As Atlanta’s downtown Centennial Olympic Park is set for a weekend of top quality live music, the city could not have asked for a better opening day with cool and comfortable weather and no cloud in the sky. SweetWater beer was a plenty and the vibe was right in the ATL.
Atlanta’s own Bird Dog Jubilee kicked things off at the Lyrics & Laughter stage in a set filled with Phish teases (“Down With Disease,” “Sample In A Jar”), giving the jam-friendly early festival arrivers a primer of good things to come throughout the day. Bird Dog Jubilee will actually be playing a free After Party at Aisle 5 on Sunday after the festival, comprised of all Phish covers. The 105.7 FM ‘Talent Tap Winner,’ Sunny South Blues Band, also started things off with an impressive cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It.” Couple that with the phenomenally funk-filled set by The Motet, the SweetWater 420 Fest 2018 was officially off and running.
The most unique musical discovery of the day was Emma’s Lounge, a band from Asheville that blends Spacey Folk, Hard Rock, Bluegrass, and Alternative Funk into an easily digestible and fun live show. The band was all dressed in green to support the “holiday,” and as the clock struck 4:20 PM, the keyboardist Meg Heathman threw out a handful smokable party favors for the audience to enjoy. Certainly an unexpected moment of the day, but we had to expect something would go down at 4:20 PM at 420 Fest on 4/20, amirite??
Memphis soul and blues band Southern Avenue got the festivities kicking into high gear thanks to singer Tierinii Jackson’s commanding stage presence and vibrant vocals. The band is the brainchild of guitarist Ori Naftaly, who grew up in Israel and his love for the American blues brought him to Memphis in 2013 to form his own band. As the hype woman of the Planet 420 Stage, Tierinii treated the audience to the bands’ “What Did I Do” and “Don’t Give Up,” as well as covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and The Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Los Angeles’ The Record Company brought their always fervent and spirited blues set to the main stage Friday, complete with some new material from their upcoming album. “We’re glad to be enjoying this day with y’all on this fine holiday,” Singer Chris Vos stated before he took on singing, harmonica, guitar, pedal steel, and seemingly everything under the sun. “Baby I’m Broken” and “Rita Mae Young” were highlights from the band’s first record, Give It Back To You. The first single from the band’s forthcoming album was actually released yesterday (“Life to Fix”), and the rousing tune was well-received by the crowd, as Sturgill Simpson and the drummer from Simpson’s band, Miles Miller, watched from the side of the stage.
Spafford’s popularity seems to be growing at an exponential rate, and it was clear as the droves of fans made their way to the Planet 420 Fest stage for their late afternoon set. The Arizona quartet exceeded expectations in a performance that included some monumental peaks, and it really feels like these guys have the chops to follow in the footsteps of jam’s top dogs, Phish. The band played mostly originals as well as a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and the line “let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint” seemed to take on a more pungent meaning to the 4/20 crowd.
Nashville’s Los Colognes were a nice change of pace, with a sound that is full of Seventies and Eighties nostalgia. The perfect band for that time of the afternoon, the band played “Backseat Driver” and “Flying Apart,” and for a split second I thought Reagan was president, Back to the Future was the biggest movie, and it was 1985. These guys certainly capture the energy of the classic rock radio, but manage to add their own unique flavor. Athens’ Universal Sigh was a strong exhibition in Jam-rock and jazz fusion, and the band’s fans came out in high numbers to support the Georgia band. The Vegabonds were also a much-loved evening set, with their FM-gold era sound washed down with some rye whiskey and moonshine got the audience moving and shaking.
Sturgill Simpson was a highly-anticipated act on the bill this year, and one of my personal favorites. “What’s Up Atlanta? It’s a pleasure being here on 4/20. This is our first show since October,” Simpson said to a packed lawn full of many Sturgill fans. The band certainly ‘shook out the cobwebs’ and had no trouble getting back into their groove: opener “Brace for Impact (Live A Little)” scorched the southern ground as Simpson whipped his Telecaster around and fervently performed the tune from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The Grammy award winning album was well displayed, with the tunes “Breakers Roar,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” and “All Around You” included.
Holding on to his electric telecaster for the entire set, even for the more downtempo tunes, Simpson has had no trouble over the past year filling the shoes of the frontman as well as the lead guitarist. Simpson’s bluegrass roots shine brightly in his lead guitar licks, which he plays with a vengeance. Since the first time seeing him in 2014, Simpson’s live show has evolved into more of a jam-centric event, with all of the songs being stretched out with unique touches. “This one’s for the truckers,” Simpson announced before going into a more uptempo, bluegrass-heavy version of “Long White Line,” which included a tease of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” so seamless if you had blinked you would have missed it.
“We’re gonna rock the shit out of ‘Living the Dream’ if that’s alright… I’m not kidding,” Simpson is clearly comfortable taking his songs in different, and sometimes heavier directions. And it looks like they’re having a hell of a time doing it, too. Soon after an earnest performance of “Just Let Go,” Simpson played a crowd-shaking cover of blues master Freddie King’s “Going Down” before ending the set with a the rip-roarin’ “Call to Arms.” Although having taken a break for a while, this band has not lost a step and is firing on all cylinders.
As the day was winding down, reggae-dub four-piece Stick Figure was a welcomed reprieve as the sun was setting over the Atlanta skyline. The singer Scott Woodruff even had a ‘band dog’ (think Sublime’s ‘Lou Dog), and the Australian Shepard – “Cocoa” – remained calm on stage and seemed to dig the band’s rasta-vibe, which included a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Headliners The String Cheese Incident were the mainstays of the day as red ‘Cheese’ stickers were widespread on the grounds and a bunch of folks were wearing Packers-style cheeseheads. The band played two sets at the festival, with the first starting off with the well-loved “Sirens,” sang by bassist Keith Moseley. “Let’s Go Outside” echoed the great feeling in the outdoor ATL evening, and there was even an exceptional cover of Jamiroquai’s “Space Cowboy.” Towards the end of the first set, Lyle Divinsky and Dave Watts from The Motet and Atlanta’s own Rhonda Thomas sat in for “Get To You,” the band’s new single that features Divinsky on the studio track. Commenting that the 55 degree night weather felt like a “tropical vacation” for the band, the Colorado six-piece keep things hot with the title track to their new album, Believe, to button up the first set.
The second set of the evening featured the ‘artist at large,’ Brandon “Taz” Niederaurer who sat in on “Close Your Eyes,” displaying his virtuoso talents on the six string. “Thanks so much to SweetWater for making this happen,” keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth declared as he actually worked with SweetWater to produce a custom beer called Ground Score IPA. The highlight of the performance was the bluegrass tune “Restless Wind,” sang by Bill Nershi on acoustic guitar with some impressive lead improvisation by Michael Kang. During the encore, the band celebrated drummer Michael Travis’ birthday with Thomas singing him ‘Happy Birthday,’ with a birthday cake and all. The final song of the night was dedicated to the late, great Atlanta music guru, Col. Bruce Hampton, and featured a powerful version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” The final song included Niederaurer on guitar again, who was on stage the night Hampton died last year at his 70th Birthday Celebration at Atlanta’s Fox Theater. Certainly a nice touch to end the first day, and we must think that jam band patriarch was looking down with a smile on his hometown on a night when it was showered in good music.