Though this spring’s event makes up for the cancellation of last year’s event of the same name, at the same venue, don’t quite call the 2021 iteration of Suwannee Rising a “festival” per se, says festival organizer Paul Levine. In fact, Levine — of past successful, massive park festivals including Hulaween and Bear Creek — created an entire new promotions company, Suwannee Live, to set apart his safety-first, live-show projects amid the waning of the COVID pandemic.
“I honestly wouldn’t compare this to anything else that we’ve done,” he says of this year’s Suwannee Rising. “This event is going to be a socially distanced, podded event. It is not a festival with stages all over the place, vendors, art installations. We’re not yet able to do all the things we would normally do at a festival.”
Still, the lineup and the setting — as well as the simple human pleasure of gathering en masse to dance — will ring familiar to anyone who’s attended past shows at the Spirit of Suwannee Park. The 800-acre venue boasts a hybrid vibe of crunchy music playground and shaded nature preserve, with stages permanently dotted throughout the park, campgrounds, and even a full-service restaurant operating on-site.
Attendees can expect the same forest vibes and the setting of the nearby banks of the Suwannee River, and most important, a lineup of festival favorites from past events at the venue. Headliners include jam-circuit titans Umphrey’s McGee, as well as the free-flowing, jazz-inflected scene favs Lettuce and loose-grooving, keyboard-driven Connecticut rockers Goose. Each of those acts will perform two sets over the long weekend, while a bill of other familiar, melodic names on the circuit promises heavy rhythms until nightfall.
“We believe the audience that comes to these shows is a mature audience that desperately loves music, is desperate to see music, you know, just passionately loves music, loves each other, loves coming to this park, and misses that more than anything,” Levine says. “These people are willing to do what is necessary to get back to see music and do the things that they love to do.”
That means this year’s proceedings won’t look the same as pre-COVID times. Gone are the stages dotted throughout trees in the park, scrapped in favor of two side-by-side stages in one of the park’s large, open fields. Rather than forcing crowds to squeeze in side-by-side or jostle to find their space, the field will contain marked-out, socially distanced pods for preregistered groups of up to six people. (Primitive on-site camping is offered by the pod.)
Rather than the usual crush as festivalgoers rush from stage to stage, Suwannee Rising attendees will be able to relax in their assigned pods as each artist's set starts on the next stage over. Jumbo video screens with enhanced audio will ensure that everyone can see and hear what’s happening on each side. Pods aren’t allowed to intermingle, and masks are required when leaving one’s own pod to move around the venue.
Beyond that, the event has gone cashless, with food provided by on-site food trucks that accept orders by app only — a text message will alert concertgoers when to come pick up their food. Bar service is also out for the weekend, so Suwannee Rising is BYOB — an upside for music-lovers on a budget of these ol’ unprecedented times.
The enhanced safety measures, Levine says, are a small price to pay for getting fans and performers back in their natural habitat — live communion.
“Everybody realizes that for [musicians and music-industry workers] to get back to work, we have to follow certain rules,” Levine says. “To see people out there doing their thing is emotional!”
It's working so well, in fact, that Levine and his fellow organizers quickly announced a second weekend with the same setup: Suwannee Surprise, at the same park on April 16-17. Noteworthy names from the scene on this bill include Galactic and Karl Denson’s Tiny Orchestra.
Levine and company say all of this offers a glimpse of better days on the horizon as the touring and festival scenes creak back to life after a bleak year.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to help those people get back to work, and then, of course, to see people’s faces when they see and hear and feel live music,” he says. “It’s wonderful. It’s not necessarily the environment everyone wants forever, but it works for now.”
Suwannee Rising. Thursday, April 8, through Saturday, April 10, at Suwannee Music Park & Campground, 9379 County Rd. 132, Live Oak; 800-224-5656; musicliveshere.com. Tickets are sold out.
Suwannee Surprise! Friday, April 16, through Saturday, April 17, at Suwannee Music Park & Campground, 9379 County Rd. 132, Live Oak; 800-224-5656; musicliveshere.com. Tickets cost $499 to $799 per pod via suwanneerising.com.