There are two ways to handle postpartum depression after leaving Suwannee Springfest: one would be to sulk around knowing that on a surreal weekend in late March, you’ve already reached the pinnacle of everything the season of Spring can be. The other would be to revel in the joy a few thousand people had on the banks of the Suwannee River in north Florida, and celebrate the fact that sister festival MagnoliaFest is only a couple short seasons away.
Springfest is a four-day affair, but work obligations had us arriving just in time to see Guy Clark and Vernon Thompson harmonizing Clark’s classic, “Desperados Waiting on a Train,” on our way to set up camp amidst a grove of cypress trees oozing Spanish moss over our tents and fire circle. The Waybacks showed why they’re newgrass’s tightest young act, not skipping a beat since recently losing guitarist Stevie Coyle to a solo career. Railroad Earth had the cozy amphitheater stage on their feet and boogying well into the night, before the Lee Boys lit a pedal steel fire for the those still hanging in the A.M.
Saturday morning at Springfest is akin to waking up in Willy Wonka’s factory as an eight-year-old. After some hands-on guitar instruction from incomparable storyteller Roy Book Binder, we meandered through sand hills and sabal palms to the black-as-sweet-tea Suwannee River, shaking any lingering whiskey in our heads with a dive in the chilly, sandy-banked currents. Despite the drought, water levels appear healthy on the Suwannee.
After some lunchtime jams with Florida local band the Homesteaders at their campsite, we settled into an intimate afternoon session with Guy Clark. Townes van Zandt’s old cohort hasn’t lost a thing — if anything, the gruff honesty of his voice is deepening in sincerity with his age. From there, it was on to the Lee Boys afternoon set at the meadow stage. The boys brought out little brothers and kids onto the stage for much of the show, shaking the crowd into a sweaty midafternoon frenzy with their rowdy but polished style of gospel-steel-jams.
Springfest ’08’s musical highlight likely came during the David Grisman Quintet’s evening show at the amphitheater stage. Grisman is like Jerry Garcia in the way he can take a song and carry it off into space, then firmly ground it back into the groove. In an amazing look at what’s to come, he brought out 18-year-old Josh Pinkham to trade licks with him during the encore. Pinkham didn’t skip a beat, and it was evident Grisman was having the time of his life playing with the young prodigy.
Peter Rowan and his Free Mexican Airforce yodeled and picked us into sweet oblivion after that, followed by the incomparable Donna the Buffalo. “We could not be getting down any harder!” said one friend at my side as we boogied and twirled to Donna’s song, “Learning Curve.” The Waybacks closed out our night, breaking out a couple Grateful Dead classics, including a “St. Stephen” that had the entire crowd leaping and screaming in excitement. After a late night of pickin’ (sunrise!) at infamous camping area Slopryland, it was all we could to drag ourselves out of bed for Vassar’s Bluegrass tribute with Peter Rowan on Sunday morning.
If Saturday is the candy store, Sunday is the last day at summer camp. Vassar Clements Day at Springfest is pure relaxation. The ample hammocks strung between trees at the amphitheater stage are full of exhausted revelers, dozing and smiling to the sounds of Dread Clampitt and Blueground Undergrass into the evening. Some folks stay, some folks head home to work on Monday, and everyone is all smiles as they face the bittersweet truth that the reality of impromptu picking sessions and world-class musicians playing 100 yards from our campsite is over until the fall.
But thank goodness it’s a biannual affair! Springfest is incomparable — as a gathering of the world’s finest bluegrass and acoustic pickers on the enchanted Suwannee River, it’s the best things about Merlefest and the Lake Eden Arts Festival rolled together. It’s a party, but the music and shared family are the bedrock. There’s nothing not to love, and no better way to kickoff springtime.
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