2011 Magnoliafest: A portrat of an American bluegrass jam festival

By Phillip C. Sunkel IV | gargoyle@flagler.edu

On Oct. 20-23, the 15th annual Magnoliafest took over the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Outstanding music combined with the frosty chill of the beginning of fall for an unforgettable weekend.


Galen Kipar:

One of the most outstanding hidden acts to be found at Magfest was the Galen Kipar Project. I had first seen Galen perform at Sringfest 2010 and immediately became a fan. His songs shed influence from blues, classical, jazz and some of my all time favorite bands and artists like Beirut and Andrew Bird. Recommended Listening for the Galen Kipar Project: Playfully Pushing, Rushing Over My Bones, Chasing Dragons.




Railroad Earth:

Railroad Earth’s mellow Bluegrass jam music sounded right at home in the Amphitheater. With the amount of wonderful mandolin picking, fiddle playing and practically mystical vocals it’s hard not to get lost in the music. Railroad Earth, out of Stillwater, NJ, began in 2001. The group put out their first demo within three weeks of forming instantly gaining them notoriety. Within a couple months the band returned to the studio to make another five songs which they added to the first demo to make “The Black Bear Sessions.” The rest is history. As the temperature dropped around the campgrounds, the dancing crowd kept the amphitheater warm with the good vibes of fall. Recommended Listening: Seven Story Mountain, Colorado, Mighty River.



Travelin’ McCourys with Keller Williams:

One of the most exciting acts of the whole weekend, next to Bela Fleck and The Flectones, was the Travelin’ McCourys set with Keller Williams. The combination of Keller’s acoustic jam songs mixed with the McCourys expertise in bluegrass made for a set of undeniably gorgeous songs. Del McCoury and Keller Williams seemed to be vibing really well on stage making their musical performance something to be remembered. Freaker By The Speaker was played in a more mellow bluegrassey style perfect with the chilly air. Recommended listening for Keller Williams: Freaker By The Speaker, Goofballs.

Recommended Listening for the McCourys: Let’s Celebrate, Midnight Rider.













Both Friday and Saturday nights at 11 p.m. festival organizers scheduled two jam sessions. On this first night John Skehan, who plays Mandolin in Railroad Earth, and Del McCoury, who leads the Travelin’ McCourys with his mandolin, led the jam. Other musicians on stage were from many of the bands that performed that day and the next, including but not limited to the Travelin McCoury’s, Galen Kipar Project, Railroad Earth and Whetherman. The biggest surprise to most of the musicians on stage was Tornado Rider frontman and lead Celloist Rushad Eggleston, who blew them all away with his years of exeperience playing the cello. According to the bands website Rushad starting playing violin when he was three but got bored by the time he was 8 so he picked up the cello, the site also states that Rushad invented what he calls “bluegrass Cello”. The only bad thing about the jam was the two bros in the second row who would not stop shouting “Sailing shoes!!! Play sailing shoes!!!.” Railroad Earth violinist Tim Carbone got so frustrated with the guys that he finally started shouting back. The second the music was back on Carbone seemed to forget and so did everyone in the crowd as the music began to make everyone stomp their feet.












moe. night 1:













The first time I saw moe. was at Bear Creek 2009 when lead singer and bassist Rob Derhak had a broken leg so he had to sit-down the whole time. I have to say they were good but not good enough for me to remember any songs. Their performance at Magfest this year however, completely changed my mind. With Derhak back on both feet the energy was much higher. Also the decision to have moe. on the large stage proved to be an excellent choice. moe.’s lights played perfectly off the southern live oak trees behind the stage. The smokey air enhanced the lights making the lightshow a spectacle to behold. I don’t think I’ll ever forget these two nights of moe. Recommended listening for moe.: The Conch, St. Augustine.



Campground Life:

The weather over the weekend was pleasantly warm during the day. The second the sun went down though, the temperature dropped with it. Camp fires littered the woods with smoke so thick it almost felt like being inside a cold room.



















Saturday morning I woke up feeling fantastic. At 11 I headed on over to the Golf Cart parade where myself and two buddies drove around on the Traveling Tunes golf cart. The cart was an old flat bed cart which the merch tent uses to bring merch to sell to the different stages around the park. The merch tent had decorated the ugly old thing with pumpkin lights, flashing skulls and purple Christmas lights. Too bad the parade was the morning. Once the parade started everything went pretty smoothly until my friends and I got to the top of the hill in the campground where we started to loop back around. At this point the golf cart dies and the the three of us were forced to push the cart for the rest of the parade. Basically just another adventure in the world of the SOSMP.


The Lee Boys with Victor Wooten:

The Lee Boys played a 4 o’clock set in the coolness of the afternoon sun. After about two songs the R&B, Gospel, Blues band brought legendary bassist Victor Wooten out on stage to jam with them. There was even a point where pedal steel guitar player Roosevelt Collier and lead singer Keith Lee whipped out their video cameras to get a shot of Neal Fountain, who was playing bass for the Lee Boys, jam with Wooten. Wooten stayed on stage with the Lee Boys making it one of the surprise sets of the weekend. Unfortunately Wooten didn’t join the jam later that night. The Lee Boys will also be playing Bear Creek in November, Roosevelt Collier is listed as an artist as large. Recommended listening for the Lee Boys: (Come On) Help Me Lift Him Up.








Based out of Chicago, ILL. the band Cornmeal puts out knee slapping bluegrass with Americana and folk music roots. A definite crowd favorite the band fed off the crowds energy making everyone forget how cold it was about to be. Allie Kral’s fiddle playing made it rather impossible not to dance your thoughts away. Recommended listening: The Girl I Left Behind, My Georgia Home, Stuck In The Mud.











Amy Hendrickson and The Prime Directive:

The always enchanting Amy Hendrickson and The Prime Directive took to the music hall stage just before the Infamous Stringdusters and most importantly Bela Fleck. Based in Saint Augustine, Amy Hendrickson can often be found playing music somewhere in the downtown area, the band even played the not-so successful Flaglerpalooza. It’s always a delight to see a local musician you know playing at a music festival. Once you meet Amy you’ll never forget her. Her music and her personality make her and the Prime Directive a set not to miss. Once again Amy and The Prime Directive attract a decently large group of people away from the main stages to the music hall. Recommended listening for Amy Hendrickson and the Prime Directive: Small Town Tyranny, Mind, Body and Soul, Pong.




Infamous Stringdusters:

What is there really to say about a band that pretty much sounds exactly like their name would make you think they sound. They’re pretty much a modern bluegrass band that makes you feel like a badass driving an old dodge through the swamp somewhere in the south. Be sure to check out their first live album “We’ll Do It Live” out now. Recommended listening for the Infamous Stringdusters: Get It While You Can, Black Rock.


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones:





































The most anticipated set of the weekend was, not surprisingly, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. As headliner of the festival they took the 8 o’clock spot on saturday and packed the amphithteater with what looked like almost every attendee of the festival. Again no surprise though since the original lineup of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones has recently been reassembled and just released their latest record “Rocket Science” in May. The band consists of banjoist and composer Bela Fleck, who started the band, bassist Victor Wooten, RoyEl (Futureman), who played a drumitar at mag and pianist Howard Levy. Over the years since the bands creation in 1988 the supergroup has won 5 grammys in various categories. On their website the Flecktones describe their music as “an impossible to pigeonhole sound all their own, a meeting of musical minds that remains, as ever, utterly indescribable.” Recommended listening for Bela Fleck and The Flecktones: Gravity Lane, Sweet Pomegranates, Sinister Minister.

Donna The Buffalo:

Over their 20 year span they have acquired a devoted community of fans, which they call “the herd.” After seeing them perform its pretty easy to understand why one would want to become a sheep in the herd. Donna’s music combines elements of rootsy fiddle, soulful Americana rock with zydeco, electric, reggae, and country too name a few of the genres which describe their sound. The always socially conscious Donna the Buffalo could not play a whole set without mentioning the Occupy events occurring all over the country spawned by Occupy Wall Street. The crowd fell silent as lead guitarist and vocalist Jeb Puryear talked about keeping the fight alive and how DTB will be playing some songs and walking around at Occupy Wall Street. This was actually the perfect introduction to their next song which happened to be “Conscious Evolution.” Recommended listening: Conscious Evolution, Sailing.

Around The Festival At Night:

Night around the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is a different world than daytime. For me it becomes a playground of photographic opportunity which I gladly take advantage of at every festival. The combination of the frigid cold air with the smoke from the campfires made everything within sight a visual pleasure. All of this combined with the smell of the fires and the beginning of fall made my evening photo adventures worth the while. When I came around to the musical instrument tent and saw to my delight the silhouettes of the instruments, I could not believe my luck. Usually I don’t have the will to carry around my tripod so my standard technique to get a shot like this is to hold my breath and hold the camera as close to my center as possible. Practice makes perfect.




The jam the second night was led by steel pedal guitar player Roosevelt Collier of the Lee Boys, Drummer Earl Walker of the Lee Boys, and guitar player Matt Grondin. Amy Hendrickson even got on stage for awhile to perform “Ain’t no sunshine.” Members of The New Orleans Suspects and the Prime Directive graced the stage to help create an improvised music fusion. The riffs Collier was laying down were impossible not to bob your head too. Collier has always been a familiar face around Suwannee whenever the Lee Boys are playing. He is constantly hoping on to stage with whoever, to lay down some jams with his steel pedal guitar. He even hoped on stage right after the jam to play a song with moe. All in all the jam was damn good, however it was a little lackluster compared to the jam the previous night led by Del McCoury and John Skehan. At one point Collier even directed his attention towards the musicians standing just off stage watching the jam “ya’ll can come out here and play, it’s an open stage.” It took a little while but only a couple more musicians joined the jam that evening.



moe. night 2:










moe. is just so damn good. All I can recommend is that you see them. You don’t need to hear their music, just go see them. It will be worth your while.

Until next year thus concludes this year’s Magnoliafest.


For more information on Magnoliafest visit: magnoliafest.com

For Information on Bear Creek and other festivals  visit: musicliveshere.com

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