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Tuesday, 15 April 2014 15:06

Festival review: Wanee Festival celebrates 10 years of live music with Allman Brothers Band at the helm, April 10-12, Live Oak, Fla.

Royal Southern Brotherhood at Wanee Festival 2014 Royal Southern Brotherhood at Wanee Festival 2014 Joanna Kleine
Written by Amy Burger
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The brainchild of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, the Wanee Music Festival celebrated its 10th Anniversary this year, with ABB headlining two nights. Nearly 30,000 fans flocked to the bucolic Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Fla. to camp out amongst the stately trees dripping with Spanish moss and enjoy three days of live music with more than 30 bands.

Better weather could not have been ordered, with crystal blue skies and warm temps during the day, and cool, dry evenings. As with any large, multi-day music festival, the atmosphere and vibe are just as much factors for one's enjoyment as the lineup. Wanee most definitely excels in these areas, creating a perfect micro-universe where everything is a just little more laid back. Getting into the fest is no hassle, on-site camping is easy and convenient, and all manners of food and drink are available on the grounds without walking long distances or standing in long lines (thanks to the easy food/beverage ticket system).

Then there are the stages -- the main stage, or Peach Stage, where headliners appear on Friday and Saturday, provides the both the opportunity to get up close and dance and/or spread out and chill on the vast lawn or amongst the grove of trees lining it for some shade. A huge Ferris wheel was a fun addition this year, its bright lights and rainbow-colored cars adding a festive visual element to the landscape. The more intimate Mushroom Stage is one of the coolest natural amphitheaters around, nestled amongst a forest of tall Live Oaks, hammocks strung up between them, providing a gorgeous shade canopy and über-relaxing vibe.

The fact that getting cell phone reception is virtually impossible inside the festival grounds only adds to the escapism. When you check in at Wanee, you have to check out with the rest of the world; and really, isn't that what it's all about?

Of course, the music is the real star, and Wanee offers a wide variety. It begins on Thursday afternoon and evening at the Mushroom Stage, where bands play until midnight. Friday and Saturday lineups split between the two stages, with the Allman Brothers Band taking the headliner slot both nights, followed by late-night shows on the Mushroom Stage until 2 a.m. As with any large-scale music festival, it's nearly impossible to catch every act in its entirety. Decisions must be made; but whatever you choose at Wanee, you're guaranteed a good time.

This was my second year attending, and it was great to experience so many excellent bands, both new and old. These were the highlights of my Wanee weekend:

Thursday, April 10

Blind Boys of Alabama - This Grammy-winning group of blind gospel singers backed by a stellar band has been spreading their joyful sound in some form for 70 years. Their 6 p.m. set amid the beauty of the Mushroom Stage felt like best kind of church service. In their matching silver lame suits the Bind Boys summoned the holy ghost and laid down a howling gospel feast.

Royal Southern Brotherhood - St. Louis' own Devon Allman (Gregg's son) joined his "Southern brothers" Cyril Neville, guitarist Mike Zito, drummer Yonrico Scott and bassist Charlie Wooton in firing up the crowd for the weekend with a taste of their blues/rock blend. Allman has definitely inherited his musical family's genes, and the band gets tighter every time I hear them play. Their set-ending cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" was a special treat.

Hot Tuna Electric - Hearing legendary singer/songwriter/guitarist Jorma Kaukonen play is always special. Along with fellow Jefferson Airplane alumni and bassist Jack Cassady and their band, Kaukonen shared the sweet blues/rock sound they helped pioneer, his captivating voice at the forefront. It's a true delight to see a master work his craft in such an intimate setting.

Friday, April 11

Ziggy Marley - There's not a much finer way to kick off a warm, beautiful sunny afternoon than listening to the sweet sound of the crown prince of reggae. The spitting image of his father with the same soulful voice, Marley shared the best of his own tunes, including "Love is My Religion," "Tomorrow People" and "True to Myself," as well as honoring Bob's legacy with "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Is This Love."

Jaimoe's Jasssz Band - Allman Brothers Band percussionist/drummer and founding member Jaimoe's side band was loads of fun on the Mushroom Stage, with a full set of blues, rock and jazz infused jams, including "A Rainy Night in Georgia." Lead guitarist and vocalist Junior Mack brought the soul front and center while Jaimoe smiled approvingly from behind his drum kit.

Trey Anastasio Band (TAB) - Phish front man Trey Anastasio brought his lighter side with TAB, turning out a killer set of some of his best originals, including "Cayman Review," "Valentine," and "Push On Til' the Day," as well as covers of The Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child," Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" and Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" to close with standout trumpet player/singer Jennifer Hartswick belting the lead vocals.

Rob Garza - As a mid-evening treat, Thievery Corporation DJ Rob Garza whipped the forest into an EDM frenzy, complete with psychedelic laser show. It was an interesting element in a festival anchored primarily by jam and blues bands; but somehow it worked, particularly in the Mushroom Stage's intimate, club-like environment.

Allman Brothers Band Part 1 - ABB's first headlining set was a blowout, starting with classic "Statesboro Blues," straight into Gregg's sweet anthem, "Midnight Rider." The recently ill Allman (he just recovered from a bout of bronchitis) looked and sounded great, both in voice and on the Hammond organ and keys. Dual guitar gods Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes were an explosive combination, and one that will be hard to replace when they both depart the band after its current tour to focus on their own projects. The way they riff off each other, intuitively synthesizing with little more than a glance, is an incredible thing to behold. Mid-set, the band was joined by Trey Anastasio and Jennifer Hartswick of TAB for "Who's Been Talking;" then Anastasio stuck around to help out on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Franklin's Tower." The hit-filled set also included "No One to Run With," "Jessica," "Soulshine," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and a "Southbound" encore.

Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk - After ABB shut down the Peach Stage, Dumpstaphunk kept the party going til' the wee hours at the Mushroom Stage with a late-night set of Led Zeppelin covers that started with a raucous "Rock and Roll." They brought out Blues Traveler's John Popper to play harmonica on "Custard Pie," and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," and ABB's Warren Haynes, apparently not tired after two hours of headlining, sat in for a few songs to close out a great night.

Saturday, April 12

Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson brought his own band to kick off another mellow, sun-drenched afternoon. CRB's sound is much more akin to the Grateful Dead than to the Crowes' traditional, Southern rock, with a trippy, languid vibe. "Star or Stone" was achingly soulful, particularly Neal Casal's guitar solo. Casal, best known as a member of Ryan Adams' band, The Cardinals, is the perfect companion to Robinson's very different yet equally riveting vocals. Groovy and lengthy "Vibration and Light Suite" was a blissful mid-set treat. They closed with upbeat favorite "Rosalee," Robinson begging the question, "Is the air getting thinner? Are we getting high?" For most in attendance, it seemed the answer to the latter was a resounding "Yes."

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Multi-talented husband and wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi (the only female lead performer at the festival, incidentally), backed by their incredible, Grammy-winning band, were a force -- turning out the most high energy set of the afternoon. TTB may just be the best blues band playing today and they exceed all expectations. Trucks is a 34-year-old slide guitar prodigy, quick on his way to being a legend, and Tedeschi has a voice borne straight from heaven. They highlighted tunes from their two exceptional albums, including "All That I Need," "Learn How to Love," "Bound for Glory," and a simply divine version of "Midnight in Harlem."

Gov't Mule - Continuing to keep things "all in the family," ABB guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes opened for himself on a hot set with his other long-time band, Gov't Mule, laying down the hard Southern rock they are known for. In a warm-up for their later headlining set, Derek Trucks joined Mule, trading licks with Haynes on Billy Cobham's instrumental jam, "Stratus." They ended with signature tune "Where's My Mule" followed by a thunderous version of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."

Break Science - In what was one of my favorite sets of the festival, jamtronica duo Break Science reinstated the dance vibe at the Mushroom Stage with their unique blend of live instrumentation (a simple drum kit and keyboard on stage) coupled with electronic samples, vocals and rhythms that had everyone slave to the groove. It only got better when Susan Tedeschi and her stellar horn section joined in for a true genre-bending jam that was the most pleasantly surprising sit-in of the day.

Allman Brothers Band Part 2 - Saturday night's closing ABB set was a bit on the mellower side, but great nonetheless. Apparently Gregg Allman had a wrist injury from the first night's set, which had him focusing on vocals as Tedeschi Trucks Band's Kofi Burbridge filled in on the keys. "Revival" was an upbeat standout among a bluesier set and had everyone on their feet, with Trucks shredding on the slide guitar. Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno joined the band on "That's What Love Can Make You Do," and Blues Traveler's John Popper came out for the encore of "One Way Out."

All the rest

I took in so many hours of music over the weekend, and yet still missed some great stuff, or only caught a few solid minutes of it, including jazz/funk/fusion trio Soulive, jam veterans moe., a mid-afternoon set from Blues Traveler, Melvin Seals & JGB, and Rusted Root. Most regretfully, an early Sunday wake-up call and long drive forced me to miss what looked like an incredible late-night all-star jam with Umphrey's McGee, who were joined by Eric Krasno, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, John Popper and Break Science's Adam Deitch for their "All Night Wrong" cover set that featured everything from Pink Floyd's "Breathe" to the Stones' "Miss You" to "Rock the Casbah."

Originally booked as pre-Allman Brothers headliner on Saturday, Southern Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd were moved to a late afternoon set on Friday. Much as I was hopeful to hear some solid versions of their classic tunes I grew up with, unfortunately they ended up sounding more like a Skynyrd cover band and a steak dinner at the campground took precedence.

Though it's certainly a long trip from St. Louis (nearly 15 hours by car), for those seeking a music-filled vacation in a gorgeous Southern setting, Wanee Festival is a worthwhile journey. With the Allman Brothers Band in a state of flux, the exact future of the festival remains to be seen; but I would venture to guess this family of bands will continue returning as they seem to have as much fun playing as the crowd does watching. As one fan spelled out in glow sticks on the lawn -- "I don't Wanee leave."

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