It's October in the Lowcountry. Things are cooling off, or at least they should start doing so any day now. Thoughts are turning to pumpkins, trick or treating, and the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. Much like the much-loved 96 Wavefest concerts that happened annually in the fall back in the 90s, Charleston once again has a word-class autumn music festival to call its own.
Going into its third consecutive year at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island, the Southern Ground Fest will feature two days of greast music and delicious food. The brainchild of musician Zac Brown, who is as big a foodie as he is a musician, Southern Ground made a successful debut in 2011, then expanded to include a sister version in Nashville last year. Past musical acts have included My Morning Jacket, Train, Avett Brothers, Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Michael Franti, and special guests like Gregg Allman, Darius Rucker, and John Mayer who sat in with the Zac Brown Band, which headlined each night.
It's a solid two days of music, with a little something for everyone, but if I were to pick the can't miss sets for each day, it would go a little something like this.
On Saturday Dawes plays the main stage at 2:45. If you like the sunny California rock sound of the 70s a la Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Brown and you haven't had a chance to hear this band, then you're doing yourself a major disservice. These guys are young, and yet they play ridiculously catchy songs that sound like they were written 40 years ago. If you saw Bob Dylan at the Family Circle Stadium earlier this year, this is the phenomenal band that opened for him. Later on at 4 p.m., Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue take over the main stage for some hardcore brass music from the Big Easy. I saw this guy at Bonnaroo a few years back, and he throws his whole body into playing his trombone. It's something that has to be seen to be understood.
Finally, there's the act I'm really psyched about on Saturday. While singer Natalie Maines is a country superstar with her band Dixie Chicks, while that outfit is on hiatus she has released a solo album, Mother, that leans decidedly more toward the rock and roll side of things. I was expecting a typical vanity solo project when I went to review this CD earlier this year, and instead came away with major respect for Maines. She turns in some great covers from a grab bag of artists, including Jeff Buckley ("Lover, You Should've Come Over"), The Jayhawks ("I'd Run Away") and the incredibly moving title track that was originally made popular by Pink Floyd. A friend recently saw Maines perform at a festival in San Francisco, and although he wouldn't consider himself a fan he said he was blown away by the performance.
As if Saturday's lineup wasn't good enough, Sunday brings some heavy hitters to town. Band of Horses, which plays the main stage at 5:30 p.m. is a no-brainer. Lead singer Ben Bridwell grew up in Irmo and lives right here in town. His band all too often gets lumped in with the group of bands that hipsters immediately shun at the first hint of success, but in truth Band of Horses has a sound all its own, led by the ethereal voice of Bridwell. BoH's live show is amazing.
Seattle's The Head and The Heart, which plays at 2:30 p.m., is another hot indie band currently just starting to make waves nationally. Its current album, Let's Be Still, has some really gorgeous music on it and the band deftly straddles the sizable canyon between Americana and indie rock. Finally, it would be a crime to miss a legend like Willie Nelson. The elder statesman of country music, who turned 80 this year, could have simply written "Crazy," put down his guitar and lived another life completely. Fortunately for us Nelson didn't do that, and instead he went on to become a living legend. Nelson's new album, To All The Girls..., features Nelson singing duets with an impressive collection of female country artists, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss. It would be cool to see Natalie Maines stick around town to sing a duet with Willie.
Also worth mentioning are the smaller acts that will be playing both days on the second stage. Those artists include the AJ Ghent Band, DUGAS, The Wood Brothers, Niko Moon, and Levi Lowery, but if you see one artist on that smaller stage, then absolutely do not miss singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park, is one of the best albums I've heard this year, and quite possibly the best country album I've heard in the last five years. Musgraves songs like "Silver Lining," "Merry Go 'Round," and "Follow Your Arrow" are just as intelligent as they are catchy. Make plans to see her at 6:45 p.m. after Band of Horses finishes up on the main stage.
The Zac Brown Band will round out each night with a full set of music, and the band is a lot of fun live. I have to give Brown kudos though for once again bringing an eclectic group of bands to the Lowcountry and mixing them with great food and beer. I've been looking forward to this year's Southern Ground Fest since last year's version concluded. See you out there.