For the third year in a row, musician and foodie Zac Brown has brought his Southern Ground Music & Food Festival to Daniel Island's Blackbaud Stadium. For the third year in a row, the event has drawn huge crowds and it would appear that Charleston finally has a world-class music festival we can call our own.
Sure, the event has sprouted a sister event in Nashville as of last year, but Brown chose the Lowcountry as the jumping off point for his dream two years ago, and so far, it would appear that the music lovers of Charleston and the surrounding areas are supporting it. That's actually unusual for Charleston. Despite a great arts scene, audiences for mainstream concert events and festivals (save for Spoleto, of course) are notoriously fickle. Concerts at local venues that sell out in other cities regularly have tickets available the night of the performance here.
A few years back a group of investors and promoters staged a great event, ChazzFest, which brought a great mix of artists to the Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island. The first year things went well enough that a second installment was ordered up. That next year proved to be a disaster. It wasn't the promoter's fault—the lineup for the second ChazzFest was as good, if not better, than the first. Unfortunately, the weather forecast that weekend called for rain, and people stayed away for the most part. I went and had a blast. It did indeed rain late in the day, but only for about 15 minutes and not very hard. Still, the damage was done, and ChazzFest did not return the following year. It's a shame, because it was well run and had a truly eclectic mix of music.
In many ways The Southern Ground Fest is a lot like ChazzFest. It's on Daniel Island, it offers a healthy mix of musical styles, but Southern Ground also wants itself to be known as a culinary destination, too. Brown loves food as much as he loves music, and his personal chef, Rusty Hamlin, oversees all of the food that is served at the Fest.
When Grit asked me to cover Saturday's part of the two-day Southern Ground Fest this year, I was on board immediately, especially considering that Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines would be performing on the main stage just prior to the Zac Brown Band's headlining slot.
I headed out to Daniel Island on Saturday under cloudy skies. The whole way I was wondering if the 50 percent chance of rain might keep folks away like it did with ChazzFest a few years back. Walking up to the venue though that didn't seem to be the case. There was already a long line of music and food lovers waiting to get in. I found to my delight that I had been given a VIP wristband for the day, which gained me access not only to the pit area near the stage, but also the VIP tent which featured free food and drinks later on in the day. The special area, which was situated behind the stage, also featured comfy couches, a charging station for cell phones, and a couple of big flatscreen TVs showing the college football games.
The greatest feature of the VIP area, though, was the inclusion of clean, maintained, and, most amazingly, AIR-CONDITIONED restrooms. As someone who has been to his share of music fests, I can tell you that having to use a improperly-maintained porta-potty on the fourth day of a festival is the thing nightmares are made of. If you go to Southern Ground next year and are on the fence about springing for the VIP upgrade, keep in mind those cool, clean facilities when making your choice.
Williams, who is the daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and the granddaughter of Hank Williams, played a solid set of music for the early arrivals, many of whom were still spreading out blankets on the grass. Especially good was Williams' cover of John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," which she made her own.
Back over at the LandShark Lager Stage I caught the AJ Ghent Band, which almost immediately made me the outfit's newest fan. Featuring frontman AJ Ghent playing an eight-string slide guitar, a couple of gorgeous backup singers, and a tight backup band, the AJ Ghent Band made the most of its time onstage with its funked up R&B sound. While the LandShark Lager Stage featured several other great acts throughout the day, including The Wood Brothers and Dugas, it was AJ Ghent that really impressed me.
Dawes was next up on the CapitalOne Stage. I'd seen these guys open for Bob Dylan a few months back at the Family Circle Stadium, and had been looking forward to seeing them live again. By this time the crowd was growing, and most of the folks around me seemed to be digging Dawes sound, which hearkens back to early-70s California rock acts like Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith even sounds a bit like Browne when he sings, and together with drummer Griffin Goldsmith (Taylor's brother) and keyboardist Tay Straithairn, the band has a hell of a three-part harmony going on. Midway through the band's set Taylor looked out longingly at the long catwalk that extended out from the stage, saying, "If we were a band that could afford wireless guitar cords, I would be running all up and down here." Even though they were tethered to their amps, Dawes still impressed the crowd with its music. My friend Lou remarked afterward how amazing the band sounded live, as she had only heard its CD up until that point.
New Orleans' own Trombone Shorty was up next. I'd seen him perform at the Bonnaroo Festival a few years back, and knew he could put on a great performance. Along with his band, Orleans Avenue, Trombone Shorty wastes no time amping up the crowd with high-energy music. Playing both trombone and trumpet, Shorty showed off his varied musical tastes, playing a good mix that included covers of "American Woman" and "Little Liza Jane." By the time the band had finished its first song the crowd was on its collective feet, and there was much ass shaking going on.
Fitz and the Tantrums
Fitz and The Tantrums continued the party atmosphere started by Trombone Shorty. As the Los Angeles-based band began its Motown-meets-80s pop set of music, the already cloudy sky got darker. Sure enough, as Fitz and The Tantrums dug into a great cover of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dream (Are Made of These)," the skies opened up. While a few of the folks out on the lawn ran for shelter, the majority of the crowd braved the rain.
The band seemed to appreciate that most of the audience had stuck around, and singers Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs ventured out into the rain from under the cover of the stage's ceiling. The rain eventually stopped, but it was impressive to watch the band keep the audience dancing during the downpour while performing songs like "MoneyGrabber."
I was able to edge up a bit closer to the stage before Natalie Maines started her set. While the Dixie Chicks have not broken up, the popular country band is taking an extended break. In the meantime, Maines has released a solo album, Mother, that has a decidedly more rock-oriented sound than anything she's done with the Chicks. As Maines took to the stage, she uttered a quick "Hey y'all" to the audience, which went largely unnoticed. Maines repeated the greeting, a bit louder this time, and got a cheer in return. She then launched into the title track to the new album, a cover of the Pink Floyd song from "The Wall."
The song's paranoid lyrics seemed to take on new meaning in this era of government shutdowns and internet spying ("Mother should I trust the government?"), and Maines did a great job with it. Maines set drew mostly from the material on the solo album, but she did perform "Not Ready To Make Nice," a track from the Dixie Chicks' 2006 album Taking the Long Way. Other highlights of Maines' set Saturday included a cover of Patty Griffin's "Please Don't Let Me Die in Florida," a song not on her solo CD.
While she didn't interact much with the audience, Maines' performance was nonetheless impressive, especially considering the number of folks up front who were apparently oblivious to the fact that there was a concert going on nearby. A large group of hipster wannabes directly behind me spent the duration of Maines' set loudly hooting and hollering. My only guess is that they had come to see Zac Brown and only Zac Brown. It was a pity that they couldn't appreciate the great performance that was happening right under their nose.
Back over at the VIP tent, folks were taking full advantage of the now free booze and food. Home Team BBQ was catering, and Lou and I partook of the brisket, collards, and cucumber and tomato salad. Inexplicably, there was still a large crowd gathered around the televisions watching football. Why anyone would pay the money for a VIP ticket and then spend the afternoon and evening watching TV is beyond me.
As we were walking back toward the main stage, the intro music began to play for the Zac Brown Band's headlining set. A huge white curtain had been hung in front of the stage, and the lights were casting shadows of the band members on the scrim. Just before the curtain fell, Zac Brown himself emerged from under it and kicked into "Jump Right In." The curtain then fell to reveal the rest of the band. By this time the crowd had reached its maximum size, and real estate was at a premium in the pit area, so we moved to the back of the field and watched Brown and his band work their magic.
I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of Brown's music, but I do admire the way he has used that music to build an entertainment empire. Just a few years ago Brown was playing the Windjammer, and now he's headlining a two-day concert festival. I'd had a chance to see Brown several times before, including that show at the Jammer, and while I'm still unlikely to go out and buy a Zac Brown Band CD, Saturday night's performance was the best I've seen yet from the band. At the first Southern Ground Fest in 2011, the band played all covers the first night, then played their own hits the second evening. Last year Brown and his posse performed a setlist that was very similar both nights. This past Saturday night it was a good mix of covers and originals, and the band made full use of the catwalks that spanned out from the stage, high-fiving and shaking hands with the folks in the crowd.
After a few more songs Brown introduced Clare Bowen, who plays Scarlett O'Connor on the TV show "Nashville." Brown mistakenly referred to her as Scarlett Johansson though, which earned him a little ribbing from the band. With Bowen onstage, the band performed Ray LaMontagne's "Jolene," as well as Brown's own "Free," which segued into Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." Bowen's high sweet voice mixed well with Brown's, and there were obviously a lot of "Nashville" fans in the crowd.
After Bowen's departure, the band kicked into a set of covers that started with Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
... No, really. They actually covered the heavy metal classic, and actually did a decent job of it.
After a brief break to toss out some T-shirts to the crowd, the band played a brief acoustic set that featured covers of the Eagles' "Seven Bridges Road" and James Taylor's "Carolina In My Mind." After another Zac Brown Band original, "Keep Me In Mind," that saw the band returning to full amplified power, Brown mentioned that he used to follow Widespread Panic around as a fan. He then welcomed Panic lead singer John Bell out, and the two led the band in a couple of Panic songs, including "'Til The Medicine Takes" and "Ain't Life Grand."
The pair then traded lyrics and guitar licks on a smoking version of Bill Withers' "Use Me," which also saw a few bars of Outkast's "So Fresh, So Clean." After "Colder Weather" and "Chicken Fried" the band left the stage, only to return for an encore that included a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," as well as Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." It was a great way to end day one of the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival.
By the way, for coverage of Sunday's portion of the Fest be sure to read Hunter Gardner's recap here on Grit.