SweetWater 420 Fest’s Sweet Sixteen Highlights in Atlanta
Photos and Review by Max Stewart
As a native Atlantan, there is no doubt that this city has a lot to offer. Atlanta has a vibrant culture, scores of unique restaurants and eclectic bars, and a deep-rooted music community. The city has produced hordes of talented musicians that include OutKast, The Black Crowes, Col. Bruce Hampton, Mastodon, Blackberry Smoke, Blind Willie McTell, Zac Brown Band, Childish Gambino, and many, many more.
In the past few years, however, it has felt like Atlanta has had some moments that have put the city’s spirit to the test: the Atlanta Falcons’ epic Super Bowl collapse last year, the surreal passing of Atlanta music guru Col. Bruce Hampton at his own 70th birthday celebration at the Fox Theatre, the Atlanta Braves’ move to the suburbs while abandoning downtown’s Turner Field and accepting a handful losing seasons, The Black Crowes’ very-public falling out and break-up, today’s announcement that the Atlanta Hawks’ coach will be parting ways with the lackluster team, and the frickin’ major highway in the city catching on fire and collapsing last year. These events, all ranging from depressing to downright laughable, have left Atlanta yearning for something positive to get behind.
Enter SweetWater Brewing Company. In addition to producing a range of tasty brews, SweetWater keeps the focus on good times, good vibes, and good tunes. The brewery hosts a variety of local events throughout the year, but SweetWater 420 Fest is the quintessential example of a success story not only for the brewery, but for the city of Atlanta. After the Atlanta Braves moved their stadium to Cobb County from Turner Field (which was originally the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta), it felt like downtown Atlanta lost its last shard of momentum that had spurred from the 1996 Olympics. It is wonderful for the city of Atlanta that SweetWater has chosen to keep 420 Fest in the downtown landscape, and not in some cheap suburban industrial park or rural farm 30 miles outside of town. Moreover, as the festival took place on Earth Day, it is worth nothing that the brewery prioritizes sustainability by partnering with Gas South on offsetting their carbon footprint as well as using water reclamation practices to bottle their beers. SweetWater’s national success and distribution has no doubt also had a ripple effect with many successful breweries growing in popularity in Greater Atlanta.
Point is, SweetWater Brewing Company has been a true blessing to those Atlantans that take pride in the preservation of the cityscape, value quality beers, and dig authentic music. After years of strong and improving lineups, SweetWater’s 2018 420 Fest was their most focused and cohesive batch of musicians to date. Heads up, Atlanta: we have a festival we can get behind and be proud of, that is not watered down and trying to appeal to everyone under the sun! I think I speak for all locals when I thank SweetWater Brewery for a successful 2018 festival with a top shelf cast of musical talent, and for establishing their badass brewery in our city. SweetWater’s presence in Atlanta and the success of SweetWater 420 Fest is reason for ATL to be proud.
Check out our ‘Sweet 16’ Highlights From This Year’s SweetWater 420 Fest below!
The ‘Sweet 16’ Highlights from SweetWater 420 Fest 2018
1. The Awe-Inspiring Guitar Virtuosity and Epic Guitar Faces of 14-Year-Old Brandon “Taz” Niederauer:
The young guitarist, Brandon “Taz” Niderauer, is an unreal sight to see live. This kid plays guitar like a six-string savant, and this weekend was major musical exposure for him that undoubtedly resulted in some converted new fans. Sitting in with all of the festival’s headliners (String Cheese Incident, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Umphrey’s McGee) as well as other festival performers (Greensky Bluegrass, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds), “Taz” somehow managed to find time to also play an hour and a half set of his own material on Saturday that included covers by The Meters, Jimi Hendrix, and a tribute to Col. Bruce Hampton. It is clear that Taz is fully immersed in the music, feeling every note with a wailing guitar pose and grin. Keep your eye out for this spry talent, who will surely be a staple of the live music scene for years to come.
2. Sturgill Simpson’s Rowdy First Performance in Six Months:
Grammy Award-Winning Sturgill Simpson and his band had not played live since October before last Friday, but it took no time for Simpson and company to ‘shake off the cobwebs’ with a boot stompin’ set on Friday that included the whirlwind of an opener, “Brace for Impact (Live A Little),” “Living the Dream,” “Just Let Go,” “Call to Arms,” and even a cover of Freddie King’s “Going Down.” The alt-country singer had no trouble continuing his evolution as the band’s lead guitarist, thrashing his Telecaster around while belting out songs from his three records, all with unique touches that set them apart from the studio tracks (the uptempo, bluegrass-heavy version of “Long White Line” included a tease of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.”)
3. The SweetWater 420 Fest Ladies of Soul: Tedeschi Trucks Bands’ Susan Tedesch, Southern Avenue’s Tierinii Jackson, and Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds’ Arleigh Kinchelone
SweetWater 420 Fest had no shortage of captivating female soul singers. Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi is quite possibly the best female singer on the scene today, with her stoic and angelic pipes acting as the anchor to Tedeschi Trucks Band’s uplifting live experience. Southern Avenue’s Tierinii Jackson also had a commanding and vibrant stage presence with a soaring vocal range, as she played with her impressive soul and blues band that hails from Memphis and is signed to the legendary Stax Records. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds’ singer Arleigh Kincheloe’s swampy and funk-driven soulful tone a la Bonnie Raitt was a welcomed set to kick things off on Sunday afternoon.
4. The String Cheese Incident’s Tribute to the Late, Great Col. Bruce Hampton with Taz:
In the final song of their two set, Friday night musical manifesto, The String Cheese Incident dedicated an earnest and powerful version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” to the late, great Atlanta music guru, Col. Bruce Hampton. The song included Taz on guitar, who was actually on stage the night Hampton died last May at his 70th Birthday Celebration at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, so you know this moment pulled at his heartstrings. This was certainly an emotional end to Friday night, and we gotta think that Atlanta’s music wizard and spiritual confidant, Hampton, was looking down with a smile on a night when his hometown was showered in good music.
5. The Record Company’s Modern But Authentic Take on the Blues:
The Record Company brought their always-fervent and spirited contemporary blues set to the main stage on 4/20, armed 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 the musical renaissance man took on singing, harmonica, guitar, and even pedal steel. “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, All Of This Life, was actually released last Friday (“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 the band from the side of the stage.
6. Georgia Local Musicians Feel the Love: Bird Dog Jubilee, Universal Sigh, and a Marriage Proposal at The Orange Constant’s show:
The state of Georgia’s crop of musicians were well-represented during the weekend, with bands from varying genres sprinkled throughout the three day event. Bird Dog Jubilee kicked off the festival with a set doused in Phish teases to get the jam-friendly spectators calibrated for the weekend. Athens’ Universal Sigh was a high-energy exhibition in jam-rock and jazz fusion, and the band’s fans came out in high numbers to support the Georgia band and pass out stickers in support of the band (check out their new live album, Live from the Georgia Theatre 2017 for a taste of their live prowess.) The Orange Constant’s impressive ambient and Sixties rock aesthetic included a performance of the oozing slide guitar riff in “Red Ryder,” as well as a cover of Beck’s “Debra,” which featured a friend of the band’s on vocals, Tye. Immediately after the song, Tye hopped down into the guardrail and proposed to his girlfriend in front of the stage. It was a tear-jerking moment to witness on the picturesque Saturday afternoon in the park.
7. Southern Rock Keeps Rolling Down the Road Thanks to RVA’s The Trongone Band and Nashville’s The Vegabonds:
Call these southern rockers the breeze, cause they kept the twang alive in the world of rock on Georgia’s red clay last weekend. Richmond’s The Trongone Band ferociously took a stranglehold on the crowd with their twangy, rootsy Southern sounds a la The Band and Lyrnyrd Skynyrd. Singer Andy Trongone was rocking a Georgia tee shirt with his butterscotch blonde Fender Telecaster, and on June 23rd the band will be back in Georgia in good company (Blackberry Smoke, The Marcus King Band) for the Big House’s Annual Summer Jam at Kingsland Farm in Hawkinsville, GA. Nashville’s The Vegabonds had the same southern snarl with an accessible set of tunes complete with firm musicianship, whilst the band nailed ‘the look’ like they were Sixties rockers at 1969’s Atlanta International Pop Festival.
8. TAUKing McGee: A Joyful Birthday After-Party Celebration Including TAUK and Umphrey’s McGee:
The collaboration between TAUK and Umphrey’s McGee, which took place at SweetWater 420 Fest’s after party at Variety Playhouse on Sunday night, could only be described as a fun musical party. TAUK’s Drummer Isaac Teel’s actually celebrated his birthday when the clocks struck midnight, as Umphrey’s McGee’s Jake Cinninger, Joel Cummins, and Andy Farag all sitting in with band for a set mostly of covers including: “Time” > “Breathe (In the Air)” by Pink Floyd, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Voodoo Chile” and “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel, “Fame” by David Bowie, and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by The Beatles. I can almost see the readers’ jaws drop through the screen as I type this. You’re damn right, it was a good time.
9. The Grateful Dead Lives: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and the Weekend’s Many Other Dead Tributes:
The jam-friendly audience at this year’s fest rightfully holds the musical catalog of the Grateful Dead as sonic scripture. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s two Saturday sets continued their unique display of interpretations of the Dead’s music, including “Estimated Prophet,” “I Know You Rider,” “China Cat Sunflower,” as well as Jerry Garcia Band’s “Cats Under the Stars.” Other musicians on the bill covered the Grateful Dead including The Infamous Stringdusters’ “Tennessee Jed” and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Sugaree” tease during “Angel From Montgomery,” and The Record Company‘s “Easy Wind.” Needless to say, the Dead was no doubt alive and well in Atlanta last weekend.
10. Vulfpeck Put the Fun in Funk:
The Michigan funk-masters Vulfpeck are a live spectacle one must witness to truly appreciate. Their mix of absurdist humor, top tier musicianship, lighthearted crowd interactions, and constant revolving of musicians on instruments almost feels like musical sketch comedy. The band’s Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Joe Dart and Woody Goss welcomed some of their studio collaborators to the stage for the all-smiles performance, including Cory Wong, Joey Dosik, and vocalist Antwaun Stanley. The band certainly has a fun time on stage in what could sometimes be described as a Norm MacDonald-eqsue trolling of the audience (pretending to be an a capella cover group from Emory University called “Peck-A-Pella,” led by Senior Theo Katzman before launching into fan-favorite “Back Pocket”). As Stratton wore his Garth Brooks-style headset mic it seemed like he was giving a TED talk at certain points: “Take risks in your career, not in your stock portfolio… We’ve got a lot of exciting products at Vulf Labs, including picture vinyl discs so on the vinyl you can see where to put the needle, very exciting patent-pending products.” The good-timing schtick does not get in the way of the music, but it actually compliments the upbeat vibe of their live set, which included some supremely-satisfying versions of “Animal Spirits,” “1612,” “Outro,” and “Game Winner.”
11. The Sensei and the Grasshopper: Derek Trucks and Brandon “Taz” Niederaurer Going Toe-to-Toe on Allman Brothers Band’s “Statesboro Blues”:
It was a real treat getting see the maestro of guitar, Derek Trucks, conducting and guiding the young Taz in the “game of catch” of soloing in a group atmosphere when he sat in with Tedeschi Trucks Band for “Statesboro Blues,” giving him visual cues on when to pass the solo on to Tedeschi Trucks Band’s keys player Kofi Burbridge. While witnessing this powerful moment on stage, one could not help but think that Trucks is filling the void left by Col. Hampton as the patriarch of music. I also kept thinking back to the “10 Commandments of Jam” that Trucks kept as a guide when he experienced success at a young age, and I am sure he is trying to help guide and preserve Taz’s potential for a long and fruitful musical career.
12. Umphrey’s McGee’s Unfazed Fools in the Rain:
On Sunday’s Earth Day, the Earth certainly flexed its muscles with a display of torrential rain. This did not stop the fans from coming out for Umphrey’s McGee to close out the festival. “Atlanta, you guys are heroic,” singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss declared to the soaked concertgoers, and the band eventually played Led Zeppelin‘s “Fool in the Rain” before ending their set with high-flying versions of “Ocean Billy” and “The Silent Type.” Taz also sat in with the band for a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny,” where Taz’s guitar acumen even blew away Umphrey’s McGee’s shredmaster, Jake Cinninger: “Whoa! That is impressive!”
13. The Grass Was A Plenty in the Ole Sweet South: Greensky Bluegrass & The Infamous Stringdusters:
Bluegrass fans could rejoice as two of the best groups on the scene performed over the weekend in Atlanta: Infamous Stringdusters on Saturday and Greensky Bluegrass on Sunday. Both of these bands are a modern take on bluegrass, with a focus on the high-energy live experience. The Infamous Stringdusters’ Saturday afternoon performance included much-welcomed Grateful Dead cover “Tennessee Jed” and a cover of Phish’s “Possum,” as well as originals, “Gravity” and “A Hard Life Makes A Good Song.”
Greensky Bluegrass’ sound is unique in that it does not necessarily follow the stiff rules of traditional bluegrass, but their spirited show is complete with a full light display and has moved the genre forward into new and exciting territories. Taz, the weekend’s mainstay guitar virtuoso, even sat in with for a cover of the Allman Brothers Bands’ “Midnight Rider,” on ABB’s home turf in Georgia, marking another highlight reel moment of the festival.
14. Marco Benevento’s Eclectic and Energetic Performance:
Pianist and jazz fusion artist Marco Benevento’s on–stage exuberance and the uptempo vibe of his solo show made it one of the best of Saturday and a perfect way to kick off the day. Before he would later play two sets as keyboardist for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, the afternoon set of his solo material had accessible yet eccentric tunes that had some stirring moments of crowd vocal participation, which included a cover of the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” alongside bassist Karina Rykman and drummer Dave Butler.
15. Spafford Keeps Their Momentum Rolling:
Spafford are skyrocketing in popularity amongst live music fans, and for good reason. As droves of fans made their way to the Planet 420 Fest stage for their late afternoon set, the Arizona four-piece exceeded expectations in a performance that had accessible melodic moments and monumental improvisational peaks. The band played mostly originals, including some tracks from their new album to be released next week, For Amusement Only. Spafford also covered the late Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” where the line “let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint” resulted in a roar of cheers from the 4/20 crowd.
16. Asheville’s The Fritz and Emma’s Lounge:
Asheville’s Smoky Mountain sounds made their way down south to Atlanta, with two bands that live music fans should have on their radar. Emma’s Lounge calls their sound “Space Age Folk Wave,” and their easily digestible live show was a ton of fun and each member dressed in green for their 4/20 set. The Fritz had a distinct spin on synth-funk that was ecclectic but danceable, including a hip-shaking cover of Michaels Jackson’s “Black or White.”
Check out our Photo Recap from SweetWater Fest 2018 below!