I love music festivals. I can explain this in the context of the first three bands I saw perform at the 8th Annual Purple Hatter’s Ball, held in loving memory of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. I missed the first artist at the Thursday pre-party, El Dub, but I could have left the park happy after seeing Flat Land, Mouth and Cure for the Common: they were that amazing.
I love seeing bands I’ve seen before have the chance to perform in a festival setting, expanding their fanbase by displaying their wares. Flat Land is a brilliant quartet (plus one) from nearby Gainesville; “Just a hop, skip and a jump,” said Fae Nageon de Lestang, vocalist and violin player for Flat Land. What I’ll say about this band I can happily say about almost every band on our scene: they somehow manage to find a new level each time out. I keep feeling it’s a roller coaster ride with no downs, only ups.
Fae is a remarkable vocalist who says she had never really done much public singing until the band’s previous singer left the band, and her violin-playing is wonderful. Chris Storey had a superb night on guitar, as songs ranged from ones from their EP to Led Zeppelin-esque majesty, concluding with a Zep medley of “Ramble On > Black Dog.” The theme, the leitmotif of the weekend, however, was (as usual): IT’S ALL ABOUT THAT BASS… AND DRUMS. Nick and Grant McLeod (and Ian McLeod on percussion) blew it up, getting the festival off to a rousing start.
The other aspect of festivals that I love is discovering new bands. That happened twice in a row after Flat Land. So here it is (and I confirmed my opinion hearing all three bands again Friday): there was great music all weekend, but it never got BETTER than these three groups.
Mouth, a quartet from Lawrence KS, hit the amphitheatre stage running and never slowed down. The started off in A+ mode and just never let up. Two guitars, bass and drums. Just read the remark above about bass and drums (op. cit.). Most of their music is jammy magnificence. There was only one vocal tune in an excellent instrumental outing. One of the guitarists had some fabulous pedals that alternately gave him a Hammond B3 sound, and tenor sax, and steel drums.
Pat and I were just stunned. This was over-the-top amazing. These boys could stand on stage with anybody. You name ‘em. They belong there. Their signature piece was a ridiculous jam called “Jumanji” that just ripped out heads off.
We left the amphitheatre to check out another group new to us: Cure for the Common. How the heck does a band from Bozemont, Montana, get to a Florida festival, anyway? (Turns out it was a connection with their lighting engineer.) And this band blew us away, too. It was simply amazing. Nobody was walking away, that’s for sure. Toward the end of their set, they hit a spectacular jam that makes me invoke my musical mantra: in the moment, this was as good as it gets (that goes for Flat Land and Mouth as well). The song was an original called “Pinnacle,” and if that hadn’t put us completely into orbit, then a sick cover of “Rock the Casbah,” with a ridiculous jam sandwiched in the middle, did the trick.
Next up was Elephant Revival. When the pre-party was announced, this quintet was at the top of the list. They are an amazing acoustic bluegrass band deserving of this headlining slot.
Except, in the context of the evening, it was the wrong slot. Even their most devout fans said so. They sounded wonderful, but this set would have been perfect at 7. Stuck between three knock-out performances and the upcoming Space Capone set, they almost got lost. Hindsight is 20/20; there was no way to predict how the early evening would play out.
Xx, the washboard lady, has a wonderful voice. I really, really want to see this band again in the proper setting.
There were two reasons I made sure I made it to the Thursday pre-party. One was Flat Land, who had been so impressive at Gov-Fest in February and again paired up with Come Back Alice. The other was Space Capone. His two sets at Bear Creek 2013 were the stuff of legend.
If you try to explain to someone that Space Capone plays disco pop, the usual reaction is a wrinkled-up nose: “I don’t like disco OR pop.” This band is incredibly tight. Aaron W (Space Capone) gave the horn players plenty of solo space, and they killed it. The guitar player had a stunning evening, ripping off excellent solo after solo. Aaron was his usual xx self, and everyone was glad they closed with “Back to the House.”
I was beyond overtired (I had gone to Orlando the night before to see Leisure Chief and TAUK), so I sat down briefly to see Dubconscious, planning to leave shortly. Didn’t happen; they were great. There was reggae, ska, Latin reggae and more. My favorite song included this brilliant refrain: “This conversation is almost past tense.”
The early slots at a festival are always tough, because many folks are just tumbling out of their tents and campers and groping around for coffee, or beer, or some ‘shine, or something. I love rolling out in time to catch as much music as I possibly can. And there was no way I would miss New Earth Army, one of my favorite bands, from somewhere out there in UCLA (that’s Upper ‘Cola/Lower Alabama).
The band’s younger sax player, Josh Zook (alto) is away at Berkelee School of Music, but he made the effort to get to PHB to wrangle and tangle with Ben Johnson on saxophones (Ben plays tenor). Singer Carly claimed she was tired, having flown in from California the previous day, but somehow she did some of her best dancing ever to complement her wonderful voice. The funk piled up deep when they hit a medley early in the set that started innocently enough with “Shakedown Street” and then just exploded into Kool and the Gang and Bel, Biv, Devoe, and after that I lost track.
Up next on the amphitheatre stage was a large collective called the Kansas Bible Company. Don’t judge a bible by its cover; these boys were hot. How many guys on stage? Ten? A dozen? They rocked some psychedelic jazziness with horns.
First tough decision of the day: King Cotton, from Tallahassee, or Mouth, the Kansas quartet who blew it up beyond belief the day before. It was Mouth, by a knock-out. Well, they knocked me out. Pat, too. They again slammed their tune “Jumanji” into outer space.
It’s worth mentioning here that, just as the schedule would have it, I saw all of the sets on Momma Margie’s Forest Stage on Friday and many on Saturday. The Jam from Gainesville was responsible for the sound, and it was spectacular all weekend long (even that last ‘event’). Kudos to Charlie and Shorty and all of the folks who make it happen. Every musician knows that’s the difference between musical life and death.
I was really hoping I could find a ride down to the beach stage at the river to catch Flat Land again. I ended up walking all the way there, which seemed really far in the sun with beer goggles on, but the reward more than justified the trip. Flat Land again threw down a great set of music for the people watching and those on the beach and down in the river. I was delighted to hear “Rufio’s Last Stand” again, and the end of the set found Fae belting out “You Really Got Me,” followed by their song “12/8.”
They were alternating DJ sets and band sets there on the cleverly designed stage. Ben Danner had a strong set going, with plenty of dancing all around. Thank heavens I eventually found a ride back!
It was time for another decision like the previous one: MZG, whom I knew nothing about, or Daria and the Hip Drops. Their music looked fascinating online, but I discovered that barely scratched the surface. Daria has a great voice, and she played steel pans as well. The band was solid, and this set was great.
For those who missed my pathetic Facebook posts, I lost my little red notebook Saturday night, where I try to scribble all sorts of nifty things to add to my review. My little notebook is still out there somewhere, far from home, all alone. Or in a trash heap someplace, more likely.
Next up was a nice presentation from Alex Grey and Allison Grey, after which they painted onstage as Random Rab did his thing after a warm welcome from Paul Levine. And then it was time for yet another decision (this was because having music on Uncle Charlie’s Porch Stage and the Forest Stage simultaneously worked so well). I opted for Cure for the Common, the third band who had an amazing Thursday set. Somehow, they found another gear and put us all in a tizzy. At some point, Frank Douglas, the band’s lighting director (and former Floridian) was coaxed to the stage, and suddenly out spilled Jim Morrison’s voice with the Doors playing underneath on “Ghost Song” (this was originally poetry by Morrison which the band added music to years later). Douglas was eerily awesome. Then, in the midst of some heavy jamming, they nailed “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” with Steve Brown perfect on the falsetto. Just in case you don’t think ‘electro thunder funk’ can come from Montana. Because you would be WRONG!
Headliners Nahko and Medicine for the People brought their ‘acoustic THUMP-HOP’ to pour all over the packed crowd at the amphitheatre stage. Nahko looks like he’s about five-foot five but plays like he’s Wilt Chamberlain (hey, I’m real old school!). This was a great set, extremely well received on a beautiful night at the most wonderful venue anywhere.
Time for the last decision of the night. The Malah was up, and I really like them, but my son said a couple of guys he knows who work at New Leaf in Tallahassee were playing and that I should check them out. Trial by Stone was getting ready on the Forest Stage. I went to introduce myself and was warmly greeted by Buck, the guitarist and singer for the band.
I’m not a huge reggae fan, so I figured I would catch a bit of the set and then meander over to the Malah. Didn’t happen. Trial by Stone plays full frontal reggae, slamming-in-your-face, drums and bass constantly pulsing, two trombones blasting, and Buck going hog-wild. In other words, perfect. It was so much fun, exactly what I was looking for at the time.
The Werks got the honor of closing down the amphitheatre, and they did so in great style. They are chameleon-like, able to shape-shift their sound to a variety of styles, but this show was jammin’. Big-time jammin’.
I was totally out of gas and didn’t even look at the Silent Disco. That I would save until Saturday night.
A variety of things were on tap for Saturday. The Beach stage (river stage) was still going. On the Forest Stage, we had variations of Afrobeat music for almost the entire day. And then there is the story of Bret Bass and Carmen.
Carmen is a precocious four-year-old whose parents camp where I do – in the loving confines of Short-Cut Camp (look for a story about Bryan Scroggie and his wonderful art installations coming soon!). Carmen, like children her age, like to change clothes often and play in the water and generally have a good time. But she also LOVES Brett Bass, the guitar player for Grandpa’s Cough Medicine. Carmen’s parents and all in our camp are big fans, but no one as much as Carmen.
I had split camp to catch an excellent Afrobeat band from New York, with several West African musicians. Benyoro played a terrific set. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Kerri was playing the Infamous Stringdusters. Carmen said, “I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear Brett Bass.” Just as Kerri was changing the iPod to Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, into camp walked the three members of the band. It’s a good thing Carmen washed her sparkly shoes for the show!
I walked from Forest to amphitheatre just as GCM was about to start their set. Within moments, Carmen had run past security and up onto the stage, where she stood, next to Brett Bass, for the entire show (except to run off for a drink of water from dad Jeff, in the wings). I can assure you that no other image was captured by more photographers than that.
Two highlights need mention. At some point, Brett got down on one knee to play to her. The other occurred when she asked him a question, and he said to her, “We don’t know those songs.” Then bassist John Murphy explained, “Brett is explaining to Carmen that we don’t know any of the songs from Frozen.” (I learned later she was on stage with Beebs and Her Money Makers at Gov-Fest, where Carmen asked the same question, with the same sad reply. I mean, come ON; she was wearing a Frozen dress!)
Fortunately, Carmen’s presence on stage did not deter GCM from singing about pedophiles, “denim prisons,” cops on the take and numerous other questionable topics, much to the crowd’s delight. Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is one of the featured performers at Jacksonville’s Jazz Fest After Dark May 22-24.
The next assemblage on the Forest stage was a special performance from Raja Kassis’s Humanbeing, more superb Afrobeat music. Raja was an engaging front man, making sure to highlight his excellent set of musicians. I think it was Raja who covered my favorite Bob Marley song, “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry).” He was careful to explain that, after Toubab Krewe up next, all of the musicians would get together for the Supermande Jam.
If you call your band Empire Strikes Brass, you’d better be able to back it up. This Asheville collective did that and more. I lost count again. Ten? Twelve? And they were trading horns: trumpet to tuba? Of course there was Star Wars music, plus plenty more of what they call “brassfunkrock.”
Time for yet another difficult decision: Toubab Krewe, also from Asheville, versus Atlanta’s Cadillac Jones. Toubab are the Afrobeat jam kings, capable of magnificent Mali music, rock and surf punk, all in one song. I love them, but this was only my fourth opportunity to see Cadillac Jones, and they had blown me away all three previous sets.
Correct decision for me. The band is so incredibly tight, and the horns are amazing. But this was a day for guitarist Gary Kurz to go nuts. Totally flipping bonkers. He was lit up. And it all climaxed in, thank you very much, my favorite song of theirs, “Friend or Foe.” I am rarely on the rail, but I was front and center for this one, as were Buck, from Trial by Stone, and his ladyfriend.
All weekend long, we were reminded of what a special gathering this is and how wonderful Rachel Morningstar Hoffman was, before her life was senseless snuffed out. In fact, there was a very special feeling to the gathering the entire weekend. This was my 20th time at a festival at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, but it was my first Purple Hatter’s Ball… and the first time I had ever been to a relatively small festival (compared to Wanee, Bear Creek or AURA). Before we get back to Rachel, please not that it might have been a smaller festival, but the music was huge, a weekend as great as those other fests, owing in no small part to the vibe of community and purpose to the weekend.
Rachel Hoffman’s death eight years ago and the drive in the years since to enact stronger legislation to protect people being coerced into confidential informant status by the police are the impetus behind the Purple Hatter’s Ball, the reason for its inception and for its continuation. No one who has attended will ever forget that.
Momma Margie Hoffman spoke to us at length about Rachel, our community, efforts to strengthen Rachel’s Law in Florida and the push to take it nationally. It was very special, highlighted by the release of monarch butterflies. Dubconscious was the perfect choice to lead us out of her remarks.
I was itching to see that Supermande Jam, but TAUK, the boys from Lon Gisland (well, if you say it ‘right’), were on Uncle Charles’ Porch Stage. I am so insane I had driven to Orlando the night before PHB to see them with The Groove Orient. Given that they usually rock for two hours or so, they pared down the set to the hour and a quarter allotted. This was a wonderful, spacy, trippy set, and I heard people talking about it the whole next week.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires had the next amphitheatre slot. His bio is worth reading some time. He is a great performer and singer, and his band is old-school soul and R&B. Everybody adores him. Me? I think he’s great, but I still prefer Eugene Snowden and the Legendary JCs. That’s just me. I’ll see Bradley any time. It’s just great knowing that there are so many bands who want to take us back to the 60s and 70s. I can vouch, because I was there. These bands ARE the real deal.
Another decision, but nothing to think about here. I like Greenhouse Lounge. A lot. Seen them a bunch. But there is a very special place in my musical pantheon for the Parker Urban Band out of Jacksonville. They and the Lee Boys were put on this planet to lift all of us up. If you don’t feel elated when these folks are done, there is no reason to check your pulse: you’re dead.
I first encountered the ladies of PUB at the Downtown River Jam. Bobby Lee Rodgers, who clearly dotes on this group as much as I do, was playing and asked Juanita Parkerurban to come on stage to sing, and it was deluxe. Then he motioned for Myrna Stallworth to come up as well. I had no idea who these ladies were, but it took about five seconds to figure out what they could do: bring the house down. WOW!
I missed their set at Wanee, but again Bobby Lee Rodgers brought the ladies and guitarist and band leader John Parkerurban on stage for half an hour of his Thursday Wanee set. I wasn’t about to miss this.
It was legendary. Truly. Even Shorty and the sound people were talking about it. They generated the same sort of buzz that followed their Wanee set. Superb music and heavenly voices that stir you to your soul. Check. Pat and Kerri and just everybody going wild. Check.
One other thing, and I pray this will in no way embarrass a wonderful and shy person. Myrna Stallworth is very shy and soft-spoken, right up to the moment she steps on stage. Then, for the entire set, there is a separate Myrna show. When she is not singing, she is dancing, moving, smiling, in her own magical musical world. Pat and I hope the Myrna show never stops; it is wonderful to behold. And we thank you.
Lotus had the closing slot, and the crushed it, with a capital CRUSHED. I love their jamtronic rock, jammy, post-rock(?) electro sounds. And this set was brilliant. Apparently they were dialed in to exactly what I wanted to hear. Heads were bobbing everywhere, occasionally even in time with the lasers!
I did make it to the Silent Disco. Chews and Brother Dan were on (your headphones have two channels, and you can switch back and forth between them) during the first of three hours. I really like Chews, but at the time these were not the DJs my brain was looking for.
There are bands locally that I somehow see to studiously avoid, for no reason I can figure out. One such was the Galbraith Group. People certainly talked about this family affair, with sisters Ashley and Taylor on bass and drums, respectively, and brother Josh on guitar. They turned a lot of heads with a remarkable set that you simply would not have expected.
First, each member of the band is great. Truly great. Ashley and Taylor are one badass rhythm section, and they provided the perfect foundation for a trip back to the 70s (thank you again). Listening to Josh surf atop the beat reminds you of Winter, Lee and Hendrix, to name but three from that time, and very favorably at that. They played lots of nasty blues, they funked, they jumped in “The Ocean,” and they blew everybody away.
Except, possibly, for the dude who was already completely baked (this was noon) who yelled, “Is this a family? Brothers?” Really? Dude, you failed first-grade math right there!
When I was researching the Scott Campbell Band, I saw that he is an extremely talented musician who played punk back in the day and could do about anything. On my way in on Thursday, somebody intimated that they might cover the Blind Faith album. I forgot all about that, right up until they nailed those first chords to “Had to Cry Today.”
So how on earth were they going to cover this album? No keyboard player; Campbell looks like he’s nearly in my age bracket (that’s the AARP club). And this woman was standing there at the microphone.
NAILED IT. NAILED IT. Six times nailed it. What a delight. Then I’m looking around, realizing that many people had NO idea what was going down. Bass and drums were rock-steady and perfect for this outing. Campbell was a pure delight, such great tone on these songs at least some of us knew note for note. But it was Miss Avis Berry who sent this project over the top. She was magnificent. She scatted, she sang, she owned this set lyrically. After the album was complete, the band did a couple of Traffic songs to close out a tremendous set.
Sunday was a day with no decision (well, one, later one), since two stages were being used alternately. So it was back up the hill to hear some of my hometown favorites, Future Vintage, the only really jamtronic act I know in the Tampa Bay area. They have been refining their sound over the past year and a half I have been seeing them, and they are excellent. Bassist Trevor McDannel has been killing it lately, and keyboard wizard Matt Giancola throws together a mix of a dozen of his keyboard toys to great effect. This set was a blast of electro-funk goodness… and nastiness! Heads were bobbing!
Adrian Crutchfield and the Extraordinary Gentlemen had the next slot on the amphitheatre stage. It was a mix of smooth-ish jazz and funky hip-hop which just didn’t catch my fancy. There were lots of dancers who disagreed with me.
I was really pumped to see Aaron Lebos Reality. Aaron’s band is from Miami, and I had searched YouTube videos and thought this would be great. Once again, I underestimated. This was a tremendous set of fusion jazz from the quartet of keyboards, bass, drums and Aaron on guitar. The crowd reaction was very rewarding.
My Orlando boys, Shak Nasti, had the penultimate slot at the amphitheatre. This would be my 42nd Shak show, so you know I’m obsessed. After a hiatus for a couple of years, this trio has come roaring back. Tim Turner, guitar, Matt Lapham, bass, and Rion Smith, drums, have been together ten years, and they can play with anybody. ANYBODY. Percussionist Ito Colon has been playing with them often, and for this gig they also pulled in Keegan Matthews, the fine keyboard player for Leisure Chief, another Orlando jazz-funk powerhouse.
Oddly enough, this was the only set all weekend where the sound balance was less than optimal. The bass and bass drum blurred some of the sound. Despite that, the group played a fine set, including “Lemon Lime,” “Lisa” and “Mind Bomb.” It was great to see them on this stage again; they opened Bear Creek 2009 on the same stage.
You know that your first instinct is usually correct. When I looked at the original line-up and saw ‘Sex Manatee’s Basshole,’ I wrinkled my nose. And I correctly surmised that this was the dude from Catfish Alliance, not on my favorites list.
You say Basshole (like the instrument).
I say Basshole (like the fish).
The last set at AURA was Roosevelt Collier’s Suwannee jam, and Roosevelt was set to shut down the Purple Hatter’s Ball in similar fashion. In fact, this music has such traction that SoSMP has added two Roosevelt Collier Suwannee Getdown weekends this summer (June 26 & 27 and July 31 & August 1). In six years Roosevelt has emerged as a superstar, deservedly so. I first saw him outside the context of the Lee Boys at that 2009 Bear Creek, with Shak Nasti, when they were able to find an open slot Saturday in the Music Hall. Since then, they have made a lot of beautiful music together, including Roosevelt’s birthday bash in Orlando on April 23rd.
Just like at the birthday party, they began with a jam that continued to build. Initially, it was Roosevelt along with the Shak Nasti trio and Colon. 15 minutes into the jam, Roosevelt called Matthews to the stage. It was if there were a magic switch there. The instant, the very instant Matthews hit his organ, the jam absolutely BLEW. UP. It’s his fault.
The jam continued to get sicker and sicker – for another 20 minutes. Suddenly, Roosevelt halted the proceedings and played a tender tune on his pedal steel guitar for Rachel (I should know what it was, but…). After that two-minute pause to refresh, Roosevelt counted the band right back into the jam for another five minutes. It was amazing.
And then the guests invaded the stage, guys from Toubab Krewe and others as well. It was epic.
Finally, we were waaaay past curfew for a Sunday night, and Paul Levine bid us all a fond farewell in Rachel’s memory.
Bigger doesn’t make it better. It’s what’s inside that counts. This festival has enormous heart and minions who will not let Rachel’s memory fade.
Purple Hatter’s Ball forever!