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Published: 2002/11/24
by Bryan Adeline

Come on Down: The Flavor of Magnolia Fest 02

. . . And then the week before, the skies parted and the enveloping cloud of hot and wet did lift and it was possible to imagine a festival of singing and dancing without the distraction of an overcoat of air heavy enough to lean upon. And then the week of imagining did pass as possibility became reality and we traversed the remnants of Old South and descended upon the forest and rivers and fields of north Florida happy to revisit a place where the streamers of happiness entwine . . . .

The Magnolia Festival for 2002 was here.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending 4 Mag Fests now, a gathering begun in 1997 by Randy and Beth Judy to celebrate the spirit of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Nestled in the 100+ acres of the Spirit of the Suwannee, the festival site is a delicious combination of essentially unspoiled forest, a few open fields, a steamy lake, and a short walk to a dip in the Suwannee River (as in "Way down upon the . . ."). There is ample space for both primitive and RV camping, reasonably well-maintained portable toilets (which, in this writer’s experience can never be better that well-maintained), the usual vending area, a variety of foods to satisfy everyone from the most determined vegan to the typical North Florida barbecue eatin’ good ole boy, campfires burnin’, and hugs hugs hugs everywhere as old friends and soon to be old friends meet and reacquaint surrounded by the sounds of strings bein’ picked from every direction.

From noonish til twoish, much music can be found on the three stages on the grounds. The Main Stage is a semi-natural amphitheater built amidst the pines and oaks. Occasionally a squirrel will drop an acorn on your head just for grins. Towards the back end of the audience area, hammocks can be seen strung all over, chillin’ folks entwined. In front of the tiki-house looking PA area, a substantial setup for the tapers, documenting the music for all to return to, and then the self-set folding chairs brought in by festgoers with the capacity to get up early enough to put them in place then stagger back to their tents for a few more hours of snooze. Anyone can sit in any seat til the owner shows up. Never a dispute is seen upon the arrival of the owner.

The Dance Stage used to be under a big tent at the far end of the vending area. There, the stage was low, the band was close, the sound was loud, and the crowd was sweatin’ and shakin’ in the heat of their canvas-contained energy. But this year that stage was moved to a clearly more permanent location across the field. Bigger in every way, even than the Main Stage, the intent is to give more space for both musicians and audience, along with bigger sound and a genuine light show. Essentially what has been created is a full size venue capable of handling a large, big name act capable of drawing many thousands instead of the dispersed few thousands of Mag Fest. For such a purpose, the "Dance" Stage would serve very well (perhaps a return of The Other Ones, for instance, who played there in midsummer heat a couple of years ago). But the intimacy and intensity of the former, tented Dance Stage is lost utterly. And since the Dance Stage and the Main Stage essentially face each other (even though across several hundred yards), the sound from the Dance Stage has a tendency to bleed across to the Main Stage. That interference is especially bothersome during the quiet parts of a sweet acoustic performance. The Judys might consider bringing back the tent and saving the big stage for big, individual shows.

The Music Hall is a converted warehouse where smaller acts and special jams take place. Its air conditioned space also serves as a welcome respite from what can be, even in October, searing southern sun. It’s a largish room with comfy chairs as well as a good amount of area for dancing in front and on the each side of the seats. For the bigger names it can get mighty packed in there as was the case with the jam featuring David Grisman, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, with late arriving Jerry Douglas. The first half of this performance only got to smoldering levels because of persistent feedback from Vassar’s microphone. Technical issues resolved, the pickers commenced to smoke and took the music to the outer edges of the grasslands with fingers flying across frets and phrases further than I’d ever heard with strings burning across the terra in flaming strains of woh! while giant butterflies fluttered by trailing children dressed in glittering rainbows smiled.

Casual and friendly is an understatement in describing the general demeanor of the crowd at this year’s Mag Fest. In years past, a greater intensity existed among the revelers, probably because the lineup of acts were more electric and jamband-oriented than it seemed this year. Although perennial favorites such as Donna the Buffalo, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Code Talkers, along with newer regional jammers such as Moonshine Still, and Grateful Dead tribute bands Crazy Fingers and Glass Camels were present, the lineup featured mostly acoustic music with heavy emphasis on American roots, much like the site’s sister gathering, Springfest, which takes place, you guessed it, in the Spring. This resulted in a subdued crowd, noticeably older on the whole, and perhaps not so inclined towards the public displays of altered behavior that are so familiar at most jamband-related gatherings. Also there was conspicuously absent campsite vending, balloons, and other assorted pure capitalism not approved by the state or federal government. I wasn’t drummed to sleep in my tent when the time finally came, nor was I able to locate the official drum circle and bonfire, though I’m told it was really good.

The music on stage was at a minimum excellent, as was the case with Dickey Betts and Great Southern, once things got warmed up and Elizabeth Reed entered the theater. Often it was stellar, as was the case with David Grisman anytime he ambled beardedly upon the stage. And sometimes it was surprising in the most fabulous fashion as was the case with the Music Hall performance of The Grass Is Dead. This act is the kind of thing that Mag Fest was intended to present. These four musicians: Corey Dwyer, Brent Hopper, Billy Gilmore and Bubba the Bringer of Thunder, with guest Bryan Goodpasture have taken familiar songs from the Grateful Dead songbook and reinterpreted them into straight bluegrass arrangements.

The mirror image of another GD reinterpretation project, Jazz Is Dead, The Grass Is Dead do justice and in some cases, amazing things with these songs. Two examples from their set were "Comes A Time" and "Tennessee Jed." Beyond the basic chord structure and the lyrics, the tunes shared little with their electric originals. Instead we get to recognize the flexibility and power of these songs as pieces of composition subject to a variety structures. The lyrics remain as powerful and full of storytelling glee as ever. Witnessing The Grass Is Dead is witnessing the birth of new musical standards shorn of the weight of the original players. Not all of the arrangements work, "Eyes of the World" is one example, because they stay too close to the original sound, but when they cut free from the original, it’s almost like hearing a brand new, amazing song, which you’ve known for years. And to top it off, they have their own personal cheering section in the person of Tom Garcia, who can always been seen near the front engaged in his perpetual interpretive dance of joy.

Among other sights at the fest, was Peter Rowan who performed solidly even though he did sometimes look uncomfortably like Julia Child for a few moments; percussionist/stringman/body player Joe Craven calling forth the traditional bonds of community; and always nearby, David "Ubiquitous" Gans living out his trufun credo, as he could be spotted on the side of seemingly every performance grinning, taking photos, and very often, getting in on the act with tasty little jams. Also was the appearance of Vassar Clements, who has become a mainstay of both Mag Fest and Spring Fest. A central Florida native, Clements is most well-known to jamband readers as the fiddle player on Old and in the Way. His sweet and slightly avant-garde sound can be heard on countless recordings from a professional music career that began in the late 1940s. The virtuosity and freshness of his playing remains as clear as ever, but what is most remarkable is the emotion that arrives the moment he steps out on stage. The feelings of admiration, respect, and most of all, enormous outpouring of love that all of the musicians have towards Clements is so strong that it becomes palpable in the audience. One can sense a glow that surrounds the man and expands out to the entire crowd when he approaches the microphone. It is a remarkable testament to Vassar Clements as a man the far exceeds his accomplishments with music.

Clements represents a community that encompasses time and space. Whatever subcategory one might attempt to apply to the music at Magnolia Fest, it is first and foremost, folk music. It isn’t folk because it’s come from someone sitting around a campfire strumming an acoustic guitar and singing in a nasally voice about someone dying in an odd way a long time ago. It’s folk because it relates to people. It’s folk because it involves people. At the Mag Fest, the distinction between the people on stage and the people in the crowd is smaller than at any sort of performance oriented gathering I’ve ever seen. Locating pickin’ sessions involving men, women, boys and girls, in the campground which are the match of anything happening on the stages is normal here. There is a continuum of song and story that the performers on stage are the focus of for only a brief period.

Truly, the main event is taking place when the stages are quiet. Mostly, the performers on stage are the reason for the reconnection of a community and the recommitment of the members of that community to carry it forward through their lives as they go from place to place. The number of children at this festival demonstrates the clarity of the community as it is passed down across the generations. This is the essence of folk music as culture: something to be shared, the direct connection that can exist among any people if they are interested in being connected which then becomes a further connection to the entire history of the music. When you enter that community, you become part of that history and you become obliged to carry it with you as part of your personal experience. And you become obliged to share it, to pass it on. This why Vassar Clements, as a man who has learned at the feet of so many giants of the music, who has become a giant in his own right, who remains open to any possibility once the music starts, represents such an important part of the community that exists around this music.

This little festival in North Florida has become a crucial event in the early autumn of the southeast. Different from other jamband fests, it blends the best of those events with a necessary dose of reverence for its roots. The family atmosphere allows the generations to mingle freely, trading affection while trading licks, bringing together old and new, moving us all ahead without forgetting where we’ve been. It’s a little more expensive and a little more remote, but it’s worth every penny spent and every mile traveled.

. . . and when the last singer had sung and the strings were back in their cases, we returned to our place and packed it and cleaned it and hugged our neighbors and friends farewell as we traversed back out across the memories of the weekend and the Old South, to relive them and share them, beginning new imaginings for when we might once again return to this place, to once again sing and dance near the river and trees, trailing smiles . . .

Bryan Adeline is grinning in Tallahassee

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