You could not have asked for better weather the weekend of the first annual Suwannee Spring Reunion. Continuing in the tradition of an annual spring bluegrass festival at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, the name has changed but the fun remains the same. The secret is out on SoS and more people are coming each year as new festivals are added, including this Summer’s brand new ‘bluegrass fest “Clusterpluck.”
Hot Buttered Rum’s set stood out with a rendition of Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker’s four-part fiddle tune Jerusalem Ridge, featuring their relatively new, killer fiddle player Zebulon Holt. It’s one of my favorite songs and HBR has been the only band I have ever heard perform it with drums. The energy the drums bring transformed the feeling in the crowd from a traditional bluegrass vibe to a newgrass dance party. HBR also played their originals “Cherry Lake” and “Well Oiled Machine,” a song that reminded me of the days where the band toured around the country in a vegetable oil powered tour bus.
Rushad Eggleston opened Tornado Rider’s late night set with his most popular song “Mountain Jumper” recognizable as his one songwriting credit from the Crooked Still album Shaken by a Low Sound. Rushad Eggleston is one of the world’s most talented cello players and is equally accomplished playing classical, bluegrass or jazz. He received a full scholarship to Berklee and teaches at workshops around the country. Despite his traditional accomplishments, what he chooses to play in Tornado Rider is a mix of indie rock, metal and punk. Tornado Rider was surely one of the most unique sets of the festival, full of humor and irreverence. Despite his accomplishments, Rushad’s rogue independence has led him in a unique direction, decidedly non-commercial and non-conformist. I wish I saw him on more festival bills but that is often the way it is for an eccentric genius, their art is ahead of their time. Rushad’s set were all originals including Rasta Imposta Giraffe Costume, Mr. Jijjybouw, and I’m a Falcon. The songs all seemed to pull from some psychedelic dream where music replaces language and humor replaces logic.
One of the most incredible things about a Suwannee Festival is the campground itself, the acres of wilderness, the car camping, and freedom to roam as well as the great Suwannee River itself, where you can float down on canoes rented from the outpost. The true essence of Suwannee can be experienced through the musicians who give their time teaching at the Music Farmers Stage. No matter your age or musical experience there is always something to glean from these hands-on workshops. The mandolin workshop with Mickey Abraham was quite basic but gave important lessons on the importance of slowing it all down when you practice, a valuable reminder. He also introduced the class to The Adventures of Annabel Lyn, a three piece female powerhouse who are teachers themselves for the Suwannee Spirit Kids Music Camp a nonprofit run by the park. We also could not resist spending a fair amount of time inside the Park’s Main Music Hall. The local hometown staff at the Bluegrass Cafe consistently over delivered with their gracious service and hospitality. The SOSMP Museum inside the main music hall documents the area’s history and the story about the founders of The Spirit of Suwannee, who created the vast sprawling campground from almost nothing.
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is a group formed in Florida, which recently relocated to Asheville, North Carolina to be part of its thriving Bluegrass scene. The band mixes lyrical elements of heavy metal in with bluegrass standards and plays them at lightning speed. The band recently added lead singer Brett Bass’s wife on bass, who was keeping up with just fine after only playing for 2 months. This was her debut festival performance and to my ear did not miss a beat.
Peter Rowan closed out the festival Saturday with Midnight Moonlight a song that is quickly becoming a bluegrass standard in its own right. Rowan played many of his songs for this set at a slower, more leisurely pace. However, we are lucky he is playing at all as we remember another Garcia affiliated legend, Tony Rice, who for years has had to give up his virtuosic picking and singing due to illness.
Rowan is famous for playing in Old and in the Way, Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass band from the 60’s, another member of this supergroup is Florida native Vassar Clements. Suwannee paid tributes to Vassar this year at the Sunday “Vassar Gospel Jam.” Rev Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass led the jam through a cathartic version of Amazing Grace, well as the Nirvana cover “All Apologies” and the fiddle tune standard “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” All Apologies featured Rushad Eggleston on cello and showcased his signature rhythmic chop technique which he teaches in workshops across the country. Rushad has a far out and goofy persona, but is recognized by many as one of the world’s greatest cello players and has pioneered this rhythmic style of playing on the cello.
Suwannee Spring Reunion proves that though a festival’s branding may change, it is truly the community and venue that makes a festival special, and in this case, SoS Music Park yet again proves to live up to its reputation for good times and hospitality.