While it wasn’t billed that way, wonderful Wanee 2017 was in many ways all about the Grateful Dead. You see if you were a fan of jamband music and lived anywhere in the American South you had two pretty amazing festivals to choose from on the penultimate weekend in April. Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band and Dark Star Orchestra along with a few other notables were all playing the Sweetwater 420 festival in Centennial Park in Atlanta as well as this venerable throw down on the banks of the Suwanee River.
But Wanee had one thing you couldn’t find in the city; two nights of Bob Weir and his Campfire Band. And that wasn’t all. Along with the original Dead icon there a was perhaps a bigger reason to attend Wanee, the soulful send off to the recently passed Butch Trucks, the man responsible for much of the marvelous mayhem that has transpired at this music park. The original Allman Brothers drummer proudly claimed ownership of Wanee, often referring to this monster camp out jam that started in 2005 around the Allman Brothers as his “baby” and calling it the best festival going. Wanee Wednesday was dedicated to Butch and after sets by Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers cover acts, it became a real family affair. Vaylor Trucks conducted his father’s Freight Train Band, which featured Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, through a driving and soulful set of Allman classics. Vaylor on lead guitar along with his sister Melody Trucks on vocals sang their father home in grand style.
“This is exactly what my father saw,” Butch’s daughter told the appreciative Wanee Wednesday crowd through her tears. It wasn’t lost the crowd that it was Vaylor himself, along with Berry Oakley’s daughter Brittany, who were featured on the cover of the classic release Brothers and Sisters back in 1972. The sounds of Vaylor and Luther Dickinson trading licks on Whipping Post into the early morning hours set the tone for this exceptional festival.
For many Wanee is all about the camping. The woods began filling up with fans as early as Monday this year, many clans reclaiming spots held in previous years. And for some this inclusiveness was more important than music. Campfires burned late into the evening every night and cries of Merry Wanee turned what started out as a musical wake into a celebration of life. In fact, for many, the party starts the minute they get their wrist bands and are admitted into a week in the magical pine forest. Certainly something you couldn’t find in the city. But Wanee is never short on musical moments either.
After Bob Weir did a few acoustic numbers on Saturday night he brought out Trey Anastasio whose band had just sampled seemingly every genre of music in a two hour set that coincided with a perfect pink sunset. It was no great surprise that the two friends and musical icons collaborated on some classic Dead material like “Bird Song,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Deep Elem Blues.” It wasn’t even too surprising that the sang Trey’s ode to his sister, “Miss You,” which they did during an impromptu meet up in Nashville during Phish tour last summer. But when the two pulled off an obviously rehearsed acoustic version of Lady Gaga’s single “Million Reasons,” the collective jaw of the big crowd in the festival field just dropped. Dead fans who caught Gaga on the Superbowl halftime show filled everybody in on the song selection and it immediately became part of Wanee lore.
It was a similar scene on the field previous evening when Widespread Panic absolutely just dove into their classics jams, starting with “Ain’t Life Grand” and “Love Tractor” before pulling up and out to honor the band’s new drummer Duane Trucks uncle Butch, with the Talking Heads song Heaven. Later the band brought up 21 year old Marcus King to help them out with a heady “Mountain Jam.”
In front of the main Peach stage roadies had set up Butch Trucks red drum kit. It sparkled in the Florida sunshine during the day and was lit up below the Wanee banner in a fitting if understated memorial at night. The simple sentiment, “Thanks Butch,” were the only words that identified the infamous kit.
So yes, there really is something about the Wanee festival that sets it apart. Everyone seems to bring their best to Live Oak, Florida in April. In the same way that the campers who dragged their Airstreams out and lit up the woods all week brought their best firewood and their fattest steaks, the musicians did the same. While Weir was playing much of his cowboy-themed Blue Mountain material, he simply could not let the faithful go home without getting a taste of what they might see on Dead & Company summer tour. Guitarist Steve Kimock set the scene for Bobby to cobble together booming productions of “Shakedown Street,” “The Other One,” “Eyes of the World,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Cassidy” over the course of the weekend. He closed the festival with a touching “Ripple.”
On the official opening night of the festival, which just happened to be 4-20, Dark Star Orchestra headlined in the big field. The buzz started with the first notes of “Minglewood Blues.” The band decided to cover the Grateful Dead’s performance from Barton Hall at Cornell University from May 8, 1977, that many consider to one of the finest shows the band ever played. DSO stepped up to the task, channeling the Grateful Dead in a way only they can. In honor of the stoner holiday the band even played Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with its refrain “Everybody Must Get Stoned” as extra encores after the almost 40th anniversary celebration of the Ithaca show.
One writer can’t catch every moment at Wanee but hearing the Pink Talking Fish segue from the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” to Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” into the Talking Head’s “Burning Down the House” on the Mushroom Stage put a smile on my face. Dr. John and his Nite Trippers band also created some cajun magic on the main stage under a warm sun. Dr. John brought Charles Neville, of New Orleans first family of music, who brought the house down with his saxophone. J.J. Grey told stories about his grandmother who grew up in the woods north of the park. Gov’t Mule put forth a set of dark rock and roll that seemed to wrestle with the all the exercised demons of the weekend in the hot sun.
All of this music and magic on top of some perfect Florida spring weather created a tangible excitement at Wanee this year. Whether it was skinny dipping in the slow spiraling Suwannee, watching musical history be made or saying goodbye to the drummer that started it all, everyone seemed touched in some way by this year’s festival. “In my mind this is the greatest music community,” Luther Dickinson told the crowd in the wee hours on Wednesday night. “You people bring us all together.”