With tired eyes and frostbitten hands, we’re slowly returning to the real world after four days of instrumental bliss at Bear Creek Music Festival in Live Oak, Florida last weekend.
We ventured into the serene and picturesque woods of the Spirit of Suwanee Music Park, watching the untouched earth quickly transform into a temporary living space for funk-lovers and acoustic-enthusiasts alike. Campers set up shop around the lake, hammering down tents and gathering firewood for the frigid nights to come. But despite the dipping temperatures, we knew the music would keep us warm at night with headliners like Umphrey's McGee and Lettuce serenading our souls and lifting our spirits.
Bear Creek intertwines all that is great about instrumental music - weaving together more than 50 groove bands, rock groups and jam ensembles across six spacious stages. With such a massive gathering of performers, it was impossible to catch every act - but the festival is modeled after the New Orleans Jazz Festival’s open format where attendees learned to skip from stage to stage, fawning over their favorites and investigating novice talents. Even the artists understood the festival’s scattered structure, like Zach Deputy who we found strumming and humming away at a random campsite late Saturday night.
Sleep was for the weak, especially with the Silent Disco raging all night long. The enclosed dance-party invited creatures of the night to sport wireless headphones and groove quietly until sunrise. In the mornings we ventured to the strip of vendors selling everything from vegan coffee to meditation stones, offering keepsakes that promised to help us remember our Bear Creek adventures.
There’s something special about the concert experience that you just don’t get from listening to pre-recorded mixes. By nature, the jam-band genre is destined for live performance greatness as musicians and vocalists feed off of each other’s impromptu creative decisions. Bear Creek recognizes this extraordinary meeting-of-the-minds, and each year ups the ante with its “Artists At Large” concept in which a handful of performers are chosen to serve as resident artists, special guesting during various sets throughout the weekend. This year’s “Artists At Large” included Eddie Roberts, Billy Martin, George Porter Jr., Alecia Chakour, Robert Walter, Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman (of Trey Anastasio Band), all of whom made for an abundance of wonderfully rare musical collisions.
Of all the music festivals I’ve attended, and I’ve seen my fair share of them, Bear Creek was the first one where every single person seemed genuinely high-spirited and grateful to be there. And the performers shared our good vibe attitudes; many of them proclaiming their joy that, after waiting all year, Bear Creek had finally arrived. So hats off to Bear Creek producer Paul Levine and the entire Big IV Productions team for a fantastic and hassle-free experience. From the cheery beer stand workers and Grilled Cheese Wagon master-chefs, to the talented artist vendors and respectful wrist-band checkers, the festival employed the best of the best to provide a truly unforgettable weekend. Here are my Bear Creek 2012 highlights:
The Band We Wished Would Play Forever - Umphrey’s McGee
Jamming out for an impressive total of five and a half hours throughout the weekend, Umphrey’s McGee was easily the pinnacle of my festival experience. Known for their big sounds and even bigger production, the American progressive rock band wowed us with their hard-hitting percussion peaks and psychedelic light sequences. The natural chemistry between band’s six members shined brightly as the performers effortlessly transitioned between rock ballads like “Conduit” and funky favorites like “Push the Pig.” The venerable musicians showed off their instrumental mastery and proved once again why Umphrey’s McGee is an untouchable and irreplaceable breed of sound.
The Fabulous Funk Fusion - Soulive
The Purple Hat Stage exploded with a vivacious burst of life Saturday night when Soulive emerged for their show. The soul-jazz organ trio trekked all the way from Woodstock to give us a whimsical set of instrumental solos and upbeat jams. As the sun started to set in the distance, Soulive serenaded us with funky jazz classics that touted the talents of all three musicians. The crowd roared in approval when the trio began playing songs from its 2010 Rubber Soulive Beatles album, inviting us to hum along with soul favorites like “All The Lonely People.”
The Classic Jam-session - The New Mastersounds
Not to be deterred by their early evening time-slots, The New Mastersounds laid down the funkiest of tunes on both Saturday and Sunday while the crowd moved and grooved in uncontrollable pleasure. The England-based funk quartet was periodically joined on stage by artists like Zach Deputy, Marco Benevento, Michelle Sarah, Robert Walter, Johnny V and Roosevelt Collier and more for the ultimate funkadelic jam session. The band’s boogaloo medley revealed each of the artists as impeccable improvisors and funk virtuosos who strummed and slammed their set away.
The Undiscovered Talent - Shoes and Laces
Tallahassee-based funk group Shoes and Laces stole the show Friday night when they took the stage as the first band to ever perform through the Silent Disco format. With the instruments split in half between two different headphone channels, listeners enjoyed the 5-piece band’s healthy eclecticism of funk, jazz, rock and psychedelic jam. Vocalist/guitarist Zack Stevens kept the mood light and airy with his bouncy lyrics while vocalist/keyboardist Ben Attias peppered the songs with his wacky, impromptu talking.
The Electronic Craving - RUBY
A refreshing breath of technology after a weekend dominated by instruments, RUBY’s late night Silent Disco set kept attendees raging until the sun peeked its head over the horizon. As 5 a.m. approached we donned wireless headphones and chain-smoked cigarettes while the Gainesville-based DJ impressed us with an assortment of glitch-hop, trip-hop and dub. Blending Pretty Lights grooves with electronic remixes of classics like “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers, RUBY energized the crowd with his cross-genre musical offerings.