensky Bluegrass and the Steep Canyon Rangers made encore performances, the latter discarding their traditional stage suits entirely in favor of street apparel. Bush was also brilliant, tossing in various covers (Stevie Wonder’s “Jammin’,” some “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and a hint of “Crossroads”) and, as always, making additional appearances throughout the afternoon while sitting in with the day’s other acts. Jim Lauderdale entertained a small and intimate gathering with a songwriting session, which found him tapping material from his vast catalog and tying in his amusing anecdotes. Noticing one woman making an early exit, he commented, “I’ve always been told some of my material is offensive. I guess I’m seeing that some of you may agree.”
As the day wore on, Greensky Bluegrass got the groove going again out on the Meadow Stage. However it was the Avett Brothers who saw to it that the quiet vibe dissipated entirely. Lounge chairs that had been set up in the Amphitheater hours earlier in hopes of retaining a decent vantage point proved totally useless as a standing crowd took over and crowded the area to capacity. The Avetts, a rowdy band to begin with, egged them on, exuberant and electrifying from the first notes on. Seth Avett, his hair now grown out practically to his waist, whooped and hollered, but it was left to his brother Scott to act as cheerleader, as he leaped to the edge of the audience to shake hands, pump fists and shout out encouragement. Even the McCoury Jam, normally one of the more exhilarating sets of Saturday night, seemed somewhat tame in comparison.
Still, there was at least one additional highlight remaining, that being the first of two Donna the Buffalo sets out on the Meadow Stage. The crowd, obviously amped up from the Avetts, managed to retain their enthusiasm for the Donnas, thanks in part to the vast expanse of the late night environs, but also due to the band’s thunderous performance. While often classified as a jam band, the Donnas are obviously much more, a group capable of conveying substantial melodies along with a disciplined instrumental outpour. To be sure, there’s some evidence of a Grateful Dead-like aura in their casual sway, but overall their’s is a sound that’s wholly their own.
By Sunday, the fourth and final day of the festivities, things had winded down considerably. Nevertheless, a few good shows were still to be seen. Uproot Hootenanny provided a rousing set of Celtic-flavored drinking songs, helping to define a common theme throughout, that having to do with the pleasure of imbibing alcoholic beverages. (It should be said at this point that there was little evidence of herbal consumption.) Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, a bluegrass trio out of Jacksonville, was also impressive, due in large part to their lightning fast picking. Jim Lauderdale, resplendent in a purple stage suit, offered a set of songs culled mainly from one of his newer albums, Black Roses, and continued to keep playing despite a sudden downpour that forced many in the crowd to seek shelter.
As is their tradition every year, Donna the Buffalo closed the festivities with an extended set featuring guest appearances from other artists that remained onsite. It’s appropriate that they offer the final performance year after year; after all, they’ve played Springfest for all of its 18 years and played an additional 18 times at Magnoliafest as well. “This is one of our favorite festivals,” the band’s Jeb Puryear mentioned earlier in the day. “A lot of festivals are great and have great music, but there’s also a certain intangible that adds an extra thing at certain festivals. And this festival definitely has always had that.”
“There’s something magical about the setting,” bandmate Tara Nevin agreed. “It’s my favorite festival site, with the live oak and the Spanish moss and the palm trees and the Suwannee River. It looks like this southern, sultry something. We can list all these different ingredients and it can all add up into this one thing, but then there’s this one X factor. What is that?”
“The good news is that this festival has that certain something.” Puryear added. “The bad new is that it’s hard to put your finger on it.”
No matter. It’s likely that one just has to be there.
Photos: Alisa Cherry