Words & Images by: Nick Atlas
Suwanee Springfest :: 03.26 - 03.29 :: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
The hallowed grounds of the Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park never fail to evoke the sensation that one is returning home. Tucked away in the sleepy town of Live Oak, Florida, the Suwannee conjures feelings of reconnection, revival and the nostalgia of familial gathering. Perhaps the most beautiful venue on the East Coast, it comes alive twice annually for four days playing host to a plethora of the finest roots, folk and bluegrass music on the planet, in addition to thousands of the most knowledgeable and musically inclined fans south of the Mason-Dixon. Consequently, neither the music nor the celebration misses a beat from Thursday afternoon 'til early Monday morning.
This year's Springfest had to battle numerous obstacles, namely the dismal economic climate and a poor weather forecast. Truth be told, the park felt a little lighter than usual, which is unfortunate as those who didn't make it off the couch missed yet another magical weekend out at the swamp.
The festival, which is renowned for drawing many of the same gifted musicians year after year, once again featured a handful of its idols, such as the timeless Peter Rowan, journeymen Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, cult-favorites Donna the Buffalo and jovial veterans The Duhks. Other festival favorites, such as mandolin wizard Mike Marshall and fiddler-extraordinaire Darol Anger, took the opportunity to introduce new projects such as their collaboration with the virtuosic Swedish string trio Väsen. Combined with a number of standout performances across the board, insightful workshops and late night, fireside jam sessions, Springfest succeeded in separating itself from the typical festival in that everyone in attendance recognized they both gave and received the gift of music.
As usual, Thursday night's lineup served to ease the crowd into the festivities, at least until Rushad Eggleston & Tornado Rider took to the Music Hall Stage, which is one of four venues on the grounds. After their breakout performance at last fall's MagnoliaFest, perhaps the audience had an idea of what this young trio's sound is all about. However, as Eggleston might quickly point out, knowing what to expect and taking it in are two completely different things. Tornado Rider's punk infused, tour-de-force hoe-down extravaganza (complete with Viking-horned goblins and sparkle-pony, fairy-winged groupies) undoubtedly jarred the audience awake. Eggleston's screaming cello and equally ominous chant of "get your ass out of bed, you'll sleep when you're dead!" certainly set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
Väsen, Marshall, Anger :: Springfest 2009|
By midday Friday, Marshall and Anger had begun to weave their magic, packing the Music Hall for a workshop that featured an array of soothing world music and Brazilian-influenced licks. They went on to explain that their time together with the David Grisman Quartet not only served to introduce them to an outstanding range of music but also sparked a life-long passion for experimentation. The duo then introduced Väsen, a trio consisting of 12-string guitarist Roger Tallroth, Mikael Marin on viola and nyckelharpa champion Olov Johansson, who served to round out the brilliant quintet. While Johansson described the nyckelharpa, which is essentially a Swedish 16-stinged keyed fiddle played with a bow, as "a portable, disposable barbeque rack," it was clear that his mastery of this unique instrument helped to fuel the musical vehicle that Marshall and Anger have worked so hard to fine tune.
While a brief Friday afternoon thundershower forced those at the Main Amphitheater to run for cover, the smoky voice of singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth cut through the pounding rain, as did the soulful, bluesy vibes of showman Seth Walker. Simultaneously, long-time Guy Clark sidekick Verlon Thompson packed the intimate Florida stage, affording the Suwannee faithful a rare chance to pay homage to his 28 years as a Nashville minstrel.
That evening the crowd was transported back to Yasgur's Farm circa 1969, as the legend that is Richie Havens poured his heart into the Suwannee in a fashion that few ever have. Accompanied by local guitar hero and Swamp Cabbage frontman Walter Parks, Havens belted out timeless ballads for nearly two hours, winding down his set with a medley of songs by Bob Dylan and The Who, along with a soul-wrenching cover of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun." Adorned in amulets, rings and other charismatic pieces of "medicinal" jewelry, which he'd been given as gifts through the years, Havens spent three additional hours signing autographs for every last fan, greeting each one with a warm welcome and message of peace, love and hope.
On Saturday afternoon, Väsen took their act to the Main Stage, picking their way through impossibly complex and equally mystifying Marshall/Anger tunes such as "Egypt" and "Penknife Killer." With another storm threatening overhead, the quintet seemed to rouse the winds with their jaw-dropping velocity, breaking only for a moment as an enormous tree branch cascaded to the ground beside the speakers. Thankfully, no one was hurt, although the image of the band's "vortex" will be forever etched in the minds of anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed their synchronistic connection to the elements.
Another of Saturday's highlights was the performance of Peter Rowan, who was joined by his talented brothers Chris and Loren Rowan for Peter's two hallmark tunes, "Land of the Navajo" and "Midnight Moonlight." Peter's fantastic vocal range and trance-inducing chords seemed to lull the audience into a blissful daze. Guy Clark, who followed Rowan, skillfully played upon the sentiment, seamlessly blending tear-jerking, emotional folktales that transported listeners into the stories of his adventurous life with a finesse that only a gifted storyteller is capable of achieving.
Richie Havens :: Springfest 2009|
After dark, the Emmitt-Nershi Band shifted gears with an up-beat, playful bluegrass sound right out of the books of Nershi's old band, The String Cheese Incident, as well as Emmitt's long-time project, Leftover Salmon. Finally, perennial favorites the Lee Boys capped off the night with their signature up-tempo gospel sound, including a stirring rendition of "I'll Fly Away," the chorus of which could be heard echoing through the campgrounds well into the morning.
In light of all the big name acts, Saturday evening's peak performance was turned in by Seth Walker, who showcased his various talents at the Meadow Stage just as the sky began to burst with rain. Conjuring the spirits of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson, Harry Connick, Jr. and many other great bluesmen, Walker successfully toed the line between tender songsmith and devious juke-joint devil, displaying a stage presence that's nothing less than refreshing. In fact, few know the scene as does this infectious performer, whose latest release, Leap of Faith, is garnering critical acclaim nationwide. Seth's proud poppa, Scott Walker, has played at one Suwannee festival or another for fifteen plus years; his aunt, Brenda Star Walker, leads morning yoga classes in the meadow; and Seth is said to have spent many a long night of his youth honing his skills on festival organizers Randy and Beth Judy's couch. Apparently for some, Springfest truly is a family affair.
Those who had the strength to make it back to the Main Stage on Sunday morning were not disappointed, as this year's "Vassar Clements Bluegrass Jam," led by Peter Rowan, demonstrated what Springfest is all about - world-class collaborative improvisation. Rowan's all-star cast included Bryn Davies on upright bass, Steve Pruit on the mandolin, Sue Peningham on the fiddle, Billy Gilmore on the banjo, and guest appearances by Drew Emmitt on mandolin, Bill Nershi on guitar, Loren Rowan on mandolin, his brother Chris on guitar, "Grateful Dead Hour" host (and accomplished musician) David Gans on guitar, and Big Cosmo himself, Randy Judy slapping brushes on a Fed Ex priority mail box. Of the numerous tunes that saw various members of the aforementioned list swapping in-and-out of the lineup, "The Cold Rain and Snow" stood out as a particularly Zen, 'lazy-day-on-the-river' sort of tune, while their rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" was a Suwannee classic. The collective finished with their traditional "Shenandoah Valley Breakdown" as the last of the weekend's cloud-cover dissipated, giving way to a sparkling Sunday afternoon.
Peter Rowan :: Springfest 2009|
Year-in and year-out, Springfest presents the best facets of American folk culture, blending the new mythology of roots music in time with the traditional values and rituals of Appalachia and the Deep South. One can only hope that we continue to support and recognize the painstaking efforts of Randy and Beth Judy, along with all of the artists and contributors who breathe life into this utterly magical event that any music lover will appreciate.
Continue reading for a few more pics of Springfest...