If you’re looking for the most dedicated fans of funky music, look no further than The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida every November at the annual Bear Creek Music And Arts Festival. Thousands and thousands of people flock to the park for the show, disregarding the uncertainty of camping in the winter months for a chance to see one of a kind jams such as Chris Robinson fronting an all-star version of Soulive, Dumpstaphunk hosting their traditional, nigh legendary super jam, Roosevelt Collier and O’teil Burbridge putting a parade of special guests through their paces, an artist at large program that boasts bassist George Porter JR., sax man Pee Wee Ellis, beat master Bernard Purdie, guitarist Grant Green Jr., the horned one Skerik, trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick and many others, jam band superstars Umphreys McGee, a rock solid line up of the funkiest touring bands in the nation like Orgone, The New Mastersounds and Lettuce with up and comers The Nth Power, St.Paul and the Broken Bones, Locos Por Juana and Yojimbo representing the future. Okay…that was a pretty long sentence, but it’s truly difficult to capture the magic of Bear Creek in mere words. Lucky us…we get to use pictures too!
The Spirit Of Suwannee Park is the home of over a dozen concert events a year, effectively launching the outdoor season with the Aura Music Festival, then wrapping it up with the epic dance party that is Bear Creek. While the line up IS funk heavy, the true purpose of Bear Creek is to bring the music that makes folks get up and moving, and year in, year out that’s exactly what happens. So while you may hear some jazz, some crunchy rock jams or even some unclassifiable hyper insanity you will feel the urge to boogie…and there is simply no fighting it. But for once you don’t have to take my word for it…you can judge for yourself!
Before we go any farther, I want to give a shout out to Jebb Long, for his amazing work taping seemingly the entire festival and sharing it with all of us! Concert tapers are true documentarians, selflessly buying insanely expensive audio gear, getting to shows super early, defending their rigs from errant beach balls, glow sticks and loud talkers…then sharing the fruits of their labors with everyone for no charge! Thanks to their efforts, these moments of musical bliss aren’t lost to the sands of time but preserved forever in sharable digital glory.
Though I recommend downloading the entire weekend’s music and turning it up on the loudest device you have access to, I do want to steer you folks toward some of the musical highlights from the weekend, starting with my favorite new discovery, Locos Por Juana. With a core of musicians from or descended from Columbia, the band mixes Latin rhythms, world music flourishes and a rock and roll aggression into a new whole. Their high energy set and diverse line up of percussion and horn fills and sit ins made their sets some of the most dynamic of the weekend. Speaking of dynamism, no act raised the stakes higher than Yojimblo, the New Orleans trio that buried the madness needle in the far red and never looked back. Fronted by trombonist Carly Meyers as if she had the bomb from Speed strapped to her person, primed to explode if she went less than fifty miles an hour the band is a melodic assault, only rarely slowing down to feature Meyers surprisingly sweet crooning. While she whirls like a dervish, drummer Adam Gertner and keyboard player Doc Sharp both add to the cacophony and ground it at the same time, allowing Meyers all the room she needs for her flights of fancy. It’s nice to see new acts bringing such energy and confidence to the stages of Bear Creek…it lets us know the future is in good hands.
The Nth Power, Brainchild of drummer Nikki Glaspie, formerly of Dumpstaphunk and Beyonce herself’s road band, unites herself, Nigel hall and a cadre of hand picked musicians may be a new band in name, the combined years of experience among the players clearly defines their pedigree. In the year since I last saw them perform they seem to have settled into their own groove. Their two sets on the main stage might have looked puzzling to someone not in the know about their membership, but just the slightest sampling of their combined talents showed them to be a force for reckoning. Thunderous beats gave way to delicate grooves, party line refrains transitioned into soulful singing while the grooves never seemed anything but as tight and as natural as they could be. It’s very impressive to see how fast they have gelled together, and the surety which they commanded the crowds attention spoke volumes about how far this band has come and just how high they can yet climb.
At the other end of the spectrum are the returning mainstays, Lettuce, Dumpstaphunk and The New Mastersounds. Having been a part of the festival since before it even WAS Bear Creek, these bands sounds are hard wired into the very DNA of the annual funk out and they always come ready to play, never holding anything back. Lettuce and The New Mastersounds welcomed guests like Alecia Shakour, Jennifer Hartswick, Bernard Purdie and 10 year old guitar phenom Brandon “Taz” Niederauer while Dumpstaphunk used one of their two sets to host the nigh legendary “Dumpstajam” which has evolved into a “Don’t miss” slice of swirling organs, bass duels and slinky, squealing guitar rampages. While in some cases the adage “Familiarity breeds contempt” could ring true, such is not the case at Bear Creek. Even if the bands didn’t take great pains to vary their set lists from year to year, almost every song seems to receive a transformative moment brought on by the fresh faces joining in on the fun. Florida’s own Rosevelt Collier teamed with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge were joined by The Nth Power’s Nigel hall to bring a helping of Southern soul to the proceedings, mixing sacred steel gospel with down home jamming, seemingly enjoying the show themselves as much as the audience they performed for.
These collaborations aren’t limited to the regulars…this year we were treated to a head lining turn by Chris Robinson, who found his way to the amphitheater stage through his friendship with Eric Krasno of Lettuce and Soulive. The blues rock founder of the Black Crowes now fronts the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and was lured to the festival by the chance to play with not only Soulive, but some of the greats of of music like George Porter Jr. and Bernard Purdie. Purdie has appeared on more studio recordings than most anyone alive, and his drumming can literally be called “The Backbone of Funk.”
From studio sessions on James Brown, Aretha Franklin and many more to leading his own bands, Purdie is rightly revered in the industry and near deified in the funk community. George Porter Jr., himself a father of the form with his band the Meters bowed to Purdie onstage and was openly giddy about the opportunity to to play with him. Lettuce and Break Science drummer Adam Deitch was so honored to meet the man who had so influenced his development as a player he asked me to snap a shot of him with his hero…and honestly I was a bit awestruck in snapping the shot. Some moments you don’t want to miss…
Returning for their third time headlining the festival, Umphreys McGee is riding a wave of love from their dedicated fan base, who turned their newest release, “Similar Skin”, into one of the fastest selling Jam band records in recent memory. The bands eclectic influences show in their lightning fast in song stylistic changes and their far reaching cover tune choices, with even the most experienced of audiences having no idea which way they’ll head next. Their sound is aggressive, heavy and yet still harmonic and melodic enough to capture the more laid back among the crowd. While their inclusion on a funk festival line up may look odd on paper, in practice they work perfectly for the underlying dynamic of the overall festival spirit…their fans never stop moving and grooving to the music, no matter which direction the band chooses to go at any given second. Known for their visual presentation as much as their musical direction, there’s an element of near sensory overload that blends the auditory and visual components into a coherent whole that can literally leave an audience dumbfounded…exhausted and joyous at the experience. Their enjoyment at headlining the main stage two days straight was obvious, and a concerted effort was made to ensure that no fan left the show wishing for more. That sort of dedication, commitment, just plain love for their listeners is a pleasure to see and I truly wish there were more acts that followed this philosophy.
Bear Creek attracts a wide variety of people from the neophytes ready for their first camping experience to the die hardiest, the fans who simply refuse to let the festival season end. These are the kind of people who build home made, battery powered air conditioners to survive the summer festivals, who have check lists that have been honed from years of practice that are meticulously followed….cars packed days in advance, costumes bought and made months before hand. The Spirit Of The Suwannee is a year round camp ground, with its beautiful trails and river views to it’s well worn and laid out camping areas, and, as such, they are ready for everyone. A general store onsite breaks the mold of festival vending by not only having everything you could need, from food and beverages to emergency camping supplies all the way to musical instruments and fire wood! The park also boasts a restaurant that serves an all you can eat southern styled breakfast buffet that will help replenish the lost energy from the previous nights craziness. One of the best parts about visiting a venue that hosts as many events as they do is, quite simply, the fact that practice makes perfect. At this point they’ve seen and done it all, and most importantly, they are prepared for any contingency. Nothing…not rain, nor snow nor sleet or hail shall keep this park from it’s appointed duty…to host the best outdoor events in the country year round!
As I said earlier in the article, Bear Creek is a haven for special collaborations that fans have only dreamt of…and these moments aren’t born of chance or happenstance, it’s all part of the grand design, and the weaver of that web is Bear Creek talent buyer Paul Levine.
The music scene is actually smaller than most people would think, and the players are all just as much fans as anyone in the crowd…some might say even more so. There’s a glee in the eyes of everyone wandering around backstage, seeing friends and other players who they respect and admire…keeping instruments handy, ready to join in at any moment with any band, just for the joy of playing. it’ what separates festivals from concerts…the sheer amount of talented individuals on hand and the chance interactions that can spawn lasting friendships and collaborations. Big Gigantic, though not on the bill, is a fine example of musicians meeting, finding much in common and creating something that could evolve into a musical juggernaut. Though not every sit in is destined to spawn a national touring act, each can inspire a new train of thought, a new outlook or simply an idea in the mind of the players that could eventually grow into a song, a style or a genre all it’s own. Or it could just be a wicked nasty guitar face off that melts the minds of all withing earshot. Either way…it’s pretty sweet.
Over the years Bear Creek has shown a savvy in it’s bookings that is truly inspired, and at it’s core is the Orchestra At Large set, a special last day treat, this year curated by Grant Green Jr. With legends like Purdie, Porter and Pee Wee Ellis, the later of whom played sax on most of James Browns early hits and worked a number of different roles in many famous acts, even serving as Van Morrison’s band leader and arranger during his hey day to call on as well as Taz, Roosevelt, the ladies of horn Jennifer Hartswick and Carley Meyers, New Orleans sax man Khrys Royal, Green had the easiest job in the world. After finding enough songs the players knew collectively he simply set back and let the pros do what they do…and reveled in the eye of the musical storm of which he found himself.
There was even a moment when the diminutive Taz and the elder green shared a moment, as all barriers of age fell away and music united the two in a way nothing else could.
That, to me is the highest point of Bear Creek mystique, seeing the players, young and old, lose themselves in the joy of connecting on a level so far beyond the verbal…moving into the spiritual planes. After three days of multiple stages of music, Sunday slows the pace down to alternating stages, with the second sets of The Nth Power, Dumpstaphunk, The New Mastersounds and Lettuce closing everything out. Though worn from days of musical fie sparking them long into the night, the fans don’t sneak out early at this festival…they stay til the echoes from the last note have long faded…excitedly swapping stories and wondering “What could possibly top this year?”
While the music plays and the lights dance, however, the work goes on behind the scenes. A dedicated recycling crew works to make their program a model of efficiency, doing what they can to leave this picturesque park as they found it when they arrived days earlier. This year incentive programs offered attendees a chance to win prizes, including tickets to next years festival for helping collect and separate recycling waste. It’s a fine way to motivate and inspire fans, and having enthusiastic crew members like Michelle Lee, Lindsey Bradley Brown and Chase Walks made the weekend more like fun than work.
As it says in the name, Bear Creek is an ART festival, and that is not simply lip service to the community, but a true commitment on every level from the promoters to increase awareness and show case the talents of the artists who make our world a brighter place. Boasting a robust artist alley, a “Live Painter” program with a dozen artists and a open submission contest to create the annual festival poster.
This years winner, Evan Warren, claimed the honor and seemed genuinely moved accepting his prize and the company he was in, with past artists including Ralph Steadman, illustrator and collaborator of the late Hunter S. Thompson. Lyle Williams, Bear Creek promoter enjoys the contest, seeing it as chance to give artists a chance to share their visions with the world and secure memorable works of art that stand out from the crowd.
The sense of community that pervades the Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival extends from the grounds of it’s home the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park to the stages themselves. For years the Purple Hatters stage stood in the music field, named for a fallen member of the park’s family, Rachel Hoffman prized head gear. Tragically, this year the other two stages were named as two more of the parks long time crew, Derek “DC” Corner and Robert “Buffalo” Roffe. “DC” worked festivals around the country, helping lead security teams and keeping their presence to a helpful background, while Buffalo made sure the lights stayed lit, the sound stayed loud and the love kept flowing. I knew both men, and was lucky enough to call them both friend. Seeing the stages listed as “DC’s Forest Stage” and “The Buffalo Amphitheater” brought my heart to my throat when I first opened the program. It was a fitting tribute to those who work is going best when they are unseen by the average festival attendee, but without whose efforts the show simply wouldn’t happen.
It’s easy to forget the sheer amount of logistical planning, scheduling wizardry, stage building, sound and light rigging, audio and visual design, catering, cleaning, trash removal and the thousand other jobs that go into putting on a music festival. Luckily, the Spirit Of The Suwannee and it’s many events has a tight knit crew of regulars that make these many gigantic parties go off without a hitch. Over the past few years I’ve come to know most all of them, from the owner of the park and his parents who founded this music playground to the men and women who live and work on the site year round to the aforementioned production crew that brings the stages to life so many times a year. On a personal note, I’m proud to count myself among them, serving as a staff photographer for the event as well as reviewing the party, and was this year privileged to take the staff photo.
There are numerous faces missing as the break down was in full swing, and no faces are missed more than DC’s and Buffalo’s. But, as in the name of the park itself, their spirits were there watching over us, as they did in life. They were missed, but I know they would have wanted everyone to live up to the oldest of showbiz credos…”The show must go on!” And so it went. Times change, faces change, but love…love is forever. See you next year Bear Creek!