notes from the 2017 Savannah Music Festival

The Savannah Music Festival ended just over a week ago, and I feel like I’m still processing the 17-day event. As I’ve watched the SMF grow under director Rob Gibson, I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which the festival is becoming intertwined with the identity of the city. I wrote broadly about the issue in last Tuesday’s City Talk column in the Savannah Morning News.

The Savannah I’ve known over the last 20 years has often been defined by a sense of inferiority to, well, you name it, Charleston, Atlanta, Asheville, etc., etc. When the prevailing public sentiment is something to the effect of “what else do you expect, it’s Savannah,” then it’s easy to settle for the mediocre or the “good enough.”

“Hey, that’s pretty good, for Savannah.”

“The new [insert name of whatever] will be fine, certainly better than what we have now.”

Under the guidance of director Rob Gibson, a strong staff, major donors, and a thoughtful board, the Savannah Music Festival has never been willing to settle for good enough. For 17 days each year, world-class performers play in beautiful venues, with awesome production values.

As I wrote in a recent Unplugged column in Do Savannah (the entertainment pullout in the Savannah Morning News), it’s easy to get spoiled by the Savannah Music Festival.

I also wrote a little bit in my three most recent Do columns — here, here and here — about some of the highlights of the festival, so for this post I’m collecting some extended reflections on the performances and other matters. This post is going to be long, so I’m going to break it up with subheadings. I’m not going to follow chronological order here either.

The 2017 SMF had some top tier classical and jazz acts, but I skipped those — the festival just has too many programs for a guy with 1.5 jobs to handle. I should also say that I had a press pass for all the general admission venues (Ships of the Sea and Morris Center for the most part), but I bought my own tickets to five shows and used friends’ extra tickets for a couple of others. In other words, I’m willing to pay for this festival — I’m willing to pay to support programming of such high quality in Savannah.

All that said, let’s dive in:

Dance comes to the SMF: BalletCollective and Che Malambo

The Savannah Music Festival has programmed dance in the past, sometimes to fairly weak audience support. Fortunately, the two major dance programs this year — both of which featured live music — were wildly successful.

BalletCollective, which includes members of the New York City Ballet, performed a Sunday matinee program at the Lucas Theatre on the festival’s opening weekend. As I noted in Do:

The three pieces by young choreographer Troy Schumacher, who is originally from Atlanta, featured seven of Schumacher’s fellow dancers from the New York City Ballet — a great company by any measure.

Professional contemporary dance can be a hard sell in Savannah, but the SMF’s programming of BalletCollective was successful in every possible way. There was a tremendous response from the large crowd at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, and the production — especially the moving final piece “Invisible Divide” — was stellar.

Hotel Elefant, a New York-based chamber orchestra, provided live accompaniment to Schumacher’s three dances. They powered through a difficult piece by Judd Greenstein and two complicated, lush compositions by Ellis Ludwig-Leone of San Fermin.

And then on the final Thursday night of the festival, the all-male Argentinian dance company Che Malambo brought the house down in a 2 hour show at the Lucas. With an almost indescribable combination of power, delicacy, humor, and showmanship, the 14 performers — one more beautiful than the next — commanded the stage with a combination of the traditional Malambo style and myriad other moves and moods. I was especially enthralled by the boleadoras — swinging, glowing ropes that had to be seen to be believed — but there wasn’t really a down moment in the performance.

I don’t know the numbers, but I’m not the only Savannahian who buys tickets to dance performances each year at Spoleto. I think Savannah has a great deal of untapped potential to support professional contemporary dance. More, please.

Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers at Trustees Theater

You know you’re in the right place when Chuck Leavell sits down in the audience. Leavell’s remarkable life includes joining the Allman Brothers Band at age 20, recording with everyone under the sun, forming the highly-praised Sea Level, becoming an influential voice in the environmental community for his sustainable tree farming, and decades playing keys for the Rolling Stones. I’ve met Leavell a couple of times — I took photos and recapped his lecture and performance at Armstrong State University a couple years ago, and I said hey to him in a hospitality suite before the Stones’ most recent show in Atlanta, which I also managed to unofficially photograph.

Anyway, so I’m sitting there moments before show time, and suddenly Chuck Leavell, a sometime Savannahian, walks by. I leap to my feet, extend my hand, introduce myself, and say something super clever: “I’m a big fan.” Ugh. Got to practice better for moments like this.

Soon after Bruce Hornsby came on stage — seriously, one of the best shows I saw this year, but more on that in a moment — I realized that Leavell and Hornsby would have to know each other from somewhere, sometime. My hopes that Leavell would appear on stage were answered during the middle of the show. The remarkably loose and talented Hornsby was center stage with an accordion when he brought Leavell — whom he had met in 1979 when he opened for Sea Level — up to the keyboards/piano for a spectacular rendition of “On the Western Skyline” from Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s The Way It Is.

That was a great moment, but it was just one of the great moments in the remarkable show. Hornsby and the Noisemakers are, as Don Henley apparently said at a recent concert (if I followed the story right), “unbridled.” The musicians all clearly know each other well and give each other room for spontaneity and improvisation. Their joy in the music was infectious. I had forgotten — or maybe never really knew — that Hornsby co-wrote “The End of the Innocence” with Henley, and Hornsby’s take on that song was profoundly moving. I had always thought of “The Way It Is” as an overly earnest but pleasant pop song, but the arrangement during the show at the Lucas was filled with surprises — twists, turns, beautiful flourishes.

Seriously, what a show.

Jason Isbell at Johnny Mercer Theatre

I love Jason Isbell, and I hate the Johnny Mercer Theatre. I tried to solve this conundrum by splurging for this show — I bought two “gold circle” tickets in the temporary seats closest to the stage. That way, fellow hissing lawns blogger Tom and I could avoid the usual Mercer nonsense — the cell phones, the hollering even during slow and serious songs, the mindless conversation, the sit-down-or-stand-up tension — and focus on Isbell’s greatness: the provocative lyrics, the increasingly strong vocals, the 400 Unit’s musicianship, the brilliant pacing. I’ve been lucky to hear Isbell perform songs like “Speed Trap Town” and “24 Frames” live before, but such songs retain their power no matter how many times I hear them.

An interesting aside: As he has done before, Isbell joked about playing Savannah back in the day at places like Cafe Loco on Tybee and Loco’s on Broughton Street, with some in the bar paying far more attention to sports on TV than to the music. Isbell was apparently the performer a decade ago at Loco’s on the night that alderman Van Johnson had trouble getting an order of wings, an incident that set into motion years of bad city policy regarding music venues, alcohol licenses, and age restrictions.

“Lafayette Late Night Jam” at B. Matthew’s

On the opening Friday of the festival, B. Matthew’s on Bay Street hosted Joel Savoy and other musicians who were in town. It was far more of a party than a concert, and the restaurant, including the newish upstairs bar, proved a lovely venue for a relaxed, spontaneous event like this. It’s clear that there’s a demand for some SMF shows where the crowd feels free to walk around, mingle, talk, dance. It’s not necessarily the right model for the vast majority of SMF acts, but this one worked really well. It was a great chance to catch up with a lot of festival attendees that I don’t see all that often.

Richard Thompson and Sarah Jarosz double bill at the Lucas Theatre

This unique double bill had all the hallmarks of a tremendous show, and it turned out even better than I expected. The young Sarah Jarosz is more than ready for prime time — her vocals are captivating and she commands a large crowd with quiet charisma. Jarosz has played the SMF twice before, but this was my first time seeing her. I sure hope it isn’t the last.

The great Richard Thompson came on stage with just one acoustic guitar — hey, young artists, sometimes you only need one — and played my favorite set of the festival. Thompson included expected songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” but there were plenty of surprises, including the encore “Dimming of the Day” from Pour Down Like Silver. Brilliant.

Sounds of Kolachi and Hiss Golden Messenger at the Morris Center

I very nearly skipped this show. The Thompson/Jarosz show ran a little long, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk a letdown by racing over to the Morris Center. I got there late and found the place packed, but thankfully an usher urged me to go on in. So glad I did. I don’t know quite how to describe the fusion music of Sounds of Kolachi, but there was a remarkable joy and energy on the stage and in the room. The Pakistani group made a lot of fans in their two sets here.

What an interesting choice to have Hiss Golden Messenger on the same bill. MC Taylor’s folk rock project, which feels at times as much like a spiritual mission as a band, produces lovely and sometimes penetrating music, but it was frankly tough for me to tune in after Jarosz, Thompson, and Sounds of Kolachi.

DakhaBrakha’s original score for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth at the Lucas Theatre

Um, wow. DakhaBrakha mesmerized an SMF audience at Ships of the Sea a few years ago, so I knew we’d see something good this time around, but I was still floored by this performance, which felt strange, beautiful, and artistically and politically daring. It was ravishingly beautiful too — the handsome (and long since dead) actors and the sweeping vistas in the film, the traditional clothing of the musicians on the Lucas Theatre stage, and the Lucas itself, a truly awesome venue.

and about the Lucas Theatre

We found out a few days ago — less than a week after the SMF ended — that five Lucas employees were fired. The aggressive move, which may not have been all that surprising, seems to be the result of the Savannah College of Art & Design’s desire to restructure operations, presumably to save money. SCAD has long controlled the board of the non-profit, and the college has funded the theatre with millions of dollars over the years. At the same time, David Harris and company at the Lucas have dramatically improved the programming over the last several years, and the fear now is that the Lucas might end up sitting empty for long stretches of the year. Presumably, the theatre will be available for next year’s SMF — it’s hard to imagine the festival without the Lucas — but we’ll have to wait and see how things play out. I sure hope college administrators are aware just how valuable the theatre has become to the cultural life of the city.

Patrick Watson at Ships of the Sea

Patrick Watson was largely new to me, but he was praised so highly by Savannah Stopover CEO and hissing lawns contributor Kayne Lanahan that I knew I had to see him. On a warm and slightly damp evening at the Ships of the Sea, Watson and his talented band seemed right at home on what I gather was their first trip to the Deep South. Watson’s vocals somehow lilt and soar simultaneously, occasionally evoking palpable emotion from the crowd.

The success of the night was tempered somewhat, however, by the band’s evocative lighting, which was too dim for the space.

Haitian Roots: Leyla McCalla and Chouk Bwa Libète at the Morris Center

Again, a pre-festival must-see show that exceeded expectations. The Morris Center isn’t the most comfortable venue, but I probably would have enjoyed another 3 hours of the double bill of Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the high-energy Haitian band Chouk Bwa Libete , who were making their American debut. After the completion of two lengthy sets, McCalla wandered into the audience with her cello, which prompted extended improvisation with all the performers. It was a beautiful, spontaneous moment.

Parker Millsap and Nikki Lane at the Ships of the Sea

Che Malambo ran longer than the program indicated, so I arrived at Ships of the Sea for only about half of Nikki Lane‘s set. I’m a fan of Lane’s studio work, and she definitely brings a fresh voice — one that seems especially to appeal to youngish women — to the country/alt-country music scene, but she needed more presence or at least a more polished stage show for the Ships of the Sea, a large venue prone to chattiness.

The previous two times I saw Parker Millsap, he performed as a trio with guitar, fiddle, and standup bass. The awesomely talented bandleader — who has written a handful of songs that seem certain to stand the test of time — has now added a drummer to the mix, and his longtime bass player has switched to electric. I’ll admit the changes made the ensemble a little too busy at times — the cymbals were too often in conflict with Millsap’s gravelly vocals and piercing lyrics — but I was still excited to see the young Oklahoman exploring new artistic territory. Millsap’s The Very Last Day was one of my favorite albums of 2016, and it was great to see such a strong turnout for this SMF show.

Inside voices, outside voices

I’m not sure what the best solution is, but too many people talk too loudly during shows at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. The covered outdoor North Garden Assembly Room is a tremendous space, but attendees — usually but not always in the back — seem to get cues from the architecture and/or from the SMF’s staging that it’s fine to talk in their normal outside voices. I think that there’s sort of an imaginary line on the eastern edge of the space that triggers the chatter. These aren’t young people, by the way, but lots of middle-aged professionals. Maybe they don’t get out enough? Maybe they really just want a club atmosphere and don’t care that they’ve spent, say, $35? It’s a puzzle, but I do think the festival should do something to deal with the noise more aggressively.

I’m not talking, by the way, about the annual arguments over sit-down vs. stand-up shows. That’s really a different issue. I’m just talking about people having loud and often extended conversations that obviously hurt the experiences of others.


The SMF has official photographers who produce tremendous work — you can see some shots with Doug DeLoach’s coverage at Georgia Music (click here for his post about the festival’s final days) — but the festival has always discouraged any other sort of approved photography. I totally get it, but I sure could have gotten great shots at some of the shows where cameras wouldn’t be especially obtrusive — Parker Millsap at Ships, Leyla McCalla and Chouk Bwa Libète at Morris, Stringband Spectacular at the Lucas, The Wood Brothers at Ships, etc., etc., etc.

The Wood Brothers at Ships of the Sea

For a variety of reasons — including the passionately engaged crowd, the trio’s engagement with the audience, the remarkably varied pacing, the sometimes-soaring and always-catchy choruses — this performance at Ships of the Sea might have been the strongest closing night show that the SMF has ever had.

Stringband Spectacular at the Lucas Theatre

I was quoted in the SMF program:

The annual Stringband Spectacular always makes the case that American acoustic music is alive and well in our time. Bill Dawers of the Savannah Morning News wrote of last year’s show: “I can unequivocally say that it was one of the highlights of the festival…There’s a fair chance that a few of the students will headline shows at the SMF itself one day, as they honor and extend America’s great musical traditions.”

This year’s Stringband Spectacular lived up to my own hype. AMS Director Mike Marshall was joined on stage by clinicians Julian Lage, Bryan Sutton, and Aoife O’Donovan and the talented students. The finale followed the usual routine. All the performers remain on stage throughout the show, and they step forward in various combinations to the microphones. Some students bring their own original compositions with them to Savannah, while others bring songs by others. After a week of rehearsal sessions, guest instructors, and master classes, the students are thrust into the Lucas Theatre spotlights.

After two weeks of seeing tremendous shows by performers with established names, it’s humbling and inspiring to see the work by these young musicians, who have clearly been deeply impacted by their time in Savannah.

Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation at Trustees Theater

The multimedia Piedmont Blues was primarily created by musician and composer Gerald Clayton and director Christopher McElroen. Clayton was joined on stage by the jazz ensemble The Assembly, singer René Marie, and occasionally by tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Guitarist Julien Lage, a clinician for the AMS, filled in at almost the last minute for the guitarist whose flight to Savannah was cancelled.  The Trustees Theater stage was more artfully designed than I’ve ever seen it — with video projections of archival images and with installations that evoked an old-time tobacco barn. According to the program, the Piedmont blues style “grew up around the tobacco factories and warehouses of Durham, North Carolina in the 1920s and 30s, when the Bull City was the largest cigarette manufacturer in the world.”

I especially appreciated the emotional complexity of Clayton’s compositions, which shied away from obvious, easy, and expected political statements.

As a friend of mine said afterward: “I feel like I just saw something really important.”

Savannah isn’t much of a blues town, but I expected a better turnout for this show, which was co-commissioned by the SMF along with lead commissioner Duke University/Duke Performances and Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, and Strathmore. The ambitious program was on the penultimate night of the festival, so some folks’ attention spans might have been exhausted and some wallets might have been emptied, but I’m still puzzled by the mediocre turnout.

that’s a wrap

I could say more about all of the shows I saw, and I could say a whole lot about all the performances that I didn’t see.

The 2018 Savannah Music Festival is slated for March 29 to April 14.

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