Moon Crush: A True Music Vacation

The Moon Crush festival describes itself as a “Music Vacation — not just a festival.” It’s an appropriate description. With a single stage, acts beginning in the late afternoon and being located literally within steps of the beach, there’s plenty of time for lounging on the beach, snorkeling, and parasailing during the day if that floats your boat. Located in Miramar Beach at the Seascape Resort in Florida’s panhandle, it’s a popular area because of the amazingly blue water and fine sand beaches; the area is nicknamed the Emerald Coast. Topeka is the company that runs the weekend, under the leadership of Andy Levine, the mastermind of the incredibly popular Cayamo music cruises.

On both the boat and the beach, customer support and satisfaction is Job One, and it shows. Attendees are seated in reserved “coves,” reserved seating in a roped off area for each group. Food and drink can be ordered via phone and is promptly delivered to your cove. It’s a very pampered way to take in some great music… and that’s what Moon Crush has been delivering in its three years of existence.


This year’s four-night session provided a broad spectrum of genres, with strong headliners (JJ Grey and Mofro, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and The Black Crowes on successive nights).  Day 1 kicked off with a Mobile-based band that I’ve been looking forward to see: Red Clay Strays. Lead singer Brandon Coleman has a classic Southern rock voice, and they’re just as at home with slower ballads as they are with hard rock songs. The ballad “Wondering Why” and the rocker “Doin’ Time” were highlights, but it was easy to see why they are making a name for themselves. I feel obligated to mention drummer John Hall, who was an entire show by himself, channeling Keith Moon as he tore into the drum kit. This is a group on the way up; they’re playing both Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza this year.

Red Clay Strays  📸: Rick Davidson

They were followed by Elle King, one of the more interesting stories around. The daughter of comedian Rob Schneider, she started playing guitar at age 10. In 2012 she was featured as an “artist to watch” in Esquire. Her big breakthrough was in 2014 when she released the album Love Stuff with the hit single “Ex’s & Oh’s,”  which was nominated for a Grammy. Her most recent album, Come and Get Your Wife, took her more into country music, but she’s pretty much defied any particular genre. She’s a take-no-prisoners performer and writer, as the crowd discovered during her set. She ran the gamut, from “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” to her best-known songs, including one of her biggest hits she did with Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home”). She grabs the audience by the short hairs and doesn’t let go.

Elle King  📸: Rick Davidson

First night headliner JJ Grey is captivating. The Florida native has written some beautiful songs about Florida, including his masterpiece “Lochloosa.” His set included “This River,” one of most moving songs he’s written, which he used as emotional support for many fighting addiction. He debuted a new song, “On a Breeze,” that resonated. His blues chops are fantastic, and Mofro, with horns, fantastic lead guitarist Daryl Hance, rock-solid bassist Todd Smallie, and backup vocalist Katie Dutten, were fantastic. They’re captivating to watch. Grey is as relaxed as anyone I’ve ever seen on stage, yet can light it up as well. He closed things out with a blazing version of “Gimme Shelter” as Dutten showed her vocal chops (which are considerable). I saw this band last fall; I was really looking forward to seeing them again, and it was even better.

JJ Grey & Mofro  📸: Rick Davidson
JJ Grey and Mofro  📸: Rick Davidson

Day two began with another artist I’ve seen recently, Sierra Hull. A mandolin prodigy who appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at age 11, Hull has been playing professionally since she was in her teens. Her first album was recorded at age 13. She has a fine voice and a great band; her guitar player Shaun Richardson is a monster picker and provided some great vocal support, and fiddler Avery Merritt fits right into her amazing up-tempo stuff.  She did several new songs, a red-hot version of “What Do You Say,” the improvisational-minded “E Tune,” and “Out of My Blues.”

Sierra Hull  📸: Rick Davidson

I’ve got a soft spot for Mipso; I used to live in Chapel Hill, NC, their home base. Guitarist/vocalist Joseph Terrell and multi-instrumentalist Libby Rodenbaugh are supported by Jacob Sharp, a fine vocalist and mandolin player, and bass player Wood Robinson. Their music is atmospheric, crafted Americana, with folk elements, unique lyrics, and fine instrumentation. I particularly liked “Leaves,” “Hourglass,” and “Let a Little Light In,” but “Carolina Calling” has always been my favorite.

Mipso  📸: Rick Davidson

Trampled by Turtles changed the tempo quite a bit. The alternative/progressive bluegrass band started off with a fine choice for the venue, “It’s So Hard to Hold On,” moved on to blazing versions of “White Noise” and “Truck,” worked in a fine version of “Whiskey,” and closed with a burning version of “Wait So Long.” It was a performance that their fans appreciated, demonstrated by a lot of major dancing in the standing area in front of the stage.

Trampled by Turtles  📸: Rick Davidson

That standing area, called “The Sound,” became even more jammed when The Avett Brothers took the stage. There was a lot of excitement around; many people told me they had come from across the country primarily to see the Avetts. They’ve always been unique, mixing wild jam songs and lots of stage activity that at times detracted from attention to their songwriting. Their set at Moon Crush was epic. They managed to get through 25 songs, and to me the tone of their set emphasized the songwriting as much as the loud uptempo stuff. Their music has matured, which is evident when you watch the excellent Judd Apatow documentary about them, May It Last.

Starting with the great opener “Laundry Room,” they busted out a killer version of “Old Joe Clark” with fiddle player Tania Elizabeth and Scott Avett taking center stage. Highlights of the set for me were the introspective songs: “Untitled #4,” “Murder in the City,” “I Wish I Was,” and one of my all-time favorite relationship songs, “February 7.” Not that they were ignoring their uptempo material; we got the punk-infused “Kick Drum Heart.” They closed with one of their most critically acclaimed songs, “No Hard Feelings.” It was an amazing performance, and although I’m a dedicated Jason Isbell fan, this was the best set of the weekend for me.

Avett Brothers  📸: Rick Davidson
Avett Brothers  📸: Rick Davidson

Day 3 kicked off with the Michigan-based Myron Elkins; he gained some immediate credibility when his recent album Factories, Farms & Amphetamines was produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Brandi Carlile, and many others). His voice is that of a much older singer (he’s only 21), and his songs are hardscrabble country blues/rock. “Hands to Myself” is a dark song about a relationship; “Wrong Side of the River” and “Factories, Farms and Amphetamines” are straightforward country rockers. I suspect he’s got a good career ahead.

Myron Elkins 📸: Rick Davidson

Brittney Spencer was up next. The Maryland native who grew up singing in church ended up becoming a country music performer, a challenge for a black woman in Nashville. I saw her at Merlefest several years ago and talked to her for a while about her career, just after I had seen her covering “Gimme Shelter” with Jason Isbell, whom she opened for. Her song “Sober and Skinny” became an anthem for many; she performed it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Her set included “Damn Right, You’re Wrong,” a minor hit for her, and a cover of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.”

Brittney Spencer 📸: Rick Davidson

Southern blues-rocker Marcus King brought up the energy quickly. The South Carolina native is a lauded guitar player, and his vocals, which at times sound remarkably like Chris Stapleton, fit perfectly with his guitar tone. His wife Briley Hussey joined him onstage for a duet on “Joy of My Life,” but it was the blues songs that grabbed the crowd. Opening with “It’s Too Late,”  his set included “Wildflowers and Wine,” a slow-rolling blues song that reminds me of Percy Sledge; “Hardworking Man,” which could easily have been an Allman Brothers song; and “Pain.” The more laid-back “Goodbye Carolina” rounded out a busy set.


Marcus King 📸: Rick Davidson

I’m a huge fan of Saturday night’s headliner Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit; I’ve reviewed his album Reunions here; the making of the album was the basis for the recent HBO  documentary Running with Our Eyes Closed.  I’ve seen him live nine or ten times. He has a new album due out in June, so I was looking forward to some new songs, and he provided the two that had recently been dropped: “Death Wish” and “Middle of the Morning.” Some of his most popular songs were early in the set; “Hope the High Road,” “24 Frames,” and “Traveling Alone.” He included songs from all his albums, with several from his classic album Southeastern: “Super 8,” “Stockholm,” and “Flying Over Water.”

Also included were “Last of My Kind,” “Something More Than Free,” one of his early highly-lauded songs, “Alabama Pines,” and the almost requisite “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires”, which suffered only because wife Amanda Shires wasn’t with the band for this show (she’s currently on tour herself). Guitarist Sadler Vaden got to perform a song from his old band, Drivin’ and Cryin’, “Honeysuckle Blue”. They closed with two songs that they frequently play as closers; “Decoration Day,” a song from his Drive-By Trucker days, and the Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well.” It was a straightforward set with good energy. It’s always a good sign when most of the crowd is singing along with the words to every song, even the new ones. Isbell continues to have one of the best touring bands today.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit  📸: Rick Davidson
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit  📸: Rick Davidson
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit  📸: Rick Davidson

Unfortunately I was unable to attend day 4, which was a major disappointment. The lineup was mostly bands I was unfamiliar with: Fitz and the Tantrums, The New Respects, Wilder Woods, and The Black Crowes. The festival  was amazingly well managed, the location and customer service were fantastic, and I would gladly go back next year. Andy Levine and his hardworking staff make it a luxurious way to enjoy a great selection of music. Don’t pass it up if you get a chance.


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📸: Rick Davidson


📸: Rick Davidson




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