Suwanee Springfest | 03.27-03.30 | FL

Words by: Nick Atlas

Suwanee Springfest :: 03.27.08 – 03.30.08 :: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL

Suwanee Springfest 2008 by Nick Atlas
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.

"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.

Railroad Earth :: Springfest 2008 by George Weiss
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.

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.

The Lee Boys :: Springfest 2008 by George Weiss
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.

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.

David Grisman Quintet :: Springfest 2008 by Nick Atlas
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.

JamBase | Florida
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[Published on: 4/9/08]

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canoftunapudding Wed 4/9/2008 03:28PM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I'll be getting in touch with that spirit of suwanee this weekend. I'll be missing Gregg but hoping for some Warren and Derek acoustic.

psogator43 Wed 4/9/2008 04:05PM
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Nice review...might have to give it a try next year

Lenox starstarstarstarstar Wed 4/9/2008 04:16PM
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wow i love that venue so much, i dont think ive ever been in a better area for a stage than the location they have for the mushroom stage and how they have it set up. looks like a fun weekend.

theragman starstarstarstarstar Wed 4/9/2008 05:23PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

best venue in the world.

Gary starstarstar Thu 4/10/2008 05:48AM
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Was this the second year that they've held the festival at this venue?

I really enjoy the festival reviews that you guys write-up. Keep up the awesome work!


rhythmic_randomness Thu 4/10/2008 05:48AM
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How much were tix?

nuke_ticketbastard starstarstar Thu 4/10/2008 06:03AM
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alls i know is those hammocks look mighty inviting....

Gary starstarstar Thu 4/10/2008 06:11AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Entire event was $130.00 USD at the gate and $105.00 USD beginning on Saturday at 8AM.


O1Roggae Thu 4/10/2008 07:47AM
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heady festival, couldn't make it this year. I want to go to Wanee this weekend but the price is expenisve for 2 days and Greg won't even be their let alone the ABB, so why would you go. The only reason I would go is if Ratdog played two nights or moe. played two nights.

Marcsmall Thu 4/10/2008 08:08AM
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Theragman----Obviously, you have never been to Red Rocks.

gregboyer Thu 4/10/2008 08:54AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I've been to many many venues over the last 20 years and this is easily my favorite. MagnoliaFest has a similar vibe to Springfest while Wanee is a whole different animal. It's hard not to have a great time at either. Even when it rains the canopy from the trees makes it a great place to camp and party. The woods stage is the best ever. Download any audience recording from there on with decent mics and it will sound fantastic. Railroad Earth from this one is already up. Any of the 3 now traditional Derek Trucks/Susan Tedeschi midnight sets at Wanee is there too. Gregg and ABB will be badly missed but Mule will kick ass longer and the Family Jam will be cool too, especially if everyone there is in (moe,Weir,Haynes, Trucks,etc.). Hopefully next year the Brothers will return. Anyway, I highly recommend Suwannee to anybody for any festival. You can't go wrong.

MaseBase starstarstarstar Thu 4/10/2008 10:37AM
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They've had this festival at this location for the past few years now. I've been once and I thought it was wonderful. Not too big, a really great venue, beautiful scenery and pretty good acts. It's perfectly chill and not oversized like 'Roo.

Marcsmall Thu 4/10/2008 11:39AM
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I've attended 4 MagFests, 4 SpringFests, The Other Ones w/ Ziggy Marley, and a Widespread show at this venue....There is no doubt that it is a special place and a great atmosphere to see music and camp very close by. However I just don't think it's the "Best Venue in the World". It's one of the Top 10 I've been to, but I would have to put Red Rocks, Mishawaka, French's Camp on Eel River, The Gorge, Royal Albert Hall, Telluride Town Park, and maybe a couple more ahead of it. The Greek is pretty special. So is Radio City and MSG. Don't get me wrong, I still love Suwannee, but I just don't know if it's #1.

msd413886669 Thu 4/10/2008 12:11PM
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let's just say the best venue in Florida. Because I know what marcsmall1 is saying. I love this venue very much and think that wanee is an amazing fest. First two years were fantastic and I hope Gregg will be good for next year, because my birthday just isn't the same with out the bros. Amazing Place!

Marcsmall Thu 4/10/2008 12:28PM
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Oh yeah, without a doubt the best venue in Fla......I mean, what else really is there? Skipper's Smokehouse? Pompano Beach Ampitheater? Big Cypress? Hoouse of Blues in Friggen Disney World? Fla isn't really a hotbed for music. I'm trying to think of any other decent venues down there.

treetops78 starstarstarstar Thu 4/10/2008 01:08PM
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Jannus Landing was pretty cool, saw Vida Blue there. Pompano Beach was a great Panic show, breezy and WIDE aisles. HOB for JB and Friends was a rowdy time but Disney. Eh? Sunrise was boosh league. Freebird Live was alright but I don't love the upstairs balconies where only the front row can see the stage (see problems with tipitina's). The venue in Ft. Lauderdale for pre-JamCruise is pretty sweet with the outside inside part...what's that place called?

Danimal Thu 4/10/2008 05:08PM
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I'm gonna have to hit one of these Suwanee things one day. Sounds awesome.

Sinister Vinister starstarstarstarstar Fri 4/11/2008 06:15AM
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Sinister Vinister

First Magfest last fall. Just went to Springfest. It's good for the soul peoples. Ah, yes...I'm a lifer now.

torn&treyed Mon 4/14/2008 08:14AM
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reveloution is a sick venue in florida. oh and you forgot the sedona culutral arts center.