Revisting Suwannee Springfest
Photo by Alisa B. Cherry
The humble Suwannee Springfest has yet to reap the recognition and appreciation that some of the bigger and more venerable festivals like Bonnaroo, Merlefest and Telluride have have attained, but considering the fact it’s in its 18th year, it’s not for lack of trying. Its location, outside Live Oak Florida — practically on the banks of, yes, the same Suwannee River Stephen Foster once celebrated in song — is 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 — 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 left at all.
Paul Levine, who’s been booking the various Suwannee festivals for the past four years, has clearly added a younger element to the musical mix; 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 Del McCoury Band, the Avett Brothers, Bluegrass, and Jim Lauderdale, along with relative newcomers like Aoife O’Donovan ,Town Mountain, 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 organisers — 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. Tee festivities began Thursday with soft opening provided by Town Mountain, SOSOS, Whiskey Gentry and the Duhks as 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 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 there 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. The wryly-named 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.”