It’s a shame there’s not enough going on in Savannah during the month of March. The seaport city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day shindig is among the biggest parties you’ll find anywhere. The genre-obliterating, internationally acclaimed Savannah Music Festival kicks off on March 29. The weather’s typically beautiful that time of year.
Oh yeah—and there’s also Savannah Stopover.
The eighth annual installment of this music festival meets pub crawl runs from Thursday March 8 through Saturday March 10. The three-day event continues to grow even while retaining its homespun charm. “We’re now over 5,000 in total attendance, but what I think still makes it cool is that the venues are on the smaller side,” explains Stopover founder and CEO Kayne Lanahan.
The name itself is a throwback to the fest’s origins as a way station for musicians working their way down the eastern seaboard to perform at Austin’s annual South By Southwest festival. Savannah Stopover offered a friendly respite and a guaranteed paycheck.
That logistical perk still factors into the equation for about 60 percent of the bands, “but it goes down a little each year” as Stopover’s own stature grows, Lanahan estimates. “And our headliners aren’t very South By driven.” Sure enough, none of the main events from this year’s 80-strong lineup is on a trek to Austin. And two of those headliners have firm Georgia ties—Atlanta-based roots rock sisters Larkin Poe and Athens’ constantly shape-shifting yet consistently heady Of Montreal.
Though not explicitly by design, one of the unique traits setting Savannah Stopover apart is its healthy dose of women artists. “I’d have to go back and count, but I think last year over 30 of the bands were female-led, recalls Lanahan. “It might be because I’m a woman and a big fan and supporter of women in music that I just gravitate to it. I think there are so many great women doing great things in music right now that it happens kind of naturally.”
Other 2018 entries on this front also reinforce the Stopover’s stylistic diversity. Lanahan points to Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics as well as the Pylon Re-Enactment Society, a continuing reinvention of the legendary 1980s Athens band led by original singer Vanessa Hay Briscoe. “I happened to catch them at Bragg Jam in Macon this summer and I was blown away by their show. They hadn’t played Savannah yet so I thought this was a perfect fit.”
If I had a magic wand I’d have paired the Re-Enactment Society with Shopping, the young London/Glasgow trio that channels a similar bass-driven, minimalist dance vibe- and one of five acts from outside the US gracing this year’s roster. But a minor quibble like this is easily forgivable given the circumstances—Lanahan approaches her mammoth task of devising the three-day schedule as akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube. “I think we do it a little differently than most festivals because we’re so venue-driven,” she explains. “We try to give bands heading to South By Southwest as much flexibility on the date as we can. We don’t initially lock them into a day if they’re trying to route a tour down. Then we line things up by venue, musically, demographically, by capacity.”
Despite several recognizable names, many of the performers will be unfamiliar to casual fans. That’s precisely the point—Lanahan proudly positions Savannah Stopover as a “music discovery” event. “We really look at it ‘music first’ — who’s doing great stuff right now, who has good new stuff coming out, who’s bubbling up who we think is really talented. I get so excited about the younger up and coming bands.” Lanahan’s enthusiasm is clear as she begins rattling off some of her favorite non-household names. “Nation of Language is sort of a post-punk New Order dance 80s throwback from Brooklyn that I think is incredible. FRIGS are a great punk band from Toronto. KOLARS are a husband/wife duo- she tap dances on the drums as part of the percussion. You have to see them live to really appreciate it.”
With most of the venues—like nationally acclaimed bar the Jinx and the scrappy El-Rocko Lounge—within easy sauntering distance in Savannah’s historic district, combined with the festival’s wristband admission setup and the city’s open carry laws, it’s easy to hop from club to club and sample a variety of sounds. The expanding radius of revelers proves Lanahan is onto something. Music fans from more than 30 states—plus Canadians from as far away as British Columbia—attended last year, and 2018 is on pace to best that figure.
One new twist for 2018 is the fest’s first national label showcase. “we were already having conversations with a couple of New West artists,” say Lanahan, when the plan was hatched to turn it into a bigger show as part of the label’s 20th anniversary celebration. The result is a Friday night embarrassment of riches with rising stars Nikki Lane, Caroline Rose, Lily Hiatt, and Athens’ Cicada Rhythm on a single bill at the Ships of the Sea Museum—an unconventional venue with a capacity of roughly 1,000 that’s Savannah Stopover’s largest.
Saturday brings two more label showcases, including an afternoon with New West affiliate Normaltown Records, the current musical home of Athens fixture David Barbe. Barbe fronted 1990s stalwarts Sugar alongside Bob Mould, has produced most Drive-By Truckers albums, and in his spare time leads the Music Business Certificate program at the University of Georgia. He’ll undoubtedly return home with a few pointers for his students from the Stopover.
Amid all the musical excitement, revelers will also find themselves in scenic Savannah as spring weather rolls in. “We don’t start bands until 5pm on Thursday and Friday so people coming for the weekend have all day to explore. We have some great small museums here.” Lanahan suggests the Telfair, or SCAD for contemporary works. “Or assuming the weather’s great, just walk around.”
One of Saturday’s headliners, Wild Child, is flipping the script by venturing from its Austin home base to kick off its tour at the Stopover. “They played Savannah last year and had such a great time they reached out to us early to make sure they could work a return into their album release schedule,” Lanahan beams. Wild Child is hardly alone in turning the Stopover into a destination.
For more info and tickets, visit SavannahStopover.com.