Sweetwater 420fest Review (The Heartbeat of Atlanta)
Words by Jam Band Purist. Photos by Ian Rawn @playindeadphoto
April 20th and the weekend surrounding it, has become quite the National Holiday. I can't imagine when a group of young Grateful Dead fans came up with this notion of 420, that they had any idea it would catch on to this extent. I decided to celebrate this year and headed down South to Sweetwater 420fest in Atlanta, Georgia.
This festival is located in the heart of downtown Atlanta at Centennial Park, a beautiful centrally located facility, which includes a number of fountains, pools, statues and monuments; many devoted to the founding of the World Olympic Organization. Minus the traffic in Atlanta, this is a great venue for daytime festivities.
Driving in Atlanta is like traversing Mumbai, India. I was unaware of the bridge fire-collapsing situation that occurred recently on I-58 and it took me an extra three hours to arrive to the festival. I missed moe.’s entire set. But thanks to today's technological advancements, I streamed the show via youtube on UphoricTV from my phone. Missing bands at a festival seems to be a rather common occurrence however and who of us hasn't missed a set or two in our concert careers? Couch tour turned into car tour that night.
The security and staff of the venue were very friendly and helpful, as well as the police force of ATL, which seemed laid-back and at ease. Beyond all the chaos that is the city, Atlanta has that southern feel to it and Sweetwater 420fest brings out the best in everyone. The crowd and attendees were all polite and courteous; besides all the talking during sets, there were no incidents that I can recall. The women in the South and in particular, Georgia are beautiful and women's festival fashion is always flashy and vibrant but I always wonder how many of these young ladies actually wear tie-dye onesie with a uni-horn on a day-to-day basis? Either way, here's to the gorgeous women at 420 Sweetwater Festival and all over the South.
There are plenty of restaurants/food trucks available and adequate water/restroom access. There were rows of heady shops available to patrons, as well as, a variety of non-musical activities which included: drinking, body marbling, wildlife activities with a disable turtle and a homeless owl, virtual reality simulations of pollution, but really at this festival, it is all about Sweetwater Brewing and it's many flavors of beer. I am not a beer drinker at all but I decided to try a sample, just so I could say I experienced it and I went with, “Rainy Day Acid Trip” having a hard time choosing between the 28 flavors. It was dry and tart.
The venue ran smoothly and the set times/change overs were on point. The stages are so close together, one could easily walk from stage-to-stage catching part of songs from each band; this is a welcomed change from the 2 mile walks at most music festivals this caliber. The close proximity of the stages however, can cause an overlap or musical echoing but for the most part the sound was highly adequate for the occasion.
This was actually my first time going solo to a festival but this would mark my 65-66 Widespread Panic shows, so of course I knew people but not going with a specific group of people, allowed me to come and go as I pleased with no obligations to hang with anyone for a specific amount of time. It was actually quite the refreshing experience, although everyone looks at me funny, while I take notes in a big binder observing the crowd. Only a handful of people asked me what I was writing; one called me a “Corporate Spy.”
I was able to check out some comedy during one of the downpours on Sunday. It was my first time seeing comedy at a festival and it was pretty funny. The comedian was asking the audience “Who here is on drugs” People cheered and raised their hands. “Oh well, there's two cops back there.” Everyone cranes their necks to see two police officers laughing and smiling in the back. It was cool to see everyone here has a sense of humour and there is a real laid back feeling to this city. The jam community is wholly represented in Atlanta, as well. A plane flew across the sky around the venue proclaiming, “JRAD in ATL” It as my pleasure to be a part of this festival and what follows are my thoughts surrounding the musical events of Atlanta's Premier Jam Festival.
Friday- I didn't make it into the show on time so most of my day was spent in traffic. It was all about the music when I arrived for the evening.
Trey Anastasio Band-
I've always enjoyed Trey Anastasio Band shows, not just because I enjoy Phish and Trey's light hearted spirit, but because they take things to a jazz-operatic form unlike anything the Fab-Four can do onstage. While I missed the first set due to Atlanta traffic, what I did catch was very well done and Trey seems to let it all hang-out with TAB perhaps, even putting in more effort or providing a different energy into playing with them, this is possibly due to the fact that he is the bandleader. However, sometimes Natalie Cressman steals the show.
Trey looked like he had indulged in the spirit of 420 and the covers of “Small Axe” by Bob Marley and “Clint Eastwood”(ie.Marijuana) by the Gorillaz, share in that sentiment. “I'm happy feeling glad, I got sunshine in a bag.” I was again extremely impressed with the musicianship of this band and look forward to seeing them in the future.
I wasn't present for moe.’s set but I was able to catch most of the online stream and I can tell they put on one of the best shows of the festival. I absolutely adore moe. and they were one of the first Jam bands or bands within the scene, that really got me hooked to this music. Hats off to these guys. I cannot wait to see them at Lockn’ Music Festival this year.
Unfortunately, I missed Twiddle and can't comment on their performance but I will see them in the future and will be reviewing their upcoming album forthwith.
Saturday- The weather was absolutely incredible; what a perfect day for live music. I enjoyed sitting by the fountain and eating dinner, talking with festival goers and wandering the cool pools on the right side. Many people lounged around this area, like wild animals around an oasis in the desert heat.
I was feeling a bit stressed Saturday, traffic was better but I was still nervous and antsy to get into the venue for the day. As soon as I heard music all that stress just melted away and I begin to feel so much better; light on my feet and free in my soul. Anders music helped these feelings right along. He has some extremely heartfelt lyrical arrangements; I jotted some lyrics down that stuck with me. "Make me a Captain of my obsessions.” These lyrics say a lot about who Anders is as a person and a musician. Anders is an advocate for sober living and recovery, especially within the music industry. This truly resonates with me and “Fool's Gold” struck a chord lyrically, as well. We see another Marley cover at 420fest but this time much more bluesy and Anders and his band make it their own, as they do with almost everything.
The Big Something-
One of my new prospects in the jam band community, from North Carolina, The Big Something have been rocking out for years but finally getting more recognition and gaining followers every tour. While their song structure is more Alt-Rock based, they are creative and highly original. They open with "UFOs Are Real” which has a really cool news bulletin intro and a great catchy musical formulation that you can't help but smile and dance along with. The Big Something has a captivating stage presence and when Nick MacDaniels brings out the mandolin, I get a real Widespread Panic vibe from their songs. "Every day is a gift from the sun!" I look forward to seeing this group grow and mature throughout the years.
Hard-hitting, horn blasting, New Orleans-hipster funk with soul and attitude. This band knows how to build up their crescendos with a powerful force. The Green Day cover seemed a bit out of place but they redeemed themselves with the James Brown classic, “Get On Up.” I'd like to see this group alone and do a full review. (No official opinion given yet.)
Dopapod is probably my favorite new act within the Jam community, not because they adhere to the traditional values of the Jam but because their potential is outstanding. Rob Compa continues to grow as a guitarist and so do his bandmates. Dopapod has a fun and creative side to their songcraft and their onstage energy is palpable. They mix genres effortlessly and their musicianship is unmistakable. Although, I do not like the EDM, dub-step approach, the possibilities of their progressive statements keep me coming back for more. Even their cover of Britney Spears, “Toxic,” which sounded like a mix of early psychedelic music crossed with the Munsters theme song, sounded interesting, provocative and original. I actually truly enjoyed it. This band continues to grow and conquer new realms of the Jam world, and their musical education is key to their successful development. I will be seeing them again very soon.
This band included Jason Crosby, whom I have a great respect for, not only for changing his father's opinion about Phish’s jazz competency but because of his talent and musicianship. Jackie Greene always brings heartfelt songs and feel good lyrics to any place he plays. It felt like a much needed Americana chill-time before Panic. It's always a pleasure to see Jackie perform, I've been following his career since the first tour with Phil Lesh. Its nice to see he has carved out a spot for himself with in the Jam community. I still regular listen to his album “American Myth” and that is many years old now. “So Hard To Find My Way” is one of my favorites off of that album, which he played at 420fest with a great harmonica solo. The band even covered the Allman Brothers before they ended.
The boys open up with "Pigeons" which feels more like a second set opener to me but they took this version into improvisational transitions, very much reminiscent of The Allman Brothers, something I had never heard from “Pigeons” before. This was just a warm-up for “Henry Parsons Died” with Jimmy taking over, lighting up his guitar like a bonfire. It seems like the band let Jimmy lead the entire first set, which is never a bad idea. Herring is a master guitar player, he carried the band on his shoulders the entire first set but they caught up to him by the second. The audience was extremely talkative but I tried to ignore the clamour, as the festival felt like a smoky southern palace for a rousing “Cotton Was King.” The band huddled up together and I knew we were in for a treat, “Bears Gone Fishing” raspy and effervescent vocals from JB. The band was tight tonight, completely jammy yet udderly refined, exploratory and improvisational in all the right places, and spacey and far-out when needed. No stopping, straight into “You Got Yours” which was a standard rendition.
Widespread Panic is always moving musically, like the fountains in Centennial Park, changing and spewing forth new patterns constantly. “C. Brown” was a slow song rife with talking and idle chit-chat. This lead into “Wondering” and we have all been beneath the hot sun today and I can feel it on my back. They closed out the first set with “Tickle The Truth” and “Holden Oversoul” for a typical Panic festival set.
Widespread opened their second set of 420fest with a “Chainsaw City” that got my blood pumping. This song is the perfect mix of darkness and funkiness/reggae. This was a great rendition with a standout solo from Jojo. Next was a dirty, sleazy ”Little Schoolgirl” for the ages. The band seems to come undone for a moment but they effortlessly bring the groove back for a gritty southern, jammy, no holds barred, “Radio Child.” Jimmy seems to be taking his guitar riffs to new heights and trying new techniques that I have never seen him utilize before. “Greta” had a killer transitory outro that went smoothly into, “Jack” a slow song about a dog, that packs a hard punch. “Sell Sell” had great energy. Round and round we go, where it stops only Panic knows!
Atlanta was a musical warzone that night, not since Sherman had the city seen such fire. The band goes so far into space, to the point I can't even remember what song they were playing... oh it was drums.
Next, an always welcome, “Ride Me High,” a staple JJ Cale cover that always pays homage to late and great songwriter. “Honky Red” seemed a bit slowed down into a basic version of “Fish Water.” “Drinking more than all the big fishy do.”
Encore: A standard “Porch Song.” I looked forward to seeing what the band had coming the next night.
1: Pigeons, Henry Parsons Died, Cotton Was King, Bear's Gone Fishin' > You Got Yours, C. Brown, Wondering, Tickle the Truth, Holden Oversoul
2: Chainsaw City, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl > Radio Child, Greta, Jack, Sell Sell > Drums > Ride Me High, Honky Red, Fishwater
E: Porch Song
Sunday- Well, the rain really put the “water” in Sweetwater. Torrential down pours all afternoon and to be honest I didn't make it into the venue until just before Weens set. I think many festival patrons did the same but I'm sure there were some hard-core fans out there for Darkstar Orchestra, The Werks, People's Blues of Richmond and Major and the Monbacks. Sorry guys, I will have to check you out the next time around.
Ween is just an entirely different breed of bands all together and I am still unsure how they find representation within the Jam community but after four shows, I believe I am beginning to understand them a bit more. While this understanding hasn't turned into fandom or me actually liking them enough to stand in the pouring rain, while some 50-year-old man yells at me to “get on my floor, big booty bitch start sucking.” No thanks guys...
And then, when I finally think I am understanding them, they play a song like “Weasel” Listen, just because you wrote the song when you were 12 doesn't make it good, in fact it becomes simply, a novelty. Perhaps it's time to retire such songs. Seriously, “Homo Rainbow?” I don't even have words for that.
“Buckingham Green” which was super short, was really the only song that captivated my attention and didn't make me want to plug my ears and scream in agony. The band invited Wolf Blitzer from CNN on stage but he refused to sing “Pony” with them. I couldn't tell if this was a joke, or if they were being serious.
Frankly, I just don't find Ween a good live act; they sing out of tune and make me feel super awkward/uncomfortable every time I see them. One of my closest friends Ben, is a huge Ween fan so, I'm always trying to understand them better and trying to understand his outlook, as well. For many fans I think it comes down to having liked this group from a young age and feeling like they have grown up the band. It is certainly an acquired taste but after four shows, how many more chances should I give them? Either way, “Stay Brown.” Music is totally subjective.
I did catch some of the Lettuce show between Ween songs. They played mostly the usual funk hits that I always see them play, nothing to comment really, just straight up funk, a nice break from the Ween experience when I needed it.
Finally, the sun came out for the opener “Disco” and all of 420fest shook the rain and cold off and began to dance. There was a giant ogre of a man in the crowd, he kept calling himself an asshole but I just told him he looked like the BFG and that the F, didn't stand for friendly. This can always be an issue when going up to the very front for shows, there always a hassle but I met some really cool folks while I was down there and being alone right on the rail forces you to interact with others.
Widespread Panic busts into “Arleen.” This would be only my second time seeing this song live but this was by far the best version I have ever heard. There was a giant beachball in the crowd which was quite annoying and finally one of the festivarians around me began to sacrifice the ball, stabbing it repeatedly with a pen until it deflated with a poof and lay flat on the ground. This was truly a killer Arleen.. what a G, what a G.
Next a standard, “One Arm Steve” into, “Good People.” “Old Neighborhood” seemed bristling with funky energy and the boys were showing versatility in their transitionary playing. “Rebirtha” was standard but the band got raw and dirty for “Ribs and Whiskey.” The band ended the set with “Space Wrangler” and I can easily say that this is one of the best, well-rounded festival sets I've ever seen Panic play.
During the second half of the performance the crowd dwindled, perhaps the weather had deterred patrons from staying for the continuing set or work obligations etc. The second set wasn't as high energy, even with a great cover of Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime.” Stand out moments in this set included the addition of a rain theme to go along with the weather, “Chilly Water” and “Hatfield” both juxtapose the music with the current weather situation. This is a great example of how Widespread Panic uses their surroundings to influences and add layers to their performances.
“Hatfield” saw some impressive JB rants about Charlie Hatfields big, beautiful German mother and dreaming of boobies in the clouds. Stand out slide solo from JB during, “Taildragger.” I think that is the loudest I have ever heard JB’s guitar turned up! Dave Schools bass playing has only sharpened after his time spent playing in Mexico with members of The Grateful Dead, his riffs are masterful and define Widespread Panic's heart pounding rhythm section. Drums again? That many bathroom breaks? Poor Sonny must have a super human bladder! The band ended with a double encore, “And It Stoned Me” into, “Action Man” which concluded the festival.
1: Disco > Arleen > One Arm Steve, Goodpeople, Old Neighborhood, Airplane, Rebirtha > Ribs And Whiskey, Space Wrangler
2: For What It's Worth, Chilly Water, Hatfield, Driving Song > Life During Wartime, Tail Dragger, Drums > Driving Song, Bust It Big, Climb To Safety
E: And It Stoned Me, Action Man
Overall, this festival was a huge swing and a miss for me personally. Elements such as: driving/travelling, traffic, hotel accommodations and weather, were not in my favor but I got my fill of Widespread Panic until Red Rocks and Las Vegas. Sometimes you have to take chances and just see what happens and I don’t regret this adventure at all. I honestly had a total blast at Sweetwater 420fest and I had no issues (once I got into the venue.) Centennial Park is absolutely gorgeous and well maintained. It is the perfect place for live music. I would recommend anyone in and around, the Atlanta area to come check this festival out. If you are coming from out of state, do your research and be willing to spend some cash but this festival is reasonably priced to accommodate hotels and other fees that come with big city life. There is no late night music at Sweetwater 420fest but downtown Atlanta becomes its own after party. The people here are very friendly and welcoming, as are most southern cities and going to this festival alone forced me to interact with my fellow festival goers and make new friends all around. I met so many cool people at Sweetwater 420fest and I hope to stay in contact. The lineup for this festival was off the charts and I enjoyed seeing every band I could but really seeing Widespread Panic in Georgia made this whole trip worthwhile. Until the next time.