Saturday’s schedule at Magnolia Fest, like Friday’s, featured 22 bands on four stages, so it was time to pick and choose once again — or go halvies. That happened immediately, with three simultaneous performances at noon. Steve Pruett’s Back From the Brink grabbed me first, a bluegrass sextet with percussion box, electric bass, banjo, guitar mandolin and fiddle. The young lady on fiddle was tremendous, as was the entire band.
Sandwiched in between some fine bluegrass, they played an excellent cover of “Use Me.” Pruett observed that they also covered one other Bill Withers tune, which they proceeded to play. Perhaps you’ve encountered a song you’ve know for years (like, 40+) but never really listened to. That would be “Grandma’s Hands.” Shame on me. They did this fine song proud.
Because of the sound dynamics, I was able to hear the band on the Meadow Stage playing on several occasions before I walked that way. This was a killer band led by Bryce Alastair on guitar and vocals, along with two female singers. And, of course, they had Brett Bass sitting in on lap steel. Killing it. And then they brought up his Siamese twin, Isaac Corbitt. If you detected any flippancy in my tone, please erase it. These men were superstars this weekend. In need to see the Bryce Alastair Band again!
Quartermoon was delivering traditional bluegrass from the Porch. The bass player’s grandson joined the band on upright bass as a very young teen. Very cool. I was in search of actual internet connectivity, which is marginal at best at the park, so I walked to the Music Hall after they sang “Ain’t No Way to Treat Your Lover.”
Inside, Flagship Romance (Jacksonville, of course!) was playing an intimate show, husband and wife, both on vocals, he on guitar. After some pleasant love songs, Jordan Jackson explained, “We just played a happy song. We don’t want people to think we’re like the Captain and Tennille, so here is a song about murder called ‘Gravedigger!’” with the great line about the soon-to-be-departed, “I don’t need your sympathy.”
The Corbitt Brothers were up for round two after Thursday’s superb set. This was great, too, if not quite as incendiary. They sang a tune with great advice titled “Love One Another.” Then they called John Parkerurban to the stage to sling some guitar. The band played a heartfelt cover of “Lochloosa” that segued through “Can’t You See > Hey Jude > Lochloosa.” It was a thing of true beauty.
Parkerurban took a lovely solo on “Steel Train Comin’ Through” (I’m making up names that might be close here). And Isaac Corbitt again is such a monster harp player. I zipped back to the amphitheater on the advice of friends who said, “Make sure you see Berry Oakley’s Skylab.” It was a nice roots Americana set including Hank Williams and, as Oakley said, “I almost never do this, but…” “Whipping Post!”
I stopped to check out Whethermen briefly, another fine bluegrass band with great keyboards. And then it was time for round two with Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) and Madrid Express. If possible, this set was even more magical than Friday’s. Some of the tunes were repeats… but not their interpretations. “Fixin’ to Die” and “Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do” greeted us early in the set.
“That’s the only guy I know from Madrid, Pablo (on drums). I can’t remember your last name.” “Cepeda,” Pablo answered. So The Col. rejoindered: “Orlando Cepeda, first baseman for the Giants!” Cepeda and bassist Billy Ray Thornton absolutely blew it up on “There Was a Time,” built on the James Brown opus with the Col.’s variations. And the guitar player, Jacob Deaton, had perhaps his best solo on this tune, but he had many great ones over the two days.
When it was time for “Look Over Yonder’s Wall,” he again called out young guitar phenom Heather Gillis, and they worked that tune into “Got My Mojo Working.” Gillis ripped several more fine solos, and the set closed with the Col.’s nod to Sun Ra, “Space is the Place,” and then “Yield Not to Temptation.” WOW.
Back up at the Porch, I was truly looking forward to my first time seeing Jerry Joseph & the Jackmormons. I have been a fan for years, and I was amply rewarded for my patience. The younger Jackmormons had to work to match the energy level of Joseph, who muscled his way through a great, rocking set. They began with “Supernatural,” and I know they hit “Radio Cab” along the way.
Jerry stepped to the mic, all serious, and said, “We were working up this great bluegrass set…” Everybody cracked up! Then he told a great story about childhood and about his son, who has professed the desire to go to Mars. When dad shared his concern about son making that trip, son answered, “ Oh, Dad! You’ll be in heaven a long time before I go there!” And that was the story behind the lyrics to “Mars” from Jerry’s new album. I am just so pleased I finally got to see this legend perform.
Festival Moment Number… I lost count, but this was absolutely another one. There were two sets simultaneously. I decided I would check out the Quebe Sisters Band from Dallas for half a set, then go see Rebirth Brass Band, New Orleans ambassadors. Three seconds into the Quebe Sisters set, I was thoroughly hooked and was riveted for an hour.
Imagine three young fiddle players who channel the fiddle section of Bob Wills’ band and sing like the Andrews Sisters. Only, somehow, better. Many of the tunes in the set were from their recent album Every Which-A-Way, including the title track and “Cold, Cold Heart” to open after a brief Bob Wills intro. One the the true highlights in a set full of them was Wills’ “Twin Guitar Boogie,” triple-fiddle style.
Their playing was heavenly, especially the unison sections, and their harmony vocals were divine. They played a heartrending version of Cindy Walker’s “Goin’ Away Party” (another Wills staple). I was in orbit during “How High the Moon,” but it wasn’t until I listened to the CD on the trip home that I realized how they incorporated Ella Fitzgerald’s “Ornithology” insert into the song (made famous on the brilliant Ella in Berlin: another album you need to own).
“If I Talk to Him” was excellent, as was the instrumental “Zap.” Sophia sang lead, Grace handled the high harmony, and Hulda the low. They were simply stunning. Their gospel offering, “The Warfaring Stranger,” was out of this world. Meanwhile, I would be remiss not to shout out praise for the two gentlemen backing the sisters. Joey McKenzie was superb on guitar, and bassist Gavin Kelso was amazing. Their closing tune, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” just melted me into a little puddle. That is all.
Up to this point, there had not been an official Grandpa’s Cough Medicine set, but the boys had plenty of face time, to everyone’s delight. Brett Bass and Mikey Banjo Boy Coker had stage-rushed the Corbitt Brothers set Thursday and nearly destroyed the Porch Stage. Brett had made several other appearances, notably with the Del McCoy Band (before I got there, naturally), and John Murphy was on stage with Sloppy Joe.
But it was time for a real GCM set. And rumors were swirling that the boys were going to blow it out big time. Turns out that was a massive understatement. There is a reason the band’s website is outlawbluegrass.com, and it is apparent when you hear them sing “Crooked Cop” or “Blood and Justice” (the pedophile song). We also got “Denim Prison” and “Beer Truck Driving Man.” Somewhere about this time they called Isaac Corbitt and his harmonicas to the stage.
I am not kidding when I say the fest could be renamed for Bass and Corbitt. They were in constant demand all weekend and represented for Jacksonville and Florida. I doubt there was a person leaving the park who wasn’t talking about them.
John Murphy has a great time on bass, and his vocals are such fun on songs such as “Mama Played Bass” and “La La Lolly.” Then they played a banjo tune, with Banjo Boy and Corbitt going toe to toe. We were reminded that both Banjo Boy and Brett won pickin’ awards, but the reminder wasn’t necessary — we heard it! The set closed with an instrumental from recent album 180 Proof called “Keel’s Reel.” Words simply cannot adequately describe the frenetic picking that was going on, and then… the perfect photo op (boy, I hope somebody got it!): Corbitt and Brett slugging it out in the center ring. Man, oh, man!
Because I was locked into the GCM set, I missed most of the Jeff Austin Band set on the main stage, but what I did hear sounded superb. Next time, Mr. Austin. I promise.
Foolishly, I attempted to do some writing, but the New Orleans Suspects were having none of that! Their deep grooves were impossible to ignore. These guys have played with NOLA royalty and can really deliver the goods. “Magdalena,” “Cocaine Jane” and “Tipitina’s” stood out in the rollicking set. Then it was time to head to the main stage for the evening’s headliners, The Avett Brothers.
This band has expanded to seven members from the first time I saw them six years ago at AllGood. Their popularity is undeniable, and they sell out shows regularly. They are touring on a new album titled Magpie and the Dandelion. They play extremely well, they engage the audience, they offer variety in their music… and it just doesn’t speak to me. I tried. This is my problem, not theirs. The majority of the 8,000 or so MagFest attendees were on hand digging it. Just not me. Brothers Seth and Scott both had nice solo slots, Joe Kwon is the bounciest cello player I’ve ever encountered, and Tania Elizabeth had a great violin solo.
One more performance for the evening. Those who know me will be shocked to learn that, somehow, I had never before actually seen Donna the Buffalo. Seemed like it was about time. This quintet has been on tour for many years (26, actually), they are MagFest darlings (deservedly so), and their uplifting vibe was the perfect coda for the evening.
David McCracken’s contributions on Hammond B3 and other keyboards was huge all set long. The rhythm section of Kyle Spark (bass) and Mark Raudabaugh (drums) kept an amazing groove going on song after song. That left Jeff Puryear to play some fine guitar, and then there was the multi-instrumental queen, Tara Nevins. She sang with Puryear and played guitar, fiddle, accordion, and scrubboard. She was a joy to watch.
As the evening was working to a close, “One Day at a Time” rang out, but special note must be made of “Every Day (We Feel the Love),” an absolutely perfect song to describe our community. And their encore lasted half an hour, at least. It was truly special.
Time for the campfire, and then off to bed. Thank you, MagFest!
Photography by kind permission of Brian Hensley Photography