Festival makes spring debut Zac Brown Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers star in music and food festival

Guitarists Clay Cook (left) and John Driskell Hopkins of Zac Brown Band both have their own side projects that will play at Southern Ground Music and Food Festival this weekend. (Provided).

Southern Ground Music and Food Festival is taking its first spin in the springtime air this weekend after four years as a major event on Charleston’s fall calendar. And while most of its features have remained intact with the seasonal switch, one thing has intentionally been left behind: football season.

Festival organizers decided to move the two-day celebration of Southern cuisine and rock music from October to April because football seemed to be detracting from ticket sales, according to Will Ward, a founding partner of ROAR, the entertainment company that manages the Zac Brown Band.

“We’d heard too many comments from people that said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to stay home and watch football,’ ” he said. “We felt like, what better time to hold a festival than when everybody is coming out of winter, and they get to be out of the house, and flowers are blooming? Spring just felt like the right time to position it.”

The move appears to be working. Advance ticket sales are up compared with the last event in October 2014, Ward said.

With a capacity of about 28,000 people over two days, the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival hosted by Zac Brown Band is one of the Lowcountry’s largest outdoor music festivals. And it’s one of the region’s most unique, thanks to its emphasis on upscale food and Charleston’s esteemed culinary community.

Those who purchase Front Porch Stage Boxes have on-stage seating and a gourmet meal prepared by a team of renowned chefs working with Southern Ground’s executive chef, Rusty Hamlin. Participants this year include James Beard winner R.J. Cooper of Charlotte, as well as Charleston’s own Craig Deihl (Artisan Meat Share), Patrick Owens (Langdon’s), and Michael Perez (Indaco).

Attendees who opt for general admission will still get a taste of the local food scene with vendors, including Cru Cafe, Home Team BBQ and D’Allesandro’s Pizza.

The main attraction, of course, is the live music. Ward said Zac Brown works closely with the team of booking agents to curate the live acts, which this year includes Tedeschi Trucks Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Kacey Musgraves.

“He wants it to be very musical in terms of ... not being about the latest band with the top 10 single, but more about who puts on a great live show,” Ward said.

Tedeschi Trucks Band likely will be a crowd favorite this year. The large band of about a dozen members is led by former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks, and his wife, Susan Tedeschi, the lead vocalist.

With a horns section, a group of gospel singers and legendary flutist/keyboard player Kofi Burbridge, the band is an emotional powerhouse of blues, Southern rock and heaps of soul.

Its 2011 debut album, “Revelator,” won the 2012 Grammy Award for the Best Blues Album. The band is now on a nationwide tour in support of their follow-up album, “Let Me Get By,” which was released in January.

Ward said another group they’re excited to host on the Southern Ground stage this year is The Archetypes, a Charleston-based rock group that was a fixture of the local music scene in the 1990s.

“They’re kind of an old-school Charleston staple, so that’s kind of a fun thing,” Ward said.

Members of a few other main acts on the bill — Zac Brown Band, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers and Marshall Tucker Band — talked to Charleston Scene this week about what’s in store for their upcoming performances.

As the host and top headliner of the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, Zac Brown Band closes out both nights with performances that often incorporate members of other bands that played throughout the weekend.

Past collaborators have included Bela Fleck and John Popper of Blues Traveler. This year, Zac Brown Band guitarist John Driskell Hopkins hopes they have a chance to play with some members of Tedeschi Trucks Band.

“We’re all big fans of their music and this would be a good opportunity to try to get them up there to sing with us and to play with us,” he said.

Another staple of the band’s festival sets is that no two performances are alike, and both nights will have plenty of surprises, Hopkins said. Zac Brown Band might be best know for its country anthems like “Chicken Fried,” but the group is just as likely to pull out some rocking cover tunes like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.”

That freedom to play whatever they want is part of what makes the band special, Hopkins said.

“We sound like Zac Brown Band no matter what we play or what we do,” he said. “Stylistically and genre-wise, we can go in any direction we feel like and it’s still going to sound like us. That’s what’s beautiful about being in a band that’s been together for going on 11 years now. It’s just kind of this organic beast that we’re able to control as a group.”

Another thing that seems to reinforce the band’s strength is the fact that so many of them are also leaders of other bands, he added. Hopkins is playing a set with his self-titled side project at the festival on Saturday, and he’ll headline the Windjammer on Isle of Palms on Thursday and Friday night with various players.

The band’s keys player, Coy Bowles, will lead his band, The Fellowship, on guitar on Saturday as well. And Clay Cook, another Zac Brown Band guitarist, plays a daytime set on Sunday after sitting in with his uncle, Doug Gray, in the Marshall Tucker Band’s set Saturday.

“We’re encouraged in our organization to do that — to be creative and to bring all that creative energy to the band,” Hopkins said. “I think if we were stifled somehow by not being able to do stuff like that, then we wouldn’t be who we are. We wouldn’t be as successful, we wouldn’t be as diverse. I think it helps us in the long run on all fronts.”

In the past eight years, a new tradition has emerged for Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers. While Hornsby is primarily known as a pianist, his concerts are now equally marked by the dulcimer mini-set, an intimate performance featuring Hornsby on the Appalachian instrument used mostly in old-time music.

It started out as a fun break from the norm during his concerts, Hornsby said. Then two summers ago, he wrote four original songs on dulcimer over a five-week period, prompting him to finish a full collection and lay it down with his band.

The result is “Rehab Reunion,” the first Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers record featuring dulcimer as the lead instrument. Due in stores on June 17, the nine-track record includes mostly original tunes with guest appearances by Mavis Staples and Justin Vernon.

The effort also had a “ major effect” on The Noisemakers, Hornsby said.

“This gradual move toward ... more emphasis on the dulcimer music led me to change my band; I brought in two new members, Ross Holmes on fiddle-mandolin, and Gibb Droll on guitar,” he said.

Fans can catch the new lineup at Southern Ground, and can expect to hear a mix of the new dulcimer tunes and old favorites with Hornsby on the piano.

It’s been 45 years since the Marshall Tucker Band first got together in Spartanburg, but lead singer Doug Gray said the group isn’t slowing down any time soon.

The band that rose to fame on the heels of the Southern rock icons Allman Brothers Band still tours heavily, playing about 135 shows per year.

“No matter how old we get, we can still rock your socks off. So, there’s really no reason to stop as long as you can get up there and play,” Gray said. “And the crowds keep coming because of the blend of music that we play, or because it brings back emotions from a period of time when they first listened to us or came to a show.”

The set at Southern Ground on Saturday will likely focus on the band’s 1970s-era hits such as “Can’t You See” and “Take the Highway.” Zac Brown Band guitarist Clay Cook, Gray’s nephew, got his start as a member of the Marshall Tucker Band and will return to play some tunes with the group at the festival.

The band that’s named after a piano tuner from Spartanburg is still a proud South Carolina-bred band, he added.

“Charleston is very close to our home, and we always look forward to performing there as well as seeing so many of the people who are coming out to support us.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.