Wanee 2015: The Torch has been passed
In the weeks and then days leading up to the 2015 Wanee Music Festival, there were questions, questions, questions, flooding into the mind of the concerned young person today. Old folks, too. Were we going to get wet? Would the torch be passed from ABB to WSP? Were we going to get soaked? Would the schedule come out in time to groan about conflicts? Would Wanee survive without its ten-year main attraction? Would the Mushroom stage flood out again? There’s a lot to be said for karma. There must have been a whole mess of good karma floating around, because the great rains that plagued many parts of the Gulf Coast skirted around Live Oak. Rain early in the week gave way to mostly gray skies but only a sprinkle Wednesday and another Saturday, and that cooled things off and kept the dust down.
It had never been in the cards for me to make it to Wanee Wednesday before (this was my 9th time at this April mecca – yes, and the June one). I missed fest opener Bonnie Blue from Jacksonville. I was really sad to miss, by minutes, the set by the Parker Urban Band, also from Jax. (Fortunately, they will play at Purple Hatter’s Ball and Orange Blossom Jam.) The buzz for the remainder of the evening was about the PUB set. “Oh, man! You missed it!”
The Hometeam boys from Tampa, CopE, put on a smashing set. “What Goes Up” got everybody dancing, and by the end of the set we were prepared to “Shake Anything.” Juanjamon took a fabulous solo on his EWI, a relatively new toy for him to go with his tenor sax and keyboards.
Crazy Fingers kept the good vibes going as the sun set and the Mushroom stage lit up. In addition to their Grateful Dead music, they offered “Blue Skies” before a beautiful “Eyes of the World.” Then Melvin Seals & JGB rocked us into the night. The vibe was perfect for those able to arrive early. Both bands hit full stride during their sets and pumped up the jams. There were times when Melvin’s great voice seemed to out-Jerry Jerry! Vocals were great from the ladies, and the band rocked the entire set. This promised to be epic.
By Thursday, the park seemed to be filling up, even though many would not arrive until Friday. The schedule was fairly simple: plop your chair down at the Mushroom stage (that would be me) or rage down at the rail whenever you were in the mood for live music – for thirteen hours! But first, it was time for the SOS/BOS Meet & Greet (that would be Sisters and Brothers of the Suwannee)! Waneetopia hosted a magnificent spread of food and beverages and camaraderie with at least a hundred people getting themselves set for the long haul. Thanks to the Gov’nah and his cabinet for their hard work in setting this up.
Juke followed their strong set at AURA with an even stronger performance to launch the day’s music. Their rocking blues proved to be the perfect musical Bloody Mary. The Jacob Jeffries Band likewise threw down a great set, with two keyboard players adding great colors to the mix. To my delight, somewhere in the middle of one electric piano solo, out popped a nice quote from “(not just) Knee Deep!” Bobby Lee Rodgers has been a darling of the Wanee Festival almost since its inception. He and his trio always get the Friday and Saturday Peach Stage kick-offs plus a full set on Thursday. His current band, with Rodrigo Zambrano on bass and Tom Damon on drums, had already knocked out an hour of great music when he called up John and Juanita Parkerurban and Myrna Stallworth from the Parker Urban Band. Rodgers loves working with them, and it was instantly obvious to see why. They blew up the last half hour, starting with Rodgers’ best-known song, “Outer Space.” First tears running down my face in musical joy were courtesy of Juanita and Myrna taking everybody to church. After a superb “When the World Comes Tumbling Down,” Rodgers lauded John’s talents and had him sing the BLR tune “Piece.” They stomped off with “Goin’ to California.” Next up was a very sentimental affair: the last show Devon Allman would play with Royal Southern Brotherhood. This was his tenth Wanee (and he might have been a guest at the first one). This set kicked ass, pure and simple. Bart Walker rocked it right along with Devon, and Cyrille Neville is royalty by any unit of measurement. And it may not be ALL about that bass… and drums, but Charlie Wooten and Yonrico Scott are fabulous. There was a fist-bump between Cyrille and Devon near the end of the set that gave you chills. There was a lot of pre-festival buzz about Raw Oyster Cult. The name alone was awesome, but the band’s line-up was amazing. How about “Keep On Shuckin’?” Five New Orleans denizens sent to Wanee to stir the pot: three Radiators, John Papa Gros from Papa Grows Funk, and Dave “Busta Gnutt” Pomerleau from Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes. More Nawlins royalty on stage! Dave Malone was the enthusiastic front man, joined by the other former Radiators, Camile Baudoin and Frank Bua. They offered words for everyone at the festival: “Never Let Your Fire Go Out.” They delivered a wonderful “Morning Dew” near the end of the set.
When I am King… Hot Tuna played a great set that would have sounded perfect at the 5:30 slot. No matter how great Jack and Jorma are and how great a set they delivered, this was simply not compelling after RSB and ROC. The playing was great, Jorma’s voice always touching you deep inside, but… C’est la vie. More pre-fest buzz focused on the 2014 Wanee afternoon surprise smash, Pink Talking Fish. The name tells you what they play (although they’re working up a Dead set for Chicago sometime in July). A setlist hasn’t surfaced yet, and my notes at 1 AM were more than a bit sketchy. There was a huge jam in “Girlfriend is Better” with tremendous synthesizer work from Richard James. “Poke You in the Eye,” “Money,” “Burning Down the House” – it was a magical close to a wonderful jam-packed day of music.
Friday would bring the multiple-stage conflicts headaches. Grab your analgesic of choice.
MORE pre-fest buzz surrounded Vermont’s Twiddle, and they came roaring out at 11 AM with a brilliant set. I heard elements of Phish and Dopapod, but they sound like… Twiddle. My favorite moment during a keyboard jam late in the set was a healthy chunk of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. That was sweet indeed! A bouncy poppy reggae tune led to a fun vocal song and finally to an alt-country closer. They have ALL the bases covered! Then it was time for the travellin’ shoes to get over to the Peach Stage for the Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio half-hour set. Rodgers is drastically underrated as a guitar slinger, but he makes new believers every time out. Tom Damon had a huge set; he reminds me in style and enthusiasm of Stanton Moore. If you’ve seen him, then you know.
We enter now the Conflict Zone. The saving grace of Wanee is that there are only two stages, so you can see everybody – just not complete sets. I intended to get back to see Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, so it’s Jaimoe’s fault that I didn’t. This was no longer the Allman Brothers’ festival in name, but make no mistake: ABB sentiment will run deep forever. Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band just killed it the entire set. You can blame the drummer, of course, but also throw blame on Junior Mack, the singer, guitarist and front man, and keyboard player Bruce Katz, who gets around a bit. After starting with a guitar blues intro, they suddenly swung into this song. “Hey! I know that song!” I didn’t scream that, but I thought it. The tune was “Hippology,” recorded by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. When Mack introduced Katz later in the set, it all made sense; Katz wrote that one. I was hooked. They laid down a great “Ain’t Wasting Time > Mountain Jam.” Then Mack announced that he was having trouble at home, which led into a classic-style blues “I Need Some Help at Home.” The set closed with a rollicking “I Believe My Baby’s Got a Black Cat Bone.” The schedule got terribly convoluted at this point (there was actually a useless half hour when nobody was playing!), and my notes don’t help much with order, but I think it went down this way: Tea Leaf Green was throwing down an amazing psychedelic set, with Reed Mathis huge on the bass. As quickly as I could, I went back to see The Word. The North Mississippi All-Stars boys (Luther, Cody and Chris) were playing with John Medeski and Robert Randolph. Robert had his right hand heavily bandaged, so he had brought in reinforcements, and there is no better-loved Wanee reinforcement than Roosevelt Collier. Two of the kings of the pedal steel guitar with that wonderful band. That, ladies and gentlemen, is amazing grace right there. Back past Tea Leaf Green to Short-Cut Camp I went. Scrog and his merry pranksters and shenanigans-makers had transformed the camp into Wonkaville, and it was time for Willie Wonka, the children, a passel of Oompa Loompas and yours truly as Slugworth or Grampa Joe (jury’s still out on that one) to parade to Earth, Wind and Fire and then back over to Zappa Plays Zappa. The Oompa Loompa troop made quite an impression just as Earth, Wind and Fire hit the stage (15 minutes late – this is frowned upon). They were spectacular, better than I remember them in 1976. There was enormous power as they opened with a scorching rock intro, then jumping directly into “Boogie Wonderland.” Seeing P.K.’s face as he said, “This is a dream come true” was a moment I will never forget. Tears on my face, too. But I vowed I would not miss a single second of Zappa Plays Zappa. In the event you read the article I wrote titled Why ZPZ Matters, then you understand. No matter what I said, or thought, or wrote, I underestimated. It was beyond belief. First, let’s acknowledge that Frank did all the heavy lifting, writing the music, breaking the barriers, fighting battle after battle for his music. No question. But I saw Frank eleven times, and he never sounded better than ZPZ’s Wanee set. This was the tour where the band was featuring the 1975 gem One Size Fits All. They opened with “Andy,” but where you expected it to draw to a close, a titanic funk jam emerged. Titanic is accurate. Ben Thomas is the vocalist with the chameleon-like voice, but all six band members sing, and that allowed “Susy Creamcheese” and “Who Needs the Peace Corps” to sound so wonderful. Back to OSFA for “Florentine Pogen,” with another huge jam and massive guitar solo. Dweezil Zappa has always been a brilliant player, but that boy’s been practicing, I believe. WOW.
I had hoped beyond hope that Dweezil would absolutely destroy the blues solo on “Po-Jama People.” Once again, I underestimated. It was magnificent. The band used “Grand Wazoo” to give all band members great solo time, all well deserved. They even worked a Pink Floyd “Money” tease in at the end. “Magic Fingers,” the highlight of 200 Motels, was deluxe.
“Inca Roads.” That is all.
The greatest compliment you can give this band is that Frank would have loved to play with them. Scheila Gonzalez is so multi-talented that you cannot decide what she does best: sing, keyboards, flute, alto, tenor, smile.
In 1981, Frank closed many of his shows by saying, “Oh, I knew you’d be surprised,” and then playing an astonishing version of “Whipping Post.” The suggestion to play that song came from running gags as early as 1974. I saw him play it twice, and it was an ass-kicking version, unlike the reggae-tinged one on Them or Us. Dweezil opted for the kick-ass version, which might have been the best version of an ABB song played all weekend. The set finished with another of Frank’s favorite codas, “Muffin Man.” That was about the only music set that could have kept me away from Gov’t Mule that long. Warren Haynes as a member of ABB and Gov’t Mule have been fixtures at Wanee from the get-go, and all recognize him as the hardest-working man in show business. This is the 20th year that Haynes and Matt Abts joined forces in the Mule. I missed the first five songs but arrived in “Time to Confess.” An interesting jazzy instrumental, “Jeep on 35,” was followed by a reggae take on “The Joker” (in keeping with the recent release of Dub Side of the Mule). There was a beautiful “Soulshine” with “Tupelo Honey” tucked inside, and they closed with their tremendous homage to Albert King, “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” As he often does, Warren inserted lyrics from “Will It Go Around in Circles?” and “Let Me Have It All.” Back to the Mushroom stage for Leftover Salmon, featuring Bill Payne of Little Feat. It had been years since I had seen LoS, and clearly that was my mistake. They were excellent. In the midst of Salmon songs, they absolutely blew up a huge “Dixie Chicken;” the jam was unreal.
Now it was time to discover whether Widespread Panic was the right choice to headline the Wanee Music Festival. There had been much discussion, including haters, lovers, and the knights who say “Meh.”
One other piece of business to address. Over the years, I have been a very vocal supporter of Todd Nance as the perfect drummer for WSMFP (as they are affectionately known). And I miss him and his style and what he adds to the band. That having been said, DUANE TRUCKS. Because WOW. He is simply superb, the engine behind the jam. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard about Panic opening with “Love Tractor,” but it certainly got everyone’s immediate attention. “Travelin’ Light” was great, and the “Radio Child” was one of many opportunities for Jimmy Herring to shred. We got a fine “Diner” and funky “Smokestack Lightning” before the two-hour+ set closed with “Use Me,” plus an encore. Schools had a fine time with “Blight” earlier in the set. In the past, there were stacks of speakers set up in the middle of the field at the Peach Stage, which wreaked havoc with sound delays and such. To me, the sound from this year’s set-up (no stacks) was crystal clear. Let’s be fair: JB is not always the easiest singer to understand, but every word came out just fine.
I thought perhaps WSMFP had done enough to earn this festival; more experienced heads suggested otherwise. “They really need to come out tomorrow night and prove it.” Well, that’s the sentiment of what she said, and she was right.
Assuming you had any gas left in the tank, a trip to the Mushroom Stage for Dumpstaphunk was mandatory. This was billed as a 70s funk fest. Can I get a “HELL YEAH?” The reminded us that they had done P-Funk some years back, opening with “Dr. Funkenstein.” Immediately, they hit their 2013 album Dirty Word for the nasty, nasty funk of “I Wish You Would.” They also grabbed “Blueswave” from the same disk. This was deep, deep, deeper than deep. They did the O’Jays with “For the Love of Money” and “Give the People What They Want,” with “Family Affair” in between. Ivan and Ian Neville = more Nawlins royalty. Tony Hall and Nick Daniels were just sick the entire set, along with the stomping Alvin Ford, Jr. Somehow, they found the energy to pull off a tremendous encore including the Isleys’ “Fight the Power” and “Funk #49” (the James Gang!).
2:30 AM. Better go throw some wood on the fire before Pat comes to inspect!
I have such respect for bands such as Twiddle and Natural Child, who drew Saturday’s 11 AM slot, for coming out and holding nothing back, even though many folks were still asleep or groggily looking at coffee back at their campsites. Natural Child is a trio that depends on harmony vocals which were very effective and engaging. If you want a point of comparison, they might remind you of Grand Funk Railroad doing “Some Kind of Wonderful,” kicked up a few notches. They sang a fun tune called “If We Don’t Wake the Kids” and another with the refrain “I’ve been smoking crack with my friends.” What a hoot!
Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio had their half-hour set next (and he played on the travelling stage as well both days). His typical set was three ten-minute songs. This one began with “Victor the Snake Man” (which has been an earworm ALL day), then “Beggin’ You to Stay” and “Lima.” The delightfully unexpected happened: five extra minutes! Rodgers plays tons of jazz dates and is especially fond of Thelonious Monk, so they sent out a lovely “Rhythm-a-Ning.” Rodrigo Zambrano had another tremendous day on the bass. Conflict Zone, Day 2. I thought I would see Butch Trucks & Very Special Friends for a bit, then head over to catch the Revivalists. Again, I grossly underestimated what was about to unfold. Bruce Katz was again on B3 (he was with Jaimoe and is normally in Gregg’s band) with Dave Yoke on guitar. But you need two guitars for some of this stuff. For the first time, Vaylor Trucks played a full set with his dad, and he was hot! The vocals were handled excellently by Lamar Williams, Jr., son of the former ABB bassist. And Marc Quinones teamed up with Butch on percussion.
It was an ABB set, starting with “Midnight Rider,” which segued into a great “Dreams” and then smoothed its way into “Please Call Home.” I was sitting in my chair in the shade when they launched into “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and suddenly I sat up. The basslines were huge! (Why didn’t I notice them before??) Oh! It’s Oteil Burbridge. Now that makes perfectly good sense. This version was wonderful, as was the entire set.
I sprinted over to the Peach Stage (OK, I walked) to hear at least a bit of the Revivalists’ set. They sounded great, playing a tune from their upcoming album release, then their SiriusXM hit, “Criminal.” Singer David Shaw was all over the stage and beyond.
We had another senseless half-hour lull, then an extremely difficult decision to make. JJ Grey and MOFRO, or Dragon Smoke. Dragon who? They were both superb, listening to an hour of each.
JJ Grey used to wear camo; this day he was resplendent in bright orange shirt and white pants. Do not think for a nanosecond, however, that this had any effect on Grey’s message from day one: I love Florida, I love nature, I respect the gifts we have been given. He has never wavered an inch from that message. The set featured tunes from the new album, Ol’ Glory, and many of his best-loved songs. His horn section kicked during “99 Shades of Crazy.” Before “Brighter Days,” he said, “This is like playing in your backyard! Wait! This IS my backyard!” He pointed out that he wrote “Brighter Days” when he was mad. Then he sang a song he wrote when he was happy, “Every Minute.”
After his signature “Lochloosa,” he offered this soliloquy: “I’ve never done anything by myself. I’ve always had wonderful people to work with, including these fabulous guys playing here. And to all of you fans who come to shows, and not just come to show, but jump in with both feet! THANK Y’ALL!” With that, they played “Light a Candle.” He is a true blessing for all of us. I tore myself away to check out Dragon Smoke, who, like Raw Oyster cult, had little name recognition but incredible talent. Also because Kerri said so. This was more Nawlins royalty in the form of Ivan Neville (Mr. Dumpstaphunk), Eric Lindell on guitar, and the Galactic rhythm section of Rob Mercurio and Stanton Moore. Intergalactic is more like it.
They put on a great set, including the William deVaughan hit “Be Thankful for What You Got.” They paired “Out in the Country” with “Country Livin’.” Later in the set, it was Stanton time. First, Neville laid down a great piano vamp for Stanton to play on. Then, there were crescendos of Hammond B3 with more Stanton. And he got one last shot – with that awesome standing-up thing he does that drives me crazy – during “Will it Go Round in Circles?” (the same one Gov’t Mule quoted the previous night).
Another of the big pre-fest questions was about the inclusion of Cheap Trick. Wha??? I was skeptical, and what I heard did nothing to change my mind. Sadly, the sound for CT was lousy compared to the pristine sound Friday night for everybody, especially Gov’t Mule and Panic. CT performs a lot of Beatles songs in addition to their own catalog of hits. They played “Magical Mystery Tour,” which transformed into something which then turned into “I Am the Walrus.” Not compelling, for me. Meanwhile, back at the Mushroom, it was time for “Home at Last – The Nth Power Perform Steely Dan.” I am not the biggest Nth Power fan, but this was a great, great set of music, and more so given the recent departure of Nigel Hall. Nick Cassarino was excellent fronting the band while Nikki Glaspie was driving the band along at breakneck speed.
Since 2005, Wanee had been the brainchild of the Allman Brothers, and who more fitting to perform next than THE remaining Allman brother, Gregg. This was another very strong set, dovetailing perfectly with Jaimoe’s and Butch’s fine performances. Gregg’s voice sounded fine and so welcome washing over the Peach Stage crowd there to say Thank You for the juggernaut Wanee has become. “Trouble No More” and “Soulshine” (with a shout-out to Warren Haynes) appeared early in the set. The horn section was dynamite, delivering Latin-y, jazzy sounds for great diversity throughout the set. Marc Quinones was there on percussion, and Ron Johnson was huge on the bass. “Black-Hearted Woman” was a romp, “Melissa” was soulful and sweet, and “Whipping Post” was almost as good as Dweezil’s!
Yonder Mountain String Band was slamming the Mushroom Stage. This was the perfect set to fit between Gregg and the Panic to come. They were on fire, with a superb mandolin player whose name refuses to surface on the interwebs. There was a nice cover of Pure Prairie League’s “Aimee” along the way. I hate rage sticks. Looking through a dozen or more of these things, having them foul photos, they’re just a pain – to me. There is this one absurd rage stick with an enormous round Kenny Loggins head. No, it does not make sense to me, either. Anyway, at some point, something crazy happened on stage. Bassist Ben Kaufmann delivered the best barb of the fest: “I blame the floating Kenny Loggins head, but then I always blame the floating Kenny Loggins head!”
The time of reckoning had arrived. It was time for Widespread Panic to prove that they deserved to be the Wanee torchbearers looking into the future. I am an unabashed fan, but I’d say the answer is HELL YES! They jumped immediately into “Makes Sense to Me,” followed by a very powerful “Chainsaw City.” This was JoJo Hermann night as far as I was concerned. He had a huge night, blowing up song after song. He wailed on the clavinet during “Chainsaw City,” and his piano owned the jam out of “Wondering.” His piano and Hammond B3 were highlights of the “Ribs and Whiskey > Stop Breaking Down > Ribs and Whiskey” sandwich.
Duane Trucks had another amazing night with Sunny Ortiz and all of his percussion toys. David Schools’ magnificent bass work was crystal clear out of the massive sound system. This was the performance that would clinch the deal for Panic.
Jimmy Herring had a shred-o-matic night, but one of his top moments came during an astounding “All Time Low.” Panic always knocks this one out of the park, but this was unlike any I had previously encountered. The jam was so sick and uptempo, with Herring surfing atop the wave. JoJo’s clavinet was strong in the mix as well. What emerged next was the wickedness of “Arleen,” another huge version. Me, I was praying and praying that it would turn into “Tie Your Shoes.” As if to torture me personally, they teased TYS for about ten seconds before drifting into “Pilgrims.” More Herring, more JoJo. What a night!
A big jam out of “Airplane” led to a sultry “Second Skin” with a pop-up “Machine Gun” vamp before sliding into “Surprise Valley.” If you want to whip up Southern Panic crowds, you play “Red Hot Mama,” and was it ever! The set closed with “Conrad,” and the encore featured “End of the Show,” a bouncy “Big Woolly Mammoth” and a blistering “Mr. Soul.”
I believe they will be invited back.
People were busy garnering their last energy reserves to head to the Mushroom Stage one last time for a Galactic fix. They did not disappoint. The show started very jazzy, and the vamp got even hotter as the sound veered toward eastern European music. Then it was time for the first appearance by Miss Erica Falls, a fine vocalist. During her second time out, Ivan Neville joined her for a nice version of Aretha’s “Rock Steady.” When she went off stage the second time, Galactic dug into its deepest, dankest funk, with Stanton Moore again just killing it, Rich Vogel’s clavinet looming large, and Rob Mercurio on bass laying down another vamp for Stanton.
When Falls came back out, she said what we all felt: “That shit was on fire!” The encore was Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” with the best tenor sax work from Ben Ellman.
And then it was up to Big Mike to remind us that we only had to wait another 360 days to do it all over again.
THANK YOU, WANEE! Photos courtesy of Bryan Edward, Brian Hensley and David Lee/Gypsyshooter