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High-flying festival fun
Big Crowd, perfect weather makes for successful event
Seafood fest 1
Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival attendees enjoy one of many carnival rides that comprised the events carnival last weekend at J.F. Gregory Park in Richmond Hill. - photo by Bryan Browning

The 16th annual Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival in Richmond Hill included a wide variety of traditional Southern and coastal food, such as shrimp, crawfish, peach cobbler and fried s’mores, which might explain why an estimated 25,000-35,000 visitors — not counting volunteers and workers — descended on J.F. Gregory Park last weekend.

With each of those people eating their fill — well, that’s a lot of food.

Ricky and Sharhonda Tippins, lifelong Jesup residents, had never heard of the Seafood Festival until this year.

"Our favorite part is the turkey legs," Sharhonda said as the two ate at a picnic table. "We just got here and this is our first stop."

The Tippins heard about the Seafood Festival through friends. Sharhonda was looking forward to eating shrimp, while Ricky loves crawfish. It may have been their first time at the festival, but it surely won’t be their last.

The Tippins and many other first-time attendees discovered that the Seafood Festival isn’t just about delicious food. The annual festival includes a carnival that features rides and games, booths staffed by local businesses, craft vendors and live entertainment.

"There’s a wide variety — you have the crafts and the art, and then you have the business vendors and the food, the entertainment and music, the rides — you have a little bit of everything," said Catie Remion, who, along with fellow Richmond Hill resident Natalie Smith, manned the W.E. Wired booth.

"We are selling handmade wire-wrapped bracelets with different beads and different colors," Remion said. "We’ve coordinated some to support school spirit and different colleges."

Remion and Smith said this was their first year setting up shop at the event, but they’ve attended before.

Other vendors included Wine and Canvas, Purdy Pallets, Richmond Hill Community Theatre, Active Heroes, Flatwater Tee Shirts and Homes of Integrity — just a few of the over 65 different businesses, nonprofits and crafters that maintained a presence.

Richard Denney, his wife, Robin, and their daughter, Brittany McClure, all of Richmond Hill, dropped by J.F. Gregory to check out the scene, even though Robin Denney is allergic to seafood.

"The food and the crafts are my favorite part of the Seafood Festival," she said. "Now, I don’t eat the seafood — I’m allergic. But I like the barbecue and the blooming onions. Yes, I come to the Seafood Festival even though I’m allergic to seafood."

Although the Denneys came for food and crafts, many descend on the festival just for the entertainment. This year’s lineup included The Swingin’ Medallions, Thomas Claxton Band, Jake Miller and Stewart and Winfield.

This year’s headliner was Blues Traveler, a band with a hybrid vibe of blues-rock, psychedelic rock, folk rock, soul and Southern rock. The group is comprised of singer and harmonica player John Popper, bassist Tad Kinchla, guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill and keyboardist Ben Wilson.

Their latest album, called "Suzie Cracks the Whip," came out in mid-2012 and marked the band’s 25th anniversary. The group’s fans have said this album has more of a blues-country-rock feel to it compared to previous albums.

"The songs John was bringing in musically had a little more of a country thing to them," Wilson said. "A number of the songs on that record ended up having that feel. Since that was what he brought in, we said, ‘Well, we’ll roll with it.’"

Chan said the group doesn’t have any rules when it comes to making music.

"We’re never really going for any particular sound," he said. "Like with most of our records, we don’t have any rules. We see what happens organically. Pretty much anything we do has a little rock in it. But I guess (that album) was a little less folky pop, which we also do."

Each night a different member of the band gets to write the set. Chan wrote the set for the performance at the Seafood Festival. He said his favorite song to play this tour is "Can’t See Why" while Wilson’s favorite currently is "Save the Soul."

"We change up the sets every night as much as possible," Wilson said. "There are some songs that, no matter what, I just can’t like it. Somebody likes it, and that’s a part of being in a band. If others like the song, you still have to play it."

The group’s most popular songs are "Hook" and "Run Around."

"As many times as we play (the popular songs), when you get a crowd response like that, no matter how many times you play it, it just feels awesome," Wilson said.

Chan added, "It’s like an old friend."

He said the band does an average of 80 shows each year. They may even do more when they have a new record out. This year, they have been busy working on a new project.

"We’ve been working on this collaboration project between shows," Chan said. "We find different studios around the country that work with these different artists."

Blues Traveler wanted to do a few collaborations with some contemporary acts to change things up. After the first few songs went well, word got out and interest in the project began to swell.

"We did something with 3OH!3 and Plain White T’s," Chan said. "Those went so well, we had a bunch of interest. Next thing you know, it turned into a wonderful record, and we did all these collaborations with really diverse artists from all over."

The album, which should come out in the spring of 2015, will have a mix of artists such as Bowling for Soup, Thompson Square, Jewel, O.A.R., Hanson and Gavin DeGraw.

"Each segment with different artists has been so different that we have to make sure we keep these things somewhat cohesive throughout the whole record," Wilson said. "It’s a great breadth of style, which is super refreshing for us. It just felt really, really good.

"To be challenged in different places, to understand where your comfort zones are and to be able to work with these people and have them be just as excited as you are is really rewarding," Wilson continued.

Chan and Wilson said they have enjoyed working with each artist during the process, but their favorite to work with has been 3OH!3.

"We did two great songs with 3OH!3, and that was when we started to get the feel for it and knew the process," Chan said. "That’s when we started to get inspired, and that’s where it really took off."

Wilson added that the members of 3OH!3 are Blues Travelers fans.

"They were super-pumped, not just professionally pumped, but just super-pumped to be there," Wilson said. "Once we started working with them and got into what they do, we thought, ‘oh man, this is awesome.’"

Blues Traveler released a self-titled debut album in 1990. Since then, the band has released 15 other albums.

"You are always growing as a band, and if you stop growing as a band, it gets stale real quick," Wilson said. "We’ve been able to keep growing. Every two years, we get to make a record and every time we think, ‘Man, we are so much better than we were.’"

Ironically, Wilson said he doesn’t even like seafood, which just meant more shrimp for the locals.

"I hate seafood," Wilson said. "But I love that peach cobbler and chocolate-walnut pie."

The Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival started when the Bryan County Chamber of Commerce wanted to have an event that offered local seafood and showcased area nonprofit organizations. The first few years of the festival brought 5,000-10,000 attendees with an admission price of $1 per person. With the addition of live entertainment — such as Blues Traveler — and the carnival, the festival has evolved into what it is today.

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