Words by: B. Getz (w/ additional reporting by Scott T. Horowitz)
Header photo- Allison Murphy/Ruth Rocks & Southern Exposure
Videos by Funk It, & Adam Firtel (except when otherwise credited)
Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival :: Nov. 8-11, 2012 — Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
Hosted by the majestic Spirit of The Suwannee Music Park, the 2012 edition of the Bear Creek Music Festival unveiled a streamlined, svelte, and sinister menu of astonishing artists spanning several generations. The brainchild of Lyle Williams and Paul Levine, Bear Creek remained firmly seated on its throne, the pre-eminent music/camping festival of the modern era. Set deep in the woods of a Gothic hinterland, with marshy lakes amidst soaring trees bathing in Spanish moss, Bear Creek was again inhabited by the crazily costumed revelers and swanky, dirty, colossally crunk jams that have come to define the festival’s vibe. A funkadelic gumbo, blockbuster in magnitude, Bear Creek 2012 more than lived up to its legend.
As the masses arrived and got settled, Thursday offered a smaller but still scintillating schedule to open the festivities. Newcomers to Bear Creek, Ohio buzz-band The Werks introduced themselves with confidence and conviction, as the outfit impressed inside the Music Hall with smooth segue “Live for Today > Psycho Killer”. Connecticut’s Kung Fu dropped astounding chops on the Big IV Amphitheatre stage, “It’s All Good” and “Snaggle” had the people bouncing. Keyboardist Todd Stoops remains one of the best kept secrets on the scene today. The RAQ-veteran’s prowess on an array of synths and electric piano was superb. Another bunch of fresh faces, Austin, TX rockers The Bright Light Social Hour made an immediate emotional impact on Bear Creek with haunting Gospel-tinged vocal harmonies, a unique approach, and bluesman-wisdom that stretched beyond their collective years.
Two of the strongest impressions were made by groups that appeared both Thursday and Friday. Burning Man favorites MarchFourth Marching Band absolutely annihilated the Music Hall late on opening night. A veritable circus onstage numbering almost twenty people, with extravagant wardrobes, people on stilts, and an unrelenting schoolyard stomp, MarchFourth is a date that shall henceforth live in infamy for Bear Creek and Black Rock. Southern hip-hop anthems delivered in the “Show-Band” style, this was no halftime football gig, much more akin to a promethyzine dream. Khris Royal & Dark Matter burned a different-yet-equally-inventive end of the wick, the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader channeling Agharta-era Miles with grimace-inducing grittiness and a dash of Aquemini. Word must have spread throughout the festival, because for Friday’s set, Dark Matter was joined by Freekbass and Roosevelt Collier for a Goliath-like take on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. Freekbass and drummers Terrence Houston & Michael Matthews(Earphunk) teamed up for some of the most corpulent low-end frequency heard all weekend. Crescent City met Gotham City on the banks of the Suwannee River.
Florida’s beloved The Heavy Pets supplied two barnburner sundown sets from the Uncle Charlie Porch Stage on Friday and Saturday. Starring on both was the graceful Rachel Lancaster on aerial silks, gliding high atop the stage, and pedal-steel maven Roosevelt Collier, who destroyed “Jackie Bones” to close night one. A huge version of “So Thank You Music” was spectacular, totally live without a net. Guitarist Jeff Lloyd came into his own over the weekend, fronting a confident and inspired troupe, and the boys welcomed Natalie Cressman’s trombone work on the reggae-fied “Slow Down.”
The Purple Hat Stage transformed into the “Daptone Super Soul Revue” featuring bands from Brooklyn, NY’s Daptone Records, host to a recording studio housing only proper vintage gear. Early on, the serene gospel vocals of Como Mamas set a virtuous tone for the coming Shabbat. Later, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires were altogether righteous to behold. “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” delivered uplifting and deep songs of loss and love, backed by his aptly-named band. After a mid-set wardrobe change into a rhinestone-speckled cherry-red jumpsuit with sparkly shoes, the youthful 64-year-old belted out his own goosebumps-inducing version of Neil Young’s classic “Heart of Gold.” His music and energy were an unexplainable burst of light and weightlessness. Incredibly, Bradley thanked the crowd for enabling him to perform for them; without a doubt he meant it from the bottom of his heart.
Headliners Umphrey’s McGee also delivered two complete shows, with four sets over the course of the weekend. Their second set on Friday was stout and fulfilling. Spacey psychedelia gave way to big one-drop undertones set against prog-rock at its finest. Their dead-on cover of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” was a killer, and set the amphitheater stage ablaze. On Saturday, the Chi-town rockers also did Pink Floyd proud, as keyboardist Joel Cummins displayed why he is the glue that keeps people Umphreakin’ out.
Philadelphia electronic rockers Lotus took to the amphitheater stage late on Friday and delivered a subdued, extremely psychedelic set. From the superb “Suitcases” opener, long-bending tunes drove and pulsated into the forest, the rumbling undercurrents of drummer Mike Greenfield powering a brilliant visual display of lighting and incorporation of the grandiose surrounds. “Its All Clear to Me Now” drove things most of the way home, a dignified and humble journey that speaks to how much Lotus has evolved since they last visited Suwannee in 2009.
Following Bradley was a positively world-class, crème de la creme performance from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. The ozone lovechild of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, it was “Timbs’ and hood check time” as Ms. Jones & her crew absolutely tore the house down. She schooled folks on how to keep a man, or handle a woman; the sensual energy reached fever pitches as she welcomed people onstage to square off and dance with her. Jones gave an enthralling lesson with several dance routines, as her band provided landscapes for her to strut, and sing life’s simple truths. Clad in high heels and a canary dress in forty-degree chill, her eternally childlike spirit was larger than life and barely fit on the Purple Hat Stage. The stand-alone set of the entire festival, hands down.
Late night in the Technoflora Music Hall, two all star ensembles threw down gargantuan sets, one after the next. Headtronics, which featured the likes of Freekbass, Will Bernard, DJ Logic and more, dropped a eclectic blend of mid-tempo trip hop mixed with boogaloo grooves. Til nearly 4 in the morning, NOLA/NYC conglomerate Dr. Klawabsolutely merked the indoor scene with their usual brand of crunkalogic brutality. Robert Walter cozied up to Nigel Hall on the organ and the boys put on a clinic, while the baddest man on the stage remained bassist Nick Daniels III, whose high vocals and merciless bottom end let everybody know who was boss. Adam Deitch was the loyal lead-filled metronome, murdering for capital like only he can.
On the breathtakingly beautiful Campground Stage tucked deep in the park’s effervescent woods, up and coming acts solidified their reps as new kids on the Creek. Friday, it was NOLA youngins Earphunk who dropped future-crunk and enduring, timeless grooves with a numerous guests onstage. Saturday, it was Tallahassee’s finest comedy-rock export; longtime FSU hell-raisers Catfish Alliance brought heat and hearty laughs with a riotous set of block-rockin’ beats and hip-hop hilarity. The Porch Stage welcomed the electro-groove machine Zoogma, whose spirited set was augmented by Greenhouse Lounge bassist Dave McSweeney for the duration. Zoogma’s “Ghostbusters” encore tore the porch down. Friday and Saturday nights til sunrise, the Savi Fernandez Band would jam the night away to their Florida faithful, reggae singalongs and random sit-ins around campfires with whiskey.
An event within the festival, A Royal Family Affair took place all day Saturday at the Purple Hat Stage, and was it ever a day to behold! Beginning with a hypnotizing set from Nigel Hall and Alecia Chakour, the duo blessed us with a screwed-up, slowed-down version of the Stevie Wonder classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. Alan Evans Trio dropped some rare groove on the heads, the drummer’s side project really starting to take its own shape. This was followed by an inspired late afternoon recital from Eric Krasno & Chapter 2, which featured Nikki Glaspie on drums. Chapter 2’s set also saw Kraz’s vocal debut on two songs, and a decidedly psychedelic flavor to his tone and axemanship that wailed deep into the woods. Soulive then took to the Purple Hat with New York suits, and it was on. The trio really took things higher with a mixture of classics from the So-Live era all the way up to the present. The Shady Horns stepped up and lent gangsta lean to a stage already teeming with steez.
The New Mastersounds are a British Bear Creek band that makes the trip across the pond each and every year, however, organ player Joe Tatton was unable to play due to travel issues. Never fear, B3 monster Robert Walter filled in for two days, and the boys didn’t miss a beat. JB’s tenor man Pee Wee Ellis also has become a regular at Bear Creek, and he joined the Mastersounds for some boogaloo grooves, as did his good buddy George Porter Jr.. The Mastersounds know how to have a good time, and could be seen doing so, hanging out with the fans throughout the weekend.
The Royal Family Dumpstajam was up next, but the oldest Bear Creek lesson was afoot… How does a band go on after Lettuce? Dumpsta struggled with monitor issues early and nearly melted down, yet to the rescue came George Porter Jr. The always affable and downright malicious bassist took charge as he and Ivan Neville blessed us with a stirring, psychedelic, fifteen-minute plus take on the Neil Young anthem “Down By the River”, and followed that up with a walloping “Welcome to New Orleans.”
The excitement when Lettuce took the stage was so thick you could cut it with a knife. In a word? Bananas! Opening with the undeniably nasty “Madison Square”, the Royal Family was in the building loud and clear. One hundred minutes of the dirtiest players in the game ensued, heads were bobbing like emergency breaks the entire set. By the time Nigel Hall took the stage, the funk was simply too deep. It was swagger on steroids, and the go-go bounce of “Makin My Way Back Home > Bustin Loose” was nearly too much to bear. Neal Evans’ new song “Bowler” was the set’s hidden gem.
As usual, the late night Break Science party in the Technoflora Music Hall sent people into a veritable frenzy. Coming in from the cold, ragers quickly thawed indoors as temperatures rose to unprecedented levels. The dynamic duo of Borahm Lee and Adam Deitch worked the crowd over with a mix of glitchy tech-step, psilocybin G-funk, and stutter-step beat-science. The duo traversed post-dubstep terrains sensual and sadistic. The highlight for this writer was a crippling studio collabo with Redman that served as encore; the Funk Doc laced a Cash-Money-esque flow dripping in Brick City business atop neck-snapping breaks. For the people looking to dance all night, a party within the party took place each night at the Silent Disco, where the likes of Monozygotic dropped an electro-trap-takeover, and Wyllys spun an all-vinyl, funk disco set.
Bear Creek’s annual Orchestra At Large set things off for Sunday Funday 2012. The concept of sit-ins and jamming is the fabric of the familial vibe that defines Bear Creek; this serves as an elixir on a take on the “SuperJam”. Elegant songstress Michelle Sarah fronted a NOLA-centric ensemble including Roosevelt Collier, George Porter Jr, Will Bernard, Andrew Block, Robert Walter and Derrick Freeman on Bill Withers’ classic “Kissing My Love”. Jennifer Hartswick, Billy Iuso and Freekbass helped get the Led out with a chunky “Whole Lotta Love”.
George Porter Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners were the perfect Sunday afternoon treat. NOLA mercenaries Khris Royal and Terrance Houston rocked behind the bassist/living legend, and the next generation of NOLA rests in mighty good hands with these two fellas. Resident NOLA Deadhead Billy Iuso jumped up on a fun frolic through the Pigpen-yodel “Mr. Charlie,” and “Smokestack Lightning” was lovely. The slower, Little Feat version of “Sailin’ Shoes” was a definitive juxtaposition to the tight, hard hitting “Sneakin’ Sally”, both tunes bearing Porter’s name and game. George funkified lives with his warm and fuzzy, blissed-out bass lines, welcoming Skerik, James Casey and Eric Krasno onstage for a midday combo “I Get High > Time”.
The apple falls not far from the tree, and Grant Green Jr. showed up on the Porch Stage Sunday afternoon with some lovely hollow-body medicinals, tried and true Soul Jazz delivered in familiar melodies. Green, Jr. exhibited his innate affinity for funk and blues, blessing us with soulful, romantic guitar textures that his late father personified and so many Bear Creek axemen have borrowed. “What’s Goin’ On”, “Just My Imagination”, and “Ball of Confusion” were just a few of the classics that compiled the setlist. Ably assisted by an un-Godly consortium of heavy hitters and festival favorites (Ike Stubblefield, Will Bernard, Wil Blades, Pee Wee Ellis, Roosevelt Collier, and more), Green and company mined the annals of groove on a lazy afternoon.
Dumpstaphunk’s Sunday gig was much more akin to what we have come to expect from the NOLA alliance. Swollen Neville-driven vocal harmonies cruised atop their greasy, grimy double bass onslaught on “Meanwhile” and Zigaboo’s “Standin’”. Skerik jumped on as he and Ivan Neville traded barbs on “Dirty Word”. The biggest (and best) surprise came when the incredible Nikki Glaspie reintroduced herself and D-Phunk dropped Jay-Z’s mammoth-sized banger “Public Service Announcement”, the drummer/fem-c straight checkin’ cheddar and finishing breakfasts like Young HOVA himself. This ain’t a movie, dawg. That somehow segued into the Q-Tip club banger “Vivrant Thing”, which Glaspie then commandeered into one of the best P-Funk covers this writer has ever heard, a dead-on take of “One Nation Under a Groove”. The entire amphitheater massive was getting down just for the crunk of it.
This monumental “upping of the ante” obviously did not go unnoticed by the Lettuce boys, who were about to close the festival out on that very same amphitheater stage. As if this crew needed their collective flame stoked; Lettuce took the stage and basically said ‘Watch the Throne’. For the second straight evening and fifth straight year, Lett demonstrated exactly why, and how, they are the Mike Tyson of the funk game, and then proceeded to blow up the spot, just for fun. Adam Deitch was in boy-wonder mode, and Jesus (bassist E.D. Coomes) followed suit- the new rhythm devils were fully engaged. The boys took it back to the original God-MC, Rakim. Whilst demolishing Lettuce-penned funk-workouts with reckless abandon (see: Tyson, Mike) the duo was simultaneously weaving in and out of Eric B. & Rakim’s classic “Follow the Leader” and “Juice (Know the Ledge)” underneath the funk jams. Repeatedly. In multiple songs. The true genius lie in the subtlety, the covert ops; fierce, menacing, and nearly undetectable. This was just one aspect of an incredible hour plus of raw, unadulterated Lettuce funk to bring Bear Creek 2012 home.
Countless artists, fans and tireless festival workers showed up to eat, drink, play, sing, and be merry at the annual Sunday night staff party, this year hosted by The Heavy Pets. As the festival finally wound down, and the music unplugged, there was Skerik and James Casey (conducted by none other than Jesus), on the porch, serenading by saxophone under the moonlight the few dozen remaining people. We christened it “Serendipity on the Suwannee”; ‘twas a fitting, Bird-infused tribute to another Bear Creek Music Festival, the gift that keeps on giving.Ryan Zoidis was another star, taking front stage to blow tenor and styles born of smoky-jazz cool. Glaspie, Royal, Jen Hartswick, Cressman, Jonathan Lloyd, Pee Wee Ellis, they all got in on the fun. The fatback funk was huge, the smiles onstage and off even bigger. On War’s “Slippin into Darkness”, delivered in Lettuce’s instrumental arrangement, Adam “Shmeans” Smirnoff and Deitch led a mind-boggling reggae detour that was wholly improvised, all the more staggering and extraordinary. We heard snippets of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Save the Children” sneaking through, and Royal Fam empress Alecia Chakour mesmerized the massive on “Clean Up Woman.” When a fine female approached the stage and placed in front of Jesus a Tebowing, midget-sized, lawn nativity scene figure of Paul the Apostle, it was at once absolutely hilarious, the stuff of legend, and an ultimate sign of respect. Kraz, Rashawn Ross, James Casey, Zoidis, Neal Evans, Nigel Hall, Shmeans and the rhythm devils once again used Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” as a finale, to testify at Bear Creek “one mo’ gin.” Like the homie D.O.C. said, ‘No One Can Do It Better.” Lettuce rage… Lettuce fly! Let Us Dance!