The Spin sauntered down Korean Veterans Boulevard toward The Lawn at Riverfront Park on Saturday, nerves steeled for long lines and short tempers. We shouldn’t have worried. In sharp contrast to hitches at the recent AmericanaramA, the organizational side of things at Zac Brown’s second annual Southern Ground Music and Food Festival was on par with last year’s, if not even better. Maybe the smoke didn’t smell quite right for a music festival, but we’re not ones to argue with the heavenly scent of roasted meat, wafting by while we staked out our spot. Even the sun got with the program, settling right on the opposite side of Pinnacle Tower for the duration of Willie Nelson’s suppertime set.
Speaking of which, Willie and Family put all notions of SGMFF as a pop country showcase on notice, jumping right into a wide-ranging set flavored with Memphis soul and Chicago blues. Standards like “Crazy” and “Good Hearted Woman” appeared, but swinging a little more than usual, sandwiched into medleys with an Al Green-style “Funny How Time Slips Away” and backed up by Carl Perkins’ hard-boogeying “Matchbox.” The Redheaded Stranger was in fine voice and didn’t seem much troubled by the shoulder injury that sidelined him until shortly before the show, trading furious licks with harmonica man Mickey Raphael and special guest Warren Haynes. The Gov’t Mule frontman took his turn in the spotlight as well, burning slowly through an R&B-inflected version of “Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House,” an early Garth Brooks hit he co-wrote. After two subtle tributes to Zac Brown’s roots — namely “Georgia on My Mind” and “Georgia on a Fast Train” — the set closed out on a rousing gospel medley, with “Roll Me up and Smoke Me” snuck in for good measure.
One odd footnote to Willie’s set — the fact that he couldn’t get much crowd participation — turned into a minor catastrophe for anthemic mega-pop ensemble Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Late in the set, frontman Alex Ebert pleaded for a singalong with a bro who’d camped out by the stage. Preparing for the chorus of “All Wash Out,” Ebert wheedled, begged and dissolved into a full-tilt angry toddler rant: “You don’t have to know what the fuck it means! Hasn’t it ever rained in your life?” No dice. Ebert’s co-captain, demure Jade Castrinos, stepped in to try and save his ass, but Ebert just kept making it awkward right through the big finish, their 2009 breakout hit “Home.” We have to agree with the sentiments we heard repeatedly throughout the night, namely that the crowd was a little too serious. C’mon guys, it’s like the State Fair — there’s even a Ferris wheel. But all the same, you catch more flies with honey. We’ll hope that Ebert has a good nap and gets back on his game soon.
A heaping paper cone of Chef Rusty Hamblin’s Jambalaya later (a genius idea for street food, by the way), it was time for the main event. Massive clouds of fog billowed around a sheer curtain in front of the stage as a sound collage took us on a “Speak to Me”-style trip through Zac Brown’s catalog. The curtain dropped, and the beanie-adorned founder of the feast and his wrecking crew rocketed out of the gate into three solid hours of fan favorites and crowd-pleasing covers. As broadly based as they are, Brown’s originals still aren’t our bag, though we did take a shine to “Day for the Dead,” a funky, up-tempo number slated for the group’s upcoming full-length (currently under construction at the Southern Ground studio complex that Creamster Adam Gold recently toured on our behalf).
We’re bummed that we missed The Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers, sitting in on Friday night, but we got more than enough in the guest department to make up for it on Saturday. First up was Clare Bowen, appearing in character as Scarlett O’Connor, the doe-eyed waif of ABC’s Nashville. Her duet with Brown — a medley of an original and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” — was taped for possible inclusion in an upcoming episode. Check with official recap correspondent Ashley Spurgeon to see if it makes the cut. Multi-CMA nominee Kacey Musgraves, who killed her earlier set on the small stage, played “Follow Your Arrow” for the second time that evening. It strikes us as pretty badass for someone with Brown’s status to make sure the song, with its LGBT-friendly message — which actually promotes tolerance in all kinds of areas — got played for his entire audience of 30,000. Next came Sarah Dugas, a signee to Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label, with a stunning and appropriately timed tribute to Etta James. She set the bar high, but we had to go searching for pieces of our brain after the guitar jam with AJ Ghent, a sacred steel artist from Atlanta.
Later, John Fogerty dropped in for “Bad Moon Rising,” “Lookin’ out My Back Door” and “Centerfield,” giving Brown an opportunity to unintentionally show him up in the vocal department, as well as giving us a beer break. By the time the band reappeared for their encore dressed in glow-in-the-dark skeleton suits, we’d had our fill and headed for the gate. So this is going to be a regular thing? Go ahead and sign us up.