Article by Skip Tapp
Photography by Jeffrey Dupuis
The beautiful Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park near Live Oak, FL was home to the annual Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival. The park is familiar to many festival goers as it is the home of the Allman Brothers Wanee Fest and both the spring and fall Magnolia Music festivals. The weather was amazing, highs in the low 70’s, plenty of sunshine and cool evenings with lows dropping to the low 50’s. The festival management was lucky though, a late November hurricane, Ida, blew through to the west and brought several inches of rain as it passed the area just a few days prior to the start of the event.
Having held so many festivals, the event staff at Suwannee know what they are doing. Check in flowed smoothly, camping was plentiful and the staff were very pleasant. The Bear Creek event utilizes six different stages. The amphitheater stage, nestled under shade trees in a natural amphitheater setting, complete with stepped seating and where many many people string hammocks between the trees was called the Big IV Amphitheater. Just across the camp road was another stage which was at the entrance to the vendors row and was called the Uncle Charles stage.
In the large field in front of what is normally the main stage for festivals, sat a large big top circus tent known as the Purple Hat Circus Tent. The Purple Hat Circus tent was in dedication to Rachel Hoffman, a well liked festival goer whose favorite festival gear was a wide floppy purple hat. Rachel whose untimely death trying to help police in a drug bust inspired what is now known as “Rachel’s Law”, which requires the police to establish and follow guidelines for dealing with informants. From taking into consideration factors of age and mental stability, to preventing them from misleading informants into thinking they can offer them more lenient sentences, a power not in their purview. The purple hats were in abundance as many wore them to honor Rachel.
The Camp Ground Stage was a small stage set up, as you would expect, in one of the many camping areas. This stage provided a beautiful view of one of the ponds in the park. The last two stages were in the Music Hall, an indoor venue with stages at each end of the hall.
The festival architects, Paul Levine and Lyle Williams, were inspired to put on a festival in the spirit of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the High Sierra Music Fest. The lineup was filled with New Orleans grown musicians, including headliners, Galactic and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, who both played twice.
The Music Hall stage is where the festivities began with an early show Thursday night. Gravity A, a New Orleans based group, started the evening off followed by a couple of South Florida bands, Brother Bean and the Heavy Pets. Also filling out the evening were Pnuma Live PA, the Pimps of Joytime from Brooklyn, NY, who blend soul, and the theme of the weekend, funk, along with Latin, Afro-beat and pop influences. Toubab Krewe, the amazing Afro-beat ensemble, closed out the night. Each band from Thursday night would play second sets throughout the weekend.
Friday morning kicked off bright and early utilizing all six stages, so you had to have your walking gear on if you wanted to see shows at all six. Highlights of the day for this reviewer were 1) Shak Nasti, an Orlando based group, who were joined on the steel guitar by,The Lee Boys, Roosevelt Collier. 2) Bonerama, another of the New Orleans groups in attendance, who front the stage with a trio of trombone players, 3) Sol Driven Train, a band out of Charleston, SC, who took the stage wearing marching band uniforms who play a funky type of Southern rock and can play a beat on anything, including parts of the stage, 4) as always, Hill Country Revue, on thisnight Cody Dickinson was just going off, from the playing on his guitar to playing of his washboard and 5) Lotus, a band who I had not seen before and was highly impressed with the driving beat and danceability of their music.
Saturday was another busy day, even more music going on then on Friday. This brings up one of the disappointments I have with the Bear Creek Festival, there is just to much good music and to much overlap. For instance, three bands I really wanted to see, The Slip, Heavy Pets and Galactic all played at virtually the same time. The Slip starting at 7:00, Galactic starting at 7:15 and Heavy Pets starting at 7:30. Luckily Galactic and Heavy Pets both played twice on different days so I put my focus on The Slip for the evening show and I wasn’t disappointed. Other highlights of the night were Papa Mali and his impressive guitar work and smokey vocals, Steve Kimock and Crazy Engine, featuring long time Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seals and Steve’s son on the drums and the always impressive Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk and one of my all time favorites Perpetual Groove, whose name is so fitting, as they certainly do provide a perpetual groove that keeps you moving through their entire show.
Sunday, the last day was a much more laid back day. Brock Butler, of Perpetual Groove, started off the day as he does at Perpetual Groove’s festival, Amberland, with a Brockfast show just to get everybody up, in a good mood and grooving. Next up was Bobby Lee Rodgers playing with his new found friends from Atlanta the Donna Hopkins Band. They seemed to swap off back and forth between Bobby’s songs then songs performed by Donna’s band. I was so beat after all the walking from the previous days that I stayed at the Big IV Amphitheater Stage and Uncle Charles Stage which were adjacent. I was not disappointed. The Yonrico Scott Band brought a little of that Motown Soul, some funk and blues to the afternoon. A surprise act was a band called Surprise Me Mr. Davis, this is solo folk artist Nathan Moore, who had performed on Saturday, and The Slip, who have combined their talents to bring an electric folk groove that hits the spot. Repeat performers were Dubconcious, Galactic, complete with crowd hopping light rig climbing trombone player, and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. Other Sunday performers included Dr. Claw and the New Mastersounds.
All in all Bear Creek did not fail to provide the funk, jazz and rock that get the body and soul moving. As the almost 6,000 in attendance will testify.