Gone Gonzo: Bear Creek Music and Art Festival

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I have been traveling to festivals for almost half of my life. I relish in the dehydration, dust in my lungs, knots in my hair, my brutalized larynx, late nights, early mornings, old friends, new friends, black friends, and Jew friends. And music…always music.

Many spend their time living in a world without music, without camaraderie, without uncontrollable laughter. And others deal with personal physical limitations that inhibit travel…but you know that if pigs had wings, away they’d fly! So this is where my life is–offering the less mobile or less motivated the opportunity to live vicariously through me and all of my friends. Taking this assignment was a big deal to me. My reputation was on the line, as Bear Creek has become such a magical festival of late, featuring the most unique combinations of musicians and bands in the country. Creators Paul Levine and Lyle Williams have approached the construction of their empire very lackadaisically, making connections in the old-fashioned way-by throwing totally kickass parties.

What would happen if I were to end up unable to form complete sentences?

What if I let everyone down and became the disappointment of my friends, my readers, my editor, and even worse, myself?

This is a very ominous assignment, with overtones of extreme personal danger. This is important goddammit, this is a fucking true story! I had to relax, take it easy. Maybe take some notes. I spent a lot of time attempting to figure out my angle, when suddenly it was handed to me.

Paul somehow scored legendary artist and Hunter S. Thompson’s partner-in-crime, Ralph Steadman, to make the official festival poster, and the concept of Fear and Loathing at Bear Creek was born. From my perspective, it made the idea of writing about this festival even more invigorating. To be able to channel the spirit of one of the quintessential freaks of our lifetime became my focus for the project.

So before we get started here, as a disclaimer, I will let you know that there are a few choice quotes that I lifted directly from his magnum opus for this little article in tribute to the man himself.

I decided to go Gonzo.

Come with me, if you like.

Or, just look at all the pretty pictures.

The drive from Virginia to Florida is always a daunting task. Over the years, I’ve found that it’s easier to make it a nighttime trip, as there is less traffic and you don’t spend your whole day on the road. When you work all day and hit the road at 1 AM, it does a couple things to your trip: 1) You are able to arrive at a reasonable hour and 2) You start a festival with a leg up on the rest of the weirdos due to a night of total sleep deprivation. No better way to bend the brain into the mindset necessary to get to where I believed to be the right place than 40 hours without sleep. So we set up camp early in the afternoon and began to…well, party. Perhaps not to the proportion of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, but we did our best.

p1014635-copy.jpgMusic started very early at Bear Creek this year, with a Wednesday night pre-pre-party featuring Aquaphonics, Honey Island Swamp Band, Zoogma, and the Heavy Pets. I missed all that of course, but friends that had been at the park for a day or two seemed to be pretty well socially lubricated, so I think that means that the music was good.

My music started Thursday night with Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives getting funky in the Spirit of Suwannee Music Hall. Iuso showed us some of his guitar skills and I got my legs a little limber.

Next up was a trek across the field to the Purple Hat Tent, a full-size circus tent erected in the field specifically for Bear Creek. I was looking forward to Asheville phenomenon Toubab Krewe, a band I have watched evolve over the last few years into a very unique and filled-out unit. Obscure instrumentation and unusual compositions set Toubab apart from most bands by blending funk, rock and strong world-beat influences into an incredibly danceable hive of sound. As an example of how much Toubab has grown and expanded their repertoire, they busted out a cover by crooner Junior Brown, complete with lyrics–an unusual fold in the fabric of a generally instrumental band.

We stuck around the Purple Hat to check out New Orleans institution Rebirth Brass Band. Having been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, it was an honor to see all the members onstage and throwing down as if we were on a street corner in the Big Easy. Chali 2na (Jurassic 5 lyricist) made an appearance and spit some rhymes toward the end of the set. Thursday’s pre-party was shaping up to be quite the event, and I had to take a musical breather before the late-night activities. A group of us made our way back to the campsite for cocktails and mental calisthenics.

Night in the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park can be a little spooky. Strange laughs emanate from the woods and shadows dance from myriads of tiny campfires at different campsites, making the trees look like they move with tendrils of bushy Spanish moss hanging almost to head level in spots. It’s like a Scooby Doo episode with more hippies.

I spaced out in the campground, laughing at bad jokes.

Perhaps told a few myself.

A beauty of the festival scene is the ability to laugh at anything, at any time. Maintaining ongoing jokes that lasts for days. The ability to check your problems at the gate and be the truly happy person that exists in all of us is a blessing. One must forgive himself for missing music sometimes and live in the moment, because there are people out there that deserve attention as well: bright souls and funny bastards abound in faraway places are always quite a pleasure to meet.

Eventually someone mentioned that a band called the London Souls was worth checking out in the music hall. I realized that I had missed most of the Umphrey’s McGee set in the Purple Hat when I walked by and heard "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" resonating through the cool north Florida night. But I know that song well, and even though Umphrey’s McGee is a talented band, I try to branch out when in strange lands, so the London Souls got my attention. Well-deserved attention, as it turned out.

We stumbled into the SoS Music Hall and were greeted by loud, dirty rock and roll accompanied by vivid lights. The London Souls, hailing from Brooklyn, were perhaps my biggest new surprise from Bear Creek, an aggressive blend of Buddy Guy and Cream, a true power trio who were emitting some serious noise from the stage. When I arrived at the set, guitarist Tash Neal had already broken a string and showed no signs of slowing down. Twenty minutes later, he was down to three of six strings and still continued to relentlessly shred his axe.

bigsam.jpgMy mind was fairly well blown as fusion masters Garaj Mahal took the stage at the other end of the music hall and I could only stand and watch as Kai Eckhardt and Fareed Haque developed jaw-dropping grooves until my body couldn’t take it anymore. I made my way to my new-and-improved tent to get the sleep that I had denied myself the previous night. Lights out, Homer.

In contrast to the eeriness of evening, morning at the Spirit of Suwannee is like climbing out of a tent into a wooded area of Heaven. All the sprites and pixies wandering around add to that illusion.

But is it really an illusion?

I believe that if I were to die, or if I already have, that the middle of November in Live Oak is where I would want to end up if I had lived what was deemed to be an acceptable life by whatever force is responsible for the making that call. The sounds of the FSU Blues Band greeted my teeth brushing session. I grabbed my camera and headed to get the day going. I caught a bit of the Ann Arbor-based psychedelic funk of the Macpodz before going to the tiny Uncle Charles’ Porch Stage to get a full second dose of the London Souls.

It is always a smart move to have a second listen after witnessing something brand-new and mind-blowing that occurred late at night. Luckily, Paul Levine is fully aware of that concept and books the bands he believes to be bad-ass to play two sets at the festival. The Souls did not disappoint, and did not let the level of energy drop from the previous night. Tash managed to break not a single string. The trio displayed impressive skill and precision in a style of music that not enough bands practice these days. A large number of new fans were won over by the London Souls at Bear Creek, and I hope to see them back next year.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation is one of the more energetic bands out there. Sam Williams turns his linebacker-esque bulk into a light-footed dancing machine, all the while wielding a fierce trombone. They took over the Big IV Amphitheater Stage Friday afternoon, the crowd stomping up a huge cloud of dust. Having sensitive lungs, I hung back and enjoyed the scenery of dozens of hammocks swaying under the huge trees draped in moss, surrounded by smiling folks lost in the funk.

My weekend was building up to the Bear Creek debut of my favorite band in the land, The Dead Kenny G’s. Three parts of Seattle’s freaky jazz monsters, Critters Buggin’, the DKG’s bring the precision of Sun Ra and the insanity of the Melvins and combine them into a punk-laden avant garde pile of screaming intensity led by percussion wizard and sometimes-vocalist Mike Dillon. They pounded their way through cuts from their Bewildered Herd album while we in the crowd freaked out and took our clothes off when we were told, literally.

Few things compare to the intensity of a Dead Kenny G’s show. Featuring a cameo from talented Bootsy Collins protégé, Freekbass, Bear Creek was met with an extra treat. Dillon-penned ditties like "I’m Your Manager, I’m Your Pimp," backed up by Brad Houser’s impossible-sounding bass licks and Skerik’s maelstrom ego, establish the band as one of the most creative and powerful forces in modern jazz warfare. With a final "We are the Dead Kenny G’s, motherfuckers!" Mike D and the guys tromped off stage. I decided everything else was downhill from there, so I ended up back in the campground.

p1015280-copy.jpgThe mission was to add layers of clothing, as the temperature in Live Oak drops from around 80 to below 50 in a scant two-hour period. Very shocking to a body full of booze and adrenaline. While I tried to stay warm, great things were happening all over the park. Orgone filled the Music Hall with thick, funky sounds. Papadosio gave the Campground Stage something to think about with their heady brand of oozing electronic grooves. New Orleans legend John Gros and his band, Papa Grows Funk, showed off their skills on the Porch Stage. A star-studded lineup became the Everyone Orchestra, who showed off an improv session for the ages in the Purple Hat Tent.

As my teeth chattered and I wondered if I would make it, I thought maybe this place was getting to me. I thought I might be getting the fear. There were crazy lights in the trees and golf carts flying around at high speeds. Strange people I knew well but didn’t recognize struck up conversation, to be met with gibberish that made total sense in my head. Sometimes people just don’t understand. I collected myself and reprioritized my evening.

Who needs warmth when the Tony Hall Band is playing inside? The funk will warm you from the booty up. The impromptu lineup consisted of an amalgamation of players from New Orleans and some New York City funksters. The Dumpsta was in the house and I realized that Bear Creek was not downhill from here-on the contrary, it had just shifted into third gear. After a particularly explosive solo by Trey Anastasio Band mate and horn section leader, Jen Hartswick, Tony expressed his pleasure in such a way that caused Jen to declare "Don’t swear, Tony." It was quite an intimate show featuring a rotating cavalcade of stars that also included June Yamagishi, who showed up and played some of the most intense guitar of the weekend.

I ran into Nick Daniels and Nigel Hall backstage and had an interesting existential conversation touching on the ideas of eternity, the Almighty, and of course, the funk. Funny, the things you end up learning when you least expect it. I cruised around on a golf cart for a while and ended up seeing the New Mastersounds blow the Purple Hat Tent up, finishing their set at a whopping 4am.

6.jpgSeems I missed a highlight by accident, as Bernie Worrell and Socialybrium’s set featured blistering call-and-response sit-ins by Fred Wesley and Pee-Wee Ellis. Bernie apparently got those old boys fired up for the few people that made their way into the Music Hall. Fortunately, I am confident that I will get to hear a recording at some point, since technology has made life easy for slackers and the indecisive. So I danced my ass off at the New Mastersounds. A good problem to have. Then I actually got some more sleep.

Saturday brought something to me I generally neglect at festivals – a shower. It was necessary to bathe in order to start fresh for our theme night of the weekend, the Burlesque Porno Clowne Posse.

The brainchild of a couple enthusiastic and creative friends, the PCP theme embraced all the values of the official Fear and Loathing theme: chaos, absurdity and humor – while making everything a bit more…frilly. Corsets and fishnets were everywhere.

I donned an oversized pair of custom Beandawg Artworks tie-dyed overalls and my evil clown shoes. As I set about gallivanting Dirk "Bozo" Diggler style, The Dead Kenny G’s were, once again, a great musical start to a day of nightmarish debauchery. Several guests were invited to play with the guys, providing another amusing surprise. Yonrico Scott, drummer for the Derek Trucks Band, helped out for a bit – a nice payback, since Mike sat in with Yonrico’s band at last year’s festival for a Sun Ra composition. A young lady was invited out to accompany Dillon on "Yeah, Cat" and we got another soupy Freekbass session to close out. I floated out of the tent and jumped into the thick funk of George Porter’s Runnin’ Pardners, who had already started at the Amphitheater Stage.

James Brown alumni Fred Wesley and Pee-Wee Ellis were adding to the mix when I arrived, and the beautiful natural amphitheater was once again filled with colorfully costumed freaks bouncing and smiling. A difficult decision, and yet another luxurious Bear Creek problem, loomed with the Will Bernard Band and the Nigel Hall Band playing simultaneous sets.

I knew both bands would have incredible lineups, but was fairly clueless as to who would actually be playing. Since he’s my homeboy, and one of the best male vocalists around these days, I decided to go see Nigel. I hear that Bernard had some fiery sit-ins and a full-on Skerik freakout, but my hope for recordings once again helped me rest easy. With that said, Nigel Hall did not disappoint. Becoming one with his Rhodes piano, the DC native has the vocal prowess of a young Stevie Wonder and a heart of gold. Backed by an all-star band featuring Neal Evans on keyboard and Eric Krasno on bass, Nigel sang us love songs with an energy that made it impossible not to smile and perhaps even shed a tear or two.

p1016845-copy.jpgMeanwhile, legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker and his band kept the funk level high at the Amphitheater, while Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch showcased his electronic side project, Break Science, in the Purple Hat Tent. Low-register bass and extremely danceable samples make Break Science something very listenable.

I followed a friend’s advice and checked out Atlanta band Cadillac Jones. Having never been exposed to their music, the decision to catch their set reinforced the idea of embracing new things at music festivals. High-energy in-your-face funk monsters, Cadillac Jones is another band that I am happy to now have in my library

As is customary at some point during each day at a Bear Creek, things got a little strange. While moe. and Eric Krasno’s Chapter 2 played inspired sets on the outdoor stages, I wandered the Purple Hat Tent, twirling to the electronic sounds of DJ Logic and Bonobo. In true Burlesque Porno Clowne fashion, I dry-humped strangers with a three-foot stuffed phallus, laughing hysterically to the point of losing my voice. Time and gravity both gave way as I floated around like a tie-dyed anatomically correct balloon creature, occasionally asking folks if there ever seemed to be something missing in their lives before glancing down at my new prosthetic friend. There is a fine line between humor and nuisance, and I have opinions of which side I was on in that circus tent on Saturday night. Opinions that may differ from those of many members of my audience.

Or victims, if you will.

Eventually, I came to my senses and realized that there was an entire night of the best funk in the land ahead. I gathered myself and left the madness of the Purple Hat.

p1015749-copy.jpgIvan Neville’s Dumpstajam has become a Bear Creek tradition, featuring an amazingly vast array of musicians yielding leads and trading licks on the Amphitheater Stage, surrounded by their biggest fans dancing under pillars of fire in one of the most beautiful venues in the land. To say that the energy was intense would be a gigantic understatement. Rolling through Dumpsta originals and funk staples, the Dumpstajam got everyone primed for the late night Lettuce spectacle.

In a non-stop set of relentlessly driving funk, Lettuce turned the heat up so much in the Purple Hat tent that a combination of sweat and condensation rained down on us from the rafters inside the cavernous room. It was both a bonding moment with the ecstatic crowd and also a little gross at the same time. Funk seemingly entered a new realm. When Lettuce finished, I made my way back to the campground to see what laughs could be found…and there were a hell of a lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning.

The last day of a festival is bittersweet. Musicians that have played hours of music are spaced out and tired. Fans that have danced and partied for days are stiff and worn down.

The inspiration of music, however, is something that can recharge the body and warm the soul, no matter what one’s physical condition may be.

Sunday sets have a special place for me. After stretching the brain out for a couple of days, finding truth in lyrics and meaning in melodies comes easier, and becoming one with the music is effortless. Brock Butler of Perpetual Groove got the day going with a beautiful set of his patented acoustic style. My good friend Josh Phillips and his band, Folk Festival, played a set on the Amphitheater Stage that had the crowd smiling, swaying, and laughing at his words and crying from bursts of happiness and sadness floating around in the soup of our collective memory. A grassroots troubadour, Phillips has grown much as a musician in recent years, and seeing him smiling with his guitar and his scruffy beard is always a sight and sound that spawns happiness. I had some lunch and checkedout guitar great Brian Stoltz on the Porch Stage.

p1016388-copy.jpgFeaturing Kilmo, owner of Fort Lauderdale’s premier funk-and-crawfish bar on bass, Stoltz tore up originals and some tunes from the PBS (Porter Batiste Stoltz) catalog. He broke out a white Stratocaster and treated us to a catwalk solo that left me grinning for an hour. Bear Creek favorite and amazing one-man-band, Zach Deputy, drew a huge crowd, but I only caught a fleeting glimpse as I walked past the gathering, destination Matt Grondin.

Originally from Jacksonville, Grondin has relocated to New Orleans recently and released an amazing debut album, The Ra Source. I was interested to see what players he brought to the table and was very pleased. The core of his band consisted of all the members of Snarky Puppy, with Jans Ingber of the Motet on percussion. After an excellent cameo by Kofi Burbridge, Jen Hartswick took the stage and played a little trumpet for us.

After a short walk back to the Porch Stage, my ears were met with the blissful sounds of George Porter Jr. and the Runnin Pardners. One of the forefathers of funk, Porter and his prodigious young drummer Terrence Houston provided the backbone for wailing solos by Khris Royal, saxophonist and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) expert. The EWI is hard to explain, but can be compared to a guitar played through MIDI pedals, creating sounds of various instruments.

Next up was perhaps the most alluring set of the weekend – Lettuce’s tribute to the careers of the legendary James Brown Horns: Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Pee-Wee Ellis. The unique thing about this particular tribute set is that it featured the dignitaries themselves and it lived up to its billing and hype in its entirety. It soon became a full-on James Brown throw down, with the JBs backed up by Skerik and the Shady Horns while Nigel Hall held down vocal duties. Nothing of its caliber has happened in a long time, and I am confident that this set will remain a bright spot in many music fans’ memories for a long time to come.

p1016729-copy.jpgWe, members of the Nick Daniels Fan Club, were in for a treat as the man had two shows to play to finish out the festival. Dr. Klaw, featuring Daniels, Eric Krasno, Adam Deitch, Ian Neville and Nigel Hall, is a band that you will only find at JazzFest in New Orleans and at Bear Creek in conservative Suwannee County. With thick and soupy funk flows under wailing vocals by Daniels and Hall coupled with guitar interplay between Neville and Krasno kept the ears attentive. Feeling lucky to see such a tight band, I prepared for the closing set by Ivan Neville’s Dumstaphunk.

Just when it seemed that my system couldn’t handle any more funk, the boys from New Orleans upped the capacity. The energy level was incredible for a Sunday night, but when it’s Bear Creek, that has come to be expected. My bruised feet pounded the ground, and I realized I could dance with gusto, but when I tried to walk, every joint in my body below the shoulders ached and couldn’t achieve full range of motion. The possibility of physical and mental collapse was very real. No sympathy for the Devil, keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

After a late night all-star jam session and a raging bonfire at the Treehouse Lounge, I caught a couple hours of shuteye. Camping in the shade of the foliage enables later sleeping, and many of my more motivated friends were already gone when I awoke. Our little village was slowly melting away, familiar faces gone until the next event.

Completely mortified by the idea of driving a motor vehicle, I began the always daunting task of breaking down camp. My motor skills were dampened enough to miss my face when scratching my bristly cheek;using turn signals and the thought of the scenery actually moving backward in the rear view was totally overwhelming. So I took my time packing, letting the day draw me back into some semblance of equilibrium.

As I cleaned out my tent, littered with purple feathers, acorns, dismantled costumes, and half-full water bottles, I looked back over the last four days and wondered how I could begin to describe Bear Creek 2010.

It was not a hippie music festival by most measures. In fact, there wasn’t a lick of Grateful Dead all weekend.

But there were hippies.

Not a rock festival, although I saw a lot of leather.

Not necessarily a funk festival, even though some of the most epic funk jams in history took place at Suwannee this year.

It was a pure music festival. Or, as Paul and Lyle so eloquently put it in the official program: Bear Creek is a dance music festival. I will go so far as to say that it was the best I have ever attended. We win! Let the countdown begin for Bear Creek 2011.

CLICK THE THUMBNAIL TO VIEW  David Shehi’s SHOTS FROM THE Fest!

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