Springfest : Refreshingly unchanged

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"The times, they are a-changin’."  To quote the prolific Bob Dylan with these words, while ever so poignant and relevant when penned in 1963, may be a profound understatement in the most current of times. The more accurate statement of today just may be, "The times, they have a-changed" globally, but also musically.

Dying to see your favorite musicians perform but they are halfway around the globe?  No problem-just live stream the concert onto the flat screen in your living room.  Enjoying the stirring emotions of your favorite ballad?  Show your appreciation by holding up the lighter app on your smart phone.  While instant access to anything and everything certainly has its perks, there is something to be said for active participation in life outside of technology-going back to basics and receiving an experience. For fifteen years, Suwannee Springfest has been one such place to receive this organic musical opportunity.  On Thursday, March 24 through Sunday, March 27, SpringFest proved its roots run deep and provided an experience that remains refreshingly unchanged.

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Stepping foot onto the grounds of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is like visiting the land that time forgot.  Spanish moss drips from the live oaks, leaf covered paths meander through shallow roots and sand, and the crystal clear Rees Lake glimmers with a pristine mirror image of the striking grounds.  Rather than banished to rows and rows of cars and tents emblazoned in the hot sun like other festivals, campers can tuck their tents and chairs into cozy natural nooks created by the glorious landscape of Live Oak, Florida’s Suwannee camp ground. Instead of being miles away from all the action, everyone can be close enough to the main activities to hear faint melodies at their new home away from home.

Inside the venue, artist workshops, handcrafted instruments, and kid’s tents welcomed patrons of all ages with open arms.  Tents filled with friendly merchandise hawkers were nestled next to eclectic food vendors serving everything from gator bites and monster burritos to pasta-far-I soba noodles and authentic root beer floats around the clock to satisfy even the most diverse of palates.  These attractions, added to the six music areas, provided all of the right elements for a fantastic weekend filled with great friends, fun, and MUSIC. 

Artists of varying levels of notoriety and an assortment of different musical flavors brought a wide range of musicality to the table, but the overall feeling was decidedly bluegrass.  Some groups seemed to be on the rise in the musical world.  These groups entertained old fans while succeeding in making some new ones along the way. 

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine brought a real sense of their bluegrass piquancy to both the Uncle Charles Porch Stage and to the Old Florida Campground Stage.  The trio from Jacksonville, Florida stomped and twanged about "ain’t havin’ the money to drink no more" as tranquil festival attendees performed yoga, tossed bean bags, and fished in the still lake a stone’s throw from the campground stage. 

Sol Driven Train, the funky, groovin’ ensemble from South Carolina, heated up the Magnolia Meadow Stage with a tasty variety of songs filled with fiddle riffs, saxophone licks, organ wails, and trombone slides.  From their 311-esque reggae styled "Tend Your Fire" to more zydeco inspired melodies of "Miss Ohio", their eclectic panache steadily revved up the stirring crowd.  As the band ended with a cheeky tune about long johns and a surprisingly sweet song about cake, more than a few new fans had been established for the SC five. 

SF5.jpgSisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe made it a family affair as they graced both the meadow stage and later the Big IV Amphitheater.  While the oldest of the duo is barely 20, their talent in songwriting and performance is more than apparent.  Their amphitheater set was highlighted by a particularly touching rendition of their "Long Hard Fall."

Josh Philips Folk Festival lit up the meadow stage with mellow, clean rhythms and rich, soulful vocal harmonies.  Josh poured every ounce of himself into each song as Debrissa McKinney added her lush voice to the mix.  The crowd relished in their controlled rhythmic version of Lionel Richie’s "All Night Long" that ascended into an up-tempo African jam.  The set ended with "Gabby", a reggae head-bobber that inspired dancing, as opposed to walking, to the next musical adventure.

Several bands brought their own crowd following in droves to the festival.  The Ralph Roddenbery Band was one that led their fan club to the party.  Roddenbery strummed his well-worn guitar and crooned heart felt melodies with much raw, energetic emotion.  The harmonies created among his band sent chills up the spine.  The crowd smiled and cheered proudly as his small niece joined him on stage and sang joyfully, "Hey people, let the sun shine in"-a shiny, happy moment indeed. 

With raging sets on both Thursday and Friday nights, The Motet neared instrumental perfection.  The audience both stood in awe and thrashed in ecstasy as one astounding refrain blended seamlessly into the next.  The boys exuded a fiery electricity that was compounded exponentially by the addition of The String Cheese Incident’s famed Michael Kang to the stage, an artist-at-large for the weekend.  The afro-beat inspired jazz ensemble from Boulder, Colorado, led by drummer Dave Watts, played one funky groove after the other.  A most impressive moment occurred with a mixed metered rhythm-tastic percussion duet.  All of the other band members cleared the stage for the two to play in and out of feels in perfect sync, drumming their way into a pulsating frenzy.  As the other band members returned to the stage, solos were ripped, bass lines were layered with inspired vocal harmonies, and intensely notey grooves were spun into musical gold.  

Young bluegrass traditionalists Steep Canyon Rangers lived up to their highly publicized hype.  The group has gained recent national notoriety with the likes of their friend and fellow picker, Steve Martin. Though Martin did not join the group at this fest, Larry Keel stepped up to the musical plate.  SCR wowed the large crowd as they showcased the beautiful vocal harmonies and knee-slapping, toe-tapping picking that they, and bluegrass, are famous for.   

SF1.jpgExisting as a virtual bluegrass rolodex, Larry Keel and his band Natural Bridge pulled out every tune imaginable and then some at each of their electrifying performances.  The fast picking heavyweights delivered rock solid jams to their pumped up attendees.  From Grand Master Flash’s "The Message" to Bill Monroe inspired mellow jams, Keel and the gang laid it down.  The crowd cut a rug as the group shouted out to the ladies with some "sexy bluegrass".  Now we know the glue that holds the Keels together.   

Joe Craven was a busy man all weekend long, leading educational percussion workshops, joining Steep Canyon Rangers for a set, and playing a handful of concerts of his own.  His true love of both teaching and performing music exuded from every word he spoke as well as every note he played.  Craven’s goose bump inducing a capella opening of "Musical Building" looped over beat-boxed vocal bass lines provided a deep look into his open soul. Craven played his way through the instrumental encyclopedia with percussive metal discs, mandolins, bongos, body percussion, a "100% recycled" handmade metal canjo" and a small waste can acquired from a Holiday Inn Express in New Jersey.  He sung eloquently of the hardship of modern economic times, stirred bodies with his "dance music" and moved hearts with lyrics like, "If you want a cool drink of water, you’ve got to dig a little deeper in the well."  Wise words from a heartfelt, inspirational humanitarian.       

Perhaps bluegrass in its most classic form is The Travelin’ McCourys.  Ronnie and Rob, sons of the legendary Del McCoury, perpetuate their bluegrass dynasty with monstrous talent. The group performed on their own to packed crowds and was also joined for a set by The Lee Boys.  As the familiar stains of "Amazing Grace" flowed from the pedal steel guitar of Lee Boy Roosevelt Collier, one couldn’t help but know that he/she was in the presence of bluegrass royalty.                

Crowd favorite Cornmeal produced a few of their own epic sets while often adding to others throughout the fest. To the tune of the strikingly talented fiddle play of Allie Kral, bubbles floated in the air, hula hoops spun, as painters depicted the pleasant scene at the stage’s feet.  The group performed fan favorites like "Stuck in the Mud" and "Old Virginia," the latter of which was supplemented by Greensky Bluegrass‘s Anders Beck, who contributed to the number with his dobro work.  

SF3.jpgEmmitt-Nershi Band, who amply entertained many without aid during the weekend, took their performance to another level when the duo led what was coined the Colorado Super Jam

The monster ensemble played their mountain music under the soft, glowing lights and flowing streamers of the packed amphitheater late night on Friday.  As purple, red, blue, and green lights washed over their faces, the super group cranked out hit after hit. Michael Kang, The Motet’s Dave Watts Greensky Bluegrass’s Beck, Tornado Rider‘s cello shredder, Rushad Eggleston (equipped with his Peter Pan hat), Ronnie McCoury, Cormeal’s Kral, David Grisman’s resident flutist, Matt Eakle, and many others joined the stage at various points throughout the set.  A lone audience member even tried to help out with some washboard action, but was promptly denied.  Each number noodled led to long, building jams that sent Kang’s horse hair flying to the intensity.  SCI’s "Lester Had a Coconut," "Jellyfish," "Rolling in my Sweet Baby’s Arms", and newly written "Colorado Bluebird Sky" provided the roadmap upon which each member could travel.  Later in the set, Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon, Emmitt-Nershi) boasted that Suwannee’s grounds were the best in the nation, if not the in world.  Perhaps fueling this comment was the snow falling simultaneously in his home state of Colorado.  Whatever the reason for the visit, we’ll take these Colorado boys anytime.    

Feel good ensemble,  Donna the Buffalo drew a big crowd for the festival, and for good reason. Smooth melodies and driving backbeats kept the fans’ toes moving in the isles of the moonlit amphitheater. Buffalo’s set was highlighted by their reggae-esque "West Virginia Rastafari" and the Zydeco inspired people pleaser, "Blue Sky".   

SF7.jpgMandolin legend himself, Jesse McReynolds, more than proved he’s still got the goods to hold it down on the stage. Backed by two of his grandsons in the group, Jesse played a wide spectrum of songs, spanning from the most traditional of bluegrass tunes to Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia tributes.  Jesse, sporting a steal your face sticker on his mandolin, serenaded the mellow crowd with "Deep Elem Blues", "Sitting on top of the World", and "Black Muddy River".  The men in (mostly) black fully demonstrated their legendary status. 

David Grisman Sextet was a real treat for the concert goers.  Not only is David Grisman considered to be one of the greatest mandolin players of all time, he is also considered to be one of the true pioneers of popularizing bluegrass for the masses.  Some of his most well-known work was produced with his dear, late friend, Jerry Garcia.  Grisman’s likeable charm and witty humor flowed easily from his every pore as a testament to his many decades spent on stage. Grant Gordy’s "Blues to Dawg" and "Opus 57" were just a few of the songs played as people swayed lazily in their hammocks in the glow of kerosene torches. 

Fresh off of their notable Grammy appearance with Bob Dylan, festival headliners The Avett Brothers filled the breezy amphitheater with an anxious and stirring crowd.  From the first strain of their passionate confessional, "Shame", the boys skyrocketed into a jumping, strumming and picking uproar of song.  Brothers Scott and Seth Avett switched in and out of instruments quickly between songs to keep the energy at a charged electric high, with their high hat and kick drum at the constant ready. 

From the word go, the brothers were taking the thankful crowd on their emotional journey.  The Avetts, along with bassist Bob Crawford and cello man Joe Kwan, pulled out songs from their early albums like "Hard Worker" and "Pretty Girl From Cedar Lane." The boys surprised even the most avid fans with classics like "The Traveling Song" and the harmonica filled "The Fall."  Loud requests from the audience came for some of their newer favorites like "January Wedding" and "I and Love and You," and the band happily obliged. 

SF8.jpgPerhaps some of the most touching moments of the night came from Scott’s solo "Murder in the City" where he spoke of his love for his wife and daughter. The Avett Brothers rapidly moved from the most dynamic of high energy tunes to the most dramatic of demonstrative ballads and left the crowd begging for more.  With a double-encore of "November Blue" and riotous "Talk on Indolence" the crowd’s prayer for a treat was more than answered.  The boys showed genuine gratitude and humble appreciation for their many SpringFest performances.

If one thing in the world is inevitable, it is that life continues to perpetuate.  This unwavering fact becomes evident when the warm air begins to stir, the buds arise on the trees, and the sun starts shining a little brighter.  The joys of spring…and festival season…are upon us.  The change from the cold winter’s clutches to the release of springtime is a change we can all get behind. SpringFest is the supreme setting to celebrate these grass roots, earthen experiences with some musical newcomers, some quintessential bluegrass pioneers, and some of the biggest names in the game.  Nothing can replace the joy of experiencing the perfect music festival.  In this day and age, it is nice to know that some things will never become obsolete.


Click the thumbnail to view more photos from the fest from Brian DeGaetano

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