Resting my soul by the Spirit
Collecting my thoughts, this move is to clear it
I let out a sigh as the melody blows by
The way the sunlight hit the tree, it really caught my eye.
Glistenin’, listenin’ to the breeze
Dancing through the leaves
My life moves in slow motion like a dream…
Suwannee Roots Revival is a fantastic name for this bluegrass festival. The event is a Suwannee Park Oak tree—full of growth in both directions. On one side you have the roots represented by big name acts like Peter Rowan (Old & In the Way), Rev. Jeff Mosier Ensemble, Verlon Thompson. And on the other side, new music like the Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & the Keels, Jon Stickley Trio, and even Sam Bush has bluegrass fans branching out! A festival for the whole family, Suwannee Roots Music Festival is the place to be!
Thursday I set out for a beautiful, relaxing weekend at The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL. The Spirit is a sprawling, beautiful venue with plenty of power/water RV spots for those who need more comfort and lots of shaded areas for those looking for a more authentic camping experience. Both are great and available here at the Nation’s premier outdoor music festival venue!
It’s a short three hour drive from Orlando and I arrive at my camping spot on the lake before I know it. Setting up on the waters edge for primitive camping is perfect. After greeting my friends and erecting my tent, the whole crew looks to cool down with a dip in the Suwannee River just on the edge of the property. The white sandy beach and the swift, cold water make for a refreshing afternoon. We head back and change before coming together for a meal of tacos and a side of dirty jokes. As time passes, I get the itch to go see some music!
I slip out of camp and head down to The Porch Stage to see Sarah Shook & The Disarmers. They came together as a band in ‘13 and released their first album, Sidelong, in ‘15. Also playing songs from their ‘18 album, Years, this North Carolina country five-piece performs “Parting Words.” Eric Peterson on guitar leads them in their new song “Nightroamer,” off of their upcoming album. Unfortunately, at that moment, some sort of medical emergency arose at the front of the crowd. A fan is having a hard time and Sarah & Co stop playing and make an announcement calling for medical help and staff to the front. This lasts for a few minutes so I decide to head back to camp and hang with my friends again. I hope whoever it is is okay.
My next music is Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist, Sam Bush in the majestic Amphitheater! He is responsible for pushing bluegrass to the next level with his unique style of playing. His “Newgrass,” revolutionized and refreshed a classic genre of music. In 2020 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame as a mandolin player for his band New Grass Revival. They begin with “Play By Your Own Rules” and its banjo player Wes Corbett who lays down a quick solo before the chorus. “Riding That Bluegrass Train” is next and Bush, Corbett and his guitarist, Stephen Mougin, all take turns showing off their moves, one after another. They play a lovely little reggae number before covering Flatt & Scruggs, “My Little Girl in Tennessee.” At this time I’m as close to the stage as I can get in this natural bowl of an amphitheater. I would be right upfront but there is a sea of chairs brought by the older crowd so they can enjoy the music for hours on end.
Nearby, parents usher their children through the crowd with slushies, chicken tenders, and fries. The last kid has no idea that Dad is stealing his fries as they go. This cover is lengthy and they leave plenty of room for the bassist to get low and gritty with his solo. Next, they play Mougin’s “I’m Gonna Ride,” where Bush excels in his pickin’ and accelerates his band as he pushes the envelope. They settle back into the chorus and the crowd lets them hear it. Bush address the crowd and quotes the late great Tina Turner, “Some people say we never do stuff nice and easy. Well, here’s a slower song.” They glide into the uplifting, “Circles Around Me” and I can’t help but put my arms out and catch the vibes.
They cover “Great Balls of Fire” as is tradition, before a winding “Same Ol’ River.” They jam out here, with the bassist once again growling with his low tones from his bass while Mougin and Bush support with muted plucking. “Howlin’ at the Moon” is next and boy is it big tonight! You can see it through the trees and hear people all around me howlin’ with the band! Corbett plays a tune he wrote for himself called “Dinosaur Birthday,” leading the band. The crowd loves them and cheers hard for this impressive group. Bush and friends come out for one last song, but before they play, he implores the crowd to reconsider getting the vaccine if they haven’t already. He says it so gently, but then plays “Wake Up” by Bob Dylan as the exclamation point on this words. Bush lets out a final searing solo while the souls on stage fade their instruments in and out for emphasis. What a set!
On the way back to camp a dad and kids are riding around high fiving and getting fans to let out their best Ric Flair “Woooo!!” WOOOOOO. What a set!
Leftover Salmon is the next big name band I check out and they are fantastic. Formed in Boulder, CO in ‘89, these guys specialize in bluegrass, country, rock and zydeco (Cajun) styles of music. After ten albums—seven studio and three live—these guys know how to throw down. They open with “Little Liza” and get the people danzin’. Later, Sam Bush comes out and they cover Little Feat’s “Willin’.” Bush has a long heartfelt solo which leads the band back to the chorus. They wind around to play “Bend in the River” and their Mississippi-inspired song, “Gulf of Mexico.” They also played some new songs I’m not familiar with yet.
The sit-ins continue with guitarist Jon Stickley joining them on stage. They sing a song about prison before escaping to play a song about corn (“Hot Corn/Cold Corn”). Stickley’s solo is effortless and they spin the bottle to see who gets to impress us next. Salmon’s banjo player Andy Thorn holds a lengthy sustained note while Stickley and Bush dazzle the crowd. Sam Bush’s banjo player, Corbett, now confronts Thorn and they battle for banjo bragging rights! It’s worth mentioning that Salmon received some help from Love Cannon’s Jay Starling. He is a beast. He’s playing lap steel, dobro, and keys in this fantastic set. He may not be a permanent member, but he’s got my vote! Leftover Salmbush set for the win!
I head back to camp to change and get comfortable. No, I’m not going to bed. On the contrary! I’m headed for Sloppery Land (named for the Grand Ol’ Opery) where all the musicians hang out all night playing their favorite tunes. It’s a sprawling after party which is sanctioned by the festival. Decorations, fires, and furniture dot the landscape as groups of artists come together if only for a song or two to impress those willing to stay up this late.
I should mention that I forgot to bring an air mattress pump and by the time I go to lay down, there isn’t one to be found amongst my neighbors and friends. I have a few pads and such I can put down to survive for a couple hours, then move to a hammock and comfortably sleep away in the morning. Not having an air mattress pump is bad. But, waking up to my Publix sub still in pristine condition in my cooler on day two is goooooooood. I enjoy a PubSub while watching the water and enjoying the beautiful morning weather at the Spirit of Suwannee. I spend most of the day goofing off with my friends. I visit other camps and hear about the lives of my friends that I rarely get to see.
I finally get my mattress pumped up with the help of a neighbor! This allows me to fritter away the day, before heading down to the Amphitheater Stage for Keller & The Keels. Keller Williams is a guitarist and looper who has 27 one-word titled albums. In recent years he’s found popularity by pairing up with a band for a set. Two weeks ago he was at Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa, FL with his band Keller’s Grateful Gospel, where they take everyone to church to worship our lord and savior Jerry Garcia. This time around he’s with Larry (guitar) and Jenny Keel (stand-up bass) who’s experimental bluegrass pushes fans out of their comfort zone as they discover their favorite genre can be more than what they are used to. They don’t have very many originals, so they cruise through a bunch of 90’s covers and more. Touching on “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers, “Uncle Disney” by Patterson Hood, and “Hash Pipe” by Weezer. They play a slow and intimate Keller original, “Freeker By the Speaker,” followed by his funny song, “Goof Balls.”
It’s been a fun set and I have enjoyed dancing with everyone. A dear friend invites me to enjoy some gumbo at her camp, accepting without hesitation, the group troops off for chicken, andouille sausage and rice! After a couple of camp beers I head back out to the music and walk by Rev. Jeff Mosier Ensemble who has a jazzy swing vibe going on. The crowd is tappin’ their feet as we pass by. I am on my way to see Billy Gilmore’s group, The Grass is Dead out in the meadow.
The sun is setting on the day making it enjoyable to dance and hang out in the wide open space. They branch out with Jimmy Cliffs’ “Harder They Come” with bassist Ed Richardson leading the way on electric six-string bass. One song fades into another as they cover “Eyes of the World” on what is becoming a beautiful evening. Finally relief from the heat of the sun. Now the only heat is coming from the stage as Billy Gilmore and friends help everyone to make it to “The Promised Land!” The hula hoops are spinning so fast around me as they blaze through a speedy “Sugaree!” The three hour set ends so quickly, so in the pursuit of more great live music, I make my way up to see Jon Stickley Trio at The Porch Stage.
They are a progressive ensemble, meaning they move from section to section in their music. I think they sound like TAUK—a very popular band in the jam scene. This trio is: Jon Stickley on guitar, Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle, and Hunter Deacon on drums. I can tell these guys practice and they pass the baton back and forth, sharing the bass guitar responsibilities. Like Cirque Du Soleil acrobats swinging through the air, ready to facilitate their partner’s next flip, these three are constantly progressing towards newer and taller peaks. I could just sit here and watch Deacon and his endless bag of tricks. It’s awesome to see him compliment his band mates in creative ways. They play a bunch of tracks off of their new album, Scripting the Flip, including “Driver.” Salmon’s banjo player, Andy Thorn, comes out to help on this one and they tell the crowd how Andy and Jon were best man at each other’s wedding. They serve the festival up with a headliner-sized set with new songs like “Death by Rainbow” and “Future Ghost.” Yes! Now that’s great music!
At this point I’ve been on my feet dancing for a good bit, so I head back to camp for a sandwich and a sit. This turns out to be a great decision because we can’t stop laughing the whole time. Now this is why I come to a festival. I peel myself from camp and scoot back to the music for the second half of Leftover Salmon’s set. Down here at the Amphitheater fans have light-up ghosts on the end of long, tall bending poles over the crowd. It’s great fun and super creative! At this point in the set, Salmon has a full on psychedelic episode. They pull out all the stops, contrasting simultaneous solos, ambient non-sensical playing, even lead singer Vince Herman lights a cigarette and stops playing to face the drummer. It’s way weird and they purposely make it hard to know what’s going on. The lights flicker and dance, changing bizarre colors and styles as they dig deeper down the rabbit hole. Herman turns around and strings together phrases into the mic, none of which make any sense, in an effort to stimulate the crowd. Finally it’s apparent that they are channeling the recently deceased Col. Bruce Hampton as they chant into the mic and it sounds like they are tuning a radio back and forth. Thorn leads them out of the woods with a rousing banjo tune before Drew Emmit has his turn with a solo of his own.
The lights are trippy and the band takes their time to set up the mood. “Up On the Hill Where We Do the Boogie” is the last tune in this amazing set. The crowd lets them have it and Herman assists the crowd to get the guys back on stage with his imaginary fishing pole. “Let In a Little Light” is the nightcap and boy is it a beautiful and uplifting song. One last diddy on the way out, they get the crowd to chant “Rise Up, Wake & Bake” as they exit the stage! Haha! I stop back at camp next to have a meal and hang out. I collect my friends and together we take on Sloppery Land! Campfire jams go on through the night but after last night, I tuck it in early and rest up!
The next morning feels so warm. I wake up with the afternoon light (I’m camped in the shade) and crawl into the back of my air-conditioned SUV. From there I enjoy some football on my phone before getting some food. My buddy serves up some grits before I head down to the balmy meadow for Peter Rowan. The tent is packed and there is little shade from the post rain, humid sun. I only was able to catch the back half of his set and I head over to a friends powered site to watch some football and eat pickles. Peter Rowan Free Mexican Airforce featuring Los Texmaniacs in the amphitheater are great! Classic sounds with accordion and Spanish guitar. They play Rowan’s big song “Moonlight Midnight” to a starry eyed crowd. The place is packed and everyone is enjoying the cooling weather.
I catch just a smidge of Ralph Roddenberry in the meadow for his tune, “Tumbleweed” and a salute to the troops. God Bless America and God Bless our Troops! I keep walking to take in the cool sounds of Virginia’s Larry Keel Experience next! Tearing up The Porch Stage, Larry Keel on guitar, Jenny Keel on stand-up bass, and Jared Pool on mandolin make a fierce combo. They have elements of funk in the beginning of this jam session. The bass pulses while Keel explores the space of the guitar before blasting off with an interstellar solo. They play “Try” featuring Jenny’s powerful bass lines. Funky riffs dominate the jam as Pool flexes with his mandolin. The contrast is great!
I can feel the bass line in my chest as my friend leans on my for musical support. The people around me play their own “air bass” to the song before they Jenny takes the crowd for a walk with her playing. Keel plays in the wake of her sound, experimenting as he goes. He breaks a string feverishly playing his guitar and then another one. They get into “Old Friends” which is about Keel’s spirit animal, the Northern Cardinal, he wrote during the pandemic. He plays every instrument on the album; a regular Stevie Wonder. They take time for space while they play and I can really appreciate that. They cover “Black Dog” by Led Zepplin and I’m so impressed. They finish up with “Take Time” and these guys aren’t just playing the strings on their instruments, they are playing the strings to my heart. Really making me fall in love with bluegrass all over again!
The Infamous Stringdusters are a progressive bluegrass band from Nashville, TN. They are the best cover band in the land when it comes to jam-grass and do the festival right when they play. They start with a cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years,” with lots of peaks and a crushing solo from their fiddle player, Jeremy Garrett. These guys are popcorning around the stage, helping to emphasize who’s playing through their jungle of covers.
They move into John Hartford’s, “Steam Powered Airplane,” and boy is it good. They have me on all-the-feels as we fly through the air remembering the late great John Hartford. “Hard Life Makes A Good Song” is the next tune up to which they move about on the stage like cats confidently looking for a toy. Constantly positioning for the next music. They mill about on the stage while Travis Book (bass) sings with an uplifting power that stirs the crowd. The play an original, “Gravity,” before moving into another big cover, “Terrapin Station” by the Grateful Dead. They finish out the set with a beautiful cover of “Free” by Phish. Fans cant help but put their arms up in the air for the chorus, such a feel good song.
I stop at camp for a min before coming back to the venue for another set of Jon Stickley Trio. They play a bunch of repeats from earlier in the weekend making sure that the whole festival has heard their new album. Afterwards I head back to a friends camp and enjoy some steak and campfire jams. I laugh with my friends until it hurts. I stroll around and catch campfire jams. The one noteworthy song was by Free Range Strange performing Del McCoury’s “You’ll Never Leave Harland Alive.” What a great end to a fabulous weekend.
I was able to enjoy a beautiful park and awesome music from both sides of the bluegrass isle. A fantastic weekend allowing me to get back to my roots. I can’t wait for March 2022 and Suwannee Spring Reunion for more awesome bluegrass music at the Spirit of Suwannee.
SUWANNEE ROOTS REVIVAL 2021 PHOTO GALLERY
Suwannee Roots Revival 2021 Photos by Carmelo Conte III.
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