Springfest sets the bar for the 2012 season

Written by Rex Thomson / Photos by Rex Thomson & David Shehi

April 12, 2012

Suwannee Springfest
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
March 22-25, 2012

 

 

For a decade and a half, The Spirit of Suwannee Music park has been home to Suwanee Springfest. Nestled in the venue’ picturesque natural splendor, the heartfelt music generated by the rootsy artists on the bill has signaled the start of the outdoor concert calendar.

The park itself is a secret weapon for this beloved campout. It boasts the historic Suwannee River, idyllic stages set amongst towering cypress trees, and dazzling vistas of nature that boast a rainbow of vibrant colors.

With a near perfect return rate, Springfest hooks its attendees with a blend of bluegrass, roots rock, folk and organic music from around the world.


 

Thursday

Starting the festival off with a bang, the Suwannee Springfest had a mix of returning favorites like troubadour Jim Lauderdale, big name stars of the bluegrass scene such as Vince Herman and his band Great American Taxi, and buzz band of the weekend Elephant Revival.

As the afternoon light filtered through the hanging moss, people danced and lounged in the hammocks that permanently hang from the trees that surround the Amphitheatre Stage. The music began with the roots instrumentation of native Floridians, SOSOS, and The Lefty Williams Band kept the intensity high. The smiling songs of Lauderdale and his mostly one man show kept the vibe both authentic and cheery.

The next stage over — Uncle Charles’s Porch — was where San Francisco-based Hot Buttered Rum lived up to their reputation as a progressive roots musical force, with Aaron Redner displaying startling versatility, bowing the fiddle and strumming the mandolin with equal ease.

The Great American Taxi performance became the scene of the first extended collaboration of the weekend, as early arrival Drew Emmitt joined his Leftover Salmon cohort and GAT front man Vince Herman for a rollicking performance, which featured a mixture of zydeco, bluegrass and rock that clearly appealed to a crowd that was in the mood to shake off the dust that had accumulated over an indoor winter.

Fans wandering from the Amphitheater joined the clued in fans who arrived during the sound check to catch the beginning of Elephant Revival‘s closing of the porch set.

This Colorado unit has found their star on the rise through a methodical tour schedule that has brought their unique brand of intense folk, masterful song craft and passionate performances to the masses. Fans stood entranced during the solemn, near-sacred moments of their songs before enthusiastically embracing the bursts of full throttle jamming that Elephant Revival is more than capable of producing.

While vocalist and percussionist Bonnie Paine handles a majority of lead vocals, the entire band sings with a set of clear strong voices, creating harmonies that blend with a diversified and uplifting approach that won them an entourage of new followers throughout the Springfest weekend.

Ryan Montbleau and his Band closed the night out with a blast of rock that cleared the palette and exhausted any remaining energy, sending the listeners back to their tents weary and ready for rest.


 

Friday

A pleasant effect of  sunrise over the park is the dance of shadows that the combination of the gentle breeze and an extensive cover of flora brings. Stirred out of tents by the call for breakfast and the siren songs of the stage, music fans roused themselves and went to the converted barn that served as the home for weekend workshops that were taught by players that made up the festival’s lineup.

The Two Man Gentleman Band may have gotten their start busking for cash on the streets of New York, but their sound is firmly seated in ragtime and swing. They carried their period love down to a semi-formal state of dress that seemed to give their performance an extra degree of difficulty for the rapidly warming day.

Fest vet Joe Craven led his trio through a tight collection of songs, while Two Foot Level helped warm up another new stage — located at the end of a luscious green field — that would soon be graced by a who’s who of singer/songwriters including Lauderdale, Justin Townes Earle and former Drive-By Trucker, Jason Isbell, who shared the stage and delighted the crowd with their musical round table approach.

Back on the Amphitheatre Stage, Hot Buttered Rum’s set had turned into a hotbed of familiar faces, as Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine lent her fiery washboard technique to the band’s second serving of the fest.

Further, Greensky Bluegrass stalwarts Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman played the role of wingmen, flanking both sides of the stage and helping to lift the HBR show into a joyous “Akimbo” that had everyone within an earshot, from the front row to the workers in the beer booths, twirling and dancing, smiles abound.

While Larry Keel and Natural Bridge took the Meadow Stage, the dynamic Emmitt-Nershi outfit (The String Cheese Incident’s Billy Nershi, Leftover Salmon founding member Emmitt, recent addition Andy Thorn, and former Railroad Earth bassist, Johnny Grubb) whipped up a tall fire with their blend of fast picking and slow lyrical interludes.

Elephant Revival’s second set was met with an audience that dwarfed the previous night’s “in the know” crowd, and the band played with a playful surety that spoke well of their seasoning.

Relying heavily on the road tested material from the recently released Paradise Lost, Vince Herman and Great American Taxi’s Meadow Stage set was a solidly scheduled play by festival organizers and provided the perfect bridge between the bluegrass of the day and the final act on the Meadow Stage, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

Isbell and company easily provided the loudest and most rock-steady performance of the weekend. Isbell’s distortion-laden tone echoed out over the sea of faces and physically spoke to the crowd, a wall of sound that had to be respected.

The moment many had been waiting for arrived when Greensky Bluegrass took the stage to close things down for the evening.

From the latter part of 2010 to the present, Greensky ‘s years of dedicated hard work has finally  paid off. With a critic’s choice studio effort, Handguns, priority booking on many festivals lineups and a rapidly growing fan base, it seemed to all come to a head when the Michigan quartet closed down one what is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most recognizable stages.

At times dark and menacing, Greensky’s set was a study in intensity. While not eschewing the traditional lineup of players for a bluegrass band, they do add in heavy use of effects of both instrumental and vocal nature. Long, forceful and sweat filled instrumental packages gave way to growling sermons with Dave Bruzza growling out a pair of fierce turns at the mic.

A lighter note came in the form of two covers, Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” Duran Duran’s “Her Name is Rio.” Both could have just been played for shits and giggles. Instead, both the Greensky gang opted to utilize the tunes to do what they do best:  launch into an around the horn trade off of the lead, with more attention paid to the sharing of a true band than any one member shining too brightly.

Each took his place in the spotlight as the others effortlessly dropped into the wall of sound, backing their band mate exactly like a brother should.


 

Saturday

And then the rain came.

Though the show went on, many hunkered in the camps, waiting for a clearing that seemed soon to come. The skies eventually cleared, and just as the sun began to peak out from behind ominous clouds that poured only moments earlier, it was time for Darol Anger: a teacher, musician and leader of the Republic of Strings.

Joined by Rashad, AKA Tornado Rider, Anger put on a showcase, including a haunting “Uncle John’s Band” that was filled out and made entirely unique with a fierce fiddle solo from the front man that brought spontaneous cheers of joy from the thoroughly soaked multitude.

In a set that was scheduled to feature Tony Rice, who was absent from the festivities due to an injury to his hand, Larry Keel made the best of the mishap and in true Keel and Springfest fashion, Larry and Natural Bridge’s Saturday turned the set into a pickin’ showcase with a guest-filled stage. Commenting afterward, Larry simply said “yep, we packed the place. It sure was fun.” He conveniently left out that it is this type of thing for which the mountain music man lives and breathes.

Keel was in his element. It was 20-some-odd players — including Nershi, Emmitt and Hoffman and Beck of Greensky Bluegrass — all focused on Keel.  He was lost in the music, occasionally smiling but never losing his firm grip on orchestration. His wife, Jenny, gazed upon her husband with a look of love that would warm even the coldest heart.

The best part of it all was that for Keel, all that occurred could have just as well been around a campfire for all he cared. It just so happened that there were a thousand people witnessing this magic, making it that much more spiritual.

At one point, realizing that the set had run way past its scheduled time, Keel looked over to the side of the stage, only to be assured by one of the promoters (who was dancing) that there was absolutely no reason to worry.

Seminal Suwannee band and the only band present at all 16 episodes, Donna the Buffalo, played to a throng of eager members of the “herd,” a traditional festival ritual that lifted the spirits of the oldest of fans and the children alike.

After having exploded on the bluegrass scene over the last few years, The Infamous Stringdusters have found themselves with large crowds at virtually every show, and they drew a fine crowd to see them light up the Porch, while Greensky followed up their previous heroics with a dose of soulful mandolin man. Paul Hoffman’s voice  was like a wounded man in protest, defiant in tone as his howls cuts through the strummed strings in a way that little else could.

The Colorado connection was is strong at Springfest this year, seemingly in a conscious effort to embrace that region’s strong family of acts at this year’s fest.

From Nershi and Emmitt to the night’s headliner, The Yonder Mountain String Band, the spirit of the Rockies was strong on the stages of Suwannee.

With a scheduled Yonder Mountain Spring Jam (acting as the band’s second set), YMSB front man, Jeff Austin, took to the backstage area like a kid in a candy shop upon arrival, recruiting all of the wandering players for the second set and getting nothing but exuberant acceptances from the gathered musicians.

The first set was the four members of the band, and it was quite the display of each member’s musical aptitudes. Guitarist Adam Aijala lost himself in runs, retreating into carved intricate spaces, banjo player Dave Johnston fretted frantically. Bassist Ben Kauffman sang as he played, his whole body and soul seemingly twisted into each note and the de facto front man Austin traipsed about the stage, treating his mandolin as if it had done something horribly wrong, chastising it with a furious strumming tempo.

It was a fantastic Yonder set that, not surprisingly, included Darol Anger for the overwhelming majority of the set. It would have been difficult to follow for most bands; the band was that spot-on. But thanks to Austin’s earlier call to arms, the band’s second set was a clusterpluck free for all, a good old fashioned hoe down party.

Joined by pretty much every performer who was still on site — including Herman, Nershi, Emmitt, Greensky Bluegrass and The Infamous Stringdusters — every musician worth their salt lined the stage two deep, bumping into each other with sheepish grins and clear enthusiasm.

Every picker was called to the front and songs from legends past and present were used as the framework for 90 minutes of musical exploration and grinning attempts at one-upmanship.

Playful and in command, Austin strode the front of the stage, nodding to individual players to take the lead, groups of players to conspire together and at times, to enter into swirling trade-offs.

Pulling out a classic Leftover Salmon jam, “Wake and Bake,” as the finale was an inspired choice, giving Herman an opportunity to lead the crowd in a sing along while a row of musicians, many of whom hold Herman and his cohort Emmitt on a pedestal for their inspired take on bluegrass many moons ago, seemed to be having the times of their lives.

Finally calling an end to the fun, a visibly-moved Austin thanked the crowd for the thunderous reception that showered the stage.

Late nights at the Spirit of Suwanee Music Park are always a fun experience, as the maze of trees and landmarks creates a wonderland through which to wander, the clear night sky showing a dazzling array of stars through branches.

A Springfest tradition is a series of hidden group camps and campfires which draw fans and strolling musicians alike. Legendary fireside jam sessions dot the camping areas and though the shows are unbilled, they have been known to rival anything you will find on the stages themselves and are hunted for by adventurous music lovers all night long.


 

Sunday

As always, the last day of a festival starts slow as people recover from the late night heroics to face one last day of surreal living before returning to their daily, more mundane and responsible lives.

Nonetheless, Sunday had lots of fun left in store for the faithful, with Verlon Thompson ready to kick up some dust, Larkin Poe delighting the Meadow stag fans with a mix of earnest jams and smiling lyrics and The Mosier Brothers greeted the crowd as returning heroes.

Jeff Mosier had been on the scene all weekend, just as he has been on the jam, bluegrass and music scene as a whole for a long time. Throughout the weekend, he led a workshop, performed two sets, and made guest appearances. He was one of the hardest-working players of the festival.

The Mosier Brothers’ sets at Springfest gave some fans who were familiar with projects past a chance to become fully acquainted with what Jeff and brother Johnny have been up to, and the jaw dropping material their ensemble creates.

Taking the opportunity to show off material from the recently release self titled effort, Springfest was the perfect place for the band to call home for a weekend, with music that was a perfect fit for the genre most attendees seek when attending the annual event.

The Infamous Stringdusters’ Sunday set at The Amphitheatre was packed to hear band’s sound, a derivation from virtually all areas of string music, from roots to bluegrass and even a tinge of rock. The band showed their mastery in all facets, from extensive jamming to short and fast picking classics. They also showed their unmatched mastery for playing right into the crowd’s hand, digging deep into their catalog, exhibiting a cut from Silver Sky (out March, 2012) and even playing a cover that had all the hippies dancing, Phish’s “Free.”

The task of closing down the weekend of music fell to the band that has done it more times than any other, Donna the Buffalo.

DTB’s fans are nothing if not loyal, and the crowd was as packed as any throughout the weekend for this closing stanza. Fans danced, arms raised towards the sky, and fell quiet during any hushes. The band has played throughout the life of Springfest, and to many are the spiritual heart of the weekend. Seeing the joy on the faces of the fans made plain that the spirit was alive and well, and that the heart of Springfest would beat on long into the future.

As the weekend closed and cars were packed, another Springfest was in the books. While one can only ponder what an event hopes to accomplish when planners sit and pour over details over the year that leads up to the weekend, there is virtually no way that it can be imagined that the 2012 installment didn’t meet or exceed all expectations.

Musically, it was spot on; diverse enough to keep it interesting but genre-specific enough to keep it in a niche and therefore, intimate.

The setting was, as always, perfect. There is no better place to hold a festival. There may be equals, but the Spirit of the Suwannee Park cannot be beaten.

The organization was all you could hope for. Schedules and maps made sense, the abundance of porta-johns was well-maintained, and security maintained safety without encroaching on people’s good time.

There is no doubt that an event like this is one that others should look to as they plan their own. It truly was the complete package and one that, fortunately for the live music community, will live on for the foreseeable future.

 

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the festival by Rex Thomson/Rex-A-Vision & David Shehi

Scroll down to check out David & Rex’s “On the Scene at Suwannee Springfest video)

Previous 2012 Suwannee coverage:

Live, Backstage & Unplugged with Elephant Revival, Emmitt Nershi & The Mosier Brothers

Contest to win a 2012 Suwannee Springfest poster autographed by Yonder Mountain String Band, members of Greensky Bluegrass, Billy Nershi, Drew Emmitt, Vince Herman & Larry Keel

 

On the Scene at Suwannee Springfest featuring Larry Keel, Elephant Revival, The Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, Donna the Buffalo and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass)