Let’s face it—our daily lives are a grind. Adulting isn’t easy and responsibilities take up our time. Luckily for the music community a place exists in Florida where we can clear our minds and fill our hearts. Suwannee Roots Revival takes over the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park every year. Four nights of friends, who have become family, and some of the best ‘grass around. Music lovers come to this sacred land from all over and they can’t wait to get back. Folk rock guitarist Ralph Roddenbery sums up this feeling perfectly during his performance of his tune “This Very Day” with Donna the Buffalo on Sunday night: “The city takes it from me, but the Suwannee gives it back.”
I arrive back “home” again to the Spirit of Suwannee late Thursday afternoon. I’m excited to spend four nights with my festival family! Camp is already set up on Spirit Lake and my friends have saved me a great spot facing the water. Friends of mine shared their love with each other and The Suwannee: getting married the weekend before. At the wedding he sings his vows of love by the water, promising her “Time could never steal our kind of love. I know that forever won’t be long enough.” Our homestead has an awesome hangout spot by the water, multiple kitchens, a great big circle of chairs around the “fire,” as well as a stimulating sea of flickering and color changing lights. Our photographer, Carmelo Conte, welcomes myself and others to the spot as we set up for another great weekend in Live Oak.
This festival is lit! Seriously, a huge Hunter’s Moon is filling sky as well as the woods with bright, reflected sunshine (Soulshine). We bask in the glow of the night as we trek to the first set of the weekend, Firewater Tent Revival. This six-piece high energy string band is from Atlantic Beach, FL. Jamgrass is my favorite style this festival and I am excited to let loose some killer dance moves. As soon as I walk into the twangin’ tent I’m impressed right away by Kris Whatley playing the washboard. To my right a group of little girls in onesies are in a conga line and make their way around the crowd before falling down at the end of the song. This festival is filled to the brim with little kids. It features a huge children’s program as well as a talent show! I look up to see Jeff Hoff on saxophone (that’s right, there’s a sax in this jamgrass band) let loose a long solo with a medley of teases like Talking Heads’ “Cross-eyed and Painless” as well as “Shortnin’ Bread” by The Andrews Sisters sprinkled in.
Our next stop is We Banjo 3. They are from Galway, Ireland and are a new sound for me. Folk and bluegrass with an Irish twist is a sound I’m not sure I knew existed, but this award-winning quartet has to be good since they’ve gone international. Although I was slightly disappointed that there weren’t three banjos in the band, I enjoyed the product on the stage. Especially the moment when multi-instrumentalist Fergal Scahill put down his fiddle and picked up a bodhrán (a handheld Irish drum) and has an interactive call back with the crowd. We shout “Hey” back to the stage as we move down the road and indoors to see The Grass is Dead in the music hall. The room is bright and loud but the Grateful Dead’s music can be heard over the roar of the caged crowd. They play “Deal” while I watch the young and the old dance together to this timeless Americana sound. Later, they cover Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and the room is filled with people catching the vibe.
After a quick stop back at camp to eat some food we travel back to the venue to see Samantha Fish. A blues and roots rock artist who has shared the stage with artists like Devon Allman and the legendary Buddy Guy. She’s wearing a very sparkly jacket and has short blonde hair. In the first part of her performance she shows impressive skill on guitar, pickin’ and slidin’ her style of the blues. She’s supported on her solo by the drum and bass duo of Ken Tudrick and Chris Alexander. This band brings it and for the second time I walk away impressed with their performance. I can’t wait to see her on Jam Cruise in January of 2020.
Jon Stickley Trio is up next! If you haven’t heard of this band, then maybe you’ve never heard of Electro-Harmonic Jazz Grass, but this trio is simply wonderful. Hailing from Asheville, NC, violinist Lyndsay Pruett, drummer Hunter Deacon, and guitarist Jon Stickley, take turns wowing the crowd as they push bluegrass to the next level. They execute a great cover of Béla Fleck’s “Sinister Minister,” while fans howl at the moon around me. When the set ends we walk back to camp trading funny stories from the day.
I wake up the next morning to the sounds of children laughing and playing in the camp next to me. The sunshine streams in through the top of my tent and the cool breeze dances through the leaves above my head. The weather is so nice, after a long summer of endless heat, that I exit my tent and spin around with my arms wide open. I start my day by making breakfast while I soak up the sun with my friends. After our meal we head to the music for Free Range Strange. This exciting string band graduates from being a staple at Slopperyland, the official after-music jam spot, to being in the lineup and the Dance Tent. Mandolin player Sunni Rae sings with a Southern vibrato which brings a smile to my face. These guys are upbeat and have the whole tent moving as they progress through the set. Jamming out almost every song, they get crazy towards the end and Nilu Jimenez-Ross even straddles her stand up bass while playing it. You can really feel the passion. I’m looking forward to seeing this animated band again!
We check in with Donna Hopkins Band next on our quest for bluegrass and beyond this weekend. I’m super excited because they have a drummer! Richie Jones helps the band rock out with blues while Donna and company provide great harmonies! Dennis Stadelman of Cope is delightful as always on guitar. I also love Brad Bauman on harmonica. We join Jon Stickley Trio briefly after. Lyndsay Pruett is still dominating the violin with her fast and technical playing. I don’t know their songs off hand but I think that I heard an “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers tease. Anyways, we break from the music to recharge at camp for a little while.
Del McCoury Band is the most awarded artist in Bluegrass history. Del practically invented contemporary bluegrass. He’s the legend on stage with his two sons — Rob (banjo), and Ronnie (mandolin). This is one well dressed band too! They gather around one mic and serenade the large crowd with songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” and they get the crowd churning with “Orange Blossom Special.” Fiddle player Jason Carter caught my eyes and ears during the cheeky song “Hotwire.” They end this splendid set with Del’s classic tune, “All Aboard.” Spending some time at camp, we listen to local artists play around camp while we pass things around and become better friends.
Back at the music we catch a bit of the Lil’ Smokies. They are fun with covers like “Rocket Man,” by Elton John and ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” When they end we travel to check out Balkun Brothers. A guitar and drum duo that reminds me of George Thorogood. The last stop of the night brings us to the jam packed tent for another helping of The Grass is Dead. They cover Little Feat’s “Skin It Back” as we arrive. We also get to enjoy an awesome “Help On the Way” before heading back to our lakeside retreat.
It’s the morning of Day 3 and we have a couple more awesome friends arrive to camp with us. We head to the Music Hall first for a very talkative set with Peter Rowan. Peter is an icon who used to share the stage with guitarist Jerry Garcia in the group, Old & In the Way. Now solo on stage he competes with the sounds of a restaurant and sports bar in the back to tell his fans the stories behind his songs. When you close your eyes and listen to him sing, it takes you on a journey through Western landscapes, where the wind blows cold through the land of the Navajo.
Next on the menu is The Travelin’ McCourys. This jam-grass band just won a GRAMMY for their self-titled album. It’s the Bluegrass Album of the Year! Needless to say, even without Del, these guys are gooood. They lead with “Midnight Flyer” where flat-pick guitar champion Cody Kilby is setting the stage on fire. The crowd is super into the music and a few people even get out of their chairs to dance. This is a true jamband. The soloist is always ready, expecting to be cut off by the next guy with his individual contribution to the song. Like musical whack-a-mole, you just don’t know who’s bringing the heat next. They let loose a great cover of Passenger’s “Let It Go,” and people dance and sing along to their hearts delight. Del’s grandson Evan joins in the fun as the torch is slowly passed to the third generation of the family. Covering again, they play “Loser” by Beck. Twangy and fun, they flex their musical muscles in an improv portion only to be greeted loudly by the crowd on the other end. Unwilling to leave the Grateful Dead out of their set, they play an weird and winding, “Loser.”
We come back to the Amphitheater after a camp stop for Peter Rowan once more. He sings “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with Ronnie McCoury helping out on mandolin. A nearly silent crowd is suspended in time as they hang on every word and note. We finish there and move to the Music Hall, passing the kids talent show along the way. The Grass is Dead is playing a tribute set to the Dead and Bob Dylan while I watch the Gators battle the LSU Tigers on the bar television. I can’t stay and watch the whole thing though, still have music to see!
Sam Bush has been crowned the “King of Newgrass.” Bush, along with his band mates in New Grass Revival carried the torch for the genre through the late ’80s and early ’90s. This gave way to the beautiful sounds we have today—jamgrass. He covers “The Letter” by Joe Cocker and the crowd is really into it. Multi-instrumentalist Bush is crazy good as he switches between stringed instruments without slipping in skill. They play John Hartford’s “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” as well as Bush’s original, “Circles Around Me.” I can’t help but have a good time, but they really make me smile with a rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire!” Appropriately we move into “Howlin’ at the Moon,” because hot damn is it big and bright! The crowd obliges and we all howl together, letting loose all weekend long! Bush is excellent at both the mandolin and the fiddle to the point where I need to pick my jaw up off of the ground. These guys sound so different than the rest, boasting a drummer as well as electrified and distorted instruments. They finish the set with “Stop the Violence” and the encore of “Nine Pound Hammer (Roll on Buddy).”
Keller and the Keels are the headlining set for the weekend and they are awesome! Larry Keel is a flat-picking legend who tours with his wife Jenny Keel in The Larry Keel Experience. When they combine with Keller Williams, a fun-loving singer and one hell of a guitarist, they are an unstoppable force. This set is full of fun covers, starting with Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.” “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States proceeds the unveiling of their brand new original single: “Medulla Oblongata.” Returning to covering the ’90s, they play “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers, which gets really weird and trippy in the middle jam portion, and “Help” by Weezer. We leave from Keller and the Keels for a taste of Donna Hopkins Band once more. They are so good it makes me happy that we made the move. They play a couple of songs for us including a great adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” We sneak away for the end of Keller and he doesn’t let us down and a great version of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”
Our lakeside jams are once again so good, I don’t even need to leave to find another party. Our site is full of fantastic musicians who take turns wowing my lounging friends with songs from all around the spectrum. I feel so lucky to know these awesome people.
Last night was awesome, but I’m feeling it today. The sun is no longer beautiful as it peaks annoyingly into my tent. The children’s laughter hurts my head and it feels way hotter today than it has all weekend. The only move I can manage is to slide into the backseat of my car with tinted windows and relax in the air conditioning until my temples stop throbbing. I miss most of today’s tunes, but rally for the finish of Donna the Buffalo. This cajun, rock, folk, reggae, and country band from upstate New York has been playing together since 1989 and are a staple at Suwannee Roots Revival. Peter Rowan is on stage with them when we arrive and they are playing the song “Burning Man.” It’s fun and upbeat and ends with Rowan singing “Donna the Buffalo” in a glitchy repetitive way that really was nice.
Next up to join them on stage is the supreme singer, songwriter Verlon Thompson on guitar and Zebulon Bowles on fiddle from Hot Buttered Rum. They play the powerful ballad “Hillbilly Grave.” I feel like I’m traveling through the mountain of the West when Thompson sings. Following that, DtB is joined by guitarist Ralph Roddenbery and drummer Richie Jones. Roddenbery is both funny and animated as he warms the crowd and even some of the members of the Buffalo. He dances with fast feet on the stage, holding his guitar out in front of him and he moves sideways across his spot. Playing “This Very Day” brings with it my favorite quote of the weekend, “The city takes it from me, but the Suwannee gives it back!” We are thankful for this day and for our lives as we enter a more somber moment on stage. They tell the story of how a life was tragically taken from us at the beginning of the festival by an awful and unfortunate event — a pedestrian crash which claimed the life of a 49-year-old woman. The crash took place on 30th Trail in the Spirit of the Suwannee Park. We all have a moment of silence before people call out the love they have for the Spirit of Suwannee and each other.
However inappropriate, jokester Ralph Roddenbery leads the band in a rendition of his song “That’s Gunna Leave a Mark” to close out the festival.
We jet over to the vendors and scoop a veggie quesadilla at the Solar Cafe before making it back to camp for another round of acoustic jams. So ends another fantastic festival at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. See you all at Suwannee Spring Reunion in March!\
Suwannee Spring Reunion Review 2019 by Spencer Storch.
Suwannee Spring Reunion Review 2019 by Carmelo Conte III.
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