By Eliza Jordan
Photographs by Phillip C. Sunkel IV
The 21st century has a Woodstock that isn’t named “Woodstock” — its name is “Wanee.”
The spirit of Suwannee park was thick and moist in the air — a stale smell of home clung to Wanee Music Festival’s grounds as I took a deep breath and watched everyone pass me by on their own time and in their own mind.
Everyone was carefree. They were howling with laughter and they were grooving to the live music that continued to play among the hammock-hung trees. Gnomes were scattered throughout Suwannee’s festive park, magical lights were strung between tree branches, people expressed loving, raw emotion and everyone was accepted for exactly who they were.
The back of the Wanee 2011 Festival Guide read “Amazing Musical Adventures at the Suwanee Music Park,” but for all of the Wanee people, “amazing” was an a mere understatement.
Walking up to a community full of thousands of scattered tents on Thursday night was like walking up to a beautiful maze in an “Alice In Wonderland” dream. You see, in order to get to one’s tent, they had to remember exactly where theirs was, travel through community campfires and other tent yards full of grills, chairs, decorated and hung tapestries and anything else that would possibly make their “home” a home for one beautiful weekend.
After walking through what felt like hundreds of tent communities, we finally reached ours — the community where on a downward slope, four hammocks hung underneath each other and while surrounded by many others, led us to the first few circles of our campfires and tents. This made up a community full of grateful, caring souls.
Our community was known as “The Crew” — around 50 college kids who were all in need of an escape: some down-to-earth music and trusting, positive vibes. To every concert we attended, we were able to find our crew due to a pool noodle, Mary, that we held high in the air, poked like Swiss cheese full of glow sticks of all sizes. The bond that our community built was a long-lasting reciprocation of trust, love and respect.
Everyone was on the exact same page — there was a sense of undeniable, immediate trust. This meant leaving your wallet, phone and keys in your open tent, offering meals and helping each other with whatever there was to have help with.
In a Wanee community, strangers become best friends and prized-possessions are gladly traded for pb&js. Everyone was willing to help and everyone was eager to give. Everyone just wanted to share the same experience with each other.
This crazy celebration of life was not just celebrated among campers, lovers, friends and fire-dancers. Musical talents ranging from The Steve Miller Band, The Allman Brothers, Stephen Marley, Toubab Krewe, Lotus, Widespread Panic and many others partook in the festivities on and off stage with the rest of Wanee’s people.
An array of immaculate talent consistently swept both of the beautiful stages as thousands of people grooved to their unique tunes. According to Suwannee Music Park, around 17,000 Wanee-lovers attended last year’s festival, and although their numbers are not yet calculated for this past weekend’s festival, they have approximated this festival’s head-count to around 20-25,000 people. But this was of no shock to me. For an entire weekend, seas of people swarmed the festival’s grounds in an attempt to collectively dance to all types of sporadic beats.
Kicking off Thursday night at 9:30 p.m., Widespread Panic created an astonishing uproar on the larger of the two stages, The Peach Stage. At the end of an enormous, wide open field, The Peach Stage shook with funky jam-band tunes from the widely renowned band who wowed the crowd for hours. But as one band ended, another began on the smaller stage right down the road- The Mushroom Stage. This was known as Suwannee’s personal amphitheater.
Down a dirt road and past vendors of all kinds, wooden steps and fallen leaves led hidden gnomes and hanging hammocks downward toward a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, tie-dye stage. At midnight, as thousands of people pressed tightly against one another to jam to what the band calls their “jamtronica”, Lotus blew their music and accompanying light show to the trees.
For hours, Lotus fed off of the crowd’s energy, loving our intense dedication, ability to jump to every beat and our decision to go all-or-nothing from beginning to end. And at the end, although the band was done playing, the celebrations of life continued into the night and into the campfire communities that made up Wanee’s majestic magnitudes.
After a night full of highly-anticipated groove sessions, the forest people of Wanee made their ways back to their campsites and continued to have their own festivals. Camp communities were filled with their own campfires, extensive drum circles, electronic dance parties and creative story-telling that seemed appropriate until wee hours of the morning.
Even in the morning, after everyone had been woken up by a live saxophone from a few camp sites over, the pleasant people in the spirit of Suwannee continued to share and interact in peace.
Our momentous mornings were filled with remembrances from the previous night’s jam sessions. Everyone had grins on their tired, wet-wiped faces and everyone was perfectly content with building their day around the next show that they wanted to see.
On Friday, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Keller Williams, Toubab Krewe, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Particle and The Allman Brothers Band shook the grounds from entrance to exit. Sharon Jones’ powerful voice took charge of the large stage as the Dap Kings accompanied her
perfectly, demanding charge in an almost-Aretha Franklin manner. Toubab Krewe’s West-African influenced music had everyone begging for more after their final encore. Particle’s electronic grooves hit the audience full force as everyone swayed intently with their arms flung high in the air. After their set, Particle took pictures of the crowd, saying it was the best jam session they had ever had.
Throughout the entire show, we were synchronized and we were all so ecstatic to be standing right there- just feet away from one of the best concerts we had all ever been to. Not only was The Crew present, but so was our bizarre lit-up pool noodle, Mary, held high in the air to groove right there with us.
Following Particle, watching The Allman Brothers Band on The Peach Stage at 9:30 p.m. felt like a scene out of an antique movie. Was I really sitting on top of a hill along with thousands of others, watching a Grammy Award winning band that my parents groove to? Their southern-rock, jam-band rocked the crowd as we stood atop a hill overlooking the massive waves of people. Everyone had huge smiles on their
elated faces and there appeared not to be a care in the world.
Walking back to our camp community that night was a memory that I will never forget. Dressed down in glow sticks and holding hands, our crew stormed the camp ground in a swarm of true, hard-to-describe peace, love and happiness. As our campfire started, musicians from other camp communities gravitated toward our welcoming crew to play tunes for us.
This beautiful collection of people and instruments resulted in a clamor of old Johnny Cash and Bob Marley tunes, and as Toubab Krewe’s lead percussionist, Luke Quaranta, approached our site, it quickly turned to “Happy Birthday” as we celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday with him.
I was able to talk with Quaranta, and so I asked him a few original questions.
Eliza: So, this is my first Wanee experience. What about you?
Quaranta: This is my first Wanee too. But we’ve performed here 4 times before this one.
Eliza: Wow. You guys got together in 2005, right? How many shows have you guys put on?
Quaranta: Yep. Since we’ve been together, we’ve probably played close to 1,000 shows. Probably 200 a year. And we’ve played at Bonnaroo three times.
Eliza: That’s incredible.
Quaranta: Yeah. It was… Um. Amazing.
Eliza: So tell me a little about your West-African influences.
Quaranta: Well, since 1999, we’ve been there five times studying music. We’re in the process of building a music school over there for underprivileged kids- we have our own beer called ‘Toubab Brewe’ that we sell to raise money for that.
Eliza: That’s great. I’ve never been to Africa, but I’m sure it’s beautiful.
Quaranta: It is. Where are you from?
Eliza: St. Augustine- not too far form here.
Quaranta: Oh yeah? We played at a little bar there once. Cool town. I liked it a lot.
Eliza: Haha, yeah? That’s awesome. Maybe you guys could come play again?
Quaranta: Yeah that would be cool. Lemme know.
And that was it. Just like that, we had this crazy down-to-earth, chilled out conversation about music and life.His roomate, Arnaldo Alvarez, was a part of our campground community and I had the chance to sit down with him as well.
Eliza: How did you end up being room mates with Toubab Krewe?
Alvarez: I met Toubab at Voodoo Fest in 2007 and it just went on from there.
Eliza: That’s awesome. Love at first sight apparently. But what is it about Wanee that you love the most? I’ve heard this Wanee topped all others.
Alvarez: Yeah definitely. Meeting new people and having that bonding experience, the music and the venues and the vibes that you get in the feeling of escape– there’s nothing like it.
Eliza: I can see exactly what you mean. Everyone is so open-minded and ready to explore things with strangers.
Alvarez: Yep. Here, you can expand your mind and explore something beautiful.
And right there, I stopped asking questions. His last sentence made me write it down.
In my notebook, surrounded by questions and answers was that last quote.
I traced his hand and thanked him for being such a cool guy.
“No prob, girl.” he said to me. “See ya tomorrow.” As him and Quaranta walked off, I felt content knowing that they were human- just like me.
As everyone compiled into their day-vacant tents, sounds of drums continued to vibe throughout the forest. I fell asleep that night grateful for the open world, the amazingly understanding people and the feeling of acceptance that I once had lost and now re-found.
On Saturday, I attended more concerts that I had never even heard of. Ween at 2:30 p.m. was an experience all in itself. Gene and Dean Ween (yes, that’s right) created the band to be something that it definitely was- a band with a hard-to-pin-down
style. Their contrasting sound styles drove the crowd crazy as intensely dedicated fans were decked out in Ween gear. I met a kid named Spencer in a taco costume that stood next to me. Everyone was incredibly unique. After Ween was through, many of our crew members headed back to camp to relax and anticipate the night to come- the second night of The Allman Brothers Band.
As 9:30 p.m. made its way, The Crew traveled in a pack to the final night of The Peach Stage mania. A light show reflected off of every tree surrounding the stage, strangers were arm in arm with each other, tapestries were spread out on the open field and welcoming faces from all directions greeted us as we found our spot in The Allman Brothers Band family feeling.
As their encore played, it seemed as though people were floating toward the stage in denial of their final song. Grown women threw glow sticks in the air, kids played
ring-around-the-rosie and elderly men held their canes high in the air to cheer on the ever-so-famous band that had us grasping for more.
Both here and back at our camp community, I met beautiful people sitting in dirty lawn chairs, huddled around fun face paint and exchanging stories that would stick in your mind for years. One of these beautiful people, Scott Horowitz, known to us immediately as “Scotty”, had an optimistic, giving demeanor about him that was incredibly contagious.
When I asked him where he went to school he said, “I went to Santa Fe in Gainesville but I’d say my university is Spirit of Suwannee.” He began to tell me that this was his fourth Wanee experience, but then continued to say, “I’ve taken other classes at Spirit of Suwannee.” Scotty told me that he had been to three prior Wanee festivals, Bear Creek and Magfest- all of which are held at the very same fascinating park that we were meeting at. After dozens of concerts and many options clear in his mind, I asked him which was his favorite band. “Tedeschi Trucks Band was IT,” he said. “Objectively observing what was going on, the wind would blow in relation to what Derek Trucks was doing.” There was truth in what Scotty said. Everyone felt the exact same way.
Doug Franc, one of our crew members and economics major at UNF said, “Saturday night was awesome.” And it was. It was more than awesome. Seeing an infamous
band perform two nights in a row was not exactly an average weekend for any of us.When I asked him which band was his favorite, without hesitation he said, “Definitely The Allman Brothers.”
Saturday night was our last night living as forest children. No one wanted to leave, and as the camp grounds cleared, tree trunks became visible as tents and hammocks were taken down. We walked back to The Peach Stage and The Mushroom Stage one last time to see the venues completely bare. It was a strange and unusual sight. I sat on the hill that I sat on to watch The Allman Brothers and day-dreamt about the very moment that was now part of my past, beautiful weekend.
Sunday morning, the leaves, decorations, gnomes and sound equipment were all still there, but just shy of 20 people were visibly seen walking throughout the park.We ate, slept and inhaled peace and harmony for an entire weekend, and to go back to reality, was a far-fetched thought that I did not want to come to terms with.
In a festival full of people who were whole-heartedly accepting of quirks and imperfection, I felt at home.
Everyone felt at home. And at Wanee, we were home.