Close your eyes. Go on, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now, I want you to imagine a place where love springs eternal like the fountain on Spirit Lake. A place where if you listen closely you can just hear the jams flowing from between the trees. Where laughter spills from every camp as children play and friends grow together. Open your eyes and experience the unique sights and sounds that can only be found at Suwannee Spring Reunion 2022!
We are excited to make our bi-annual pilgrimage to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida to charge up with some of the best Bluegrass and Country pickin’ anywhere! Music fans will experience a bunch of bluegrass bands that are better than barbecue! Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled By Turtles, Sierra Hull, Peter Rowan, Rev. Jeff Mosier, Town Mountain, and so many more! The Spirit of Suwannee is home to the beloved Amphitheater stage as well as Uncle Charlie’s Front Porch Stage. Eight Thousand fans are here enjoy a wide variety of food and merchandise vendors while tapping their foot to some of the biggest names in roots music. The park features plenty of wooded camping as well as bathhouses with showers included! Patrons can also enjoy plenty of power/water sites for those who would like to bring their recreational vehicle.
Thursday /// Grass is Dead, Two Foot Level, The Applebutter Express, Sierra Hull, Firewater Tent Revival, Jon Stickley Trio, Yonder Mountain String Band
Arriving at the Amphitheater Stage I am greeted by the sounds of Bob Marley and the Wailers with a laid back “Stop That Train.” Grass is Dead is playing more than the Dead and I am grateful. Grass is Dead has been performing Dead and related music since their formation in ‘98. I skip down the steps to my hangout spot and admire the Amp filling up on this Thursday afternoon. “West LA Fadeway” is next and guitarist Drew Matulich lets loose an impressive solo on the electric.
The music goes down quickly so I sneak back to camp to indulge in a fantastic chicken pita before catching a song from Two Foot Level on the Porch Stage. They are a Tallahassee folk and bluegrass band packing a punch. Clawhammer banjo, acoustic and electric mandolin, acoustic guitar, upright bass, drums and vocals! You name it, they play it! Dillon Bradley-Brown stands out on the drums but unfortunately I can’t stay long because I’m on my way to the Tent Stage, set up in the meadow, for The Applebutter Express.
It’s such a wholesome scene as I stroll through the meadow. Kids chase each other while other families have a doggie play-date. A little girl swings from her parents arms and I am certain she’s having a blast. I start to think of my buddy and his new son. I am so excited for his family and their new adventure! As fate would have it, The Applebutter Express is playing “Riley” when I get within earshot. I can never get enough of Tampa’s folk/Americana ukulele funk! This song in particular is a message to their new child:
“Oh Riley, the world ain’t all that bad
When you grow up to be a man, there’s good times to be had
There’s twists and turns, and lots to learn that you won’t understand
There’s drinks and smokes and funny jokes, the world ain’t all that bad”
It’s true that the world seems to get more challenging as we go on, but there are still good times to be had! Like Spring Reunion going down this weekend at the Spirit of Suwannee! The Applebutter Express warms up the festival like a sip of apple cider on a cold day. They hit all the favorites including “Smile,” “He’s Got Love in His Heart and Mayonnaise in His Head,” and “Until the Morning Came.”
Next up is rising star, Sierra Hull. This 30-year-old mandolinist from Byrdstown, Tennessee is the real deal. She opens with “Poison” where her guitarist and fiddle player take mini solos to introduce themselves and we are off and running. The next song has me traveling across the countryside on horseback. I’m bouncing up and down at the mercy of the trotting bassist as she takes her mandolin out for a spin. It’s an Irish influenced tune (as it’s St. Paddy’s Day) so she whinnies and rears her mandolin before returning to the herd. Then the band breaks down into a bit of a funk jam before coming back to the chorus during “Western Winds,” a song she wrote with guitarist Cory Wong of Vulfpeck. They cover “I Feel the Blues Moving In,” which is a song that was written by Del McCoury and recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt.
Again she breaks trail with a home cooked mandolin solo that shows she certainly knows her way around the flat pickin’ kitchen. She clears the way for her guitarist and fiddle to follow her and we all get a chance to feast on the beautiful spread of fixins coming from the Amp stage. She trusts the crowd with her innermost thoughts in “Beautifully Out of Place,” the first track off of her 2020 album 25 Trips. It’s a song that fell out of writer’s block and landed on the top of a snowy mountain. Its slow, but powerful momentum snowballs its way towards the crowd. Moments later, we get to see John Mailander on fiddle for the first time this weekend. He has played on all three Billy Strings albums and is the most popular man at this shindig. He helps out with his own set of sweet sounds on a warm tune before everyone leaves the stage. Sierra grabs an acoustic guitar and plays her confessional, “Ceiling to the Floor.” The band returns to the stage and they get the party started right away. The crowd embraces their loved ones as they cover The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”
This bluegrass outfit is a warm, crackling fire. I could sit here and watch them all night.
They are exactly, I mean exactly what I wanted when I came out here to this festival. Sierra Hull is talented, technical and most importantly, touching. They finish their outstanding set gathered around one mic in a traditional fashion to play a non-traditional song, “Let Your Light Shine Down,” by Collective Soul. Strange but satisfying, these musicians are on another level!
Firewater Tent Revival is a psychedelic bluegrass band from sunny Jacksonville, FL. Sure enough, they are in the tent and the Florida warmth coming from the stage is reviving me! It also could be that the tent is packed and the body heat is visible and palpable. Anyways, these guys have a washboard in the band and I’m loving the tone coming from the guitarist. Yee haw! Did the washboard player just stamp out a zippy harmonica solo during “Wingnut?” I think so! Dang, they are great but I’m dragged away as they get into “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” by The Charlie Daniels Band.
I have the chance to check out progressive bluegrass band, Jon Stickley Trio. Asheville’s lucky to have such a great guitarist and band create a progressive vibe unmatched in this scene. Lyndsay Pruett rips on the fiddle while flat pickin’ Jon Stickley tears things on guitar. Providing support is Hunter Deacon, who holds everything down on drums. Their gypsy jazz or folk-punk is my favorite every time I come to this festival. They play a bunch of songs from their 2020 record, Scripting the Flip, before introducing us to a new funky tune called “Take the Air.”
I simply don’t have time to go to camp because the legendary Yonder Mountain String Band is coming up! They practically invented progressive bluegrass and have delivered their fun and original style all the way from Colorado. No time to lose, they launch into a Steeldrivers song, “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” It’s a song about hypothetically killing his wife so, It has a bit of an ominous feel to it. The full Amp sways back and forth to the sweet sounds of Yonder’s newer music. Patiently waiting for the Jeff Austin tunes they crave. Austin was the lead singer and mandolin player for the group until ‘14 when he split off to work on a side project. Ultimately he tragically took his own life in ‘19. It’s hard not to have the feels and think about this when seeing them play. It may not be fair, but it’s human nature.
On a more positive note, YMSB boogies and the crowd is cutting up the dance floor with King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Couples slow dance and twirl in front of me and the emotions start to flow. Groups powwow and lovers kiss as Yonder turns the focus to the full moon above. The rabid music fans howl at the moon as the song comes to a close. “40 Miles from Denver” is what the people want and my friends sing out the lyrics at the top of their lungs! They finish us off with “Steep Grade Sharp Curve” and Allie Kral shows off her splendid tone with a fitting fiddle solo. Jeff Austin lives on in all of us, but especially at the Spirit of Suwannee. 🖤
From here I jet back to camp and get ready for good times at Slopperyland! It’s a festival sanctioned hangout where anyone with an instrument, especially the artists, can join together and play a few tunes by the roaring campfire. There are all kinds of cool settings to play in with a couple campfires, a bar area, and posh lounges to explore. After loving the music and laughing with my friends, I call the first day of Spring Reunion ‘22 a success and head for bed.
FRIDAY /// Free Range Strange, Donna The Buffalo, Greensky Bluegrass, Rev Jeff Mosier
The day starts out with rain in the forecast. The sky is already threatening me when I wake up. I hang at camp and eat some nourishing breakfast—chicken salad sammies. When I finally do leave camp I head down to the Tent Stage to enjoy some Free Range Strange! This homegrown band is so much fun! John Gospel absolutely crushes a banjo solo right after I arrive. A few songs later they cover Peter Rowan’s “Moonlight Midnight” and dazzle the crowd! They make the song their own as we twist and turn through the bluegrass standard. The sunflowers on the stage are a nice touch to this lovely Friday afternoon set.
I stop to enjoy a bit of Donna the Buffalo and their guitarist is super impressive. The New York zydeco band is a staple of this festival and many others. I watch him shred as the Amp crawls with friends and family having a good ole time. Their unique country rock is simply a good time for the whole family. Next to me two little girls play-fight with glow sticks. One is dressed as a pirate and the other a unicorn!
Shortly after getting back to the camp the rain comes down. The storm front is fierce and lightning stops all of the music. I make it out for just a few moments of Greensky Bluegrass, our headliner for the evening before they call it. John Mailander joins them for three songs on fiddle. They strut their way through the Amp with a fun “Jaywalker” before the rain gets a bit harder to ignore. The guys play through the downpour but ultimately lightning in the area forces them to discontinue the set. We “Grow Together” as the rain huddles the masses while Beck’s dobro provides us with shelter. Mailander’s solo is quick but quaint before they have to call it quits. Thanks for trying Greensky! Safety is the priority now as I speed my way back to the tent. It’s the best tent rain time I’ve ever had in my life. We laugh and hang while passing the conversation and other things around.
Emerging from the tent I trot down to the venue to see if any band is brave enough to play in the threatening weather. One man, well several men, is/are willing to stand up to Mother Nature. His name is Reverend Jeff Mosier and he wants to play the banjo! A small crowd gathers in ponchos and rain jackets as the band begins to play. One group has teamed up to hold a tarp over themselves. It’s hilarious but seems to be working. Anyways, Mosier and company start off with a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” You read that right. Guitarist Matt Williams takes the song for a spin in the rain and Mailander again is there to support on fiddle. They barely start the second song before lightning strikes wayyy too close for comfort and they call the music for the rest of the night. Safety sends me back to the tent for some more smiles and good times.
SATURDAY /// Chatham County Line, Fireside Collective, Town Mountain, Trampled By Turtles
My grumbling stomach wakes me up in the morning and I crawl out of bed. The world is damp and some of the tents in my camp are now above ground pools. In contrast, the hammock dweller in front of me seems to have survived the rain just fine. Go figure. I trek into the venue and scarf down a delicious veggie quesadilla from the Solar Cafe. Gotta love eating something healthy and filling at a festival! I’m ready to take on a day of music discovery and dancing!
The storm has left beautiful blue skies as I stop at Chatham County Line. Since 1999 fans have gushed over the sweet lyrics and soulful approach of CCL. Their smooth style of North Carolina bluegrass is just what the doctor ordered this afternoon. They begin with “The Traveler” and I have no doubt these fellas are going first class with fancy shoes and big cowboy hats. The drummer Dan Hall lays down a simple country beat while Greg Readling serenades me with his steel guitar. But it’s his voice that offers that last, lonely breath of desperation. His words quiver underneath the weight of their sultry sound. Standing at her doorstep working up the courage to kiss her. He knows it’s his last chance to say good night. They cover a song made famous by Three Dog Night, “Never Been to Spain” that was first recorded in ‘71 by Hoyt Axton. The band leaves the stage for John Teer on fiddle to entertain the crowd. It’s not space and drums, it’s bass and strums! Lead singer and guitarist Dave Wilson might have impressed me the most when he walks back out on stage and puts his hat on with a flip and a snap of the wrist. I can’t think of anything that could make this set better! Oh man, are those bubbles? Ok, things just got better!
Finishing up at the Amp I take my talents to the Porch Stage where Fireside Collective has some young guns lookin for their turn. They are a progressive folk band from Asheville, NC. These guys have so much energy as they perform they simply can’t stand still. Milling about the stage like chicken in a pen, Fireside takes me across the countryside and down a “Winding Road.” The crowd is full of energy too and the quintet tells us how thankful they are to be here (first time since their formation in ‘14). Mailander, the Lone Ranger of the weekend, comes out for “Blue is My Condition” where he absolutely slaps. Then he stays for “Don’t Stop Loving Me.” The fun doesn’t stop as they check my vitals with “Just Dropped In” by Kenny Rogers. The close with “And the Rain Came Down” and I feel so good right now. I’ve got my dancing shoes on and bluegrass in my heart!
I jaunt over to the Porch Stage for Town Mountain. Their rugged sensitivity and edgy honky-Tonk sound has me hooked instantly. Another Asheville band to bend your ear. They have drums, electric instruments, and a whole lot of attitude. Their kitchy fun country feel has me lookin’ in the fridge for a pitcher of sweet tea! Robert Greer’s fast talkin’ lyrics and Phil Barker on mandolin are the stars right off the bat. We get an amazing solo from Bobby Britt on fiddle before they move into the song they recorded with Tyler Childres, “Down Low.” It’s a fantastic tune that is worth a listen right now. They follow that with a Bruce Springsteen cover, “Hearts on Fire!” So smooth and wonderful! My favorite part of the set is when Greer throws his voice at the tail end of any line. Holy crap, I think I’m a honky tonk fan now!
I spend a few minutes at camp for dinner before I come back to the Amp for tonight’s headliner, Trampled By Turtles! It’s drizzling but that’s okay, I have a fancy rain jacket just for this moment! They cover a Bob Dylan song as I approach, kicking soaked and abandoned chairs from my path! It feels so good to clear a path through this thick bush of festival entitlement. Get out of the way! Minnesota’s best folk and bluegrass band has taken the stage! These guys have nine albums, three of which have reached number one on the Billboard bluegrass charts! Their fifth album, Palomino, maintained a top ten position for a year! Tim Saxhaug has my attention right away playing his upright bass with a bow. I notice that the sun shade tarp that the festival places over the pit for shade has retained a ton of water from the rain. The wind pushes the water weight around the tarp, anxiously close to the edge and the people below. The bass moves slowly with the swaying water and we float together. “Wait So Long” is next and is the first track off of that same huge album from ‘10. This is one of my favorites! Next, they serve up a slow but beautiful “Shenandoah” right before the next wave of rain comes down upon me. “The sky falls down..” are the lyrics for the song, “Blue Sky and the Devil,” as it begins to rain once again. I am reeling from such stunning music as they come out for an encore performance of The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind.” They have this amazing power to pressurize the moment, almost to the point of panic, then release as a group to create a euphoric feeling over and over again.
Back at camp we hang around the fire and under cover from the intermittent rain. Our camp is lucky enough to have several passionate and accomplished guitarists. This allows us to have a fantastic time all by ourselves! Thanks Josh, Ari, and Barb (The Ain’t Sisters)! Later, our camp has a run-in with a rogue, shirtless trash panda who flashes innocent people in our camp and continues to harass our squad by loudly eating noodles near our circle. We cook a three pound london broil directly on the coals and share it around the fire. Yes, the trash panda got some too (share with the wildlife!). Weird and hilarious, you just never know at the Suwannee Spring Reunion!
SUNDAY /// Peter Rowan, Rev Jeff Mosier, Town Mountain, Free Range Strange, Grass is Dead, Donna the Buffalo
Shortly after waking up the camp comes alive with cooking. On today’s menu is fresh grouper that our photographer, Jacob Hayes, caught! Fried in peanut oil to perfection, this has got to be the best breakfast I’ve had this weekend! Finally breaking from camp on the last day of the festival, I make my way down to the Amp for Peter Rowan. Rowan is famous for being in a bluegrass outfit with Jerry Garcia called Old & In the Way. His biggest song is the one you hear the most at this festival, “Midnight, Moonlight!” That is of course what he’s playing solo acoustic as I arrive. He tells stories and sings songs in between with “Tumbleweed” being the next on the setlist. After a. Bit more reminiscing, Rowan finishes up with “Mississippi California.”
Rev Jeff Mosier takes another swing at performing with a sweet rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” as the wind blows! I have a seat and enjoy some delicious food from Umami Bites. I love my delightfully flash fried brussel sprouts and spring rolls. The food charges me up and the people working there are so nice. I finish my meal and scoot over to the Amp for another helping of Town Mountain. Right away I’m impressed by Jesse Langlais on banjo and vocals. He and Bobby Britt on fiddle are ready to take this crowd for a ride up the holler! It’s a beautiful day and the breeze is amazing as they slide into the Dead’s “West LA Fadeaway.” They play “Life and Debt,” a fast paced bopper that has me lookin’ for the pork cracklin’s flippin’ through the TV guide to find out when the race is on! These guys have officially won me over. I am a fan! Yee Haw!
I find my way in front of Free Range Strange for the second time this weekend and not by mistake! They look so nice in their sundresses and collared shirts it just puts a smile on my face. They play a bunch of music I don’t recognize until the old standard “Lord Willing the Creek Don’t Rise.” Lead singer Sunnie takes it over the top with her beautiful singing making this another great set from FRS!
From there I hightail it out to the Tent for Grass is Dead! Just trying to squeeze the last bit of music out of this juicy festival. The place is full of deadheads getting down to “Franklin’s Tower.” People dance and sing around me while Billy Gilmore crushes a solo on the fiddle. He takes us to the promised land as they continue to play past their scheduled time. This band is always a treat. Stellar playing and a fantastic atmosphere means fun for everyone!
The last set of the weekend is Donna the Buffalo. Originally they wanted to be called “Dawn of the Buffalo” but got tired of correcting fans. So DtB sends us out in style with an accordion and a reggae zydeco vibe. David McCracken brings us up a notch with a great organ solo as bubbles burst upward towards the sky. The vibe here is undeniable as the last day of the festival comes to a close. The full Amp crowd sways and bounces to the fun tunes. Greer (vocals, guitar) from Town Mountain has a go on stage before they bring out Sunnie (vocals, guitar) and Timber (vocals, guitar) from Free Range Strange for a tune as well. Next Peter Rowan (vocals, guitar) is the star on stage for a couple songs as the carousel of stars continues! FInally the Ain’t Sisters, Barb and Ari, came out to show off their skills. What a fantastic way to finish up the festival! So many good times!
When I meditate and imagine my happy place it’s simple. The Spirit of Suwannee is my home and Spring Reunion is my fantasy of a perfect world with all the best music! Open your eyes and it’s easy to see this festival is thriving amongst the Live Oaks. See y’all in the fall!
Suwannee Spring Reunion Live Review by Spencer Storch.
Suwannee Spring Reunion Photos by Jacob Hayes — instagram.com/jhayes822
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