Review and Photos: The Wanee Festival – 2013

Wanee Festival @ Spirit of Suwannee Music Park – April 18 – 20

Words and Photos: Rex Thomson

True artistic expression comes from within and, like the music of the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic and their friends on the lineup of this year’s Wanee Music Festival, stands the test of time.

[All Photos by Rex Thomson]

In our modern world we have been trained by the continual replacement and updating of our electronics, knowledge base and even our food (Try our new BLUE tacos! They’re X-TREME!) to the point where anything more than a year old gets a suspicious eye towards its merit. Some things, however, can not be denied, such as the raw emotion evoked when the first guitar strains of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed cut through to your very core. The tens of thousands of visitors to the annual party hosted by the Allmans and some of southern rock’s heaviest hitters know what they like, and once again left with their socks rocked straight off by massive walls of dueling guitars, heavy organs and funky horn blasts that echoed in their hearts long after the last encore.

Just south of Greg Allman’s native Georgia lies the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, home to up to eight festivals a year, with Wanee being the biggest of the year. With close to a hundred acres of scenic grounds including the Suwannee River itself, mile after mile of hiking trails and cypress shaded camping, cabins for those who like a little more of the home life, a lake and even a chapel that hosted three weddings over the weekend, Suwannee is the ideal place to spend time with friends, relax in nature’s splendor and enjoy the music that has meant so much to so many over the years.

The pilgrimage to this music mecca has become a deep rooted tradition among attendees, with camping spots claimed years in advance, and traditions long standing. Some folks even spend the months in between the event planing elaborate campsite decoration themes such as this year’s amazing “Rabbit Hole” Alice In Wonderland set up. Into this magic setting descend the throngs of music fans ready for a weekend filled with music, friends and fun in the sun. With several acts getting an early jump on the weekend starting on Wednesday, Wanee easily has the record for the earliest start for a weekend festival.

With two stages set up across the main festival grounds the usual festival worry about missing your favorite acts is less than normal. While there is some overlap between set times, the walk between stages is easy and with the amazing variety of artisan booths and food vendors, the trip is a chance to browse an open air marketplace whose roots stretch back to the dawn of civilization. As an added attraction, touring the campground is this year’s newest addition – “The Traveling Stage,” a covered flatbed with bands such as Cope and Beebs and Her Moneymakers bringing their music to the people mobile style.

With only one stage running for Thursday, the crowd packed the amphitheater stage area to capacity, lounging in hammocks and sitting in chairs strategically set up on the various sculpted tiers that encircle the venue. Featuring special acts like the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, the latter of which features Devon Allman and Cyril Neville keeping the spirit of the south-land alive and well. Devon’s heritage alone was enough to ensure a good turn out, but his skills on the guitar showed him to be more than a person coasting on name recognition alone.

Festival stalwarts and legitimate legends Hot Tuna, featuring members of the original Jefferson Airplane Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy, played the music that they have spent over five decades making. Closing Thursday’s Mushroom Stage was a rare sighting of the Greyboy Allstars, featuring the incredible one two punch of Karl Denson and Robert Walter, with a funktacular backing band that established the claim to the “All Star” title. The interplay between Denson’s sax and flute and Walter’s old school Hammond organ sound was easily the finest display of musicianship seen that day.

Friday started off far earlier than most folks who had closed the stages the night before were prepared to deal with, but bands like Flannel Church, The Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio and The Revivalists were welcomed by a surprisingly enthusiastic bunch of devoted fans. Georgia act Blackberry Smoke proved themselves a band to watch out for, playing as authentic and pure a rock set as any other over the course of the weekend, as they brought youth and fire to their guitar-based anthems.

Longtime Allman Brothers drummer Jaimoe brought his Jasssz Band to the Mushroom Stage for an eclectic set that had bluesy, rocking undertones as well as an obvious respect for the free form traditions of improvisation. Over on the big stage, affectionately known as the Peach Stage the crowd slowly filled up the field with their maze of chairs and blankets, firing themselves up for music while warily keeping an eye on the sky as dark clouds filled the air. Robert Randolph, master of the pedal steel guitar, whipped his band and the listeners into a righteous fury, his mix of gospel-tinged spirituals and lowdown rock had the crowd dancing from one end of the field to the next.

One of the big surprises of the weekend was that Primus front man Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang was a down home and dirty, swampy collaboration with Marc Haggard on guitar, which featured sparse, cheeky reconstructions of Primus tunes, covers and a fun sit in with fellow “Electric Apricot” alumni Warren Haynes. Haynes only had a few moments to sit in however, as his band Gov’t Mule was up next on the big stage, with a sea of happy faces awaiting their arrival. Haynes trademarked blues-rock style permeated every note, and his raspy, powerful voice lent a depth and soul to the performance that few could hope to match. The modern incarnation of the rocking bluesman, the tireless performer ignored the oncoming rain and played to his fans who would probably stand there and jam if it was raining fire instead of water from the sky.

Over on the Mushroom Stage Oteil Burbridge, bassist for the Allmans, was also pulling double duty, as he sat in with Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi All Stars, the third band of the weekend to bear that description in their name. With their regular bass player dealing with medical issues, the band got by with a little help from their friends, and turned it into a true family affair. Luther’s guitar tone is a bit crisper and cleaner than some of the other players highlighted at Wanee, but he sits squarely among the top tier through his sheer will and emotive note bending. The rain came and went in spurts as the crowd left the NMAS show and headed to the first of two massive opening slot sets for what should probably be billed as co-headlining duties by Widespread Panic.

As natural a pairing as humanly possible, modern music’s greatest southern rock band, Widespread Panic, and the band that defined the sound and blazed the trail that Panic and so many others followed, The Allman Brothers Band, closed out the main stage both nights with a pair of nearly six-hour blasts of music that takes it time getting warmed up before bringing more heat than most stages could possibly withstand. Between John Bell’s smooth yet husky vocals, Jimmy Herring’s uncanny ability to cut though any wall of sound with his guitar wizardry, the traditional focal point for the southern rock genre – the guitar attack, was more than well covered. Over a weekend of amazing guitar fireworks, Herring’s expressive style stood out for its plaintiveness, warmth of tone and ability to go from long mournful wail to full aggression instantly. All this played out over a percussive canvas laid out by drummer Todd Nance and Domingo Ortiz on anything and everything else that could be hit to the rhythm. Bassist Dave Schools stood like a rock, smiling and laying down a low end that was capable of derailing heart beats while JoJo Hermann tickled the ivories and organ in a combination of old school barrel roll and precise strikes that made each song unique. With Warren Haynes having braved the rain drops to lay down an epic Jesus Just Left Chicago and mind blowing Maggot Brain to finish off the set, the wet, delirious fans heard something so amazing that anyone who questioned their willingness to stand in the rain and rock could point to and say “I was there!”

Finally, it was time for the hosts with the most, the reason the festival exists, The Allman Brothers, to take the stage. For the first part of their set, even the clouds held their drops, as if not daring to interfere with something so anticipated. Much was made of the previous year’s shows, marred by Greg Allman’s poor health and the death of Levon Helm casting a shadow over the weekend. Now, with Allman visibly improved and the band standing behind him, as always ready to follow his lead, the crowd’s expectations were as high as they could possibly be.

For more than 40 years, fans have known what to expect at an Allmans’ show…soaring guitars, deep, long sustained organ chords and one of the densest rhythm sections to ever pick up sticks. Entire generations have come into the world, raised on the music of the Allman Brothers, countless lives touched and moments made memories by their songs being on the turntable, radio, compact disc and audio files playing as a soundtrack. And from new fan to old, the rush of the opener Hot ‘Lanta was such that when the cheers finally settled into an appreciative hum and the band went straight into their classic reading of Statesboro Blues the thunderous cheer returned full force.

A welcome Blue Sky with Warren Haynes on vocals showcased his earthy howl against Derek Trucks sweet, warm guitar tone. The two guitarists, Haynes and Trucks, have always had incredibly large shoes to fill, and have managed to not only fulfill expectations but even in a small way make classic tunes their own. An appropriate cover of The Beatles’ Rain, along with a startlingly powerful read on the Blind Faith tune Can’t Find My Way Home by guest vocalist John Bell kept the crowd going through the downpour. Closing out their set with one of the strongest In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed in recent memory, thanks to guest guitarist Jimmy Herring adding his axe to the already monstrous attack, led to smiles all around as the three players looked delightedly at each other, comfortable in the rock steady foundation the rest of the band, including percussionist Marc Quinones and drummer Butch Trucks, along with Jaimoe on his kit, kept ably in place. The brothers Dickinson, Luther and Cody, came out to join the band for their encore One Way Out and left the stage if not on fire, than certainly smokin’.

The reggae band Steel Pulse had both the blessing and the curse of closing out the night’s festivities. Though they were safe and dry onstage, the rains increased in strength and turned the evening into a drenched, whirling cascade for those who braved the deluge.

The rains finally broke before dawn, and slowly the Saturday morning skies opened up and the sun burned its way through and started the process of drying the puddles and waterlogged unfortunates whose tents hadn’t been quite so properly secured. The Lee Boys brought a welcome spiritual feel to the morning’s awakenings, their soulful sound echoing the feeling of joy at coming through the hard night and awaking to the sun. Leon Russell greeted a surprisingly dry field outside of the Mushroom Stage, with only a few medium-sized puddles remaining throughout the day in defiance of the sun’s rays. The park, having learned its lessons about previous flooding-level storms, has installed underground drainage and pumps through the ground to quickly fight and clear any water that develops. This kind of preparedness is exactly what you would hope for from a venue that hosts as many events as Suwannee does each year, and their performance and that of the stage crews in reaction to the weather was as top notch and well executed as possible.

As the day progressed, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band brought a welcome sound of triumph to the afternoon, as if trumpeting the sun’s victory over the darkness of the day before. If you find yourself at a music festival on a bright sunny day and you hear Michael Franti in the distance, it’s in your best interests to head towards his light. Exuding raw good cheer and love, Franti towers above most folks not only physically, but spiritually as well, and there’s no more fitting a place for him to lead the crowd in a joyful sing-a-long to the sun itself, source of life on our little spinning rock.

Maceo Parker brought a dignity and style that was both classy and funky to the Mushroom Stage, and his band, culled from the finest players Parker has had the pleasure to recruit over the years. The celebrated horn player broke out his trademark sax and his flute to help him lead his ensemble through snaking, twisting patterns of slinky grooving funk. The near revival feeling of the Tedeschi-Trucks Band had the crowd lost in the holy spirit. As full a band as we saw all weekend, with a horn section, backing vocalists and the one-two punch of the first couple of southern rock itself, Derek Trucks has been wowing anyone within ear shot since his early teens with his guitar virtuosity, while Susan Tedeschi has every player’s most wished for weapon, a voice to accompany her fierce blues chops.

The second night of the Widespread Panic into The Allman Brothers Band combination was a welcome finish to the weekend, and the diehards to the new fans alike were more than ready for another night of epic guitar journeys and impossibly dense, grinding, musical interplay. A cover-laden set by Widespread Panic gave some heavy highlights, particularly Derek Trucks and bride Tedeschi joining Panic for a lovely I’ve Been Working – a Van Morrison tune that could stand to be heard far more often than it is. Closing to uproarious cheers with Fishwater, John Bell and his gang of six prepared to ride off into the sunset as if they were a posse of the old west…their work done and done well.

The Allman Brothers had a tough show ahead of them, thanks to their urge to try and satisfy every long standing fan in the audience and a catalog stuffed with favorites. An intertwined 1983 and Mountain Jam took nearly 20 minutes to finish, while a radio-friendly length Midnight Rider had many in the audience up in arms and high in spirit. Melissa and a traditionally epic Whipping Post followed, before the band and the crowd took a much needed break. Returning to say their farewells til next year and send the fans off with a smile, the band paused and looked at the crowd as they welcomed their idols back to the stage for the encore, a playful, interweaving Southbound that gave each player one brief moment to shine, before uniting them all one last time to bring down the house.

As the weary crowd started to slowly file out, the sounds of the Galactic with Friends set spurred them into a near sprint, remembering that there was one last chance to dance and lose themselves in the music. Galactic promised to bring out their friends, and they came through with flying colors. With Corey Glover out on tour with his previous band, Living Colour, vocal duties were handled by the Revivalists’s David Shaw, and his raspy soulful voice turned out to be a near perfect fit. It’s a testament to Galactic’s versatility that most anyone could get up in front of the band and sound amazing, but Shaw brought a powerful sound and stage presence to the set, and when he was out there was a fire that was great to see. Guitarist Papa Mali and sax guru Skerik made the trip from New Orleans just to sit in, and seeing the smiles on their faces it was obvious that the journey was worth it. That sentiment was echoed by not just the words but the tired, smiling faces all around the amphitheater, and when the last earth shattering tune, a bombastic Led Zeppelin cover of When The Levee Breaks, the shell-shocked music fans flowed like water down a gentle slope out of the viewing areas – content to their cores but ready for more.


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