Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Zach Mahone & Kenny Dolan
Bear Creek Music & Art Festival :: 11.13.08 – 11.16.08 :: The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
Two lasting impressions upon returning from the second annual Bear Creek Music & Art Festival:
1. Florida is quite a purple place.
2. Dumpstaphunk might be the most badass band on the planet.
The latter observation requires little explanation to those that have seen Ivan Neville and the boys in recent months. Fueled by the double-bass thump of Nick Daniels and Tony Hall, Dumpstaphunk performed two stellar shows, including a headlining set Saturday night marked by a slew of special guests.
|Bear Creek 2008 - The Spirit of the Suwannee by Mahone|
The notion of Florida as purple is in part an extension of the political punditry's desire to cast the country in either a red or blue hue. A peninsula where the Deep South drifts down to more progressive latitudes, Florida is one of the key reasons Barack Obama won the presidential election, a seismic shift in the social-political landscape that was celebrated by just about every artist performing at Bear Creek.
In just its second year Bear Creek has made a nice home for itself on the sacred ground of The Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park, a special place where the land and music are one. Suwannee is just about the most idyllic setting for a festival - dreamy, mythical and distinctly Florida with its oaks, Spanish moss and blackwater lake and river.
Purple also emerged as the official color of Bear Creek through what would become the defining symbol of the fest – fuzzy purple hats – worn by fans and bands alike as a tribute to the late Rachel Hoffman (read about her here), a beloved member of the Bear Creek family. The purple hat in a sense defined the second Bear Creek. Its family-reunion vibe and community-minded spirit complemented a stellar roster of diverse, yet like-minded, musicians and marked this relative newcomer as a don't-miss on the festival circuit.
Thursday 11.13.08/Friday 11.14.08
Early arrivals on Thursday evening were treated to a smaller-scale lineup that included sets by Athens, Georgia-based reggae band Dubconscious, veteran groovers The Motet in collaboration with Kyle Hollingsworth (String Cheese Incident) and a late set by Perpetual Groove.
|Jon Fishman - Everyone Orchestra by Dolan|
Starting on Friday, music was nearly constant at Bear Creek, with the big names holding court under the oaks at the Purple Hat Amphitheater (complete with hammocks for lounging in the back), with other acts at the Big IV, Sweetwater, SOS Music Hall and Campground stages. The coordination of set times and stage location is to be highly commended, as fans had to walk mere steps to never miss a beat. Bands performed on the bigger stages from before noon until well past midnight. Smaller acts improvised stages scattered about the campsites for late night jams that provided the opportunity to discover talented up-and-comers such as the sublimely funky Green Hit or to endure meandering noodling that is the stuff of Les Claypool's Festeroo satire.
At the amphitheater Friday night, Dumpstaphunk played a solid set amidst scattered, warm rain. Ivan Neville sported a shirt with an old-school Tipitina's poster from a show by the band's actual and musical forefathers, The Meters. It's easy to miss in the rhythmic onslaught of this band, but this set showed guitarist Ian Neville stepping out more and more to take a few searing solos, evident in the middle of "Deeper," followed by the Parliament-esque "UFO" and the closing "FEMA."
The Everyone Orchestra followed. This incarnation of the ever-shifting band, which thrives on improvisation and crowd-band interaction, featured String Cheese's Michael Kang and Phish's Jon Fishman. Behind the histrionic theatrics of conductor Matt Butler, firing up the audience with call and response, this huge band truly achieved an orchestra-scope sound. An extended "Obama... Obama... Yes We Can" vocal harmony layered over a jazzy jam was a clear highlight.
Over on the Big IV Stage, Perpetual Groove capped a great set with a cover of Fat Boy Slim's "Praise You," a tune frequently used in their shows that the band absolutely owns. Dubconscious closed out the Purple Hat Amphitheater wearing all purple hats with many a heartfelt shout-outs to Rachel Hoffman. The band has grown by leaps and bounds in the past couple of years, adding a bit of pop and trance to their organic grooves. The band still oozes from an authentic, spiritual core, with refrains of "hallelujah" and humble-before-Jah aspirations that capture a pure reggae essence.
Saturday featured so much music it became necessary to choose whom and what to see. The aforementioned sit-ins were a great part of this year's Bear Creek. Artists-At-Large Skerik and Kofi Burbridge were everywhere, and by Saturday morning rumors of Florida boy Derek Trucks' presence at the festival were confirmed. As the rain subsided and a cold sun appeared, this turned into a great day and night of music.
|Bear Creek 2008 by Mahone|
With the Campground Stage's scenic backdrop of a cypress-lined lake, Corporal Boil kicked things off with a fun set of reggae-and-trance-infused Southern rock with catchy tunes such as "Pickled Pigs Feet."
At the Purple Hat Amphitheater, Jim Weider, with roots dating back to The Band, delivered a masterful set of blues-based rock with his ProJECT PERCoLAToR, where his fiery, frenetic guitar work came across like a muscular version of Steve Kimock. With talk of a new album "hopefully" coming out in January, Weider closed an all-instrumental set with "The Weight."
Dr. Claw performed its first-ever show outside of New Orleans on the Big IV Stage, delivering "Ain't No Funk Like Louisiana Funk" in a way that can only come when the likes of Eric Krasno, Big Sam and Nick Daniels share the stage. With all the overt, and at times overbearing, pro-Obama stage banter, perhaps the most genuine encapsulation of the excitement surrounding our new president came with Dr. Claw's closing cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," with the crowd erupting as Daniels sang, "America, keep on changing."
Tim Reynolds' TR3 followed at Purple Hat, a fine showing by this guitar great with a mix of originals and great covers such as James Brown's "Sex Machine" and Neil Young's "Ohio." The Robert Walter Trio, riding high with the inclusion of the avant jazz bass work of James Singleton (Astral Project) and the recent release Cure All, performed a silky smooth set of jazz and funk that showed Walter, a California transplant now in living in New Orleans for several years, is thriving in his new hometown.
|Dr. Claw by Mahone|
With a decade of relentless touring under their belt, Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band has earned a devoted following in Florida. Their outstanding, infectious show Saturday evening proved why. Jeff Austin spun a story about his last venture to the Suwannee, when some mushrooms convinced him his ass was on fire (fortunately it was fire ants not actual flames). This talk was one of the few breaks in a near-flawless, high-energy performance that presented plenty of new material certain to light a fire in their winter "Cabin Fever Tour," alongside a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and classics such as "Dawn's Early Light," "Steep Grade, Sharp Turns" and "Forty Miles from Denver."
Writing about Dumpstaphunk's Saturday set is one of those "dancing about architecture moments" - much appreciated but inexplicable. By the time Tony Hall, shortly after extending their set past the closing time by stating "Call the cops, we don't care," snarled, "You can smell it" at the close and you knew your ass had just been thrown in the dumpster. The band was on fire from the get-go. Ivan leading the charge, Ian again stepping into shattering solos and the Daniels-Hall bass tandem laying down serious grooves. A number of guests took the stage, including Big Sam, Skerik, Sam Kininger and Brian Jordan. Several dozen girls danced about the stage during the Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" (a throwback to Daniels' work with the Stones), a song Krasno just killed on guitar.
Next, Derek Trucks took the stage with Ivan's introduction of him as a manager of a manicure/pedicure parlor with a degree in cosmetology. Trucks' incredible tone set the mark for a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," followed by Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning (Got Yourself a Gun)" of Sopranos fame. The closing cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" was so damn good, so damn funky, that it bordered on sensory overload.
|Dumpstaphunk by Mahone|
For the encore, Dumpstaphunk brought out another legendary recent New Orleans transplant that has reinvented himself with a move to the Crescent City - Papa Mali. They nailed a thrilling "New Orleans," a twist on The Meters' classic "Africa" that, post-Katrina, chants "New Orleans" instead of "Africa," "gumboland" instead of "motherland."
Soulive's late set at Big IV was packed with an abundance of riches and all the guests, including trumpeter Rashawn Ross. A truly wonderful way to close down a stellar Saturday.
Tampa's Buffalo Strange ushered in a sunny, chilly Sunday on the Campground Stage with groovy, ska-tinged songs about dancing in the sweet Florida sunshine. Their set, which saw them move expertly from heavy dub to ragtime piano rolls with a closing cover of "Little Red Rooster," was dedicated to their former manager, the late Ted Freed, part of the Bear Creek family that the festival recognized in tribute.
|Zach Deputy by Dolan|
At the Purple Hat, the Donna Hopkins Band laid down some strong, soulful blues capped off with the closing "I'll Fly Away." John Brown's Body moved the Big IV stage with stirring reggae and Georgia-based rockers Tishamingo powered through their set of gritty, blues-based Southern rock.
Florida homeboys JJ Grey & MOFRO closed out the Purple Hat with their trademark soul and groove. Singing evocative and intimate lyrics that often connect to the land and people he loves, Grey, who spoke eloquently of the family-reunion feel to Bear Creek, switched between guitar and keys as he led the band through a mix of old and new from their rapidly expanding catalogue. They opened with "Life in a Country Ghetto" before returning to their early days with "Lazy Fo Acre," "Air" and "Jookhouse" off their first album, Blackwater. The band invited a number of guests out to close their set with a rousing cover of Muddy Waters' "I Got My Mojo Working."
Bear Creek has now established itself as a special festival at a special place. This is due to the organizers solid execution of logistics that make for a great fan experience. But, the magic lies in the park itself and the spirit of the incredible artists that come to perform and create a festival with attendees in a place that truly is, like the park's slogan states, "where the music lives."
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