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Columns > Rob Johnson - Hittin The Note

Published: 2007/04/23
by Rob Johnson


Editor’s note: we’re happy to add this monthly column from Hittin’ The Note staffer (and longtime writer) Rob Johnson. Special thanks to HTN editor John Lynskey
All of us like to play to an audience and get a response back. Thats what we call hittin the note. How should I say it?Hittin the note is hittin your peak, lets say. Hittin the place where we all want to be, you know? When youre really feeling at your best, thats what you describe as your note. When youre really able to put all of you into it and get that much out of it.
-*Berry Oakley* (original bassist for the Allman Brothers Band)
The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida is a magical place. For generations people have gathered at this particular spot in the Suwannee River to make music, drawn together by the special vibe of this piece of Planet Earth.
In the beginning, the land hosted gospel, bluegrass and country festivals, until a couple of wise and resourceful Deadheads named Randy and Beth Judy realized that it would be the perfect setting for a jamband festival. In the aftermath of Jerry Garcias death, they felt a need to gather the tribe and make sure the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead would survive. They held a festival called Big Cosmos Sunshine Daydream weekend there in 1997, which eventually evolved into the wonderful fall tradition of Magnoliafest, and then to Springfest. (Check out for more info) These world-class festivals helped introduce a lot of people to the park, and word quickly spread that Suwannee was one of the finest places in America to see live music.
The Allman Brothers Band certainly was listening. You see, they had been dreaming for years about hosting their own festival, featuring the ABB and all the extended family. When you add Govt Mule, the Derek Trucks Band, Dereks wife Susan Tedeschi, and Oteil and the Peacemakers to the mix, youre already halfway to a festival lineup. Spirit of Suwannee was the logical location for such a festival, and in 2005 the band invited some of their musical friends for the first annual Wanee Fest.
This years edition provided a cornucopia of some of the best live groups in the country, from bluegrass superstars Nickel Creek and New Orleans own Radiators to pedal steel maestro Robert Randolph and hard rock revivalists Rose Hill Drive. The music, however, started long before the official schedule began on Friday. One of the things that has quickly distinguished Wanee from other festivals in its short three-year history is the quality and quantity of campfire jams, which traditionally begin on Thursday night.
Before you scoff, were not talking about a bunch of guys with out-of-tune acoustic guitars trying to remember the words to Midnight Rider. Were talking about PAs and full drum sets, Marshall amps and Gibson Les Paul guitars, and real musicians who actually know what theyre doing. Several of the regulars at the Wanee jams are actual professional musicians, and many of the others are good enough to be, if they decided to do so. Ask Robert Randolph he watched some of the jams and was visibly impressed by what the fans were laying down. This is what its all about, he said.
The Allman Brothers scene has always been one that emphasized things like family and brotherhood, so its only fitting that a festival based around the ABB has a feeling that is more like a family reunion than your average music festival. People came from as far away as Finland to share their love of music with their brothers and sisters, and you could go to Wanee just for the jams and the party and walk away satisfied.
Of course, there was a lot more. The festivities kicked off on Friday with alt-country flavor from Phonograph and Backyard Tire Fire, followed by the first Allman-related set of the weekend from Oteil and the Peacemakers. The day really picked up steam when veteran jam-rockers the Radiators hit the Mushroom Stage, busting out classic tunes like Riverrun, which was perfect for the setting. These torchbearers of the New Orleans sound have always been one of the most-underrated live bands out there, and by the end of the weekend their combination of hot jams and great songs had won over many new converts.
Robert Randolph has played with the ABB so much, hes practically an honorary Allman Brother, so it was no surprise to see him at Wanee. Randolph and the Radiators were the only non-related ABB bands to play both Friday and Saturday, and they both showed that they deserved two sets. Robert showed a mellower, more jazzy side to his playing at Fridays show, earning high marks even from critics who usually find his shows to be monotonous and one-dimensional.
The main event was the 1-2 punch of Govt Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, and both bands delivered. Warren Haynes is one of the major reasons for the recent renaissance in the ABB, but, in many ways, his heart is with the Mule. Their Friday night set was fiery and powerful, including a version of Lively Up Yourself that rocked a whole lot harder than Bob Marley ever dreamed it could. Another highlight was when Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers joined the band for a passionate, funky version of Jerry Garcias old favorite Thats What Love Will Make You Do.
Fresh off a 15-night run at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, the ABB hit the stage with a powerful Les Brers in A Minor opener that allowed Derek Trucks and Warren to flex their muscles with big, sprawling guitar solos. Performing without drummer and founding member Jaimoe, who had a stomach virus, the band sounded tight and on point, and most of the crowd probably never suspected that Derek Trucks Band drummer Yonrico Scott was filling in on short notice. The highlight of their Friday set was a deep-jazz version of Desdemona with guest sax player Ron Holloway, familiar to many in the audience as a member of Susan Tedeschis band.
Gregg Allman may be singing better right now than he has in 20 years, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand during the bluesy vocal part of the song, while Derek and Ron Holloway burned on the jazzy jam section.
It was Warrens night, however, both because he sang several tunes, and also because it was a show that flexed the muscular rock side of the band. The closing run of Every Hungry Woman followed by Rocking Horse>Black Hearted Woman was probably the heaviest 40-minute segment of any Allman Brothers concert Ive seen, and that is almost certainly Warrens influence.
Of course, that wasnt the end of the music, not by a long shot. The last notes of One Way Out had barely faded from the air before the jams began at the River Road Compound near the Peach Stage. The fans jammed on wicked versions of Elizabeth Reed and Turn On Your Lovelight, amongst others, before being shut down by the police at about 2 AM. On the other side of the campground, Vaylor Trucks (Butchs son, Dereks cousin) and his band Bonobos Convergence kicked off a late-night jam session that drew hundreds of people before also being shut down.
By the time Saturday morning rolled around, the vibe was strong and there were many happy campers along the banks of the Suwannee. Peace and love are frequent watchwords of the jam community, but rarely do they flourish as thoroughly as they do at Wanee. In the words of one old-school Allmans fan, Its like its 1969 all over again.
Saturday got off to a very strong start, with possibly the best 1-2 combo Ive ever seen at a festival before 2 PM. Bonobos Convergence, fresh off their well-received set the night before, announced their arrival with a bizarre combination of Crazy Train and The Price Is Right theme before getting down to business. Their music is similar to great prog-rock bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and besides the multi-talented Trucks on guitar and bass, keyboardist Pete Orenstein and drummer Frank Registrato are also top-tier musicians with enviable chops. Trucks guitar solo on Flag for Utopia was nothing less than thrilling, and the title of the song was appropriate, seeing as Wanee seemed like a little weekend utopia all its own. The most impressive part of their set was an intricate arrangement of Raymond Scotts Powerhouse, a high-octane, up-tempo jazz number that most of you have heard used in classic cartoons.
After Bonobos left the stage, it was time for the pride of Colorado Rose Hill Drive. They had never been to Spirit of Suwannee before, and were amazed by the forested setting of the Mushroom Stage, with hammocks in the trees and Spanish moss blowing in the wind. I think we picked the right stage, bassist and lead singer Jake Sproul said at one point.
RHD is a rock band, pure and simple, and they seemed to be on a mission to wake up any stragglers who were still snoozing in their tents. They opened with a strong dose of their original material, featuring two of the best songs on their self-titled debut album, Showdown and The Guru. However, their set reached another level when the ominous opening notes of Black Sabbaths Fairies Wear Boots floated through the trees. The metalheads in the audience seemed almost disbelieving at first, but when it became clear that the boys from Colorado were doing the stoner classic justice, the Mushroom Stage became a sea of pumping fists and devil horns.
It was only 2 PM at this point, but many in the audience were already worn out, and it felt like a long day of music had already happened. The soothing acoustic blues of Scrapomatic, fronted by Derek Trucks Band lead singer Mike Mattison, was the perfect recipe after such an onslaught of heavy music.
After that the Radiators and Robert Randolph both got a chance to do their thing again, and if anything, both sounded better than they did Friday. Word had apparently spread after the Rads Friday set, because the crowd was noticeably larger on Saturday, and by the time they ripped through the classic segue combo of Number Two Pencil>Someone Like You, you would have thought you were at Jazz Fest. Randolphs set featured possibly the best all-star jam of the weekend, with Derek Trucks and Rose Hill Drive guitarist Daniel Sproul joining in for a powerful jam that allowed all three to shine brightly.
By the time Mule had delivered yet another powerful set featuring old classics like Blind Man in the Dark and Mule, rumors started spreading through the campground of a powerful storm that was expected to hit the park at any minute. The Allman Brothers Saturday night set was the moment the whole festival had been leading up to, and it looked like it might not even happen, not to mention the special midnight set at the Mushroom Stage with the Derek Trucks Band and Susan Tedeschi.
With an electric atmosphere of excitement and uncertainty hanging over the crowd, the ABB kicked off the Saturday show with Mountain Jam. At the beginning of the tune, they teased Miles Davis In a Silent Way, a jazz classic that they had played for the first time at the Beacon this year. Once again, Derek and Warren showed why they are both on Rolling Stones list of all-time greatest guitarists, weaving melodic lines around each other in a display of musical communion.
After Mountain Jam had segued into Statesboro Blues, the band kicked into No One Left to Run With. This song is usually played with a fairly rigid structure, ending with a Bo Diddley-inspired jam. However, lately they have experimented with a extended, more open-ended segement, and on this night it was nothing less than spectacular. One of the marks of a great jamband is that they can play a song youve heard a thousand times and make it seem fresh and new, and that is exactly what the ABB did with this song.
Who To Believe is a bluesy number from the bands last studio release, Hittin the Note, and featuring some haunting, howling slide work from Derek. At moments like this, its easy to think that he just might be the best guitarist on Earth, and he was in the zone all night long. A smoky, bluesy version of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl was equally satisfying, with guitarist Chris Anderson joining the band to add some guitar firepower, not that they needed it.
Greggs son Devon Allman joined the band for Midnight Rider, and the father/son harmonies once again emphasized the family nature of the festival. For years, the ABB performed the Spencer Davis tune Dont Want You No More strictly as part of a medley with Not My Cross to Bear, and to hear it in any other context was as unheard of as going to a late-era Dead show and hearing Scarlet Begonias without Fire on the Mountain. The band seemed determined to mix things up, however, and segued from DWYNM into Dreams instead.
From then on, it was all jam, all the time. Dereks soaring slide lines on Dreams show why he is a worthy successor to Duane Allman, and this version featured some ghostly harmonies and high-pitched bird sounds that would make Skydog proud. After the band finished up the song, they drifted into a mystical jazz jam that could only lead to one song: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.
Ron Holloway came back out to lend his saxophone talents to this one, and the jazziest song in the ABB catalog got even jazzier. Holloways solo was fresh and powerful, exploring both ends of the instruments range, and Derek brought us into the drum solo with a searing solo that practically exploded into the main theme. After an entertaining drum segment, the band came back out and went into a freewheeling jam, with Holloway, Warren and Derek trading licks back and forth in a dizzying display of Can you top THIS? By the end of the song, they mind-melded together into a ferocious peak, then left the stage to thunderous applause.
After a show like that, youve got to give the audience a Whipping Post encore. I think its in the Geneva Convention. However, they took their time, starting off the encore by finishing up the Mountain Jam that had started the show. Derek and Warren both took sparkling, dazzling slide solos, each complementing the other perfectly. Bassist Oteil Burbridge dropped some bombs as well, and the whole band was locked in. When the ABB brought the song to its traditional big finish, they dropped right into Whipping Post with devastating effect. Gregg Allman was in fantastic voice all weekend, and he really nailed this classic tune of betrayal and suffering. Even hard-to-please old-school fans who measure every performance by At Fillmore East were impressed by the end of the show.
The weather had held off, the Allman Brothers had delivered a legendary show in their great tradition, and the Midnight set was like a victory celebration. A massive crowd poured across the vast meadow that separated the Peach Stage from the Mushroom Stage like a wave of humanity. When they got there, they got more than they expected. This wasnt just the Derek Trucks Band more like the Derek Trucks Orchestra. Ron Holloway, who had sounded so good guesting with the Brothers, led a fat horn section that augmented Dereks already amazing band, and at one point there were at least 11 players on stage.
Dereks wife Susan Tedeschi has been warmly welcomed into the Allman Brothers family for some time now, and this was her turn to shine. Belting out classic soul tunes like Loving You is Sweeter than Ever with authority and conviction, at times she stole the show from her very capable husband. Even so, it was obvious that Derek was in charge, subtly leading the band and calling the plays like an all-star quarterback, and unleashing a jazz explosion of a solo during a torrid Greensleeves.
One historic highlight was the cherry on top of the whole weekend. At one point Derek and Susan came to the front of the stage for an intimate duo on Walkin Blues, and Susan excitedly told the crowd that Derek had recently been given Duane Allmans legendary Gibson Les Paul. Derek smiled bashfully and proceeded to make one of the most famous axes in rock history sing like a choir of angels. The guitar had come full circle in a way, starting with one Allman Brothers slide guitarist and ending in the hands of another.
Mere minutes after Dereks set concluded, a downright vicious storm engulfed the park and flooded some people out of their tents. Even so, everyone seemed grateful that the rain held off as long as it did. Had the front come through a few hours earlier, it could have totally ruined the weekend. It was enough to make you believe in divine intervention, and when youre grooving to great music in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, its easy to believe that God is on your side.
See you next month with a Jazz Fest report, including the Greyboy Allstars riverboat show and the Funky Meters with special guest Derek Trucks at the House of Blues. Laissez les bon temps roule!

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