Suwannee Bound Festival, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL- 4/19-20
Hydration is Groovy
When last I reviewed the scene at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park near Live Oak, Florida, Magnolia Fest was the event and glorious was the time. Such is always the case at this park lightly carved out of the forest near the Suwannee River in north Florida near the confluence of I-75 and I-10. This time I wasn't attending one of the annual festivals here but instead a special event sponsored by the good people at Madison House whose charge is generally to maintain the tour schedule of the latest success story of jambandom: String Cheese Incident. The name of this mini-fest was Suwannee Bound and incorporated the inevitable celebrations coincident with the holiest of holy days for hippified masses: April 20, a/k/a 4/20. Additionally, 4/20 also happens to be SCI Drummer Michael Travis's birthday. Oh, Smoky Coincidence!!!
Along with SCI, the performance list combined some of the largest names in the southeast scene. That category would include Government Mule, the North Mississippi All-Stars (with special guest Dickie Betts), The Dirty Dozen, Karl Denson (actually, I don't know if KDTU is from the southeast), Charlie Hunter (definitely not from the southeast), and Rev. Jeff Mosier. Along with the big names were a sprinkling of up and comers looking to make their mark on folks beyond their immediate locale in the hopes of stepping into regional notoriety. These bands were: Revival, Old Union, Tanglewood, and Rudy.
Madbooking reports that approximately 5000 tickets were sold as compared to the Magnolia Fest which usually sells about 4000. The larger crowd was noticeable at both stages but didn't seem to be much of an issue in the campgrounds. Perhaps folks showing up late had trouble locating sites, especially if they wanted shaded areas away from the Farm Field, but if they were willing to get roasted out of their tents early, field spots were readily available throughout the weekend. And for anyone interested in the late night scene, the Farm Field was certainly the place to be.
At the other fests I've been to at Spirit of the Suwannee, assorted jams could be had all over the camping area but for whatever reason, at this one, the action seemed to be focused out back at the Farm. Several fully electrified bands had set themselves up back there, including one funk band with a full horn section as impressive as anything taking place on the main stages. Campground vending seemed to be especially light as did visible over-inebriation despite the universal presence of the scent of 4/20 in the air. I wondered as I noticed these facts whether the mellow attitude was peculiar to the SCI crowd (as SCI fans surely predominated), related to security measures (obvious sheriffs in green but not oppressive in their behavior), or maybe some sort of evolution of the scene which could be explained by a more regular tourhead who might dabble in sociological analysis. All in all a typically friendly if slightly laid back crowd.
On stage, quite frankly, the music was solid throughout, and if you are a fan of any of the bands you'll be pleased with all of the performances, every one of which was documented by a fair number of tapers. For this fest, the site featured two stages: the Amphitheater, the former main stage which is a natural bowl set down amidst the oaks, pines, and dogwoods for an intimate setting in almost constant shade; and then the fairly new Main Stage. Enormous by any standard, it is set up at the far end of the field behind the vending area. A huge concrete platform set off from the audience by some attractive shrubbery, this stage is professional but not intimate. The light towers stood maybe 70 feet above the musicians, allowing for an impressive light show that left a view of the Spanish moss dripping live oaks behind the stage acting as a reminder that we were still among the beauties of a remarkable undisturbed piece of territory despite the presence of thousands of hippies.
The sound at both stages was first rate and at the main stage was world-class. I watched and listened from both up front as well as a couple hundred yards away and heard every note in pristine, undistorted deliciousness. At one point my internal organs nearly danced out of my carcass when SCI bassist Keith Moseley responded with a tone appropriate to a lyric mentioning an atom bomb. The only thing missing from the main stage were video screens for the folks kicked back on the hill at the far end of the field. The weather, which could have been much hotter this time of year, instead was absolutely perfect, with just enough clouds during the day to mix sun and shade followed by a cool breeze all night.
On Saturday, everyone was good but the bands that did the most to inspire the crowd's dancing feet were The Dirty Dozen (sporting significantly less than a dozen players but featuring a couple of blazing special appearances by Charlie Hunter and his sax player John Ellis), and Tanglewood. While a dancing good time is no surprise from The Dirty Dozen, I'll admit to being surprised at the set by Tanglewood. These guys are from my town, Tallahassee, and have developed a well-deserved reputation in the region for their constant touring and tight connection between themselves and their ferociously dedicated fans. My opinion of their music was that it was solidly within the jamband genre, leaning heavily in the direction of the Grateful Dead, sometimes rather too heavily for a band performing their own compositions. I'll also admit to being surprised that they were playing at this fest, and being followed by The Charlie Hunter Trio.
It's always seemed to me that the most difficult thing for a band to do is to find its own voice that sounds at once unique but still connected to the music of others. Too many bands in the jamband genre are downright derivative, pale imitators of the sound of their precursors, usually The Dead, The Allmans, or Phish. But let me be the first to say in print that it seems to me Tanglewood accepted and met the challenge in impressive fashion bursting past the bounds of their obvious influences. They played fairly early but it was clear after a couple of tunes that they were succeeding in drawing folks out of their tents and onto the dance floor. It should be noted that though there were at most a sprinkling of folks who had seen them before, I feel confident that among the 90% or so of the audience who hadn't, a good number will be looking for their next local show and bringing friends along. If this set was an example of where they're at now, where they're going is up. I hope they continue to develop and evolve their own sound and material.
On Sunday, I blew myself out early, with a few beers for breakfast. I didn't get drunk, didn't even feel the effects of the beer, but what I did feel was an amplified effect from the sun which, in mid-April in north Florida, can get hot fast. And I ought to know better, but I got lost in the moment and by the time I was watching Rev. Jeff Mosier and His Easter Sunday Band at the amphitheater, I was clearly and quite literally running out of steam. Rapid ingestion of water was only preventing me from what might have been a challenge to consciousness instead of allowing me to fully regain my reviewer's faculties. I took a shot and regaining my faculties with Karl Denson, but the funk was too much and I declared my surrender to the elements because of my lack of hydrationary foresight. As a result, I missed the by all accounts well-received set by the North Mississippi All-Stars (without the special guest Dickie Betts who, rumor had it not too surprisingly, didn't show up), as well as the 4/20 birthday celebration by SCI.
As late spring comes upon us, it may now be a bit much to hope for less than oppressive heat at Spirit of the Suwannee; that is if festival scenes are what you're looking for until the Magnolia Fest rolls around again in October. The swimming, canoeing, tubing, and fishing on the Suwannee River itself are excellent. But some folks are going to try, as there is a Grateful Dead weekend scheduled as well as a gathering of more local talent in June. If you go, and please do experience this place at some point, you will be met by a fantastic setting for music and excellent facilities for viewing and listening. But whatever you do, drink as much water as any other beverage you ingest, compensating for the fact that alcohol makes the body lose more water than the drink it contains. Hydration is groovy.
Bryan Adeline is now fully moistened, back in Tallahassee, following loving application of the necessary fluids and unguents.