When the Pour House opened on James Island in 2005, there wasn’t much business synergy to attract people to Maybank Highway. But owners Alex and Vanessa Harris had a vision — create a place where they wanted to hang out, with food they wanted to eat, and bands they loved. Their approach prioritized the fan experience, following the lead of great promoters, like Bill Graham. If the patrons are happy and the band is happy, the business can grow and succeed.
That ethos drove the Pour House to create Into the Woods, a three-day festival at Charleston Woodlands. It differs from previous local festivals like High Water, Trondossa, Southern Ground, and Chazzfest by allowing patrons to camp on the grounds for the weekend. Alex Harris compares the experience to mid-size events, like LEAF in Black Mountain, N.C. or the Suwannee Spring Reunion in Florida.
“We’re not aspiring to be huge, like LOCKN’ or Bonnaroo,” says Harris. “We want to match the vibe we already do at the Pour House, where we can party and have a good time, and that we want to take our family to.”
Into the Woods’ lineup draws from regular Pour House headliners and favorites from the Charleston music scene. On Friday night, John Medeski (of jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood) plays with Mad Skillet, his sousaphone-driven New Orleans-based project that includes renowned drummer Terence Higgins. That’s preceded by Sol Driven Train and funk rockers Andy Frasco and the U.N. (“We’re kindred souls,” says Harris of Frasco. “He’s amazing, energetic fun.”).
Saturday’s lineup culminates with Colorado progressive bluegrass pioneers Leftover Salmon, whose two sets alternate with Grateful Dead cover band Reckoning, playing the band’s 1970 LP Workingman’s Dead. The night builds with the synth-wave rock of Charleston’s latest national breakout group, Doom Flamingo, growing alt-country star Rayland Baxter, and Philly-bred acoustic hip-hop duo Little Stranger.
Sunday opens with banjoist “The Rev” Jeff Mosier, a long-time collaborator with Widespread Panic, Phish, and Leftover Salmon. Motown Throwdown will do a set of Jerry Garcia Bands, before Asheville funksters The Fritz. On the same day, Peaches for Peace, a collaboration that includes ROBOTRIO and Travers Brothership, will celebrate the music of the Allman Brothers Band.
“It was a long road to get booked,” Harris admits. “I wanted to have some New Orleans in there and a diverse mix of funk, soul, bluegrass, songwriters, and Americana.” Artists like Leftover Salmon and Baxter (who will play San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival the following day) are flying in, while others routed tours around Into the Woods.
The mix of groups with local ties and long histories at the Pour House encourages on-stage collaboration. Pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier is likely to sit in throughout the day on Saturday, and Sol Driven Train may back Jeff Mosier.
“A lot of that stuff comes together organically at the last minute,” says Harris. “We put the lineup together based on connections between the bands and with us, so special things are going to happen.”
One musician missing from Into the Woods is Col. Bruce Hampton, the spiritual godfather of the Southeast jam scene who passed away on-stage at his 70th birthday celebration in 2017. Bruce referred to his surrealist personal philosophies as “Zambi-ism,” and Into the Woods’ main stage is dubbed “Zambi” in his honor.
“If Bruce was alive, he would have been a huge part of this festival,” says Harris. “Vanessa and I both wanted to honor his spirit by making it the Zambi Stage.”
A second stage, the Oak Stage, is immediately adjacent, allowing music to continue without downtime or overlap.
“You won’t have to trek anywhere — you just shift over and see the next band,” says Harris, emphasizing his intentions for the festival layout. “We want to build something that can exist and be successful without being overcrowded. People will be able to spread out and get loose without being packed in.”
Both parking and camping will be within a quarter mile of two music stages to minimize hassle for day ticket and weekend ticket holders. Two lakes in the immediate vicinity provide ambiance and are open for paddleboarding and kayaking (rentals available). The rest of the Woodlands’ 6,000 acres are open for exploration by hiking or biking.
Into the Woods will also feature craft vendors and artists, including nine live painters during the concerts. The food truck roster includes Semilla, Root Note, Chicken Fats, Bangin’ Pies, and Bottle Neck Coffee.
Harris admits that planning a festival generated more headaches than he anticipated, from obtaining permits to sourcing the quietest generators to optimizing the sound and the lightshow. Although he expects to lose money the first year, he hopes response is strong enough to warrant building Into the Woods into an annual event.
“I’ve already been busy my whole adult life, but this is another level,” says Harris. “It feels like I’m opening 20 restaurants at the same time, or at least putting 20 shows on at once, because that’s what it is. But we operate on heart and instinct — however it goes, this festival will have soul.”