Words by: Nick Atlas
Suwanee Springfest :: 03.27.08 – 03.30.08 :: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
Who or what is the Spirit of the Suwannee? The residents of Live Oak, Florida, will probably tell you that it's a park and campground along the Suwannee River on the outskirts of their quiet town located a few miles down the road from the I-10/I-75 interchange. However, if one were to pose the same question to an attendee of Suwannee Springfest, an annual four-day, bluegrass and roots music festival held within the park each year around the vernal equinox, you'd likely receive a completely different kind of response.
Suwanee Springfest 2008 by Nick Atlas
"It's sort of like the chicken or the egg. I don't know whether it's the place or the people there making it happen, but it's magical. There's definitely a Spirit of the Suwannee," claims Jeff Reddekopp, a musician from Columbia, South Carolina, who's attended over 15 festivals hosted by Magnolia Music & Events Inc. (who also put on a sister festival, Magnoliafest, each fall). "Back in '97 it was called 'Big Cosmo's Sunshine Daydream Weekend' and tickets were $35 for three days," recalls Reddekopp. "I knew then that there's no place in the world like Suwannee, and every time I go I have the best time of my life."
So, what is it that makes this festival so special? Again, there's no definitive answer. While the lineup changes slightly every season, a handful of the same headliners return year after year to dazzle the crowd and soak up the sublime atmosphere. Performers like Peter Rowan and the late Vassar Clements have assumed shaman-like status in the minds of the Suwannee faithful, as have other artists that have graced the stage, which twinkles like a shrine beneath a dense forest of towering oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
As if the emerald backdrop weren't enough, the grounds unfold like a labyrinth as well-trodden paths weave their way through a primeval woods teeming with life, from auburn-tinged songbirds to burnt ochre butterflies. At Suwannee, an afternoon stroll quickly becomes an enchanted nature walk, as crickets chirp in tune with the sounds emanating from one of five performance spaces, four of which are outdoors. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the festival is that one can actually hear and see these minor miracles, since attendees rarely, if ever, blast car stereos or fill the air with anything more than campfire smoke and the melodies radiating out from their own instruments. Imagine, if you will, pristine days shared with some of the greatest poets and musicians in the world, followed by seemingly endless nights spent picking with your best friends. The occasional break to stretch might lead you to a nearby circle where a similar jam session is transpiring, the heat of the flames fueling the sonic improvisation like an oven baking bread. With singers and dancers shaking the ground and percussion instruments mimicking the rattling woodpeckers nesting overhead, it's no wonder that Suwannee is regarded as magical – creativity is everywhere.
Railroad Earth :: Springfest 2008 by George Weiss
This year's lineup featured an abundance of seasoned performers showcasing a variety of the South's most prized musical traditions, as well as a new crop of young talent who've begun to redefine the folk and bluegrass genres. Drawing from a variety of influences like rock & roll, reggae and world music, tunes varied from soulful acoustic ballads reminiscent of lazy strolls down the river to frenzied improvisational sets that left audiences gasping for air.
Among the highlights were two performances by folk-legend Guy Clark, whose heartfelt tales of lost love, life on the road and days gone by were accentuated by the penetrating chords of his long-time sidekick, guitar virtuoso Verlon Thompson. On Saturday afternoon, the duo's rendition of "Old Friends" drew tears from countless eyes, but the sorrow was short-lived as the David Grisman Quintet spun an inspirational masterpiece on the main stage later that evening. Grisman - whose massive frame, robust white beard and symphonic brilliance conjure images of mighty Zeus perched high above the clouds - turned in the set of the weekend, seamlessly blending jazz and bluegrass into his signature "Dawg" sound that had Jerry Garcia smiling down from his celestial moonlit perch. Eighteen year-old mandolin phenom Josh Pinkham, who has sat in with the greats at each Spring/Magfest since the tender age of twelve, joined the Quintet for their encore and dueled it out with Grisman, who challenged the young Jedi to exceed his own limitations on the instrument. Pinkham, who also performed with his parents throughout the festival, is on the verge of greatness and will surely be one of the world's most sought after musicians in the years to come.
The Lee Boys :: Springfest 2008 by George Weiss
Other notables were The Lee Boys (whose high energy gospel gave life to the festival's best dance music), Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, Railroad Earth, cult-favorite Donna The Buffalo and, of course, Peter Rowan, who commanded the audience as only a legend could. Rowan and his current band, The Free Mexican AirForce, brought the house down Saturday night with booming, yodel-laden versions of "Land of the Navajo" and "Midnight Moonlight," elevating the crowd as if the maestro truly understands and embodies the elusive Suwannee mystique. Rowan returned Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to Vassar Clements by leading an all-out bluegrass jam featuring artists from a number of bands including "Big Cosmo" himself, Springfest's founding father Randy Judy on percussion.
With all the action, it's no wonder that it's difficult to pin-down this dynamic, homegrown, family-run and kid-friendly event. Perhaps the "Spirit of the Suwannee" is best understood through the eyes of a young man at the beginning of a long journey - a wayfaring fellow who ventured down to the swampy southlands seeking good music and, more importantly, a spark. With a camera gripped tightly in hand, he wove his way to the front of the stage during Grisman's finale to capture the moment and managed to snap a shot just as the music reached its crescendo. Placing the camera in his bag, he was treated to a symbolic passing of the torch, as Grisman and Pinkham, the young protégé, flew through notes at nearly unfathomable speeds. Without the camera obscuring his view, the young traveler could see every flick of the performers' fingers across their strings. He could even see into the endless caverns of their glowing eyes. When the sound faded and the crowd erupted behind him, he felt energy shoot up his spine, watching with a sense of awe and gratitude as Grisman bowed to each side of the stage. Then, as this Buddha-like figure rose from his final bow, he raised his hand towards the audience and let fly a tiny object. It shimmered briefly in the dark sky as it propelled topsy-turvy through the air like a knuckleball. Instantly and without thought, the wayfarer extended his right arm straight up and opened his hand as the object passed overhead. Grasping the relic tightly, he drew his clenched fist before his eyes, feeling his hand pulsing with a peculiar power. Upon unfurling his fingers, he stared in amazement at his prize - the master's pick, still vibrating like a bolt of lightning sent down from the heavens.
David Grisman Quintet :: Springfest 2008 by Nick Atlas
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