The setting is the beautiful Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park -- a year-round concert destination featuring full-scale vending and on-site camping amid groves of enormous Live Oak trees with Spanish moss dripping from their branches like melted candle wax. The setup is simply the best I've witnessed for this type of event -- everything you need is right there and it's all very easy and convenient, making it impossible not to have a good time. Pretty much the only thing you can't get within the park is good cell reception -- which turns out to be a positive when you're trying to get away from it all and "tune in, turn on, drop out."
A village of vending tents winds throughout the grounds in between the two stages where all of the action takes place: the Peach Stage (headliner stage), set in a large, open field designed to hold the largest crowds; and the more intimate Mushroom Stage, nestled in a forest of Live Oaks, providing shade and a more "relaxed" vibe, complete with hammocks strung up into the trees.
It's at this stage that the first official day (Thursday) of Wanee begins, with bands starting mid-afternoon and playing into the late evening hours. For serious early birds who arrive Wednesday to claim their spot and set up camp there's even a special pre-festival show, which this year included six bands, headlined by Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk.
The atmosphere is second to none, but the is music is what it's really all about -- and there is plenty of it to choose from, starting before noon and going until 2 a.m. each day. The most unique aspect of Wanee, as opposed to other festivals of its size is that, the bands mostly being "related" either by blood or kinship, you never know who will end up sitting in on anyone else's set. "Surprise" guest appearances occurred in nearly every show, making for one fantastically incestuous musical experience.
With a festival this large, choices must be made. Unfortunately, it's impossible to see everything, but I damn well tried my best. Here are the highlights of the sights and sounds of my first Wanee Festival experience:
Voice of the Wetlands Allstars -- We kicked off our weekend early Thursday evening with this ensemble of New Orleans heavy-hitters started by Grammy-nominated guitarist/vocalist Tab Benoit and also including Cyril Neville and harmonica/accordion virtuoso Jonny Sansone, among others. They had the whole place dancing and the hammocks swinging with an eclectic mix of jams ranging from traditional Zydeco and folk/jazz like "Liza Jane" to an inspired cover of Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love."
Royal Southern Brotherhood -- St. Louis native Devon Allman, son of ABB founder Gregg Allman, appeared with his new band, which also features Cyril Neville, guitarist Mike Zito, drummer Yonrico Scott and bassist Charlie Wooton driving home the Southern blues rock of their ancestry. The Brotherhood's smoking hot set featured tunes from its debut album like "Fired Up!" "Sweet Jelly Donut" and an incredible cover of the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain;" but the sweetest moment came at the end when proud papa Gregg Allman made an early guest appearance to perform his own solo tune "I Can't Be Satisfied" as well as ABB staple "One Way Out."
The Revivalists -- This up-and-coming New Orleans outfit laid down their own unique blend of funk, blues, soul and rock, getting the early Friday afternoon crowd at the Mushroom Stage on its feet, and closing their vibrant set with their single "Criminal," which deserves a YouTube look-up if you haven't heard it.
Gov't Mule -- The heavy Southern rock band anchored by ABB guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes (who sat in with nearly every band that played at Wanee) along with drummer extraordinaire Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson, kicked off their set with the mellow bluesy "Outta Shape," before moving on to Mule favorite, "Thorazine Shuffle." With a bit of a mellower set, it seemed like Haynes was perhaps saving most of his energy for the long night ahead.
North Mississippi Allstars -- Dividing my late Friday afternoon time slot, I made it to Mushroom Stage in time to catch the second half of a not-to-be-missed set by N. Miss, formed by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and joined by special guests, bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Butch Trucks of ABB. These boys have the Delta blues in their blood and they never cease to amaze, whether Luther is shredding a signature riff on his guitar or Cody is tearing it up on his electric washboard (an instrument of his own invention). Burbridge and Trucks were just the icing on this delicious musical cake.
Leon Russell -- As Friday night showers began giving way to clear skies on Saturday, this legend made his way across the stage and took a seat at his white baby grand piano, which matched his long, flowing white hair and beard. He proceeded to take the audience on a journey through rock and roll history, tearing up the keys and lending his deep, soulful voice to classics like "Let the Good Times Roll," "Wild Horses," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Great Balls of Fire" and "Roll Over Beethoven."
Michael Franti & Spearhead -- With the Saturday afternoon sun finally began to warm the crowd at the Peach Stage, Michael Franti and Spearhead brought the "Sound of Sunshine" and the most spiritual moments of the festival, including a dedication to those in Boston and West, Texas who'd faced unimaginable tragedy earlier in the week. He then brought an inspiring couple to the stage, Hope and Steve Dezember, who had touched Franti with their story of perseverance and love in dealing with Steve's rapidly deteriorating health due to ALS. Not a dry eye was seen as Hope lifted Steve from his wheelchair and held him close as they danced to "Life is Better With You." Later, Warren Haynes sat in for the road-traveling anthem, "It's a Long Ride Home."
Tedeschi-Trucks Band -- Keeping with the family vibe, 33-year-old guitar prodigy Derek Trucks (nephew of ABB founding member/drummer Butch Trucks), his wife, guitarist/vocalist Susan Tedeschi, and their band took to the stage to offer a taste of their own Grammy-winning sound, playing songs from their debut Best Blues Album, "Revelator," as well as their forthcoming album. Tedeschi's voice -- like the best of Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin rolled into one -- and Trucks' singular guitar notes soar in a perfect harmony so sweet that it absolutely defines them as the most talented couple working in music today.
Widespread Panic -- Co-headlining both Friday and Saturday nights with ABB were jam band veterans Widespread Panic, who recently kicked off their Spring tour with a two-night stint at the Peabody Opera house here in St. Louis. Playing a two-hour set each night before the Allmans, their Friday evening appearance was slightly dampened by consistent rain showers, though the weather never stopped the masses from dancing; and the harder it poured, the louder and harder the band seemed to play. They ended a strong set of Panic classics with two great covers, ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago" and Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain," both with Haynes sitting in on guitar and Gov't Mule's Danny Louis joining on keys. Panic's Saturday set felt much more laid back with no rain and a perfect breeze blowing as the sun set. More guest appearances fired up the later half with Susan Tedeschi joining on vocals for a cover of Van Morrison's "I've Been Working" as Derek Trucks joined on guitar and remained for closers "Goin' Out West" and "Fishwater."
The Allman Brothers Band -- The band that started it all headlined with late evening sets Friday and Saturday, playing until the midnight hour. Despite off and on rain Friday night, they fed the hungry crowd classics like "Statesboro Blues," "Blue Sky" and "Revival," plus an inspired cover of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" with Widespread Panic's John Bell on vocals. An old-fashioned liquid light show provided the perfect backdrop. You could truly sense the excitement of playing these shows that the band felt onstage -- this is their party and they lived it writing an essay up properly. Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring sat in for "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and Luther and Cody Dickinson joined the fun for encore "One Way Out." Saturday night's set was equally hot despite rapidly dropping temperatures. Again they gave it their all on staples like "Midnight Rider," "Nobody Left to Run With Anymore" and the quintessential Gregg Allman classic "Melissa."
As many great bands as I was able to see, there were a dozen more I unfortunately missed, including Steel Pulse, Galactic, Maceo Parker, Tower of Power, The Lee Boys and Dirty Dozen Brass band. For fans of classic rock, southern rock, blues, funk, jazz and just music in general, the Wanee Festival is truly a bucket list event.
Here are a few tips if you plan to go:
Book early: Primitive camping is included with a three-day pass; but if you want RV hook-ups or a hotel nearby, you may want to make a reservation now for next year. If you plan to fly, the closest major airport would be Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Ga. Driving from St. Louis will take around 12 hours.
Dress in layers: This may be Florida, but it's as far north as you can get in the state, which means the evenings can be chilly, so dressing in layers is key and don't forget to pack a rain poncho in case of an impromptu downpour.
Leave your good shoes at home: The grounds are very sandy and dusty, so whatever shoes you bring will likely be very dirty by the time it's all over. Shoes that are waterproof and easily cleaned are best.
Pace yourself: With great bands playing for more than 12 hours every day, it's easy to burn out. Stay hydrated during the heat of the day and save the partying for the evening hours.