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The Bear Creek Music And Art Festival: An Inside View

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Please forgive this interruption of your regularly scheduled review of the Bear Creek Music and Art Festival.  Okay, actually it’s kinda late, but there’s a pretty good reason for this piece’s tardiness.  Hello everyone, my name is Rex Thomson, and I am one of the editors and photographer-reviewers here at Honest Tune.  I’d like to take a moment to step outside of the general journalistic style of reporting done here on this site, and talk to you all in a plain, honest voice.   It’s been my pleasure and honor to be associated with this site for four years, working with some of the finest people I have ever met, such as founder Tom Speed and former editor David Shehi, and seeing how working together, we can create something far beyond our own individual achievements.  As I have spent the last few years travelling the country, seeing and shooting concerts, sharing the words and images I have seen along the way.

 

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A funny thing happened to me on the way home from Bear Creek…I took ill and almost died.  But the funniest part of the whole thing was  that, I knew, if I was to pass it was to be fine, as I had just had the most enjoyable time of my entire life.  It’s easy to understand if these words sound strange, and I am grateful to be here to tell you the reasons behind my statement.  Since my first year of covering musical events, I have been in love with this festival, the place it’s held, the people behind, on and dancing in front of the stages and above all else, the funky music that runs through it like a heartbeat.

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Before I go any farther, let me make sure to note the amazing array of music at this festival, and the common theme behind each band chosen to grace the stages of The Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park.   At it’s core, Bear Creek has always been about music to get people up on their feet and grooving, relying heavily on funk and music with a dance heavy beat.  Topping the bill this year was one of the most accomplished and well known hip hop acts in the world, the house band for the Jimmy Fallon Show, the Legendary Roots.  Living up to their hype, they filled the amphitheater with raw energy, leading the crowd through a tight  progression of their tunes and classic covers, hands waving and bodies moving.  Earlier that day, true Funk legend and pioneer Bootsy Collins, bassist for the mighty Parliment-Funkadelic mob took the stage in full spacecateer regalia, his backing band looking like the coolest NASA team ever.  Laying down PFunk songs that are hardwired into the very fabric of the worlds musical soul, Bootsy’s smile and incredible popping and snapping bass playing resonated through the crowd like a giant tuning fork, aligning everyone on the same astral plane of groove.  Afro-soul masters Antibalas combined the pulsing rhythms of the dark continent with the funk and soul rhythms of American culture and created a thick, full sound that would have brought a smile to the face of world music pioneer Fela Kuti and James Brown alike.

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The rest of the bill featured returning favorites and rising stars on the festivals four stages.  Perennial favorites like Dumpstaphunk, Lettuce and The New Mastersounds showed why they are mainstays, with guest laden sets and funky performances that the attendees have come to rely on, with the weekend closing Dumpsta-Lettuce super-jam being a true highlight of the weekend.  Galactic and Karl Denson played multiple sets, with Denson being joined by Zach Deputy for a stunning tribute to the music of Ray Charles, and Galactic being joined by special guest vocalists Maggie Koerner and David Shaw of the Revivalists, who also rocked the fest.  One of the helpful things about the scheduling of the music at Bear Creek is the proliferation of two set acts, giving you multiple opportunities to catch your favorite acts and up and comers like the rising stars Space Capone and the Nth Power.  The pure chaos of the Mike Dillon Band held down one end of the spectrum, while soul legend Lee Fields smooth delivery and smooth style sat squarely at the opposite end of the dial, both bands making themselves a part of the whole experience.

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In an effort to make each festival unique, Bear Creek has an extensive artist-at-large program that brings in a stellar array of players who roam the stages, making for one time only versions that make each set unique.  Watching songs that are beloved by the crowd transcend into ground breaking territory is a rare opportunity to see the collaborative process in action, with the joy on the players faces as the chart new territory plain to see.   On the last day of the fest the artists participating join together to form the “Orchestra At Large” a special set led by one of their number, this year under the crazed leadership of North-Western saxophone wielding madman Skerik.  Obviously taking his duties deadly serious, Skerik led funk hero George Porter Jr. and an epic horn section featuring the deadly divas Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman on a musical journey that ended up being my favorite set of the weekend.  Year in and year out, the bands that play this festival bring their “A” game, inspiring the audience and each other to new heights and making this the perfect way to close out the year’s outdoor festival season.  But the festival doesn’t just happen….the planning involved to make this the party of the year never stops, and the people behind the curtain are already working to make next years show bigger and better.

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The Bear Creek brain trust of Paul Levine and Lyle Williams have dedicated themselves to making this their signature event, the essence of their musical passions made manifest.  While the two have ties to many other events here in the park and across the country, Bear Creek is purely theirs, and their pride in this accomplishment shows in every aspect of the production.  I arrived at my first BC in 2009 a day early, hoping to set up camp and soak up some Florida sunshine.  I showed up in the dark of night and ran into a tired looking man wandering the park.  I asked him for if he could help me find a place to set up camp and he said he would show me a good spot as soon as he finished attending a last production meeting.  I fancy myself something of a quasi journalist, and asked him if he would mind if I sat in on the meeting.  He bemusedly agreed and led me to the Spirit of Suwannee music hall, guiding me  to a table.  To my shock, he then stood up and began leading the meeting!  I had unknowingly asked the manager of the festival to help sneak me in a day early!  Chagrined at my blunder I was struck by the ease and familiarity that permeated his speech to the troops, his affection for his team and trust in their skills beyond evident.  Throughout that weekend he stopped whenever he saw me, checking to make sure I was having a good time.

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On the last night I found a golf cart sitting behind the stage that was hosting the last set of the night, and sat down to rest my aching feet for a moment.   As I deleted bad shots from my camera a bearded man approached me and quizzed me about how I was enjoying the festival.  He reached past me into the cart and pulled a beverage from the cup holder.  I realized it was his cart I had commandeered, and started gathering my gear and apologizing for appropriating his ride.  He laughed and told me to stay put, saying he had seen me dancing and working all weekend, and to rest up for the last push, before wandering back to the party.  When I finally got up and headed in the direction of the stage I looked back and saw the sign on the front of the cart that said “Lyle Williams: Promoter.”  I had inadvertently managed to introduce myself to the two men who had made the festival the smashing success it was in the most rude of ways possible, and both of them had shown a level of tolerance and good cheer that I would never have thought possible.  From that moment on, the Bear Creek music festival gained a place in my heart like no other, the finest example of how much the soul of the promoters could shape the final effect of an event.  Simply put, sharing their visions these two men have built something beyond anything either of them could have anticipated or even hoped for.

 

The staff for the majority of the many, many festivals held in the Spirit Of The Suwannee Music park is the same, month in and month out.  A family bond has developed among them, and I feel fortunate to have been accepted as part of their numbers, a piece of the puzzle.  From the men and women who build the stages, sound and light engineers who bring the music to life, the logistical people running generators and fixing any issues that pop up in seconds flat to the caterers and hospitality staff who keep the artists and workers well fed and taken care of, I have yet to encounter a more wonderful group of people.  Festivals are a logistical nightmare, and these folks pull together and work tirelessly, with the best mark of their success being that their efforts go unseen.  Production manager for a majority of these events, and dozens more across the country, Michael A., lives in the shadows, spending the months leading up to the shows making sure everything goes off without a hitch, even when his own life is filled with tragedy.

 

The opening night of the festival, Wednesday, was dedicated to Michael A, who suffered the tragic loss of his wife recently.  Left with medical expenses and children mourning the loss of their mother, Michael did not let that deter him from his commitment to his work, and his extended festival family sprung into action.  For the last three festivals of the year, The Magnolia Festival, The String Cheese Incident’s Hulaween and Bear Creek the pre-party early arrival shows at Suwannee were designated fundraisers, with the proceeds going to a fund established to help his family overcome the financial hardships they face.   Seeing everyone pull together was inspiring, and watching Michael’s reaction to the whole thing was heart warming.  I’m leaving his full name out of this as a recognition of his humble nature, but I know from talking to the man that he’s felt the outpouring of love from the festival goers, staff and bands who volunteered their efforts, and was grateful beyond words.

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As in any large family, there are always tragedies and triumphs occurring, and it was my privilege to be part of a joyous and honestly rather wacky event at Bear Creek as well.  Jeff and Michelle are production folks who met and fell in love working the many events at the park together.  Earlier this year they were married in Asheville, North Carolina, an event that was made an official Bear Creek pre-party with a special performance by the aforementioned Space Capone and the Applebutter Express.   I volunteered my services to the couple as wedding videographer, and many of the Suwanne regular crew attended the nuptuals.  But, as so many of the festival workers live so far from the event, a lot of their extended family could not make the ceremony.  In an effort to build the love I suggested we recreate the wedding at Bear Creek itself, and the idea snowballed into a full blown, psychedelic late night affair, with “Big E, The Sexual Manatee” himself remarrying the couple in front of hundreds of well wishers at a special 3:30 a.m.  It was as bizarre a thing as I have been involved in, and as much fun as could be imagined as people drew together to honor the love and joining together of two of our own.

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Making the weekend even more special for me was a personal achievement, a drawing I did winning the festival’s poster contest.  The online voting for the contest was fierce, but somehow my design, incorporating the trademarks sunglasses of Bootsy Collins with ?uestlove of The Roots massive afro on a cosmic bear made of stars won!   As proud as I was for my black and white poster being chosen, I was even happier to get the chance to once again learn the value of family, as the promoters asked if I would mind if a friend of the festival, graphic artist Kristy O’Conner, took a crack at bringing color into the piece.  Kristy then brought my image alive, making it an explosion of color that illustrated the beauty of collaboration, and what we can achieve by working together.  Signing the posters, and seeing the image transferred to T-Shirts, hoodies and even ladies undergarments was a surreal experience that made the weekend memorable beyond words.

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The sense of family isn’t limited to the behind the scenes areas.  Large group camps comprised of friends and families have built up over the years, with group names like the “Magfest Mafia,” “The “Home Team” and the group that adopted me, “Camp Funkenjam.”  Funkenjam is a confederation of a hundred or so friends from across the nation who reserve and gather in the same spot for every festival at Suwanne, though Bear Creek is always it’s strongest showing.  The park has numerous camp sites with electricity and water, and the ingenuity of my friends has resulted in a gas powered always piping hot shower, complete with disco ball and lights, a full group kitchen and a massive nightly fire to help stave of the cold November weather.  After the last official music ends for the night, people gather round the fire, with acoustic guitars and drums providing the back drop for sing-a-longs and laughter that runs til the dawn.  I’ve been fortunate enough to become considered not only Funkenjam’s photographer, but to work for the festival itself.  My duties include shooting the bands, but also wandering the grounds, capturing the people who make the festival so special, the fans themselves.  I’ve even developed a bit of a specialty, whipping segments of the crowd into a frenzy and then getting them to pose for epic group shots, my lil way of not just preserving a moment, but amplifying it to silly extremes.

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As you can see, Bear Creek means the world to me.  It’s the last major camping festival of the year, featuring my favorite music, staffed and attended by some of my favorite people in the world, in one of the most picturesque places I can imagine seeing live music.  Not being able to sit and write this review in a timely manner saddened me, but I realized that it actually provided me with this chance to slip out of the journalistic voice, dust off my personal pronouns and try and give readers a perspective on the event they would not normally see.  As I lay sick in the hospital, the outpouring of love and support I received from this extended family I’ve been telling you about was inspiring beyond words, and I am more convinced than ever in the healing power of love.  In that spirit I asked for, and have been granted permission to produce a second run of posters that will be available, with all the proceeds going to the Michael A. fund.  The chance to give back, to help my new found family is a special thing to me, and something I wish the world could share.  Though we are all individuals, separate in body, we can join our hearts and our bodies together, uniting for a common purpose.  Together we can accomplish things that none of us could ever approach alone.  It’s a lesson as old as time, but one that needs to be repeated and experienced as often as possible.  Share the world, share the love and there’s nothing we can’t do!

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