Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park was filled with live music and the joyous cheers of grateful fans thanks to Oteil Burbridge, Dumpstaphunk, Roosevelt Collier, and a heroic effort by the crew. Putting on musical events is always challenging even without the dangers of the pandemic and the intrusion of the elements but, thanks to the teamwork of the bands and the team behind the scenes, the show not only went on but was exactly what so many magic-starved people in the crowd craved.

Though the Suwannee is home to multiple stages including its fabled amphitheater, the social distancing necessities of the day required some serious changes to the way shows are put on and the staff and production team were more than up to the task. By moving the music to one of the vast stretches of open space, creating safety pods to keep folks distant, adding video screens to make the action easier to see, and requiring masks throughout the park the promoters were able to create an environment where everyone could come together for a much needed spiritual recharge.

The bands on the stage were just as eager to play as the audience was to hear some funky music and the energy levels were off the charts. After a fun and funky set from Friday openers Someday Honey, promoter Paul Levine welcomed New Orleans’ own Dumpstaphunk back to their home-away-from-home, the Spirit Of The Suwannee. Though the band has played dozens of sets throughout the park over the last decade the happiness they were feeling in this return emanated off them in palpable waves of delight.

After warning the fans that they might be a lil rusty after the long layoff, Dumpstaphunk quickly showed that their soulful sound was just too powerful to fade with a deep set of infectious extended grooves. Throwing down on a mix of classics like “Meanwhile” and “Justice”, a couple of brand new tunes, and some much-appreciated covers like P-Funk‘s “Get Up On The Downslope” and “Everybody’s Got A Little Under The Sun” the band showed that the funk just don’t fade.

Ivan Neville took every opportunity to express just how much he had missed hearing the cheers of the crowd and the truth in his voice was unmistakable. One of the great lessons we all learn in life is the simple truth that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone and getting even a small taste of the before times was clearly inspiring Dumpstaphunk to give it their all. By the time they closed their set with an earth-shaking plea for “Justice” the energy level was as high as any show I’ve ever seen them play.

For their encore, Dumpstaphunk had an ace up their sleeve in the form of a special guest, Allman Brothers Band and Dead & Company bassist and Saturday night headliner Oteil Burbridge. Any chance to see Oteil is welcome, but adding his bass to Nick Daniels on a down and dirty, nearly 20-minute take on the Grateful Dead‘s funkiest tune, “Shakedown Street”, was the very definition of a mic dropping show closer. The jubilant crowd was shell shocked and slow to disperse but the smiles on their faces as they made their way back to their cabins were as bright as any of the stars in the Florida sky.

Saturday presented some new challenges to the already difficult task of putting on a show during these difficult times: outdoor music’s mortal enemy, the weather. Though Florida’s warm temperatures make outdoor events a possibility in these winter months that doesn’t mean into each life a little rain isn’t gonna fall. A steady drizzle started before show opener Roosevelt Collier’s sacred steel showcase and persisted in the wee morning hours. Collier didn’t let that slow him down one bit and the majestic peals from his pedal steel guitar made it impossible for anyone within earshot to feel anything less than sonic spiritual bliss.

Unfortunately, the elements took their toll on the equipment and the moisture played havoc with the soundboard. Luckily, the production team for the weekend was made up of the Suwannee’s perennial cast of all-star stage workers. Even those who’ve never faced the logistical challenges of changing out an entire soundboard in the dark, during a steady rain and doing an on-the-fly sound check can easily guess how difficult such a task could be.

That said, watching the crowd cheer the efforts of the harried staff while grooving to the house music clearly buoyed the laser-focused crew. There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that the show was going to happen. The collective willpower was simply too great to be denied. After a remarkably short delay for such a massive changeover, Oteil and his friends Tom Guarna on guitar and Pete Lavezzoli on drums were welcomed back to the park by Levine to the distant but still thunderous cheers from the eager audience.

Related: Oteil Burbridge Trio Announces Socially-Distanced Shows In Miami Beach

Oteil Burbridge’s roots in the Spirit Of The Suwannee run as deep as the towering Live Oaks that fill the park. As a member of the Allman Brothers he helped fill the air with music at over a decade of Wanee Music Festivals and he’s rarely missed an opportunity to return for epic turns at events like Bear Creek and the more recently founded Suwannee Rising. Burbridge’s most recent high-profile gig, Dead & Company, alongside heavyweights like Grateful Dead alum Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann as well as pop superstar John Mayer gave him some musical inspiration for his setlist, which was heavy with beloved Dead classics.

Opening his set with the classic combination of “Help On The Way” >” Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower”, Burbridge and his tight trio managed to do justice to the music that is written into the very DNA of an entire generation of fans. The Dead love didn’t stop there, mind you. The set was peppered with tunes like “Bertha”, “Deal”, and even a righteous set-closing centerpiece take on the beloved “Terrapin Station” song cycle.

Though the temperatures dipped as the hour grew later and the rain persisted, the fire in the hearts of the fans and the band were stoked higher and higher throughout the night. By the time Burbridge came out for the encore, a spirited take on his own band The Peacemaker‘s track “Butter Biscuit”, Oteil was clearly lost in the blissful energy loop that can form between appreciative hearts and loving music makers.

The show ran past its allotted time to make sure not one note of the much-needed soul healing magic was lost and even after more than five hours of dancing in the rain the crowd still left hungry for more. Sadly, for now, venues are going to have to place some reasonable limits on showtimes in the interest of public safety but it was clear from the beaming smiles of the soggy faces that reluctantly headed back to their temporary homes that everyone had gotten some much-needed healing over the last two nights.

We are all closer to the end of this worldwide health crisis and finishing this pandemic safely is of paramount concern. Events like last weekend can provide some solace to the beleaguered music fans who lost their truest joy but doing it safely requires the participation of everyone. The safety team that roamed the grounds worked as tirelessly as possible to make sure the already responsible crowd stayed vigilant and it was gratifying to see the eager compliance by the fans.

We CAN gather together safely, though in smaller groups than we would normally for these events, if we all work together. Promoter Paul Levine stressed repeatedly that any future events at the park were dependent on the fans showing smart discipline to safety while still getting funky and the message was clearly heard and taken to heart. The love in this community is a remarkable thing to see…but the wisdom that was on display at the Spirit Of The Suwannee was just as impressive to behold. Until we are finally safe to get completely insane under the stars again it was gratifying to know that we can still have just a little of the magic to keep hope alive.

Check out full-show audio from Dumpstaphunk and Oteil Burbridge Trio’s respective headlining sets on Friday and Saturday. Audio courtesy of taper Z-Man.

Dumpstaphunk – Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park | Live Oak, FL | 2/12/21

Oteil Burbridge Trio – Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park | Live Oak, FL | 2/13/21

Setlist: Dumpstaphunk | Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park | Live Oak, FL | 2/12/21

Set: I Wish You Would, Let’s Get At It, Where Do We Go From Here, Meanwhile, Backwash, I’m Gonna Make It, The World Is A Little Bit Under The Weather, Get Up On The Downslope > Everybody’s Got A Little Under The Sun, Listen To The Truth, Justice
Encore: Shakedown Street  [1]

[1] with Oteil Burbridge

Setlist: Oteil Burbridge Trio | Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park | Live Oak, FL | 2/13/21

Set: Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower, Doin’ That Rag, Loose Lucy, Believe It Or Not, Bertha, Too Many Times, Tangled Up In Blue, Don’t Ease Me In, Mission In The Rain, Deal, Lady With A Fan > Terrapin Transit > At A Siding > Terrapin Flyer >  Terrapin Refrain

Encore: Butter Biscuit