Bear Creek Music & Art Festival :: 11.10.11-11.13.11 :: Spirit of Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
Bear Creek Music & Art Festival 2011 once again set a gold-standard, the quintessential music event every autumn. The experience focused on the essence of collaboration through the vessels of groove music, whilst widening the lanes for the cutting edge and avant-garde. One could not seize upon all the phenomenal music being offered, and this report is a small sampling of the festival’s platter. Big IV Productions Paul Levine and Lyle Williams, the festival’s curators, take their cues from New Orleans Jazz Fest, where folks run from one stage to the next, missing a favorite to take a chance on a new quantity, or soaking in a full set at the expense of losing three others. Artists- at-Large roamed the grounds, plying their trade in continuous displays of unadulterated improvisation.
Cozy sunshine by day, arctic chill after dark, the always luxurious confines of the Spirit of The Suwannee Music Parkserved as an enchanting host. Rolling Spanish moss, wrapping picturesque tree lined heights, unsullied nature provoking a romantic dalliance with the soul. The fantastic staff labored like none other, and they are a downright pleasant crew. And the mighty assembly of musicians looks forward to Bear Creek above all other happenings each year, counting the days until they get down by the river again.
The first day of the festival saw The Pimps of Joytime’s pomp and flair turn the Music Hall into a Superfly set, with singer-guitarist Brian J taking the room into the palm of his hand like a true frontman. Juno What? converted a room full of disbelief with electro-improv dynamics. Zongo Junction beckoned a new dawn for Afrobeat born on American soil. Beats Antique was a diverse departure; their resilient and obscure approach to modern dance music a welcome respite from the prevailing funk. Karl Denson’s scene stealing flute-down during the Beats’ Friday set was keenly apposite.
Dr. Lonnie Smith’s byzantine jazz lesson offered hard-hop for the lifted and layman – the purest jazz on the river all weekend, pure authenticity on display. Special props to drummer Jamal Williams, who provided the first (of many) “Holy Sh*t!” moments of the fest. This cat is serious on the kit. Smith’s trio worked up furious speed-jazz, bursting into tranquility in a bed of B3s and hollow-body.
George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners got things NOLA-rolling after a burning set from The Coup. Porter was EVERYWHERE at Bear Creek, sitting in with over a dozen artists over the weekend. He somehow managed to funkify the lives of every person on site, joining over a dozen different artists who feted him like royalty. During the Pardners’ sets, sax maven Khrys Royal stole the show, adding futuristic crunk elements to the timeless Meters-soaked set.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe rose to the occasion with their boiling Thursday night performance, serving notice that new guitarist DJ Williams is ready for the bright lights. Unveiling new songs from the forthcoming KDTU record steeped in scorching tradition, KDTU was brought their considerable mojo to the marquee. Drummer John Staten durably pushed, keyboardist David Veith acted as glue, washing organs and slipping Rhodes into passageways. Artist-at-Large/Greyboy Allstars keyboardist Robert Walter added Hammond B3 to a sweltering “Satisfied” that evolved into Middle Eastern-infused Brit-garage beat science. Burlesque sensation Lady Gingerlicious sashayed to a spiraling “Dance Lesson #2”as Joey Porter pranced the Hammond B3. Denson himself, after a particularly dope flute workout augmented by Chris Littlefield’s lively trumpet, jumped on keys for a jam ala James Brown. The set’s more heated exchanges were let loose during a still-sensual “Fallin’ (the BBQ Song)” as the dancing in the audience stoked the Universe flame to erotic proportions. There were tasty soundclashes between dub-reggae and progressive rock, and a reworking of the Cold War Kids “Hang Me Out To Dry”. The encore, a Williams-penned monster titled “No Ammo”, the new axeman slew the Creek with Eddie Hazel-like might as the band stomped and stutter-stepped in reborn style.
Anders Osborne (with guitarist Billy Iuso in tow) welcomed NOLA (and George Porter Jr.) to the stage for a sweltering dose of denim-charred rock’ n’ blues, which included a summons to the Grateful generation with a “Sugaree” full of of Garcia’s universal undertones. Later, a weighty “Cortez the Killer” captivated the teeming amphitheatre. Anders channeled his adopted hometown for 90 minutes, rocking harder and heavier than most afternoon performers. Unfortunately, Osborne took sick later that day and was unable to perform for the remainder of the festival; Roosevelt Collier capably saved the day for KDTU’s Sticky Fingers set later on Friday.
Skerik’s skronkaphonics were a promiscuous presence all weekend. Freekbass and Skerik in the Silent Disco dished out diverse insanity and disturbed cacophony mid-afternoon. Later, it was a jumpsuit apparatus and padded walls when Garage a Troistook the Purple Hat Stage. As nightfall arrived, Marco Benevento, Mike Dillon, Stanton Moore, and Scary Eric continued their descent into maniacal madness. Dark Magus gone Clash with drunk-era Beastie Boys mixed in the gumbo was the flavor during GAT’s set, which warbled a tweaked and twisted tone with a demonic Skerik and Benevento at the helm. There he was, fifteen hours in, summoning dawn alongside partner in psychosis Mike Dillon (himself crowd surfing shirtless in a punk-in-drublic moment), with Hairy Apes BMX. Sitting in with Marco Benevento, Lettuce, The Trio, Dumpsta, Orchestra at Large, and many more, Skerik was the ultimate Artist-at-Large, bringing his inimitable personality to every situation, and leaving an indelible imprint in your skull.
Returning with new vocalist Niki Crawford, Los Angeles’ Orgone’s thrilling performance was dirty elegance, easily one of the weekend’s best. Guitarist Sergio Rios and his gang dropped “Cosmic Slop” and “Aint No Use” with perfection, with their own material being faithful reinventions of War and Mandrill blaxploitation sounds, altogether a spellbinding tour de funk that pulsated with eroticism. The band’s entire presentation was top tier, the band a sundry and distinct collective whose sum proved greater than their parts. At a festival dripping with the chunkiest, dirtiest funk, Orgone reeked of authenticity and flair; the restrained dynamics and orgasmic peaks were servings of unadulterated swagger – crème de la crème. Without a doubt, a band to keep a close watch on as their future is dazzling.
Medeski Martin & Wood celebrated their 20th Anniversary with panache. Friday the trio incorporated Johnny Vidacovich and percussion pupil Stanton Moore, injecting Crescent City shuffle into their Manhattan mojo. The gooey “Uninvisible” explored the roots of groove, and Artist-at- Large Pee Wee Ellis fortified the funk ‘n’ jam on “Where’s the Music” and “Think”. The frigid air reminded one of Manhattan as a palpable sense of fear infected the heavily imbibed massive, and MMW crafted an appropriate soundtrack for the surrounds.
The subculture of music art is alive and well, a range of exhibitions in full flourish all weekend. Installations and adornment sprung up throughout the Park, and crews of painters, artists, clothiers, jewelers and more created a veritable bazaar. It felt like it should feel, i.e. people creating wares and bringing them to the family gathering for a free exchange of creativity. The vast and luminous attendance of art is a firm branch on the trunk of this festival’s tree of life, and Bear Creek holds fast to it. A seamless mélange of New Orleans funk, jazzy rare groove, live hip-hop, and brazen bounce music, Galacticfurther cemented their legend with a ruckus. The original five braved glacial temperatures with a bundle of co-conspirators. Ben Ellman’s nephew Lucas Ellman blew sax in the family tradition, while Corey Henry’s “Bone Battle” with Jonathan Lloyd was riveting. Living Colour’s Corey Glover got the Led out during “Kashmir,” Boots Riley felt the vibes and served Chali 2na a few cold ones as they traded verses over Stanton Moore’s brute beats, culminating in a flamboyant spit-sesh on “From the Corner to the Block.” The boys celebrated the birthday of baby-faced bassist Robert “Bobby Mac” Mercurio with jubilant NOLA flair.
The annual Eric Krasno & Chapter 2 barnburner at Uncle Charlie’s Porch Stage was its usual scrupulous self. With able subsidy from Nigel Hall, Adam Deitch, Louis Cato, and a procession of other ragers, The Royal Family was officially in the building. A guitar gambol through “Get Back” got the loudest response, yet the Deitch/Hall/Cato piloted fusion funk was full of hard-driving breakdowns. Broadcasting unremitting soulful salutations – the aural equivalent to DJ Premeir’s record crate on a random Tuesday – these hip-hop junkies excelled at snappin’ necks.
The First Family of Bear Creek, Royal Family absolutely runs shit every year. 2011 saw DR. KLAW, Lettuce, Chapter 2, Soulive, and a pile of sit-ins from the Shady Horns sound the shofar, letting funkateers know exactly what time it was at any given hour. It’s the closest thing in La Cosa Nostra to an authentic hip-hop crew, each member bringing a certain steez to the equation, and the whole vibe soaked in wet, beat-mining mathematics.
Greenhouse Lounge engulfed the Purple Hat Stage mid-afternoon, and the North Florida trio was supported en masse. GHL jammed Aphrodite and Michael Jackson through a blender to maximum effect, their searing set a touching swan song for drummer Jason Honeycutt. “Return to Jedda” was raw jungle bliss, and sacred hymn “Sands” sent the drummer off in stratospheric style. Adding insult to onslaught was a robust reworking of the King of Pop’s “Scream”
Funky Meters welcomed an endless pageant of friends for the ultimate New Orleans family reunion 500 miles East. The JB’s Pee Wee Ellis (“World is a Little Bit Under the Weather”), Ivan Neville (“Ain’t No Use”), Ian Neville and Nikki Glaspie from Dumpstaphunk, and NOLA all-star Billy Iuso (who was there all weekend with his wife and their three children) all joined hands. Set highlights included a stimulating “People Say,” “Fiyo on the Bayou” and the omnipresent “Cissy Strut.”
The New Mastersounds boogaloo bang theory is play enough undeniable rare grooves and people will dance their asses off. Robert Walter, Johnny V (“Pure”), Roosevelt Collier (“This Ain’t Gonna Work”), Zach Deputy, Marco Benevento, Michelle Sarah, and more hopped onstage with the British bandits over the course of two sets on the Porch Stage.
When the august Lower East Side freaks added a dignified maestro, Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood were astounding. A swingin’ “Little Walter Rides Again,” Warhol-ian Beatles cover “Julia”, “Hottentot”, and seminal “A-Go-Go” all exemplified MMW’s dexterity with John Scofield. Hushed tones came over the audience as a steady selection of jaw-droppers piled one atop another with focused resolution. Roosevelt Collier joined the fray, weeping lap steel, Johnny V. brought patented NOLA shuffle to “Yoo Yoo Ma.”
Juiced up and staggeringly tight, a well-oiled machine (thanks to the Royal Family Ball Tour), Lettuce torched the stage both nights they performed. These may have been the band’s finest hours. The unthinkable happened – an instrumental take on Jay-Z & Kanye West’s banger “N*GG*S in PARIS” – followed by Thrust-fueled funk calisthenics. It was murder! Lengthy passages of instrumental boom-bap paid homage to the late James “J Dilla” Yancey. This band is Voltron – individual vehicles joined together to form a giant super funk robot.
Purveying endless workouts with uncompromising fury, Lettuce would repeat nary a song over two days, the band, internally battling in hip-hop tradition, with either Kraz, Neal, Jesus or Shmeenz sneaking in undeniable samples/teases into fills and measures. A careful listen revealed snippets of Roy Ayers, Grover Washington Jr., JB’s, Parliament and Herbie, as well as countless classic golden-era hip-hop breaks. Lettuce remains in permanent scholarship, dishing out bombastic bear hugs for the forefathers. When Nigel Hall finally took the stage, exclaiming he was home, the adulation was overwhelming. Hall and Lettuce broke out the D.C. Go-Go with “Making My Way Back Home” where Lettuce’s full-tilt rage upped the ante for the festival headliner to follow.
Trey Anastasio Band was Saturday’s night main event, and there were no other options for almost three hours. The amphitheatre transformed into an iridescent wonderland full of vivid colors and lights illuminating the already breathtaking surroundings, and when Trey took the stage it was indeed surreal. For 150 minutes, the once and former Jedi led his revue-like backup band through atypical versions of classic TAB vehicles. Trey spoke to Bear Creek directly, bantering about the roots of the solo band and how many of the first songs came together, the commentary a slow burn until breaking the news that this would be the last gig for this band for a very long time. The unmistakable emotional quality of the Music Park was not lost on Trey, a fitting choice for quite possibly the last ever show of this band’s incarnation.
Aided by prodigious keyboardist Ray Paczkowski, Anastasio flexed within vamps on “Simple Twist Up Dave”, “Sand”, “Mr. Completely”, and “First Tube”. “Small Axe (instrumental” was the closest Trey came to ethereal during this set and an animated run through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” inspired the regional redneck within. Jennifer Hartswick ‘s femme flow on the Gorillaz “Clint Eastwood” and set-closing larceny on Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” drove Bear Creek ecstatic. The adoring crowd was blissfully adrift, but injecting myself into the moment, I’d dreamt it up a certain way. In the end, Trey’s bark was loud, but his bite wasn’t vicious.
Hartswick stuck around to front her own (considerably better) gig 90 minutes later, a performance drenched in the spirit of Bear Creek- something her boss’s revue was criminally devoid of. Flanked by a fierce band (including Natalie Cressman from TAB, and former Beyonce/current Dumpstaphunk drummer Nikki Glaspie), Hartswick cut loose with compelling soul music. A star-turn from Nigel Hall (“Here I Go Again”), a potent spot from the Snarky Puppy horns (“Blame it On the Boogie), and a mystifying take on Erykah Badu’s “On & On” all delivered.
Fans split between midnight sets from electronic duo Big Gigantic, rising stars Dopapod, and the annual Dumpstajam, a Jazz Fest inspired super-jam led by the Dumpstaphunk krewe. Breaking out Sly Stone (“I Want To Take You Higher”), The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), and Parliament (“Dr. Funkenstein”), the squad included Zach Deputy, Eric Krasno, Billy Iuso, Shady Horns, Skerik, Jonathan Lloyd, Andrew Block, Matt Grondin, Will Bernard and more. A fifteen-minute “What is Hip?” soared into the night.
Any ode to Bear Creek simply must acknowledge the “fest within the fest” that is the presence of modern electronic music. While it is a funk-fueled party, each year electronic music evolves and aspires to new heights this weekend in November, and 2011 would be another crowning achievement. Beyond headliner Big Gigantic, the popularity and groundswell of support and promotion for independent electronic artists is amazing, and effective. A parade of innovative scientists blessed Bear Creek, from the big stages to the silent disco to deep in the woods. My own experience delivered different ends of the spectrum: Michal Menert’s psychedelic figure skating enhanced by violinist Leo Kulishevsky. Gramatik and Sir Charles worked the tent to a frenzy well into morning hours. Zoogma and Greenhouse Lounge drew mighty and enthusiastic crowds of dancing freaks to the Meadow Stage, their fresh breeds of blend furthering the search for new land. Buzz about Papadosio’s special Music Hall set traveled speedily, as did the raving about electro-synth discotech that was JunoWhat?. DJ Craig Heneveld spun a coolout set at the Brotherly Love Productions site for a final comedown. It’s obvious to all Creek veterans that the electronic music lane is crucial and essential to this festival’s experience, and for old school ravers Bear Creek is as PLUR as you get.
Deep into the morning, Break Science again proved why they are the best duo in live electronic music. Dishing out devastating blends of hip-hop, breakbeat, dubstep, soundsystem, tech step and a myriad of points between, Adam Dietchand Borahm Lee reinforced revolutionary bass music spliced with verbal jousts from Outkast, Rick Ross, and Talib Kweli. For an encore, Break Science merged marching band, Afrobeat and the spirit of Aphex Twin with Glaspie and Topaz in tow.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey served notice that new-era Fred is still the first frontier of modern jazz. Focusing on their more recent reincarnations, pianist/founder Brian Haas led the troupe through an atypical Fred mind-fuck. Lap steel maven Chris Combs and drummer Josh Raymer harnessed the intricacies in JFJO’s structures through substantial use of odd time signatures – 3/4, 5/4, and beyond. Hard swing stood front and center, providing sturdy foundations for many a Rhodes convulsion from mad scientist Haas. Through zealous melodies and rhythms bordering on panicky, the music was at times nostalgic, grandiloquent, sorrowful, and ultimately a celebration of the limitless resiliency of jazz.
Immediately thereafter, Marco Benevento blessed the afternoon with a second set of distinctive material. A ragtime piano duel with Robert Walter on a boogied up cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Baby, You’re No Good” provided a stirring moment. The Bangles “Walk Like An Egyptian” and Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” got the trio treatment. Marco’s set was most impressive when he coalesced with virtuoso bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Andy Borger on frenzied takes on originals “RISD” and “The Real Morning Party”. Benevento finds himself in bloom at Bear Creek, swilling Maker’s Mark onstage with a shit-eating grin before matching Haas’ tweakery with his own wicked concoctions of upright piano, toy noisemakers, obscure synths, and tube amplification. Benevento is always a joy to observe at Bear Creek, his unmitigated art on childlike display.
Jennifer Hartswick was again in the middle of the hot stuff on Sunday, beginning with The Trio, followed by a one- off with George Porter Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich, which saw Freekbass join the mix. Later, her set with Van Ghost on the Campground Stage was a tranquil treat, where the Chicago crew broke out favorites from Warren Haynes (“Soulshine”) and La Roux (“Bulletproof”).
John Scofield and Piety Street was yet another Crescent City treat. Home to a legendary recording studio in a ‘hood steeped in music tradtion, Piety Street is an apt name for this mighty assemblage of NOLA royalty. George Porter Jr. and drummer Shannon Powell anchor Jon Cleary’s piano, and they don’t just back the masterful Scofield – the legends served as guides through the distinct sounds of NOLA neighborhoods. It was idyllic for a Sunday afternoon, debauched gospel with jazz affectations and a funky good time, too.
Most of the Artists-at-Large coalesced for the tremendous Orchestra-at-Large set mid-afternoon. Led by Bay Area jazz guitarist Will Bernard, an awe-inspiring assembly including (but not limited to) Pee Wee Ellis, Johnny Vidacovich, Robert Walter, Reed Mathis, Jamie McLean, Nikki Glaspie, Marco Benevento, Jonathan Lloyd, Topaz, Skerik, Roosevelt Collier, Scott Messersmith, and Billy Iuso. Lengthy, crucial runs through “Snakes and Spiders” and “Doc Watson” embraced the communal spirit and permeating funky undercurrents of Bear Creek. When Corey Glover emerged for the Sly Stone number “Thank You (FaLettinMe Be Mice Elf, Agin)” this Orchestra was a Funk Supreme.
Lettuce took the stage for seconds and more obliteration was on the menu. George Porter Jr. and E.D. “Jesus” Coomes squared off in a bass duel for the heavens, Crip-walkin’ low-end theory with uncompromising crunkadelics from Deitch (the Boy Wondrah!). Kraz tore into the hard-hitting jams with maybe his best-ever tone. “Need to Understand” raised the terror level, but it was a double encore that sent shook ones into the night. New song (tentative title- “Mean Funk”) was the perfect amalgam of a Diamond D break and a punishing Clyde Stubblefied rumble, and “Reunion” was bruising; an apt and emphatic sendoff.
Sunday, Dumpstaphunk closed down the festival as per tradition. Clearly reinvigorated by the addition of drummer Glaspie, “Wartime” and David Bowie’s “Fame” were brilliant, commanding displays of might from Ivan Neville, Ian Neville, Tony Hall and Nick Daniels. Ryan Zoidis of the Shady Horns and George Porter Jr. assisted the fitting NOLA toast from the Suwannee stage to its spirit.
Tradition and collaboration is the lifeblood of this familial gathering on the Suwannee River. Once again, the annual Sunday night Tree House Staff Party jam was extravagant (catering!). Dozens of artists passed the groove, as marquee names congregated with up-and-comers. The “Flood in Franklin Park,” starring Walter/Roberts/Deitch and augmented by a circle of friends, was the spirit of the Creek soundtrack. The result was a glorious blend of jovial music and the magic of community set by a campfire at the foot of a tree house. Like nearly everything Bear Creek, you had to see it to believe it. The remaining minions drank and danced on the final moonlight mile, hugging and chanting a legend that swells with majesty each revolution around the sun.
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