Festival schedules are often an illusion. The sets at different stages are usually staggered, making it seem like you’ll be able to run between stages and catch at least some of all your favorite bands. But if you’ve ever been to a big festival, you know that’s not really the case. The music never stops, and that thirty-minute window when you were going to run and catch that band your buddy told you about at a side stage is quickly nullified when the stages are a half-mile walk away through gridlocked hordes of people.
At SweetWater 420 Fest, that dilemma isn’t as much of an issue. Within the cozy confines of Centennial Olympic Park, in the heart of Atlanta, GA, it’s easy to pop quickly back and forth between the stages and see virtually every band you want to see. SweetWater 420 Fest doesn’t have the immersive attendee experiences, campgrounds, art exhibits, and other auxiliary elements that highlight other major festivals, and that’s just as well. Even if they did, you probably wouldn’t have had time to see them. Every slot on 420 Fest’s stacked schedule was filled with a “can’t-miss” band. You can check out a full recap of the weekend’s performances below:
The Motet got the already-swelling crowd up and dancing with their festival-opening set at the SweetWater Main Stage on Friday. Strikingly soulful Memphis-based quintet Southern Avenue hit next on the Planet 420 Stage, showing all in attendance why they’re the best band to come out of Memphis since Stax Records‘ glory days. Hear Southern Avenue’s reimagined cover of Bill Withers‘ “Use Me” below:
Up next was The Record Company, a relatively new band that has rapidly risen from obscurity to widespread acclaim in the two years since they released their debut album in 2016. That album, recorded in a Los Angeles living room, set them on a trajectory toward a Grammy nomination, worldwide headlining dates, a gig supporting John Mayer‘s recent arena tour, and more. Being so new to the world yet so sonically powerful, the soulful, slide guitar-steeped power trio undoubtedly converted a large new swath of fans on Friday. They also had the distinction of being the band onstage at 4:20 p.m. (on 4/20, at 420 Fest), and marked the occasion by dusting off their infrequently-played cover of the Grateful Dead classic “Easy Wind”.
From there, the masses moved back over to the Planet 420 Stage for a Spafford set at dusk, marking one of the most well-attended performances at the secondary stage all weekend. Check out a clip of Spafford rocking “The Remedy” for a packed park crowd at SweetWater 420 Fest with a stunning view of the urban surroundings below:
Sturgill Simpson finally began his big run of summer festivals at 420 Fest day 1. With Simpson at the helm on vocals and guitar, the talented quartet played with long pent-up excitement. When Simpson remarked, “This is our first show together since October 14th,” he did so with the eager tone of a kid who’s been grounded by their parents–He’d clearly been itching to get back onstage since the moment he last stepped off it, eagerly counting down the days until he could finally let loose again. 4/20 had been circled on Sturgill’s calendar for months, and that giddiness shined through in the band’s performance. Watch a clip from Sturgill’s set below:
Sturgill Simpson – “Some Days”, “California Women”, “Turtles All The Way Down” – 4/20/18
Following a set by Stick Figure at the Planet 420 Stage featuring a sit-in from an old collaborator as well as and an appearance by band mascot/Instagram celebrity canine Cocoa the Tour Dog, The String Cheese Incident closed out the festival’s first day at the SweetWater Main Stage with two guest-filled sets. Toward the end of SCI’s first frame, the band welcomed The Motet vocalist Lyle Divinsky and drummer Dave Watts (and vocalist Rhonda Thomas) for the debut live performance of “Get To You“, a collaboration between SCI and Divinsky released via the Sound Lab last week. Rhonda Thomas stuck around for the next song: a rare cover of Jamiroquai‘s “Space Cowboy”, further fueling rumors that the British funk band will be appearing at the String Cheese-hosted Suwannee Hulaween later this year.
Their second and final set opened with their smallest guest of the night, guitar prodigy and 420 Fest artist-at-large Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, who helped shred his way through “Close Your Eyes”, before returning to the stage along with Thomas for a show-closing “I Saw The Light”. Check out a recap video of the performance below via ontheDL photography:
Setlist: The String Cheese Incident | SweetWater 420 Fest | Atlanta, GA | 4/20/2018
Set One: Sirens > Let’s Go Outside, Song In My Head, My One And Only, Get To You^, Space Cowboy#, Believe*
Set Two: Close Your Eyes@, Beautiful > Hi Ho No Show, Joyful Sound > Rumble > Falling Through The Cracks, Rollover > Restless Wind
Encore: Happy Birthday Travis, I Saw The Light%
^ = First Time Played, w/ Lyle Divinsky, Dave Watts of The Motet and Rhonda Thomas
# = Jamiroquai cover w/ Rhonda Thomas
@ = w/ Brandon “Taz” Niederauer
% = w/ Taz & Rhonda
* = w/ Rhonda
Day two at 2018’s SweetWater 420 Fest began with early-afternoon sets by Funk You, Anders Osborne, Marco Benevento, SOJA, and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer’s band. From there, as The Infamous Stringdusters dusted the Planet 420 Stage, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead threw down two incredible sets (perhaps the toughest, though thankfully one of the only truly vexing scheduling conflicts of the weekend). JRAD’s second set, in particular, was fantastic, featuring a setlist stocked with verifiable Grateful Dead classics and a heavy dose of extra-strength improv on each and every tune. If nothing else, it was certainly one of the larger sets the band has played, and they smiled and laughed throughout the performance, clearly enjoying their view of the tens of thousands of people packed into the Atlanta park and the cityscape behind it. Watch some clips from JRAD’s 420 Fest set below via YouTube user Clifton Dyer:
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – “Shakedown Street” – 4/21/18
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” – 4/21/18
Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | SweetWater 420 Fest | Atlanta, GA | 4/21/18
Set 1: Jam > Cats Under The Stars, Feel Like A Stranger, Jam > The Wheel, Estimated Prophet > He’s Gone
Set 2: Shakedown Street > I Need A Miracle, Ramble On Rose, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider > Not Fade Away, One More Saturday Night
After a Ghostland Observatory interlude at Planet 420, Tedeschi Trucks Band took the Main Stage for their headlining performance. TTB worked through staple originals new and old, as well as go-to cover classics. At the tail end of their set, the band welcomed out the special guest the whole crowd was waiting for: Young Brandon Niederauer, artist-at-large.
Taz traded licks with Trucks on the blues standard, a former staple of the Allman Brothers Band shows where Trucks played the role of young guitar phenom once upon a time. Niederauer would return to the stage for a double-dip Sly & The Family Stone encore (“Sing A Simple Song”, “I Want To Take You Higher”). As the young guitarist and one of his most respected mentors riffed back and forth, you could feel their connection. You could see Taz studying Trucks’ every note, trying to learn as much as possible from this opportunity. You could see the perpetually stoic Trucks crack a smile of amusement at what he was seeing and hearing. You could feel that this was a truly meaningful experience for everyone involved.
Tedeschi Trucks Band wsg Brandon “Taz” Niederauer – Full Set – 4/21/18
Setlist: Tedeschi Trucks Band | SweetWater 420 Fest | Atlanta, GA | 4/21/18
Set 1: Laugh About It, Made Up Mind , Don’t Know What It Means, Part of Me, Midnight In Harlem, Key To The Highway, Angel From Montgomery > Sugaree, Get What You Deserve, How Blue Can You Get?, Shame, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Statesboro Blues*, I Want More^
Encore: Sing A Simple Song*, I Want to Take You Higher*
Notes: * with Brandon “Taz” Niederauer; ^with Santana “Soul Sacrifice” outro
After two days of beautiful spring weather, all-day April showers made for a soggy Sunday at Centennial Olympic Park. While the rain deterred a noticeable amount of the crowd that had gathered the previous two nights, Sweetwater 420 Fest’s top-notch closing day lineup gave those who braved the storm a day of music to remember.
Taz was back at it early on Sunday, hopping in on Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds‘ early afternoon set at the SweetWater Main Stage. Despite the change of pace from Sister Sparrow to the Greensky Bluegrass set that followed on that stage, Taz once again emerged to sit in. The immensely talented young 420 Fest “belle of the ball” added his spiritual and scholarly connection to the Allman Brothers Band family for a cover of “Midnight Rider”. As with virtually every band Taz plays with, the Greensky guys took a second to process what they had just seen once he left the stage, with Paul Hoffman jokingly throwing up his hands and proclaiming “Well, I guess we’re done…what were you doing when you were 15?”
Greensky Bluegrass – “Midnight Rider” [Allman Brothers Band cover] – 4/22/18
While Greensky serenaded the Main Stage, high-powered Brooklyn-based quartet TAUK delivered an energetic performance at Planet 420, culminating in a thrilling, rain-soaked rendition of Rush‘s “Tom Sawyer”. Check out a clip below:
Vulfpeck took the main stage next, playing their typically entertaining live set featuring all of their staple collaborators (including Antwaun Stanley, Joey Dosik, and Cory Wong). Check out a couple clips from Vulfpeck’s performance below, including their a cappella rendition of “Back Pocket” and a clip of Joe Dart‘s “Beastly” bass solo featuring an ATL-appropriate Outkast tease:
Vulfpeck – Back Pocket [Acappella] – 4/22/18
[Video: Clifton Dyer]
Following Vulfpeck, Papadosio closed down the Planet 420 itinerary in the hardest downpour thus far–though the small yet enthusiastic crowd didn’t seem to mind. As they wound down their two-hour set, headliners Umphrey’s McGee took the Main Stage for the final performance of SweetWater 420 Fest 2018.
Even after a weekend packed with stellar performances from several of the best bands in the business, Umphrey’s showed why they belonged in the festival-closing spot, laying down a magnificent set for the diehards still down to brave the storm. The band was hot from start to finish, but the most memorable portion of the performance came within the bounds of an incredible mid-set “Mantis” sandwich. Following the first portion of the tune, which the band skillfully pushed toward the twenty-minute mark, Umphrey’s moved into “Wife Soup”. From there, they too brought out Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, who helped the band through a hair-raising performance of classic Stevie Ray Vaughan instrumental, “Lenny”. As Brendan Bayliss commented, “Whoa! That is impressive. When I was 15, I was stealing fireworks. I didn’t even have a guitar!”
The band followed with a big, bad “Draconian” before returning to “Mantis” to complete the segment. “Wappy Sprayberry” and “Ringo” served as a one-two punch to close the set. For their three-song encore, Umphrey’s opened with an entirely appropriate cover of Led Zeppelin‘s “Fool In The Rain”–their first rendition since 2016–before closing out with “Ocean Billy” and “The Silent Type”. You can listen to the full show via nugs.tv here.
Umphrey’s McGee | SweetWater 420 Fest | Atlanta, GA | 4/22/18
One Set: Half Delayed, Remind Me, Booth Love, Preamble > Mantis > Wife Soup, Lenny, Draconian > Mantis, Wappy Sprayberry > Ringo
Encore: Fool in the Rain, Ocean Billy, The Silent Type
 with Brandon “Taz” Niederauer on guitar
SweetWater 420 Fest 2018 is now in the rearview, and everyone involved will surely agree that it was a festival of the highest caliber. The level of musicianship on display non-stop throughout the weekend was humbling and inspiring for everybody in Centennial Olympic Park–from the people in the crowd to the musicians onstage. Such was the magic of SweetWater 420 Fest: The small, straightforward urban event gathered a truly spectacular collection of performers and created something even bigger and more beautiful than the sum of its incredible parts. Happy 4/20 all, we’ll see you next year!
Check out photos from days 1 and 2 of SweetWater 420 Fest 2018 below via photographer Christian Stewart.