Suwannee Springfest / March 23-26, 2006 / Live Oak, Fla. (Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park)
"Y'all are the last of the flower children," Mavis Staples told a crowd of folk and acoustic music enthusiasts wrapped up in heavy coats and blankets and seated under moss-draped ancient Oaks for the"Y'all are the last of the flower children," Mavis Staples told a crowd of folk and acoustic music enthusiasts wrapped up in heavy coats and blankets and seated under moss-draped ancient Oaks for the chilly second night of the Suwannee Springfest.
Staples, backed by a steady-rolling rhythm trio and her older sister, Yvonne, then proceeded to warm listeners with the story of Pops Staples and the Staples Singers, and a set of gospel and R&B that struck chords with her listeners. The exuberant performer, drawing in part from 2004's "Have a Little Faith," her first studio release in a decade, punched through "The Weight," "Oh Happy Day" and a triumphant "I'll Take You There."
The singer, referring to the music industry's constant courting of younger performers, vowed to keep on keeping on. "I'm old school," she said. "You know what they want? They want Beyonce. Beyonce is alright, but I've got a long way to go. Don't be trying to put us out to pasture."
Staples' well-received group was something of an anomaly at Springfest, which has gained a well-earned reputation for playing host to some of the world's finest bluegrass musicians in a laidback setting that allows for plenty of onstage mixing and matching, as well as late-night campfire jamming (when it's not unseasonably cold).
The festival, though, is more eclectic than it might appear at first glance. Bela Fleck, for instance, the banjo virtuoso who has mastered bluegrass, jazz and classical styles, is a Springfest favorite. Fleck and the Flecktones, playing the fest for the third time, showed no signs of rustiness after their year-long hiatus.
Fleck, astonishing electric bassist Victor Wooten, "drumitar" player Roy Wooten and saxophonist Jeff Coffin, sounded energized and tight on a set of newfangled jazz fusion and funk that's as dazzling and complex as anything they've ever tackled.
Something similar might be said about Donna the Buffalo, the organically grown jam band whose personnel has fluctuated in recent years. The group, still helmed by singer/guitarist Jeb Puryear and singer Tara Nevins, as usual was all over Springfest, turning in four sets, including an inspired performance backing singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale. For the latter, Lauderdale and his perfectly matched band pulled out several gently grooving gems from their 2000 collaboration, "Wait 'Til Spring," including "That's Not the Way It Works," "Slow Motion Trouble" and the title song.
Springfest, for its 10th anniversary, offered an abundance of high-caliber performances on multiple stages. In terms of sheer musical firepower, the performance by Florida-born mandolin master Mike Marshall and Brazilian mandolin wizard Hamilton de Holanda took top honors. The two, perfectly synced with one another, turned in a bracing set of tunes that were alternately jazzy and indebted to Latin sources; their duo CD will be released later this year on Marshall's Adventure Music label.
Singer/guitarist Buddy Miller led a superb quartet of musicians through rugged electric interpretations of blue-chip songs he wrote or co-wrote, including "Shelter Me" and "Don't Wait," and tunes by others, including the Louvin Brothers' "There's a Higher Power" and Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis."
Old pros Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, backed by bassist Bryn Bright and mandolin player Sharon Gilchrist, both chiming in on crystalline harmonies, were impressive on an acoustic set that featured "Come Back to Old Santa Fe," "Down in the Shady Grove" and "Dust Bowl Children."
The shock of the new, if you will, was represented by the Avett Brothers, the former punk rockers from North Carolina who made their acoustic-music recording debut in 2002. Sibling singers Scott, on banjo, and Seth, on guitar, plus bassist Bob Crawford, stirred up a rootsy, unusually aggressive sound that came off as a cross between the Everly Brothers and the Violent Femmes. The Avetts were raw and raucous, all acoustic alt.country with an attitude; star power is written all over the trio.