The last time Grammy Award-nominated Americana combo the Avett Brothers performed in the Lowcountry was last November, when they partnered with the cherry soft drink company Cheerwine at the North Charleston Coliseum as part of its Legendary Giveback concert series.
This week, the core members of the North Carolina-based group - Scott Avett (vocals, banjo) and Seth Avett (vocals, guitar), Bob Crawford (vocals, bass) and Joe Kwon (cello) - return for another major local concert with caffeinated beverage connections, the eighth annual First Flush Festival at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island.
Situated in a pastoral setting, the so-called "fes-Tea-val" and outdoor concert is part of the plantation's annual celebration of the first tea harvest of the season. Local food trucks, vendors and several varieties of iced American Classic Tea will be on hand at the event between 1-6 p.m. Saturday.
Presented by the Charleston Tea Plantation, Music Farm Productions, and local station 105.5 The Bridge, a variety of local and visiting songwriters and bands are on the First Flush Festival roster as well. The two main stage lineups will feature several popular Charleston-based bands, including Stop Light Observations, the Luke Cunningham Band, Atlas Road Crew, the Tyler Boone Band, Uncle Mingo and Ben Fagan and the Holy City Hooligans.
On the nearby "acoustic stage," the bill features the Executives, the Steppin' Stones, Matt MacKelcan, Mike Pinto, Haley May Campbell, Mc- Kenna Andrews, Samantha Kirschstein, and other special guests.
This year's lineup is one of the most extensive so far of the festival's eight years. Organizers expect a large turnout for the full-day fest.
Owned by the R.C. Bigelow Tea company, the Charleston Tea Plantation is the home of the premier American Classic Tea, a robust black tea (Camellia sinensis). The plantation grounds include 127 acres of well-manicured tea plants. The company can boast the fact that its working tea factory is the only one of its kind in the country.
The history of tea plantations in the Lowcountry and South Carolina dates back to Colonial times when planters attempted to raise crops with varying degrees of success in Charleston, Summerville, Georgetown and around the Upstate.
In the early 1960s, the Thomas J. Lipton Company moved a fledgling tea company in Summerville over to Wadmalaw Island and ran it as a research station for 25 years. In 1987, entrepreneurs Mack Fleming and William Barclay Hall bought land and facilities and established the Charleston Tea Plantation as it is known today. The American Classic Tea brand caught on with local tea fans for its fresh, bold, slightly citrusy flavors and aromas.
The R.C. Bigelow Company (based in Connecticut) bought the plantation in 2003, partnering with Hall, who continues to oversee operations on Wadmalaw. The current lineup of teas (in tagless bags or in loose tea form) include the American Classic Tea, Charleston Breakfast, Governor Grey, Plantation Peach, Rockville Raspberry, and Island Green Tea.
While the name "First Flush Festival" may sound peculiar to some, dedicated tea drinkers are quite familiar with the rejuvenating "first flush" phenomenon, which involves the growth of new leaves on the tea plants in the spring.
The Charleston Tea Plantation specifically defines "first flush" tea as "the escalated growth of new leaves on the tea plants in the spring time after they awaken from dormancy."
The months of April and May are prime growing season. Traditionally, first flush tea was reserved only for royalty, according to the Charleston Tea Plantation.
It's fitting that the Avett Brothers will headline this year's First Flush Festival. The band initially formed in the early 2000s as an acoustic trio in the small town of Concord, N.C., just north of Charlotte. Over the years, Scott Avett, Seth Avett and Bob Crawford regularly traveled to the Charleston area to perform at small clubs, big venues and outdoor events.
The band's melodic blend of folk-rock, traditional country, Appalachian, and acoustic pop clicked well with what was happening in the rootsy side of Charleston's original music scene. Their two- and three-part harmonies and poetic/rustic lyricism were particularly attractive to new fans.
"We're an American band," says Seth Avett. "Our influences span a broad path, a long path of American music. It's not just a rock show. There are bits of old-time, country and bluegrass. I think we've just grown and picked from there along the way. It keeps going, and it becomes this happening on stage every night. I envision that as we grow, we'll keep using all of our tools as an American band."
The Avett Brothers released a few discs on the N.C. indie label Ramseur Records before signing with American Recordings/Columbia in 2009. Their major label debut, "I and Love and You," did well commercially and won new fans across the country.
Last year, the band released a solid 11-song album titled "Magpie and the Dandelion." Produced by acclaimed studio veteran Rick Rubin, the collection emphasized the typically string-driven Avett Brothers sound and embellished it with a full-band rhythm section (heavier drums, organ and bass). The tuneful "Open Ended Life" and the hooky "Another is Waiting" quickly became fan faves from the album.
The Avett Brothers drew a nearly sold-out crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum last fall. After touring heavily across the Southeast and the Midwest over the fall and winter, the Avett Brothers returned to the Carolinas for a New Year's Eve concert at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte with Charleston-based duo Shovels and Rope opening the show.
Like some of the festival's previous headliners (Stan Mullins, Grace Potter, Old Crow Medicine Show), the Avetts are expected to draw throngs of fans on Wadmalaw this week.
"We have a lot of friends and family down here, and there are a lot of transplants who go back and forth between the Charlotte area and the Charleston area," Seth Avett says. "There's a main vein of traffic between the two. There really is something more special about Charleston. It's more than just a neighboring city."
More than a few skillful local acts are excited to participate and perform at the First Flush Festival this weekend. Three of the co-headliners on the main stage - Stop Light Observations, the Luke Cunningham Band, and the Tyler Boone Band - played the fest last spring.
Led by charismatic singer Will Blackburn with solid rhythmic support from drummer Luke Withers, bassist/fiddler Coleman Sawyer, and multi-instrumentalists Wyatt Garey, John-Keith Culbreth, and Louis Duffie, East Cooper-born pop-rock sextet Stop Light Observations is one of the most popular "underground" acts in Charleston. They made a huge splash in the local scene last year with the release of an independently produced studio album titled "Radiation," which demonstrated a sophisticated mix of classic pop, alternative rock, soul and Americana.
Other groups performing include:
Fronted by Charleston-based pop/rock songwriter Luke Cunningham, the Luke Cunningham Band shares an affinity for the twangy Americana/roots-rock sound with the Avett Brothers and some of the festival co-headliners. A strong singer and talented guitarist, Cunningham spent time honing his songwriting skills at the 2012 Lester Sill Songwriters Workshop in Los Angeles before hitting the road behind a well-produced debut album titled "Heart Pressure." His current backing band features Micah Nichols on electric guitar, Christian Wood on bass and Ben Scott on drums.
In 2012, Charleston-based singer, guitarist and songwriter Tyler Boone, a young but experienced solo performer and songsmith, recorded and released an impressive debut album titled "Changing Pace" via the local King City Records label. Boone and his bandmates - bassist "Papa" John Fletcher, drummer Arthur "IV" Young, and guitarists Dallas Corbett and Dan Rainey - have billed their First Flush Festival set as the "official CD release party" for the new album "Familiar Faces."
One of the newer groups in the Charleston music community, Atlas Road Crew jammed around the Columbia club scene before relocating the Lowcountry. Singer Taylor Nicholson, bassist Max Becker, guitarist Dave Beddingfield, keyboardist Bryce James and drummer Patrick Drohan have established themselves as a bluesy, soulful, Southern-tined guitar-rock act. In 2012, they performed with Mark Bryan (of Hootie and the Blowfish) and released a self-titled EP that showed off both their chops and their songwriting talents.
Early on Saturday afternoon, the festival's main stage will feature performances by two old-school party-rock bands: Uncle Mingo and Ben Fagan and the Holy City Hooligans.
Uncle Mingo's lineage dates back to the early 1990s when guitarist Scott "Mookie" Quattlebaum, bassist Bryan "Mo" Moore, drummer Robert Thorn and keyboardist/saxophonist Jason Moore gained popularity for their mix of vintage funk and contemporary alt-rock. The bandmates occasionally reconvene to play a seasonal shows.
The tight musical partnership between singer/guitarist Ben Fagan and drummer Quentin Ravenel propels much of the groove-heavy, reggae-and-hip-hop-tinged rock of Ben Fagan and the Holy City Hooligans. The band has been entertaining crowds with a healthy mix of originals an renditions in Charleston for several years. Their latest album is called "The Freestyle Sessions 2."
The setup at the festival grounds will allow a smooth flow of alternating performances between the full bands on the main stage and the songwriters on the acoustic stage.
Gates at the First Flush Festival will open at noon. The live music will kick up around 1 p.m. There will be plenty of parking, kids' games, local food truck fare, vendors, and fresh tea in eco-friendly cups on hand.
Advance tickets are available online at www.ticketfly.com, at the Charleston Tea Plantation and the Music Farm box office.