Suwannee Springfest | 03.26 - 03.29 | FL

Words & Images by: Nick Atlas

Suwanee Springfest :: 03.26 - 03.29 :: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL

Springfest 2009
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.

Väsen, Marshall, Anger :: Springfest 2009
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.

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.

Springfest 2009
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.

Richie Havens :: Springfest 2009
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.

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.

Peter Rowan :: Springfest 2009
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.

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...

the nyckelharpa
Swamp Cabbage
Walter Parks & Seth Walker

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Comments

ao1 Fri 4/10/2009 06:04PM
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ao1

looks amazing.......wish I was thereeeee

nobodysjam starstarstarstarstar Fri 4/10/2009 06:38PM
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nobodysjam

ain't no finer time than down on the suwanee. the place is magic.

schofizzl Fri 4/10/2009 07:14PM
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schofizzl

smell that everybody? festie season is upon us...

CeilingFan247 Fri 4/10/2009 09:56PM
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i wonder how many people went to jail at this one... that place is crawling with cops. i spent a night in jail over a little bit of weed cuz of that place.

Dire46daysWolf Fri 4/10/2009 11:28PM
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Dire46daysWolf

the nyckelharpa!? what the hell that thing looks amazing!

brad5 starstarstarstar Sat 4/11/2009 08:40AM
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letstuneup starstarstarstarstar Sat 4/11/2009 08:45AM
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You can always go to Suwanee County Sheriff Dept. website if you want to view photos and charges on the inmates. You can look at the dates the festival was held to get an idea of how many people were arrested. Looks like this years SpringFest was enjoyed by a very respectible croud. Just wanted to let you know about this because I always here how bad it is at the park. Now you can see some facts. See yall at WANEE!

Adamist starstarstarstarstar Sat 4/11/2009 10:42AM
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Adamist

Suwannee was home to my first-ever festie, and I've been hooked ever since. It was so close to where I'm from that I actually packed up to live and work there out of my van for a season. Anyone who's spent anytime there should remember Phil, the old Deadhead who ran the General Store. Unfortunately he has passed away, but it looks like the spirit is living on!!

And yeah, pretty much any festival or event in Florida will be crawling with cops. It goes with the territory.

Adamist Sat 4/11/2009 10:48AM
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Adamist

This guy from NY definitely got popped at the fest:

http://www.suwanneesheriff.com/Inmates.aspx?BookingNum=090000527

"VOP (POSS COCAINE/HASHISH

HEROIN/PSILOCYBIN)"

wspchris Sat 4/11/2009 12:55PM
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Suwannee is fine if you use your head. the cops are there but if you keep your nose clean they don't fuck with you. I remeber one year they had cop cars at the drumcircle. It was by far the oddest I ever felt at a drumcircle as I sat in my buddy's golfcart. Needless to say we were out of there. My favorite fest was Easter 4/20 with String Cheese in like 2003. What a magical place and yes the Guy in the link was definetly a pusher at Suwannee. You get those campground weasels in Florida that are pushing the junk stuff. Usually it is sub-par or fake.

kider54 star Sat 4/11/2009 06:06PM
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Nice to know about the website. Just checked. I'm still on it from 10/11/03. Just for looking at some chicks piece of glass way up in the woods. Took me a week to get out of there, when I got back tent and all my stuff had been stolen, car was towed, about failed out of college. Morale of the story is, if a hot chick says hey look at this, run like hell. That charge still haunts my professional career to this day.

kider54 star Sat 4/11/2009 06:10PM
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LOL!

http://www.suwanneesheriff.com/Inmates.aspx?BookingNum=090000502

Looked at alot of peeps on there, looks like that county has plenty of real criminals, should let the hippies run through and party, drop a ton of money on the local economy and be out. JMHO.

Hankskool Sat 4/11/2009 09:58PM
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Hankskool

I've been to that place for a Dead Show. Absolutely beautiful setting for a show. That natural stage backdrop is it. We were a bit worried driving in due to a Sheriff's Boys club of some sort right next door to the property. But actually I was relieved how civil the sheriffs were considering how hot, drunk and tore up the crowd seemed. It was nice of the Sheriffs to let us hang out in the parking lot over night until things wore off, without hassle. That would never happen in California at a venue with its own parking lot, where the NEED to herd people out on the road all hammered so as they can get their cut. That's the plain difference between sheriff's/cops that see themselves as a true public safety institution (i.e. professionals) and those that behave like a sleezy industry that NEEDS the public safety to be endangered. Hopefully things are still civil in Live Oak.

Adamist Sun 4/12/2009 10:16AM
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Adamist

Well from my understanding things were alot better with the old Sheriff who has since retired. The new guy in charge came around a few years back and has a classic "zero tolerance" attitude.

You have to consider the fact that Live Oak is right in the heart of Florida's rebel flag zone. Rednecks and hippies don't naturally get along- although certain bands (the Dead, Panic, etc) do a good job of bridging the gab!

P.s. I heard about that 04/20 Cheese show, it sounded like it was EPIC.

FreshFlavor starstarstarstarstar Sun 4/12/2009 08:05PM
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FreshFlavor

What a sagely lookin head up top.

ao1 Mon 4/13/2009 11:19AM
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ao1

What was the four twenty cheese show like?????

kider54 Tue 4/14/2009 07:51PM
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4/20 cheese was amazing. That was about the last party there where you had to be a dumarse to get arrested. SOme bands played in the campgrounds. Charlie Hunter was sick. Cheese played in the field. Did a suwannee river trance(first and only) and a jungle boogie(first, I think). Rev. Jeff Mosier did an Easter Sunday gospel thing. Great crowd by the late night fires. All out good time. That and Garcia B-day bash were 2 of the better east coast cheese parties.