Out on Wadmalaw Island, the Charleston Tea Plantation’s annual First Flush Festival began nine years ago as a celebration of the first tea harvest of the season. It was a laid-back, family-friendly get-together out in the country with a bit of live music, Lowcountry fare and festive activities on the side.
Nowadays, the First Flush Festival has blossomed into an annual concert that kicks up just as the final school semester winds down and the spring season heats up.
As always, the First Flush Festival will be held on the grounds of the Charleston Tea Plantation, the only working tea plantation in the country (owned by the R.C. Bigelow tea company). The lush and specious facility is situated on the south-side of Wadmalaw Island (just before the end of the line at Rockville).
The months of April and May are the prime growing season for tea bushes in the Lowcountry. The Charleston Tea Plantation designates first-flush tea as “the escalated growth of new leaves on the tea plants in the spring time after they awaken from dormancy.”
Presented by Charleston Tea Plantation, local radio station 105.5 The Bridge and Music Farm Productions (who oversee the long-running downtown venue the Music Farm), this year’s event remains dedicated to the art of fine tea, original songcraft, tasty cuisine, artisan vendors, games and family fun — a caffeine-fueled, all-day, all-ages music festival featuring a cheerful variety of local and national bands and songwriters.
On Sunday, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow will headline First Flush with support from some of the Charleston music scene’s top acts.
Attendees will have plenty of culinary options from two dozen vendors at this year’s event. A slew of local food trucks and vendors will congregate in an area the festival calls “Chow Town” during the festivities. Boasting a vibrant mix of Southern and international fare and snacks, the featured food trucks and carts on the roster include ChuckTown Mobile Seafood, Gidget Gourmet, King of Pops, Outta My Huevos, Platia Food Truck, Roti Rolls and more.
And there’ll be no shortage of free iced American Classic Tea at the plantation during the event.
Fine food and drinks always plays a major role at First Flush, but the musical performances will be the main focus for many. In addition to headliner Crow, sets are scheduled throughout the afternoon and evening on the festival’s main stage and a side acoustic stage. The full roster of performers features a mix of pop-oriented rock acts, Americana and roots bands, funky soul combos and melodic songsmiths.
Stop Light Observations, Dangermuffin, Sol Driven Train, Ben Fagan and the Holy City Hooligans, the Tyler Boone Band, The Tarlatans, Dead 27s and Gaslight Street are among the featured full bands set to hit the two stages. Songwriters Matt MacKelcan, Jordan Igoe, Samee Cannon, Lauren Hall and Haley Mae Campbell round out the lineup.
As performers on the club circuit, the chance to play on a big stage at a well-produced outdoor concert like this is a treat for the local musicians on the roster — especially compared to the usual bar and small club experiences.
“It’s the atmosphere. Outdoor festivals have a completely different vibe and feel than clubs and indoor venues,” says Taylor McCleskey, lead singer and guitarist with twangy pop-rock band The Tarlatans, a tight quartet that relocated from Greenville to Charleston in 2012.
“We made our national festival debut last year at Wakarusa, and it changed us — so much so that all we want to do now is play these types of events. There’s an energy to these types of shows that you can’t match indoors.”
Daniel Crider, a skillful drummer with soulful rock combo Dead 27s, also loves the opportunity to play gigs like First Flush.
“Playing outdoor festivals was so much fun, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate,” Crider says. “We’d played an outdoor festival at Pisgah Brewery in Black Mountain, N.C., back in April and it was during a two-day downpour. There was mud everywhere, but no one cared. There’s a vibe among the fans at outdoor shows that’s different than that in a club.
“On Sunday, we’ll get to play music at one of the most beautiful places in Charleston, share the experience with so many of our musician friends and get to watch a top-notch artist like Sheryl Crow,” he adds. “What’s not to love?”
Over the years, the festival has booked an eclectic variety of visiting acts to headline the main stage, including Shawn Mullins, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and The Avett Brothers.
This year, veteran songstress Sheryl Crow and her band will close out the First Flush Festival with a two-hour set of hits, deep cuts and renditions. Most fans go back with Crow to her earliest albums of the mid 1990s — collections that featured sunny hits like “All I Wanna Do” and “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” but she started making music long before that.
Born to a musical family in Kennett, Miss., Crow, now 53, started playing piano and singing at age 6. By her early teen years, she’d picked up the guitar and started writing original tunes, jamming with schoolmates and performing in local bands.
Crow relocated to Los Angeles in 1986, aiming for success in the pop music biz. One of her first big breaks came when she landed a spot as a backup singer on Michael Jackson’s international Bad tour. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, she sang and played on several albums and tours with the likes of Don Henley, Sting, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, Joe Cocker and Sinead O’Connor.
By 1992, Crow had the material and confidence to properly launch her own solo career. Her debut, 1993’s “Tuesday Night Music Club,” demonstrated a charming mix of laid-back Southern California vibes and pop-tinged, Midwest-rooted Americana leanings. The light and groovy “All I Wanna Do” became a summertime hit in 1994 and helped Crow earn a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. She earned additional success with the singles “Strong Enough” and “Can’t Cry Anymore.”
Crow’s self-titled second album spawned the bittersweet anthem “If It Makes You Happy,” the breezy pop gem “Everyday Is a Winding Road” and the upbeat “A Change Would Do You Good” — three smash singles that led to even more awards and a headlining slot on the 1997 Lilith Fair Tour.
Through the years, Crow continued to write, record and tour. She often collaborated on unusual side projects with a healthy variety of artists — from Tony Bennett and Stevie Nicks to Willie Nelson and Kid Rock.
After being forced to take time off from music in the early 2000s for health reasons, she dabbled in writing within the old-school soul and contemporary country styles on her 2008 collection “Detours,” 2010’s “100 Miles from Memphis” and her latest effort, 2013’s “Feels Like Home,” a country-based effort produced with the assistance of a handful of Nashville studio veterans and musicians.
While studio work remains a major part of Crow’s ongoing musical career, touring and performing live is still her main focus. Strumming her vintage Gibson acoustic six-string, she’ll certainly have plenty of classic fan favorites and fresh material to offer on the main stage this weekend.
“I want to hear Crow play ‘My Favorite Mistake,’ ” the Tarlatans’ McCleskey says of the mid-tempo hit from Crow’s third album, 1998’s “The Globe Sessions.”
“The guitar tone is perfect, and there’s such a soulful vibe to the song that it draws you in from the very beginning,” he says. “I think it’s going to sound stellar in an outdoor festival setting. Can’t wait for that.”
Dead 27s’ Crider hopes to rock out to one of the big hits. “I want to hear ‘All I Wanna Do,’ ” he says. “That intro is so left-field when you think about pop music these days. It’s such a great tune.”