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Suwannee Roots Revival: A great weekend by the river

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The Suwannee Music Park, with its sprawling oak trees, Spanish moss, Spirit Lake, and meandering river, always provides a stunning backdrop for the Roots Revival and it’s sister event, the Suwannee Spring Reunion. This year, because Hurricane Idalia came through the park in September, causing much damage and a massive loss of trees, there was considerable concern about whether the site could be readied for the festival. It was clear that a massive amount of work went into getting the area ready to go, and the festival went off without a hitch.

Spirit Lake 📸: Rick Davidson

The festivals feel like a family reunion; many have been coming for decades, now bringing their children and grandchildren. So have many of the artists… Jeff Mosier, Nikki Talley, Verlon Thompson, The Grass is Dead, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, and others. The campground is full of jams, including the performing artists who participate in many of them; there are some people that come primarily for the jam sessions, which go on well into the morning. While the music is undoubtedly the main attraction, the festival also offers an array of workshops and activities, including yoga classes, lots of kids activities, instrument lessons, and artisan vendors. This year we got to see the last tour of Hot Tuna Electric with the two legends: Jorma Kaukonen and his Jefferson Airplane bandmate Jack Casady. “Water Song,” “Hesitation Blues,” and “Great Divide: Revisited” were highlights of their set.

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen 📸: Rick Davidson

Two relative newcomers were highlights for me. Big Richard, a Colorado quartet, blew away folks last spring and were cordially invited back. Their set list is a travel through traditional and original songs, done with humor, feeling and amazing harmonies, and it helps that they are hilarious, smart, and engaging onstage. While they all sing, mandolinist Bonnie Sims is a powerhouse vocalist; cellist Joy Adams is a great vocalist and songwriter as well, and her cello parts are fantastic and creative; Emma Rose on bass and Eve Panning on fiddle are excellent as well. They pull off traditional songs like “Rose Connolly (Down In The Willow Garden)” and “Driving Nails in My Coffin” with fine original songs like Adams’ “Holy Holy.” A highlight: their version of the old traditional “Wind and Rain” was done only with fiddle support, and they do one verse in the round, with ethereal harmonies.

Big Richard 📸: Rick Davidson

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers play jazz, Dixieland, and ragtime music. The Atlanta-based band is unique, and their three-man horn section runs hot. Crimmins is all over the stage, defying what cliched notions you might have about a band playing Dixieland. They are animated and talented, and the crowd really appreciates their energy and reverence for their music.

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers 📸: Rick Davidson

The New Quintet is a Chattanooga-based band with another music preservationist, Nicholas Edward Williams, at the helm. One of their sets is a great way to learn about traditional folk, old-time, and ragtime music. Williams spends time talking about the history of each song; his album Folk Songs for Old Times Sake is a classic collection of traditional songs. The band covers songs from Dave Van Ronk to the Dillards to Ryan Adams. On the outdoor stage, it helped that they started off with one of my very favorite songs, “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Their fine harmonies are combined with great support from Cody Ray on guitar and lapsteel, Jade Watts on bass, and Emma Dubose on fiddle. Gordon Inman’s clarinet is perfectly suited for the variety of genres; a friend described it as “soulful,” which is a great description. They do original songs, too, Nicholas’s “Mississippi John” being a great example.

New Quintet 📸: Rick Davidson

Verlon Thompson is a mainstay of these festivals. The singer/songwriter and great guitarist, who toured and wrote songs with Guy Clark for decades, is one of the most entertaining acts ever. For a solo set in the Music Hall, he put together songs with a theme. He combined his original “I Need More Time” with Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” and James Taylor’s “Secret of Life” in a moving collection that really hit hard, especially for us older folk. Then he invited out the amazing John Mailander who accompanied him on another great collage….Jackson Brown’s “These Days” and “The Pretender,” with Guy Clark’s “Old Friends” in the middle.

John Mailander and Verlon Thompson 📸: Rick Davidson

Another regular event I never miss is the Jim Lauderdale/Verlon Thompson collaboration in the Music Hall. With constant digs at each other, they alternate songs. Lauderdale did a number of songs from his new album with The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys including “I’m Only So Good at Being Good” and “Ghost of a Rose.” Verlon did a number of his original songs including one of my favorites, “That’s What I Like About Love.”

Jim Lauderdale and Verlon Thompson 📸: Rick Davidson

Lauderdale and his band The Game Changers did sets on both the Music Hall stage and the Amphitheater, both chock full of songs from their new album, not surprisingly called Game Changer. The title track and “That Kind of Life” were standouts. Lilly Mae joined him on fiddle; her brother Frank played guitar and did a song as well. Along with two sets with The Game Changers and the set with Verlon Thompson, he also sat in with Donna the Buffalo, who were short-handed as Tara Nevins was under the weather.

Jim Lauderdale and the Game Changers 📸: Rick Davidson

Rev. Jeff Mosier is another part of the puzzle that makes these festivals special. Usually closing the festival, he did an earlier set that featured a drop-in by Verlon Thompson, who performed the most uptempo version of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” that’s ever been performed. With John Mailander on fiddle and great vocalist/guitarist Matt Williams channeling Duane Allman’s guitar tone, it was a great set.

Verlon Thompson and Jeff Mosier 📸: Rick Davidson

Another stand-out band was The Ain’t Sisters. Arrie Bozeman and Barb Carbon are essentially rockers at heart who play folk music. This mixture made them a legendary must-see after last spring, and they continued to draw huge crowds and provide lots of fun, especially in their Dance Tent shows. Another really unique band to not miss if you get a chance.

The Ain’t Sisters 📸: Gypsyshooter

Headliners Trampled by Turtles provided exactly what the Roots Revival crowd lives for: bluegrass-oriented jam music. The Minnesota-based indie band started off as an acoustic band but morphed into a unit that exemplifies late-night boogie-down get-up-and-dance music, and the crowd ate up their set. Ryan Young and Erik Berry are intense performers, and lead singer Dave Simonett can handle everything from slow acoustic ballads to high-energy rock. A great choice for a late-night set at the amphitheater.

Trampled by Turtles 📸: Gypsyshooter

Asheville-based Snake Oil Medicine Show is a performance band that breaks lots of barriers. In addition to the Pond family (Caroline, Andy and George) and great support from Jay Sanders on guitar and synthesizer, and Jason Krekel on fiddle, they have a founding member, Phil Cheney, who doesn’t play instruments but paints onstage during their set. From klezmer to swing to ragtime, their set included a bit of everything…including art.

Snake Oil Medicine Show 📸: Rick Davidson

I caught Stillhouse Junkies set at the Porch Stage. I first saw them at the IBMA in Raleigh a few years ago. The genre-defying Colorado trio is a great crowd-pleaser; Alissa Wolf is a great fiddler, moving from bluegrass to swing with ease. Cody Tinnin is a hot bass player and singer, and guitarist Fred Kosak handles most of the lead singing and is an accomplished flatpicker.

Stillhouse Junkies 📸: Rick Davidson

The Mosier Brothers’ closing set, as usual, had a bunch of guest musicians; mandolin wizard Fil Pate, who also did a set and workshop with Grandpa’s Cough Medicine’s Brett Bass; Ralph Roddenbery, Snake Oil Medicine Show’s Caroline Pond, and a cast of dozens.

Mosier Brothers Finale 📸: Gypsyshooter
Jeff Mosier and Caroline Pond 📸: Gypsyshooter

I caught a number of other sets, but as usual there was no way to cover everything. Peter Rowan and David Grier did a set at the Music Hall; I saw the Jon Stickley Trio, Quartermoon with guests Billy Gilmore and John Stineman; and Brett Bass and Fil Pate doing some amazing picking on guitar and mandolin. The captivating natural setting, great  musical lineup, campground picking and sense of community make this festival a truly special event. If you’re looking for a music festival that’s as much about the experience as it is about the music,  the Suwannee Spring Reunion and Suwanee Roots Revival are the festivals for you.

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