Photos by Shari Hartmann and Lori Sky Twohy
For four days in November, the 7th annual Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival was the place to be as the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park turned into funk central! Some of the coolest cats in the country, including funk legend Bootsy Collins, had even the gracefully hanging Spanish moss of the towering trees grooving. Funky family populated the campgrounds at what is arguably one of the best music festival venues in the country, as the mothership of dance music landed in Live Oak, Florida. Notoriously one of the coldest outdoor festivals, referred to as “Brrrr Creek,” being the last of an extended season, this year the cold abated and practically warmed to shorts weather as the weekend progressed. Greeted by friendly, competent staff at the gates and red-hot mamas ready to get their funk on, set the mood for the weekend: Love, laughter, and nitty-gritty booty-shaking rhythms!
The festivities kicked off Wednesday with a pre-festival party. In the spirit of the festival, it was also celebration of Shelley Allegretto’s life, benefitting her children and husband, Michael Allegretto, production manager of Bear Creek. The pre-party featured Toubab Krewe, The Revivalists and the New Mastersounds.
Most funksters began arriving Thursday, quickly setting up camp with many hustling to the festival grounds to get their official Bear Creek poster signed by artist and photographer Rex Thompson whose groovy artwork was chosen from more than thirty submissions. The festival has no shortage of artists and vendors either with an artist’s pavilion, a Craft Village, a “shakedown street” and several roving artists. Painters’ easels and palettes can be found at all the stages working in different mediums, but this was the first I had seen an artist carving and painting Styrofoam over a garbage bin. What a beautiful way to recycle and in keeping with the festival’s Greening and Recycling Program that began two years ago and continues to grow with recycling bins now located throughout the campgrounds as well as the festival grounds.
The fans too are part of the artistry of Bear Creek. Skilled in creative costume design and outlandish outfitting, you can find yourself dancing next to a fish one minute and a wonderful wizard the next!
Friday night’s “Warm and Fuzzy: Get Your Inner Animal On” theme is a favorite, with everyone wearing animal hats or even full mascot-like costumes: lions and pandas and badgers all bobbing their heads to the funky rhythms. Of course, my favorite bears were the dancing bear and those doused in tie-dye. A visual testament to the kinship of funksters and hippies! Saturday night’s theme was chosen by Bootsy Collins: “Space is the Place … Sun Ra Afro Power Freak Dance Royal Funk”! The crowd transported me back to the 70s with their go-go boots and colored Afros. No one out shown Bootsy himself in his blue sequenced tux and top hat!
Thursdays rage included The Motet, Kung Fu, The New Mastersounds and Space Capone. The Motet hit the stage with incredible energy diving right into a song from their forthcoming album “Knock it Down” and a set that included several stellar covers: The Gap Band’s “Shake,” Prince’s “DMSR” and D-Funk’s “Back in Love.” Wanting to see The Motet for some time, their vibrant, dance-fusion got me fired up for the rest of the weekend. Kung Fu delivered two amazing sets. I first saw them last year at Bear Creek and have been a huge fan since. They opened with a super-hot “Samurai.” The set included Bill Wither’s “Kissing My Love.” But it was their jaw dropping “Bringing Up the Rear” and mind-blowing take on Van Halen’s “Eruption” and “Drop Dead Legs” that made this a standout set of the weekend, and I was glad I had wiggled my way to the rail to watch the lightning fast fingers of guitarist Tim Palmieri and catch the curveballs bassist Chris DeAngelis kept throwing him. I even hung out for a few minutes after to see if I could catch a set list and perhaps meet saxophonist Rob Somerville. I did not get a set list but I did get to witness the musicians after they left the stage. It was like they hit a homerun with hugs and high-fives all around! The New Mastersounds took to the Amphitheater stage for their second of three BC sets, being introduced as family since they have played all seven Bear Creek festivals at SOSMP. They transition from cool grooves to jazzy riffs to dirty funk with ease and this set was further sparked by talents of Khris Royal on sax on “Pure” and “102.”
Outside the Techniflora Music Hall I was already bopping to the beats of Space Capone and entered into a party in full swing as his falsetto voice sang “We like to Party!” High fidelity, high energy and full of talent, the exuberant performance delivered one crazy adrenaline rush. One of the highlights of the set for me was “Peach Flavored Optimo” that they opened with Pink Floyd tease, “Shine on you Crazy Diamond.” Giving a fresh sound to a mix of soulful 70s R&B, funky grooves and even Disco vibes, I was transported back to my youth when the band burst into Rick James’ “Give it to me Baby” which featured a sit-in from artist-at- large The Motet’s Joey Porter. As I boogied on, I saw saxophonist Khris Royal and steel guitar extraordinaire Roosevelt Collier through the crowd of disco divas. I was told they had also joined in. I hated that I had missed that!
Important in creating the vibe at Bear Creek are the extraordinary number of sit-ins. You never know who will jump on stage, but you can be sure somebody will! Some are from the other bands but Bear Creek, along with its funktastic lineups, is also known for its artists-at-large, this year boasting 20 exceptional musicians including Skerik, Nikki Glaspie, Chali 2’Na, Natalie Cressman, Jans Ingber, Freekbass, Zach Deputy and George Porter Jr. Joey Porter, Khris Royal and especially Roosevelt Collier saw the most sit-ins. I wonder if Rosie broke a new record? This Bear Creek he sat in on 19 sets including his own! It would be easier to list the bands he did not play with. And each time he arrived on stage, the crowd went crazy with delight and with good cause. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t play nor any particular band’s style he cannot adapt to whether it’s gospel, jazz, electro-disco or searing rock.
Friday started for me at the camp where I could hear Brownout ….was that Skerik playing? Yes it was! Wait that sounds like David Shaw of the Revivalists doing “Heart of Steel”? It was time to get it together and go get funkified. Friday was jam-packed and I found myself running from set to set: The Revivalists giving an early, yet unbelievably energetic, performance with Rob Ingraham’s smoking sax solo in “Catching Fireflies” as well as a smooth, soulful BeeGees’ “To Love Somebody” and sit-ins from percussionist Mike Dillon and Roosevelt Collier. Lee Fields and the Expressions brought the love with his soulful voice especially on “Wish You Were Here,” a song he said was extra-special to him and the lovers in the crowd agreed. The Werks took the Purple Hat stage in the large meadow where I got my rock fix and a scorching guitar dual between Chris Houser and Roosevelt Collier. I made it back to the Porch Stage in time for the Monophonics killing it, and everyone singing along on Funkadelic’s “I Got a Thing.” One of my super funky friend’s favorite bands, I got a quick schooling, especially when they launched into “High Off Your Love” and an especially funked up dirty cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang.”
The sun set and Antibalas took the Amphitheater stage. I was unprepared. Listen to their music… watch them on Letterman… it is nothing to the live experience with which this multi-ethnic fusion of vivacious musicians enthralls its audience. From their opening “Pirata” to “Battle of the Species” with Skerik to closing with Fela Kuti’s “Alagbon,” they took the fans on a journey to the heart of funky rhythms and Latin and African grooves.
Friday night continued with sets from The Motet, Zach Deputy, Galactic, Kung Fu, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Bonobo. Something magical happens to Galactic at SOSMP and this set proved no different. Everyone was buzzing about vocalist Maggie Koerner who has joined the Galactic family for their winter tour. David Shaw also joined in on this set wowing the crowd with “When the Levee Breaks” and Chali 2na joined the band on “From the Corner to the Block.” But it was “Boe Money,” with in-your-face solos from Stanton Moore, Skerik and Roosevelt Collier, that had the crowd screaming. Kung Fu’s set in the Music Hall seemed to pick up where they left off the night before. When Rosie joined them on stage, I thought, first, what he just did following Skerik was nothing short of incomprehensible to musical mortals. Then I thought, could he possibly top that here? He blew everyone away! Even the band was shaking their heads in disbelief! Jans Ingber of the Motet joined the band for Prince’s “1999.” Even reading lyrics from his iPhone, he killed it and the spontaneity of it sparked the crowd to a frenzy!
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was one of the highlights of the weekend with Zach Deputy as a perfect choice to lend his vocals to a set that was a tribute to Ray Charles and included “My Baby,” “Bougainvillea” with George Porter Jr., “Ring of Fire,” “ Unchain My Heart,” and “Seven Nation Army.” Bonobo, another favorite set of the festival, closed out the main stages taking the audience to Zen-like states while those still wanting to shake their booties headed to Robert Walters 20th Congress and the Silent Discos.
Saturday saw some of the most memorable sets. First was George Porter Jr. and Runnin’ Pardners. I love George and I don’t try to hide it. His joy pours out of every funky note he plays and spills over to the audience. Khris Royal joining the band gave a distinctive flair to songs like “What You Say?,” “Just Kissed My Baby” and “He Bite Me (the Dragon)” and a sit-in from Roosevelt had Porter egging on some intensely fun play with guitarist Brint Anderson. Drummer Terence Houston, held a t-shirt that read: “George Porter Jr. is a Bad Motherf**cker on Bass” that he then threw over his head and threw down a crazy solo basically blindfolded. Then there was the Mike Dillon Band. Not only is Dillon an incredible percussionist, performer, and hilarious guy, the trombone player, Carly Meyers, had the Porch Stage ablaze. And no one who saw this show will forget their dueling xylophones as they tossed their mallets back and forth, Dillon’s rapping on “I Ain’t Buying>Head” or his ditching his shirt, donning a cape and thrashing about on Iggy and the Stooges’ “1969” while Stanton Moore helped out on percussion.
Bootsy Baby! Bootsy Collins and the Funky Unity Band! Some people came to the festival just to see Bootsy and who can blame them for not wanting to miss this legendary bass player from James Brown’s Band and Parliament Funkadelic. His band hit the stage first in white spacesuits. The Mothership had officially landed now! Then Bootsy came out in his head-to-toe sparkling blue tuxedo, his star-shaped sun glasses and that white star-shaped L.E.D. bass with neon green strings and began to lay down that getting-down-moving-grooving-love-pulse sending the crowd to that ultimate high. The set included classics like “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Mothership Connection,” and “Good and Nasty,” and to everyone’s delight, Bernie Worrell, the original keyboardist of P-Funk, sat in during the set as well. Ever the showman, Bootsy had at least three costume changes and emerging in the dimmed lights of the stage, started playing in the dark with his star bass flashing white and then red and then blue providing the light show.
The Roots followed Bootsy in the Amphitheater. Who could follow that extravaganza? The Roots. I’ve seen them before and not just on TV. Always liked them, but never have I heard a set like this. I’m sure some of the SOSMP magic was at work. Whatever it was, this is the set everyone seemed to have on the top of their list. Introduced by Bee Getz of Jambase, the Roots seized the stage and galvanized the already exhilarated crowd with “Next Movement” and “Proceed.” These cats were in the pocket the whole set which was really like one long jam especially the medley of “Sweet Child of Mine>Bad to the Bone>Who Do You Love>You Got Me>Immigrant Song>Welcome to Jam Rock>You Got Me.” Yeah, you read right! Everyone was digging “Get Busy>Jungle Boogie”! And I danced so hard to “Thought at Work” with its “Apache” tease, I almost fell off my boots! The electricity during this set was enough to lift you off the ground and spin you around the fractured flashes and bright blasting beams of vivid lights and inventive flags and dancing rage sticks.
Making my way back to the Purple Hat Stage for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s second set, I realized how much my legs were hurting from getting down for days on end. I sat for most of the set but that had nothing to do with the music. Truth be told I much preferred this smoking hot with set with sit-ins from George Porter Jr, Skerik, Roosevelt Collier, Eddie Roberts, Wil Blades, and more. I think they were just getting warmed up for the SuperJam. Saturday night would come to an end for me with the Bear Creek All Stars ft. Dumpstaphunk, Lettuce and “Special Guest.” Special Guest? Um? Like almost everyone? Although the set contained familiar funk grooves like “Dr. Funkenstein” and “Africa/New Orleans,” this really was one extensive jam. Everytime I looked at the stage (because now I was back to dancing), there was someone new, but the musicians transitioned in and out so seamlessly if you weren’t paying attention, you missed it. Ivan Neville was on keys but then I looked again and it was Nigel Hall, now Ndeal Evans, now Joey Porter. Tony Hall is on bass. Wait, no, it’s Jesus Coombs. Wait, when did Alecia Chakour jump up there? As they started into “Checkout your Mind,” I panned across the stage. Ivan Neville, George Porter Jr, Eric Krasno , Ian Neville, Nikki Glaspie… did I die and go to funk heaven? Nikki Glaspie held it down for most of the set. What a phenom! I think she is one of my new heroes!
Over in the Music Hall I was psyched to see Nikki Glaspsie sitting center stage as The Nth Power took over. Here was another set that had everyone buzzing. In fact this may be my new favorite band. I haven’t stopped listening to their EP Basic Minimum Skills Test since I got home. A glorious gumbo of funk, jazz, soul, gospel, rock, even a hint of psychedelia, the band did exactly what their name suggests, raising your spirit to the Nth power, as the stunning vocals of Nick Cassarino, Nigel Hall and Nikki Glaspie (Yes, she sings too!), soaring riffs from Cassarino, sensual rhythms of percussionist Weedie Brimah, cool driving bass of Nate Edgar, created a sound that can only be described as transcendent, both in terms of genre and the way they make you feel. Their opening song “Spirits” was immediately compelling, passionate and uplifting. The set never lost that feel of being lifted higher until I almost forgot where I was. This supergroup embarks on a winter tour after the festival and are not a band, an experience really, to be missed.
Sunday had a full day of music but with no bands overlapping and the five stages cut down to two. I could give my aching legs a bit of a break. I also would have to miss the final bands including Dumpstaphunk, Lettuce and the AfterJam, which I swore I would not miss this year, but alas, the day job… After packing up camp, I made my way to the festival grounds in time for church! Jennifer Hartswick Band was playing at the Porch Stage and she started right off with those powerful vocals with Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” or so I thought. She was only warming up! She had everyone mesmerized and just trying to take it all in for her whole set. She traded in her espresso for a beer and propelled into a crushing Heart’s “Magic Man.” Magic man himself, George Porter Jr. joined in on an expansive, sultry cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” that also featured an incredible solo from guitarist Nick Cassarino.
And talk about church. Taking us to one of the few places true funk is heard regularly was Roosevelt Collier and Nigel Hall’s Gospel Surprise which included, Nikki Glaspie, Nick Cassarino, Andrew Block, Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, James Casey, and Alecia Chakour. Playing Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Remus,” Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Walter Hawkins’ “Goin’ Up Yonder,” they had everyone’s spirits soaring, hands in the air, and giving praise. They reminded the crowd where the power of music comes from and what the power of funk can do!
The fans are a huge part of what makes this a “must attend” festival. The love and energy of this crowd is like no other I have attended. Every time I turned around there was a dance partner or high-five or a hug waiting from old and just-met friends alike. Since people were there to funk it, there were few “chair people,” making for plenty of room to dance, hoop and move through the crowd… even up to the rail. There were also very few occasions of people holding cell phones up trying to capture a show. Most happily left that to the tapers and raged in the moment! There were a few complaints about large rage poles and flags, but, as I never found myself directly behind one, I thought they added to the atmosphere and fun.
One of the things that makes the festivals at SOSMP so thrilling, most especially at Bear Creek, is that you are just as likely to run into any number of musicians in the audience. They appreciate and enjoy hearing each other, and their friendliness with the crowd, becoming one of the fellow fans, breaks down the usual barriers and adds to the universal groove and family feel. The same can be said of both the Bear Creek and SOSMP staff. The goal is clearly to make sure everyone is having a positive experience in a safe environment. The campgrounds are pristine, the bathhouses and restrooms are all attended to, and there are folks to help when car batteries die or a wallet is lost. There is security and police, hand bags are searched, and backpacks and beverages are not allowed in the festival grounds (though allowed in the camping areas), but there is no overbearing presence and there are no invasive searches. And if you’ve partaken of too much fun, Jamcare is onsite to provide medical care “deacreasing the number of unnecessary medical transports and unwarranted legal involvement.” There is a reason those involved, from the producers and staff to the artists and musicians to the fans that flock to the festival, no matter what the weather, refer to themselves as “Bear Creek Family.” If you have not ever been, grab your woolies, find your funk, and get yourself to Bear Creek 2014!