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Purple Hatters Ball Music Festival – Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL

Each day, whether we want it to or not, life has something to teach us. The lesson plan for last weekend”s Purple Hatters Ball music festival was one of responsibility to each other, the dangers of the abuse of power and what we can all do together when motivated by love. Beyond the traditional combination of music, mirth and good natured mayhem the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park hosted more than the festival, it hosted the spirit and legacy of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman. Hoffman, a 23 year old college graduate, chose to work as an undercover informant for the Tallahassee police department in hopes of receiving lenient treatment on a narcotics arrest. Through a series of easily avoidable mistakes, she was murdered in the course of a botched sting operation. Though Rachel”s life may have been tragically cut short in a senseless instance of violence while working under the auspices of Florida police, her death served as an impetus for a positive legacy to be born.

Mourning the loss of a daughter and friend, parents Margie Weiss and Irv Hoffman and Rachel”s friends channeled their fury into trying to make sure no other families experienced the same pain they were going through dealing with burying a child. Irv contacted state senator Mike Fasano, and introduced and promoted the measure that would come to be known, appropriately, as “Rachel”s Law.” Simply put, the new law requires officers to receive training in working with informants and protects the informant by making it mandatory that they not only be informed that their sentences may, in fact not be reduced as well as allow said informants to speak with their lawyers prior to working with police. Added to this, the civil suit was recently settled and the Tallahassee Police were forced to admit, financially at least, that they were wrong. These victories don”t bring back Rachel, or truly make up for the hole left in the lives of her friends and loved ones, certainly, but do ensure that her legacy becomes a positive change for society itself.

The departed Ms. Hoffman was a fixture in the Florida concert scene, and regular visitor to Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and the owners and promoters who host and throw the nearly dozen major events yearly decided that they needed to honor the loss of one of their own, and so the Purple Hatters Ball was born. A non profit charity has been founded in her name, The Rachel Morningstar Foundation and a festival was born to honor her with the bands and music she loved in life. Many of the regional bands she loved, such as Dubconscious and the rollicking Catfish Alliance shared the stages with major acts like England”s The New Mastersounds and the funk enclave Lettuce. The park itself is a favorite destination of music aficionados and lovers of the great outdoors and the staff of regulars who keep the production running smoothly were more than happy to pitch in and make this a weekend not only to remember but to inspire as well. An art gallery displayed works like those Hoffman herself enjoyed, vendors plied their trade selling beautiful hand made and in some cases wearable objects of art, and food that would do well on the finest of restaurants tables was prepared for the hungry attendees.

Suwannee”s two permanent stages were joined by a third stage erected in front of the park”s signature lake, surrounded on all sides by the forest of Spanish moss-dappled Cyprus trees. The porch stage had a fun mixture of music throughout the weekend, from DJ acts like Sir Charles, jamtronica acts like Greenhouse Lounge and Chroma, while the Crunchay Lake Stage had a strong focus on Dj and electronica acts like T3AM, S.P.O.R.E. and Trillucination, with Dj”s Bobby Newport, Kevin Velarde and Ellofunk kept the discs spinning and more traditional acts like Shoes and Laces and the Savi Fernandez Band rocked the appreciative crowds into a frenzy. The beloved amphitheater are, with it”s signature terraced rings of hammock hung trees and sun dappled was host to some of the most impressive performances of the weekend, from the aforementioned headliners to a couple of inspiring one off sets.

On Friday, the brit flavored band The New Mastersounds played their brand of intricate, energetic funk to a appreciative audience. With sit ins ranging from the sublime, soaring drop steel guitarist and artist at large Roosevelt Collier and a stunningly brazen cover of “Jungle Boogie” featuring Catfish Alliance”s hype man/force of nature Big E-A.K.A. the Sexual Manatee complementing their deep catalog of tight originals, their set capped off a fun first day of music and dancing in the sun and under the stars. Drummer Simon Allen amused the crowd with his patter and stunned them directly after with a precision that was awe inspiring on his kit, while organist Joe Tatton hypnotized the crowd with his melodic drones and snapped them awake with his rollicking flourishes.

Saturday night saw headliner Lettuce lay down a deeply orchestral approach to the funk aesthetic, with guitarist Eric Krasno and Adam Smirnoff trading licks back and forth as seamlessly as has been done on a stage, both somehow managing to shine as individuals and blend perfectly as a unit at the same time. Soulful singer Nigel Hall played organ counterpoint to Alan Ivans ivory work on the opposite side of the stage, whil Adam Dietch kept the beats on the money and infectious to any feet not already moving. The Shady Horns provided a pop and snap to each sting and refrain, while bass madman Jesus Coomes prowled the stage, each step and motion of his body and extension of the thumping rhythm he was laying down. After such and earth shattering close to the night, it was appropriate that we began the next morning with a recharge of the mind and the body with the very special sunday morning church inspired gospel set featuring Nigel Hall and Roosevelt Collier, who has always brought a touch of the holy to his music, both in his solo work and his regular gig with The Lee Boys. Joining them was a hodge podge of band mates and guests from the rest of the fest, such as at one point or another most of Lettuce and Mastersounds bassist Pete Shand, though Shand gave his spot up to the appropriately named Jesus to finish off the gospel showcase.

Before the gospel supergroup took a well deserved encore, Margie Weiss and promoter Paul Levine took the stage for an emotional Mothers Day tribute to Rachel. Distributing a collection of butterflies for release, Weiss made a moving speech to the early risers about her feelings on the passing of time, and the act of keeping her love alive for her daughter and her spirit. Weiss was wearing, as she had not just all weekend but at each of the previous festivals and at many, many events honoring her daughter the trademark wide brimmed, giant fuzzy purple hat for which the festival was named. Her words barely finished, promoter Levine took the opportunity to dedicate the moment to a few other losses, such as that of his own mother, the recent passing of Smirnoff”s mother and others. He spoke of keeping their love alive, and using this examples of friendship to strengthen us in the dark times with eyes welling with tears, moving the crowd into a mixture of silent reverence and joyful affirmation before those gathered onstage released the gathered monarch butterflies back into the world, bring a flutter of color and dash of hope to the blue skies surrounding all. Seeming to find their troubles released along with the butterflies, Weiss and Levine exited the stage arm-in-arm, mission accomplished.

New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts has been exploring America and making new music along the way. A project started out of his temporary residency in San Francisco, Eddie Roberts West Coast Sounds featured not only a stunning display of intense guitar picking from Roberts but also an amazing dedication to fashion, as he and his suit braved the blazing sun in a open defiance of the heat. A consummate professional, he led the band through a dozen tunes that varied in tempo but not quality. As the music moved to the indoors for a seven hour dance party inside the cavernous onsite Music Hall, a gesture occured that summed up not only the spirit of the weekend, but the park itself. A craw-fish boil, a bayou tradition of feasting on the shellfish, boiled alongside potatoes, corn and andouie sausage was brought in to celebrate a graduation and feed the artists and staff who made this amazing display of caring possible. Upon realizing that there was more food than could possibly be consumed by the crowd backstage, Paul Levine gathered up a table, the requisite newspaper and a large amount of the food and drove to the center of the park with the bounty, and set it out for any and all to consume. Hungry music fans swarmed in, and enjoyed the fellowship of the boil. Even the food vendors, rather than be offended at the competition to their wares, left their booths and partook in the spread.

The opportunities to give, to share, and to brighten the lives of others are available to us all each and every minute of every day. Even if you don”t have a treasure trove of succulent food to present to a hungry crowd, you can still crack a joke, hold a door and find a way to simply help someone and make their journeys shorter, easier and more enjoyable. In her life Rachel Hoffman, from all reports by friends and family alike, spread smiles and happiness wherever she went and her example in life has resonated on long after her death. It should be the greatest desire of all who live to leave the world a better place, and to shine a light for others to follow and magnify through good deeds of their own. Rachel Morningstar Hoffman managed to do not only that, but inspired others to take steps to prevent her fate from befalling any others. Though she left the world in pain, the light of her life has only grown in the years she”s been gone… a true star showing us the way to a better morning for all.

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