First Time in Paradise: An Outlook on Bear Creek Festival

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Call me an addict – I’ve experienced my first festival and it shall not be the last.

The 2nd annual Bear Creek Music and Art Festival aimed to please again this year with a return to Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. November 13-16 provided a colorful weekend of music and people for all to enjoy.

THURSDAY

bcmf1.jpgIt was a first for the pre-festival kick-off on Thursday night, where an extra $35, on top of the $145 ticket price ($165 at the gate), provided guests with an extra night of primitive camping, a sneak peek at vendors, super-clean bathhouses, early bird operation of the grounds and the best part: full music sets on the indoor stages from Perpetual Groove, DubConcious, Zach Deputy, Telepath and The Motet with Kyle Hollingsworth. If the music had been on the outdoor stages it would have been perfect.

The weather Thursday was slightly on the warm side,  a bit more humid than comfortable.  And with no music until 7 PM, we all went swimming and rafting on the beautiful white sand beach along the Suwannee River.  It was perfect and so beautiful, with the fall colors in the trees, the tea-colored tannic waters that were so refreshingly cold and the limestone cliffs cut out by the river.  Unfortunately, we could hear the clack clack of hammers while we were relaxing as across the river houses are being constructed.

Brother Bean kicked off festivities on the Music Hall Stage with a satisfying set to a steadily growing crowd of seventy. The three-piece group supplied an opening of improvisation, warping melodies and dance beats that sounded a little hip-hop and just the beginning of the weekend’s experimental sounds. BB provided a little bit of harmony, a little bit of feed back, and a lot of great results.

Right on cue with the closing song, the audience pivoted around to find DubConscious, hailing from Athens, Georgia, giving a spin to reggae on the Sweetwater Stage.  Devoted listeners waved along to the lyrics of awareness and progressive melodies as the green nuclear liquid lamps gave the stage an all more impressive glow.

bcmf2.jpgAt 10:10 on the dot, The Motet got started with special guest keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident. The Boulder, Colorado act doesn’t play the southeast enough, so it is always a special treat to see them in these parts.  I was surprised when I didn’t see bass virtuoso Garrett Sayers on the stage; apparently he has left the band which was very disappointing as he was the best in the biz and made the whole band step it up.  This was the first of many Kofi Burbridge sit-ins throughout the weekend, playing his trance-inducing flute.  The Motet brings highly danceable Afrobeat jazz and electronica beats with lots of energy. However, I felt the show was a bit lackluster for their capabilities and reputation.

Soon-to-be superstar that never sleeps, Keller Williams-esque solo artist Zach Deputy, broke in for a quick refresher.  This was my first time seeing Zach Deputy…I had heard of him for a while but never made it out for any of his shows at local venues.  Now that he’s on my radar, I’m motivated not to miss another.

bcmf3.jpgZD was followed by the much-anticipated Perpetual Groove, who closed the night out with classics of old and more fantastics of new. They played a 30 minute “Teakwood Betz” that started off darker than any version I have ever heard.  And “Deception Structure” was hailed by many PGroove fans as the best version ever played. The newest member of PGroove, John Hruby (keyboards,) has really melded with the band lately, taking the group to a higher level of playing tight jams. Hruby adds great piano-playing ability, good vocals and lots and lots of energy. It was easy to pick a pace to jam to and glance back through the haze as glow sticks flew overhead. The night flowed effortlessly with a perfect order and rhythm of musicians.

By the end of my first evening, it seemed the event is going to be everything I expected, and of course a little more. SOSMP holds a peaceful escape. When the bass starts thumping and drumsticks clack, reality fades away and one has arrived in Wonderland. I dozed off to the distant sound of coughing, stereos playing until security came by, my car as an acorn magnet and a glad-to-have case of tinnitus.

Apparently, Brock Butler played acoustic guitar all night long to his loyal fans in an RV. I slept right through it unaware. 

Lesson #1: Never sleep at these things or one will miss something great.

Click next for Friday

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FRIDAY

Stirring on Friday morning, campers arrived and pitched tents, and children played on the swing set. The food aisle was open with coffee, hot tea and breakfast selections. Additional vendors had also set up and begun displaying items ranging from clothing, blown glass, crystals and beads to bamboo lights and incense. Yoga classes were offered in the mornings, a rock climbing wall and circus-sized aerial trapeze academy was set up in the open fielded area, and Bear Creek Kid’s Tent was up and running with a full schedule of activities.

bcmf4.jpgFlorida State University Blues Band got going at noon with covers and original songs on the Big IV Stage. Guests could wander onto the field, or shop and eat at the local vendors while listening. Floating between the Purple Hat Amphitheater, Big IV, Sweetwater and Campground stages, the rest of the afternoon held The Sarah Mac Band, The Afromotive, Low-Down Throw-Down, Zach Deputy, Brother Bean, and a Bill Ector tribute by The Tommy Talton Band

The Afromotive had Dave Watts of The Motet sit in on drums, as recent changes to their lineup resulted in a lack of a drummer.  Two new guitar players were also added, as well as a temporary sit-in djembé drummer for Ademe Dembele, who had a conflict for this performance.  Nonetheless, Afromotive delivered their usual afro beat rhythms to a crowd of moving fans and played several songs off their recent album, Scaretactics, including “Yako,” “One Way Go” and “Blinded.”

The Legendary JC’s provided another high-energy show, complete with numerous jazz splits by lead singer, Eugene Snowden, while Florida favorite Inca Maya played simultaneously by the lake on the Campground Stage. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band had listeners feeling right back home on the bayou.

As the day progressed, music scheduling went from appropriately staggered to stacked. As the sun set, Trial By Stone stepped up, followed by Strut, Fusebox Funk and The Brian Jordan Trio onto the Music Hall Stage. All outside stages hosted The Sam Kininger Band, Ancient Harmony, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, The Motet again with Kyle Hollingsworth, The Soular System, McTuff, a Rachel Hoffman tribute by DubConscious.

bcmf5.jpgOne of the Friday night favorites was Everyone Orchestra with Jon Fishman, Michael Kang, Eric Krasno, Nigel Hall, Kofi Burbridge, Josh Phillips, the Afromotive horns and many others, directed by conductor Matt Butler. It was mandatory to be there in order to fully appreciate and experience the audience participation and unpredictable collaboration.

PGroove played again Friday night, but this time at the outdoor Big IV Stage.  My only complaint about their Thursday night set was that it was indoors. Once shifted outdoors, it looked like rain.  One could feel light drops throughout the first three songs.  By the fourth song, the classic "Sundog," and through "Praise You," all until the end of the show, it poured.  Fans were not deterred though. everyone stayed and many opened their mouths and put their head to the sky and arms in the air as if to resource the refreshing water.  The rain stopped as the show ended and the rain never came back the remainder of the weekend.

bcmf6.jpgThe infamous “Hal the Broken Clown” moseyed through the crowds with horns and fish in tow. According to his Myspace page, Hal has seen Perpetual Groove 294 times and the Grateful Dead 89 times. As it turns out, the two Bear Creek PGroove shows were Hal’s number 332 and 333. One must get a confident feeling when seeing his friendly face around.

The scheduled night was capped off by Lettuce on the indoor Sweetwater Stage.  Lettuce is one of the best funk rock bands to form now, comprised of members of Soulive and adding a horn section, a bass player “Jesus” and Nigel Hall on the vocals.  The set ended around 2:30 a.m. and we headed back to the campground to find several stages going strong. 

The first stage was a group of musicians just jamming out with two basses, horns, drums and a funky guitar surrounded by a cluster of dancing. Eventually, as we reached the wee hours of the morn, security wanted the noise to cease.  Paul Levine, festival organizer, played middle-man between the band and security. He told the band to turn it down so they could keep playing. They said, “Why should we turn it down if Zach Deputy is allowed to play?”  I said, “Zach Deputy is playing?” and quickly found the “Zach Shack,” basically an easy up with amps in the front and a small devoted crowd gathered close.  Zach carried us until about 5:30am with his highly entertaining melody making, looping, singing and guitar playing.

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Click next for Saturday{mospagebreak}

SATURDAY

If the eyes weren’t open by 11:00 the following morning, The Suwannee Bluegrass Mafia was on stage to awake the ears. The mafia was followed with performances by Curious Circus, Corporal Boil, Polyester Pimpstrap, Jim Weider’s Project Percolator, Tim Reynolds and TR3, Deep Blue Sun, and The Robert Walter Trio, all placed variously on the outside stages. Kofi Burbridge and Sam Kininger sat in with Dr. Claw, made up of members of Dumpstaphunk and Lettuce, for their first performance outside of New Orleans aside from one NYC gig.

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One of the biggest headliners, Yonder Mountain String Band played early Saturday night, as the sun went down the vibes and voices kept rising. Yonder, a group that’s been officially formed and rocking devoted fans for a decade, kept the amphitheater full for about a 90-minute set.

bcmf9.jpg On the other side of the road, Lettuce played their second show after Yonder’s set.  During Lettuce, Derek Trucks, who made an unannounced, unscheduled, surprise appearance, and Kofi Burbridge joined the band.  During the set Nigel Hall told the audience about his wedding earlier that day and called his wife onto the stage and sang to her.

Lettuce was a tough act to follow, but Dumpstaphunk, Ivan Neville and The Bear Creek Dumpstajam put on another pleasing show. “Put It In The Dumpsta” is now etched into my brain for a very long time but in a very good way.  Dumpstaphunk had many guests including Derek Trucks, Papa Mali and Skerik.  At one point, the band invited all the ladies to come on stage as they played.

bcmf10.jpgSoulive kept the night pumping as fans gathered in waiting for their start. Neighbors such as Ivan Neville, Rashawn Ross, Sam Kininger, Ryan Zoidis, Nigel Hall and Derek Trucks quickly joined the trio. Soulive’s show ended too quickly and Pnuma Trio swooped in to end the night on the outside platforms.

With all the amazing guest sit-ins, it was hard to keep track of who was where and when. It seemed Nigel Hall earned the title of unofficial MC of the event, and congratulations to him for his apparent wedding that weekend. It would probably be safe to call Kofi Burbridge the Pied Pier of Bear Creek as he floated through stages with all the crazy kids watching in awe. Yet another key player that fortunately popped up by surprise, played during several sections, and had the whole camp talking, was the incredible Derek Trucks.

On the inside, The Windfall, Dr. Louis Sullivan, Stop Drop & Roll, Green Hit, The Burnin Smyrnans, The Malah, John Brown’s Body, Bonobos Convergence and The New Mastersounds were playing strong through the end of the night. However, many people didn’t gain entry as the indoor venue’s capacity was exceeded.

Saturday, late night again, had various bands playing throughout the campground when the scheduled line-up ended. Zach Deputy returned for another late-night session full of his originals and versions of “Ice, Ice, Baby,” the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire theme song, and various others to take listeners back and bring in the pop. He played until around 5:30 in the morning, when police told everyone to go back to their campsites or arrests would begin

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The weather provided clouds only for shade and warm temperature perfect for dips in the river. The sun gleamed through Saturday to keep grass dry and dancers comfortable. By the evening and through the end of the weekend, a nice cold front moved in to make some real use of the bonfires. Everyone brought out his or her winter’s finest gear, pre-packed, out and ready, for a repeat of last year.

Click next for Sunday{mospagebreak}

SUNDAY

Sunday continued to keep the music stocked with The Warehouse Jazz Project, Rebecca Jean Smith, a Ted Freed tribute by Buffalo Strange, Euro-Sluts, The Chicago Afro-Beat Project, The Donna Hopkins Band, John Brown’s Body for the second, satisfyingly time around, Shak Nasti, Tishamingo, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and Stillwood. Many people stayed around to hear JJ Grey & Mofro and The New Mastersounds. The Tallahassee All-Stars closed out the festival playing right up until the last hour of the day.

bcmf12.jpgI expected to see Obama visuals and Grateful Dead shirts (at some points combined), dirty feet and crazy lights. I expected to see smiles abound unless alcohol was setting in or from drugs coming down. I looked forward to celebrity sit-ins, best I could identify at least, and was not disappointed. Fairies, Santa’s and mad-hatters mesmerized me; and I found a new hypnosis in Hula hoops. Vibrations of the visitors kept one at ease: If you fall, someone will catch you. If you’re lost, someone will guide you. If you’re tired, rest. If you’re awake, someone else is as well.

Most of daylight and band breaks gave an opportunity to explore the area and bask in the tranquility. Passing through majestic oak, pine and cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss, and watching the Suwannee River running along the park and leaves falling to the soft sand. It would be safe to call this haven “Dixie living at its finest.” Golf carts zoomed by from time to time, but most travelers went by foot. The Swan was a convenient key for determining direction around the lake by the Campground Stage. There was plenty of room, whether off the main road or a private spot far back in the trees and trails. Among all of these great sites, campers placed “Great Wall’s” of tarps and tapestries lining various campsites to “keep the good in and bad out."

Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office patrolled the park throughout the weekend for protection and service, and although all the goers were peaceful patrons, officers still managed to collect a few offenders for illegal vending and possession of unlawful substances

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This year the festival held the first Bear Creek Feed the Hungry Disc Golf Tournament and food drive. The park has been focused on gaining national recognition as a “Green Park.” In my opinion, they could have used a few more recycling centers with additional sorting options, but their efforts were definitely noticed and the receptacles were a big relief to see throughout the grounds.

To sum up my first real festival experience, I suppose I’ll include a mid-way text message sent to a close friend that couldn’t make the outing: “Festival. Fireworks. Golf carts. Bass drum. Light. Gotta go. I love you.”

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