Wanee perfects the festival formula

Current rockers like Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers band guitarist Warren Haynes was apart of the Wanee music Festival.

Current rockers like Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers band guitarist Warren Haynes was apart of the Wanee music Festival.


Veteran road warriors like Leon Russell helped to make Wanee Music Festival a success.

Carlton Fletcher

LIVE OAK, Fla. — Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen may have said it best when he described the Wanee Music Festival: “They’ve managed to capture the spirit of Woodstock ... but with toilets and running water.”

Journalists with a poetic bent have described the iconic 1969 Woodstock festival, which was, by all accounts, a huge mess both logistically and financially, as “the end of America’s innocence,” as “a gathering of the tribes of America’s youth,” as — borrowing from the wonderful 1960s-era musical “Hair” — “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”


But what Woodstock actually was was proof that, with a little of that good old American ingenuity and greed, big money could be made off popular music. (Not that the musicians who played Woodstock could attest. According to Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury’s definitive book “Woodstock Three Days That Rocked the World,” payments for that gig included $750 for Melanie, $2,250 for the Grateful Dead, $5,000 for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, $11,200 for The Who and the top salary of the festival, $18,000 for Jimi Hendrix.)

It’s not exactly the safest financial gamble in corporate America to bet on fickle music fans turning your idealistic festival vision into a gold mine — the landscape is littered with well-intentioned but excruciatingly poorly-received busts that cost some would-be music-loving entrepreneur his next egg — but it seems the folks at Wanee have hit upon the right combination.

By attaching the Allman Brothers Band with the festival and inviting many of the Brothers’ current contemporaries (Gov’t Mule, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Widespread Panic, the North Mississippi Allstars) and fellow last-band-standing road warriors who survived the ’60s and ’70s (Grateful Dead spinoff Furthur, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Kaukonen and Jack Casady, who were founding members of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Ray Manzarek of the Doors, CSNY’s Stephen Stills, Levon Helm of the Band) to play with them, Wanee has a throwback vibe that is perhaps what Woodstock wanted to be ... with a whole lot of commerce added to the mix.

The camping community at Wanee is a subculture of hardy souls willing to forego the creature comforts of modern-day America for a few days in exchange for a few hours of live music by artists who seem to genuinely thrive on the shared experience. It was no throwaway line when Grammy-nominated singer Susan Tedeschi warned from the Peach Stage during Tedeschi Trucks’ Saturday set: “Y’all don’t forget to put on sunscreen.”

The campers, most veterans of the festival that completed its ninth year last week, also recognize newbies among their ranks and willingly mother-hen those who are most out of their element. That, more than the toilets and running water, is the spirit Kaukonen spoke of.

As much as the musicians care for the paying customers who show them nothing but love at Wanee, they seem to put aside often bloated egos and go back to the thing that brought them to music in the first place at the Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park. Just last week, Gregg Allman and former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle made surprise appearances during Allman’s son Devon’s band Royal Southern Brotherhood’s performance, kicking off a rash of amazing collaborations.


At 70, saxophone great Maceo parker, who made his bones playing with James Brown and Parliament, can still bring the funk.

The Panic trio of Jimmy Herring, John Bell and Dave Schools played a memorable cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” along with Gov’t Mule, and the Mule’s Warren Haynes returned the favor with guest guitar work as Panic played ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”

Throw in the fact that, in addition to leading their own bands, Haynes and Derek Trucks (Tedeschi Trucks Band) are the twin-guitar backbone of the Allmans, replacing the departed Duane Allman and the booted Dickie Betts, and Wanee becomes more a gathering of old friends who just happen to play pretty amazing music.

There’s plenty to buy at Wanee, too, everything from Dead Teddy Bear socks to tankers of lemonade to hammocks to framed artist photographs to djembe drums to Thai food to the latest in neo-hippie fashion.

But never does the periphery detract from the primary objective of the Wanee festival: Three days of some of the best live music being made today. It’s a formula that’s worked for nine years. ... Long may it endure.e