MagnoliaFest Review

Oct. 15-18, 2015

Spirit of the Suwannee Park, Live Oak, FL

by Ashley Feller and Benjamin Landsman

     This past weekend marked the 19th annual Magnolia Fest at 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. Every year thousands of music festival enthusiasts patiently wait the time to return to the Suwannee to “Get their Mag On”. And that’s 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 and absolutely no rain. The perfect atmosphere to set the stage for funky bass lines, smokin 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 the words, “Testify.” Up next was Band of Heathens who 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 the live oak trees. One of the highlights of the set was a tasteful rendition of the classic “People Get Ready” literally just about everyone in the audience joined in the singing. The voices echoed against the trees and filled the amphitheater with beautiful voices. Next up was The Motet.Their up beat funky dance music made for the perfect late night dance party under the oaks and stars. This band really had the perfect amount of finesse and sass. Each solo was spontaneous and sensationally crafted.

After  The Motet it was time to head over to the Porch Stage which is located near vendor row which is also in 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. They recently released their new CD “Out from the Harbor” and included many of the song’s in their set that night. Its 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 tyme tune “Railroad Boy” the song creates a pleasant tension in the audience and 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” which resulted in a very well deserved standing ovation.

Friday was another beautiful day. The first band to take the amphitheater stage was Grits and Soul a trio featuring Anna Kline on guitar and vocals and John Looney on mandolin and vocals. They are working on recording a new album to be released in 2016. 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 typically comprised of Cathy Lee, Beth Judy, and Tom Nelly 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. 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 that afternoon. Del McCoury is without a doubt a bluegrass legend. His vocals are undeniable and has one of the tightest backup bands in the bluegrass world. 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 newgrass.

Finally, it was time to make the trek back to the meadow stage for the Grammy award winning husband and wife team The Tedeschi Trucks band. Susan Tedeschi’s vocals are comparable to the blues legend Bonnie Raitt.  Derek Trucks comes from a long line of accomplished guitarists as well. 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. One thing can be said, The Tedeschi Trucks Band is loud! They are 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 are vivid sculptures this year depicting a plethora of facial expressions. 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 virtuoso’s 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 thought 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”.

At four o’clock it was time to go see Grammy award winning Steep Canyon Rangers. Recently famed for having featured  actor and comedian  Steve Martin. They really  performed an exceptional set.. There was both rapid fire fiddle and banjo solos throughout the set.  Midway through the set accomplished guitarist  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.

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 their hits such as “Murder in the City” and “The Prettiest Thing”. The evening 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” band the group played an extensive array of songs from The Grateful Dead done in a gospel style.  The festival ended with another great set by Donna The Buffalo which included many guests like the infamous Jim Lauderdale! Jim Lauderdale 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.