Stephen Foster wrote what became the Florida state song “Way Down upon de Swanee Ribber Far faw Away.” That is where Magnolia Festival lies and October 15-18 marked the 19th annual Magnolia Fest being held at The Spirit of the Suwannee Music park in Live Oak Florida. The park spans over hundreds of acres and has sustained a reputation for being one of the most gorgeous places in the south hidden right in the middle of the pan handle, between Tallahassee and Jacksonville. Every year thousands of music festival enthusiasts patiently wait the time to return to the Suwannee to “Get their Mag On,” and that is what many did.
It truly was a surreal weekend of music and fun. One thing can absolutely be agreed on, the weather was perfect. There was always a cool breeze, fair amount of warmth from the sun hidden under all the beautiful Spanish Moss and absolutely no rain. The perfect atmosphere to set the stage for funky bass lines, smoking fiddle solos, and some of the most soulful singing ever heard.
The Lee Boys kicked off the festival by setting the bar quite high! Between the powerful guitar solos to the thumping bass the boys played a set with such high energy no one could stand still. Their melodies soared up to the trees as they sang “Testify.” Band of Heathens not only boasted great harmony vocals but also featured two lead guitar players. It seemed after every song it was time for a different guitar.
The Congress set the mood for a soulful night under oak trees. One of the highlights of the set was a tasteful rendition of the classic “People Get Ready” and just about everyone in the audience joined in the singing. The voices echoed against the trees and filled the amphitheater with beautiful voices. The Motet and their upbeat funky dance music made for the perfect late night dance party under the stars. This band really had the perfect amount of finesse and sass, each solo spontaneous and sensationally crafted.
After The Motet it was time to head over to the Porch Stage, located near vendor row between the Amphitheater Stage and Meadow Stage. The crowds gathered close for the sweet mountain voices of Nikki Talley and Jason Sharp. The duo tour regularly but hail from the Asheville area and recently released Out from the Harbor and included many of the songs in their set that night. It is really wonderful to see two musicians compliment each other so well. Sharp’s smooth guitar solos create the ideal accompaniment to Talley’s full vocals. Talley puts down her guitar and picks up her claw-hammer banjo. She plays a rendition of the old time tune “Railroad Boy.” the song creating a pleasant tension in the audience as everyone lingers on the lyrics.
Closing out the evening back on the Amphitheater Stage was Boston’s own Lake Street Dive. The band truly packed a punch into the evening with their powerhouse set. Lead singer Rachael Price has a voice with such fidelity. It is incredibly relaxed, soulful and you can hear the joy she lets out when she performs. She and bassist Bridgette Kearny compliment each other in a way that most musicians can only dream of. Towards the end of the set they played a fun version of Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass,” resulting in a very well-deserved standing ovation.
Friday was yet another beautiful day, and taking the Amphitheater Stage was Grits and Soul, a duo featuring Anna Kline on guitar and vocals and John Looney on mandolin and vocals. They are currently working on recording a new album to be released in 2016, and it will be fun and exciting to see the results. Later in the afternoon the Habanero Honeys took the stage inside the music hall. The band is typically comprised of Cathy Lee, Beth Judy, and Tom Nelly, and today welcomed Stef Lee, Jeff Sachs, and Bobby Burns from Sloppy Joe as well as Nikki Talley. The super group played a variety of original songs and Beth Judy also recited a couple of poems while being accompanied by Nelly and members of Sloppy Joe.
The Meadow Stage was the place to be for driving bluegrass this afternoon. Del McCoury is without a doubt a bluegrass legend and his vocals are undeniable with one of the tightest bands in the bluegrass world alongside him. For the more progressive bluegrass fans, the “boys” as they are fondly referred to performed an amazing jam filled set back at the amphitheater following their meadow performance. Most bluegrass fans would agree that this band continues to uphold the traditions of bluegrass but at the same time release a new energy to their own brand of new grass.
Finally, it was time to make the trek back to the Meadow Stage for the Grammy award winning husband and wife team, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, the heart of Tedeschi Trucks Band. Susan Tedeschi’s vocals are comparable to the blues legend Bonnie Raitt. To say that Trucks is a phenomenal guitarist would be a great understatement. After seeing Trucks as a member of The Allman Brothers Band, it is refreshing to see Trucks leading his own project and accelerating into musical success. Packing a loud punch, The Tedeschi Trucks Band is complete with a full horn section and back up singers.
Closing out the evening was another set from the Motet. However when their set concluded the night was not over. One of the most unique things about Magnolia fest is that when the stages end for the evening the music does not stop. There are two campground stages on the festival map which welcome campers to come jam in their camps until the early morning hours. Slopryland hosted by the band Sloppyjoe from Wisconsin is famous for their Halloween decor. Upon approaching the campsite campers are dazzled by over a hundred illuminated Jack O’lanterns hanging from the trees. The Jack O’lanterns in the picking tent were vivid sculptures this year depicting a plethora of facial expressions, while the Bill Monroe shrine is also a favorite place for the pickers to congregate. Don’t be surprised to see many stage performers there swapping solos and sharing new original songs. Between Slopryland and The Bill Monroe Shrine, a great time is guaranteed. Each are different, but both are a picker’s paradise.
Back from the Brink performed at noon on the Amphitheater Stage. The band features father and daughter Steve and Lyndsay Pruett, two musical virtuosos who bring it to every ensemble they perform in. The Pruett’s play with a sort of musical telepathy and it is apparent that their connection is the result of many years of practice, dedication, and mutual support. I spied a few teary eyes when the lead singer’s own daughter was guest featured and sang a lovely version of Brandi Carlile’s “The Eye.”
Late in the afternoon it was time to go see Grammy award winning Steep Canyon Rangers, recently famed for having recorded and toured with Steve Martin, performed an exceptional set. Rapid fire fiddle and banjo solos arose throughout the set, while midway through the set, John Stickley and Jeff Austin were invited to sit in for the remainder of the set. This made the perfect segue for Austin’s own set shortly after.
One of the hidden gem’s of the festival was New Orleans own Grammy Award winning Rebirth Brass Band, started thirty two years ago and well known from HBO’s Treme. They have been giving their true brass sound to the world all these years but never forgetting where they are from. The best part of their set is when they did a great rendition of “When the Saints go Marching Home” in honor of their beloved New Orleans Saints.
At last it was time for the headlining Avett Brothers! It was especially exciting to see Tania Elizabeth of The Duhks tearing it up on her violin and harmony vocals. The Avett’s played hits such as “Murder in the City” and “The Prettiest Thing,”while the night concluded with the traditional Saturday night dance party with Magfest staple band “Donna The Buffalo.”
Sunday’s at Magfest are always bitter sweet. Some of the best music is heard Sunday afternoon but even the greatest of things must come to an end. Keller Williams and Grateful Gospel brought an unforgettable show to the table. Featuring the soul singers from William’s ‘More than a Little’ touring band, the group played an extensive array of songs from The Grateful Dead in a gospel style. Melvin Seals of Jerry Garcia Band fame ripped on the Hammond B-3 and truly helped transform Grateful Dead classics into a rejoicing experience for all. The festival ended with another great set by Donna The Buffalo, which included many guests including the infamous Jim Lauderdale, who performed festival favorite “Except for That One Time” and kicked up the energy to a whole new level. That is what is means to ‘Get your Mag On’ as many veterans confidently say. Magfest is a Southern tradition rooted in music, community, and love. It is the venue for people from all walks of life to unite in one of the most beautiful places in the world, set up camp and celebrate music. It has been an exhilarating nineteen years and the festival family hopes for many more exciting Magnolia fests in years to come. You do not have to wait for Magnolia Festival next year to appreciate this amazing park. Check out Musicliveshere.com for plenty of upcoming events.