SAVORING THE SPIRIT OF SUWANNEE

The sixteenth festival produced by Randy and Beth Judy was held at the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida on March 25-28. Having attended several other festivals at this venue, we anxiously packed our camping gear and prepared for several days of non-stop music and less than normal sleep.


Kids at Springfest
The music was presented on four stages: the Main Stage, in the beautiful amphitheater area; the Dance Stage, in the wide open play field; the Old Florida Stage, located in a tent along the roadway; and the Music Hall, a quieter indoor venue. The performances began on Thursday, and included sets by Sloppy Joe, Redheaded Stepchild, The New Traditionals, The Duhks, The Gourds, and the evening's highlight, Donna the Buffalo.

Newtimers seeing Red Headed Stepchild commented on the wide range of the vocals, from blues to rock, similar in ability to Janis Joplin. Meanwhile at the Music Hall, the Suwannee Springfest Songwriting Contest Finals were in full swing, including a performance by 2003 winner Gary Doles. The Duhks, a young Canadian group with a kick-ass blend of contemporary and traditional acoustic music playing French Canadian reels and original tunes, were "primo" according to fans.

Although starting about half an hour late, herd members in attendance at Donna the Buffalo's opening show Thursday night decreed it to be the second best show they had ever seen. This hot show included "Way Back When," "Tides of Time," "These Are Better Days," "Blue Skies," "Ancient Arms," "Fee Black," "40 Days & 40 Nights," "Life's a Ride," "Family Picture," "Rocking Horse," "Story of the Ages," "Went Down to the River," "Voice in My Head," and "Tell Me Why," with a hot ending of "Sailing."

When we arrived Friday morning, the campgrounds were already starting to swell with assorted festivarians. The music had already begun at 10:00 a.m., and as we hurried to set up camp, we were pleasantly surprised to discover the festival arrangers were broadcasting the performances live from the Main Stage on a low frequency radio network. This was to become especially appreciated throughout the ensuing weekend since we no longer had to choose between libations and performances.

Delayed slightly by the Bloody Marys and grilled shrimp, we made our way down to the Dance Stage, past the vending area where approximately fifty or so vendors were hawking their wares, including the expected tie-dye clothing and stone jewelry. Tearing our way past the magical enticements, we caught a few tunes of the Almost Acoustic Band, a newer group (around since 2002) that creates a not-so-traditional fusion of reggae, jazz, and bluegrass with traditional instruments.


Larry Keel
Meanwhile at the Main Stage the Larry Keel Experience began. They played songs both old and new, including one off the new album entitled Journey. Billing himself as a "progressive interpretation of traditional acoustic flat-picked music from the heart of the Appalachian Mountains," Larry's throaty voice crooned the words to "Mountain Song," a composition about mountain living. Special guest Steve "Big Daddy" from Acoustic Syndicate--a not entirely acoustic band blending folk, bluegrass, and funk with Latin influences--joined the band for the entire set. A cover of Dire Straits "Water of Love" was one of many tributes throughout the weekend to the nearby Suwannee River. There truly was the "sound of music playing" as Larry sang, and "everything was definitely alright," as we were melting into the magic of the weekend.

We wandered a bit to discover what other excitement was in the making and found every seat filled in the quiet coolness of the Music Hall. Darrell Scott, a creative musician and songwriter who seamlessly blends rock, folk, country, and jazz in a soulful meld, was performing tunes with his band, including those from his resurrected and reinterpreted first album recently released, titled Theater of the Unheard. The music of this prolific songwriter was beautiful, but the sound was a bit too quiet for our energy level, and with a plentitude of music happenings to choose from, we traveled on.


Darol Anger & Vassar Clements
On the Main Stage, the Two High String Band, an acoustic folk-bluegrass group, played crowd favorites, including "Alabama Blues" off their new CD Insofarasmuch, (their first album as a quartet, adding guitarist Geoff Union) which includes guest appearances by David Grisman and Vassar Clements. Next on the Main Stage, Phillips, Grier & Flinner (Todd Phillips, David Grier, and Matt Flinner) played "Tennessee Blues," a song written in the 1840s and the first song on their new CD Looking Back, to the medium-sized crowd. Each wrote a few songs for this album, which also includes a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." After a few sprinkles of rain that the music wisped away, Darol Anger appeared to guest with his fiddle for a few songs. With Darol yawning quite a bit (maybe he was up playing music too late the night before) the group's energy level built until Matt seemed to catch fire. A fifteen-minute encore ensued after they jokingly announced that they had checked online and found out that their set wasn't over yet. Included was an old traditional song "In The Pines," featuring Todd Phillips on bass, who rearranged and wrote a new bridge for the tune. The group has an album titled True Life Blues - The Songs of Bill Monroe. Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, was honored by this group, and frequently by other performers throughout the festival.

On the Dance Stage, as the afternoon wore wonderfully on, Vassar Clements and the New Traditionals played to about 400 people, some hanging in the field playing Frisbee, while the crowd in front of the stage danced. Called the father of hillbilly jazz, Vassar is an incredibly versatile fiddler and musical purist. In just one example of his versatility, about two weeks ago, Vassar played an acoustic set with jam band favorite String Cheese Incident at The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. Asked about playing with SCI, Vassar commented that they came out on stage barefoot. He said that he had a great time playing with the band, but would be afraid of getting splinters if he played barefoot too.


James Nash of The Waybacks
On the Main Stage at 6:00 p.m. The Waybacks played to a somewhat lessened, perhaps dinnertime crowd. Announcing, "Hi everybody, welcome to Telluride, we're the Dixie Chicks," before launching into "Been Around," a tune with a real toe-tapping beat and catchy chorus ("She's gone away, my one and only") while a little girl with blond braids rode the front of the rail and several fans sang along to every word. Then, welcoming everybody to The Spirit of the Suwannee Musicfest, and saying they were actually The Waybacks from California, "where we have the governor who puts the goober in gubernatorial," they commented that they were just waiting for the grudge match between Arnold and Jesse Ventura. The political jokes soon took a back seat to the music as they launched into "Bluegrass Swing." The trees at the rear of the amphitheater were beginning to sway from the numerous colorful hammocks strung all along, and were soon filled with restful listeners.

Taking a bit of a break from running between stages, we caught most of the Laura Love Band's set from the campground. The only amusing annoyance was the echoing quality, as the live music itself was heard in the background a second or two after the radio broadcast. Starting with "Amazing Grace," they pleased the crowd with many of their popular tunes including one of the "butt" songs, "Mahbootay."


Psychograss
A little after 10:00 p.m., Psychograss delivered their unique version of straight-ahead bluegrass combined with rock 'n' roll (called "daredevil bluegrass" by some) to a very crowded amphitheater, with large torches lending atmosphere to the sides of the stage. With Darol Anger on violin, Mike Marshall on mandolin, Todd Phillips on bass, David Grier on guitar, and Tony Trischka on banjo--the best of the best so to speak--Psychograss delivered an exciting and insanely wonderful performance. After a high energy "Coal Burnin'" for the crowd of several thousand, they launched into "Big Monk" (off their 1996 album Like Minds). Darol then announced they were going to premier of a new tune, a tribute to the power of the concept, and explained it was the chorus of the song "Salty Dog" turned backwards.

After the ripped-up frenzy of "My Dog Salty" (or maybe it should be called "Salty Dog My"), they delved into a duo of tunes, "Hot Nickels" by Mikey and "Banks Ohio." They then slowed down the tempo and played a tune with Darol hitting off-notes and sour notes on purpose at the end of "Key Signatore." After finishing, Darol stated that that was one of the scariest songs he knew, before playing "Impulsive" off the Panorama album and "Third Stone From The Sun" (also from Like Minds). Calling themselves "the psycho mountain boys," they ended with an encore of "Ride the Wild Turkey."

While several kids stood at the edge of the stage area with instruments in hand, hoping to get autographs from their favorite musicians, most of the crowd emptied quickly, perhaps to catch the end of Donna the Buffalo on the Dance Stage. Playing to a very large, happy, dancing herd of fans.

After catching Donna's last song and grooving with the huge dancing herd, we "herded" back to the Main Stage for the last performance of the night, The Gourds. First time performers at the festival (having had to decline last year due to the arrival of a new baby), this band from Austin, Texas, plays a unique mix of funky music, combining accordion with fiddle, guitar, and electric bass. Starting with "She's gone, gone, gone, tejano, and now I'm feeling so low," a tune quite tejano in flavor, the set later evolved into more of a rock 'n' roll feel with swing overtones. Newbees quickly deemed them the "Blue Man Troupe" of Springfest for their uniquely enjoyable vibe. We thought they sounded like the Red Elvises--somewhat kitchy, but very catchy and creative.


David Gans
On Saturday, the music began early, with performances by the Habanero Honeys, Steve Blackwell & Friends, and Gary Doles at 10:00 a.m. At 10:30 David Gans took to the Main Stage and played "An American Family" and "Traveling Man," both from his CD Home by Morning. Keeping the vibe a bit mellow for the morning crowd, he also played "Waltzing Across Texas" and "Sovereign Soul," during his too-short, one-hour set.

After Josh's Jam featuring Josh Pinkham & The Pinkham Family, the Reverend Jeff Mosier & The Ear Reverents took over the Dance Stage for their second set of the festival. Highlighted by their cover of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" at the end, Jeff wished everybody peace. Less twangy than his former creation Blueground Undergrass, Mosier's focus is now more on the rhythms and roots of the banjo. The message he wanted sent out to music fans was threefold: "Vote, get out of the house to go see live music, and learn to play a musical instrument." Their new CD (in studio pre-release stage) features David Blackmon, Bryan Lopes, Neal Fountain, and Matthew Cowley.


Steep Canyon Rangers
As the Two High String Band entertained the dance crowd in the field (their second performance of the festival), shortly before 1:00 p.m., the Steep Canyon Rangers took the Main Stage. Wearing matching country shirts with pearl buttons, this bluegrass band sang a brand new banjo tune, written by and featuring Graham Sharp titled "Ranger Danger" but renamed "Suwannee Bugaloo" for the occasion. During one tune about wintertime, lyrics like "the frost is covering up the tress, so I'll wait and I'll wait for the time to come around, it helps melt that snow up off the ground" were difficult to relate to as the weather was almost perfect and the trees were happily swaying a bit in the refreshing breeze, and the magnolia trees were in bloom.


Peter Rowan
The Duhks were playing to a packed crowd in the hot sun at the Dance Stage, singing some songs in French which didn't deter the happy dancers, hot in the sun but feeling the rocking vibe, while a solo Peter Rowan played an acoustic set to a large crowd at the Main Stage area. Peter, barefoot in crab-printed pants, declared he was "glad to be back here in my old stomping grounds... This is home base." Playing mostly crowd favorites like "Land of the Navaho," he also brought out Billy Bright and Bryn Bright to join him, the other two-thirds of his Texas Trio.

We walked down through the Frisbee fields to the Dance Stage where at least 800 people were grooving in the sun while Donna the Buffalo's Tara Nevins was probably baking in her cowboy boots and hat as Jim Lauderdale was performing with the band. Starting only a couple of minutes late of its 3:10 p.m. start, with "This Is The Big Time," they quickly launched into "Wait 'til Spring," (which perhaps could have been renamed "Wait 'til Springfest" to echo the feelings of their herd), before playing "Different Kind of Lightning," "Can't Keep You From Coming Around," "Wo Wo Wo," "Slow Motion Trouble," "Ginger Peach" and "Life By Numbers."


Jim Lauderdale
Jim Lauderdale teased the crowd saying "what am I going to do with you guys, I can't take you anywhere without having a great time, ya'll are a sea of beautiful souls" before launching into a tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons. He explained that Gram used to play George's records for people and they'd start crying and ask what it was, and he would answer; that's the king of broken hearts, before playing "King of Broken Hearts."

On our way back toward the Main Stage, and through the vending area, we discovered that many kids had deemed the sandy thoroughfare "the world's largest sandbox." Being careful not to step on any little toes or fingers, we made our way to several of the booths where we found a few treasures, including beaded bracelets and hats to add to our collections, before returning to the Main Stage for the Bluegrass Session with Bela Fleck, Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Mike Marshall and Bryn Bright. Randy Judy announced the group and stated, "Please look out for each other and yourselves as the crowd gets larger today and please take care of the park." Our crowd is the best there is, he said, "You are the real spirit of the festival, because without you, it is just trees and grounds."


Bela Fleck
The crowd did continue to swell and the band kicked the set off with a crowd favorite, "Long Journey Home," as the audience sang along to the chorus of "I lost all my money but a two dollar bill." Peter included unique introductions to each musician within the song's verses, "Vassar Clements, play that Fiddle now," "Bela Fleck on the five-string banjo," "Mike Marshall he plays the mandolin," "Tony Rice plays the big guitar," before featuring Vassar on a tune called "Vassar's Fiddle Rag," off the album Old & In the Gray. Peter then announced the old Kentucky race horse song, "Molly and Tenbrooks," before asking Mike what he had picked out for them to perform, joking that Mike had picked his brains out last night, so he might not have anything left. In homage to the Suwannee Music Park itself, the place he said the Stanley Brothers used to call home, they performed a tribute "How Mountain Girls Can Love" and finally, a newer tune, "Trumpets of the Ocean."

On the Dance Stage at 6:30 p.m., the humorous and high energy quintet from San Francisco, The Waybacks, kicked off another festival set with "Down From Iona," "Gulshion Island" and "Police Dog Blues" from their album Burger After Church. Announcing it was their first time at Springfest and it was so wonderful that they hoped to come back, they opened by commenting that it was kin to their favorite festival on the West, thereby declaring it "the Strawberry of the South." Followed by "Been Around" from their CD Devolver and wrapping into "Nature Boy," the crowd's energy continued to build. Although we hadn't requested it, their timing was then humorously appropriate in playing "Monkey Pants" as we brushed off the ants on our backsides after we accidentally sat in a huge and angry ant pile.


Tony Rice & Mike Marshall
Extremely funny and mega talented jamgrassers with both a focus on traditional tunes and new interpretations, we deemed them our special "festival find." While other festivarians were over at the Main Stage watching the Tony Rice Unit, we enjoyed this extremely hot set and unanimously agreed that they would be the perfect fit to open for The String Cheese Incident anytime. With James Nash's mandolin homage's to traditional music, including versions of old Irish drinking and battle songs (with dueling violin and guitar solos) their sound was infectious. Continuing with a song off their most recent album, Way Live, called "They Tried To Kill Us, We Survived (Let's Eat)" the energy further fused. Even somewhat sarcastic in their commentary as they stated "let's do the Howard Dean, we're going to go to Florida, Alabama and Georgia," their creative excitement and infectious groove brought on the dusk with style, as the stars started appearing to join the not-yet-full moon in the sky. Stevie Coyle, the amazing guitar finger-picker mentioned a t-shirt he had noticed in the crowd that said "show us your rifts," and commented that it was almost as good as the one that says "I am the man from Nantucket" before ending the set by asking the crowd to be careful out there, because you don't know who you might bump into, it's dark and there are girls!


Del McCoury Band
After the Tony Rice Unit played an exciting set, and shortly before 8:00 p.m., The Laura Love Band took to the Main Stage. After their well-loved set, the Del McCoury Band stepped up. Somehow we ended up in the "Scramble Zone" up front, with the ensuing paint splatters, as Scramble Campbell fed off the energy and rhythm of the music in creating his artistic impression of the performances. Scramble and his soon-to-be-wife, Shay Berry first met at a Refried Confusion show almost ten years ago. Refried Confusion will be reconvening for the first time in three years to perform at their wedding.

The Del McCoury Band, all suited up in country's finest, played "Body and Soul" an old Bill Monroe tune to a full but not frenzied crowd, before launching into a the title track off their new album, It's Just the Night. Playing to the outdoors crowd in the darkened evening, the words "bats come out when the moon is in the sky, you hear a hoot owl in the distance, you tremble and sigh, it may seem a little spooky but don't you worry, its just the night" were almost chilling (perhaps they too had noticed the owl in the trees). Launching into "My Love Will Not Change," also off the new CD, the crowd was in happy bluegrassville.


Mike Marshall
Around 9:00 p.m., we headed back to the Dance Stage, past colorful glowstick flowers that had suddenly appeared in the field, to join the crowd of over a thousand people for Psychograss's Saturday night show. Mike Marshall was swaying and smiling, as he did his mandolin calisthenics, moving up and down as the notes rose and fell as they launched into "Rebecca" and "Hot Nickels." Known for whipping up a totally tearing tempo, and then dropping it back down to a waltz, the crowd cheered loudly at the changes. They wrapped into "Key Signatore" and "Big Dirt Clod" before Darol asked the crowd if they should play the five-string banjo tune "New York Chimes" fast or really fast. A fan in the crowd shouted "you're scaring me now" as we were all holding onto the safety bars on the wild Psychograss ride. At this point the group's all instrumental focus was broken as Matt sang (or perhaps more accurately rhyme-talked) "In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines, Darol Anger shivers when the cold wind blows" (and of course Darol shivered humorously along) before laughing and announcing that that will be the only singing the audience will hear out of the group. They are often asked why they don't sing and that was their performed explanation.


Josh Pinkham
Josh Pinkham was brought on stage to assist with the next song, "Battle" which they dedicated to Bill Monroe who they said loved his mandolin so much that he once left it on the back of his car and accidentally drove over it and it got hurt. Mama (Terry) Pinkham then joined the rowdy crew to sing "Sweetheart of Mine." Her throaty, bluesy voice was a great accompaniment to the energetic (but wordless) musicians. The frenzy was kicked up a notch with their encore of "Sitting On Top Of The World." After running almost twenty minutes overtime, the several hundred strong and enthusiastic crowd that had not left for the start of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones was disappointed as the show finally stopped. Psychograss's new album, with all new music, is planned for release soon, tentatively titled, This Is How We Do It.

Meanwhile, back at the Main Stage, the crowd swelled as Bela Fleck and the Flecktones headlined the evening. With Scramble Campbell painting in front of the packed crowd, Bela walked on stage alone playing an electric banjo. One by one the entire band joined him in "Big Country" off their 1998 album Left of Cool. Their upbeat set followed with "Earth Jam" and several songs from their most recent CD Little Worlds including "Latitude," "Puffy," "Next," "Poindexter" and "Sherpa," sandwiched around "Sunset Road" from their seminal album, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones.


Vic Wooten & Jeff Coffin (Flecktones)
After a tribute to John Hartford, the father of progressive bluegrass, during which Bela played on the acoustic banjo that belonged to his late friend, they launched into another older tune "Sinister Minister" before ending as they began with a song from Left of Cool, "Sleeping Dogs Lie." Many threads of jam could be heard throughout the show, including notes from the "Odd Couple" theme. During the set, the music loving owl that had been perched and sleeping in the trees over the stage most of the afternoon, woke up and flew off, (and also ended up flying with wings spread over the band in Scramble's painting).

Donna the Buffalo then started an amazing end-the-night set at the Main Stage at 12:15 a.m., only about fifteen minutes late. Starting with "These Are Better Days," and wrapping into "Tides of Time," "Positive Friction," "Family Picture," "This Goes," "Part Time Lover" (with guest Amy Glicklich on rubboard), "Rock of Ages," and "Senor," they then segued into "Way Back When." Guest Peter Rowan joined them onstage for "Pulling the Devil by the Tail," before the final songs "Blue Skies," "Conscious Evolution," "No Place Like The Right Time" and the final encore "Greatest Love of All." A fitting end to a wonderful day, filled with much musical happiness.


The Simpsons
As we headed back to the campgrounds we noticed that many creatures of the night had come out, including moving red and green dinosaurs and a florescent "Simpson" family. Creatures of the night we were not, and only the next day did we find out we missed a campground set of Redheaded Stepchild, who played late into the night in "Sloonerville."

After being serenaded awake Sunday by our nearby campground musicians, whose set didn't end until 8:30 a.m., the scheduled activities began on the Main Stage only an hour and a half later. The Magnolia Family Jam featuring the New Traditionals was a nice replacement for Rev. Jeff's "Sunday Morning Revival" as in festivals past.

Performances by Josh Pinkham and the Pinkham Family Band, Verlon Thompson and the Del McCoury Band whose Sunday morning gospel set including a stirring rendition of "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray" had the audience screaming requests. This gave way to the Magnolia Bluegrass Sunday featuring Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements & Friends, and guests including Billy and Bryn Bright, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Josh Pinkham. Jim Lauderdale was also brought out to lead a tune called "Blue Lonesome" who commented on the great bunch assembled. The Habanero Honeys soon joined the crowd, who said they were having so much fun rehearsing their song backstage that they picked up another honeybabe, Tara Nevins. As they "sailed down the Old Suwannee," the cloggers arrived to join in the dancing frey. The festival ended with a set by Jim Lauderdale who performed acoustically with Jeb Purveyor and Jim Miller from Donna the Buffalo, and the weekend's final set by The Duhks.

After a way too short musical homage to the arrival of spring, we packed our gear, and began the four-hour journey homewards. Our travels were certainly not done, and it was more than just five miles home. Anxious for hot showers to wash the layers of north Florida dirt off our skin, we briefly reflected on our adventure and concurred that we had found our peace in music. Randy and Beth's seventeenth festival, Magnoliafest, will be held at the Suwannee Music Park October 21-24, 2004.

Words by: Randi Whitehead
Images by: George Weiss
JamBase | Florida
Go See Live Music!


Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!


You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!