Photos by Robbi Cohn
Magnolia Fest @ Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL
October 18-21, 2012
Everyone who has ever been to Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park says there is something special about it. SOSMP is like the musical Delphi of the Southeast There must be some unique vapors that emanate from the ground there…particularly around the Amphitheater with its canopies of soaring pine trees and abstract cloths draped from treetop to treetop catching the stage lights in a mystical troposphere. The dozens of hammocks stretched from tree to tree creating a sort of sanctuary. And then there are the wood and “tin” stages that at once become the temples while simultaneously making you feel as if you have just returned home. There are no big screens, no commercial vendors, no Sony PS3… only independent vendors and artists selling their own creations like Cigar Box Guitars, Dead Images, Betty’s Boutique with Kasey’s Hoops, and the artwork of Bean Spence.
It’s not just one show or one festival that shines there, it seems to be all of them and this year’s Magnolia Fest, or “MagFest” as the returnees call it, was no exception. MagFest may have changed a bit over the years, adding a bit more variety of musical genres – a little more rock, a little more funk, a little more blues – to the traditional bluegrass line up, notably missing Peter Rowan (who will be returning to SOSMP for SpringFest), Sam Bush and Larry Keel, who I kept hoping would surprise everyone. Nevertheless, the magic is still there. As festival goers will tell you, Magfest itself is special, even having a spiritual quality to it for both the audiences and musicians, who seem to form the ultimate symbiotic relationship as the good vibes flow from one to the other. Musicians hit those stages and it is as if they are communing with Apollo himself and this year leading the way was Col. Bruce Hampton who Paul Barrere of Little Feat declared “the oracle of rock n roll.” And if you look at all the musicians there who were either influenced by or played with the Col., you can understand why and why “Zambi” was the feel of the weekend. The musicians hit the stage full of vigor, yet seemingly completely relaxed and at home, ready to play for themselves, each other and ensconce their eager audiences with healing musical prayers.
The music started Thursday this year with all acts playing at the Amphitheater. Jacksonville-based band Canary in the Coalmine started things off with their Indie Folk, easing the crowd into the festival mood followed by Honey Island Swamp Band, a personal favorite of mine, who kicked it up a notch with their New Orleans infused funky country blues. They draw the crowd to them with their musical talent. It’s hard to walk on by while Trevor Brooks is burnin’ up the keys, and their feel good melodies and high energy rhythms — I don’t think bassist Sam Price, sporting his signature overalls, ever stops dancing — keeps the crowd on their feet. HISB had two performances at Magfest, the second on Friday at the larger Meadow stage, and, between the two sets, fans got all their favorites like “Josephine,” “Wishing Well, “One Drink” and “300 Pounds.” And as I slid through the crowd Friday, maneuvering my way to the front, I overheard a few people saying they had heard HISB for the first time the day before and had to come to hear more. These guys are infectious and just plain make ya feel good.
Next up was the Mosier Brothers Band, who also had a second performance Saturday at the Meadow Stage. I couldn’t help but send up a Facebook message screaming “Kickgrass”! These guys are of the first, if not the first “jamgrass” bands, blending the sounds and skills of the finest pickers with rock. Fronted by brothers “The Rev” Jeff Mosier on banjo and Johnny Mosier on guitar, they delivered two amazing sets of rock infused traditional bluegrass songs and Mosier originals. The hula hoops were out, the smiles were on! From the “Make me Forget About You” jam to Doc Watson covers to Bill Monroe’s “Song For Fred,” to “Orange Blossom Blues>Black Muddy River” the band, joined by past members of Blueground Undergrass gave the crowd some of that grass they were hungry for.
Next up was Anders Osborne. I almost expected the older more folky Osborne to come out and play more traditional New Orleans-styled tunes. But he hit that stage with his long blond hair, tie-dyed tee, and screamin’, yet soulful, electric guitar ready to rock. He did give us a fun and fantastic “Ya-Ya,” and one of the highlights included being joined by Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mulé of Honey Island for two songs including a cover of “Paint My Masterpiece.” It was his fiery jam “Send Me a Friend>On the Road to Charlie Parker,” however, that left the crowd speechless. There are two descriptors I refuse to use unless I’m blown away and that’s “sick” and “melt your face”. Osborne didn’t just “melt your face” though. This was a full body melt! It was like he was inside the music, bending the notes to the extreme, even incorporating the feedback, until even in the audience you felt like the music was coming from inside you, leaving you feeling expansive and tingling. I am not overstating when I say people were speechless … grabbing each other, wide-eyed, mouths open, gasping for words. If you haven’t had the Osborne experience lately … make it a point to see him if you have the chance.
I have to admit I was still on a high from Osborne’s set when the much-anticipated Mickey Hart Band began. It actually took a couple of songs for me to adjust and I’m a Deadhead through and through… But they did not disappoint and before I knew it I was totally immersed in Mickey’s super-rhythms,DaveSchools’ cool bass and the remarkable vocals of Crystal Hall. Seriously? Is there anything she can’t sing? Whether she is belting out lyrics on “Samson and Delilah” and “Franklin’s Tower” or crooning wordless vocalizations that Hart weaves into his mystical jams. Playing songs like “Time Never Ends,” an unbelievable “The Other One” jam and a surprising “Run Like Hell” tease into “Djinn Djinn” the Mickey Hart Band ended the night creating a mysterious, haunting, yet beautifully uplifting atmosphere.
Friday I arrived at the amphitheater in time to catch Kristy Lee. This girl can ‘saaang’! Kristy was the perfect start to the day, keeping it simple with just a bass and drums and herself on acoustic guitar. Kristy is down to earth with her personal songs like “Not My Blood” and telling real life anecdotes, yet she also has a deeply spiritual side to her and it comes through in her gospel tones. Singing a Bill Wither’s song “Grandma’s Hands,” or “Granny’s Hands” as she called, it segueing into “Wade in the Water,” Kristy makes even an atheist want to throw up their hands and yell “Hallelujah!!” The long line that formed to meet her and buy a CD is testament to the talent of this rising star.
I then went to see the Corbitt Brothers Band at the Meadow Stage. I have to admit they were new to me but as soon as I saw them and heard them I knew I was in for something incredible. It’s hard to even describe them. The brothers, Newsome and Isaac, look like Braveheart meets the Darlings, especially Newsome with his braided, beaded beard and dreadlocks and overalls. Sometimes more bluegrassy, sometimes more bluesy, and other times rockin’ out, the Corbitt Brothers were fun and feisty as well as extremely talented. Playing “Chicken Pot Pie,” Isaac pulls out a rubber chicken to play! They thrilled the crowd with their “Carolina Song” and Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” But two songs really stood out. One was “Isaac’s Harmonica (Magfest) Jam” which included some rapping, a “Low Rider” tease, bits of “Dixieland” and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Give it Away Now.” The other was “Fire on the Mountain.” My favorite Dead song… on a harmonica!
As I made my way back to the amphitheater for Flannel Church, I passed Uncle Charles’ Porch Stage, a smaller stage set between the two larger stages where many of the vendors are also set up. The jamband Cope from Tampa was playing, and I caught their “Suwannee River Scrubdown” or I should say ‘they caught me.’ Although they are mainly bluegrass, they fuse that with jazz elements. If you can imagine such a thing, with Juan Montero on the keys and sax. In fact, it was that sax wailing that stopped me. For about 10 minutes I stood midway between Cope and Flannel Church trying to listen to both at once. Finally deciding that was impossible, I continued to the Amphitheater where Flannel Church, with band members Duane Trucks and Kevin Scott of Col. Bruce’s Pharaoh Gummit and Gregory “Wolf” Hodges from Blueground Undergrass, was captivating the crowd with their song “Tailor.” They then went into Tennessee Earnie Ford’s “Owe my Soul to the Company Store” that was so funky I almost didn’t recognize the song, but it was wonderful. Following that with a blistering cover of North Mississippi AllStar’s “Drop Down Mama,” they had me geared up to get back to the Meadow to see the first of two sets of the oracle himself, Col. Bruce Hampton and Pharaoh’s Kitchen. With A.J. “Wunder” Ghenton slide guitar, Jez Graham on keys and Sunknee “Ben” Williams on drums, the stage bristled with talent as they played favorites like “Basically Frightened” and “Yield Not to Temptation.” In the middle of the jam in “There Was a Time,” Col. Bruce started playing his guitar behind his head. The crowd just loved it! Finally, they ushered in evening with the blues ballad “Lucky Old Sun.”
I was then headed back to the Amphitheater for some traditional bluegrass with the Del McCoury Band. For the bluegrass fans, this was a true delight. One of the all-time greats, Del McCoury thrilled the crowd with “Nashville Cats,” “Backslidin’ Blues,” and a song he prefaced with “we don’t know any love songs, so it’s gotta be a murder ballad” — “Henry Walker.”
Ronnie and Rob McCoury gave the crowd pickin’ at its finest and Jason Carter’s fiddlin’ … well, I swear the man’s bow almost caught on fire. The crowd just adored them. With Dell’s warm humor and the festive music, I could have listened to them all day.
Finally it was time for the headliners: Emmylou Harris and Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The Amphitheater filled as Emmylou took the stage. The crowd seemed to sing along to every song, cheering wildly after even the most solemn of songs like “A River for Him,” loving her sweet voice. Playing for almost two hours, Emmylou balanced her gorgeous ballads, with more upbeat songs like “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “Luxury Liner.” Referring to her own age, “over 60,” she said, she “was just getting started!” Emmylou is still full of energy and sounds just gorgeous as ever. The four-part harmony, a cappella, song “Calling My Children” brought people to tears. Closing with “Leaving Louisiana,” left everyone on a high note and ready to go dance to Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood gave a truly outstanding performance at the Meadow Stage and the crowd was definitely into it. Ready to party, the hoops were back out and the dancing was nonstop as they opened with “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” and followed with “Tomorrow Blues.” I really think Chris Robinson just keeps getting better, if that’s possible. He may look a bit shaggy these days but his playing and his singing was clean and crisp. And the new tunes mix catchy melodies with serious jams, reminiscent of some of my favorite grateful dead tunes… and of course, we did get a GD cover, “They Love Each Other” with a fabulous jam. The whole set was uplifting, and I didn’t want to go to sleep. There was only one thing to do… head over to the midnight Jam.
Jeff Mosier, Jim Lauderdale, the McCoury’s, members of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, Emmylou’s band, and Rushad Eggleston of Tornado Rider all took to the stage for some old-time fun jamming on tunes like “Ole Slew Foot” and “Pike County Breakdown.” I’d like to say I made it through the whole jam, but with two full days of dancing already behind me, my tent was calling me home, even with the enormous energy pouring from the stage.
Saturday started for me with The Lee Boys in the Meadow. This was another band I was really unfamiliar with except for band member pedal-steel wonder Roosevelt Collier. Their funky gospel, starting with “Going to Glory” and “Testify,” the title-track of their new album, were exactly what I needed to get me going physically and spiritually. Watching and listening to Roosevelt always brings me great joy, but the whole band emitted a feeling of blessing and celebration as the crowd threw their hands in the air as if in praise. The band also welcomed artist-at-large guitarist Matt Grondin. I think Matt sat in with almost every band. But his New Orleans style funk, exceptional talent, and impressive jamming, made him a great addition to bands like the Lee Boys, Honey Island Swamp Band, JJ Grey and Mofro, and Col. Bruce Hampton and Pharaoh’s Kitchen.
From the Lee Boys, I made my way back to the Amphitheater. This was a hard call. As much as I wanted to see New Orleans Suspects, who I know are amazing, I also really wanted to see Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett. I did get another dose of the Col. though, arriving at the Amphitheater in time to see part of his set with Paul Barrere sitting in. They played Hampton favorites “I’m so Glad,” “Right Now,” and “Fixin’ to Die,” and Col. Bruce seemed to be having a great time. Totally Zambi! At one point, AJ Ghent, wearing his monk robes, was playing a cigar box guitar he picked up from one of the vendors just before the show.
Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett of Little Feat took the stage. Two men, all acoustic, and once again I felt like I could just sit and listen all day, but there would be no sitting when they started off with “Sailin’ Shoes.” Still, this was probably one of the most relaxing and just simply enjoyable sets of the festival. With everyone singing along to “Willin>Don’t Bogart Me” I felt as if I were with a few hundred of my best friends, including Paul and Fred, who just have a peaceful, affable way about them that makes the barrier between performer and audience melt away. This was certainly the case when they went into an absolutely stunning “The Weight”
After Paul and Fred I began to make my way back to the Meadow to catch a few minutes of Maia Sharp, but once again I was caught at the Porch Stage. This time it was by cello phenom Rushad Eggleston and Tornado Rider. I watched in awe. There was a huge crowd all clumped together shoulder to shoulder. I had heard some of Tornado Rider’s punk music before but had never seen them. Rushad, dressed in a pointy, peter pan-like hat and blue and pink harlequinesque spandex pants, is one of the most animated performers I have ever seen, especially with a cello that he swings around like an electric guitar god. Ok, honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it… with a cello! Between the costumes, the amazing energy and the silly, fantastic lyrics, I found myself suddenly transported to a magical fairytale land. “The Land of the Sawed Off Heads” had me gaping at the band … at the crowd… back at the band. “The Goat God” saw the silly string come out and get sprayed over all, including Rushad. And “I Made Friends with a Dog Today” had me in stitches, especially as I had just met and was standing next to the only dog at the festival. But truly, none of that hid the fact that Rushad is a gifted musician. And no matter what was going on, on stage, or in the audience, Rushad’s talent could not be missed.
I did finally pull myself away to go see Maia Sharp. Though she was at the Meadow, the largest of the three outdoor stages, there was a small audience. They were certainly appreciative and really enjoying the music. A total change of scene from Tornado Rider, Maia’s sweet voice, mellow, jazzy, bluesy songs were actually a nice way to chill in the middle of the jams. With only a guitarist and cellist along with herself on keys and sax, the singer-songwriter moved the audience with her ‘Bacharachian’ lyrics, she called them, on “Hardly Glamour” and “Change the Ending,” the title track of her new album.
Next it was time for a band I was really looking forward to seeing… me and everyone else it seemed: Suwanee favorite’s Donna the Buffalo. ‘The Herd’ as their fans call themselves piled into the Amphitheater making them the largest audience at the Amphitheater the whole weekend.
Mixing zydeco, folk and rock, the music was high-energy sweet goodness from start to finish. And to hear them you don’t have to wonder why the herd would follow them. Individually they are all brilliant musicians; Tara Nevins astounded as she moved from accordion to guitar to fiddle effortlessly. But as a group they were super tight and the feelings of appreciation for each other and obvious love of the music enveloped the adoring audience in an almost familial sense which made their final song “ No Place Like the Right Time> Family Picture” perfect. Other favorites in their set included “Be the Change” “Hot Tamale Baby” and “I Love My Tribe”. Their tribe loves them right back and that feeling of love and community filled the air.
JJ Grey and Mofro, another regional favorite, telling the crowd he was from Jacksonville and “proud of it,” also thrilled the crowd and brought that family feeling to the Meadow as he pointed to his own friends and family that were in the audience and sang “Lochloosa.” He electrified the crowd and they did the same. The L.E.D. hoops started popping out and the lanterns were lit and let loose. He gave heartfelt performances with “A Woman Wants to be Loved,” “Somebody Else,” and “Brighter Days.” As well as a beautiful “The Sun is Shining Down” that gave me chills.
Feeling quite recharged and renewed, I headed back to the Amphitheater for the Jimmy Herring Band. I had no idea what I was in for except some fantastic guitar playing. Fantastic… that’s an understatement. And this is where I break my rule on overused terms… “SICK”! Every note the man played, no matter how fast his fingers were moving, was crystal clear. And the music seamlessly moved through jazz to funk to blues to rock. So controlled even on the craziest of jams, Jimmy and the band were simply gorgeous playing “Aberdeen” bringing tears to the eyes, only to replace that with a smile on “Duke and Cookie” and back to happy tears with “EmeraldGarden”. I want to say I was there watching, listening, but instead I was simply experiencing. An enlightenment? A Zen moment perhaps? Zambi perhaps? The music seemed to move through me and as I looked up through the colored lights, through the trees, to the millions of stars, I felt myself to be part of the universe in a way we never get to feel during the course of a regular day. The composition of the original songs was truly magnificent and a complete instrumental set was soul-cleansing. They included a few covers as well and the only way to describe them was “WoW!” The cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” left people speechless. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like what Herring laid down. It was mind-blowing. When the song was over, for just a second, the crowd just stood in awe before they could rouse themselves to applaud.
The band had some fun with some ‘Go-Go’ style jazz but then plunged into the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” which suddenly needed no words. But it was “Within You Without You,” an on-the-spot setlist change that was just a perfect move on Herring’s part. It captured the whole feeling of the festival, the weekend, and especially that moment, moving from otherworldly melodic stretches slowly to an incredibly hot jam that sent the spirit soaring and then brought you back down with earthy rhythms. “Holy Shit,” “Wow,” “WTF,” “that was… what was that?” Everyone was waiting, hoping for more, and some even lingered as if they were trying to figure out where they were. The announcer finally had to come say that was it.
I would have stayed, too, and missed some of Bonnie Raitt, had Herring come back out. But Raitt put on a great show. She played everything. All of her hits from “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to “Love Sneakin’ Up On You,” along with some covers, many of which she has made her own over the years. Maia Sharp, joined her on stage for a beautiful “Angel from Montgomery.” Raitt’s fans just adore her and their enthusiasm and appreciation went both ways as Raitt gave love to both her band and her fans. She also showed her humorous side when after a kick-ass “Something to Talk About” with Raitt killing it on the slide, she exclaimed, “I got a binder of women you can talk about right here baby … bind this!” I have to admit that I loved that two of the headliners for this festival were women.
I was hoping that Bonnie and Emmylou would join Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett in the midnight jam, a reunion of sorts, but that wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, the midnight jam was a lot of fun. New Orleans Suspects, a band made up of members from the Radiators, the Neville Brothers, Col. Bruce’s band, James Brown’s band and Out formation is in itself and “all-star” band. They started things off with a few of their songs and then Paul and Fred joined them for both some New Orleans standards and Little Feat favorites like “Dixie Chicken.” Other musicians joined in including Matt Grondin. Juan Montero of Cope joined in for a hot “Spanish Moon” and I danced until I couldn’t stand up one more second. As I left the Amphitheater, they were finishing up, and made my way back to camp to the sounds of “Big Chief.” As much as I didn’t want the party to end, I had no choice. I really wanted to stay for Sunday’s Vassar Day with second sets from The Lee Boys, Tornado Rider and Donna the Buffalo. Perhaps next year…
I left the festival on the most incredible, natural high. The positive energy that flowed from the musicians to the fans and back again, across the stages, through the trees and through the camps, and into your very soul is what makes Magfest so special… a true spiritual weekend.