Suwannee Roots Revival Was a Whirlwind of Musical Magic
The third annual Suwannee Roots Revival was a magical journey into roots music. Hosted by the majestic Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (SOSMP) in Live Oak, Florida, October 11-14, there were so many amazing musical moments that the telling of the event should begin with “once upon a time.” It was also the festival that very well might have not happened had the winds not been in our favor. As the event was drawing near, the entire Gulf Coast region was bracing for the arrival of one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the area. Those waiting to arrive at the park were glued to weather reports and updates on conditions in the Live Oak area. Hurricane Michael steamed through the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, leaving a path of unprecedented damage just a couple hours’ drive west from SOSMP.
The park was spared from the damaging winds and rains while we watched our neighbors and many fellow festivilians in the Gulf region deal with the massive destruction. By Wednesday afternoon, the official word was spreading that the Suwannee Roots Revival festival would indeed go on as scheduled. The park opened up its buildings and pavilions for shelter to those who arrived on Wednesday, and all were able to safely ride out the storm. Less than 24 hours after the storm hit shore, the staff and volunteers at SOSMP had the park fully operational and ready to kick off a much-needed weekend of musical and festie-family reunions.
By mid-morning on Thursday, people were streaming in and getting set up for the afternoon start of music. It was an unseasonably steamy and hot day, but that did not deter the sweaty hugs of greeting that lasted all day. By the time that the music got going, it was as if the valve on a pressure cooker had opened, releasing the stress and worry. We all took a huge sigh of relief to be reunited with friends, walking amongst peaceful nature, and listening to amazing musical experiences that we knew were coming.
The lineup this year was a well-balanced mix of music with bands from across the Roots genre, so much music that it was impossible to catch it all, but it sure was fun trying. When you add in the camp reunions where you get to see your festi-family for a few days out of the year, the festival was a non-stop adventure. There were amazing campsite jams throughout the park, day and night, where you could find pickers and grinners of all levels making music together. The whirlwind of music, reunions, new friends, smiles and hugs was never-ending.
Peter Rowan is no stranger to SOSMP. He has been a frequent flier for a few decades and has always delivered some of the best sets of the festival. This year he brought the Peter Rowan Free Mexican Airforce lineup with a setlist that highlighted some of his classic songs. His high lonesome vocals were the best in years, and with Chris Henry backing him up on vocals and mandolin, I will be adding that set to my top-ten list. A few of the songs that shone brightly were “Walls of Time,” “Panama Red” and “Moonlight Midnight.”
Oteil Burbridge knows how to pick his Friends. He brought a stellar group of musicians who had our souls dancing and revived. Oteil took the lead on vocals for a soulful rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “So Many Roads,” which prepared up for what was next. When Alfreda Gerald grabbed a mic and started singing “Piece of My Heart,” there was a palpable explosion of energy that instantly whipped the crowd into a frenzy. They set the Amphitheater stage ablaze with powerful rock-n-soul that lifted the spirits so high that I am pretty sure I was floating above the trees at one point.
As their name implies, you don’t get a chance to see them often, but for me, it was well worth the wait. The Seldom Scene have set a standard for perfect harmonies, and they did not disappoint. Yes, my eyes were leaking with joy, but I was not alone. When they hit those perfectly crafted harmonies on songs like “California Cottonfields,” “Little Georgia Rose” and “Wait a Minute,” it was heavenly.
What is PettyGrass, you may ask? Well, you take iconic Tom Petty songs and let Keller Williams & The Hillbenders turn them into unique and surprising bluegrass covers. Their tribute to the late legend was a respectful homage to the music of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It also turned into a giant sing-along with “You Don’t Know How it Feels.”
The boys from Grass is Dead have become festival favorites with their bluegrassified versions of the Grateful Dead and Old & In The Way catalogs. I am not sure how many instruments that frontman Billy Gilmore plays, but if it has strings, he can make it sing. They delivered an energetic vibe infused with lots of smiles and too many chords to count. They added Asheville favorite Drew Matulich to the mix for a hoppin’ showcase of Dead classics.
Unfortunately, Shinyribs were not able to make it to the festival due to closure of the local airport caused by Hurricane Michael. The Rev. Jeff Mosier, David Gans, Katie Skene, and Jon Murphy joined forces for some all-star jamming.
Really, there were so many great sets that I can’t even fit them all in, from the insane brilliance of Tornado Rider and the sweet and sassy songs of Nikki Talley, super-tight vocals and pickin’ of The Lonely Heartstring Band and jamming classics from Leftover Salmon and Donna the Buffalo. Throw in some troubadours like Verlon Thompson, Bruce Cockburn and Jim Lauderdale. Mix in a little Samantha Fish, Rev. Jeff Mosier, Jon Stickley Trio, and Brett Bass & Melted Plectrum, and you might be getting close to the seeing half the shows. Lucky for you we are able to share videos from the festival from famed taper/archivist Mark DaBabe Roth, who was able to record many of the shows (below).
Along with all of the music and festie-family reunions, the festival had plenty to offer, with workshops, exploring the trails, and shopping along vendors row. The food vendors had something for everyone, including vegan and vegetarian menu items, which my Vegan camp-mate was very thankful for. You can only eat so many organic peanut butter sandwiches. The arts-and-crafts vendors displayed a wide variety of wares including musical instruments, wood carvings, clothing, paintings, and handmade crafts from across the region. My early-rising campmates enjoyed the yoga sessions in the Dance Tent each morning. And big thanks goes out to the folks at The Kids Tent for keeping the little ones entertained.
The third annual Suwannee Roots Revival was everything I expected and then some. A huge part of the reason that the Roots fest has such a loyal following is the sense of community that comes from gathering so many like-minded people. Everyone there, from fans, musicians, and the park owners to staff, volunteers and promoters make it feel more like a family reunion than a financial endeavor. It is the place where music matters and friends matter more. I think we all bring a bit of that feeling home with us and try to make it last as long as we can. At least for the next six months, until Suwannee Spring Reunion when we can do it all again!
Check out videos from Suwannee Roots Revival below
*Spoiler alert for sister-festival Suwannee Spring Reunion coming March 21st- 24th, 2019! Initial lineup includes Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Town Mountain, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel Experience, The Grass is Dead, The Mammals, and more! You can get more info at Suwannee Spring Reunion.