Once a year, the title of â€œFunkiest Place On Earthâ€ is bestowed upon the Bear Creek Music Festival, the last chance to share in an outdoor groove before putting the camping festival season to bed for the year.
Held together by a singular thematic funk element and the goal of keeping the crowd dancing until the wee hours of the morning, Bear Creek has carved a reputation by primarily being Â niche-festival that also adds various spices for those that need a genre other than funk for at least one meal a day.
Held at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, home to many of the year’s finest festivals, Bear Creek always manages to be the perfect example of saving the best for last.Â On tap for this year was one of the grandest lineups to date with Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB, the legendary Dr.Lonnie Smith and an all weekend tour of the deep career of George Porter Jr.
Of course, all of this fails to mention the vibe — the primarily element that causes a recidivism rate that is steadily climbing with each passing November pilgrimage to Suwannee.
The vibe at Bear Creek was, as it always has been, true unified purpose put in action; people carrying out a mission statement to have the funkiest good time humanly possible.Â It could be best described as equality driven and the love vibe only grew as the weekend progressed, flowing in a loop of love from the planners to the builders of the stages, architects of the sound,Â the security personnel — the bands and fans picking up and giving back with full steam along the way.
Days seem to float past in a sea of moments that are heightened by sonic joy and an overall feeling of oneness. During the music sets themselves it was only a matter of which way one turns his head that determines whether he will see people dancing, standing with eyes squeezed shut or smile adorned faces that appear to be lost in sonic bliss.
None of this occurs by simple happenstance. It truly embodies the vision that Paul Levine, founder of the event and captain of the Bear Creek ship, holds near and dear to his heart.
By booking many of the acts — or members thereof — for more than one day, and the fact that keeping a primary genre focus means that most billed bands travel in similar circles, the end result is that it turns into a massive party amongst friends. The fact that musicians mingle with fans is what sets the event apart in the current bi-weekly festival atmosphere that is the live music scene of the present day.
Trey Anastasio Band (11/12/11)
By David Shehi
What is perhaps most unfortunate about Trey Anastasio’s shows of late is the fact that once you have caught one on any given tour or run, you have pretty much seen them all. This said, they are virtually error-free and on this night, there was a distinct difference between Trey of the past and Trey of the present: he no longer requires to be the center of sonic attention.
There was a time when “Trey band” was simply an opportunity for Anastasio to be the absolute center of it all, a notion that was met with much resistance in Anastasio’s primary project, Phish. Simply put, in many ways, the players who backed their front man were little more than space-savers who filled out the music around Anastasio’s endless — and borderline monotonous — solos, making it all too obvious that the guitar god had a literal need for the “chairman of the boards,” Page McConnell (keys, Phish). Well, that was then.
Anastasio is not the same guy as he was then and though the difference has slowly been peaking its head over the past few years, it was at its most noticeable on this recent run and made for an enchanting evening at Suwannee.
Anastasio has always been arguably the best guitarist on the jam and live music scene, but it seems that his personal maturation has yielded a musical insight wherein he now knows that — just like a string — one man can be broken, but a group of strings that are interwoven and entwined makes a rope that is virtually impossible to sever.
In a time slot all unto themselves, Trey and company were in their finest hour in so far as playing as a unit was concerned.Â They were cohesive and equal parts distributed; each member following their leader but shining as bright and occasionally brighter than the conductor himself.
Opening with the high-energy “Push on ‘Til the Day,” it was immediately apparent that it would be the brass section, and predominantly Jennifer Hartswick, who would own the Bear Creek night.
When the announcement came that Trey Anastasio would play at the beloved park — a place that has a feeling of home for those that frequent the beautiful setting — I was ecstatic. With so many players on the lineup with whom Anastasio has played (John Medeski, Marco Benevento and others), thoughts of sit-ins were overwhelming. However, nothing of the sort happened. What did happen was a standard show — that the perma-grinning band had as much fun giving as the audience did receiving. It was a set that was short on fireworks but sound in its framework. It did come with moments of grandness, in the form ofÂ “Sand>Valentine” ( a Trey assault), “Burlap Sack & Pumps” that was played to perfection by Tony Markellis and Jen Hartswick’s relentless vocal work on the closing “Black Dog.”
On its whole and in spite of being slightly disappointing due to personal over-zealous expectations for the set, the two and a half hour long show was quite a journey, and one that will be forever etched in the Suwannee corner of my mind.
Karl Densonâ€™s Tiny Universe (11/10/11 & 11/11/11)
By Bob Adamek
Karl Denson closed the Purple Hat Stage on Thursday night and the Big IV Amphitheater on Friday night, bringing his well recognized brand of rock/funk/soul to eager Bear Creek funk fanatics. No stranger to the art of the sit-in himself, Denson welcomed many guests to the stage. Joined by Boots Riley (The Coup), Robert Walter and many others, Karl D’s “tiny” universe was expanded to say the least.
As is typical for a Tiny Universe outing, the sets were packed with high energy, soul and spacious lengthy jams, featuring a cast of great players who adequately provided turn-down service for their maestro to lay down vocals or a crushing sax or piercing flute solo.
A highlight of the sets came with a Robert Walter sit-in. Walter’s organ work was so weighty that Denson himself made his way to the instrument to co-engineer; both musicians adorning an infectious grin that spread throughout the cold and crowded Suwannee field.
The inspired and impassioned play made both sets the subjects of much discussion throughout their succeeding days.
Medeski, Martin & Wood and Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood (11/11/11 & 11/12/11)
By Rex Thomson
There had to be a first moment when Medeski, Martin and Wood hit a perfect synchronicity; a moment when each member of the trio realized that they had collectively surpassed anything than each could ever hope to be alone.
Each masters of their craft, the sounds collectively created by John Medeski, Billy Martin & Chris Wood blend into a unique voice that is both instantly recognizable and utterly distinct.
From Billy Martin’s expressiveness from behind his drum kit and percussive instrument table to Chris Wood’s ownership of one of the most honest bass tones of any player working today and John Medeski’s uncanny ability to sprawl across the rhythmic tapestry and lay down into his signature expansive and dense organ and piano work, MMW are unquestionably innovators and founders of a jazz-based sound that simply cannot be imitated.
With the incredible amount of talent on hand, the guest appearances during the trio’s Bear Creek sets met the very definition of the much overused word, “epic.”
By performing two shows over the course of the weekend, MMW were given an opportunity to do something far ranging and rare. First, in their own turn on the Purple Hat stage, they played a variety of their more classic material that was taken to an even further heightened place through the host of guests that joined them, ranging from brass legend, Pee Wee Ellis to guitar guru Will Bernard, and second pairs of percussive hands donated by none other than Stanton Moore and Johnny Vidacovich.
In the second of their two billed sets, they were joined by frequent collaborator and master of the clean sustained note, John Scofield.
The pairing was amazing. The sparseness of Scofield’s leads cut through the thick organic funk of the three funkateers, creating temporary division prior to a perfect union — easily being one of the most memorable sets of the weekend.
Dumpstaphunk / Dumpstajam (11/12/11 & 11/13/11)
By Bob Adamek
As consummate Bear Creek closing act, Dumpstaphunk is charged with a sizeable task: to shine as brightly as all of their predecessors. Having become a symbol of todayâ€™s state of the art funk, the act that is helmed by Ivan Neville is beloved by the Bear Creek faithful — with their annual “Dumpstajam” that closes the Saturday night festivities having become legendary. The only quandary for the crew is how they will outdo themselves each year. It can safely be said that the test was passed in ’11.
A warm 47 degrees greeted the patrons on Saturday night, a temperature that was welcoming to those that had been frozen to their core on the preceding evening. This said, 47 degrees is still quite brisk, but the heat would soon come in the form of the Dumpstajam that raged through Sly Stone numbers and — amongst others — Tower of Powerâ€™s “What is Hip,” with Louis Cato (Brian McKnight) putting on a figurative clinic in bass groove.
Though expected, the list of sit ins evolved into a rotating cast of many of the festival’s top players — Eric Krasno, Nigel Hall, Skerik, Freekbass, Louis Cato on drums and bass, Billy Iuso and a large variety of guitar and horn players — with the Dumpstaphunk members in charge of both providing and maintaining a leading and supportive structure to some of the longest and most experimental improvisation imaginable. It was the skill set of the latter that kept it from not only not sounding like a complete mess but instead, sounding like a 14 member band that plays together regularly.
As the festival wound down, the only game left was Dumpstaphunk on the Big IV Amphitheater stage. The bandâ€™s vocals and harmonies were some of the best of the weekend, and dual bass attack by Tony Hall and Nick Daniels dug a groove of unrelenting depth.
In correlation with the multitude of guests including George Porter Jr. and Skerik (Garage A Trois, Dead Kenny G’s), they rolled through Dumpsta standards like “Put It In the Dumpsta” Â and “Meanwhile.”
Most Valuable Players
George Porter Jr.
By Bob Adamek
George played in four billed bands — Funky Meters, Runnin’ Pardners, The Trio (Jen Hartswick, Vidacovich & Porter) and John Scofield & Piety Street — and sat in with even more acts including: Russell Batiste Band, Lettuce and Dumpstaphunk.
His first set was on Thursday with the Runninâ€™ Pardners for what turned out to be the set of the day. The band worked through many songs from their new album, an homage to Georgeâ€™s favorite Meters songs (Can’t Beat the Funk) that were never played live and hit many other highlights from his illustrious career. The set peaked when the band ripped through Robert Palmer’s versions of “Sailing Shoes” and “Sneakinâ€™ Sally Through the Alley,” both of which featured Porter on the studio album that included “the trilogy” from 1974.
The Funky Meters set on Saturday was a significant Bear Creek addition because so much of the music at this “mother-of-all funk fest” was influenced and owes its roots to the Meters. Pee Wee Ellis — of James Brown fame — sat in on sax as did Bear Creek artist at large, guitarist Billy Iuso.
Sunday morning began with The Trio. Sit-ins included Khris Royal (Dark Matter, Runnin’ Pardners) on sax and Freekbass (Bootsy Collins, Freekbass). Thanks to a lifetime of competing for the bottom end with Art Nevilleâ€™s Hammond B3 left, Porter was easily able to find space while playing with another bass player.
Georgeâ€™s official duties concluded on Sunday with John Scofield & Piety Street, demonstrating a skill-set that goes way beyond funk and proving that he can just as easily handle the low end whether it be a gospel, bluesÂ or jazz number.
Simply put, George Porter Jr. was rightly treated as royalty at this festival, creating a buzz whether playing or simply standing side stage to watch and listen to other bands.
Download George Porter Jr. & The Runnin’ Pardners set here
By David Shehi
Jennifer Hartswick has completely come into her own and it is official, she will no longer be simply known as the horn player in TAB. With a new album (Ocean Floor) recently released, Hartswick brought her incredibly skilled band — consisting Nicholas Cassarino (guitar), Dezron Douglas (bass),Â Nikki Glaspie (drums) of Beyonce’ acclaim & Rob Marscher (keys) of Matisyahu and Addison Groove notoriety — along for the ride. The set that ensued was one of the top musical moments of the entire weekend. Hartswick’s soul shone brightly as she guided her crew through servings that were not were more than appealing to the ear, they were immersing to the spine.
As mentioned previously, Jennifer’s light was the brightest on the TAB stage, highlighted by what was unquestionably the hottest offering of the set that came in the form of an uproarious vocal offering of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” The numberÂ whirled the Bear Creek throng into a frenzy and sealed the deal on a night that had been hers as much or more than it had been Trey’s.
Officially appearing in four lineups over the weekend (Trey Anastasio Band, Van Ghost, JHB, The Trio with George Porter and Johnny Vidacovich), she made the rounds — usually with “little sister” and TAB band mate, Natalie Cressman, in tow — from the largest of stages to the smallest. At each stop, she sung and played with as much fervor as anyone else on stage, but moreover, she did so with the most giving spirit and brightest smile.
Simply put, Hartswick was and is a star whether standing front and center or in the back corner leading Trey’s horn section.
Download Jennifer Hartswick Band’s set here
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
By Rex Thomson
Growing better with practice, the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park layout goes through minor tweaks from event to event. Since it is the last event of the year, Bear Creek has the fortune of being the beneficiary of allÂ of the improvements that have taken place throughout the summer and early fall.
Bowing last, Bear Creek has the good fortune of being staffed by dedicated workers who know their jobs and the grounds like the backs of their hands. The various vendors are culled to be nothing but the best in artisans, with delightful festival eateries that have proven their allure as well as the finest weavers and designers whose dedication to outfit the festival in bright colors and warm party wear is second to none.
What is perhaps most oxymoron-like is that the one thing that superficially seems Â “negative” about the festival — the chilly nights — actually enhances the overall experience as attendees are even more inclined to shake asses out of the instinctual need to keep warm until the very last note of each day.
Besides being a group experience shared and withstood, the parkâ€™s policy of allowing small ground fires adds to the overwhelming camaraderie of the experience. Complete strangers â€œfire hopâ€ from camp to camp, stopping along the way back at their temporary homes to meet and greet the kind folks who are stoking fires along the way and each morning, as the sun returns to the heavens, sleepy faces emerge from tents with smiles and wide open arms, outstretched to meet the day.
Musical Highlight & Lowlight
By David Shehi
Adding some spice to the mix, and something off the beaten funky jam-band trodden path while still including heavy brass, Rubblebucket’s set that took place in the indoor Music Hall was just different enough without being too much of a deviation from the sounds of the weekend.
With a sound that can best be described as avant garde with splashes of indie influence served on an afro beat platter, Rubblebucket delivered a high-octane set that begged undivided attention — primarily as a result of front woman Kalmia Traver’s stage presence and antics.Â She had the nuances of Bjork without being too spacy to grasp.
What was most impressive was the obvious natural chemistry and the management of the large band that clearly has orchestral persuasion. This is a band to keep a close eye on in the coming year, if for no other reason than to see if something this unique has the ability to succeed in the mainstream/radio section of the industry to which this outfit seems to be propelled: a world where cookie-cutting seems to be of utmost importance. Because if there is one thing that Rubblebucket is not, it is cookie cutter.
Lowlight: Beats Antique
Bear Creek tends to steer clear of electronic music, but did include a few that use instruments. The rest were relegated to the silent headphone tent, an experience that was not to be missed and housed some stellar acts including Skerik, Eric Krasno’s DJ set and Wyllys’ spinning of vinyl that would make that cat from Juice proud. Other than Beats Antique, Zoogma and Big Gigantic were the only other bands with an electronic lean playing on a main stage.
In regards to Beats Antique, the schtick is up, the newness smell is out of the car. Delivering what has devolved into the same serving from festival to festival, the trio operates based upon a simple equation that worked for a minute: make lots of noise with overloaded bass and put a beautiful belly-dancer front and center, occasionally handing her a bass drum for her to bang.
Though many talked about the set, those that spoke highly of it, were Beats Antique virgins, the Bear Creek having been the only one that they had witnessed. Naturally, they like anybody else who was once new to the band, were primarily enamored by the gorgeous Zoe Jakes that they, like I, were able to give the music a pass. Well, that time is up for me and as Officer Barbrady would say, “Move along folks, nothing to see here.”
By Bob Adamek
Over the course of the weekend, there were three undercard-occupying bands that defined themselves as canâ€™t miss acts: Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, Orgone and London Souls.
Sister Sparrow is driven by a four piece horn section that is tight as a fist and a wonderful lead singer whose voice calls up the growl of Janis Joplin as well as the ringing clarity of any modern day diva.
A hurricane force of energy for Orgone lives in their guitarist, Sergio Rios. He never stopped thrashing around and forced the music to his will, compelling the crowd to dance and infecting his band mates. Though many doubted the band’s sustenance following the departure of front woman Fanny Franklin, Orgone proved that they are here to stay behind the woman who has amply filled Franklin’s shoes, Sy Smith.
The London Souls are a throwback to the days when the power trio ruled the rock and roll landscape. All three members can sing, but their stock and trade is won through hard rocking, high energy, forceful jams. By being one of the few brass-less acts to grace the Bear Creek lineup, their sound was immediately ear-catching, but it was the raw energy that kept the crowd’s attention span from dwindling away or on to the next act.
Download London Souls’ set here
Another Bear Creek year has come and gone. With a lineup that accomplished exactly what it presumably was attempting, the turn out was substantial. New friends were made and old friendships were strengthened.
As folks gathered up their belongings on a “way too early” Monday morning and bid farewells, the vibe remained.
Bear Creek remains to be a festival that is not simply about music. Sure, the music is the carrier of the torch and the initial tie that binds Bear Creek residents to one another. But it is the relationships that grow from the humble beginning that have the true stay-power.
It can only be hoped that the Bear Creek tradition continues and that next November — and for many Novembers to come — we will still be able to indulge in our own little funky piece of a yearly chilly heaven with friends of old and those yet to be made.
On the Scene at Bear Creek with Garage A Trois, George Porter Jr., Honey Island Swamp Band, Jen Hartswick, Johnny Vidacovich, Natalie Cressman & Rubblebucket
Scroll down for more photos from the festival.
Click the thumbnail(s) to view photos from the festival by Bob Adamek, Rex Thomson & David Shehi
Editorial Revision: Though Sy Smith did sing with Orgone at one time, Niki Crawford is the current vocalist for Orgone. We apologize for the oversight and/or any confusion that resulted from it.