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CITY TALK: Savannah Music Festival influence continues even after concerts end

  • Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News) Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News) Scott Avett sings into his mic during The Avett Brothers’ performance at opening night concert of the Savannah Music Festival Thursday at the Johnny Mercer Theater. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
  • Bill Dawers

Just before “Stringband Spectacular” on the final Friday of the Savannah Music Festival, a polling firm was asking audience members about their festival experiences. The couple sitting behind me had come to town for six days of shows.

Cities covet tourists like those who are traveling for arts events and cultural festivals like the SMF.

I typically go to Charleston for a couple of days during Spoleto, and I’m always struck by the mix in the audience of visitors and local residents. The Savannah Music Festival hasn’t been around for as long as Spoleto, but it seems clear that the consistently stellar programming in such a beautiful city will attract more and more tourists each year.

I’m not talking here about the kind of mass tourism that could overwhelm the city, but about visitors who enjoy programming that is primarily supported by local residents. For many of us, the 17-day SMF is one of the most exciting times of the year, and it’s great to see so many Savannahians enjoying downtown and supporting locally owned restaurants.

“Stringband Spectacular” is of course the annual finale of the festival’s Acoustic Music Seminar, an educational initiative that brings about 16 young string players for a week of workshops with world class musicians like mandolin master Mike Marshall and the brilliant guitarist Julian Lage.

During a brief interlude between songs during the AMS finale, 20-year-old banjo player George Wagman called the weeklong experience “life-changing.” Wagman will no doubt join many previous seminar students as a de facto ambassador for the SMF and for Savannah itself.

And we’ll see many of those talented performers again. With so much young talent coming to Savannah each year for the AMS and for the festival’s Swing Central Jazz, the city has certainly hosted stars of the future.

There was strong support for nearly every SMF show I attended this year, but I was especially impressed by the turnout at the Lucas Theatre for the festival’s two major dance programs – the New York City-based BalletCollective and the Argentinian company Che Malambo.

Over the years, I’ve written occasionally about the general lack of professional dance in Savannah. Dance might have the lowest local profile of any of the major art forms, despite the fact that we have numerous schools and programs devoted to dance education.

The SMF’s primary mission is obviously music, but maybe this year’s successful forays into dance have opened new doors.

It’s fine to view the Savannah Music Festival as an annual series of stellar concerts, but the festival is more than that. The festival has had and continues to have a profound impact on the city’s cultural fabric and identity.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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