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MagnoliaFest-- Spirit of Suwannee Music Park--Live Oak, FL--October 18-21, 2012 

The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park (SOSMP) continues bringing smiles to the masses, hosting the annual MagnoliaFest for the 16th year. As a Florida native and neighbor to Live Oak, I have attended many festivals at SOSMP and have always been particularly fond of MagnoliaFest. SOSMP has set the bar high as a shining example of what a festival should be. Hosting several annual festivals a year, with consistent quality performances integrated in the line-up, and possibly the most accommodating atmosphere on the scene, SOSMP caters to a wide range of festival goers. SOSMP is notorious for a handful of festivals held throughout the year, varying in several musical demographics. Many festival goers from all around have heard of or attended some of the bigger ones such as Wanee Festival or the upcoming Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival; but MagnoliaFest has seemed to slip beneath most fans’ radar, until this year.

MagnoliaFest has typically been billed as a bluegrass festival with a few overlapping performances in analogous genres. It seems the success of some of the other festivals has grabbed the attention of fans all over, inviting them to share in the “Spirit” of Suwanee. This year MagnoliaFest billed some very promising acts including Bonnie Raitt, Mickey Hart Band, The Jimmy Herring Band, JJ Grey and Mofro, and many others. I have always held MagnoliaFest in high regard due to the quality of musicians, annual timing and the traditional family atmosphere that can be described as the “Spirit” which the park and its inhabitants hold so very dear. 

The artists invited to MagnoliaFest this year were some of the best I have seen thus far, and their performances were nothing short of spectacular. The festival began on Thursday as usual, with a progressive start and late night lineup. This Thursday night was exceptional and really kick-started the whole weekend. It was unfortunate that a large number of attendees didn’t arrive until Friday, missing out on 2 very outstanding performances by Mickey Hart Band and Anders Osborne. Mickey Hart delivered his typical set highlighted by some of his new originals. He mixed some new tunes such as “Supersonic”, “Let there be light” and “Who stole the show”; accented by some good ole’ classic Grateful Dead, performing a spaced out version of “Samson and Delilah” and “I know you rider”. I was instantly gratified with the start of the festival and pleasantly surprised by the following set, played by Anders Osborne. Previously, I had not had the pleasure of seeing his show live and was forewarned that he was not to miss. I strongly recommend following this same advice. He was absolutely amazing, playing his own flavorful version of Bob Marley’s “Could you be loved”, adding his New Orleans funk to the classic reggae tune. He then encored with his original track and new addition to my personal library, “On the road to Charlie Parker”. The first night set a strong pace that was spaciously maintained the entire weekend. 

The second day was filled with a more laid back schedule, but nonetheless, entertaining. Friday was filled with more of the traditional bluegrass artists. Some fans were just arriving and fortunately for them, the performances were just as strong as the night before. It was as though the schedule had been planned out, allowing rest for those who arrived early, but still delivering bands that rocked the whole place. It started strong with bands like Cope, The Corbitt Brothers and Flannel Church. Flannel Church treated the crowd with their typical performance, but stepping it up a notch. I have seen them 6 times this year, but only three times with the original trio. With Duane Trucks kicking it on drums, Kevin Scott dropping bass bombs and Greg Hodges playing a mean guitar; the trio has always rocked my socks off and this time was even better. At Magfest, they had a new member I had not seen before, Marshall Ruffin; adding a little icing on an already well baked cake. They have always been great at allowing other musicians to share the stage and it seems as if Marshall will be joining the gang for a while. Integrating gospel songs into their hard hitting rock and roll set, it sounds like they are progressively perfecting their own unique and savory style. Meanwhile, Flannel Church band mates mentor, Colonel Bruce Hampton wasn’t too far away, as he played on the main stage later that day. He was billed, along with several other bands, to play twice. 

This seems to be a growing trend and it is comforting, as it allows you to get the rest needed at these long events and still get the opportunity to see your favorite bands. I have always been fond of the “Allgood” or “Jomeokee” structure, with no overlapping sets. This structure provides the same solution, presented in a different manner. Grandpa’s Cough Medicine was alongside of Col. Bruce and both had been selected for 2 sets on separate days. The stages aren’t very far apart, so it wasn’t difficult to hop between the 2, but knowing there was to be another set the next day was certainly refreshing. I chose Grandpa’s Cough Medicine on Friday as I am partial to the Amphitheatre stage and all of its luxuries. Beautiful acoustics and scenery, laying in a hammock only a short distance from the stage, makes it easy to want to lie at that stage all day. It was a good choice as Grandpa’s Cough Medicine played one of my favorite original tracks, “Beer Truck Drivin’ Man”. Other Friday highlights included a relaxing, but comfortably soothing set by Emmy-Lou Harris Band in which she did a fantastic cover of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood started later in the evening and ignited the crowd like the start of a muscle car engine firing up. It had been a relaxing and lethargic day, but the mood was soon to change and was now more apparent than ever. It was time to party, as it seemed the entire campground had now come out to play. After Chris Robinson, was a well-placed, bluegrass themed Jam Session. The “Jam” set consisted mainly of members of The Travelin McCoury’s, Emmy-Lou Harris Band, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, Rev. Jeff Mosier and Rushad Eggelsten, the player from Tornado Rider. Reverend Jeff Mosier was a handful and highlighted the set. There were so many talented musicians on stage and these “Jam” sets are proving to be one festival trend that I am growing quite fond of. Watching Rushad bouncing his bow off his cello, dueling between the precise and drawn out riffs of Jason Carter on the fiddle; this was an alternative pleasantry compared to the typical “pick” battle of 2 dueling guitarists. I love guest “sit-ins” and they are subjectively my favorite aspect of festivals. These “Jam” sets allow for all the musicians to sit in with each other and cut free from band responsibilities like promotion and rigid structure, and allow them the freedom to do what they do best....Jam! 

Saturday promised another Jam session late at night, but beforehand there were still several bands I was eager to see or had previously skipped. The docket was filled with legendary local favorites like Bonnie Raitt and JJ grey, who come to SOSMP often. The day was also full of smaller acts, or at least billed as such, but nonetheless just as enriching and entertaining as the others. People flocked to the main stage as JJ played some old favorites like “Ho Cake” and “Brighter Days” and later, the same for Bonnie. Not to my dislike or surprise, but some of the smaller stages held some of the best acts for the day, including some of Bonnie’s old friends from Little Feat, Fred Tackett and Paul Barrere. Paul and Fred played on the Amphitheatre stage and pleased with the crowd with old favorites like “Sailin Shoes”, “Rocket in my pocket”, and “Willin”. They had the whole crowd singing along with them, to the tune of “Don’t bogart that joint” which was pleasing to see the crowd so enthusiastically involved early in the day. Between them and the Col. Bruce show, it would prove to be a quick start to a long night. Possibly one of my all-time single favorite moments at Suwannee happened about halfway through Col. Bruce’s second show, but my first for the weekend. He had already played one of my favorite covers, Howlin’ Wolfs’ “Spoonful”, and then busted out a couple of my personal Colonel favorites. He brought Paul Barrere out and played one of his originals “Basically Frightened” and then played an old Bukka White tune and jamband staple, “Fixin’ to die”. I have had the pleasure of hearing several artists play this particular cover and have always enjoyed the Colonel’s version. This time it was extra special as master slide guitarist AJ Ghent, had acquired a cigar box guitar from Cigar Box Music and was accompanied by Paul Barrere on his slide guitar, wrapping it up in one big and variably pleasing wrapper. I got to play around with one of these cigar box guitars, thinking I had figured it out; but I was instantly humbled watching AJ Ghent shred it up, standing next to Paul Barrere and Col. Bruce, jamming on their perspective guitars. After both of these shows, it was the Bonnie Raitt show providing a comfortable segue into The Jimmy Herring Band and later into the “Jam” set. Jimmy covered Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve been loving You” and then a Beatles cover with “A day in the life”; personally adding another great show by Jimmy and his band to my list. The following “Jam” set concluded Saturday night and the festival for many of the attendees. The stage was once again filled with various musicians ranging from all sorts of bands, such as the New Orleans Suspects, Cope and Little Feat. It came as no surprise, as Fred Tackett and Paul Barrere stole the show. Little Feat’s music has inspired numerous bands to cover their original songs; and hearing so many wonderful musicians like Juanja from Cope and Jeff Watkins of the New Orleans Suspects, backing Fred and Paul on songs like “Spanish Moon” and “Down on the farm” with marvelous horn instrumentals, was an undeniable and exceptional treat. That is the beauty of the “Jam” set; questionably deciphering whether or not to chalk these tunes as covers or originals, or just to write them up as they were... veritable and impromptu musical moments never to be repeated. The spirit it brings is something indescribable; something that may only be experienced, yet, permanently written in your mind forever.

The festival rolled along until Sunday with an amazing gospel set by The Lee Boys and later a memorable performance by local favorites Tornado Rider. MagnoliaFest, along with many other festivals thrown by SOSMP, has always had a very well planned arrival and departure schedule. From Thursday until Sunday, the music plays on, but allows fans the opportunity to comfortably set up their camping equipment and break it down with little stress on time or worry about missing your favorite bands. The park has a very mischievous and delightful way of making you feel like you don’t want to leave; or at least that you may come back in the same stride and fashion, picking up right where you left off. Instead of anxiously waiting in traffic, SOSMP has always allowed festival goers the opportunity to progressively start and finish their weekend. The nature and beauty the park inhabits is nothing short of spiritual. The friendly people and quality of music seem as an added bonus to the spirit, naturally dwelling in Live Oak. I am so very grateful the SOSMP is so close. When I travel, it seems as if I encounter so many other festival venues attempting to create that which has remained in my backyard in what is to be described as “The Spirit of Suwannee”; leaving me questioning why I ever left, and when is the next time I get to come back.  

Written and Photos By:  Joey A. Pye

Edited By:  Rosemary A.W. Roberts

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