Wanee And Peach Fest: Brothers In Arms
As the song “Midnight Rider” says, the road goes on forever, which is especially true for the Allman Brothers Band.
The Allmans stopped touring in 2014 and the deaths last year of founding members Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks left a hole in the live music scene as their fans and the industry as a whole mourned their loss. Both toured separately with their own groups after the Allman Brothers called it quits, and their spirit remains among Peach Fest attendees.
ABB manager Bert Holman, the keeper of the flame, retains his position in charge of the Allman Brothers Band as an intellectual property. The band is a partner in both Peach Fest and Wanee, a 13-year-old Florida event that jump-started the group’s foray into festivals.
The vision for Peach Fest started about 15 years ago with Trucks, the Allmans’ drummer who wanted to create an ABB-centric festival, Holman said. It would be the quintessential Allman Brothers experience, extending to a vendors’ village featuring Allmans recordings, artwork and other merchandise.
Working closely with Jonny Podell, the band’s longtime agent, the original concept involved the Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule, The Derek Trucks Band and “whatever band” on their own ABB members Jaimoe and Oteil Burbridge wanted to perform, Holman said.
“The problem was who’s going to fund it,” he said. “We’re not equipped to run a festival and where do you do it? Butch wanted to do this in 20 places. I told him, let’s try and do it one place first.”
Through a series of conversations Holman had with promoters, including Jon Stoll with Florida-based Fantasma Productions, he found a site at Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park in Live Oak, Fla., situated 85 miles west of Jacksonville. Stoll had promoted bluegrass shows at the park, and most important, it had an existing campground, which is essential for producing a multi-day festival.
“One thing led to another and the first year (2005) we drew about 5,000 in attendance,” Holman said. “We proved the concept but we weren’t making money. We had to expand what we were doing. We needed reggae, country and bluegrass acts with multiple headliners.”
Fantasma Productions ran Wanee over its first three years, and booked Railroad Earth, The Wailers and Nickel Creek, among others to create some balance among musical styles without veering too far from the jam band scene. Stoll died in January 2008, at which point, Live Nation acquired Fantasma and took over as Wanee’s co-producer. The April festival grew to become a strong event, drawing up to 18,000 a day. Holman then got to work on Peach Fest, which launched four years later.
Holman kept looking for the right spot for Peach Fest and with assistance from Northeast promoter Jim Koplik, he found Montage Mountain, a Live Nation amphitheater that’s part of a Pennsylvania ski resort. Holman knew the venue from working 13 years for John Scher, another northeast promoter. At that time, the facility had just approved camping for 4,000 people, and as a bonus, it had a waterpark, an attraction that set it apart from other festivals.
Montage Mountain proved to be the perfect site. The Allman Brothers’ biggest market is the northeast, Holman said, and the venue sits within a two-hour drive of New York and Philadelphia. Over the years, camping has expanded to the point that up to two-thirds of festival patrons pitch their tents on the mountain side. For those who don’t like sleeping on the ground, there are plenty of hotels in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre community.
In addition to satisfying their fans’ craving for all things Allman Brothers, the event met the needs of the band members as they began the gradual process for retiring from the road.
“The band was getting pressure on one side from Derek and Warren, who wanted time to go out and tour with their bands, and the guys in the Allman Brothers, Gregg particularly, who didn’t want to tour too much,” Holman said. “They found it grueling. We came to the idea of making everybody come to us, which is what did at the Beacon Theatre in New York. It’s easier on us. Same concept for the festival.”