Surgeon General’s warning: If you are allergic to glowing adjectives, effusive superlatives and the occasional hyperbole, please skip the remainder of this review and the next three Bear Creek installments.
Still with me? OK, but you have been warned.
Most festival-goers have a favorite. Mine is Bear Creek. This is my sixth trip to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, and every one has been an incredible musical journey.
Confession: when I looked at the line-up, I failed to look at the bottom of the list, where Paul Levine was clearly “hiding” the names of the artists-at-large, so I didn’t notice any ‘old-school’ representatives. Certainly, headliners Lettuce, the New Mastersounds, Dumpstafunk and Soulive (plus skyrocketing The Nth Power) anchored the festivities properly, but about that bench strength? I was concerned.
I love being wrong. I must. I mean, I am wrong so often. This time, stupendously wrong. Bear Creek 2014 was mind-blowing, start to finish.
I have two mantras. The first is a general remark about music: make sure to check out bands you’ve never heard about before. There will always be wonderful surprises.
The second is: NEVER MISS A BEAR CREEK THURSDAY. EVER.
You may recall that I never make it to the Sunday afternoon > evening finale with the aforementioned headliners. To many, that must seem sacrilegious. I simply cannot swing three days off from school, and Thursday is sacred to me. Bear Creek Thursdays have always been amazing, but this… this… this was infinity… and beyond!
Music began at 2 PM. By 6, I’d already received my money’s worth of music. By the time the Main Squeeze shut down the Music Hall at 2:45 AM, I declared this as great a day of music as I’ve ever heard. (And there are three more to go!)
Every year, the first band I’ve seen at BC has set the tone for the weekend (Shak Nasti, the Heavy Pets, London Souls, Savi Fernandez Band, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes). This year, it was the triple punch of the first three bands. Freddy’s Finest, a quintet out of the ATL, got the honor of opening the proceedings. It’s a mixed blessing, because many people are still arriving, and most don’t get to the park until Friday, some not until Saturday.
Freddy’s Finest came out smoking hot, jazzy funk jams filling the air while tents and campsites were popping up throughout the 600 acres of woods. The festy kids at Buffalo’s Amphitheater stage had a great time dancing and nodding, enjoying the official kick-off. Freddy’s Finest did us all proud.
The Dirk Quinn Band then amped up on DC’s Forest Stage (newly located just beyond the main festival grounds fences up the hill from the amphitheater). DQB, from the City of Brotherly Love, play engaging jammy rock, and everybody was digging the groove. Leader Quinn was a great front man and fine guitar slinger.
Mantra Number Three: IT’S THE RHYTHM SECTION, STUPID! (I’m talking to me, not you!) A powerful bass-and-drums combo is essential to success in this environment. FF had the formula down, and DQB even more so. A strong “Cissy Strut” in the middle of great originals gave everybody room to groove.
Back down the hill, there is simply no way we could have been prepared for what was about to unfold on stage as the Funky Knuckles (from Dallas) unveiled a brilliant set. The sextet strode confidently from Shorter/Hubbard/Jazz Messengers grooves to deep Brecker Brothers funk. Kenny Harvey (bass for Holey Miss Moley) and I just stood there with our jaws on the ground. They were magnificent (the band, not our jaws).
The Broadcast pairs a strong female singer with a superb band. This was not my favorite set, but the quartet is very strong, and her stage presence is engaging. I’ll check them out again, but I wanted to get to the Music Hall to see Herd of Watts. I had seen a brief portion of their Orange Blossom Jam set last May and said then I needed a second shot. I don’t remember what I heard at OBJ, but the Herd of Watts set at BC was about two light years beyond.
They were excellent. HoW features the same instrumentation as the Funky Knuckles (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet and tenor sax), presented differently. Whereas the trumpet and tenor sax were out front for FK, the HoW horns stood toward the back of the stage. They were no less effective, however, in funking up the place. Jam, rock, funk, jazz – like most of the bands on our scene, and especially those at BC, these boys are can do it all. Their set featured lots of great original tunes and a knock-out version of The Who’s “Eminence Front.” (Does anybody know what that song means? I have no clue. Doesn’t matter; I love it.) The nearly full Music Hall on an early Thursday was a welcoming sight. And it turns out I was camped right next to this group; they made great neighbors!
Because of the first real music overlap, I missed much of the set by See-I. During their sound check earlier, they laid down some superb straight-ahead jazz grooves. In performance, they are primarily a reggae hip-hop band. Normally, this would have been of marginal interest, but the band played so well, and the singers were so positive and engaging that they drew me in. See-I is also an acronym for State, Elaborate, Exemplify and Illustrate. It is a perfect description of the band’s musical message and delivery. And they quoted Chuck Brown: “I feel like bustin’ loose…”
From the amphitheater back to the forest, Locos Por Juana offered an interesting variation with Latino-reggae themes. Once again, the band was rock solid, often featuring their fine tenor sax player. The exuberant vocalist and front man was a treat to watch.
I bailed early, but only because I wanted to hear S.P.O.R.E. again. I had seen this Jacksonville band this summer (down a guitar), and they were superb. How would they be at full strength? Absolutely incredible, it seems. They were just blasting, funking, jamming, rocking, throwing down song after song with exuberant abandon. Somebody had told me S.P.O.R.E. planned to blow it up in the Music Hall. Truer words…
Early in the set, they called up guitar monster Savi Fernandez to join them on “Innoculate,” and he ripped a superb solo. I don’t know if this was the only opportunity he got to play all weekend, but I was sure glad I caught this one.
Zach Deputy was holding forth at the amphitheater. If you could not see the stage and only hear him, you’d swear there was an entire band behind him. There are other talented loopers out there, Keller first and foremost, Legacy in Central Florida, but Zach has a magic spin to his approach. In the thesaurus, ‘Zach Deputy’ is synonymous with ‘infectious’ and ‘irresistible.’ He was hitting an island groove when I arrived, later shifting to even heavier funk and a bit of James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’.”
Austin’s Mingo Fishtrap had the next slot on the Forest stage, and they made the most of it. The vocalist reminded me simultaneously of Jans Ingber of the Motet and David Shaw of the Revivalists, visually and aurally. Punchy horns delivered the funk in flurries.
When I last saw Orgone in January in Jacksonville (with the New Mastersounds and Monophonics, just before they jumped on the Jam Cruise), I was totally knocked out. Singer Adryon deLeon was great, band leader/guitarist/singer Sergio Rios was amazing, and the band was on the one, but for me the star was bassist Tim Glum. He owned the evening.
Fast-forward to Bear Creek. This time, it was bassist Dale Jennings who stole the show (and the night)! You know how I feel about rhythm sections. If I never see another performer at Bear Creek impress me more than Jennings this night at the amphitheater, I will not be surprised. Wikipedia says “Orgone energy is a hypothetical universal life force originally proposed in the 1930s by Wilhelm Reich.” For me, this band puts theory into practice!
For those who understand the reference, singer deLeon is a soul belter who reminds me of Candy Givens of Zephyr. She was lit up all evening, and Rios was superb and fun to watch. This was as great a funk performance as I have ever seen, and I’m going back to Sly, P-Funk, EW&F and Graham Central Station.
When they hit “Time is Tight,” I was beyond bliss, and the band just kept knocking out song after amazing song. These seem to be a bunch of new compositions, based on not seeing any of them on archive.org setlists as recent as August. “You Are the Sun,” “Keep the Fires Burning” and “Love is the Answer” were equally impressive (and I’m guessing at actual titles).
My musical ignorance potentially on display, she had a beautiful alto voice, although it could soar to the stratosphere when called upon. That provided an interesting comparison to follow.
I almost didn’t go to the Music Hall to see the Main Squeeze. That would have been a HUGE mistake! The band had similar instrumentation to Orgone and a very similar feel. Here was the fascinating part. Vocalist Corey Frye’s alto voice was a near-perfect match to deLeon’s! Very cool! It worked perfectly in back-to-back sets like these.
Once again, the playing was superb. After knocking out a few great tunes, they were joined by the name at the bottom right on the list of artists-at-large (you know, the part of the list I didn’t read): Brandon ’Taz’ Niederauer. Write that name down now, because you’ll be hearing it endlessly in the near future — and on the lips of every Bear Creeker.
Taz is a superb guitar player with great technique, nice use of pedals, and amazing musical ideas and invention. Did I mention that he is ELEVEN YEARS OLD? Looks about four feet tall? Awed all of the musicians at Bear Creek? A straight-A student? Seriously, many, many adults I have heard on guitar don’t have his chops OR his ability to solo.
After Taz’s spot, they covered MJ’s “Off the Wall,” which was OK. Some time and several good originals later, they let a spacy jam lead its way into “No Quarter.” Zeppelin? From a funk band? Hell, yeah!
The day’s statistics: 12 performances seen, 8 new bands, 2 I’d only seen one. I liked everything, and seven sets were excellent. What a superb day and way to start Bear Creek 2014!
Great seeing my peeps at Short-Cut Camp (more about all of them in a later installment), the Herd of Watts folks, Kenny (HMM), Captain Mark, Paul Levine, Rev. Hugh and Jenifer.
Hey! Where’s Dale?
GO, LEHIGH! BEAT LAFAYETTE!