October, 10th-13th 2019
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak Fl.
Written by Ashley Feller
Photos by Tom Wickstrom
The fourth annual Suwannee Roots Revival has become a lovely tradition for music lovers from all around. It’s true, the folks who attend the music festival travel from other parts of Florida to as far as Germany. This event generated energy so strong and positive it was impossible to not sport a permanent smile throughout the weekend. It was a celebration of music, dance, art, and community. Those who have attended multiple times can attest that unmistakable magic occurs under the majestic oak trees. Making the journey was akin to visiting an enchanted forest filled with kind-hearted people ready to camp, play music, and dance. Suwannee Roots Revival is a sweet reverie in paradise.
This festival began Thursday at the Dance tent with Brett Bass and Melted Plectrum. It became apparent the band deserves its name. Hard driving bluegrass was clearly what they did best. Not only were they all playing the splinters off their instruments but the songs were also darkly witty. Their intensity was a spirited catalyst for the rest of the evening’s music. After returning to camp to put on a light jacket I could not miss FireWater Tent Revival. This band was rowdy and raucous. The group goes outside the boundaries of bluegrass and string band music with their inventive hybrid style. Their songs are infectious and genuine. It was especially enjoyable to see the band transition from a humorous telling of “Getting high drinking and driving” to outright ascending into an ambient cerebral acoustic jam session.
Next, it was time to head to the Porch Stage for Nikki Talley and Jason Sharp. The songstress has been a frequent performer at Spirit of the Suwannee and has cultivated a devoted following. Talley’s husband and music partner Jason Sharp lends tasteful guitar embellishments and also seamless harmony vocals. The two celebrated their daughter’s second birthday during the festival and have affectionately titled their new self produced album Blue Eyed Girl after her.
The next band up on the amphitheater stage was Samantha Fish. She is a true blue guitar shredder and powerhouse of a singer. Her backing band nearly knocked the trees down with their mighty horn section. This was one of the most intense sets of the entire weekend.
Jon Stickley Trio beckoned all the night owls to dance under the stars down in the dance tent which was pitched in a grassy meadow. This stage was especially fun because of the dance floor positioned right in front of the stage. Jon Stickley Trio has been a seasoned favorite for the Suwannee family for nearly a decade. The trio consistently brings colorful instrumentals of their own but also play terrific vintage instrumentals but virtuoso like Bela Fleck. It is difficult to believe that only three people are making so much elaborate music. Lyndsay Pruett is one of the most talented violinists performing today but the way she utilizes effect pedals is comparable to how a gifted painter is with an array of brushes. Stickley plays acoustic guitar with the precision that some guitarists can only imagine. Together with their originative percussionist, the three put on a vibrant show.
Highlights from Friday night include the legendary Del McCoury Band on the Amphitheater stage. The band gathered around the condenser mic and belted the high lonesome sound up the hill and beyond the trees. Del McCoury was once a member of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. With his sons, Ronnie, Rob, plus fiddle master Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram on upright bass the band uncovers the deepest roots of bluegrass music. This time the band featured Del’s grandson on acoustic guitar who was a promising addition to the group.
Closing out the evening was the Balkun Brothers on the Amphitheater stage and The Grass is Dead oat the Dance Tent.. The Balkun Brothers packed quite a punch for a guitarist and drummer. They were swampy and their boldness never subsided throughout their closing performance.
The Grass is Dead always brings a great spin to classic Grateful Dead songs. The band brings a bluegrass flavor that also celebrates the nuances of the Grateful Dead song catalog. It was an enchanting evening in the cool night air watching the dancers spin and hearing the audience sing along to every word of every song. There are a lot of Grateful Dead tribute bands out there but the Grass Is Dead has the most heart.
Saturday was much warmer than the previous two days. Only to cool down nicely for a late afternoon set by Verlon Thompson who accompanied the late great songwriter Guy Clark. Thompson opened his set with a beautiful rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and then later 1952 Vincent Black Lightning written by Robert Thompson of Fairport Convention but made acclaimed by The Del McCoury Band. It was a special treat to hear Verlon Thompson passionately cover a song many have heard Del McCoury sing throughout his recent career.
The evening continued with a set by Peter Rowan who has been a staple at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for over a decade. He opened with a beautiful rendition of The Five Satins, In the Still of the Night which honestly gave me the chills. Rowan’s voice is unforgettable and his songwriting always tells a story. About midway through the set, he was joined by Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and the two played many of Rowan’s most plaudit songs.
Next, it was time for Sam Bush who is one of the leading innovators of Bluegrass Music. After the dissolution of The New Grass Revival, Bush has continued to pioneer Bluegrass music in a way that is influenced by jazz, classic rock, and even funk. Bush’s major arpeggios pleasantly clamored up the amphitheater paths. It was difficult not to gaze in awe at Bush’s elaborate solos and to process that the music being heard was being made by a real live human in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Finally, it was time for Keller and The Keels. This was the pinnacle of the entire festival. This was completely delicious ear candy. The band’s bluegrass chops shined and their love for playing this music radiated throughout the audience. Keller and Larry Keel are known to be two of the best musical improvisers and always have a creative approach to the songs included in their sets. It’s always fun to watch Jenny Keel thumping on her upright electric bass loving every moment of the music she provides the foundation for.
Sunday was the last sweet day at Suwannee Roots Revival. It was known as Vassar Sunday in honor of one of the most prolific fiddle players who ever performed in the park, Vassar Clements. The day was not only to remember him but also quite a few others of the Suwannee family who have passed away in recent years. The afternoon was filled with more fantastic music by Verlon Thompson, Peter Rowan, The Grass is Dead, David Gans, and Jeff Mosier Ensemble. Donna The Buffalo brought the festival to a close and featured many talented guests.
Suwannee Roots Revival leaves you feeling refreshed and revived. It is a transformational event that nourishes music lovers. It is an opportunity to let go of the conventional world and enjoy music that feels good for a long weekend. The festival director Beth Judy and her staff have created an unforgettable experience once again. Prepare yourself for Root’s Revival’s sister festival Suwannee Spring Reunion March 19th-22nd 2020 which will feature Darrell Scott, Peter Rowan, Sean Camp and much more. More information can be found at SuwanneeSpringReunion.com.