MagnoliaFest | 10.23 – 10.26 | Florida

Words by: Nick Atlas

MagnoliaFest :: 10.23.08 – 10.26.08 :: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL

MagFest 2008 by Christy Muddle
October 23 marked the start of the 12th Annual MagnoliaFest, a celebration of music, magic and nature deep in the heart of Dixie. Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park once again played host to the event, affectionately known as “MagFest.” This year’s action proved to be on par with that of previous seasons, as attendees were treated to an excellent lineup featuring some of the world’s most finely tuned musicians picking amidst a pristine woodland paradise.

Upon stepping foot in the Suwannee, one is immediately transported to a realm of fairytale and folklore undisturbed by the stress and strains of the modern era. MagFest, which traditionally falls on the eve of Halloween, is a playground for witches, elves, gnomes and even the occasional goblin. The stage is a temple – an extension of the crowd, perhaps more so than at any other festival in the States today. The performers are nothing short of sages, storytellers, healers and shamans. This is a place where fantasy and reality are one and the same; where life as myth is reified by all participants, from the littlest pixies to the most ancient wizards.

Despite the commonly held belief that “it doesn’t rain at MagFest,” the festival kicked off to a steady, driving autumn storm. Fortunately, the rain was never hard enough to cause any major problems other than the occasional flooded tent (which made for an easy pick-up line). The Grateful Dead-inspired Donna Jean & the Tricksters highlighted the soggy first evening, along with perennial favorites The Lee Boys, who truly bring the spirit to bear.

Rushad Eggleston :: MagFest 2008 by Nick Atlas
Friday got off to a similar start – wet with brief interludes of gray – and many attendees stuck close to the campfire (where the true magic of MagFest unfolds). By the evening, having sampled a variety of Bloody Mary mixes, everyone was ready to get down and boogie. Western Canada’s The Duhks did not disappoint. The jovial Manitoba-based band performed a number of times throughout the weekend and seamlessly blended samba, zydeco, bluegrass, gospel, soul and Irish folk traditions into an accessible global-pop sound that had anyone within earshot shaking the earth. The band’s main allure is the voice of multilingual lead singer Sarah Dugas, whose stage presence and soulful lyrics are at times comparable to a young Lauryn Hill. The group’s original composition “Toujours Voloir,” performed entirely in French, is sure to be a hit provided word gets around.

In keeping with the theme of young talents, Rushad Eggleston and Tornado Rider‘s eccentric rumpus raised the dead first thing Saturday. This outer-rim trio ignited the audience (and scared off most of the wildlife) with their frenetic punk project, featuring the virtuosic Eggleston redefining the cello with his tongue. In between ferocious riffs and periods of gibberish, he rocked the crowd with his bizarro anthems “I’m a Falcon” and the “Golden Apple Dance.”

By midday Saturday the sun had broken through for good (due to Eggleston having scared away the rain, too), setting the stage for the eclectic grooves of the Joe Craven Duo. Craven, who’s widely respected as a master percussionist and all-around beautiful person, borrowed from the new and the old, looping rhythms played on a space heater, his body, a waste basket, created with his voice and anything else he could find. Next, he sampled from African stars like Oumou Sangare, touched on Pigmy flute music and called upon accompanist Sam Bevin (bass, synth) to fill out the background before unleashing his trusty mandolin on the danceable tunes of Django Reinhardt.

Joe Craven :: MagFest 2008 by Nick Atlas
Following a late-afternoon funk revival on the main stage led by Col. Bruce & The Quark Alliance, attention shifted to the meadow where Chris and Lauren Rowan, aka The Rowan Brothers, teamed up with guitarist David Gans and special guests to form The Rubber Souldiers, performing Beatles hits amidst the illuminated heavens. A stirring, communal rendition of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” chanted against the flames of dusk was the pinnacle of the festival for many a pilgrim, music lover and connoisseur of life in general.

For others, however, the culmination of the weekend’s journey was delivered via the improvisational brilliance of former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, bass guru Oteil Burbridge and guitarist extraordinaire Scott Murawski. The experimental trio’s limitless sounds were described by one aficionado as “exploring the boundaries of musical possibility” and by another as “the best music I’ve ever heard, hands down!”

The inspiration of so many talented artists surely carried over to the campfires as jam sessions overflowed across the grounds from the late night hours till daybreak. Indeed, the spirit of the Suwannee is found in the hearts and souls of the hundreds of musicians who schlep their guitars, mandolins, banjos, upright basses and, as was the case of Gainesville, Florida’s Umoja Orchestra (whose campsite jump-offs conjured the saints), their trombones, saxophones, clarinets and the rest of the treasure chest.

At a festival where it is deemed taboo to pump the car stereo and where the smoky after-hours are often more highly anticipated than the blissful days, fireside heroes like Virginia’s Roger Allen Johnson have a chance to shine. Johnson, whose booming laughter can be heard two counties over, spends an entire week at the Suwannee each year and has assumed legendary-like status as a people’s champion of the blues. After a marathon paddle down the river, Johnson takes center-stage beside any number of blazing infernos, uniting pickers from across the land with moving renditions of old-time classics like “Summertime” and this year’s anthem, “16 Tons.” Johnson’s greatest gift, and those of other campfire magicians like him, is that he brings out the best in everyone. He passes the torch to future generations, who, whether or not they ever grace the stages of MagFest, know that they’ll always have a warm seat and friends to play with – a home at the Suwannee. This is the true enchantment of folk music – “music played by the folks” – and it’s the greatest gift there is.

MagFest 2008 by Christy Muddle

JamBase | Florida
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