Reflections on the 2013 Savannah Music Festival

The Savannah Music Festival roared to a close on Saturday night with a double bill at the Ships of the Sea North Garden: Lake Street Dive followed by headliner Lee Fields & The Expressions.

There had been a number of other shows on the final day, including the “Stringband Spectacular” finale of the Acoustic Music Seminar that I reviewed earlier today, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Marcus Roberts at Johnny Mercer Theatre, which I did not attend.

Lake Street Dive is made up of singer Rachael Price, drummer Mike Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, and Mike “McDuck” Olson, who plays both guitar and trumpet. Saturday’s late set (Lake Street Dive had also played an early afternoon SMF gig) seemed to showcase the sultry Price, who was simply captivating. Given the audience response, I have a feeling we’re going to see Lake Street Dive back in Savannah again, although we lack a regular venue that seems appropriate for their jazzy, bluesy sound.

The pavilion at the Ships of the Sea continued to fill up throughout the Lake Street Dive’s set in anticipation of the set by Lee Fields & The Expressions, which turned into a soul and R&B dance party. The “kids” (15-22 years old) from the SMF’s Acoustic Music Seminar were among the first to start dancing to one side of the stage, and the energy just built from there.

I know, I know, we’re not supposed to take photos, but once everyone was shooting their no doubt crappy cell phone videos, I couldn’t resist getting a few shots of Lee Fields since I had had my camera with me all day.

Lee_Fields_Savannah_Music_Festival-1Click here to see a few dozen pics already posted to the SMF’s Flickr photostream.

And that brought the curtain down on the 18-day Savannah Music Festival, which began with the artistry of organist Cameron Carpenter all the way back on March 20th.

In my Tuesday City Talk column, I’ll be saying something about the economic impact of the SMF, but let’s not get stuck for too long worrying about the financial worth of the festival. In bringing some of the world’s most accomplished musicians, the Savannah Music Festival has made life better for thousands throughout the region.

As I noted in a previous post, the SMF really does appear to have turned a corner in terms of the diversity of the audiences. I don’t know if there will eventually be any data to confirm it, but SMF regulars seem to agree that this year’s audiences are reflecting more than ever Savannah’s rich demographics.

I wrote that post about diversity before seeing The Wailers — another show that I loved. Just a few nights ago, I was chatting with a major supporter of the festival who noted with pleasure the amazing level of diversity — age, race, style, dress — for the legendary reggae act.

The venues this year seemed to work exceptionally well, with the dance parties held at the Ships of the Sea’s newish space. There’s something about that venue, however, that encourages people to talk out on the fringes — maybe the fact that it’s outdoors, maybe the lighting, maybe just the sheer size. The chatter was no problem once Lee Fields geared up, but I found it a little annoying during Lake Street Dive and last week for the first part of Sea Wolf’s strong set. I think that maybe next year the SMF should simply instruct ushers to give chatty groups a calming hand gesture and then perhaps just suggest that loud talkers just move to the neighboring arbor near the bar.

As I noted before, Trinity United Methodist lacked the sheer visual drama of the rotunda of the Telfair Academy, but the chamber music seemed to work really well there. I wish I had wandered upstairs to hear the sound from the balcony — I suspect it might have been even richer than the experience on the floor.

So can we get through an SMF without either Bela Fleck or Dianne Reeves in the lineup? As it turns out, we made it through just fine, although there were plenty of other returnees. It’s an interesting problem that Rob Gibson and crew have created for themselves. They’ve programmed some of the truly outstanding talents in various genres in the world — and a large number of those musicians seem thrilled to return to Savannah.

But audiences can grow oddly blase even about performers of the calibre of Fleck and Reeves.

At the same time, Savannah has not yet fully developed a taste for more progressive programming. I love the world music offerings each year, especially the Segal/Sissoko duet this year, but those shows can be a tough sell in the larger venues. I was thrilled that the festival took the plunge to produce Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Play & Play, but the show didn’t really come close to filling the Lucas as it should have.

Still, what a fine two and a half weeks of music. In an earlier post, I noted the glowing press from a Wall Street Journal reviewer, and I’m sure we’re going to see accolades continue to pour in over the coming weeks and months. At “Stringband Spectacular” I sat next to a German reviewer who seemed in awe of the festival and the city.

Congratulations to the SMF’s year-round staff and to the many who come on board for a few weeks each spring. It’s a remarkable event, one that I hope to be attending for many years — and one that I suspect will become even more embedded into the city’s evolving identity.