SweetWater 420 Festival: A Weekend We Will Never Forget April 26, 2018 18:01
Words by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Growing up in the southeast, I became accustomed to traveling to Atlanta to see my favorite bands at an early age. Weekend excursions to The Tabernacle became a regular occurrence by the time I was in high school, with plenty of trips to The Fox Theatre and Variety Playhouse mixed in as well. Just last year, I finally made plans to attend SweetWater 420 Festival, which was clearly becoming one of the premier festivals in the country. Following that weekend, it was clear that this would become my latest annual tradition. No excuses.
After a lineup which featured two nights of Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, moe., Ween, and Dark Star Orchestra (just to name a few), festival organizers had their work cut out for them. When the initial lineup dropped in mid-October, it almost felt like they were reading my mind. Umphrey’s McGee, Sturgill Simpson, and Tedeschi Trucks Band sat atop this lineup, along with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Vulfpeck, Papadosio, Anders Osborne, Spafford, and many more. The second wave would ultimately include The String Cheese Incident, Greensky Bluegrass, Ghostland Observatory, The Infamous Stringdusters, and the young phenom Brandon “Taz” Niederauer.
Once the schedule was released, plans were made to arrive early on Friday afternoon. Southern Avenue was rocking the Planet 420 Stage in full force, and The Record Company was getting started on the main stage shortly after. We made a point to catch a nice segment of both sets and couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the weekend. This was my first opportunity to see either of these bands live, and I’ll definitely be making a point to see both again.
If you follow the festival scene at all, you’ve surely seen the hype surrounding Spafford. This band has taken the jam world by storm, selling out just about every venue on the schedule. This would be my first live experience with them as well, and I was totally floored. The band came out swinging the “Backdoor Funk” and “The Remedy” and continued with killer takes on “Windmill,” “Lovesick Melody,” and “Minds Unchained.” They closed out the set with Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and I think everyone was wishing we had a second set. I was fortunate enough to attend to Spafford’s late night show at Variety Playhouse, which seemed to be the hottest ticket in town. This set included some amazing takes on “Electric Taco Stand,” “All My Friends,” “Salamander Song,” “All In,” and a cover of Men at Work’s “Down Under.”
Watch Spafford perform "You Don't Know How It Feels" here:
Sturgill Simpson was up next on the main stage. This would be he and his band’s first performance since October 14th, and it was clear that these guys were ready to rock. Highlights from this set included originals such as “Turtles All The Way Down” and “Keep It Between The Lines,” while the cover of Freddie King’s “Going Down” really got the crowd moving. While Sturgill has one of the most unique, powerful voices I’ve ever heard, his guitar playing is equally impressive. He’s one of the most talented performers I’ve ever watched, and it’s exciting to think about what the future holds.
The String Cheese Incident has been very kind to Atlanta in recent years. The past two summers have featured some amazing two-night runs at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, and expectations were high for Friday night’s headlining spot. The band got off to a hot start with “Sirens,” “Let’s Go Outside, and “Song In My Head.” The Motet’s Lyle Divinsky and Dave Watts, along with local Atlanta vocalist Rhonda Thomas, joined in on “Get To You,” before a cover of Jamiroquai’s “Space Cowboy” and “Believe” closed out the set.
Cheese returned to the stage with young star Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, who traded licks with Michael Kang and Bill Nershi throughout “Close Your Eyes.” Second set highlights also included “Beautiful,” “Joyful Sound,” “Rollover,” and “Restless Wind.” The crowd had a chance to sing “Happy Birthday” to drummer Michael Travis during the encore, and Taz + Rhonda Thomas would return for the closer, “I Saw The Light.”
Saturday may have been my favorite day of the weekend, and there are a number of reasons why. One of my favorite regional bands, Funk You, kicked things off with an amazing set on the main stage. The band welcomed The Brotherhorns for the entirety of the set, and the Augusta natives brought out an impressive crowd for the early set. Funk You delivered a number of killer originals before closing things out with The Village People's "Kung Fu Fighting" with a little help from three dancers dressed as Gumby. Why not?
Watch Funk You perform "Kung Fu Fighting" here:
Anders Osborne was up next on the main stage, and I could listen to this guy for days. Anders has one of the most soothing voices you will find, and his songwriting is tough to beat. As is the case at most festivals, you're forced to cut several sets earlier than you'd like, and I knew I couldn't miss a minute of Marco Benevento. As a longtime fan of the Benevento Russo Duo, it's been remarkable to watch Marco's career flourish. This was my first chance to see his solo band, and it was easily one of the weekend highlights. This set was jam packed with energy from start to finish, and I was floored by bassist Karina Rykman. They gave us an amazing cover of Butthole Surfers' "Pepper" and had the entire crowd going wild as they closed out with "At The Show."
Brandon "Taz" Niederauer was arguably the star of the weekend. While he made guest appearances with all three headliners, he and his band provided an incredible set on Saturday afternoon. The last time I'd seen Taz in Atlanta, he was tearing through a guitar solo as his mentor Col. Bruce Hampton tragically passed away on stage. Watching him perform "I'm So Glad" in Bruce's honor was a truly special moment. While his guitar playing is essentially indescribable, this "kid" can really sing too.
While this weekend had many peak moments, Joe Russo's Almost Dead was my personal main event. Thankfully, the second wave of artist announcements included a second set for JRAD, which set us up for an unforgettable evening. A lengthy jam led into "Cats Down Under The Stars," while "Feel Like A Stranger" would follow. A beautiful take on "The Wheel" led into a rockin' "Estimated Prophet," which segued perfectly into "He's Gone" to close the set. The second set was as strong as anything I've seen from these guys. "Shakedown Street" set the tone right off the bat and moved straight into "I Need A Miracle." The set continued with "Ramble On Rose," and "China Cat Sunflower" > "I Know You Rider," before "Not Fade Away" and "One More Saturday Night" closed out the set on the highest of notes. I could go on for days about this band. Here's to hoping that they become regular performers at this festival.
While I hated to miss The Infamous Stringdusters and Ghostland Observatory, we solidified our spot front and center for Tedeschi Trucks Band. This was the most intriguing storyline of the weekend for me, as I knew this JRAD > TTB sequence would be outrageous. To no one's surprise, TTB came out firing with a downright spiritual set which included classics such as "Made Up Mind," "Part of Me," and "Midnight in Harlem." Susan Tedeschi led a beautiful combo of "Angel From Montgomery" > "Sugaree," and young Taz made his way onto the stage for a monster cover of "Statesboro Blues." Watching he and Derek Trucks trade licks on the Allman Brothers' classic was a moment I'll never forget. Taz would also join the band for the encore which featured Sly & The Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" > "I Want To Take You Higher."
Sunday's weather looked questionable all week, and the rainy forecast became a reality early on. This was a familiar situation for those who attended the festival last year, and a little dancing in the rain is good for the soul. Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds kicked things off with a super soulful performance. Greensky Bluegrass would follow with their wildly entertaining serving of jamgrass. This would give us yet another cameo from Taz, who took the lead on the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider." We then made our way to the Planet 420 Stage to catch the tail end of TAUK. This band is one of the most talented, dynamic bands on the scene, and we caught them just in time for an incredible cover of Rush's "Tom Sawyer."
Watch Greensky Bluegrass perform "Midnight Rider" with Taz here:
The bouncing between stages continued as we prepared for Vulfpeck on the main stage. Frequent collaborators Antwuan Stanley, Joey Dosik, and Corey Wong were each on hand for the funky occasion. The set was highlighted by classics such as "Animal Spirits," "1612," "Funky Duck," "Back Pocket," "Christmas in LA," and even a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman." Bassist Joe Dart would lead the way through "Dean Town" to close out a high-energy occasion with Vulfpeck. Meanwhile, Papadosio was closing out the Planet 420 stage in powerful fashion. We walked up just in time to catch a sequence which included "Cue," "Garden," and "We Are Water." The energy was palpable as the rain picked up, and the Papadosio dance party was a sight to see.
The final performance of the weekend belonged to Umphrey's McGee, and they closed out a magical weekend in fine form. They kicked off the set with "Half Delayed" and "Remind Me," before "Booth Love" really got the party moving. "Preamble" would follow before what would become a massive "Mantis" sandwich. The sequence of "Mantis" > "Wife Soup", "Lenny" w/ Taz, "Draconian" > "Mantis" would definitely need to be on any list of weekend highlights. "Wappy Sprayberry" and "Ringo" would put an exclamation point on a wild, rainy set from Umphrey's. The encore began with a very fitting cover of Led Zeppelin's "Fool In The Rain," which was followed by "Ocean Billy" and "The Silent Type." While there were quite a few heavy hitters on this lineup, Umphrey's most certainly justified their spot in closing out the festivities.
As you would expect, there was wide variety of afterparties around Atlanta each night. While many made their way to Variety Playhouse for TAUKing McGee on Sunday night, our crew headed over to one of my favorite venues, Aisle 5. Local favorites Bird Dog Jubilee were set to perform 'A Picture of Hoist' which consisted of songs from the two Phish albums ('A Picture of Nectar' and 'Hoist'). From start to finish, these guys absolutely killed it and provided a perfect ending to our 420 Fest experience. It's always a pleasure catching a show at Aisle 5, and Sunday night was no different.
I've said more than enough at this point, but I'll conclude by saying that I truly believe this was my favorite festival experience to date. You couldn't ask for a better lineup, and Centennial Olympic Park is perfectly structured for a festival of this magnitude. There were a handful of sets that I really wish I could've seen, but it's impossible to catch them all. Festival organizers and the entire staff did an absolutely phenomenal job, and things couldn't have run any smoother. I'm not sure how they will top this year's experience, but I have no doubt that they will.