words: Scott T. Horowitz / videos: Funk It Blog / cover photo: M. Nulph
Is it true what they say about Suwannee?
Is a dream by that stream so sublime?
Do they laugh, do they Love, like they say in every song?
If it’s true, that’s where I belong” – Irving Caeser (1936)
The Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park, on most days throughout a “normal” year, is a quiet campground of 800 acres where one’s wonder may wander the woods & meadows upon the shady banks of the legendary Suwannee River. On several weekends the park becomes activated in phantasmagorical modes of musical revelry and community. However, through the Covid-19 pandemic, festivals are absent.
The park’s environs are rooted in the dreams & intentions of founders Jean & Bob Cornett, who set in motion an idea that has grown to be the home of many festivals, sewing meaning & ritual into the lives of those who annually attend. Recent Suwannee LIVE Drive-In events, such as the Funky Mardi Gras “Mask”erade, are successful first steps toward the return to days of thousands coming together in close proximity and high jubilation.
On President’s Day weekend 2021, the park operated as it normally would and campers could buy access to the music of the “mask”erade, which occurred in the field near the turn-in entrance for festivals. The stage was flanked by video boards. Socially distanced ‘pods’, lined by fencing and cones, were available for purchase and able to hold up to 6 people and included parking spots for those with golf carts. The weather forecast was ominous all week for Friday and Saturday, but Friday proved dry and temperate.
After an opening set from Someday Honey, Suwannee stalwarts Dumpstaphunk performed. They dropped classic Dumpstaphunk tunes and choice covers like all too relevant “Doodle Loop (The world is a little bit under the weather)” by The Meters.
From the stage, Ivan Neville mentioned this evening back home in New Orleans would have featured the Krewe of Muses parade had Carnival & Mardi Gras not been cancelled due to COVID concerns. Fortunately, it is fitting to honor the muses at a Music Park – music: from the Greek meaning ‘arts of the muses’; paradeisos: from the Greek for ‘an enclosed park’… Paradise of the arts of the muses, indeed.
This was Dumpstaphunk’s first real gig since the pandemic began, streaming webcasts aside. After the festival, I spoke with promoter Paul Levine. “Dumpstaphunk is a working band, so they need to work.” He said, “they knew we’d take good care & keep ‘em safe & we did. They got Love and that’s great.”
The band expressed several times between songs how grateful they are to be playing for a field of people and to have any gig at all. Dumpstaphunk shared a few tracks from their new album Where Do We Go From Here?. It truly was a treat to hear NEW music live. In a flash of normalcy, the band invited a sit-in guest to close out the set. Oteil Burbridge was happy to oblige for a stretched out ‘Shakedown Street’.
The Suwannee Safety Squad – a team of about 30 people donning reflective vests – patrolled the socially distanced areas to ensure everyone feels safe and follows the rules. It certainly is strange to see music at the Suwannee and not have the freedom to bounce around like an electron, but it is what we have to do for now. And a lot of thought and planning is put into the protocols.
“We’re following guidelines of the local county,” says Paul Levine, “and I think we did a better job than they even asked us to. And we did it in a sane way. It is not perfect, but I don’t want to believe people can’t gather to see music and be adults who use their brain and respect each other enough to do that.”
“There are plenty of people who didn’t think we should have had that event for any reason. Some folks didn’t think we should have done it because they don’t think anything should happen anywhere during the pandemic. Some people think if there’s any social distancing at all then it’s an offense to their sensibilities of what a concert or festival should be like. So, for those that feel they can come to an outdoor socially-distanced event, be safe, and enjoy themselves, then we have a show for them – and there’s a lot of those people.”
“Going to see music events is really important. People love it and need it so much that they’re willing to do the things necessary to see music that is important for them. And these protocols are not going to be forever. This recent weekend had a really good group of people out there who wanted to follow the protocols as much as possible for the right reasons whether or not they believe they should have to,” said Levine
The following night featured Roosevelt Collier who brought his family to the park in celebration of he and his wife’s wedding anniversary. All day, through his set, and through the night, a steady light rain fell. The air turned cooler through the night. As Oteil Burbridge Trio stood on stage about to start, the monitor board was taken out by the rain and required replacement. Charlie Webb’s sound crew had things back up and running in no time.
“I’ve played one gig in a year…One!” said Oteil Burbridge, looking back on the show, “This was such a hard a gig. But it was also absolutely perfect because I felt really anxious from it being the first big gig in a year – and it’s cold, my hands are freezing & don’t work, it’s raining, and the board fucked up so we had this trippy slapback sound on every channel for a few songs – if I didn’t know the board had broken, I would have thought someone dosed us. A perfect storm. Hats off to the sound people; they handled it like pros.”
On how to navigate through compounding adversity, “Radical acceptance plays a big role. When it’s going great, what do you do? Rejoice. When you are going through something bad, you can be sure it is not going to last. Rejoice…Rejoice… Give thanks for the moment. Time is a gift. And the fact that nothing lasts is a gift,” Oteil said.
Oteil’s trio expressed a rich full sound and choice song selection. Oteil reflects, “We really put the work in on ‘Doin That Rag’, ‘Mission in the Rain’, ‘Believe It or Not’, ‘Terrapin Station’ — that’s the one I was looking forward to the most.”
Among the stack of Grateful Dead covers, the trio busted out old Peacemakers tunes, and in doing so honored the memory of fellow Peacemaker Paul Henson. “It felt very emotional to play the Peacemakers songs. Being 56 now, I can look back on that time from here, and I can see it better, more objectively, and it makes me realize what good we did that actually matters. It meant a lot to play ‘Too Many Times’ at the Suwannee again, where Paul Henson and I played that song a lot of times. Also, I think of Kofi and everyone I’ve played with at the Suwannee that has passed when I’m there.”
The special quality of The Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park cannot be overstated. When asked to try and explain what makes the park such a special place, Oteil exclaims ”Mystical shit right there. Hardcore!” and recalls, “I think the last Wanee the ABB did – Jess & I camped not far from the river. I did a little bit of mushrooms. It was dark. We were coming from the campsite back to the stage. The moon lit up the path perfectly through the trees. When I turned around and saw Jess, all of a sudden it was a jarring mystical moment. It was otherworldly. Suddenly we were on the moon. I was like WHOA! And I know I was on a little bit of mushrooms, but I’m quite sure if I had turned around without the shrooms and seen her in that bright moonlight in that specific spot on that dark path, I still would have been like ‘holy shit!’ The park was definitely a factor—this was not mere reflections of light off the moon. The Spirit of the Suwannee was like !PAP!PAP!PAP!”
It is important that places like the Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park exist and to figure out how to have events safely during the pandemic. In many ways, a music festival can become an arena of natural initiation for members of the community who inhabit it. Friendships are forged. Emotional terrain is traversed. Elements of myth find living truth in the forces of life, collaboration, and creativity embedded in the music emitting from stages and in the art of the expressions of all who thread themselves into the cultural tapestry. And perhaps, in a way, some artists within our shared musical heritage are the forms of a spiritual compass, providing orientation and coordination to higher dimensions.
“I look at spiritual & musical teachers as direct equivalents to guardian angels, saints, extra terrestrials, whatever you want to call it. It’s all the exact same thing, even though it’s not spiritually sanctioned by some official body. Maharaj ji blew Ram Dass’ mind when he told him what he was thinking about his mom dying the night before. That’s exactly what happened when I met Colonel Bruce. He didn’t even know my last name when he cut me off mid-sentence to say ‘August 24th at 2am’… Fuck! ..I was born at 1:57am – he nailed it within 3 minutes.
Also, all my favorite teachers, Colonel Bruce, Krishnamurti, Sun Ra, Ram Dass, and so on—all of them said the same thing: Everything we have comes from the unknown. You depend on everything from a completely mysterious source, and that’s the way it really is. We’re living my kids’ life. They don’t know where everything comes from we provide, but they depend on it. All they gotta know is we Love ‘em, and when they know that they thrive. So that’s all we gotta know—whatever IT is Loves us, so let’s thrive because we are all way more capable than any of us believe.”
Scott T. Horowitz
Upon The Suwannee River | UpfulLife.com