This year's Savannah Music Festival encompasses Americana, folk, jazz, classical and zydeco music. Blues titan Buddy Guy (above) will perform two concerts at the fest. | Photos provided

The Savannah Music Festival (SMF) has long been one of the region’s largest annual musical arts events. Artistic Director Ryan McMaken told the Charleston City Paper that for its 34th season, which runs March 21 through April 8, the SMF team decided to make the festivities bigger than ever. 

“There are a total of nine venues this time,” McMaken said. “For the most part, in the past, we’ve always been in indoor venues scattered throughout the historic district of Savannah. So, what’s significantly different about this year is that we opted to expand things enough to include a major outdoor offering that broadens the menu and increases our capacity for accommodating headlining acts.” 

While McMaken insists chamber music, jazz and dance are very important to the underlying aesthetic of the SMF, the current lineup veers heavily into the Americana, folk and blues territories.

Emerging artists Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno will pull double duty performing as the quirky duo, Viv & Riley, as well as part of a more traditional group called the Onlies. 

Calcagno characterizes the Onlies as a quartet that is “focused on really old-time Appalachian string band music. There’s singing but also a lot of fiddle tunes coming through,” he said. Whereas, according to Leva, the duo is “pretty much playing all original songs that venture into lots of other genres.”

Mandolinist Sam Bush, a pioneer of progressive bluegrass, will play SMF. | Photo provided

Master mandolinist and bluegrass bandleader Sam Bush will also perform at SMF, although in a decidedly different way than anyone has likely seen him before. This time around, he’ll primarily showcase the songs of American folk musician and renowned fiddler John Hartford. This is an undertaking Bush, who is also an award-winning fiddler, clearly relishes. 

“I had been a big fan of John’s music long before we ever crossed paths,” Bush said. “Then I finally got to meet him in the summer of 1971 at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. The band John had with him included Tut Taylor, Norman Blake and Vassar Clements, and they just blew minds that night. Late in the evening, I got to spend some time around the campfire with those guys, and I had never before met anyone that liked to jam or play music more than John. He literally would rather pick than eat. That initial encounter led to a working relationship and a friendship that lasted decades.”

Perhaps most notable at SMF 2023 are the pair of concerts from legendary bluesman Buddy Guy — especially since these are bound to be his final shows in the area. The crowd-pleasing octogenarian is in the midst of his “Damn Right” farewell tour. 

Remarkably, even after all these years on the road, Guy’s performance philosophy is simple. “When people come to see me play, I just hope that I can hit a note that makes them smile and forget about their problems for a while,” Guy told the City Paper

“Music makes people happy and that’s why I’ve gone on doing it for so long. I like to see people smile,” Guy said. “But whether you like what you hear or not, I want you to walk away saying, ‘He gave me everything he got.’ Because if people come to see you, I think you should give them every damn thing you got.”

In the end, McMaken is pleased to have assembled such an eclectic array of acts. Other 2023 highlights include S.G. Goodman, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Infamous Stringdusters, Tedeschi Trucks Band, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Los Lobos, Jerry Douglas Band, Sierra Hull, Leo Kottke, Galactic and more.

In addition to providing a fun run of carefully curated shows each spring, McMaken said SMF continues to operate year-round to produce a music education curriculum, an annual high school jazz band competition, a mentorship program for young acoustic musicians, a weekly radio series entitled Savannah Music Festival LIVE and other broadcast and digital initiatives.

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