If you were planning to attend a music festival in New Orleans, you would probably expect two things: great New Orleans music and great New Orleans food. Bear Creek Bayou Music Festival delivered on 50% of that. The music was absolutely mind-blowing. We’ll get to that shortly.
But first, it is necessary to speculate whether this is a review or a postmortem. There was so much wrong with Bear Creek Bayou, starting with the fact that there was ZERO Cajun food available from vendors, not one thing to mark this as a Crescent City event.
The nearly non-existent attendance tops the list. It didn’t appear that the crowd topped a thousand patrons (I’m hoping it was better than that). Wherever and however the festival was advertised, it was woefully inadequate. We spoke to a number of locals in New Orleans, some of them true music fans, and not a single one was aware there was a festival in town.
Organizers didn’t work with iconic local radio station WWOZ 90.7 (or not nearly enough). There are so many successful festivals in the Crescent City, which means this could have been successful. Essence Festival, BUKU Music & Arts Project, and Voodoo Music & Arts Experience and many others are all well attended.
There was more. There were adequate port-a-potties (for the small crowd) but no hand-washing station with it. There was no printed schedule for patrons to peruse. And the indoor stage, the Ballroom, would have been suitable for a meat locker or a penguin encounter but not for scantily clad festies walking inside from 80+ degree skies outside. It was miserable in there and could not possibly have been cost-effective to run the air so ridiculously cold.
This was our first urban festival, a very different animal from the camping variety. Many regular festival-goers simply cannot afford a weekend in expensive hotels and stratospheric parking rates. The original Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival was a much-loved funkfest in the woods at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. We certainly hope there will be a 2017 edition, but in order for that to happen organizers must rethink entirely how to attract patrons.
Juxtapose all of that with the fact that this was one of the greatest music festivals ever. Seriously. It was incredible.
Music began Thursday evening with the official pre-party at the Joy Theatre. We arrived toward the end of the set by Pirate’s Choice. The place was nearly empty. Which was a damn shame, because Luke Quaranta and company were knocking out a great set (glad we would see them again on Friday). Weedie Braimah and Quaranta were drumming up a storm with Raja Kassis killing on guitar.
It was really, really cold inside the theatre. REALLY cold. We huddled for warmth (and Donna had her blanket) while waiting for Naughty Professor with special guest Chali 2na. The Naughty Professor boys heated the place up instantly with a song from Out on a Limb, then “Six Paper Joint” from Until Next Time. This was by far the strongest performance I’ve heard from this sextet. And it was the start of the parade of great New Orleans drummers, with Sam Shahin absolutely smoking at the kit.
Chali 2na (one of the weekend’s artists at large) walked on stage for the third song. The former J5 member (Jurassic, not Jacksons) is an engagingly positive hip-hop artist who delighted the crowd with a pair of songs before inviting Dexter Gilmore to the stage to sing and play guitar. Gilmore was very Prince-like with a beautiful voice. Ian Bowman had a great tenor solo on the first tune, “Don’t Stop.”
After another tune pairing Chali and Gilmore, Chali left as Shahin announced that they have been collaborating with Gilmore, then unveiling one of the new tunes they’ve been working on. The horns were killing. Next, Quaranta and Braimah came out for some fun. The set ended with Chali reprising some of the great J5 catalog.
Next up was OG GAT. Let’s interpret that as Old Guard Garage A Trois, since this was the original GAT: Charlie Hunter, Skerik and Stanton Moore. The set began at a leisurely pace but rapidly gained traction. They started with a Hunter tune, “Those People,” with his seven-string guitar always a joy to hear. Then the trio walked into the blues. Skerik (another artist at large) opened the next tune with tenor saxophone loops, followed by a superb terse solo from Moore, another acknowledged NOLA drum master. And then the tune just smoked!
This trio is just so powerful, but the interplay among the three was the most impressive aspect of the set, as Hunter and Skerik weaved great music threads all around Moore’s deft touches and flairs.
They took a Duke Ellington song (“Perdido?”) and stood it on its head. The trio was on fire, exactly why GAT had achieved such prominence before. For the next tune, a procession of artists at large rushed the stage. In the midst of a great tune, Natalie Cressman walked on first to play a dynamite trombone solo. Then Jennifer Hartswick did the same on trumpet. Pee Wee Ellis capped it off with a fine tenor solo. The trio closed with one last excellent workout.
It was late and very, very cold. We opted to check out Soulive the next day.
We arrived at the far end of Mardi Gras World, where two stages were set up on the wide concrete expanse directly on the Mississippi. Music started early with Pirate’s Choice, giving us the opportunity to catch what we had missed the previous night.
To the band’s credit, and to every performer who played throughout the festival, they played as if the place was packed like sardines, when in fact there weren’t a dozen patrons there yet. They had another great set. Ron Johnson was on bass! Artist-at-large Justin Freeman joined in later on for some hip-hop flavors.
The River Stage and the Bayou Stage outside traded sets both days. Meanwhile, the Ballroom Stage (Explore the Arctic) inside began sets which overlapped on stage or the other (or both) outside. At noon, the Tony Hall Band took the main stage. Hall, who plays bass and guitar with Dumpstaphunk, led his band through an incendiary set. It began with a couple of scorching instrumentals.
Then Hall stepped to the mic and launched a huge James Brown tribute with my all-time favorite JB tune, “There Was a Time.” He led his top-notch band through “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat.”
Then it was decision time. We decided to go inside to hear Smoke N Bones bringing the hometown soul and funk, fronted by Mykia Jovan. They played a great song, then were joined by Justin Freeman for a tune. A strong instrumental in the set featured a powerful tenor sax solo from Kyle “Astreaux” Cripps (who also played keyboards).
A tune titled “Amplify” was just superb, with drummer Kyle Sharamitaro also handling vocals. The very Orgōne-like tune featured great guitar from Billy Franklin and dynamite bass playing courtesy of Doug Dietrich. They closed their set with “Nobody Gonna Tell Me How to Do My Thing.”
We jetted out of the frigid air for the sunny outside as Tony Hall was vamping on “I Got You (I Feel Good).” What a fine set to open the Bayou Stage!
Benny Bloom’s Horns-a-Plenty was next on the River Stage. Somehow, sets were starting five to ten minutes late, which seemed odd. Bloom, trumpet player for funk machine Lettuce, made the very most of his time slot. His outstanding band featured three aforementioned artists at large: Natalie Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick and Skerik.
And the setlist was to die for if you were an old-school funk fan: Put It Where You Want It, Tower of Power tune, Ashley’s Roach Clip (Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers), Funkin’ for Jamaica (Tom Browne), Will It Go ‘Round in Circles.
Skerik was too low in the mix for the first several tunes but still blew like crazy. I had not seen him in several years, and his playing all weekend was truly excellent. Bloom made sure everybody had plenty of solo space and took a bit for himself as well. Outstanding and all-too-short set.
It was time to “put it in the Dumpsta!” Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk had the 1:45 slot both days, and they had Nikki Glaspie at the kit for both shows, yet another of the NOLA drum royalty. It was a total throw-down. Which would have sounded a lot better if it hadn’t been at ear-splitting volume. There was absolutely no reason — with 100 or so people there at the time — to have the music cranked up that loud, echoing off the back wall. To review, LOUDER does not equal BETTER. Just LOUDER.
They were on fire, kicking off with “If You Can.” Nick Daniels, Tony Hall and Ivan Neville all sounded great on vocals. After “Living in a World Gone Mad,” they had the four horns up (Cressman, Skerik, Hartswick, and Ellis) to augment their own horn section for “Sledgehammer.” Pee Wee Ellis stayed up for several more songs. The band closed with “Justice,” a very powerful message about our times.
Zach Deputy had his band, the Hashtags, with him for this set. We heard a bit before going inside to check out Chali 2na’s band House of Vibe. He had another very good, positive set, inviting a vocalist on stage for a pair of tunes, then closing the set with more music from Jurassic 5.
It was time to get the Soulive fix we missed the night before. The trio put on the strongest, best show I’ve ever heard from them, pure magic. After a hot opener, they crushed “Third Stone from the Sun > Eleanor Rigby.” Eric Krasno was scorching on guitar. The sound for this set was perfect, with drummer Alan Evans and Hammond B3 stud Neal Evans in great form.
They invited George Porter, Jr., up to sing and play bass on “Turn on Your Lovelight,” always a joy. Kraz was just insane. And he took lead vocal on “Leave Me Alone.”
The Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival was my most favorite, and this new edition was a match in terms of stunning music. I’m just sorry so few people were there to witness the awesomeness.
People make all kinds of choices when there are band overlaps. You will shake your head when I tell you we missed The Nth Power inside to hear Benny Bloom and Soulive; we also missed Flowtribe. You cannot do everything.
And there was no way I was missing the final performance by Earphunk, yet another jewel in New Orleans’ musical cap. Halfway through the band’s recent tour, they announced that this Friday set would be the band’s last. They came out swinging for the fences (yet another sports metaphor), connecting time and again. They started red hot with the heavy prog rock of “Try, Try, Try” and just kept up that insane pace throughout the set. Christian Gallé slid the band into some awesome jamtronica on the second tune, and it just built and built.
It was great watching the faces of the bands two guitarists — Paul Provosty and Mark Hempe — as they dug each other’s solos. Right before the last song, they offered sincere thanks for all who have followed their ride from the band’s inception and first festival performance at Bear Creek 2012.
I was really pumped for Foundation of Funk, the quartet featuring two of the Meters — George Porter, Jr., and Zigaboo Modeliste — plus Eddie Roberts of the New Mastersounds on guitar and John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood) on keyboards. They started hot and kept that pace up the entire show.
Pee Wee Ellis joined in on “Everybody Here,” followed by a Meters tune, then a nasty, slow “Stormy Monday.” And of course we were seeing yet another NOLA drum master in Modeliste. Another pair of Meters tunes sounded awesome: “What’cha Say” and “Cissy Strut.”
We headed outside to thaw out to the sounds of the Budos Band, having themselves yet another hot set as the sun was setting and cool breezes blowing over the festival. Their “’70s psychedelic instrumental music” from Staten Island dovetailed perfectly with the NOLA vibe.
In the midst of that set, I bundled up and headed back inside to hear Bernard Purdie & Friends. His band included Pete Shand (New Mastersounds) on bass and Ivan Neville on keys. It was a revelation. Purdie’s touch on the drum kit is simply amazing. Watching him was equally incredible. Shane in particular was having a great time interacting with the old master. Neville and the guitar player did justice to “Inner City Blues” on vocals, and later Porter and Ellis sat in.
It was time for the latest version of Parliament Funkadelic with George Clinton all dressed up. There were at times as many as 20 on stage, SOP for Clinton. They began with a mash-up of a number of tunes before invoking “Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” There were four female dancers and singers, and visually it was an amazing show. Clinton doesn’t sing or speak much any more; they have a gentleman who recreates many of his famous lines and bits perfectly.
This new edition includes lots of funk favorites and some newer, hard-hitting hip-hop tunes as well. “Flashlight,” as expected, got a huge response, and it segued into “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” and that roared into the “Rubber Duckie/Cosmic Slop” lyrics “Fly, won’t you come fly?” Too much!
Ellis came out to blow on “Up for the Down Stroke.” That was followed by a seldom-played gem, “I’m Never Gonna Tell It.” Damn! They closed with “Give Up the Funk!”
After the P-Funk party (which does actually stop), Papadosio was playing inside. After 11 hours straight and not wishing to freeze again, we were approaching zombie-hood and split.
There was a great afterparty scheduled at Republic NOLA, with Funk Court presided over by The Floozies, along with their friends John Medeski, Skerik, and two of the Lettuce crew: Ryan Zoidis, and Jesus Coomes.
Lessons learned from Day 1 of our first urban festival. We are accustomed to walking on grass, dirt and sand. Twelve hours of concrete is tough. We are accustomed to having the campsite as the place to chill during the day and to take a nap if so desired. There was a nice huge tent where you could hear the music while sitting in the shade, but it wasn’t the same.
Wherefore art thou, Cajun food?
Boukou Groove had the early slot, establishly firmly that Saturday would indeed be filled with New Orleans funk. Khris Royal (leader of Dark Matter) was sitting in on alto sax. We only got to hear the last couple tunes, but they had the heat turned up early.
It was time for more Zigaboo Modeliste, this time with The Funk Review. This was yet another great set chock full of Meters grooves and more. His quintet was superb. I went inside to check out Doombalaya. It was slightly less frigid but still uncomfortable after being outside in the warmth and sun. The band’s five-horn front line was excellent: tenor and soprano saxes, two trumpets and trombone. I caught three very good songs, all horn-driven, with a female vocalist and solid rhythm section, guitar and keyboards.
Back outside, Modeliste had Porter up on stage for “I Want to See My Name Up in Lights,” followed by “Iko Iko” and a kick-ass rocker to close.
Nigel Hall had a short set next on the River Stage, with Khris Royal making another appearance and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff filling in last-minute on guitar. Dumpstaphunk’s regular drummer, Alvin Ford, Jr., was at the kit. They delivered a great set centered around Hall’s magnificent voice and great keyboard playing. Everybody had space to step out. Hall had a great funky intro to the second song. “Running Away” was great, as was “Toot Sweet” (“Tout?”).
Back inside, Cha Wa had the stage. Mardi Gras Indian funk with authentic outfits to boot. The costumes were wonderful, but the band’s music was better. This is a really solid band. We got another “Iko, Iko” with a fine trombone solo from Haruka Kikuchi. And the great bass line was laid down by the tuba player!
Dumpstaphunk, Round Two. They had already started when we walked out to… my favorite song: “I Wish You Would.” Straight up front to dance! Ian Neville and Tony Hall were crushing on guitars, then Hall and Nick Daniels were crushing on bass, Glaspie driving the funk machine. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was brilliant, as were “New Day” and “Justice” (definitely worth hearing twice). How do you finish it off? “Put It in the Dumpsta!”
The Foundation of Funk had round two in Ballroom. Porter and Modeliste wasted no time, leading Roberts and Medeski through “Cissy Strut” and “You’ve Got to Change (You’ve Got to Reform)” from the Meters catalog. they gave Roberts and Medeski lots of room to stretch out and also invited Khris Royal up to add some alto to the mix.
We split early, because Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was about to blow up the Bayou Stage. They were decked out in black, as were a number of the ensembles over the weekend, looking really sharp. DJ Williams had already doffed his jacket, ready to rock. “Dance Lesson #2” was the perfect start with Denson on flute, then switching to tenor sax. Seth Freeman ripped a wicked guitar solo. KDTU features one of the best guitar duos in the business in Freeman and DJ Williams. They are both monster players who love to funk things up.
For their third tune, they tore up a great version of “Show Biz Kids,” with Freeman stepping out again. David Veith stood out next with some superb Hammond B3 work. They played “Smart Boy” from an album to be released soon, and then Skerik wrangled with Karl in a great battle of the tenors on another new song. Chris Stillwell was busy holding down the funky low end.
Drummer Alan Evans (also with Soulive) was featured on a tune he wrote titled “Have You Seen Him?” One more new tune, “Mud Stuff,” followed, and they closed with “Satisfied.” DJ Williams was having a blast all set long, and Chris Littlefield is a joy to hear on trumpet every time out.
I zipped inside to hear a few tunes from Gravity A, yet another fine New Orleans band pumping out solid rock, prog and funk. Khris Royal found his way on stage with them as well. Gravity A rocks!
Somehow, I had missed seeing the Honey Island Swamp Band on several occasions, so I was determined to hear them this time. Correct decision. This octet was hot! The tenor sax and trombone players sitting in were excellent, and Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mulé were rocking on guitars. We really enjoyed “Cast the First Stone.”
LETTUCE. LETTUCE. So nice, you’ve got to say it twice. Best set I’ve ever heard from the Empire State boys. They came out flame-throwing, Ryan Zoidis with a wicked tenor solo to get things started. Nigel Hall sat in on synthesizer, complementing Neal Evans’ Hammond B3. Jesus Coomes and Adam Deitch are a magical rhythm section. They hit Afrobeat, slowed things down with Benny Bloom standing out on trumpet, then blew up “Squadlive,” with Medeski joining the party.
A slow, soulful “Everybody Wants to Change the World” was a great surprise, and they closed with “Do It Like You Do.” Did I mention this band features both Shmeeans AND Kraz?
Somehow, a South Florida band snuck into the lineup. The Heavy Pets are some of the Sunshine State’s greatest ambassadors, and they delivered. This quintet also features two great guitar players in Jeff Lloyd and Mike Garulli, and they rocked. After “Turning,” Lloyd sang his beloved “Jackie Bones.” Khris Royal added alto sax to the mix for a pair of tunes, and he and keyboard wiz Jim Wuest had a huge funkin’ time. They slowed the tempo briefly for “Everything You Can” before closing full throttle with “So Thank You Music.”
I’m not a Floozies fan, but I checked them out briefly — the biggest crowd I saw inside all festival. They were working on top of an Earth, Wind and Fire tune to the delight of the throng.
The most anticipated set of the weekend for me was Green is Beautiful: A Tribute to Grant Green featuring Eddie Roberts. Green, a spectacular Blue Note artists who didn’t get the recognition that Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell did, clearly was a beacon for Roberts and for me. Roberts had put together a stellar quartet with Robert Walter on keyboards, Chris Stillwell on bass, and Alan Evans on drums.
It was so special. We think they began with “Cease the Bombing,” then rolled right into a tune Green played with Big John Patton called “The Turnaround.” Throughout, Walter was simply stunning on B3, and the rhythm section was perfect. They were having such a good time.
Roberts said, “One of the first albums of Green’s I ever heard was His Majesty King Funk!” and from that 1965 album he played “The Cantaloupe Woman,” a tune harkening back to Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” Skerik came out and blew a couple of fabulous tunes (“Upshot” and “I Am Somebody”) in the Hank Mobley/Stanley Turrentine tradition. Then George Porter, Jr., helped out on “A Day in the Life.”
At set’s end, Roberts announced that they were heading to The Maple Leaf at 1 AM to play all night. I was crushed we couldn’t make it. Roberts told me that he was “planning on doing some jazzier sets in the future, hopefully late night Blue Note NYC among at others.” Don’t worry, New Mastersounds fans, he can multitask!
The evening’s headliners, The Flaming Lips, were once again blowing minds with their surreal show, including a rainbow that seemed to appear from nowhere and Wayne Coyne walking on the crowd in a giant inflatable hamster ball. They had everybody’s attention.
Sadly, it was once again far too cold to sit inside at this later hour, regardless of how much we were dying to hear Lotus.
We also missed Roberts’ Maple Leaf set and the official afterparty at The Howlin’ Wolf with an All-Star Tribute to Bernie Worrell.
Bear Creek continues to be my favorite festival of all — in terms of music. We pray that the organizers can take an honest critical look at the operational parts of the festival in desperate need of repair and make Bear Creek Bayou a New Orleans success.
We apologize for the lack of photographs. MusicFestNews did not learn until two days before the start of the fest that our request for press credentials was denied.