Along a 3-mile stretch of the Suwannee River, near Live Oak, Florida, the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park plays host to dozens of music events and thousands of campers every year. Every fall, people come for Magnolia Fest. Over 4 days, festivalgoers camp and enjoy ‘round-the-clock live music, food, and festy fun in a beautiful and family friendly environment. The 2015 lineup included Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Avett Brothers, The Del McCoury Band, Donna the Buffalo, Rebirth Brass Band, The Applebutter Express, The Motet, Nikki Talley, and on, and on. For Americana, roots rock, bluegrass, funk, and folk fans, this festival was a sonic buffet.
This is my review of the whole festival. There are reviews of a lot of the bands, and if that’s all you’re looking for, skim on down just a little and keep your eyes peeled for capital letters.
Like a lot of you I’m a parent, and in a relationship I have no plan to not be in. If I can find a music-related event that is family-friendly and I can make an annual vacation out of, I’ve found something worth keeping. Magnolia Fest is that fall family vacation trip. From the time I got out of the truck at the park office to the last time I touched Suwannee soil, I never worried about what anyone else was going to do, never second-guessed my wallet--I never didn’t smile. In fact, I never had a moment of anxiety.
On Thursday we checked out the park and got familiarized with where everything was. Well, not everything - the park is huge - but a lot. Moving from band to band and exploring, my brother and I logged more than 6 miles between 5 and 11.
There were families with children of every age there, but it didn’t feel like I was overrun by a bunch of heathens cut loose in Walmart. Families seemed to stick to a common area at each stage, and the kids were all pretty well behaved.
We did find the heathens, though. Between 6 and 7, Band of Heathens was a good band for me to start the weekend off with. The Congress and The Corbitt Brothers were both good, too. I didn’t catch the entire set of either, but I wouldn’t thumbs down what I did hear.
Thursday’s real standout for me was The Motet. They threw a 75-minute disco-funk dance party. The 7-piece band includes drums, bass, guitar, and keys as well as trumpet, sax, and percussion. Their sound was tight enough to make the crowd get loose. I’ll be listening to them more in the future.
It was getting chilly and we were exhausted, so we didn’t catch Nikki Talley or Lake Street Dive, though we could hear Talley and husband Jason until we laid down and passed out.
Friday came and on the short walk to the porta potty I was greeted with smiles from people of all ages. After a check of the schedule, we had a loose plan for the day. From our campsite, we could hear Grits & Soul and Mojo Gurus, but it wasn’t until The Applebutter Express went on at 1:30 in the Music Hall that we actually went to see a set. Folks, I am glad we went to that show. Those guys, and gal, are now one of my favorite bands. Their bluegrassy, ukulele-funk (that’s right) river music was like home. It was fun, the stories were great, and it was easy to listen to. I’ve since sought them out on social media, YouTube, and Spotify. I’ll be listening to them for a long while.
Col. Bruce Hampton sat through a solid set followed by the Del McCoury Band. Del is one of those icons who, when you have an opportunity, you’re obliged to see perform live. That’s OK. He’s a class act and a gentleman on stage. He and his bandmates enjoy what they’re doing, and it comes through to the rest of us in the form of beautifully harmonized, old-timey bluegrass stories followed by more of the same.
Next, we caught most of The Travelin’ McCourys’ set. Just like their daddy, these McCourys bring the bluegrass thunder, but with a modern twang.
Tedeschi Trucks Band headlined Friday night. I’d seen Tedeschi and Trucks before, but it’s only been in the last 2 years or so that I’ve really started to appreciate them. Susan Tedeschi has a beautiful, soulful voice and Derek Trucks plays guitar with a passion and intensity not many can match. Both Susan and Derek give me chills and tingly feelings. This show was no exception.
For 2 hours, the band entertained and mesmerized us with songs like “The Storm,” “Break in the Road,” “I Want More,” “Idle Wind,” and “Midnight In Harlem.” There were well done covers like “With A Little Help from My Friends” and The Box Tops’ “The Letter.”
Amped up on guitar licks, we headed to the late show, another booty shaking set from The Motet. The clock read 1:30, but we knew the night wasn’t over; far from it. Earlier in the day, we learned about a place in the woods where the music doesn’t stop until the sunrise reminds everyone to sleep.
More than 100 jack-o-lanterns hung from the trees and the gentle sound of picking and bowing came through the trees. Back there, tucked away from the stages, among campfires, a few open tents, and a shrine to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, the new legends of bluegrass and americana drink and hone their skills. Names and band affiliations don’t matter in Slopryland. What is important there is passion. It’s skill.
My time in Slopryland was transformative in ways that I still don’t fully understand. Listening to music in that setting felt good; it felt right and natural. Raw. I was reminded of the Old Crow Medicine Show song “Doc’s Day.” I imagine this was what the old hillbilly was talking about when he said “Back in Deep Gap, I’m a’tellin’ ya’ mister, we’d be rockin’ from dusk ‘til dawn.”
In the pre-dawn light, as we walked back to our campsite, it wasn’t the upcoming Avett Brothers or Donna the Buffalo shows I was thinking about. I was already thinking about Saturday night’s adventure in Slopryland.
Sometime before noon, I opened my eyes and took a deep breath of Saturday. I felt refreshed and knew why. We sat outside and people-watched for a good while. Occasionally, I would see something that made me smile even bigger than what was comfortable. It was kind of like a natural version of that chemical-induced permagrin many of you are familiar with. Children enjoying music; an artist casually walking by, hey, isn’t that Lyndsay Pruett?; an act of chivalry--the best of human kindness was on display, and I was watching the whole show.
Throughout the day we caught pieces of The Corbitt Brothers, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Steep Canyon Rangers. By 6:00 we had settled in at the Meadow Stage. Coming up were the Rebirth Brass Band, Jeff Austin Band with Jon Stickley, and The Avett Brothers.
Did you know the Rebirth Brass Band is a Grammy Award winning group? They’ll tell you somewhere about every other song. Modesty is not a skill they practice, boasting their name in many of their songs. Rebirth is kind of like the Kanye West of New Orleans brass.
Fortunately, the Jeff Austin Band played to let us know how great they were instead of just telling us. This was a mix of musicians overflowing with ability. The picking, strumming, plucking, and slapping were among the best I saw the whole weekend. Of course, I’m a big Jon Stickley fan, but I would have enjoyed this set with another, equally talented, guitarist in his place. These guys had a good time.
By the time The Avett Brothers took the stage I was ready. I was a fan, but I’d never seen them live. These folks are performers. Showmen. The talent is there, but there’s also a stage presence and command of the audience that’s not all that common in the genre. They put on one helluva good show, too. The third song they played was the John Denver favorite, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” Other highlights from their show included “Go to Sleep,” “Winter in My Heart,” “Murder in the City” “Distraction #74,” “Die, Die, Die,” “Vanity,” “Hand Me Down Tune,” and “The D Bag Rag.”
Zang! I was pumped. I was also out of beer, so I headed to the trading post to pick up a 12 of Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’. On the way out the gate, on the way to the trading post, I asked the gatekeeper if I could bring the contraband back in. I was told no, but I was also told how to circumvent the gate by means of the “hippie trail.” It was a haul, but an adventure, finding my way in the dark around the outskirts of the venue and back to my cooler.
The late show was one of my favorite bands, the roots heroes Donna the Buffalo. Tara, Jeb, et al. didn’t disappoint. They never do.
After Donna’s last note, we made the trek into the woods, back to Slopryland. When we were walking up we came upon a guy riding a bike through the sand. He said something and I replied with a joke which caused him to laugh and crash. According to him, it was his first time on a bicycle. It took several attempts to get him back up and rolling. In the end, he rode off into the darkness to find whatever adventure he was looking for.
Saturday in Slopryland was as special, if not more, as Friday. In attendance were Nikki Talley and Lyndsay Pruett. That voice and fiddle combination sent me spinning. Knowing this would be our last night in the woods, my brother and I stayed until the sunrise was undeniable.
Sunday arrived and, to our displeasure, we had to break camp and begin the trip back to our regular lives. Next time, I will be sure to take Monday off of work so that I can stay for Sunday’s fun. On Sunday, many of the artists who are still on site join the headliners, Donna the Buffalo, on stage for their closing set. Afterward, the party in the woods culminates with all of the leftover bottles and raw, improvised jams until Monday’s sun shines.
Magnolia Fest is for the fall. It’s a farewell to summertime music festivals and I’ll be back, but Springfest is just months away. I’ll be there, will you?
Words: Dan Fugate
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