The unbelievably beautiful and undeniably unique Suwannee Music Park has been home to several music festivals over the years, including Magnolia Fest, Wanee, and Bear Creek Music Festival. There is now a new member to the family in Blackwater Music Festival.
Taking its name from the Suwannee River‘s very dark color, caused by tannins from billions of leaves, roots, and bark in the Okefenokee Swamp where the river begins, the inaugural Blackwater Fest offered up a blend of electronic, rock, reggae, and blues bands with an apparent focus on attracting regional college students in addition to the regular festival crowd.
The stellar reputation of Suwannee Park, just outside Live Oak, Florida, as a premier venue to experience music festivals, had excitement and expectations high as we headed south on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon. Hell, the park was even voted best live music venue in the state of Florida by Florida Monthly Magazine in 2009, overtaking Disney for the top spot.
Unfortunately, a bump in the road would come early as a result of a combination of Atlanta afternoon traffic and a bit of box office disorganization that is nearly unavoidable for a first year festival. By the time traffic was navigated and entrance to the park was gained, night had fallen and the opening electronica trio The Malah and the dubtronic quintet Greenhouse Lounge had been missed. But even under the nighttime and now cloudy sky, the majesty of the moss covered oak trees inside caught eyes, soothed souls, and invited all to enter, relax, and enjoy and explore life for a while.
With the temperature slowly beginning to cool, a small but enthusiastic crowd, greeted Perpetual Groove with howls, beach balls, and hula-hoops. The band’s signature trance-rock sound was just what the doctor ordered to boogie away the back-to-school blues on a Thursday night, when most of the world was still dreaming of the weekend to come, instead of partying underneath the clouds and the oak trees.
PGroove opened with the appropriate "All My Friends," and followed that with the instrumental "Space Paranoids." Without a doubt, the highlight of the set came in a blistering 25-minute "Teakwood Betz" that peaked, dissolved, reformed, and peaked again…and again…and again, until the heavens opened and let loose a torrential summer shower to match the sonic thunder coming from the stage.
The band changed gears and slowed things down with "Cairo" and the rains continued to fall. Playing on to the delight of the now soaked and very amped audience,undeterred by the precipitation, the boys from Athens, Georgia picked the pace back up for the closing combination of "Mr. Transistor" into "The March of Gibbles Army."
The rains subsided as Sound Tribe Sector Nine took the stage to close out the first night. Armed with an impressive array of lights and utilizing the video screen backdrop, STS9 got the people spinning and grinning to the visually-enhanced electronica dance party.
Leading off the set with the deliberate and effect/sample heavy "Metameme," Tribe got right down to doing what they do: providing brief forays into either danceable grooves or spacey textures that seem to abruptly end right when they are about to really take off. Though the compositions are interesting and well thought out, they do not seem to be allowed to breathe and organically grow into more satisfying jams that really lead the listener somewhere new. The third song played, "Mobsters," is a perfect example: funky and fun with trademark STS9 textures and samples, the tune began to grow as the band synced up and began to experiment on the themes of the number, and approximately 20 seconds after it got really interesting it was stopped dead in its tracks. An emotive and melodic piece like "ABCees" would be even more effective if the "EB" that preceded it or the "Luma Daylight" that followed had evolved into something more closely resembling a collaborative peak rather than a sudden conclusion or a brief breakdown that returned to the rhythmic starting point before petering out.
The song "STS9" was almost the beautiful exception to this, twice. Starting out, it built upon guitars and keyboards and came so close to a thrilling climax that one could taste it, but again dissolved right at critical mass before the bass line reemerged with extra funky gusto and led another buildup that teased again before deconstructing and then ending the tune.
Sound Tribe ended the evening’s festivities with the funky, swirling, and appropriately titled "Dance." Despite the aforementioned critiques, STS9 is very good at providing people a reason to dance and celebrate with their brand of electronica, and folks who like the band usually really like them. Many of them were in attendance and smiles were abound as the scatter began into the night.
With no more music to enjoy, awareness of empty stomachs led to the discovery of the food-vending ticket system. The unusual setup required festival-goers to go to a particular booth to purchase tickets that could then be used to purchase the desired food from the vendors. This allowed festival organizers to keep an accurate tally of what each vendor sold, and at the end of the festivities the vendors traded in their tickets for cash, minus a percentage that was owed for being able to vend, of course. But it also left many folks with extra tickets at the end of the fest. Most patrons did not seem to be fans of the system, especially when the food they had chosen did not live up to expectations, which was sadly more often than not. Now with full stomachs and tired legs, the new and temporary residents of Blackwater Fest retired to their campsites, and eventually to their tents and to their dreams of what the rest of the weekend would have in store.
Friday greeted us with a sky so dark and ominous that there were not even any individual clouds – just a solid, slate-colored slab of impending doom. Even in the absence of sunshine, the natural beauty of the park stood out in contrast to the ugly sky.
If there is a bad or undesirable campsite in the entire place, one would be hard-pressed to locate it. Every spot seemed to be shaded by numerous large trees, and many are situated far enough off the main roadways and paths that they are almost completely hidden from the view of those passing by, whether by vehicle or by foot. Some spent the early afternoon riding bikes or the golf-carts that are available to rent, while others took in the sounds of the diverse rock-quartet Cope and the reggae, blues, and soul of Saltwater Grass from nearby Jacksonville, Florida.
The gray ceiling gave birth to a torrential downpour during Tea Leaf Green that did not slow, even for a second, all the way through their set, as well as the sets of Boombox and Toubab Krewe. The monsoon finally let up in time for J.J. Grey’s solo set, and he conjured up the blues and the soul of his native blackwater for the crowd at the Suwannee Amphitheater.
Then it was time for G. Love, sans the Special Sauce, who extolled the virtues of scotch and swimming in the river between playing songs like original "Cold Beverage" and a surprisingly well-done cover of Robert Johnson‘s "Walking Blues." G. Love finished his set with an odd version of "Baby’s Got Sauce," and obviously genuine excitement for the Michael Franti and Spearhead set to come later.
Unfortunately, there was a couple of bands to endure before that set. The smaller Porch Stage offered Son of a Bad Man, a five-piece rock band from nearby Jacksonville, Florida. Their straight-faced (and possibly serious) cover of Paula Abdul’s "Straight Up" that segued into Stevie Wonder’s classic "Superstition" was more than enough, even without the lead singer’s seizure-like antics, to send most passersby running towards the larger Meadows Stage. There, we were all greeted by Rebelution, a quartet from Santa Barbara, California, whose affinity for a droning vocal effect matched Dick Cheney’s disdain for blinking. This outfit, claming to be a roots-reggae band, actually came off as a 311 rip-off, if 311 had less talent and wrote even cheesier songs about girls.
Thankfully the set change passed quickly and with their giant tapestry in place, Michael Franti and Spearhead graced the main stage to resounding sounds of approval from what seemed to be every congregant at Suwannee. Opening with the ever-hype, "Everyone Deserves Music," those who had expressed their disapproval for the stage’s predecessors quickly forgot as they fell for Franti’s amorous vibe all over again.
Although the set was typical fare for a Spearhead set, including all the now known bells and whistles of a crowd walk through and inviting fans on stage to play dummy guitars while appearing to be shredding the opening riff of "Smells like Teen Spirit," it is virtually impossible to denounce a Franti set for lack of originality. After all, this outfit has never had "followers" as the prototypical "jam" bands have, full of set list-tracking overzealous critics. Rather, fans of Franti get what they put in for each and every time: a set that is a unique blend of both high energy and subtleties that intermingle to create an air of equality and love. This mission was accomplished and just as it was, a staggering exodus took place. Destination: Biscuits.
The Disco Biscuits took the stage at the much beloved amphitheater to close out the second day with style and substance. The small platform was packed with all of the band’s equipment, including the recently added lasers that created visually stimulating patterns over the heads of the crowd and onto the oak trees nestled within the venue. The Biscuits then delivered what many attendees had been waiting for – a true musical excursion that embodied both originality and creativity.
Launching out of "Confrontation," Bisco quickly entered a spacey texture that gave rise to funky runs by guitarist Jon Gutwillig, bassist Marc Brownstein, and keyboardist Aron Magner. Then drummer Allen Aucoin shifted rhythms and a disco-ish, jamtronica vibe emerged that morphed into "Mr. Don" which slid back and forth between 70s and 80s sounding grooves that were pure danceable fun while the band interplay and crowd energy continued to build. The jam was then deconstructed back into a spacey melody while Aucoin again shifted gears and the sound grew darker and slid into "The Great Abyss." Building the jam over and over again, but always returning to darker textures from which it spawned, Bisco explored many ideas before Jon "The Barber" Gutwillig really began to show his chops, producing some impressive runs that drove the band into a heavier sound.
Another change, this time led by Brownie’s bass, and the band entered an inverted "And the Ladies Were the Rest of the Night." Clocking in at around 30 minutes on its whole, this seemed to be the centerpiece of the set and Gutwillig ripped solo after solo, while they cohesively wove in and out of the different sections (in reverse order no less), exploring many themes and styles before briefly re-entering "Mr. Don" before finally taking their first breather of the night.
How did the Biscuits follow up their hour and a half non-stop throw down? With a 25 minute "House Dog Party Favor" of course! Delving once again into spacey weirdness, the guys from Philly really broke away from the structure of the song and into unchartered territory before bringing it back around so The Barber could absolutely demolish it with reckless abandon to close the set. Coming back out for a well-deserved encore of "I Remember When," The Disco Biscuits delivered the performance of the festival and surely gained some new fans from the surrounding college towns.
As the set wrapped, so did the day. It was apparent that many had some things to sleep off and rest would be needed, because hopefully the sunshine would greet us in the morning for another day filled with music and hopefully a true ability to explore the site without being within the confines of a poncho or other rain blocking agent.
As day broke on Saturday and the fraggles came out from under their rocks, we were greeted by the first true rays of sunshine of the weekend. Unfortunately a ominous cloud could be seen in the distance and the attendees’ weather iPhone apps confirmed that, yes, another storm would be in our near future.
A journey to the Blackwater Beach was definitely in order. There truly is nothing quite like it anywhere. The water literally is black and refreshingly cool. This part of the site is a truly defining piece of the Suwannee Park. Whereas most festivals are overcome with being overbearing in regards to their patrons playing too much or doing anything dangerous, the fact that the park itself is open year round to tourists passing through or looking for a place to park their RV means that it has liability insurance out the yang. Because of this, patrons are allowed to access a rope swing that flailed the beautiful festivarians into the awaiting black hole. This, coupled with the ability to ride bicycles throughout the festival and even rent a golf cart to give their dancing legs a much needed break makes for something that is strictly unique.Unfortunately, the trip to the beach meant that many missed out on a ripping set by Zach Deputy, but understandably, the lack of sun throughout the weekend apparently placed the swimming hole higher on the priority list for many.
By the time that The Lee Boys took the amphitheater stage, most, if not all were completely refreshed and the weather had managed to hold off so far. The Lee Boys provided a heavy dose of the Sacred Steel playing. While often compared to Robert Randolph and The Family Band, The Lee Boys offer up something that is entirely their own with an intermingling of blues riffs that accompany songs that could be perceived almost solely as Gospel with an improvisational twist. It was perfect for a Sunday as they provided something even closer to musical church than most of us are used to participating in. As their set time dwindled, most began making their way towards the main stage in search of Particle with guest Michael Kang of String Cheese Incident.
One thing that is worth noting is that Particle is not the hard hitting face melting electronica from days past. Their restraint actually provided for a more set time appropriate delivery than most were expecting. Steve Molitz did what he does best on keys, which as Phil Lesh has often said, "provided all sorts of weirdness." The coupling of Kang with the outfit added a different groove even within some of the better known Particle tunes like "Elevator" or "Road’s a Breeze at 3 AM."
Unfortunately, the rain came again, but this time, no one seemed bothered by it at all. Perhaps they were simply used to it at this point, but it actually increased the rage factor beyond what was seen in the early stages of the set. Wherever it is that Particle has been hiding, it was the clear hope of many that they would come out and rejoin us more often with a full tour.
Galactic would close the day with their typical funky dose of New Orleans injections into the midnight air. As is par for the course, the crowd lapped it up from start to finish.
With this, a festival’s inaugural year was in the books. Overall, it was a success. There were a few miscues in terms of lineup scheduling, but other than that, it was a hell of a good time and one in which growth shall surely come in future years.
Click the thumbnail to view David Shehi‘s Shots from the Fest!