Pickin’ is the name of the game this weekend. Patrons of all ages gather at the Spirit for a slow but enjoyable weekend of folk, country, and bluegrass at the Suwannee Roots Revival. The music this weekend has a “duck on a pond” feeling about it. That is to say that it looks slow and docile to the passerby, but just under the surface the songs are swimming and churning with small solos and instrumental highlights. Bluegrass is big on the affect, not the effects.
So on Thursday I frantically pack all of my camping stuff after getting off work late. The goal is to get to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park by sundown so I can see really well while driving, but also so I can set up camp before going to enjoy the music tonight! I did the best I could, but still arrive to the park a little after sundown. No worries, I’ll set up my tent and bed when I’m ready to sleep tonight. I notice right away that the plots of land for camp are huge! This isn’t a camp, its a homestead! I hug all of my friends and we laugh and smile our way down to the first music of the weekend: Peter Rowan. Peter Rowan is a grammy award winning singer songwriter who’s career spans 5 decades. He’s worked with big name acts including the one and only Jerry Garcia. We walk up to the beautiful amphitheater stage to find a very laid back vibe. People are mostly in chairs, and those chairs go all the way from the sounds booth to the front railing, 20 wide. I am delighted as we approach to find he’s playing the song I fancied the most while researching him, “Midnight Moonlight.” Rowan is rocking camo pants with his band, the Free Mexican Airforce. He takes time to tell a funny story about he and his friends taking peyote in Mexico and accidentally setting up camp on the road because they were so high. A little bit of his patented indian yodeling later and we were off to our friends campsite for an awesome meal! (Thanks Tami and Charles, Adam, and Shelly.)
We finish eating and make it down to the porch stage for John Stickley Trio. I am unfamiliar with their sound but Hunter Deacon’s solid work on the drums and Lyndsay Pruett’s amazing fiddle made me a believer in just one set. John Stickley is a beast on the guitar too! They’re ability to navigate progressive songs that require a ton of changes and looping made it sound like there were a bunch of players on stage. We return to the amphitheater stage for one of the main acts of the weekend, Oteil Burbridge and Friends. Oteil is a bass player who has been in two of the biggest bands of all time, Allman Brothers Band, and The Grateful Dead. He is flanked on stage by some seriously talented friends. On one side he has guitarist John Kadlecik (Futher, DSO), on the other he has guitarist Scott Metzger (JRAD), percussionist Weedie Braimah (Toubab Krewe, Nth Power), drummer John Kimocks and an outstanding vocalist in Alfreda Gerald. These guys are goooooooood. They tackle really big songs like Jerry Garcia Band’s “Tangled up in Blue” that Metzger absolutely slays on. But Kadlecik won’t be outdone and he rips a huge solo right afterwards. It kinda feels like Metzger is boosting Kadlecik upward with his solo, much like someone who double-jumps their friend on a trampoline. They follow that with a slow cover of Otis Rush’s “I’m Tore Up.” Afterwards they get into a funky groove where everyone was simmering and stewing in the pocket so that Braimah could pepper in some of that delicious djembe seasoning. The crowd is moving and shaking all over! They finish up strong with covers of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” and James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Wow! I am so impressed with Gerald’s vocals, man can she wail!!
The final set of the evening is Grass is Dead. We travel across the dark meadow to a tent with peaks like a circus. As we approach I can see lights dancing off the walls and can hear the bass thumping. Mist dances in the moonlight as we near the music. Billy Gilmore (banjo) and Steve Pruett (mandolin) lead a fast paced and exciting 5 piece through the expansive library of the Dead. These guys are pretty damn good. This set takes us into the late hours of the night. Walking from here to there to find the next jam session, laughing all the way.
The next day we wake up on the lake and the weather is gorgeous. This is exactly why I am here! I can’t help but be energized by the stellar weather and use my new found energy to make it over to our friends spot where breakfast burritos are cooking. Fueled up and ready to go, our first stop for music takes us to the music hall where Brett Bass is leading his band. Bass was the lead in Grandpa’s Cough Medicine when it was still a group. These guys remind me of Johnny Cash just a little in the way he wears his guitar and all black, and of course, the sound as well. At this point I am made aware of how much I stand out compared to the crowd. I’m wearing coral shorts, a white print collared shirt and drinking a kiwi-strawberry La Croix while my musical neighbor has on a camo shirt tucked into his blue jeans and a trucker hat with a hook on the bill. We might not look the same, but the great thing about music is it brings together people from all backgrounds to do just one thing: boogie! From here we make our way past the Lonely Heartstring Band. These guys have awesome harmonies and I wish I would have stayed longer to appreciate more of their smooth approach to bluegrass. After a quick stop back at camp, we catch the tail end of the Lee Boys in the amphitheater and they are great! Their upbeat southern slide and thumping bass drum is a welcome change from the low and slow of the daytime acts.
We walk away from Lee Boys, exploring all that Roots Revival has to offer. During our travels we made our way to the music tent in the meadow. Here we are surprised to find a large group of people ballroom dancing. I couldn’t tell you the song or the dance, but it’s sweet. People of all ages enjoying an afternoon waltz, it brings a smile to my face. It is just one more example of how people have come to this festival to get their “slow” on. And I mean really slow. The conversations at camp aren’t necessarily about the music, it’s more people planning to take a shower in 20 min, or spending 45 minutes to “get ready” to go across the campsite to the picnic table for supper. Rest and relaxation are number one and two for this very mature and laid back crowd. Although I’m used to a bit more hustle and bustle at the Spirit, (HULAWEEN) I could get used to slowing down to a breakneck crawl. The Seldom Scene is up next. They are an American bluegrass band formed in 1971 in Bethesda, Maryland. I am serenaded by their smooth slow harmonies and warm, folksy feel. They take things slow, but finally do work things into a lather with the song “Appalachian Rain,” where Ron Stewart cleans up with the banjo.
Keller Williams and The Hillbenders are going to do Tom Petty! They start playing before coming out on stage, and when they do, they are in a little train, almost like a conga line. They all take a moment to settle into position, all while playing of course, and when they are in their spot, they all signal they are ready and step up to the microphone simultaneously sing the chorus. They don’t stop playing as they transition from one song to another. It really feels like an extended jam session where they stumble upon Petty tunes along the way. Their fluidity is evident as each member continuously checks in with Keller and he tweaks and adjusts their sound with a look or a gesture. The vibe from the band is obviously excited. They are pumped to be headlining with Keller in such a beautiful setting. I can’t tell you how many nods with pursed lips I saw on stage, but it was a lot! We transition and find ourselves “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Jim Rhea takes the lead on guitar with a nice solo. Like note for note what I was thnking. Does that ever happen to you? Where the artist takes the song exactly where you think it should, almost like you’re behind the wheel? Well it happened here during Rhea’s effortless and patient solo, and it just felt right. The setlist included all of Petty’s biggest hits, “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” just to name a few. I can tell people are satisfied leaving this set. People are hugging and high-fiving their friends.
John Stickley Trio finishes the night strong with dark jams that remind me of Radiohead. Pruett on the fiddle is once again astounding. Stickley takes a moment to fix a broken string and they are right back at it, finishing the set with a medley that includes “Nevermind,” by Nirvana and “Friend of the Devil,” by the Graeful Dead teases. They encore with Lyndsay’s father Steve Pruett and Billy Gilmore from Grass is Dead.
So after the music, we pit stop at camp and meet back up with all of our friends. We trade stories around the fire as more and more people gather. Then the musicians start coming around. More and more team up and pretty soon we have a 5 piece band around our fire, stand up bass and all (shoutout to Free Range Strange). I wake up in the morning to find the same people sitting around in a circle exhausting their libraries of music, having the time of their lives mixing it up with friends, new and old! This morning is another beautiful day in paradise. We move to our friends camp where breakfast is already making stomachs grumble. Today, I have decided to dress at the opposite end of the spectrum from yesterday. So I rock some cut off jean shorts, a Metallica shirt and a black hat with a mullet built in. This hair matches my beard perfectly and I get looks all day where people are trying to figure out if I’m in a costume, or if I’m a local who’s a big fan of “Enter Sandman.” Either way, I am thoroughly entertained by the perplexed faces from friends and strangers alike.
The first music we arrive to is Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. This five piece band includes David Lynch (harmonica, accordion, spoons, vocals), Collin Mettelka (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Russell Pedersen (banjo, fiddle, vocals), Adam Greuel (guitar, dobro, vocals), and Samual Odin (bass) and all of the members sing. This is kind of their thing, as they move through the song, the band members rotate in and out to get near the microphone to sing their part. These guys are close, as evident by the 5 min very complicated A capella song they sang that even included the guys simultaneous opening a beer into the mic. I am surprised to hear them covering “Naive Melody,” by The Talking Heads with an accordion! After H&HG we make our way to the big tent to hear the last song again for the Lee Boys. This time they are covering Grateful Dead’s “Love Light.” Totally made the trip out to the meadow worth it, even if we only got one song.
Today we spend a ton of time at camp, playing and laughing with our friends. We cook meals for each other and enjoy fellowship right next to the lake as the sun sets. The golden hour in the Spirit of Suwannee is unlike any other. The colors jump from the trees and the contrast between light and dark play tricks on your vision. Tonight someone has taken a bunch of time to light up the trees along the walk way with small lanterns and glow sticks. The vibe is awesome, as people get ready for the chilly evening hours.
We make our way to Samantha Fish next. She and her band are super impressive. Upbeat blues and soul makes me think of Ami Winehouse and then they sound like Sharon Jones, and even remind me of rockers, The Main Squeeze. They give Oteil and Keller a run for their money when it comes to best set of the weekend. If they come to your town, you have been informed: be there!
Leftover Salmon is the final band for the evening and they are so good. Smooth pickin’ with an island sound this bluegrass/calypso band has me sitting on the beach with a drink in my hand. Big bonfire and friends playing fooball on the beach in the fading light from the day everything is just perfect. This band simply gets work done. No down time in between songs or lengthy explanations, no they guys are here to boogie! As I look around I can see that everyone is moving back and forth, groovin with the music. Lyndsay Pruett and John Stickley join them on stage for a cover of Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child O Mine.” I’m not the only one having a good time, the guitarist for Leftover Vince Herman shakes his head so hard to the beat that he looses his hat!
The night ends with the same schedule as yesterday: check back in a camp and collect friends, and then venture out into the night to find small groups of musicians who team up for just moments at a time and create wonderful pops of delicious bluegrass goodness. A few times you can hear artists and fans alike paying tribute to the recently deceased multi-instrumentalist from Railroad Earth, Andy Goessling.
We finish the night as the sun is coming up. Luckily the our group knows how to cook, and we ate and slept, slept and ate the morning and early afternoon away. Lazily laying lakeside soaking up the majesty of the Spirit. Cheesy grits and eggs behind us we set out for music. Today we get another helping of Grass is Dead. They have us dancing with a nice upbeat version of “Sugaree.” Rev. Mosier, a legendary banjo player who has shared the stage with Col. Bruce and Phish, also shares the stage with Grass is Dead today. Together they play a John Hartford love song celebrating the life of RRE’s Goessling. Leftover Salmon is the last music of the weekend for me and they don’t disappoint. They cover a few songs in the midst of they non-stop jamming, including “Freedom,” by George Michael and also “Sweet Home Alabama,” with the lyrics changed to Margaritaville. Later they touch on “Can’t You See…” “what Jimmy Buffet’s been doing to me?!” by The Marshall Tucker Band.
All and all it has been a wonderful time back at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. It was my first time attending Suwannee Roots Revival and I can honestly say they have made a believer out of me. Taking a weekend to enjoy going slow and loving on some sweet, bluegrass music. I will most definitely be returning to this big time hoedown! Or is it a hootenanny?
Live Review by Spencer Storch
Photos by Carmelo Conte
Suwannee Roots Revival Live Photos 2018
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