Wanee 2011: As sweet as tea should be

Written by David Shehi / photos by David Shehi & Ian Rawn

April 29, 2011

From the moment one’s foot steps onto the grounds of Wanee Music Festival, he knows that he is in the South; greeted by hospitality that is inherently Southern, where “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” are lingo du jour and sweet tea washes it all down.

The festival has become a staple of sorts on the jam circuit. The fifth-year festival is hosted by the Allman Brothers Band and known for being brand loyal, but in 2011 brought a lineup that was worthy of tremendous praise. With artists ranging from Widespread Panic to Lotus and Stephen Marley, the festival literally did not have an un-notable until the very last line of the undercard.

But the question going into the event was whether or not it would be able to live up to its highest expectations yet?

 

It is an overwhelming assignment to try and decipher which festivals are worthy of one’s hard earned dough. Let’s face it – festivals aren’t cheap. There are travel expenses, time away from work and on-site expenses that can include expensive refreshments and the overwhelming urge to buy some sort of merch, whether it is a poster or a craft from one of the many vendors who have something that you never knew you wanted.  Then, there’s the cost of admission itself, which typically ranges from 125 to 200 bones.

p1014643_copy.jpgWanee had multiple things going for it. When a decision must be made between hearing Stephen Marley belt out “Iron Lion Zion” or relaxing with a plate Hot Tuna, success is nearly inevitable. This strength in lineup, combined with the pristine location of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, made failure improbable. However there was one thing not in its favor…co-host and proverbial landlord, Live Nation.

Live Nation hating is like a sport. Just the mere mention of the conglomerate can cause an otherwise even keeled individual to immediately start bitching, be it about their additional fees or monopolies. But complete close-mindedness has never been my bag so I approached the event with a clean slate.

It is safe to say that not only did Live Nation not affect any of its weekend tenants in a negative manner, they also successfully managed an event that came complete with roughly 15,000 people in a way that was anything but chaotic or disorganized. Getting into the festival was a cinch. Needed to know where the closest water bottle filling station was?  Just ask. Lost your schedule? Cool, here is a replacement.

Arriving at Suwannee is always a nice feeling. Though the environment has been hashed over time and again by every person who has ever written a word about the place, it is still difficult to not mention the fact that it comes with ample amounts of shade, not a bad camping location in the lot, and one of the most unique bodies of water that one can ever view…with its black tint and smooth floor. But regardless of the splendid setting, this was a music festival and it would be within the music that would be the proving ground.

 

 

Headliners

 

The Allman Brothers Band

As opposed to dissecting each and every chord of both of the Allman’s sets—something for which there are plenty more capable people to do—it is safe to say that the Brothers rose to the occasion.

When they took the stage, it was literally as though no one else had been on it all day; it was theirs.

p1016541_copy.jpgHighlighted by a night one “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” that crossed the 30-minute mark (including “Drums”) and a second night “Whipping Post,” both nights served as examples of not only why this band has remained in existence for as long as they have, but also as to why their peers hold them in such high regard.

Gregg Allman’s voice was beautiful as he rode the notes to the point that he could before bowing to the harmonies of Warren Haynes. He sat at his organ as he typically does, like a proud father coaching his children. And just like children, the entire cast respects Allman as the father figure as he conducts and orchestrates from his perch. He puts them in the game and takes them out.

The most obvious example of this came in night one’s “Liz Reed.” As the noodling gave way to the actual number, Allman would give a nod to each player and thereby permission to come into the fold.

And once in the game, it was up to each one of them as to which direction they would go. The slide work of Derek Trucks would give way to the picking of Haynes. The tympani of the elder Trucks (Butch) served as supplement to Jaimoe Johanson’s ever-present drum fills.

When the jam reached its peak, the music had melded together in such a collective fashion that, while instruments were discernible, they were also united into one sound. Furthering it all was Ron Holloway who sat in on sax. The eventual distorted mimicry interplay between him and Haynes took the staple song to an all new height. This was not formulaic jam – it was off the cuff improvisation. It was jam in its absolute optimum form and finest hour and while it came at the hands of all of the players, it was the humble coach who could be credited for a large portion of it.

The Allman Brothers Band’s sets were the highlights of the festival…not because they were supposed to be…they just simply were.

 

 

Widespread Panic

imr_7191.jpgIt is a special year for the Panic boys. They celebrated 25 years as a band this past February and hiatus rumors continue to swirl. Their shows lately have been touted as some of the best in years. Wanee’s set would not meet that high expectation but did measure up to par, especially for a one set festival performance.

Opening up ferociously with JJ Cale’s “Travelin’ Light,” it seemed that they would go for the throat for the evening. Instead, they opted for a shuffle set of sorts, bouncing in and out of eras. An example of this was when Luther Dickinson was brought on stage for “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues.” Between Herring and Dickinson, it ripped and even front man John Bell’s facial expressions showed how pleased he was with the sound.

The set progressed though, with another highlight being Bell’s acoustic play on “Christmas Katie,” but as a set closer, the lackluster offering of “Climb to Safety” was deficient in the areas that one would have hoped for in a closer.

With that said, apparently the boys realized that they still had some time left after walking off stage and returned with an encore of unpredictability for the ages, “Are You Ready for the Country?” Maybe it was their plan all along, maybe not. Regardless, this tune sent their throng of admirers off into the night with a token to remember them by even though many in the crowd were venturing to Birmingham, AL for the two-night stand that followed Wanee.   For the rest of us, it was either bed or Lotus. Yeah, Lotus it was.

 

 

Highlights

 

Wanda Jackson

Jackson’s entire set embodied a spirit that has been all but lost in the music world. She was gracious. She was ladylike. She told stories about a young man that she once dated – Elvis Presley. And we all sat in awe as “legend” literally seemed to excrete through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s pores. Vocally she was delightful as p1015118_copy.jpgshe sang through a set that included numbers from her early rockabilly days all the way through recent numbers that have been either born from or reworked through her relationship with Jack White.

 

Hot Tuna

From the moment that the threshold of Spanish moss hanging from the oak trees was crossed, magic set in. Though the set was billed as “electric” this would be an acoustic offering after all and between the voice and signature finger picking style of Jorma Kaukonen, the equal skill of Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and the legendary Jack Casady holding down the low end, the set was mesmerizing. There was nothing face melting. In fact, it was barely danceable.  That was the point. This was a set where finding a spot where the chills could take root where they belong—in the spine—was of utmost importance.

With so many highlights, it is simply safer to say that there were no lowlights. From covers of Rev. Gary Davis’s “Children of Zion” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” to “I Know You Rider” to new originals like “River of Time,” the band delivered a perfect prelude to a starry skied night.

 

Lotus

Lotus seems to have the lineup Gods always smiling down upon them. Their slated spot left them up against no one and in situations like this, the quartet almost always delivers. From the minute they popped the top on “Tip of the Tongue,” the outfit could do no wrong in the crowd’s eyes. The crowd itself was a scene to behold…with hoops flying through the air, scantily clad sparkle pony beauties doing what they do and enough energy to light up the Empire State. Even when tunes dwindled into what was more noise than music, the vigor that was present made up for any technical flaw.

p1016634_copy.jpgEven Lotus’ typically mild-mannered front man, Luke Miller, seemed to be distracted by the mayhem that was ensuing before the stage—at one point jokingly encouraging the crowd to cross over a barrier that was reserved for VIP attendees.

On its whole, the set sent those that attended off into the night better for it.

 

7 Walkers

7 Walkers filled Friday’s late night slot. Though many questioned this placement, particularly on a night that saw Particle on the schedule, 7 Walkers did what they do…improvised their way through a unique blend of soul, funk and pure tasty goodness.

The occasion saw Dirty Dozen’s sousaphone player, Kirk Joseph, play with the outfit for the first time to fill out the low end left by George Porter Jr.’s absence. (Porter was in Australia with Funky Meters) Joseph’s star could not have shone brighter as his tone took songs that will never die at the 7 Walkers hands to an (even more so than usual) all new place, further proving that when you are a legend like Bill Kreutzmann, getting in where you fit in is nowhere near the challenge that it would be with lesser figures.

They tapped into the same sacred spiritual place that Hot Tuna had done the day previous.

 

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

When does this woman stop to breathe? I submit that when she is onstage, never. From beginning to end, Jones and her Dap Kings never slowed.

Highlighted by “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” Jones once again took her listeners back in time but with a rawness that was completely fresh and a grandiosity in sound (created by the full chops of the Dap Kings) of which Phil Spector would be proud. It sure was nice to be taken to a time when it was stylish to smoke cigarettes. And no one does this better than Jones.

p1016008_copy.jpgSure, Jones has her schtick and she once again went through the motion of demonstrating the way that her (African and Native American) ancestors danced, and though the move is a repeated one, it has not lost any of the authentic energy that it had the first time.

 

Warren Haynes Band

He’s got soul and he’s super bad. Yeah, I am talking about Warren Haynes. Whereas James Brown had dancing feet, Warren has his Gibson Custom ES-335 (his seeming guitar of choice when playing with this ensemble) that growls and sings with fervent pitch and overwhelming grace.

With the stage set by SJDK, Warren and his cast of players took full ownership of it. With a stellar collection of talent, the sound that this outfit created on Wanee’s Peach Stage was refreshing. It was equal parts jazz, blues and funk…and all soul. Warren shined, but it was not the full-frontal shredding that many have come to know with Gov’t Mule. The Haynes here came across as a statesman as he delegated and yielded to his fellow musicians.

It has been said that Mule was Warren’s way of keeping his creative juices flowing, especially in the early days of that band. Well if that was the case, the same can be said here. He is in his element and it reflected to the gigantic crowd that gathered for the performance, many of whom were getting their first glimpse.

Highlights were many but the true standout tracks came from the band’s upcoming record and included “Man In Motion (w/ Dap King Horns)” and “Sick of My Shadow.”

 

Particle

Particle is back…hopefully. And I almost missed the set due to the overwhelming desire to see something spectacular come from Robert Plant & The Band of Joy. So I waited and waited….and got nearly nothing sans a rock & roll icon on stage. Maybe it was the audible crowd noise…who knows? It just wasn’t happening.

p1016816_copy.jpgNearing the back of the field, the sounds that Phil Lesh referred to as “weird,” Steve Molitz’s keys during “Launchpad,” became audible and my walk hastened. Once at the stage, I realized that the search for special that I had been fruitlessly searching for at the Plant gig was happening and in full swing with Particle.

They have now gone back to the one guitarist format that was most successful for them when Charlie Hitchcock was the axe man.

Closing with “Road’s a Breeze at 3am,” the general consensus was that Particle has officially regained their strong footing.

 

Taj Mahal

Yet another icon gracing the 2011 Wanee stage.

Taj’s set came complete with all of the muddied rawness for which you would hope. Running through a series of blues standards as well as original gems (with “Honey Bee” being the highlight), to see this gentleman still joyfully doing his thing was enough in and of itself. But the fact that he still plays and croons with the capability of a man half his age made it just that much more special.

His Wanee set proved that although many can imitate, none can duplicate.

 

Tedeschi Trucks Band

p1017065_copy.jpgWhat we have here is musical perfection. The official joining of forces between Trucks and wife Tedeschi under an official moniker (complete with an upcoming studio release) is only natural. But it doesn’t stop there.

The entire cast is stellar and the sounds immediately won over the Allman crowd who were out in full force for the set.

 

Oteil Burbridge sitting in with Mike Gordon

Enough said….and Oteil took part in a scat session for good measure. This fails to mention that Gordon’s set smoked in its entirety.

 

 

Lowlights

 

Keller Williams

There has never been a negative written utterance from me in regards to Keller. That is, until now.

Keller never picked up a guitar. Rather, he (and a drummer and ivory tickler) played bass for the entire set that was heavy on gems including “Ninja” opening, “Best Feeling” closing, and a Dead tune (”High Time”) in the middle. He stated to the crowd that he “appreciated their indulgence of his self-indulgence and his new fascination with the low end.” Well, I am all about the low end and God knows I am all about indulgence, but some of those numbers all but require a guitar.

p1016910_copy.jpgCould it be that this band needs more rehearsal time together? Sure. Does Keller Williams, an acoustic beast, need to always play a guitar at some point in a set? Absolutely.

 

Ween

It is common knowledge amongst the boognish faithful that Ween sets are hit or miss. Unfortunately this set was a miss.

It started out strongly but faded fast to the point that the band’s attempt at rejuvenating it seemed way too forced.

The Deaner and Gener seemed to be making a concerted effort to play to the festival crowd’s hand, forgetting the fact that there were diehard fans in the crowd. There also seemed to be some sort of disconnect between the founders. Speculating as to the reasons why this is will be left for message board posters, but again, this (disconnect) is something that occasionally happens.

Gene did not seem comfortable in his own skin and over sang many of the numbers. On the numbers when he relaxed, “Let’s Dance” and “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” things were much better.

 

Nowhere near enough sit-ins

With DJ Logic on the scene, how in the hell is it even possible that he did not sit in with Panic… especially in a set that included “Dyin’ Man?” There are several more examples to cite, but none more glaring than this one.

 

 

Moment to Remember

The age at this festival literally spanned from pubescent to balding and the inclusion of acts like Big Gigantic, the Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken duo, definitely served its purpose.

p1016996_copy.jpgMaking the trek, an older gentleman who embodied an Allman fan of old (long white beard, bandana, sleeveless tee shirt) was overheard asking his counterpart “just what in the hell is this Big Gigantic?” His buddy replied “don’t know, but we have an hour ‘til Luther and Cody,” referring to North Mississippi Allstars Duo.

So the consensus was that Lalli and Salken were not for everybody in this environment, but for those that were enthralled (and there were many), the set and its highlight of “Lucid Dreams” served up just what they were hoping it would…synth and sax driven organic techno…and the “youngins” better for it.

 

 

SNAFUs?

 

1) When the hell will the schedule be released?

The daily schedule was not released in its entirety until nine days before the festival. Once released, it showed that several of the bands that were definitely being looked forward to (JGB, The Radiators, Dumpstaphunk) would not play on the days for which the festival was actually scheduled. Instead, they would play on the night previous. It was a bummer, particularly since The Radiators are breaking up this year.

In any event, there was still a boatload of music to experience over the three days, so forgiveness didn’t have to come with any type of sacrament.

 

2) The lack of thorough soundchecks…

It was within the North Mississippi Allstars Duo’s set that the glaring disadvantage reared its ugly head to the largest extent. The signature blues riffs that Luther played on his Gibson were spot on. Let’s face it; Dickinson is like bubblin’ crude with his Texas tea being deep blues and his black gold being funk. The guy is a fucking machine who rarely makes a technical mistake. And this was the case at Wanee.

Younger brother Cody, did what he does and he did it with that smile that we all know and love. However, it was the vocals that needed improvement.

imr_7406.jpgLuther simply sounded like he could not hear himself. His pitch was off and with a range that is already limited by nature, half the set was over before things were properly fiddled with with to the point that he sounded his usual self. As he stretched his range, his notes became further off key. By the time that the duo reached “Po’ Black Maddie,” all was well and the set took us to the onset of dusk in a way that was authentically Southern on a day that had been a rather harsh one, courtesy of Florida Helios.

 

3) Get those damned chairs out of here…

Reserving space is as old as Methuselah, but many patrons felt as though it was their right to put a lawn chair up front, leave it unattended and return to it at their leisure. Is there anything that can be done about this? Not really, but selfishness is not a trait that lines up with most people’s boundary systems.

Conclusion….

On its whole, Wanee was a raging success. The vibe that flowed from its patrons and through its artists could not have been any better. The eclectic lineup was a plus and there really was no room for complaint. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly and the bottom line is that Wanee is definitely worth its price of admission and would make a fine addition to anyone’s festival season plan making.

 

 

Click the thumbnails to view David Shehi  and Ian Rawn’s photos from the festival!