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A different perspective on the Festival
Out-of-town guests can reinvigorate your thinking
The Punch Brothers' 2009 SMF concert at the Lucas Theater - photo by Geoff L Johnson

Make your home in Savannah for long enough and it’s almost frighteningly easy to wake up one morning and realize you have inadvertently come to take the inherent beauty of much of the city for granted.

Whether it’s the sometimes centuries-old buildings of the waterfront and downtown’s National Historic Landmark District, the rustic charm of the Isle of Hope, the solemnity of Bonaventure Cemetery or the scenic, unspoiled, almost pastoral stretch of Bay St. between MLK Jr., Blvd. and Garden City,  Savannah is a town like few —if any— in the USA.
That’s a fact that can be obscured by the relatively myopic focus that often falls upon the minutiae of day-to-day living in this fecund coastal enclave.

Sometimes, however —as many established local residents can likely attest— all it takes to remind oneself of the spell this area can so easily cast is to entertain out of town guests for a few days.

Pointing out architectural details you’d long ago grown nonplussed about, revisiting a beloved independent restaurant that had somehow fallen out of your normal rotation or simply taking an extended walk or drive and noticing the look of wonder and rejuvenation that flashes across the countenance of a visiting loved one is usually enough to jog those of us fortunate enough to have stumbled upon —and subsequently cast our lot in— this endlessly frustrating hamlet back to the reality of our surroundings.

In a very real respect, the same scenario could be applied to the Savannah Music Festival.

Although it’s only been around in this format for less than a decade, each and every year since the old Savannah Onstage Festival was re-conceptualized and re-branded as the SMF, the nearly three-week-long showcase of traditional, roots and fine art music has presented a fairly staggering lineup of world-class (if not also world-famous) musicians from both here and abroad.

The overwhelming majority of the featured acts are artists that quite simply put would never otherwise appear within four or five hours of here.

It’s an embarrassment of riches with no compelling reason for existing, save for the belief by some local lovers of culture that a large scale event of this type adds great value to the quality of life for Savannahians, and the belief by some powerful players in city government that it serves as a powerful tool in promoting tourism.

And promote tourism it does.

According to the polling company employed by the SMF to help track community impact of the Festival, with each passing year, the number of SMF attendees who traveled more than 200 miles to take in a show or two (or four, or ten, for that matter) is growing. According to the SMF’s Executive & Artistic Director Rob Gibson, that figure now hovers around fifty percent.

That means that roughly half of everyone found at a given SMF show is also visiting Savannah for at least that day and probably more. Most of them are staying in hotels or inns, and almost all of them are eating out and doing a bit of shopping while they’re here. That adds up very quickly.

It also contributes to the stigma which —in certain circles— surrounds the SMF. Namely, that it is —in the words of one enthusiastic, repeat audience member I met a few nights back at the Latin Dance Party show with pianist Eddie Palmieri and his group La Perfecta II— a “rich person’s festival.”

He told me that for the past several years he planned his vacation around the Music Festival, purchasing tickets to handfuls of shows, and travelling from Pennsylvania for almost the entire duration of the event.

The inference was clear: this is a showcase of somewhat ratified music geared toward the well-heeled and those in the uppermost social strata. I acknowledged his point and would have been tempted to agree with him wholeheartedly (if I hadn’t known better), when he followed up his remark by explaining that he himself wasn’t a rich person.

Turns out his brother lives here in town and, as they both adored a wide variety of music, this was the perfect excuse to play catch up with family (and assumably stay here for free). He reveled in the notion that by merely socking a little bit of money away every month, once a year he was able to score himself tickets to see some of the greatest living legends in their respective genres, all in one batch, sometimes twice in one day.

“This is where it’s at,” he proclaimed. “This is the best of any of the music festivals in the country, ‘cause they got everything here,” he continued, praising the festival for booking such an unusually broad spectrum of artists from across the globe.

Sitting with us at a cozy, four-top table in the back of the Morris Center was my father, a lifelong music enthusiast who lives about eight hours away in the Appalachian Mountains. I’d tried for ages to convince him to come visit me and take in the SMF because I knew that no matter how astonishing each year’s lineup might look on paper or online, to actually witness it up close and personal was a whole ‘nother thing entirely.

I reasoned that if he was only able to muster up the dough and find the time to make the trip, he’d wind up with memories that would last a lifetime of artists he’d otherwise likely never see play live onstage. I was correct.

For us, these two brothers were essentially kindred spirits, and although we only chatted briefly, there was much common ground between us, at least as far as an appreciation of great artistry goes.

Now, my dad’s not a rich man. Not by any means. But that didn’t stop him from feeling right at home at the SMF.

Between me and my two brothers, we were able to surprise him a couple of months back with news that we’d bought a handful of tickets with his name on them, and all he had to do was get himself down to Savannah for a week or so.

Against the odds, he made the trip, and, as per our plan, was able to witness some of the more incredible concerts of his life.  The looks that would cross his face both during and after these shows, and the enthusiasm with which he recounted what we had just seen and heard was palpable.

And just like the eye-opening experience of pointing out to friends the antique cast iron drain spouts in the shape of fish which adorn some of downtown’s most regal homes, or the “echo chamber” that’s hidden in one of the small squares on the far East end of River Street, or the restored steam locomotive engines at the Historic Roundhouse Railroad Museum by the Visitors Center, it helped me to appreciate even more than ever before what a phenomenally impressive, important and worthwhile venture this whole Savannah Music Festival thing is.

Are there things I’d change about the Music Festival? Sure.

Do I have a handful of unsolicited suggestions for ways to diversify, improve upon and more creatively market the Festival to some of the key demographics which it seems to have trouble reaching? Guilty as charged.

Then again, that’s only because I want nothing more than to see positive cultural happenings in this town not just survive, but thrive.

Plus, it’s also been said I’m something of a windbag.

In the end, though, my dad’s tickets cost exactly $207, which included various service and online ordering fees. What did that get him?

Well, dig this:

Front row seats to see an intimate, club-size set by West Coast jazz giants The Clayton Brothers, whose unbelievably tight and classy instrumental quintet (including bassist John Clayton’s outstanding son Gerald on piano and the red-hot trumpeter Terrell Stafford) mixed  a stone-to-the-bone, mid-’70s brass vibe with lovingly ornery stage banter reminiscent of another great brother act: The Smothers Brothers

A front row center balcony seat to see the stunning tour de force that was Chick Corea & John McLaughlin’s Five Peace Band at the Trustees Theater. For many, this lengthy blast of aggressive, self-indulgent jazz fusion was bombastic and tiresome — but for some (including my father and myself) it was one of the most dazzling and challenging live music events we’ve ever witnessed.

He got a great seat in the Telfair Museum’s resplendent rotunda to witness some of the finest chamber musicians on the international scene (including violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Sebastian Knauer) perform Schubert’s “Death and The Maiden” and one of Elgar’s Piano Quintets.

And, he had another front row seat (just a few feet away from drummer extraordinaire Jason Marsalis) for the last of two Latin-tinged sets by the always sublime Ellis Marsalis Quartet, led by the esteemed pianist, jazz educator and father of superstar horn men Wynton and Branford.

He made the front row again to catch two of India’s most revered classical musicians, tabla icon Zakir Hussain and santoor master Shivkumar Sharma (with their special guest, an extremely nervous yet inspired —and inspirational— Daniel Hope) lay down lengthy, improvised percussion-oriented ragas.

And finally, we were lucky enough to score a pass for one of the best seats in the back of the house at the aforementioned Latin Dance Party with the Grammy winning Eddie Palmieri’s ten-piece group. That show found dozens of people, young and old alike, tearing it up on the dance floor to the trombone-heavy, Puerto Rican salsa and charanga (with some unexpected, John Coltrane-esque fuzz guitar solos).

Average cost for his tickets per show? $41.40, which could seem a little pricey. Yet, these were great seats for A-List artists, many of whom have never played here before and may never again. And, when you break it down, each ticket cost about as much as three average dinners with a decent tip.

Plus, buying the least expensive seats for many of these same shows would have shaved almost fifty percent off that total.

So, for any locals out there who may have erroneously believed the SMF was either out of their price range, or simply not designed for them — this puts the lie to that notion.

By squirreling away $30 a month between now and the middle of October, when the Festival will announce their 2010 schedule and launch ticket sales for next year’s event, you could easily have enough money stockpiled to see seven to ten of the biggest and best shows on tap.

All by having a couple less beers (or bagels, or burritos) each week, which let’s face it, we could all probably stand to do without anyway.

If anyone is interested in hearing more about my take on the above mentioned shows —as well as the ones that I caught without my dad in tow— I'll be posting that online in the next day or so...