The run-up to festival season in the last stretch of winter can be long and unforgiving. Mother nature has already hurled wind, sleet, snow (read: blizzards) and all the other tricks up her sleeve this winter to keep people at home wrapped in an electric blanket instead of checking out that band stopping through town. For the past five years, Savannah Stopover Festival has created an intimate atmosphere in the heart of Savannah, GA for people to enjoy their favorite artists as they head towards SXSW and onto the festival circuit.
By design, the shows are personal. Much like Savannah, the festival is warm, affable, and the barriers between performer and audience are almost invisible. Artists attend each other’s shows, and you get the feeling that everyone is equally excited to be here. This isn’t just another tour date, Stopover means something to bands performing.
The main room at Abe’s on Lincoln is cozy—Once Christopher Paul Stelling started his set, it felt like a private show. He wowed the crowd with virtuosic prowess on a guitar that can only be described as ‘weathered’. The puncture wounds, gashes, and engravings on his instrument matched the gnarled, raw vocals of his performance. It was an impressive start to the festival that left everyone in the room excited to find the next show.
After leaving Abe’s, we headed to the next venue, Trinity United Methodist. The transition from a dimly lit bar to the church really hammered home how dedicated the festival is to authentically representing the city. We grabbed a seat in one of the pews and caught the end of Ryley Walker’s set. The band was flanked by ionic columns and set in front of a massive set of organ pipes. The three piece featured Ryley on acoustic, a second electric guitar, and a third man on keys. Each song featured lengthy, entertaining instrumentals in between soulful verses that took advantage of the largeness of venue.
Hiss Golden Messenger
Up next was Hiss Golden Messenger. The band’s previous performance was in Copenhagen, and you could tell they were satisfied to be a little closer to home. Maybe it was because HGM was the first band of the night that featured full percussion, but the drummer gave a noticeably tight, commanding performance. Sometimes collaborator William Tyler was also on stage and his slightly slouched, nonchalant guitar playing made his highly technical guitar solos even more fun to watch. Hiss didn’t disappoint; M.C. Taylor’s sardonic personality at the front of the band was deeply entertaining and the crowd undoubtedly walked away feeling it was the best show of the festival’s opening night.
Thursday’s nearly tropical, wet climate was swept away by a “cold” front overnight. Friday in Savannah was cool, grey, and breezy. Semicircle, a side project of Andrew McFarland and Ryan Engelberger, two members of Athens’ Reptar were set to play across downtown at Congress St. Social Club, a sports bar that has a reputation for turning up the volume and getting rowdy on the weekends. Their mid afternoon set brought a harder edge with a traditional lead, vocal, rhythm, and bass setup that contrasted the late night shows we’d see on the first night. The alternative, freak folk band got the crowd moving with a more experimental sound that suited the narrow section of the bar the band was playing in well.
A lull in the afternoon schedule saw us leisurely strolling through downtown until stopping in at The Jinx to see 100 Watt horse. Sun streamed through the front door as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas played muted on a few TVs above the bar. Pettis’ passionate, honest pop vocals rang out warmly over his acoustic guitar. His solo set was an interesting contrast to the rest of venue’s weekend — slated for some of the rowdiest shows of the festival.
Darkness fell before the next band set to play upstairs at Ampersand, located on the Western edge of the Historic District. Family and Friends brought a crowd with them, and the six of them brought the energy of the packed venue to a fever pitch. Dueling percussionists high-fived each other before and after acrobatically leaping to and from each other’s kits, the bassist twirled himself up in the stringed lights overhead, and the raw enthusiasm was a welcome change from the highly technical shows of Thursday night. If you have a chance to see these guys live, don’t miss it.
After a bit of a delay in getting the gear set up and a little scrambling from the venue staff after the lights from the upper level went out, Generationals satisfied a packed house with familiar, catchy tunes. Their live set was a pleasant surprise; and the venue’s mirrors did a great job of creating an eclectic, upbeat atmosphere that the eager crowd fed off of as they danced along.
The final day of the festival started off at The Grey, a beautiful restaurant housed in an old Greyhound bus station (The Grey, get it?). This Mountain conjured up the backdrop for a pig roast / oyster bake where festival goers showed off their moves at an interactive photo booth and enjoyed the food and sunshine. The band’s soulful keys and plunky electric banjo kept everyone in good spirits and interested if they wanted to dig into the music a little as their food settled. A potentially drab assignment, playing background music for a luncheon, was salvaged by the interesting twist on folk rock.
The schedule quickly became crowded, but Hang Fire was the next venue on the menu. NYC four piece Little Racer banged out fun, sweaty, sun-drenched beach rock that amped up the afternoon crowd. They clearly enjoyed the set, calling out to the crowd in between songs and coordinating dance moves on stage. Their lyrics were distinct and playful, a standout combo in the crowded world of garage rock.
A light jog across town and we were just in time to grab a pew at Trinity for Tall Tall Trees. His live sets can only be described as a one man psychedelic symphony — at various times he, along with the help of his live looping gear, created soundscapes on his banjo (dubbed the Banjotron 5000) using a timpani mallet, violin bow, crooning whale calls into the backside of his instrument, and a healthy dose of some good old fashioned fingerpicking. Mike Savino coaxed every sound possible out of his setup, and the crowd couldn’t get enough.
We stayed put after TTT for Parlour Tricks, fronted by a trio of powerful singers in coordinated outfits who brought a theatrical presence to Trinity’s stage that added to their pop sensibilities. (Check out their performance from our CMJ Showcase last November here.)
From Trinity we headed back across town to Social Club, where Lee Baines III & The Glory Fires had already started melting the faces of a rowdy crowd on Congress St. Bains’ existential, deeply socially conscious lyrics were appropriately paired with The Glory Fires’ hardcore southern rock that edged on 70s metal. The room was volatile, sweaty and, above all, loud. The band pulled no punches left the crowd thinking about the relationship between music and politics.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we transitioned from the deafeningly authentic show at Social Club to The Jinx in time to see one of the weekend’s most anticipated acts: Diarrhea Planet. There was a line around the block, and the four lead guitarists spent plenty of time warming up the crowd with playful wordplay and teasing guitar riffs. Their hilarious rock’n’roll personalities took over the stage as they played through tunes off their two full length albums to a crowd more than willing to rise to the occasion of banging their heads in sync with the four lead guitarists.
The last show of the night was Brooklyn’s French Horn Rebellion that kept a packed house at Hang Fire grooving and shaking their collective tookus. They were true to the name, busting out an honest-to-god french horn took their catchy synth hooks to a whole new level. Fat Tony, the only rapper at the festival, hopped on stage with a few bars laid over the top of FHR’s beats. It was a fun moment that, in many ways summed up the overall feeling of the festival. The intimate venues, friendly crowds, and gracious acts blended into a three part harmony that made you feel you were really part of the music.