Happy 20th Anniversary Suwannee Springfest!
written by Ashley Feller
Photos by Benjamin Landsman
Suwannee Springfest was a celebration of music, art and love in the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak Florida. For the past twenty years the Suwannee family has traveled for thousands of miles to spend a four day weekend in one of the most precious gem’s of the south. The music has notoriously been top notch and there is an intimacy that is rarely found at other festivals. This year was no different, in fact many would say it was the greatest Suwannee Springfest, but isn’t that said every year?
The predicted weather forecast for the weekend of March 17th -20th included scattered thunderstorms and rain showers but this did not deter the festivities. This year the festival fell on St. Patrick’s Day and many were happy to show off their green garb! One of the festival creators Big Cosmo aka Randy Judy kicked off the festival at 4pm followed by Wisconsin’s own Sloppy Joe. Up next was The Broadcast which performed a powerful and charismatic set. The amazing John Stickley Trio closed out the evening with a power house set and left the crowd hungry for allthe delicious tunes Friday would bring.
One of the highpoints of this year’s fest was all the debut bands. The first that comes to mind is Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. This five piece string band calls Steven’s Point Wisconsin home and has been making quite the imprint on the Americana scene in the last year. Their third album Middle Western is a plethora of excellent songwriting and virtuosity. Each of the members all bring their own uniqueness to the table and together they create musical masterpieces. It will be exciting to see what great music Horseshoes and Hand Grenades has in store for the world in the coming years. The second is the all girl band Della Mae who performed set’s on Saturday and Sunday. A few things are for certain after seeing Della Mae for the first time. First, their harmonies cut like a knife, secondly, they are amazing musicians, each of them play so fluidly and relaxed yet they are completely polished. Lastly they put out an energy of pure goodness and feminine camaraderie. Each song is unique and every lady shines in her own unique way.
Friday afternoon included The Jeff Austin Band, Nikki Talley, Larry Keel who performed songs from his new album “Experienced” The legendary grammy award winning Del McCoury entertained the amphitheater stage and were pleased to play many of the audience’s requests. Another great edition to this year’s line up was Brandi Carlile. The audience was clearly moved by her performance. She has been touring regularly with twin musicians Phil and Tim Hanseroth for the past fifteen years and the three are songwriting masterminds. The set was a healthy mix of songs from her most recent album “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” and the one previous “Bear Creek”. The set also included her famous hit “The Story”. This was one of the best sets of the weekend and many hope to see Brandi Carlile return to future lineups. Railroad Earth played the final set on Friday which featured songs from The Ashes and Dust tour, as well as songs from previous albums.
On Saturday the clouds finally parted and the sun shined down on all of Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Another exciting edition to the festival was Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers! Bluhm is an amazing lead vocalist and entertainer! She was even slightly reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt but definitely shined her own creativity and stylistic flair. After a second great set by Del McCoury the moment finally arrived when John Prine would take the stage. Prine happily and proudly played his tear jerker “Souvenirs” and needless to say there were not many dry eyes in the audience. Not only is John Prine a gifted songwriter but he is also a cancer survivor. The audience sang along and hung on Prine’s every word.
Suwannee Springfest die hards will attest that Donna The Buffalo traditionally plays last set Saturday night. This year the festival returned to the vintage tradition and everyone danced in harmony under the crisp southern sky. Donna The Buffalo has been a staple at Suwannee Springfest and has build quite a following or “Herd” as they prefer to be called over the years. Their sets always send the message of “Positive Friction” and incite the best late night debauchery.
Attending Suwannee Springfest isn’t solely about the music on stage. There are many late night fireside jam sessions! For the last twenty years both Sloppy Joe and Quartermoon have hosted two hot sports for musicians to congregate to share songs and hot licks. For years many friendships have been made by playing songs around the fire. The quality of the music is pristine and often times is on par with all of the stage acts. The level of intimacy is high and it is a magical place to gaze upon. There are candles adorning tables inside a tent decorated with palm frans. The fire glows and the musicians play song after song for hours. The musicians are known for playing well into the morning until the sunrises.
Sunday is always the most difficult day at Suwannee Springfest. It is a bitter-sweet diminuendo into a gorgeous sunset until the stars finally come out. . Keller Williams and The Infamous Stringdusters form Grateful Grass, a progressive bluegrass band paying tribute to The Grateful Dead. There were also sets by Jim Lauderdale, Della Mae, Infamous Stringdusters and a wonderful last set by Donna The Buffalo. The last twenty years have been magical, beautiful and unforgettable. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music park is one of the most beautiful places for a music festival and has a long proud history of hosting many great events. The Springfest family has grown together over the years and continues to embrace the goodness that comes in the form of beautiful homemade music. Here’s to a magical twenty years past and to many many more years of music and friendship!