Shoals Fest is a two day music festival in Florence, Alabama on the banks of the Tennessee River. Tuscumbia, Sheffield, and music mecca Muscle Shoals are just across the river and it’s an absolutely beautiful location for a festival.
Full disclosure, I grew up in the Shoals area. I left when I was 18 but still have lots of family and friends in town so while there are plenty of places to stay near the festival, my wife and I stayed with my parents a few miles away.
We drove to the festival site on day one and got there a little early because the website said there was free parking on-site but it was first come, first serve. The festival takes place in McFarland Park and there’s a now defunct golf driving range that serves as the parking lot. It’s pretty big and while it’s a bit of a hike to the entrance, there was plenty of free parking which is a nice music festival bonus.
Another nice thing about the layout was there were basically three viewing areas. The VIP area was stage-left, with up close rail views and a covered tent area with food and drinks. We were not VIP ticket holders so our options were a standard standing rail area stage-right or an area back farther that was a chair area. You could bring in camping or beach chairs and set up on the grass.
The sound was great back there so we did both. We set up our chairs with our friends and hung out listening or eating and talking between sets. And if there were acts we really wanted to see we went to the standing area to get a better view. Loved that option.
The festival is put on by Shoals native Jason Isbell and has a kind of Americana, Blues, Rock feel. Day 1 highlights for me were: Brittney Spencer, the incredible Blues guitarist “Kingfish” Ingram, and a headlining set by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats that had the whole place rocking. His backing band is huge, or as my friend Tim put it, “Soooo many Sweats” 🙂
But maybe my favorite part of Day 1 was an afternoon in-the-round set with Jason Isbell, John Paul White, Chris Tompkins, and Gary Nichols. I absolutely love musicians telling stories about their songs, cutting up with each other, and playing beautiful stripped down acoustic versions of their music. And these four songwriters, all with Shoals roots and 11 Grammys between them are next level.
At the end of Day 1, we got back to my parents a little before midnight and crashed into bed. Next morning we slept in and then my mom cooked us a mouth-watering southern breakfast. (If the festival organizers could get my mom to cook breakfast for every ticket holder, they would easily double attendance:)
We took our time getting to the fest site on Day 2 because we knew parking wasn’t a problem so we spent some time with family and stopped downtown for a coffee at the adorable “Dandelion Tea and Coffee Bar” before heading over. (Downtown Florence is wonderful, so if you get the chance to spend some time there, do.)
Parking was easy as expected although because we got in a little later our chair setup was a little farther back but it still sounded great. It was another beautiful day listening to music by the river.
If I had to pick one thing to complain about for the festival as a whole, it would probably be the food choices. I know, it’s a common fest problem but like a lot of festivals, you can’t bring in outside food or drink and there’s no re-entry so you can’t leave and come back. So once you’re in for 7 or 8 hours, if you want to eat or drink, you have to buy from the fest. But there were only four food trucks to choose from so lines were pretty long, all to buy, for example, two tacos for $17. There were PLENTY of beer tents and short lines to buy your $9 beers though. I know it’s the nature of festivals but it brings out the grumpy old man in me. 🙂 On to the music.
Day 2 highlights were: John Moreland, Amanda Shires playing songs from her new album before being joined on stage by her husband Jason Isbell and their daughter Mercy, one of my favorite bands Drivin’ n Cryin’, and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit closing out the night. The highlight of that set for me was Kevn Kinney from Drivin’ n Cryin’ joining them on stage for an explosive version of Honeysuckle Blue.
For all of the beautiful, melancholy, heart wrenching songs that Isbell writes, his live concerts with the 400 Unit are all out rock shows. I’ve seen him a couple of times in the Shoals, a couple of times in Gulf Shores, and once at the Beacon in New York and I will see them any chance I get. I’m glad he puts on this festival in his (and my) hometown and I hope it continues.