This was my third time at the 30A Songwriters Festival, and, for me at least, it just keeps getting better. The festival is spread over thirty miles of Highway 30A along the beach in the Florida panhandle. Bands and headliners play full sets, but the songwriters perform in round-robin groups of two or three according to a schedule announced a week ahead of time. You never know until the last minute who you will be playing with or at what venues. My shows this year turned out to be challenging, inspiring and a lot of fun.
My history is mostly with bands, rather than acoustic song swaps, so I’m still learning as I go. But one thing I figured out early is that it’s not about one-upping the other guy. Audiences enjoy when the performers work together and when these almost random pairings produce moments that will never happen again. Every song has to follow what came before, and you never know what that’s going to be until it comes. If the singer before you goes big and brings down the house, then it’s time to go small and intimate and draw people in, or vice versa. Sometimes you need to clear the air with a good story. Other times you just jump right in. It’s like playing tennis. You’ve got to keep on your toes.
Friday night at Redfish Taco I performed with Peter Karp, a blues guitarist and pianist from New Jersey. Peter and I met at 30A Fest last year when we faced a rowdy crowd at AJ’s in Grayton Beach. We teamed up and played on each other’s songs that night and have stayed in touch since. I sat in with Peter's band last year when they played the Vista Room in Atlanta. This was a fun set and a great way to kick off the festival.
Saturday night by the beach at Seaside I worked with Abe Partridge, from Mobile, Alabama. Abe is a former preacher who left the ministry to go to war in the Middle East. After he left the service he started writing songs. He also paints and arranges shows in local galleries to coincide with his concerts. Abe is sort of a down-home Tom Waits meets Howard Finster. His songs are unflinchingly honest — grim or hilarious, and often both. I enjoyed his set tremendously.
Sunday I shared the stage at the Boat House in Watercolor with two solid pros: Webb Wilder and Jerry Joseph. I’ve known Webb a long time and have been a fan ever since the first time I saw him with his band, the Beatnecks, years ago at the Exit Inn in Nashville. Jerry Joseph, from Portland, Oregon, besides writing incredibly powerful songs, has been doing things like teaching rock guitar to American soldiers in Kabul and taking guitars to a refugee camp in Iraq. The three of us mixed it up, taking solos and singing backup on each other’s songs. This show was a highlight for me and I hope for the audience as well.
There were hundreds of great artists at the 30A festival. Because of scheduling conflicts and the distances involved I saw hardly any of the shows that I would have liked to. Over the weekend, though, I did manage to connect with a number of old friends. I like to think I made a few new ones, too.
Thanks, 30A, for a great experience. I hope we can do it again.
(Photos by Rick Diamond)