SXSW’s Little Sister: Savannah Stopover Music Festival

As far as festivals go SXSW is a lot like the high school cheerleader. Everyone either wants her or wants to be her. If this be true, then the Savannah Stopover Music Festival is her little sister. Younger, more modest, and increasingly harder to overlook.

Amidst all the hubbub and chatter generated this month over SXSW, something has been lost. The cacophony created by critics and industriosos alike splashed across the glossy pages of youth press and crowding out ad space on every digi-pub about the relevance of such and such an upcoming act, the innovations this or that film, or the cutting edge endeavors of artist so and so from the hinterlands of obscuria becomes a bit much in the weeks leading up to the event itself, and then the fall out during and afterward is another beast entirely. SXSW is the penultimate festival experience, and if you were to attend only one festival over the concert season Austin’s signature event would absolutely have to be it. Y’know, if you’re into that whole following the crowd thing.

But popularity be damned. Much like the city of Austin itself, the festival’s over-saturation of talent means that the opportunities for exposure by working musicians diminishes with each year’s growth. Like MTV or the Catholic church before it, the dictation of art to the masses will reach an apex from which it’s influence can only wane. With an expected $200 million pull, and 2,000 plus groups playing over the course of a week and a half perhaps 2014 will become Austin’s high water mark. It is not the intention to disparage SXSW in anyway, the whole thing just seems a little too obvious. Time was this festival was where big names were broken, but it seems anymore SXSW is where the big names flock to pander to a maximum audience whilst still retaining artistic credibility.

This position might seem a bit reactionary except it seems others are taking notice, too. Enter the Savannah Stopover Music Festival. The premise is a very simple one indeed: in advance of the congestion in which all roads lead to Austin, Georgia’s exquisitely gorgeous antebellum era Savannah hosts many of the same groups featured at SXSW, but in a much more intimate location and at a fraction of the cost. Now take away the cramped conditions and teeming streets, the heat and frustration of price gouged, tourist hawked amenities at Stopover’s better known counterpart and the prospect becomes all the more alluring.

Now in it’s fourth year, Savannah Stopover was founded by die hard underdog music fan Kayne Lanahan. With an emphasis on indie, DIY and generally under recognized artists Stopover could be considered the little sister to SXSW. Younger and arguably more attractive, she is still modest but getting increasingly harder to over look. Featuring past acts like Grimes, St. Lucia and the War on Drugs, and then this year’s buzz groups J. Roddy Walston, Christopher Paul Stelling, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Hurray for the Riff Raff, River Whyless, Wild Child and Oberhofer, Stopover is becoming a platform to SXSW success, a pacer and preview for the following week’s glut.

Better yet, Stopover isn’t ferreted away in the wastelands of an industrial sector or confined to a convention center and surrounding venues. Nor does the festival require a ferry ride to some state park or fairground far removed from downtown proper. Stopover is a whole city event whose foot traffic between pre-war venues offers a walking tour glimpse of the South’s best preserved gothic cityscape.

As compared to many festivals, Ms. Lanahan and the rest of the Stopover crew went to lengths to forgo the all too common crisis of choice inherent in these types of events. Organizers deftly spread the 100-plus bands across ten venues over the course of three days. With openers beginning at four in the afternoon and performances running until two at night the nightmare of logistics between must see acts in opposing slots was largely alleviated.

This year’s winter was better left to a southern climate. But even after touching down in the heart of Dixie in an attempt to escape the worst winter in modern history, attendees were greeted by a rain so violent one might wonder if God wasn’t angry. The storm clouds had cast a literal shadow over the entire event, but with the falling of night a respite issued as crepuscule enveloped the dripping Spanish moss of Savannah’s tree lined, park laden bosom.

And the weather was fine, a light breeze rustled through the still branches of old growth trees as one passed hulking bronze statues devoted to Confederate heroes on the way to the opening night kickoff at the Knights of Columbus Theater. The venue’s name conjures images of your grandfather’s Elk Lodge, but the ample interior complete with sonically superior acoustics stood in glaring contrast to any preconceived notions. If this foil wasn’t enough St. Paul of the Broken Bones resembles nothing one would expect from the front man to a country fried soul act. With a face like Black Francis and a vocal delivery reminiscent of Brittany Howard the image of St. Paul and the Broken Bones struck one as the very anti-thesis of the music escaping from their instruments and it seemed they may have been prepared to steal the show before Savannah Stopover ever even began.

Customs die hard in the south and if heart drenched soul wasn’t enough to sate the tastes of any sentimentalist then the night’s closer J. Roddy Walston and the Business’ piano oriented doo-wop rock would have brought tears to the eyes. Painfully under-played since their masterpiece self-titled album from 2010, J. Roddy et al had the cramped quarters of the quintessential dive, the Congress St. Social Club, intermittently weeping at balladry and drunkenly vowing to die like a man against the more up-tempo southern rock numbers.

Savannah is a town resplendent with charm, beautifully designed in imitation of European refinement. It is a small city, easily navigable and centered around a river of the same name. It’s size and design absolutely demands interaction, and so it wasn’t uncommon in the to and fro of foot traffic to run across favorite acts, say Future Islands or the tender young Silver Palms. After three o’clock bars closed out, there was the inevitable after parties. Locals from Savannah’s College of Art and Design intermingled with tourists and festival goers and many saw with bleary eyes the weak rays of dawn before bed was discovered.

And if Stopover is the pre-platform for long odds exposure at SXSW, it is understandable, especially given the drinking culture of the town under normal conditions, that the youth and youthful musicians held an inherent desperation, a lust for living that the nights proclivities should bleed over into the day. For a hair of the dog the best possible starting point was Abe’s on Lincoln. Abe’s (Southern Blasphemy?!) darkened interior, hard wood bar, stoop hight ceiling and plank floor pre-dated its namesake along with performer Christopher Paul Stelling’s preferred medium. How unfortunate to be a folk singer in the digital age. Like marriage or the southern accent finger picking is a dying institution. The style is no doubt the victim of so much mediocrity, but the most nimble right hand since Earl Scruggs when combined with whiskey drenched narratives of hope and despair, played over and under the uncanny resonance of Christopher Paul Stelling’s vocal delivery unearth something astonishingly modern. It is the vague sensation there is humanity left in this world.

A short pace away, on a picturesque Bay Street corner rests the Moon River Beer Garden. Food and drink kept the good times rolling to the acousto pop of Asheville’s the River Whyless. The strikingly beautiful Ms. Halli Anderson’s flawless fiddle work and dreamy face was the perfect female counterpart to the inimitable Andrew Bird. While the makeshift stage lacked the esthetically pleasing environment of a proper venue, the setting sun and entwining harmonies lent one to reverie of a Carolina backporch string session.

Of course, the best part about a festival day drunk is one generally stays drunk until the darker hedonistic ambitions of the rock n roll crowd surfaces with the night. Sponsor Lagunita’s Brewing Co. provided strong, cheap craft beer as tour partner for the short amble into the city’s bowels for a dose of something truly wicked. The basement of Club One was surely inspiration for the cult single “Gay Bar”, by the Electric Six. The euphoric and bizarre percussion driven dance rock led by the emphatic stage presence of front man Shannon Fields might have lead some to experimentation of their own designs on the dance floor. But if getting outed by the bartender wasn’t an intention, one could always overcompensate for their masculinity through the unabashedly hetero medium of metal, right?

Big Ups nasty temperament, fuzz feedback and mid-20s working musician frustration was the perfect focal point for the city’s radical population. A bit of slam dancing amongst the gin dulled supporting youthful rage, the California natives brought out taught nerves in the face of so many sing along unity ballads preferred by the majority of Stopover’s performers. If music be the artifice of emotion, then it is a mistake to rely solely on an even keel. Life is not as romantic and blessed as we often like to believe it is, it can be degrading, often violent and at best inarticulately antagonistic. God bless those that attempt to add a touch of electric evil back into the tired, easy listening state of modern rock.

Some mornings are meant for a productive day, some afternoons one should be pleased their heart still beats after the previous night’s excess. But rock ‘n’ roll is a thing of excess, of emotions if not substances, and with the first bright blue sky day of Spring shinning overhead it’s hard to regret youthful eccentricities. Into the warmth of Savannah’s city streets, sunglasses and aspirin served guard against hollow vows of ‘never again,’ as a path was cut back to the Moon River Beer Garden for one of the most anticipated acts. Wild Child is not rock ‘n’ roll. The six-piece Austin natives lack a single guitar, but there is something dysfunctional yet accurate, something fallible and honest about the interwoven male/female vocal narratives of frontmen Beggins/Wilson. Wilson’s voice is disparagingly lovely, and her stage presence drips of child-like innocence. The musical accompaniment is deceiving in its lullaby like romantic inclinations, but a deeper inspection reveals conflicting lyrical subject matter. Amongst those performing at Stopfest this year, Wild Child may be deemed most likely for mainstream success.

Immediately following, Hurray for the Riff Raff is the other major contender for that title. Much is made of singer Alynda Lee Segarra’s transient history. She even made reference to Savannah from the days of her itinerant youth, but the future is more exciting for this young lady and her blues/Americana Riff Raff peers. Fresh off the release of their ATO label debut, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Ms. Segarra becomes more lovely, if not more confident and more seasoned with every performance. Drawing easily the largest crowd of the weekend the knock out one-two punch of Wild Child and Hooray for the Riff Raff was easily worth the entire ticket price and could potentially spawn its own successful tour.

Beneath the overhanging terraces of Ellis Square, the heart of Savannah’s old district’s cobbled streets served as a ready made venue for Mississippi indie rockers, the Weeks. Southern to the core, their blend of garage rock and ’60s soul left the square’s tourist population scratching their heads at the manic stage presence, and intent delivery of lead singer Cyle Barnes. With the tinged influence of their label’s founders the Kings of Leon, the Weeks’ brand of road weary rock raised flagging attention from so much romantic balladry and served as the perfect aperitif for Savannah Stopover’s closing acts.

A full circle return to Knights of Columbus featured one of the most anticipated groups. Oberhofer has been receiving a lot of buzz recently in the hipper than thou circles. For good reason, the mixture of indie, surf and a bit o’ noise made for the funnest gig of the festival. Replacing all the slam dancing and shoe gazing with hip shaking there was little reason to believe all the kids with dumb haircuts weren’t right about these Brooklyn boys. High energy and a receptive despite the sonic onslaught crowd set the perfect stage for close out Small Black to kill. Into the wee hours fellow New Yorkers Small Black violated the concept of taking rock music seriously along with the city noise ordinance. Woozy from drink and three days of relentless performances those last standing clamored for more in the wake of the closeout number. For some in this life, there can never be enough.

One could reasonably expect to awake on Sunday morning to streets leached of human activity. Like the passing of a seizure the three days of the Savannah Stopover Music Festival had gripped the city in inarticulate waves of aura at long last releasing it to sudden consciousness with the vague feeling something peculiar had just occurred. Such is the festival experience. One saves their money, burns through vacation days and travels cross country for some few fleeting moments of aural catharsis, to sing and dance along to the music with which they’ve wrapped up so much emotion in the quiet corners where their lives play out.

After the crescendo passes, one expects a larger consensus. But in the streets of Savannah the tourists flocked to the historical sites, the bell boys manned their posts at the grand hotels and the street vendors went about hawking their wares. The bands had all packed up their gear in the night to travel west into the darkened heart of the continent, heads perched against the glass of touring vans dreaming that old musicians dream of fame and success, larger venues and radio play. Their lives mirror our own as they push ever forward in the hopes of something better just around that next corner. Maybe a lucky few will find it at SXSW. They are fools, these dreamers, and the wise ones among them will realize it doesn’t get much better than their brief Stopover.