Live Review

Folk Beach: Day One at 30A Songwriters Festival

Robby Hecht on January 13, 2017

Robby Hecht and Caroline Spence at the Folk Alley house, courtesy Folk Alley

The stretch of Highway 30A between Rosemary Beach and Miramar, Florida, is a quaint, picturesque roadside that looks as if it were torn straight from a brochure for snowbirds. Gently colored buildings house craft breweries and seafood restaurants, woodfired pizza, yoga, fancy coffee joints, and so on. Miles of placid Gulf Coast sandy beaches are just about a block away. Beautiful people of all ages, untackily well-tanned, cruise around on rented bicycles, which are comfortably accommodated by wide roadside paths stretching in every direction. It's into this idyllic, carefree vacation zone, where, incidentally, The Truman Show was filmed — a local cop told me you can take a Truman Show tour via app and enter to win a vacation — that the 30A Songwriters Festival descends each year. 

But don't let the cool, calm exterior fool you. 30A is a behemoth occurrence welcoming some 175 artists to 25 venues across about a dozen small towns up and down the highway after which it was named. In 2017, this includes John Prine, Cheap Trick, Dr. John & the Nite Trippers, Shawn Colvin, Matthew Sweet, Todd Snider, Parker Millsap, and, quite literally, on and on and on. In fact, the bulk of the 90-page welcome booklet is simply page after page of artist bios.

Having gone to music festivals for a living for more than a decade, I find the schedule a bit overwhelming, but that’s not a bad thing. These are my people. It feels a bit like Folk Alliance at the beach. Winter festivals can be a bit of a stark undertaking. The only other truly successful one I’ve attended is Wintergrass out in Washington State, where winter is grey and to-the-bone cold. Everything at that festival takes place, necessarily, deep in the heart of a hotel ballroom. Here in Florida, meanwhile, you can get a hotdog and a Corona from a food truck and sit outside sweating.

As for my first day here, I basically roamed the grounds getting my bearings, marveling at the sheer subtropical beauty of the place, looking for any signs of diversity (I didn’t find them, unless you count the street tacos; I don’t), and connecting with friends. I joined the throngs and rented a bike, road over to a sleepy resort community where my friends at Folk Alley had rented a house for recording their series of videos. I arrived in the middle of a shoot featuring a duo performance from Robby Hecht and Caroline Spence. They are two of the most soft-spoken singer-songwriters in Nashville. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever heard from these two, and their voices blend beautifully and easily. The music they make is the aural equivalent of wine and chocolate. There’s no need to fight it; just kick back and relax.

They were set up in the living room, flanked by a woman working sound, two camera people (aka Beehive Productions), and Folk Alley producer Linda Fahey. Light from the windows filtered in behind them, across a wide, welcoming porch. I had my daughter with me, who’s almost three, and being quiet enough to let the shoot unfold was a bit of a challenge, so we cut the visit short and headed back into the fray.

Later on, at the Trebeaché, I got a little change of pace. There was a double bill featuring Grant Peeples and Dan Bern. (Bern suggested the name of the place was pronounced Tre-biotch.) The pair swapped songs and poems, old-school folkie style, following each other’s lead through biting political commentary and bold-faced sarcasm. When Bern introduced one of the 37 poems he wrote about Richard Nixon, Peeples countered with one he wrote for the South following the 2016 presidential election. Bern sang about baseball, Peeples ripped into the state of Florida. It was an utter intellectual humorist folksinging delight. Bern told me about an app he created called Radio Free Bernsteinn, which streams his music ("about 30 percent" was his estimation) and a great many other things by other people, including poems, spoken word, speeches. I downloaded it in the parking lot and headed back to the hotel. That set was exactly the right way to end an opening day at this thing.

Ahead are hours at a jazz brunch, a morning of Prince yoga, the answer to the questions, “Do I really need to see Cheap Trick at a songwriter’s festival?” and “Will I stumble upon the diversity?”… and who knows how many discoveries. Regardless of what music lies in wait, I’ve already decided we’ll be back next year. So now that that tough decision is out of the way, to the beach!

Good article!

I've always wanted to attend this festival due to the sheer talent it attracts, even though it can be chilly in the Florida Panhandle this time of year.

I've been visiting Seaside since before it was gentrified, it was, and still is, one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in the world. And I agree, if you're looking for diversity, you're in the wrong place. Even though I consider myself a "Contemporary Caucasoid", it is about the whitest place (including that Applachian quartz sand) there is.

After many, many years and many, many shows, I have come to the conclusion that songwriting is what makes or breaks an act. 

When it works, it seems like nothing is happening - it's just a great song. When it doesn't, you end up kind of puzzled and thinking 'what is wrong with these folks? I want to like them, but...'

As a non-songwriter, I'm often amazed at how hard it appears to be.

This week, I saw Robert Earl Keen and Dave Alvin in successive nights. I didn't really know Keen all that well. I ended up thinking that he's got a number of fine songs, and a few killer songs. But I left feeling, 'that was pretty good'.

Alvin's show, while simultaneously less polished (it was a one-off) and more proficient, was full of great songs. I've seen him many times before, so I knew what to expect. But I would imagine anyone walking in from the street would be thinking 'damn, those are good songs'.

It's a great mystery how some acts connect with you and some don't. And a friend may have just the opposite reaction. If other factors are equal, I'm betting the songwriting takes the day.