Magnolia Fest Friday: another Suwannee slice of heaven!

I had never attended MagFest before, because in a previous incarnation I could only do one festival in the fall, and Bear Creek was (*sniff, sniff*) at the top of my list of ALL festivals. Also, I was apprehensive about the lineup, not exactly in my wheelhouse. But I had noticed that the musical focus had widened in recent years, and this lineup was certainly intriguing.

Friday’s dance card was packed: 21 performances from which to choose. I was able to hit 14. Of those, one or two were so-so (for me, because they had plenty of fans), most were great, and fully half a dozen hit my benchmark titled “As Good As It Gets.” That AGAIG acronym could apply to the situation in the moment or for all time. In other words, I had a splendid day hearing magnificent music under spectacular October skies with wonderful friends. That’s a trifecta, ladies and gentlemen.

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Anna Kline of Grits & Soul

With four stages and lots of overlaps, you have to make decisions. Do you see band A and skip band B, or do you split time between the two. Who needs a drive-by, and who needs a sit-down? I wanted to see Bonnie Blue and Grits & Soul, both opening the day with noon sets. I decided on Grits & Soul first.

This trio from Asheville balanced country tunes and bluegrass in equal measures. Anna Kline’s voice had that beautiful waver on the country tunes, and John Looney’s mandolin playing really stood out. After one great bluegrass tune, she said, “That was about hunger. Now we’ll do a song about a rabbit from the other point of view. It’s an underrepresented demographic!” Laughs all around, and a great song.

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Bonnie Blue

Then it was inside to see Jacksonville’s Bonnie Blue. This quintet plays honest Southern rock, the two guitars often working in tandem. The crowd was treated to a solid set, and they did a great job channelling The Band on “Don’t Do It (Don’t You Break My Heart),” with Isaac Corbitt sitting in on harp. It quickly became apparent that the festival should really be the Brett Bass-Isaac Corbitt Fest, given how many times they were called to the stage. (And that is NOT a complaint! These boys killed it!)

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The Mojo Gurus

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: there is a band you’ve seen that you didn’t like, and they are playing again. So you listen, and they are WAAAAAY better than you remembered. That would be The Mojo Gurus (Tampa); that was then; this is now. They played a great set on the Porch Stage. Now I want to hear them again.

Back inside, The Applebutter Express was lighting it up. This quartet is just so fine, with Kyle and Shannon Biss on vocals, Kyle on mandolin, Joe Trivette on fiddle and Zach Rogers on bass. We got “Please Don’t Go,” “Let’s Get Married in the Woods,” “Double Shot of Whiskey” and “Jet Airliner.” And the wonderful set rose even higher when Isaac and Brett stage-bombed again.

I zipped out to the Meadow Stage for the first time to see my beloved Lee Boys. I couldn’t make their Thursday set, so I certainly wasn’t going to miss this. Good thing, too, because this was the super-deluxe Lee Boys model. Chris Johnson was holding down the steel chair, as he has been, admirably, and the previous chair owner, Roosevelt “The DR.” Collier was there with his lap steel guitar. Matt Lapham, bassist extraordinaire (my favorite anywhere) with Shak Nasti and Brownote, was on stage, as was Matt Grondin on guitar; Grondin has a rich history performing with a producing the boys.

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Keith & Derrick Lee

My prayer was truly answered as they opened with “Goin’ to Glory.” My other prayer was also answered, as Keith Lee was on stage singing with brother Derrick. Derrick calls Keith “the special sauce.” Took the words right out of my mouth. Never have I met a man so filled with the spirit. As good as it gets.

After “I’m Not Tired,” they played an amazing new interpretation of “Dance with Me” that must have last 15 or 20 minutes. It was sick. At one point, Roosevelt and Grondin were tossing it back and forth in blistering fashion. Lapham got a nice feature as well.

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Roosevelt “The DR.” Collier

A really bluesy “I Love You Jesus” featured “Amazing Grace” lyrics with the same vamp. A complete shift of gears pushed the band into “Joyful Sound,” maybe the most accurate song title ever. Johnson, Roosevelt and Grondin all soloed, and Earl “Big Easy” Walker’s time was perfect. Perfect!

The last long tune began, and I scribbled down “We Want the Funk.” But as I thought about it, I realized this vamp could go in any of three directions. Maybe it would stroll into “Superstition.” Instead, it became “Shaky Ground,” and once again Keith and Derrick filled us all with positive vibes, the lyrics notwithstanding.

Due to a schedule change, Sloppy Joe brought their sloppy-grass to the Porch. Banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin and percussion. The percussionist played standing up, with a washboard and tiny cymbal. I heard a lovely female voice in the mix and realized, through the haze, that the bass player was a young lady. I listened briefly before heading back to the Music Hall for internet access so I could post Thursday’s review. I enjoyed their tune “Sounds Like a Banjo to Me” as I walked away.

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Nikki Talley

I was able to enjoy Nikki Talley’s beautiful voice and acoustic music while I worked. She was joined again by husband Jason Sharp. I hoped to catch some of the Habanero Honeys with Talley and others, but they were 20 minutes late starting. I heard the first tune before jetting outside — too late to hear authentic Delta bluesman CeDell Davis from Arkansas.

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CeDell Davis

But the Col. was about to hold forth on the Porch, and those of us like-minded individuals knew we weren’t going to miss a single note. This is, after all, Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.), the “granddaddy of us all” (so sayeth John Bell). The Col. is jam’s version of Art Blakey, an ongoing school where musicians learn what the music is really all about.

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Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.)

“We’re going to start with ’40,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ I hope you’ll stay with us. We should finish some time Tuesday night.” Huge guffaws. It doesn’t matter what the Col. plays. It doesn’t matter how he plays or reinterprets them. It only matters that he DOES. “He Turned Me Around” and “It’s About Time” (not correct song titles, but accurate sentiments) were in the mix before a lovely “Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do (If You Got a Heartache).” “Yield Not to Temptation” was simply sublime.

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Billy Ray Thornton

Somewhere along in here (my notes are inconclusive), THE festival moment happened. Perhaps you can relate. Some event occurs that bookmarks the festival in your brain for all time. It happened midset, when the Col. introduced Heather Gillis, a young lady from Tallahassee with a guitar. She might be a tad older than the 15 announced by the Col., but she is a young lady who made a ton of wanne-be guitar players shrug and cry as she ripped three separate solos over the next few tunes, each in a different style. And with a huge smile. AND with a huge upsurge from the crowd after each one. Yep. THAT was the moment — a bunch of ‘em, actually.

The Col. uses a “Tuxedo Junction”-style intro to “Basically Frightened,” with my favorite lyrics: “I know wrestling is real; I know the moon landing was fake.” That was followed by “Fixin’ to Die” and “Right Now.” Transcendent. As good as it gets, again.

I stopped by the amphitheater not long enough to get the real flavor of The Steep Canyon Rangers because I was determined to get to the main stage for the Del McCoury Band. And I was not disappointed. I had only seen Del and band once, years ago, but the memory was as fresh as yesterday. Pound for pound, this might be the most talented band anywhere.

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Beyond all the instruments, there is Del’s voice, that pure high lonesome sound as clear in his ‘70s as ever. We got a great taste during “Smoking Gun.” And the four musicians playing with him are stunning, and family. They dress in dark suits and ties (Del wears a light-colored jacket), and they use one primary microphone for solos. I love watching them line up for their next turn, so beautifully old-school.

Alan Bartram on bass is superb, as is Ronnie McCoury on mandolin. Rob McCoury on banjo is amazing, and there are few if any words for the brilliance of Jason Carter on fiddle. (And what would happen later would rip my head clean off.) Del honored a request for a tune about “a motorcycle, black leather and a red-haired girl.” Afterward, he shared this, talking about the rest of the boys touring as The Traveling McCourys: “I sit home and wring my hands. I thought it would be fun to sit home, but it ain’t!”

Not sure if the next tune was a request or not, but he enjoyed explaining the background to “Eli Renfrow,” who murdered his wife and buried her. They made a u-turn to close with two magnificent gospel numbers. First was a medium-paced “Working On a Building.” If that one didn’t start the tears for me, the next one certainly did. “All Aboard” was a locomotive powering down the tracks, courtesy of Del and family. As good as it gets. Again.

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London Souls

Things slowed down for me. The London Souls were on the Porch Stage. I have enjoyed them in the past, but this stripped-down version (guitar and drums) just did not speak to me this night. Once again, I was in the minority, as plenty of fans were enjoying the set. Same for Doyle Bramhall II. I was there for much of the set, and the playing was excellent. I just wasn’t excited about the song selection. I was prepared to be moved, but it wasn’t happening — for me. I was glad to get to see Anthony A.C. Cole on the drum kit, a superb talent.

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Doyle Bramhall II

The Traveling McCourys with Roosevelt Collier. And Big Easy on drums. This truly was as good as it gets. I should have been prepared, but the awesomeness of this collaboration took me by surprise. We got the McCourys, Carter and Bartram, with Del’s grandson taking Del’s spot on guitar. Jason Carter was stratospheric on fiddle, with great vocals to boot. I understood how closely aligned The Lee Boys and the McCourys are, which you might not suspect on paper.

Del came out for a number called “I Love You.” Evan McCoy, son of Ronnie and grandson of Del, got several opportunities to shine on guitar, his first time out with the band. Roosevelt was wonderful, and the whole proceedings were pushed along by spot-on drumming from Big Easy. WOW. It is impossible to overstate how superb this was.

It was time for the main event, the return of the Tedeschi Trucks Band to the park (they were not here for Wanee 2015). For two delirious hours, TTB demonstrated why they are the 21st-century definition of the big band. “Midnight in Harlem” brought one of the biggest audience responses, a true fan favorite. TTB has expanded to 12 members with the incredible addition of Alecia Chakour, and Elizabeth Lea now holds the trombone chair.

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Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi

The chorus aspect was unmistakable during “The Letter,” the old Box Tops tune revived on Joe Cocker’s Maddogs and Englishmen recording from 1970. It was that recording that TTB reproduced at Lockn’ with a number of the original participants, notably Leon Russell. Here is a band that boasts two stellar guitar players (not coincidentally, married) in Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. Both were superb, as usual, and Susan’s lead vocals sparkled throughout the set.

Festival moment number two, during the encore, when the band was closing with the Cocker version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” That scream. You know. THAT SCREAM. Well, Susan nailed it. NAILED. IT.

That left it to The Motet to close down the amphitheater. For the record, I’ve seen them ten times, including six this year alone. But I’ve never heard anything like this. It was simply not of this earth. Thursday it was Garret Sayers Night. Friday was, too, but then it was EVERYBODY Night.

They opened with an instrumental that reminded me of “Hang Up Your Hangups” before launching into “Keep It Real” from their most recent album. Ryan Jalbert took a righteous guitar solo to set the bar way the heck up there. Next, they covered Average White Band’s “Cut the Cake,” with Sayers and Matt Pitts on tenor out front.

The Motet have been dipping into their back catalog with that awesome Afrobeat music, and we got several this set, starting with “Expensive Shit” (now I might have the Afrobeat tunes in the wrong order). Trumpeter Gabe Mervine had a deluxe solo before the tune morphed into “Push On Through,” with a great Joey Porter keyboard solo, then a clavinet outing that steered the song back to “Expensive Shit.”

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Everybody was involved in sending this set into outer space. Sayers and Dave Watts were so deep in the pocket you could barely see them. Mervine and Pitts were in perfect unison on song after song. And Jalbert and Porter were crushing. After another great instrumental, Jans Ingber continued to encourage funky dancing, showing us how on “Love Rollercoaster” and “Handcuffs.”

“Cheap Shit” emerged out of “Handcuffs,” followed by Ingber holding his arms crossed to signify the arrival of “Extraordinary High.” And that led to “Closed Mouths Don’t Get Fed.” What? They’re done already?

Of course not. The encore began with yet another Afrobeat tune, Mervine with a superb wah-wah solo. Ingber reminded us again, “We’re The Motet from Colorado, and we LOVE coming here.” With that, we caught the opening strains of “Get Down Tonight” (yes, that one). After much dancing, Porter’s great synthesizer solo drove the song into “Jungle Boogie.”

One other note. Thursday, Ingber made sure to encourage everyone to check out Lake Street Dive, in particular vocalist Rachael Price. During the LSD set, Ingber was stage left in admiration, and he talked about her and the band again Friday. That’s how musicians show respect for each other.

WOW! Magnolia Fest is a Suwannee slice of heaven! Saturday up next.

Photography by kind permission of Brian Hensley Photography

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Scott Hopkins
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