Charleston South Carolina October 11 2014
It was going to be a warm one today – the forecast was for a top of 90 degrees Farenheit (32 Celsius) – day one of the Southern Ground Food Festival. The venue site is on Daniel Island in Blackbaud Stadium, a soccer field and the only way to get there is by car and shuttle bus from the car park.
My hotel is in Mount Pleasant and the drive was less than twenty minutes. It took a while to find the general car park and decided to walk, rather than wait for a shuttle bus. It was a good hour before the first set, so plenty of time. I met a nice couple from Tampa Florida along the way and we arrived at the line to get into the Stadium, with forty minutes to spare. The gates, however, did not open for quite a while and when they did, the line moved slowly. The first set of the day was due to commence at 12.45 and it did, right on time. The only problem was that most of the people were still waiting to get in, myself included! Finally, I got through and secured my two-day wrist band and my separate alcohol wrist band after showing my ID – this legal requirement in many States dear reader is a story for another day. With the wrist band, hopefully I won’t have to experience this level of disorganisation tomorrow.
Ashley Rose has a classic strong country voice. She released a well-regarded album Like A Rose last year, with which I am very familiar. She was singing the title track as I arrived. Her backing band was impressive, I’d seen the bass player and the drummer before on this trip, either in Nashville or Raleigh. Before you knew, the thirty minute set was over.
Now, first a word about the schedule and set-up here which I got used to as I went along. The massive main stage, Southern Ground, is at the end of a soccer field, with banks of stands on either side. The stage construction is the biggest I’ve seen, and there are two long cat walks out in a ‘V” shape with a shorter, central walk in the middle. The stage where Ashley Monroe was playing was the much smaller of the two, Charleston Battery, and was at the end of the inner car park, at 90 degrees to the field. The schedule for both days was generally thirty minutes sets during the afternoon, alternating between the two stages with no gap, leading into longer sets in the evening and the massive Zac Brown Band closer each day.
As soon as Ashley Monroe had finished, I walked to the Southern Ground Stage where Darrell Scott was just about starting. I first encountered Scott when he was in the Robert Plant – Alison Krauss Raising Sand band. I’ve heard him since with his Tim O’Brien collaborations. A couple of months ago, I picked up his album Theatre of The Unheard album, which I love. He also played a song at the Americana Awards in Nashville this year. Today he was on acoustic guitar, with violin and bass supporting. The players were dwarfed by the massive construction around them, but there were few people there which allowed me to get the very front with ease. Scott played his original material with a Southern motif – “Old Joe Clark” about the origins of the banjo was beautiful, the sharp “I’m Sticking My Red Neck Out” and the spell-binding, sublimely beautiful “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. His guitar picking, his vocals and his songwriting were all on display in this brief half hour. Darrell Scott is a class act.
Time for a quick bite on the way back to the Charleston Battery stage. Rusty’s Creole Jambalaya hit the spot – spicy, tasty and filling.
Coy Bowles and the Fellowship fuses the roots of blues with the spontaneity of country and rock. The Fellowship is a rotating list of musicians formed by Bowles in 2004. In 2006, Coy Bowles and the Fellowship released their first album Into the Distance and, in the following year, Bowles joined Zac Brown Band. It was hard not to enjoy the Southern rocking sound, plenty of good guitar work and a good vibe on stage.
It was getting hot. I returned to the Southern Ground stage for the next act which had just started. The good thing with this schedule is that you can see everyone. Absolutely no clashes. The downside is, if you do see everything, there is no down-time at all, as you venture back and forth all day. In fact, I was starting to feel like a sun-burnt tennis ball.
I was really impressed with Greensky Bluegrass when I saw the band in Raleigh last year at the IBMA event. Theirs is a defiant, powerful sound that is a fair way from what I would call bluegrass. It’s a string band more in the Americana mode and I love their passion and zeal, mixing tradition and innovation. Anders Beck’s dobro is highly effective and really lifts the band’s sound. They closed with Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, which was individual and excellent. Last month saw the release of an album If Sorrows Swim.
I mentioned the banked stands on the sides of the field. Under those stands there was welcome respite from the heat. Maybe because I had spent the past week in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north where Autumn/Fall had really established itself, I was not prepared for this sudden return of summer. During the Greensky set, I had taken refuge under the stands where I could still hear the music.
The Secret Sisters hail from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and included in their set a swamp-rock Mississippi murder ballad, a tasteful cover of Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “If I Don’t” from the new release Put Your Needle Down. Great harmonies and a rockier sound than I expected. Another crisp and enjoyable thirty-minute set for the day.
One side of the stands were in some shade by the time that Big Head Todd and the Monsters had commenced back at the Southern Ground stage. The band dates back to the 1980’s and hails from Colorado. Bo Diddley rock shuffles, boogies, power ballads – “Bittersweet” and “Conquistador” were terrific slow rock epics. It was 4pm. The shade had started its incessant creep across the field and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” blasted out. Two eagles floated overhead in the blue sky, imperiously. It was good to be here.
Time for some hydration and more food, while listening to the gospel of St Paul & The Broken Bones whipping the smaller stage crowd, which by now had grown, into a frenzy. It was cooling down at last.
Blues Traveler are from New Jersey and won a Grammy in the mid-1990s for a song called “Run-Around” which stayed in the charts for a long time. The band has had a few ups and downs since then, but has a real name as a live band, keeping up an average touring pace of 250 shows per year, whether or not there has been a new release to promote. Their music is hard to pin down with regular classifications. It covers blues-rock, psychedelic rock, folk rock, soul and Southern rock, even a reggae-tinged cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”, complete with a clown-crazy whistle. Plenty of jamming blues and rock with a touch of jump. The crowd had built up and were enjoying and familiar with the material.
John Driskell Hopkins is another member (bass player) of Zac Brown Band and he was a real surprise. Today he was with the band Brighter Shade, but has also recorded with crack bluegrass outfit Balsam Range, on his album Daylight. Songs like “I Will Lay Me Down” , “Runaway Train”, a driving track about having no worries, a new song called “Lonesome High?” and “Nothing”. I found it a strong set, most songs from which are off the Daylight release, delivered with a world-weary, no-nonsense rocking style.
Rodrigo y Gabriela put on a passionate showing at the main stage. I made my way to ground level, right besides the mixing desk and really enjoyed seeing this pair for the first time. The sound was pristine.
Next up, The North Mississippi Allstars were getting ready. Drummer Cody Dickinson was pumping himself up, practising on a container at the side of the stage. A boy in a wheel chair was pushed over Dickinson’s way, presumably by his father, who beckoned to Cody. Dickinson joined them, photos were taken and the boy was handed a drum stick. The boy was deliriously happy. It was a nice moment.
The band, meantime had started playing the folk-blues classic “Sitting On Top Of The World”, and Cody rushed into the stage for what would be a brilliant and frenetic hour of music. At various stages throughout the sixty minutes, Cody played drums, guitar and electric washboard. Brother Luther was on guitar, bass and bass drum. Lightning Malcolm spread himself between bass, guitar and drums and a new member was busy on flute, backing vocals and drums. Their march through the crowd was memorable, all on drums, and reminded me of their show at Byron Bay earlier this year. They played a few songs from their latest album World Boogie is Coming, but a lot I hadn’t heard before. I recognised “Shake” from the Hernando album.
After the show I recognised Darrell Scott at the side of the stage and had a quick chat with him. Also, Anders Beck , the dobro player from Greensky Bluegrass talked with me about the band touring Australia – now that would be a treat.
Wearily I found a spot in the stand and watched about half of the Zac Brown Band show. By now, the huge stage was awash with a sophisticated light and visual show, far removed from its appearance for the rest of the day. The crowd was huge, filling the whole soccer field and most of the stands. The scale was impressive.
I wanted to beat the traffic out of the island, so left a little early. The number of cars in the car park indicated to me that, if everyone was trying to get out at the same time, it would be a long night. In any event, I had enjoyed a brilliant day of literally, wall-to-wall music. Plus it was back here tomorrow as well!