Savannah, Georgia is a town resplendent with charm. The pre-war parks and dripping Spanish moss make it the perfect setting for the strolling pedestrian. And perhaps this is why Savannah Stopover, the annual festival pit-stop anteceding the music industry’s Roman holiday, South by Southwest, is one of the best kept secrets on the festival circuit.
For a half decade now, the organizers of Savannah Stopover, led by founder and CEO Kayne Lanahan, have stretched their minds to find the absolute best of up and coming acts to thrill, inspire, and delight before they head on down I-95 into the darkened heart of Texas to be ‘discovered.’ Stopover functions as a pacer and preview, often breaking acts such as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Wild Child, or J. Roddy Walston and the Business before the larger industry and audience begin abusing their cult statuses as cool.
At any rate, Savannah is no stranger to events, and pulling into town down the historic and beautiful River Street, one was assaulted by activity. In addition to the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities, portions of the town were blocked off for film crews working on the Baywatch remake and a confluence of bikers routinely drowned out the echoing drumbeats and fading guitar sustains with their powerful machines.
First night highlights began with a stop at the Trinity United Church, whose alter had been… well altered to allow set up for the Quiet Hollers. These Louisville natives are riding the popular wave of Americana to great effect. Traditional instrumentation and folksy wisdoms about love and other elements of the young man’s blues are as at home in your record collection next to Harvest Moon as they are to more recent inclusions, say the Avette Brothers or Dawes.
A short set later and another fledgling delight surfaced at the same venue. David Wax Museum is everything the young reader of No Depression looks for in a group. The male-female co-lead and trade-offs offer something for everyone. Gentle and poetic, engaging and effortless to all appearances David Wax Museum was looking to steal the show before the festival had much of a chance to even begin.
From heaven to hell, the next big name was to be found across town at the Congress Street Social Club. It is a venue that takes lowballing seriously, and one could compare obscure tats with like- minded peers over PBR tallboys to the eclectic mesmerism that is T. Hardy Morris. The Dangerbird recording artist might have gone to school, but it never took. All 90 lbs of the young man is put into his music, it is an education that has served him well and the midnight showing had the audience loose enough to shake their designer impoverished clad asses.
Unlike many other festivals, Stopover begins on a Thursday. This extends both the weekend and liver damage. The open carry beverage policy, three o’clock bar closing time, and excess of after parties meant the Friday, five o’clock showing of Christopher Paul Stelling at the Jinx was a red eye performance. High from the success of last year’s ‘Labor Against Waste,’ Stelling is at the pinnacle of his talents. Despite extensive touring his set was as crisp as fans should expect. Amongst those early showers for Hiss Golden Messenger it’s doubtless some new fans were won over.
Publication favorite, Hiss Golden Messenger is the tip of the spear propelling the legendary Merge record label. It’s been a hot minute since the release of the critically acclaimed, ‘Southern Grammar,’ but little was lost in his set and excitement builds for another album.
At the Rail’s beer garden a more digestible brand of pop was featured by Philly’s Mercury Girls. The energetic and beautiful lead singer, Sarah Shimineck had the pipes of any reality television karaoke contest judge, but the spirit of an indie pop pixie. Short waves of high energy made the 45 minute set seem more like a feast than the hors d’ouevres festival slots generally provide.
Speaking of food, any musician will tell you the recipe for a solid song rests with contrast. And nothing could have been more different for Abe’s on Lincoln’s (Southern blasphemy?) secret show. Laures Vidal is a bit of a one man band. Like Shakey Graves before him he isn’t content simply with his guitar and voice, perhaps the odd addition of a harp. No, for him and other forward looking musicians the song needs a beat. But drummers are notoriously unreliable and he wasn’t really using his feet, so voila. Vidal’s music is branded as ‘kitchen sink beat blues,’ but I found his tunes to be closer to an African accented take on Americana. The long consonantal runs and faux rap over bridges between choruses reminded one of Dispatch minus the political agenda. The small, hard wood venue had filled to capacity and it was clear Vidal’s was a winning set.
Unfortunately, not everything was magic at Savannah Stopover. One of the most anticipated shows, the David Bowie tribute concert by Capsula was a wash. The band was energetic, and it was immediately understood they had done their homework, but the venue was working against them. You see, the set was misappropriated to the Trinity United Church. Generally, churches make for wonderful sonic environments. They are, in fact, largely designed to convey sound. While previous performances by David Wax Museum or the Quiet Hollers came off well, they were undoubtedly playing at a softer volume, no less of a gentler tone. The raucous music of Ziggy Stardust and it’s over amplification made for sound bounce mayhem and a less than Bowiesque reception.
For Saturday, it seemed all the really impactful showcases came early. Back at the Jinx Brooklynites OxenFree were a bit out of sorts. Indeed, most of the festival leaned towards the indie craze of some years ago, but OxenFree were opening for a one-two combo of an Americana punch. One shouldn’t look too deeply into that statement though, because regardless of genre, good music is immediately identifiable. Though OxenFree’s discography contains nothing more than a single, their set was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale atmosphere. So many bands are quickly forgotten with the next set, but of those attempting the college rock market, OxenFree with their rhythmic teeth and hyper-intelligent lyrical content won’t be so easily overlooked.
The funnest set of the festival easily belonged to the following act. Say Brother, a Columbia, Sc act is everything that made Southern Rock great. Imagine a frogstomp cocktail, two parts Mungo Jerry’s frankness, two parts Hot Tuna. Their music is most comparable to that found on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” only stretch the rollicking rhythm and meandering melody across an entire set. Atop that place the moaning wail, and at times even yodel of frontman and young James Hetfield look alike Tripp LaFrance and you’re left with a result that could have been any dirty delta rockers circa ‘68 transported by time machine to the present. In this line of work, writers employ all types of verbal acrobats in an attempt to describe the sound of a certain project. Perhaps for Say Brother the best description is simple. They are easy, fun, free.
To close out the Jinx showcase Savannah natives Damon and the Shitkickers played their more trad-bent version of country music. One of the biggest problems with mainstream country is that it just isn’t believable anymore. When the pretty boy Nashville sensations sing about violence, or drinking, or love anyone with half a mind takes it as the lip-service it is. But when the Shitkickers plead, “Take your drunk ass home.” It brings back every night you closed the bars intending on having only two drinks. They’re protégés of whisky and blow classic country who seem to have come up on the wrong side of the Mississippi.
Last on the lineup, and perhaps the most interesting inclusion the entire three days of music is the band Alex G. After so many rowdy rockers, self-serious indiosos, and likewise I was hoping for a bit of folk. A quiet set to let the ring of the amplifiers die away, some breathy singer of songs who writes simple narratives was the ticket. But instead I found Alex G who in all honesty just might be genius. Like every band, there had been buzz talk about this act the duration of the festival. But instead of a pencil thin folkster with an acoustic I found a full group that took more pleasure in mocking the audience than any I’ve ever seen. Their first song was pure discordance. It wasn’t even a song. Every member simply struck their instruments to create a cacophony. But when it was over, did the audience boo? Did they thin out and head for the door? Of course not, the audience applauded because they didn’t understand. In the Pavlovian relationship between artist and audience the bell had been struck. The audience salivated on cue as the frontman for Alex G introduced the group under a fake name. When they next entered a real song, the sound was the pure slacker obscurity of early Pavement. Droning rhythms and plush melodies over young urban bohemian themes. It was quite enjoyable, refreshing to be certain, and the joy the band took from their performance was a thing of glory. The Wild Wing’s café was continually referenced as Buffalo Wild Wings, and three or four more fake names were giving before Alex G finished much in the way they had begun, with a fake song. The audience clapped along as if it were any other show, and none but the band themselves were quite wise the joke had been on the audience the entire time. Purely genius.
Savannah Stopover is an exception to the general run of the mill festival circuit. It cannot compete with its larger brethren, SXSW or any of the others. But it was never meant to. Instead, one encounters all the variety of a festival in addition to the intimacy of a club show. One can’t know the majority of the performers beforehand. However, every year provides a wealth of discovery, and many of the performances are stumbled upon sound unheard, only for a few years later one to hear a band such as Twin Limb, Futurebirds, or Blitzen Trapper mentioned by an associate. The mind cycles back around, and you recall. “Oh yeah, I know those guys. Saw them at Stopover.”