Wanee, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, Florida- 4/11 & 12
I arrived at Wanee about two hours before the music was set to begin on Friday April 11. After wrestling with my big ass tent for awhile, I met up with my buddy and headed down to check out the Suwannee River. When we arrived at the river we lounged on the beach for a few moments and then wandered around the various trails that run along the banks of the river. We were fortunate to have a wonderfully warm and sunny day to explore the park before the music began.
Once we got our fill of the river we hitched a ride back to the stage area to catch some of the lesser known, “up and coming” artists that traditionally open the festival. Last year’s Wanee was blessed to have Rose Hill Drive open up the music on Saturday morning and for many concertgoers it was their first taste of Rose Hill’s hard hitting rock and they left many talking of their greatness throughout the day. This year, the most talked about and most impressive “new” band came in the form of The Frequency. Their psychedelic Pink Floyd-esque jams really surprised a lot of people, including myself. Many bands try to recapture the intensity of Floyd and painfully they miss the mark, but The Frequency nailed it and did so in a creative and ambitious way.
The early afternoon waves of progressive rock distributed by The Frequency left me thirsty for more music and luckily at Wanee there is no lag time between acts. The Randall Bramblett Band was next up for me and they played a very sweet mid-day set on the side stage amongst the hammocks and the trees. Randall switched between keyboards and horns while being backed by a solid rhythm section and guitar combo. The set was highlighted by Randall’s original tune “Get In, Get Out” that many fans were familiar with from his stint playing with Widespread Panic.
Oteil Burbridge then took to the stage with the Peacemakers. This group has experienced some lineup changes in the last year, and without sounding negative about the competent musicians he had in the band previously, they have never sounded better. The new lineup was bursting with energy and Oteil thrived on their intensity and played the best set of music I have ever heard from the Peacemakers. Bass thumping covers of “Turn on Your Lovelight” and “What is Hip?” got everyone moving. Blues guitarist Larry McCray joined the Peacemakers for some insane jamming and it was obvious by the joy on Oteil’s face that he was digging having McCray onstage with him rocking out to “My Baby She Left Me.”
After grooving to Oteil I made my way to the main stage for probably the most anticipated set of the weekend, The Levon Helm Band. It is customary for all the acts at Wanee to go onstage right on time but this was not the case with Levon. In fact, my only complaint from the entire weekend was that Levon went onstage over an hour after he was scheduled. Fortunately, he and his band of incredibly efficient and talented musicians more than made up for the time delay by laying down one damn fine set of music. Levon’s band played a few classic songs made famous by The Band including “Ophelia” and a breathtaking version of “Long Black Veil.” Levon also spiced up his set with rearranged covers of “Deep Elm Blues” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” which matched the excellent original version found on Nebraska. The foundation of Levon’s set came from the material contained on his outstanding new album Dirt Farmer. Towards the end of the set, Warren Haynes and Danny Louis from Gov’t Mule jumped onstage to add to the Ramble. This was truly one of my most favorite sets of music that I have ever witnessed. The playing was precise and tight, while at the same time electrifying and spirited.
Gov’t Mule closed out the main stage on the first night of Wanee 2008 and they did a mighty fine job of it. The Allman Brothers Band had originally been scheduled to close both nights of the festival, but due to Gregg Allman’s health issues they had to pull out of the festival and all of their other tourdates, including their traditional month long residency in New York City. Needless to say hearing this news was a cause for some concern, but when they posted the new schedule that included a full Mule performance and a two-hour Wanee Family Jam on the second night of the festival, my initial doubt about not seeing the Allmans turned into pure anxious anticipation at the possibilities presented in seeing the Mule with so many musical friends lingering around the festival.
Warren Haynes and company kicked off their set with a classic cover of “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.” An apropos “Banks of the Deep End” led into the first sublime surprises of their first set, Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” followed by Randall Bramblett’s guest stint on an emphatic “32/20 Blues.” Warren’s guitar work mingled seamlessly with Andy Hess’ low-end bass action and Matt Abts’ powerful drumming during this blues-fueled cover combo. Mule closed their first set with another heavy tandem of “Smokestack Lightening” with J.J. Grey and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” again with Randall Bramblett.
After a short set break Mule returned and picked up right where they left off with their reworked version of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.” Mule definitely put their own stamp on this Stones song by turning it into a reggae-tinged foot stomper that would make Keith Richards smile. Larry McCray then joined the band for “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and “It Hurts Me Too.” The twentyish minutes that McCray was jamming onstage with the Mule were pure bliss and unfortunately it was all that my body could take. After a wonderful day of music it was all I could do to make it back to my tent to recuperate for the next day of the festival. Although I missed Mule’s encore of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and Junior Brown’s entire late night set, there was no way my sun drenched, alcohol soaked body could stand for another minute. Luckily, I still had Saturday.
One of the most pleasant details of Wanee is the time of year in which it takes place. Springtime in northern Florida lends itself to very warm days and extremely comfortable nights. This allows campers a chance to sleep in to 9am or 10am, thus giving their bodies an opportunity to fully recover and regenerate from the previous day’s festivities. The idea of getting that much rest in a tent at a summertime festival is unimaginable, because by 8am your tent is usually 110 and smells like wet dog.
After refueling and rehydrating the first show I caught on the second and final day of Wanee was Tinsley Ellis. While Tinsley usually graces the stage with a high-spirited attitude and possibly a tropical boat shirt, his bass player “The Evil One” comes from an entirely different vibe. “The Evil One” always wears black and he always contributes a heavy musical dialogue that drives home Tinsley’s classic electric blues. Their brand of blues plays perfectly for an oyster roast, tailgate party, or a fishing tournament. Tinsley and his band were an outstanding fit for the wooded side stage and they got me heading in the right direction.
The Del McCoury Band was next up and just like Tinsley Ellis they were a natural musical fit for a daytime set amongst the swaying Spanish Moss that dangled from the trees. McCoury and his band played entirely acoustically and they huddled around a single microphone to make an absolutely joyous sound of bluegrass. A cerebral mix of guitar, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle, banjo, and harmonious vocals flowed out of the band as if time had never existed and we were a crowd at a hoedown in the Appalachians 90 years ago. After each band member had a chance to feature a song on their instrument, Del McCoury took requests from the crowd. No request was turned down and McCoury’s banter and song introductions were like hearing a doctor of musicology deliver an afternoon lecture to graduate students. Precise and energetic versions of “Orange Blossom Special” and “Beauty of My Dreams” were granted to those who requested them and the positivity emitted from this group of musicians left the crowd obliviously smiling during the quick rain shower that occurred towards the latter part of their set.
Bluegrass, psychedelic rock, country, blues, and hard rock had all been delivered to the Wanee crowd by the time the funk rolled in. The New Orleans super group Porter-Batiste-Stoltz (PBS) dropped some heavy doses of free form bop fusion jazz funk on the gyrating audience. Not only is George Porter Jr. a founding member of the Meters, while Brian Stoltz and Russell Batiste have been staples in the funky Meters but they have played with an incredible list of musicians that includes; Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Robbie Robertson, Maceo Parker, Paul McCartney, David Byrne, and Patti Labelle. From their resume alone they could have mailed in a fabulous set of music, but the thing that stood out was the fact that they were totally digging in and enjoying themselves. At the peak moments in each song, Porter and Stoltz would stand face to face in front of Batiste’s drum kit and just lock into each other and deliver some musical insanity. A filthy “Not Fade Away” climaxed their time at Wanee and at its conclusion the crowd let out a very appreciative roar of approval.
Following the funk I headed over to see moe. deliver an exciting set that was bubbling over with classic moe. tracks. “Moth,” “Happy Hour Hero,” “Spine of a Dog,” “Wicked Awesome,” and “Plane Crash” are all songs that are treats at any moe. concert and somehow they managed to pack all of them into their one hour and forty minute set. The highlight of a set filled with highlights was a nineteen minute “Recreational Chemistry” that meandered and slithered its way around the concert grounds giving everyone a chance to bask in its smokey splendor. This was the last stop on moe.’s spring tour in support of their new record Sticks and Stones and while the band verbally acknowledged their happiness for heading home for a few weeks, their music didn’t lack in energy or purpose.
After quickly speed walking over to the side stage I got my first chance to see the immensely talented Greyboy Allstars. I was familiar with some of their recorded and live material, but to be honest a studio or live recording of this band does not do them justice. There is no way to pigeonholed this band into one single genre, because their music transcends all musical types and forms. I have seen Karl Denson sit in with a number of bands, as well as his Tiny Universe, but this was my favorite incarnation of his talent.
The Grateful Dead often tailored their setlist to reflect on their surroundings. They had shows that were inspired by the venue they were playing, things happening in the world, someone’s birthday, or on the weather at the moment. The first and only time I saw the Grateful Dead was at Buckeye Lake in 1994 and I was lucky enough to get one of their famous “rain” sets. A few songs into Bob Weir & RatDog’s Wanee performance, I started to feel like their were some subtle setlist choices that were happening that reflected the overall vibe of the day. When the “Dark Star” theme floated in out of “Cassidy” I felt like Weir was starting to communicate with his audience. The airiness of this “Dark Star” mimicked the easygoing atmosphere and coincided with the sun setting in the distance and the nighttime getting ready to encompass the land. As “Dark Star” continued to weave throughout the field, the opening notes of “Lazy River Road” started to formulate and confirmed my feeling of the setlist taking inspiration from the moment at hand. River Road ran beside the stage that the band was playing on, so the nod was obvious, and this version of “Lazy River Road” was the highpoint of the set. Bob’s vocals sounded soft and serene while his band oozed smoothness in their accompaniment. Earlier in the day a mild rain shower fell throughout the area and a few large cumulus clouds were still hanging around the sky as the “rain” combo of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Looks Like Rain” were played. All in all, Weir & RatDog offered a nice peaceful change of pace. While the playing was solid, there wasn’t a lot of intensity, as the band providing a mellow soundtrack for all that was happening. It was the ideal set for chilling on a blanket on a hillside enjoying the world around you and that was exactly what most people were doing.
Then the Wanee Festival Jam commenced. All the members of the Allman Brothers Band, sans Gregg, and with Robert Watkins and Kofi Burbridge sitting in on keyboards, started the show off with the sweet notes of “Mountain Jam.” The opening sounds of “Mountain Jam” caused the Wanee crowd to exhale a sigh of relief as muscle memory took over while the interweaving guitars of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks provided the theme and voice.
From here, The Wanee Family put on a true jam that contained ongoing spontaneity for two hours and fifteen minutes. Bob Weir’s three song stint of “All Along the Watchtower,” “Sugaree” and “Franklin’s Tower” offered many blissful interludes as well as appearances by many musicians, including: Andy Hess, Matt Abts, Yonrico Scott, Jeff Chementi, Ron Holloway, and Chuck Garvey.
The players on the stage revolved throughout the entire set and each song offered a unique lineup, which resulted in an overwhelming feeling of unlimited possibilities. “The Sky is Crying” saw Dave Yoke and Tinsley Ellis on guitar alongside musical director Warren Haynes, who was the only musician that did not leave the stage for at least one song. Haynes was a chameleon onstage, while at the same time arranging and guiding the music on the fly. Karl Denson provided a brilliant solo during “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” as the band belted out slow, dirty blues. The sinfulness of “Schoolgirl” was extinguished by the holiness of The Del McCoury Band joining Haynes for an exquisite version of “Come On in My Kitchen.” Haynes added electric slide and vocals to the McCoury Band’s acoustic gospel bluegrass.
The final transition of the evening came in the form of a “Mountain Jam Reprise” and “Dazed and Confused” sandwich. The heaviness of Zeppelin and melodic swirls of the Allmans were equally represented. Then Brian Stoltz, George Porter Jr., Russell Batiste, Karl Denson, and Robert Watkins stepped up to join Haynes and Jaimoe for a thriving, celebratory encore of The Meters’ “Fire on the Bayou.”
Derek Trucks traditionally tops off the Wanee Music Festival by performing on the side stage amongst trees strung with electric Christmas lights and giant caldrons of fire from midnight until 2am on the final night of the festival. The past two years Trucks has brought along his exceptionally talented wife Susan Tedeschi and members of both of their bands to create an onslaught of comfort music that hasn’t been witnessed since the days when Delaney & Bonnie and Friends were touring. Tedeschi’s powerful voice sent tingles up my spine as Trucks’ slide guitar simultaneously gave me goose bumps. The combination was dynamic and the addition of the Swamp Honkies Horn Section made this the most forceful and inspirational set of music from the entire weekend. Spirited versions of “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” “Don’t Cry No More,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Stand Back,” “Key to the Highway,” “Hey Jude,” “Anyday” and the Band’s “The Weight” made me wish that the band would keep on playing until sunrise. Alas, all good things must come to an end. After witnessing over 20 hours of live music in two days at a cost of approximately $7 per hour, it was time for Wanee 2008 to come to a close. Good times, good people, and fantastic music dominated the landscape for what has become a yearly pilgrimage.