As the last of the tents were being rolled up and stowed away and the last of the cars were bumping along the dirt roads on the way to the park exit, my crew and I sat around a miniature propane burner boiling hotdogs in a tiny, dirty pot filled with cheap beer. Not much was said. Not much had to be said. As some of the last stragglers in the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park the day after the music ended, we can say this: we Wanee’d. And we Wanee’d well.
It all started with a late-night boom up to Live Oak, Florida on Wednesday. A straight shot that landed us at the Spirit of Suwannee at about 8 or 9 a.m. We were so very proud, arriving early on the first official day of the festival and finding a fully stocked Wal-Mart yet to be bought out of beer by late arrivals looking for a fix. Finding a suitable campsite was going to be a breeze, we thought. But when we pulled in, we found the best sites were taken.
One look at the schedule told us the pre-party the night before was an amazing show that included performances by Melvin Seals’ JGB, The Radiators and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. They say Dumpstaphunk even threw down a full set tribute to James Brown.
Needless to say, many festie folks with the time to spare made it the previous day. And those were the ones that landed the prime spots out by the lake and near the concert grounds.
We pitched a couple tents an hung a pair of hammocks among the tall trees towering over the patch of grassy dirt we were to call home for the next three days before heading off in search of the music.
Folks kept trucking in and staking out campsites as the early birds staggered around shirtless swilling beer and laughing raucously. It was immediately evident that Wanee is a unique thing. Probably one of the only places you can find huge, gruff-looking fellows covered in gnarly ink blowing bubbles and laughing like children.
Past the mid-day haze of the primitive campground, Dead Confederate was throwing down at the Peach stage.
The Peach Stage sat at the far end of acres of open grassy plains. It reached to the sky, a monolithic contraption rigged with all sorts of trusses and dormant lights standing proud in the hot mid-day sun.
Dead Confederate played to a moderate crowd at 1 p.m.; their sound a heavy, melodic brand of hard rock was some strange hybrid between My Morning Jacket and Radiohead.
While some were content baking in the sun with Dead Confederate, another moderate crowd gathered at Wanee’s secondary “Mushroom” stage to catch Blues Traveler’s harp wizard John Popper with the Dusk Ray Troubadours. He wailed on his harmonica to some dirt blues, his signature pop-harp licks bleeding into the Troubadours sound. Naturally, they played a couple Blues Traveler tunes for the people, though thankfully neither of them was “Run Around.”
Hanging on the Mushroom stage was a pleasant vibe brought on by the afternoon sun filtering through the long, hanging tendrils of the massive willows surrounding the amphitheatre in which the stage sat. Beyond the wood-and-dirt steps leading down to the dance floor, the grass sloped down from the main road cutting between the two stages. Folks swung lazily in hammocks tied to the tall trees dotting the slope as their kids jumped and danced around in the dirt.
It was about 3:30 p.m. when Big Gigantic took the Mushroom stage and blasted their audience with bass-heavy grooves soaked in dubstep womps and hip-hop beats. It was kind of funny seeing such grimy, debaucherous music in the middle of the afternoon, but that’s what happens when you squeeze the incredible number of huge acts into four short days—not everyone gets to play late at night.
After a good dose of Big G, the grassroots blues sounds of North Mississippi All Stars tunes could be heard from the Peach stage across the way.
Though only a two of the All Stars made it to Wane, Luther and Cody Dickinson blew the top off the stage the way the Black Keys did at Wanee 2010—with nothing but guitar and drums and balls. Even as a duo, they nailed that low-down gritty sound the All Stars are famous for. With tunes like Freedom Highway and Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues,” they were a pleasure to see, just nowhere near as fun as the full band with Chris Chew can be.
Stephen Marley and Hot Tuna followed, but it was time to head back to camp to recover a little energy before the really big show—Widespread Panic. A full day of music after a full night of driving has a way of sapping energy.
On the way back to the campground, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were blowing their tops at the Mushroom stage. They sounded like their name. Dirty. Dirty, nasty horns blowing funky lines into late afternoon.
A small rest on a Mayan hammock and a couple beers is a great way to rejuvenate the festie mind. Soon the sun was out of sight and it was time to Panic.
By the time we arrived at the Peach stage, it was dark. The band had yet to start. The thousands of people waiting in the field were illuminated by with the light of an unobscured moon and sea of glow-sticks, luminous hula-hoops and a whole galaxy of trippy light toys.
Panic exploded onto the stage with a shower of light and sound. “Travelin’ Light” was their first tune of the night and it was only up from there. Between Jimmy Herring’s searing guitar runs and the extraordinary lights spilling out of the superstructure of a stage, it wasn’t a wonder folks were wigging out. Rage faces contorted in bewilderment and glee throughout the massive crush. A quick walk-around revealed the spectrum of Spreadheads digging the spectacle. There were the normal looking folks, just there to dig the music and have a good time. Then there were those poor kids who took too much of whatever they’d been getting into staring crazy-eyed with their jaws hanging to the ground.
Panic was joined by Luther from the All Stars for some slide action on “Stop Breaking Down Blues,” and by Cody on washboards for a drum jam during “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” before tying off the night with "Surprise Valley," into “Climb to Safety.”
That set alone was enough to call the night a huge success. My head was pulled in a million different directions by that massive sound. But, as festies go, it wasn’t the end. There was still the late-night set. As Panic called it a night, Lotus was just getting warmed up.
Panic flowed flawlessly into the Lotus late night. Throngs of sweaty hippies and spun kids bumbled over to the Mushroom stage for more epic peaks and a dance party unlike any other. Lotus’ brand of jamtronica sounded like a bullet train from the future equipped only with an accelerator. There was no rest in the Lotus set. There was only sweat, tons of fog and the feeling that if that train didn’t slow down it’d fly right of the rails. Luckily, Lotus is an experienced professional when it comes to abstract bullet trains from the future. They landed us safely, albeit a bit shaken and quite exhausted, back at the Mushroom stage.
It was about 2 a.m. when the music ended, but the night was far from over. In fact, campgrounds at festies are quite alive after the late-night slot. That’s the time for camp fires, drum circles and pick-up jam sessions. Some people get lost among the myriad of tents. You can pick them out by watching for the odd glow-stick or flashlight floating like a confused apparition off in the dark of the woods. It’s never a worry, though. Getting lost is expected at a festival. It’s also half the fun.
A few Dead tunes around the campfire and some whiskey drinks later, we passed out in the hammocks and tents. The next day was going to be even bigger.
To be continued…
Check back tomorrow for part two of the Wanee Music Festival review! The next day we caught Keller Williams, Toubab Krewe, Robert Plant, The Allman Brothers Band and more! Also expect more festie hijinx in Sprit of Suwannee Music Park!