The weather was perfect, with crystal blue skies and warm temps during the day, and cool, dry evenings, the atmosphere and vibe are just as much factors for one’s enjoyment as the lineup. Wanee fest most definitely excels in these areas, creating a perfect Wanee-universe where everything is a just little more laid back. Getting into the fest is no hassle, on-site camping is easy and convenient, and all manners of food and drink are available on the grounds without walking long distances or standing in long lines (thanks to the easy food/beverage ticket system).
Then there are the stages — the main stage, or Peach Stage, where headliners appear on Friday and Saturday, provides the both the opportunity to get up close and dance and/or spread out and chill on the vast lawn or amongst the grove of trees lining it for some shade. A huge Ferris wheel was a fun addition this year, its bright lights and rainbow-colored cars adding a festive visual element to the landscape. The more intimate Mushroom Stage is one of the coolest natural amphitheaters around, nestled amongst a forest of tall Live Oaks, hammocks strung up between them, providing a gorgeous shade canopy and über-relaxing vibe.
The fact that getting cell phone reception is virtually impossible inside the festival grounds only adds to the Wanee Fest back to the 60’s vibe. When you check in at Wanee, you have to check out with the rest of the world; and really, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Of course, the music is the real star, and Wanee offers a wide variety. It begins on Thursday afternoon and evening at the Mushroom Stage, where bands play until well past midnight this year. Friday and Saturday lineups split between the two stages, with the Allman Brothers Band taking the headliner slot set both nights, followed by late-night shows on the Mushroom Stage until 2 a.m.
I was Wanee Fest first timer this year, and it was great to experience so many excellent bands, both new and old. These were the highlights of my Wanee weekend:
Blind Boys of Alabama – This Grammy-winning group of blind gospel singers backed by a stellar band has been spreading their joyful sound in some form for 70 years. Their 6 p.m. set at the Mushroom Stage felt like we all went to church
Royal Southern Brotherhood – St. Louis’ own Devon Allman (Gregg’s son) joined his “Southern brothers” Cyril Neville, guitarist Mike Zito, drummer Yonrico Scott and bassist Charlie Wooton in firing up the crowd for the weekend with a taste of their blues/rock blend. Allman has definitely inherited his musical family’s genes, and the band gets tighter every time I hear them play. Their set-ending cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” was a special treat.
Saturday, April 12
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson brought his own band to kick off another mellow, sun-drenched afternoon. CRB’s sound is much more akin to the Grateful Dead than to the Crowes’ traditional, Southern rock, with a trippy, languid vibe. “Star or Stone” was achingly soulful, particularly Neal Casal’s guitar solo. Casal, best known as a member of Ryan Adams’ band, The Cardinals, is the perfect companion to Robinson’s very different yet equally riveting vocals. Groovy and lengthy “Vibration and Light Suite” was a blissful mid-set treat. They closed with upbeat favorite “Rosalee,” Robinson begging the question, “Is the air getting thinner? Are we getting high?” For most in attendance, it seemed the answer to the latter was a resounding “Yes.”
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Multi-talented husband and wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi (the only female lead performer at the festival, incidentally), backed by their incredible, Grammy-winning band, were a force — turning out the most high energy set of the afternoon. TTB may just be the best blues band playing today and they exceed all expectations. Trucks is a 34-year-old slide guitar prodigy, quick on his way to being a legend, and Tedeschi has a voice borne straight from heaven. They highlighted tunes from their two exceptional albums, including “All That I Need,” “Learn How to Love,” “Bound for Glory,” and a simply divine version of “Midnight in Harlem.”
Gov’t Mule – Continuing to keep things “all in the family,” ABB guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes opened for himself on a hot set with his other long-time band, Gov’t Mule, laying down the hard Southern rock they are known for. In a warm-up for their later headlining set, Derek Trucks joined Mule, trading licks with Haynes on Billy Cobham’s instrumental jam, “Stratus.” They ended with signature tune “Where’s My Mule” followed by a thunderous version of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
Allman Brothers Band Part 2 – Saturday night’s closing ABB set was a bit on the mellower side, but great nonetheless. Apparently Gregg Allman had a wrist injury from the first night’s set, which had him focusing on vocals as Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Kofi Burbridge filled in on the keys. “Revival” was an upbeat standout among a bluesier set and had everyone on their feet, with Trucks shredding on the slide guitar. Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno joined the band on “That’s What Love Can Make You Do,” and Blues Traveler’s John Popper came out for the encore of “One Way Out.”
All the rest
I took in so many hours of music over the weekend, and yet still missed some great stuff, or only caught a few solid minutes of it, including jazz/funk/fusion trio Soulive, jam veterans moe., a mid-afternoon set from Blues Traveler, Melvin Seals & JGB, and Rusted Root. Most regretfully, an early Sunday wake-up call and long drive forced me to miss what looked like an incredible late-night all-star jam with Umphrey’s McGee, who were joined by Eric Krasno, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, John Popper and Break Science’s Adam Deitch for their “All Night Wrong” cover set that featured everything from Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” to the Stones’ “Miss You” to “Rock the Casbah.”
Originally booked as pre-Allman Brothers headliner on Saturday, Southern Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd were moved to a late afternoon set on Friday. Much as I was hopeful to hear some solid versions of their classic tunes I grew up with, unfortunately they ended up sounding more like a Skynyrd cover band and a steak dinner at the campground took precedence.
Wanee Festival is a worthwhile journey. With the Allman Brothers Band in a state of flux, the exact future of the festival remains to be seen; but I would venture to guess this family of bands will continue returning as they seem to have as much fun playing as the crowd does watching. As one fan spelled out in glow sticks on the lawn — “I don’t Wanee leave.”