Suwannee Roots Revival 2019: A Perfect Mix
Since 2016, when Magnoliafest moved from the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park to St. Augustine and subsequently disappeared, Suwannee Roots Revival has provided a consistent brand of music: traditional and progressive bluegrass, blues, gospel, acoustic performers of all kinds, and Americana-oriented acts. And some performers have come back year after year… Donna the Buffalo, Rev. Jeff Mosier, Verlon Thompson, and the godfather of the festival, Peter Rowan, to name a few. This year’s event was no exception to the history of laid-back, family-friendly festivals of the past. Headlined by Sam Bush and Del McCoury and including progressive stalwarts Mosier, Keller and the Keels and The Grass is Dead, some new acts made their first appearance: versatile vocalist Lindsay Lou, Irish quartet We Banjo 3, Montana’s Lil Smokies, and the genre-busting group Front Country.
Brett Bass and Melted Plectrum
The festival started under emotional circumstances because of a fluke accident that occurred on the grounds just before the scheduled start, so the opening act, Brett Bass and Melted Plectrum, moved from the main amphitheater to the Dance Tent. In spite of the somber mood, the former Grandpa’s Cough Medicine front man provided a great beginning. A highly regarded champion flatpicker, Bass is clean and blazing fast and always entertaining. Bass’s new band features some great talent. They performed a number of songs from their newest album, Lost in the Fog, along with some traditional songs and instrumentals featuring mandolin player Joey Lazio, banjo player Benny McDowell and bassist Rex Putnam. “American Violence” and “Lost in the Fog” have become mainstays of their live shows.
The Lil Smokies
This band made their first appearance with an impressive portfolio: winners of the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition and the 2016 IBMA Momentum Band of the Year award; their set was a great example of the modern direction of bluegrass: hard-driving songs and impressive vocals. Andy Dunnigan, dobro player and lead singer, and fiddle player Jake Simpson are dynamic performers. While most of their songs are original, they also came up with a great cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and then followed that up with an excellent cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” breathing new life into both of those songs.
We Banjo 3
Two pairs of brothers from Galway, this high-energy band also came into town with a history: Folk Awards Album of the Year and a #1 listing on both the Billboard World Album and Bluegrass Album charts. They’ve played at major festivals around the country for several years now; one reviewer called them an Irish Punch Brothers because of their high-level individual skills. Their music is enhanced by their dynamic stage show. Fergal Scahill on fiddle and bodhran fired the crowd up, changing tempos while lead singer David Howley encouraged crowd participation. Enda Scahill is a master of the tenor banjo, playing some flat-picking that was sheer virtuosity. Their set included something I’ve not seen at this festival, a Whitney Houston cover of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” an original romantically optimistic song called “Happiness is Just Around the Corner,” and, for an encore, the traditional song “The Fox” (popularized by Nickel Creek). By the end of the set, the crowd was up and screaming for more. Don’t miss these guys.
Touring to support her new Rounder release Kill or Be Kind, Fish took the stage with flair. Known as a guitar goddess/monster, the thirty-year-old has released eight previous albums. The recent album is a bluesy, horn-laden release with some hard rock numbers. One of those was “Bulletproof,” with Fish providing some solid recurring slide riffs. Her guitar style is blues-based, with lots of slide, but she is equally adept at Motown-style rock riffs. The crowd loved it. Her vocals are diverse, ranging from controlled breathy ballad to all-out screaming gritty blues woman done wrong.
Joe Craven and the Sometimers
It’s a cliché, but there really is no way to describe Joe Craven. He’s played with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and many other legends in acoustic music. He’s an educator, featured in the PBS series Music Gone Public, hosts music camps, and does workshops at every festival he attends. He’s taught and played bluegrass, rock and jazz. He’s a percussionist, comedian, and innovator. Everyone in his band is equally diverse in musical styles, including his daughter Hattie (who just graduated from high school), and is a powerful vocalist. Bass player Jonathan Stoyanoff is a creative musician, with unique vocals and arrangements. Their set in the Music Hall was a lesson in reinterpretation: covers in their progressive style of “Stop in the Name of Love,” Hattie’s take on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” Johnny Cash’s “Shoeshine Boy,” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird”.
A friend strongly recommended seeing this Nashville-based artist with roots in Michigan and a family history of activism. Her last album, Southland, was a change of pace that tilts toward bluegrass into a more bluesy folk and even some rock. Her blend of original songs, inventive arrangements, and vocal strengths provided a really excellent set on the Porch Stage. Her vocals are emotional, effortless and sturdy, reminiscent of Regina Spektor. She did several songs from her recent album, including “Everything Changed” and “Southland,” featuring some excellent three-part harmony.
The Del McCoury Band
Fresh from last month’s tribute to him at IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival, Del McCoury’s engaging manner and traditional renderings of old and new songs is a winner wherever he goes. Add the tightest band in bluegrass today, throw in another bluegrass legend as a surprise guest, and you get a set that is epic. Del’s sets usually feature each band member, and this was no exception. Del’s grandson Heaven McCoury on guitar joined bass player Alan Bartram, fiddler Jason Carter, and son Robbie McCoury on banjo. Son Ronnie, whom some consider the best mandolin player in bluegrass, took on Monroe’s classic “Rawhide” and some fine harmony on “Body and Soul” added to the Monroe nods. Moving to one of the more interesting covers that has become a landmark of many of his shows, Del sang “Nashville Cats”, the old Lovin’ Spoonful hit. Then Del called out Peter Rowan, and together they closed the set with two more chestnuts, “Can’t You Hear me Calling” and “The First Whippoorwill.” It’s hard to believe that Del is now 80 years old, but he’s not lost a thing. He’s still a legend of the genre.
The Travelin’ McCourys
One night later, the band minus Del and with the addition of guitar master Cody Kilby took the stage. The Travelin’ McCourys have studiously tried to develop a body of work that expands the bluegrass spirit beyond the traditional. They’ve played with the Lee Boys, the Allman Brothers, Phish, and Dierks Bentley and developed a traveling tour honoring the music of the Grateful Dead. No stage antics, no jumping up and down, just solid virtuosity and tight arrangements. They did one of my favorites, “Let Her Go,” and the re-imagined “Cumberland Blues” along with several extended tasteful jams, including the Dead’s “Loser.”
Another highly recommended band was Front Country. The self-described “roots pop” quartet graduated from covering King Crimson and indie bands to writing their own songs and delivering them with style. Their mix of alt-country and string music with occasional nods to classic rock and bluesy vocals is unique. Syncopation and percussive, their songs are thematically complex and masterfully arranged. The primary force of the band is lead singer Melody Walker, an energetic performer with percussion and guitar skills. Her vocals are excellent, and the band does some stop-in-your-tracks three-part harmonies.
Peter Rowan is a legend in roots music; he was always advancing music, first with Bill Monroe and later with legendary bands like Muleskinner (with Clarence White and David Grisman) and Old and in the Way (with Jerry Garcia and Grisman). He’s penned some notable songs, including “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight.” He is revered at the Spirit of the Suwannee for his consistent appearances and his collaborations. He did several sets, but his night set at the Amphitheater stage was a solo effort, with a flight back in time as he covered a bunch of early ‘60s pop songs including Ritchie Valens’ “Donna,” changed by Rowan halfway through the song to “Donna the Buffalo,” a nod to his frequent collaborators. “Panama Red” made an appearance, and so did Ronnie McCoury, who came out to join him on several duets.
Saturday night’s headliner, Sam is a regular at the music park. His award-winning band featuring Scott Vestal on banjo, Stephen Mougin on guitar, Todd Parks on bass and Chris Brown on drums are always awe-inspiring, and this set was no exception. His set included some extended jams, including on the old New Grass Revival number “Crooked Smile.” Other standouts were “Same Ol’ Blues” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In honor of his home town, wearing a Louisville Cardinal jersey, he did an up-tempo version of “Eight More Miles to Louisville.” Del McCoury joined him at the end of the set for duets on “Roll On Buddy Roll On” and “Midnight on the Stormy Deep.”
The Lee Boys
The sacred-steel R&B gospel band from Miami raises the heart rates of audiences everywhere I’ve seen them. Their daytime set on the Amphitheater Stage was dynamic, but their late-night set at the Dance Tent was sometime to experience. Derrick and Keith Lee on vocals are fun to watch, and Chris Johnson’s pedal steel playing is spectacular and would fit in any Allman Brothers jam. Their songs mix equal parts funk, Southern rock, gospel, and hard-core blues. They raise the roof every time they play.
I’ve saved my favorite for last, because I’m a story-song lover. Verlon Thompson is a master of the craft. Best known as Guy Clark’s sidekick and co-writer for many years, he is a fixture at the Music Park. Almost every year, he and Jim Lauderdale get together for a session in the Music Hall, an intimate setting that really suits his personable, emotional songs. Just about every set with him is an emotional event. With Lauderdale, however, it becomes a master class in false praise, with constant digs back and forth that have the audience howling. Because of a scheduling issue, Verlon was alone this year, and he went in a different direction. His fans there have known his songs for years, and his new ones get learned quickly. For this set, he did a few of his songs, but also featured a number of songs by other songwriters, some well known, and some not. His PBS program Barnegie Hall features songwriters and their craft. Most of them, like Verlon, are largely unknown to the general population of music fans, but they are all known and revered in Nashville. And most of them have had their songs covered by many better-known acts.
Verlon’s dad passed away last year, and he began his set with a tribute to his father: he intermingled one of his best songs, “Christians and Outlaws,” which is an ode to reincarnation, with Jimmy Webb’s “Highwaymen.” It was a moment that left most fans glad they were in the dark, because there were very few dry eyes. He followed up with the Jesse Winchester classic “That’s What Makes You Strong” and then Gretchen Peters’ amazing song “Five Minutes.” On Sunday, from the Amphitheater Stage, he did more of his songs and ended up with another tribute to his dad. He invited Rev. Jeff Mosier up to join him for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and again the audience was misty-eyed as the two friends hugged on stage.
For a festival that started off with tears and a tragedy, this year’s Suwannee Roots Revival was a perfect mix of new and old artists, traditional and progressive music, and a welcoming group of fans who have been coming here in the fall for many years. As one long-term attendee told me, “…coming here is like putting on an old pair of comfortable shoes.” That’s a pretty good way to put it.