Monday, January 20, 2014

Magnificent Magnolia Fest

For those of you who read my blog (thanks AnnMarie!) you are familiar with my friend Dr. Michael Binder.  For the rest of you go back and read the post titled Not Very Diplomatic.

Anyway, Mike is no longer the world champion of Diplomacy but he is still very highly ranked.  But this isn't about that.  It's about music.  Mike and I have similar yet different musical tastes and we are always introducing each other to interesting acts to follow. I trust his judgment in music and he tolerates mine.

For many years now he has been asking (begging?) me to attend a major annual music festival in north central Florida called Magnolia Fest.  Magnolia Fest is a celebration of the broad range of styles that make up country music.  I have never been big on country but I recently went to see Steve Martin (the comedian) play bluegrass with the Steep Canyon Rangers.  Steve plays a mean banjo and the Rangers are a very good group.  Together they were the Bluegrass act of the year for 2011, I believe. I enjoyed it tremendously and when Mike called asking me to come I said yes.

Now Magnolia Fest is held in mid October and its now the middle of January so some of the details are getting fuzzy but I think I can get it together.  I decided to drive down and do some sightseeing and visit some customers on the way.  And eat barbeque.  An obscenely large amount of barbeque. I love to drive and I had never been on the Blue Ridge Parkway so I decided I would take a week and drive on that and see what all the fuss is about.

I happened to arrive at the Blue Ridge on the day of the Federal Government shutdown.  The road was still open but all of the amenities (like bathrooms) were closed. More on that later.  It was also very foggy and there was very little to see for the first hour or so.  But by 10AM the sky cleared up and it was just amazing.  The vistas were fabulous.  I was stopping every 10 minutes or so to take pictures.

Along the way I met a number of people from around the world. Scotland, Japan, Canada, Italy and New Jersey.  For those of you who have never been to New Jersey it qualifies as a foreign country.  Especially if you are from Brooklyn. It's a Jersey thing. It was wonderful to stop and speak to them all and gain their perspective.  We all agreed that this drive was a fabulous way to spend the day.  Or several days.

Many of the foreign visitors were amazed at how calmly we US citizens were taking the closure of the Federal Government.  No riots, no massive strikes by transit workers and no radical speeches by dissident students demanding free massages during finals week. I explained that it was no big deal.  Until I had to go to the bathroom.

There are services like rest areas and restaurants on the Blue Ridge and they are spaced out at regular intervals for the convenience of all.  Having them closed caused a terrible situation because there are very few exits on the road and there are no signs telling you what lies off the exits.  What this translates to is that when nature calls one must be at one with nature. This is the one area where being male has distinct advantages over the fairer sex.  Unless one has to go number 2. Without toilet paper.

I will spare you the gory details but I had to summon my best boy scout/camping/field geology experiences and try to remember what poison ivy looks like.  While I was successful it wasn't my idea of fun. Luckily a nice couple from California had anticipated the situation and had a list of all the restaurants and gas stations off the Parkway. Because of these folks I found BBQ nirvana.

I don't remember the exit but the mile marker was under 100.  About a mile off the road (on another road) was a gas station with a restaurant attached. And a biker group.  Turns out it was Bike Week in Daytona and they were making their annual pilgrimage from the Land of Cleve.  We started talking and they invited me to join them for lunch.  And what a lunch.  Ribs, fried chicken, homemade beans, collards and sweet potato mash.  If they had a motel attached to the gas station I may have spent 3 days there. They said that this was a regular stop for them.  I will have to undergo hypnosis to remember where it is for next time.

I drove for a few more hours just soaking it all in.  I decided to spend the night in Asheville, NC.  I was lead to believe that Asheville was an artsy fartsy kind of place and I can be an artsy fartsy kind of guy.  I went to the visitor's center and met a very nice guy named George who showed me where to go.  I set out on my tour and let's just say I was underwhelmed.  Very few galleries downtown (although I didn't make it to the River District) and limited crafts.  But lots of homeless folks in the small park downtown.

However there was a cooperative gallery and I saw a piece by Floyd Kemp.  He was a professor at Black Mountain College which is a famous art school about 20 miles east of Asheville.  Floyd was retiring and he and his wife (Laura I believe) were moving to Ohio to live with their daughter. The piece on display was too small for my space but the woman working at the gallery said Floyd might have larger stuff.  She gave me his number. I called him and he sent me some photos. A few emails later and  I bought a piece called Purple Sky. It's perfect for the space.

Then I figured I would check out the Asheville Art Museum.  That would give me a good handle on the situation.  Well I had to fend off several panhandlers (using my best NY technique) and paid a rather high entrance fee.  Let's just say I was underwhelmed again.  But there was a single bright spot in all of the disappointment.  There was a photograph by an amazing artist named Xavier Nuez (

He had donated a piece to the museum called Motor City.  It is an urban ruin in Detroit that reminds me of the subway that runs above Queens Blvd near the Queensboro Bridge.  I contacted him and found out that the piece was available in a variety of sizes and mounting options.  I took the plunge and bought one.  Unfortunately the one I bought was a little smaller that I realized and I feel as though I cheated myself.  The solution?  I will buy a bigger one soon.  And maybe a few others.

Then it was off to eat lunch.  What should I get? Why BBQ of course!! I did some research and I discovered that there was a very highly rated BBQ place near the Biltmore Mansion.  It was called Moe's. I set out to find it and I discovered that the area near the Biltmore was where all the action is.  I didn't have time to check it out but I will have to return and see it.

As I was looking for Moe's BBQ I saw Moe's Mexican. I thought it funny that there was more than one Moe's within walking distance of each other.  I was almost expecting Moe's from The Simpson's to show up. I made it to Moe's BBQ and I was dismayed to discover it was empty.  This was not a good thing.  Good restaurants are usually jammed so empty is a bad omen.  I didn't need to worry.  Within seconds of my placing an order the place had a line out the door.  I guess timing is everything. I wound up getting the pulled pork sammy with spicy pickles, slaw, fries and sweet tea. My mouth had an orgasm.

I had to make some business calls in Tennessee the next day and I won't go into the details but I did stop for BBQ just south of Sweetwater on my way out of town. This was far and away the WORST BBQ I have had in a very long time.  Overdone ribs, slimy beans and limp fries. A cloud of disappointment hovered over me for several hours as I drove south.  The only cure?  More BBQ.

I stopped for gas in Georgia and asked if there was good BBQ nearby.  The guy told me he had a smoker out back and he would fix me a plate.  It was heaven. Sliced pork, smoked turkey and home made sausage.  Also excellent smoky beans. We got to talking and he said that he only did it for some friends and family but he was feeling generous that day.  Then he realized I was from NY and he laughed and said if he had known he never would have offered.  I don't know if he was joking but I am glad I got the food.

I made it down to Live Oak, FL that night.  That is where they hold Magnolia Fest (along with several other Fests) right on the banks of the famous Suwanee River.  They even have a sign telling you that you are crossing over it.  The sign says it is World Famous so I guess it must be. I checked into my hotel and the next day I discovered that the music wouldn't start until 4pm that day.  That meant I had about 6 hours to kill.  What to do?  Why more BBQ of course!!

There are 3 or 4 BBQ places in Live Oak but everyone said I had to go to Ken's.  They were right.  It was great.  I had a combo plate with ribs and pulled pork, collards, slaw and beans.  A great value and very tasty. Traditional style ribs and pulled pork with good sides (collards with onion and spicy beans). But then I realized I still had 4 hours to kill.  I went back to the hotel and asked if there was a poker room nearby.  Incredibly there was.  About 8 miles away in a Jai Alai fronton.

Off I went and soon I was walking in to a sad looking place with a single table going.  What the heck.  I bought in for $150.00 and started playing.  And winning.  In a short time I was up $400.00 without very much effort.  In poker parlance this is called a soft room. I love soft rooms.  I soon discovered that the money was secondary to most of the regulars.  It was just their way of socializing.  Whatever but I felt I had to come back before I went home.

Then it was off to the Fest.  I pulled in and I had to pick up my wristband and parking permit. They gave them to me and pointed me off to the music.  The Fest was held at the Spirit of the Suwanee music park and campground right on the banks of the world famous Suwanee River.  Oh wait I already wrote that.  The grounds had several different venues for the music but they were only using the Amphitheater that evening. I made my way over there and realized that I should have brought a camp chair.  It turns out that you can sit in any empty seat until the rightful owner reappears but I still felt uncomfortable.  I vowed to go to Wal-Mart the next day and buy a chair. More on that later.

Now I wasn't familiar with many of the acts but I was blown away by several of them. The first group I saw was Col. Bruce Hampton and Friends.  Now I don't know if Bruce is really a colonel but he plays great keyboards with a blues beat.  Very tight and clean with a lot of range.  Next up was Grandpa's Cough Medicine.  They are a traditional bluegrass band with great interplay on the melody. Very easy to listen to. Then came the last band of the day, Railroad Earth.  They are kind of like a newer version of the Grateful Dead.  Which is appropriate because the whole place had the feel of a Grateful Dead concert including the tie dye shirts and poor artwork for sale. All that was missing was a hit of 4 way and it would have been perfect.

Railroad Earth was great although I can't point to any particular song because I was engaged in conversation with Joan who was there with her family to see Nikki Talley perform the next day. Nikki is Joan's niece and she convinced me to come to the show instead of playing more poker.

Mike and his wife Amy were showing up later the next day and the music started early. There was a Wal-Mart next to the hotel and I went to buy a folding camp chair. Now I don't know if any of you have seen the pictures depicting the people of Wal-Mart (or Walmartians) but I have always laughed and said they can't be true.  Well they are.  It was all I could do to keep from staring continuously at the freak show that was parading around me. It was better than I could have imagined.  I particularly liked the various styles of multi-colored mullets and the ultra tight clothing.

Armed with my new chair I went to see the Corbitt Brothers at the Meadow Stage (the largest venue) and then Nikki Talley at the Porch Stage (looks like an old time saloon porch).  Nice traditional country acts that had a very wide range. Mike and Amy showed up and we got into the music. Grandpa's Cough Medicine played at the Meadow and the Travelling McCoury's at the Music Hall. The Travelling McCoury's are the son's of Del McCoury who is a true country music legend.  They play standard modern bluegrass with great vocals and harmony.  Very good indeed.  And then came a real eye opener.

They were Beebs and Her Moneymakers.  They were dressed as if they were Japanese Anime characters and they bopped to a solid ska beat that was very easy to get into.  They had an eclectic mix of instruments that produced a very full, solid sound.  I vowed to listen to more of their stuff in the future. After Beebs came the Travelling McCourys yet again.  This time with Keller Williams.  Great interplay between them. They really seemed to enjoy playing together and the crowd let them know it.

The last act of the evening (for me anyway) was Kris Kristofferson. Now I love Me and Bobbi McGee (or Bobby McGee depending on who was singing it) and I really wanted to hear Kris sing it.  It was not what I was expecting.  Kris seemed to have limited interest in being there. I commented about this out loud and several people said that this was as good as he has been in a long time. If this is as good as it gets then I was very disappointed. I guess its just his style. I was so exhausted that I didn't stay for John Prine or Stephen Marley.

The next day was going to be my last.  It was Saturday and I had to get back to the office so I planned on getting there Monday morning so that meant Sunday was a driving day. This also meant that I had to check out the other BBQ place in town, Big Daddy's.  I pulled in as they were opening and it was already busy.  I asked the waitress what the best thing on the menu was and she said, "Deep fried ribs".  Deep fried?  I was intrigued.  I ordered them and watched some college football while I was waiting.

They appeared soon enough accompanied by some beans and mac and cheese.  The ribs had some breading on them and they looked and smelled delicious.  One bite confirmed they were delicious.  In fact I ordered a second plate they were so good. I will have to pry the recipe out of them. Maybe I can trade them duct tape for it.  And remember, for all of your tape needs give us a call at TAPE-RITE, 1-800-882-7348.

I decided that I would play poker for a bit before I went to see the music.  I got there at 1 and the one table was going.  I bought in for $150.00 and sat down.  There was a guy in the 7 seat (I was in the 3) who kept straddling.  I have never been a big fan of the straddle and I felt he was just using it to bully people.  I called him down on it twice and he had air.  After that he slowed down a little bit.  I was up $100.00 or so and I was going to be the button so I told everyone that I was leaving after I was the button.

I had J-7 off and Mr. Straddle made it $25.00 to go.  Now since everyone knew he probably had nothing the whole table called except the small blind.  The flop was Jd, 7d and 10c.  2 pair. The big blind checked to Mr. Straddle who went all in for $40.00 more.  Everyone in front called the $40.00 so I jammed for $225.00 or so more.  I expected some respect but everyone else went all in except the 2 seat who had me covered.  He just called.  I figure there was $1500.00 on the table.  In a 1-2 game.

I told the dealer to wait a second before we all showed our hands.  I said that everyone else had a draw, that I was the only one that paired up.  I was right (well Mr. Straddle had a pair of 10's).  There were 5 straight draws and 2 flush draws.  I faded the turn but 2 seat made Broadway on the river.  Phooey. I was still up and not too unhappy so I said good-bye but I will be back next year.  How can I not ?This room was a blast to play. Then it was off to the music.

Mike and Amy had gotten there earlier and were camped out in the front row of the Amphitheatre.  I found them and set-up my chair. I got there in time to see the Honey Island Swamp Band.  Great Southern sound with good picking and nice rhythms. We had some time before the next act at the Amphitheater so we went to the Meadow and saw Jason Lamar & The Big Damn band.  They are actually only a trio but they really rocked it.  They were kind of like heavy metal country.  Very good indeed. Then back to our seats to see the Duhks (pronounced ducks).  They are a Canadian band (from Manitoba) and they were fronted by two nice Jewish kids named Leonard Podolak and Jessee Havey.  They played a very broad range including samba, zydeco, traditional country and more.  Very good all around.  I bought one of their CD's and it is good listening.

Then we had a dilemma.  The next band at the Amphitheater was Donna the Buffalo. I had never heard of them (herd of them?) before but they have rabidly passionate fans who started swarming in and removing people's chairs so they could get as close to the stage as possible.  We had wanted to see Mavis Staples but we didn't want to lose our spots so we stayed put.  We were like an island of serenity in a sea of madness.

The Buffalo (Buffaloes?) came on stage and started playing.  Each song was like a classic Grateful Dead jam lasting 10 minutes or so.  Very good rhythm but no real beginning or end. But since we had good seats it was not so bad.  The crowd respected our position and let us sit while they were bopping non-stop.  Just like a Dead concert.

The last act of the night (for me anyway) was Willie Nelson and Family.  I have seen Willie a bunch of times and he is OK but I just wasn't into it.  Around midnight I had had enough and I said my good nights and goodbyes to Mike and Amy.  I had a great time and I told them I would come back next year.  Which I will for the poker and BBQ too.

 On the way home I stopped in Savnnah, GA to see an old friend who had just gone through a messy divorce.  She was happy to see me and told me it was her son's 18th birthday.  We all went out for a seafood boil to celebrate (my treat) and then back into the car.  I would like to report that I made it home Monday morning but the morass that is Washington, DC caught me in its web.

Now I have been driving from Florida to New York for a long time and I am usually pretty good at navigating around DC.  Until now.  I am not quite sure what happened but it must have taken a monumental rift in the force to cause this traffic.  Or maybe not.  Washington can get stupid.  I mean, just look who we send there.

I did make it back Monday afternoon.  Exhausted, happy and grateful (but not dead) that I had gone.  Til next year.

I need a miracle, everyday -- Bob Weir