Zac Brown and company sound huge at Blackbaud 

A report from Day One of the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival

Southern Ground Music and Food Festival
Oct. 21
Blackbaud Stadium

Since ChazzFest fizzled out after two years in 2007, no one has tried to pull off a multi-day music festival in the Lowcountry, at least to that kind of scale. Even the one day ShineFest in 2009, despite being located downtown at Joe Riley Stadium, was ultimately a bust due to low attendance.

So when the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival was announced a few months ago, the pressure was on to bring out numbers. Like ChazzFest, the event was planned for Daniel Island, although this time it would move to Blackbaud Stadium.

Coordinated by country stars the Zac Brown Band, who headline all three nights, the event hoped to bring in both country fans and diehard live music fans with acts like Steel Pulse, the Warren Haynes Band, and My Morning Jacket.

Arriving around 5 p.m. on Friday (Oct. 21), the fest seemed to be rolling along smoothly. The Warren Haynes Band played a set heavy with cover songs, including Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and teases of "Jungle Boogie." Of course, Haynes couldn't leave the stage without playing "Soulshine." One cool tidbit: I ran into Key of Q bassist Nick Carusos in the bathroom line, and he mentioned that Warren's bass player, Ron Johnson (also of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe) had borrowed his bass rig for the gig.

And it sounded great. Everything did. Zac Brown talked up his new PA in his interview with City Paper, and it lived up to the hype. It was loud, but never uncomfortably so, even 50 feet from the stage. What was most impressive was that standing 200 yards away, the volume hardly faded off at all. Wherever you were within Blackbaud stadium, the sound was pristine.

Regarding layout, however, the location of vendors in the middle of the field obstructed the path between the two opposing stages, even squeezing folks watching the smaller Honest Tea Stage off to the sides. Dangermuffin held down a solid crowd here, in a choice time spot between Haynes and Brown. The band stuck with the focus tracks from 2010's Moonscapes, as well as their usual Pink Floyd cover, "Breathe."

For Friday, Brown ceded the final spot to My Morning Jacket, opting to play at 6:30 p.m. with an opening night set exclusively of covers. The result was the feel of a really good bar band, with incredibly over-the-top production. The scaffolding of the stage, in fact, reached at least 100 feet over the band. Seven giant LCD screens played behind the band.

Brown opened with Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With," followed by Steve Miller's "Swingtown." Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" was a nice twist from the classics, as was Ryan Adam's "Oh, My Sweet Carolina." The band chose an interesting rendition in "Comfortably Numb," never an easy song considering it contains one of the most inspired, iconic guitar solos ever recorded. It went over well enough, but the random oddness of the set was all the more obvious with the subsequent "Folsom Prison Blues."

Just as I was thinking about a few other bands I'd love to see with this incredible level of production in an outdoor Charleston venue, Brown referenced one of them with a set closing cover of Widespread Panic's "Ain't Life Grand." Ho, hum.

Of course, Southern Ground was billed as both a food and music festival. Chefs Sean Brock and Mike Lata were supposedly on hand, but they were kept squirreled away, not visible to the general public. One impressive but relatively inaccessible feature of the event were the dining tables set up on raised platforms around the main stage. Fans forked over $275 and $475 each for these VIP seats, which featured a dumb waiter in the middle of the table where food was sent up from a kitchen below.

For the general public, food options included a booth from McCrady's (including Husk BBQ), Home Team BBQ, and Brown's own mobile kitchen, featuring his Pork Tenderloin with Love Sauce ($8) and Rusty's Jambalaya with Chicken, Shrimp, and Andouille Sausage ($8). Kudos goes to Home Team for offering the same portions and prices as at their physical location. Pork platter with two sides? $8.

After downing a massive plate of BBQ, I checked out The Whigs, who certainly do their part to keep the spirit of Athens, Ga., indie-rock alive, leaping frantically around stage in tight jeans with howling amps feeding back behind them.

Ending the night were My Morning Jacket, who lived up to the expectations they set with their excellent Family Circle show just down the street in 2010. With a giant eerie green eyeball on the screen behind them, the band opened with "Victory Dance" and "Off the Record." Jim James finally put the catwalk to use that jutted nearly 200 feet out into the crowd, somewhat oddly dividing the pit into two sections inaccessible to each other. When he strutted all the way to the end of the walk with his wireless guitar, the crowd roared their approval.

MMJ hit up all their notables, including "I'm Amazed," which built the scene for a follow-up tune that found James showing off his lead guitar, trading licks with Carl Broemel. Always the showman, James occasionally donned a cape, or draped a towel over his head while singing.

About halfway through the set, James addressed the crowd, noting the peaceful vibe and remarking on what a beautiful place Daniel Island was to play. The band kept the tempo high with a super quick "Outta My System," before Broemel sat down at his pedal steel for a number, followed by a turn on the saxophone. It's worth noting Broemel's new Beatles hair cut; not the '60s Fab Four bob, but something more like Paul McCartney's mullet phase. Alongside James and hairy monster Patrick Hallahan on the drums, bassist Tom Blankenship looked positively respectable with his clean-shaven face and three piece suit.

By the time MMJ brought out "Mahgeetah," inquiring, "Now are you ready to go?" we were, slowly making our way back to our parking spot, about half a mile down the road.

Is Southern Ground a success? After Friday, it's too early to tell. The stage, sound, and production are quite possibly the most professional outdoor concert attempted in Charleston. But even during the peaks of Zac Brown and MMJ's sets, the stadium seemed largely under capacity. Although the general admission crowd packed in thick, as close as they were permitted to be, the stands were almost completely empty. I'd estimate that between 2,500 and 3,000 people were there.

But Saturday's lineup is fairly impressive. Assuming that Sunday will draw the same amount or less folks than Friday, Southern Ground should be able to make the call on their financial viability by midday Saturday. Let's hope that they succeed. Even without many musical highlights until MMJ on Friday (and I missed Joan Osborne's Trigger Hippy and Blackberry Smoke, both of whom impressed trusted friends but apparently only a played to a few hundred people), the potential is grand.

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