AURA Music & Arts Festival | Friday 02.14.14

Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak FL

OK, boys and girls!  Let’s start with a short pop quiz!

Question 1: What is the difference between AURA and Bear Creek?

While you are pondering that, here is Question 2: what would possess a person to sit in the north Florida woods in near-freezing temperatures late into the night (early in the morning?)?

The answer to Question 1 is:  ONE DAY.  Really.  That’s it.  You can quibble about minor differences if you want (R&B tilt or jamtronica, Paul Levine or Daryl Wolff, a couple thousand people).  The bottom line is this:  FUNK RULES, and these two festivals and the wonderful people who put them on for our pleasure make life magnificent.  We are blessed indeed.

And the answer to Question 2 is:  FUNK RULES!  Or, to quote Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: “’Cause all I wanna do is F-U-N-K!”  Or Lotus before their Saturday night set: “We’re gonna keep it FUNKY, if that’s all right with you!”

I have a couple of theories about our festivals.  OK, I have a whole SLEW of theories, but here are a couple:

Most of the bands at festivals such as AURA and Bear Creek have REALLY good vocalists, superior to the drek you hear if you listen to commercial radio.

I feel like I have been on a remarkable run of concerts ever since the summer of 2012 (and I STILL haven’t written that up yet!).  It is as if the Midas touch affects almost every band I have seen.  I used to try to compare band performances, but how do you “compare” a Mike Dillon slam-fest to Dumpstaphunk or a brilliant Cape Breton fiddler (that would be Jennifer Roland)?  The benchmark for me is when a band or musician takes me to that magical place, where it seems, in the moment at least, to be “as good as it gets.”

Going to a festival is a lot like going to a party.  At a party, you will certainly see some BFFs, but you probably see them elsewhere, too.  You ALSO see some people you may have met before but did not really get to know.  AND you meet some people you have never, ever seen before.  Same with bands at a festival.  You probably know the headliners fairly well, seen them at least a time or three at shows.  Then there are a couple bands you have seen briefly or listened to while preoccupied with conversation or other activity.  And, to me, the very best aspect is discovering bands you have never ever heard who rip your head right off!

With that in mind, I also always like to see the opening band of the festival AND the opening band each day.  I know many sleep in or stay at the campgrounds for a while before heading to the stages; everybody has a different festival style.  My style is MUSIC MUSIC and MORE MUSIC!  The opening bands for Saturday and Sunday, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Lucky Costello, were unknown to me, and they both absolutely knocked it out of the park.  (I was going to try to avoid sports metaphors.  Oh, well.)

The festival opener on Friday (there was music Thursday night) was Displace, a superb quartet from Tampa.  I had only seen them for the first time in November opening for ZOOGMA, and they blew us away.  The next two times were even better.  Displace won the Vote-Us-to-AURA contest (something like that), and I confess I voted Chicago-style (early and often; hey, it was legal!).  And while I am thrilled that they got to show their stuff and did a great job revving up the dancers, it is too bad another band in the contest, DYNOHUNTER, did not make it.  They were in Tampa a week before and were absolutely incredible (I scribbled about that, too).  It is easy to focus on front men Chris Sgammato on alto sax , guitar and vocals and Sam Dobkin on guitar (he has been on fire of late), but what shoves Displace into overdrive is the kick-ass rhythm section of Vinny Svoboda and Tucker Sody (bass and drums).  You’ll be hearing a lot more from these boys!  (Hey, they’re all young enough to be my children!)

If the main theme of AURA was FUNK, then the other was DANCING, which is not surprising, since FUNK makes you DANCE.  So the early attendees were treated to a real dance-fest as Displace lit everybody up.  If you see the videos, you can read the sheer joy on the boys’ faces as they played.  Next, we all rolled down from the Porch Stage to the Amphitheatre, where the Resolvers were doing their big-band reggae thing.  I am not a huge reggae fan, but these guys played with joy and precision and had everyone on their feet (the leitmotif of the festival).  Imagine my delight when they busted out Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints!”

Wandering around to get my bearings with the merch and food areas, I stumbled across the BLP Vibe tent.  It was used primarily for yoga and meditation with a few other surprises.  Surprise One was Fat Mannequin, a subset of the Heavy Pets.  Mike Garulli and Jeff Lloyd, the guitar slingers, joined with Tony D’Amato for a great acoustic set.  Without a doubt (and I certainly hope this one gets uploaded by the tapers), the most beautiful thing I heard the entire weekend was a stunning take on “Eleanor Rigby.”  Legendary!

Stokeswood(from Atlanta) had two slots during the festival.  Their first one on the porch stage was a tribute to Hall and Oates.  Sometimes attempts of this sort go south; this one went due north!  They had everyone singing and dancing (see?) to a wide variety of H & O tunes, hits and more obscure songs (at least to me).  Those were the ones I really enjoyed, especially “Family Man,” a song I had never heard.  WOW.  Singer Adam Patterson and a female companion nailed the vocal duos.

By now, word had spread throughout the festival grounds that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.  The wicked winter storm farther north would delay Conspirator to Saturday and prevent Kung Fu from arriving at all.  This was particularly disappointing, because Kung Fu are true fan favorites and some very sick individuals; missing their sets Friday and Saturday would require some schedule adjustments.

Regretting that I had missed Monozygotik in the Music hall, I went to check out the Revivalists, who put on another dynamic New Orleans set fronted by David Shaw on vocals.  And I made it to the Music hall to hear Vermont-based Twiddle, a very versatile quartet capable of covering numerous genres, which is true of most of the bands on the jam scene these days.  Twiddle had a fresh, clean sound as they rocked the hall.

Back out on the Porch Stage, the Heavy Pets were piling on more diversity.  This was my 18th show, and it was for me their best yet.  Everything seemed to click, and I confess to being an officer in the Jeff Lloyd Fan Club — he was a wild man all weekend on guitar.  I cannot remember when bassist Tony D’Amato joined the band, but his contribution adds incredible punch to the Pets’ sound.

And we all rolled back down to the Amphitheater to hear Papadosio.  I had “met” them once before, but clearly I did not pay attention then.  Papadosio embodies the theme of the AURA festival: rock, electronica, psychedelia, funk and dance.  They already had a prominent slot made all the more prominent because of the snow problems of Conspirator and Kung Fu.  So naturally they stepped right up and blasted everyone sky-high (some folks may already have been there, I observed).

Back on the Porch Stage, ZOOGMA did their funky thing.  They mix other people’s tracks with their own slam-bang electronic rock.  If I had one slight complaint about this set (having seen a half-dozen shows), this one relied a bit too much on the other tracks and not enough on their own music.  But I got my “M10” to keep me in a very happy place!

Looking at the schedule, I realized I had made a grave error.  I had not gone back in the Music Hall to catch Joey Porter of the Motet and Friends Super Jam.  I was kicking myself in the backside, when I heard people saying that Joey and pals were in fact taking the late Amphitheatre slot vacated by the snow-bound Conspirator.  SCORE!

Porter is a manic maniac on keyboards, and he had assembled a great team of players including guys from the Revivalists and Earphunk, among others.  To my great delight, the group also featured Chris Sgammato of Displace on alto sax and Jeff Lloyd on guitar.  I was in heaven!  There were so many highlights and great solos; my top moment was when they lit into “Love Having You Around,” a magnificent Steview Wonder song from “Music of My Mind” (1970).

It was a wee bit nippy at this point.  I marveled at the scantily clad while I was wearing FIVE layers up top, so I thankfully headed back into the Music Hall for Start Making Sense, a band that performs as a tribute to the Talking Heads.  What a wonderful treat!  I regret never having seen the Talking Heads live, but these boys were wonderful.  The sextet delivered two hours of TH tunes, many of which were not familiar to me (or many there, apparently).  And those tunes were just as compelling as the hits and a great introduction to music I should have checked out more carefully.  Front man Jon Braun has the quirky stage appearance, vocal chops and confidence to pull off this great tribute.

We walked out of the Hall to discover that the clear skies we had anticipated all weekend had been attacked by a brief but prolific thunderstorm.  Fortunately, the rain abated just as we exited, so I stumble over to the silent disco.  I was funked and danced out, and nothing seemed very compelling after the Talking Heads tribute, so it was back to the tent to huddle under as many layers as I could muster to try to garner strength for day two.


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