Florida was hurting. The nation was hurting. And our musical community was hurting most of all from the hideousness of June 11 & 12. We needed to heal, to gather, to commune.
Lucky for all of us, the Purple Hatter’s Ball was just days away. If it wasn’t the perfect antidote for all that has happened, it was very close. For four magnificent days in a place that surely must look like heaven, thousands gathered in memory of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, the girl who wore that first famous purple hat.
You probably know Rachel’s story (you can read more here), but it is about healing, and that was exactly what we all needed. Start to finish, this was a wonderful time with wonderful music and wonderful people with a wonderful purpose in a wonderful place. Restorative. Life-confirming. Love-confirming.
The event actually kicked off a day early at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park with an action day led by The Polish Ambassador, a DJ of enormous renown both for his work on stage and, more importantly, in communities wherever he goes.
Music began in the music hall at 7 PM with Flint Blade. We arrived too late for their set, but we were in time to be blown away by Space Kadet from Atlanta. Their jamtronic goodness was the perfect set, their claim to play “space funk+” entirely accurate. Three of the five had computers in addition to their instruments, and the entire set was deluxe.
At one point, they invited to join them Dave McSweeney (from Greenhouse Lounge, currently on hiatus) on bass and Chris Anderson (SunSquabi) on percussion. I kept hearing delicious references to Lotus and STS9.
Next up was the Savi Fernandez Birthday Band, so-called because he celebrated a birthday the day before. Tommy Shugart, from the Groove Orient, joined Savi’s regular trio (Nas and Nahshon Thomas). The first tune was a great funky, jazzy workout with Shugart on clavinet, and that was just the soundcheck!
The “real” set began with heavy fusion, Nas blowing up the bass, and it segued into “Smooth Movement.” “Viva La Terra” and “Shake That” followed, the later with a great keyboard solo, then Savi shredding away. The band was superb on my favorite Savi composition, “Blessed” (and, yes, we were). This was the best set I’ve ever heard from this band. There was so much funky jazz in addition to the reggae and rock. They closed this set with a wicked take on “No Diggity.” Blessed!
That left it to Colorado’s SunSquabi to close out the evening. Most of us had never encountered their “electronic hydro funk” before, and we were blown away… again! They started with some real hot funk, then a brand new tune that was great. At this point, I scribbled: “This is why I go to festivals.” Hearing superb music from bands new to me is one of life’s great highlights.
I didn’t know song titles, but I wrote huge jam, huge funk, stupid, SICK, HOT, stupider, badass guitar. That sounds about right. The percussionist from Space Cadet joined them for a nasty tune in the middle of the set. This trio was dynamite.
In addition to all of the music, there was great art everywhere. There were painters at the amphitheater stage, some fabulous ladies in incredible costumes (especially Friday), and tremendous art installations from Because of the Lotus, Morph Mobile 3D Sacred Geometry, Scrog & Meagan, and more.
And of course there were dozens of great art vendors, and there was amazing food available as well (vegetable fritters and mint-ginger lemonade? Yes, please!).
We did not make it to the beach in time to hear Vlad the Inhaler, although Vlad was on hand all weekend in his host role (thanks for everything you do!). We were in time for The Stereo Type. Their set was jam-packed with funk, funk and more funk. It was a deluxe way to start the day. So tough going down the sand dune/hill, jumping in the cool water, then coming back up to sit in the cool breeze (it was a tad warmer back at the stages and campsites).
Charlie Hustle took over next with one of the best DJ sets I’ve ever heard. Everybody has different tastes on this stuff; for me, this was perfect. Then it was time for Funk You from Augusta. They too delivered a superb set of hot, hot funk. The entire band is great, and Gavin Hamilton is an engaging singer and front man. Check them out.
DJ Ricky Raw… was. Exactly the kind of stuff I don’t like, and far too filled with obscenities for an early afternoon with lots of children there. I hope they reevaluate this sort of thing for events with midday beach music. I still would not have liked it late at night, but it would at least have been at an appropriate hour.
Now it was time for the overlap dilemma: music at the beach and back at the stages at the same time. I truly love Squeedlepuss, the Jacksonville funksters, but we opted for Voodoo Visionary (Atlanta) on the campground stage. We only made it for the second half, but it was excellent. This was the first time that band’s female vocalist, Vanessa Graniero, had made the Florida trip.
They were knocking out a great song with Savi Fernandez sitting in on guitar. He and Mike Wilson were shredding back and forth. Then a great surprise: Heart’s “Magic Man.” That is not an easy song to sing, but Graniero handled it very well, as did the band. The next song was “Harmony,” one of the band’s best tunes and with a great message. It was great hearing it with harmony vocals: Graniero and Scott MacDonald together. Jimmy Lynch had a particularly great set on bass.
We were back at camp for Sophistifunk’s set. It sounded great. MusicFestNews writer and photographer Mandi Nulph said it was a very enjoyable, energetic set. It was dinnertime.
The Corbitt-Clampitt Experience has been on a tear, really defining the band’s sound (I was going to say ‘refining,’ but this is raw blues goodness). Brady Clampitt led the band on a MOFRO tune (I think) before slamming into “Mystery Train,” which the band really blows up. Speaking of blow, nobody (NO. BODY.) blows the harp better than Isaac Corbitt, as he showed on “Blind, Crippled, and Crazy.” Later in the set, Savi Fernandez was called to the stage again for another great sit-in.
The last time we saw the The Mantras was at the Ritz in Ybor City, and the sound was hideous (and that’s being polite), so it was deluxe being able to actually hear them on the Amphitheater stage. They can go in any direction, but ultimately the music turns to superb prog rock, and very, very funky at that. Keith Allen had a great night on that guitar of his, while Julian Sizemore was all over his array of keyboards, especially his synthesizer.
Back on the Campground stage, five big shirtless men were about to have their way with us. Trial by Stone’s music meets at the intersection of reggae, punk and ska. It is in-your-face madness, so much fun. There’s probably no gray area with these guys; you either love ’em, or you hate ’em. Me? I love Trial by Stone.
Band leader, vocalist and guitar player Buck just rages, and Roth and Zac are incredible on trombones. They sang about drinking “Whiskey and Pickle Juice,” played (I think) “Punk Don’t Have the Heart” and “Police State,” and led us in a sing-along on “Fuck You, Mr. Fuck Face.” It was well after dark, OK?
Crescent City’s Earphunk did what they do best, funking everybody all over the place. Paul Provosty and Mark Hempe are just so effective together on guitars. And then it was time for Mr. Live Oak, Roosevelt Collier (yes, Paul Levine is also Mr. Live Oak!). Also on stage is my most favorite-est bass player, Matt Lapham.
They kicked out with two enormous jams, Roosevelt immediately on fire and Lapham reminding me once again why I regard him so highly. Savi Fernandez then sat in for Billy Cobham’s “Stratus,” which was just plain sick, and so was “Hot ’Lanta.” Kaleigh Baker joined the party for “Break in the Road,” and the rest of the set was just a funk-filled delight.
Papadosio. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen them but not really heard them. I swore that would change this night, and I was amply rewarded. It was an excellent jamtronic set with a couple of titanic peaks. At one point, the music turned very jazzy, then suddenly just exploded!
Things are a bit different when you’re not flying solo, and we passed on Silent Disco for the evening. I was focused on making it to the beach early Saturday.
Jeff Randall was throwing down a nice DJ set, but I was there to see S.P.O.R.E. with Zahira. S.P.O.R.E. has had an incredible spring, and I had seen them five times since February, every one funky prog heaven. I had no idea about Zahira and was curious how she would mesh with the Jacksonville quartet. The answer was: perfectly! Zahira is a tiny lady with an enormous voice that synced perfectly with the band. She was joined on stage by a second female vocalist, also diminutive, with a great voice as well.
They started strong with “Respect” before calling Zahira up for a reggae-tinged tune. Next up was “Walk with Me, Baby,” featuring a blistering solo from Jeremy Kairalla. Another Zahira original, “Ascension,” followed. The fifth tune was the best one yet, and they closed with “Ethereal,” and it was.
This was a bittersweet set, as drummer Chris Richard announced that this was his last show with S.P.O.R.E. to take care of some personal matters. He has always been a propulsive force on the kit and a tireless promoter. If you’ve seen them, you know you’ve heard Richard say, “We’re S.P.O.R.E. from Jacksonville. Let’s do this thing! Eat more S.P.O.R.E.!” We wish him the very best.
We headed back to the amphitheater, intent on catching the Heather Gillis Band set. Gillis is absolutely exploding on the scene, playing tremendous sets with her band and with Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band.
In addition to her regular quartet, Tommy Shugart of The Groove Orient was on Hammond B3, and Jimmy Rector was on percussion. After she blistered “I’m a Ram,” she grabbed her lap steel for “The Storm > Shake Your Money Maker.” They rocked, played blues, got jazzy and had a great time. In addition to her great guitar skills, Gillis is a fine singer as well.
Gillis and tenor sax player Nyan Feder had great solos on “I Don’t Want to Care About You Any More” and “Soul’s on Fire.” And they got everybody’s attention when they whipped out “Sunshine of Your Love” to close the set.
It was dilemma time again, with great Florida bands on the two main stages and at the beach. What to do, what to do? Coming up were Post Pluto, Kaleigh Baker & The Groove Orient, and Herd of Watts. However, Leisure Chief was at the beach. I had missed their set at Orange Blossom Jamboree. That wasn’t happening again.
We heard the first half of Post Pluto, which was excellent. They played a pair of tunes that teetered on the edge of country rock, really well delivered. Then the jam absolutely blew up, and they were in full funk mode. Next, right before we left for the beach, a familiar melody came from the stage. Back by the sound booth, somebody said, “What is that?” “Stereo, by Boombox,” I beamed! Never thought I would see that song covered. WOW.
Mandi and I zipped down to the beach (as fast as you can zip) to catch Leisure Chief. They were in the middle of their first tune. Jordan Garno, who had recently joined the quintet on guitar, seemed like he fit right in. Chris McMullen and Derek Engstrom made such a great rhythm section. The third song had a heavy Afrobeat influence (alto sax player Christian Ryan plays in Bengali 600, an Afrobeat band, among a dozen other groups); yes, it was called “Afroesque,” and it was awesome.
Sadly, also awesome were the rainclouds carrying lightning, as beach operations had to cease after about 40 minutes of their set. Rats. It rained a bit as we returned to the campsite. Our chairs got wet at the Amphitheater, but we were dry in the tent and grabbed dinner while listening to Kaleigh Baker’s excellent set with The Groove Orient. The boys also played one of their excellent tunes, “Hot Bandit Woman.”
The Herd of Watts set was dynamite. They were deep in the funk, powered by Jamal “Music City” Wright on drum kit. After a pair of great originals, they got great response from their cover of “Dirty Laundry.” They also delighted with their rendition of “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.” Ben Strok is an excellent guitarist, but I had never truly appreciated his vocals before. He’s in league with Allman, Haynes, Grey and the other Southern preachers.
Donna and I wanted to see the bats, so we decided to split partway through The Hip Abduction set to see them. THA were on fire. Their new album has received great national airplay, well deserved. They played a number of tunes from that and their previous album as well. After “Lover,” guitarist and singer David New asked, “Where are my St. Pete people?” BIG roar! “OK,” he said. “You know what to do on this next one.” Oh, yes, we did, their great Afrobeat tune “La Resaca,” where everybody (almost) jumps up and down at the end. There was a new tune called, “Crazy,” and we left after “Stand Up for Love.”
I had seen the bats coming out of the big beatbox once, by chance. There are hundreds of thousands of bats in there. As we drove up, there were dozens of others waiting as well. So we waited. And waited. Some people left. We waited. Some more. A drunk dude in a golf cart flattened a stop sign. Still we waited. MZG with Disco Biscuits drummer Allen Aucoin sounded really good from there.
THE. BATS. DID. NOT. COME. OUT. Rats.
We missed the entire MZG set. Damn. Everyone headed down to the Amphitheater for The Polish Ambassador, Thursday’s action day ringleader and one of Saturday’s headliners. So here’s the thing. As Mandi says, he is really fun to watch, energetic, dancing around. For me, however, he is a DJ. I don’t know where the line is between DJ and EDM, or if there even is a line. It just wasn’t my thing. As usual, I was in the vast minority, as the Amphitheater was packed with happy, dancing people.
Don’t get me wrong. I dig some DJ sets, such as Silent Disco and at the beach. But a headlining set at a festival. None for me, thanks.
The Malah had the penultimate set on the Campground stage. This jamtronic trio always works for me, and they play live music (see above). True, some in the jamtronic scene also use prerecorded music interwoven into their sets, but it is still real musicians on stage playing real instruments.
It was an excellent set, kicking off with a very jazzy piece from the band’s self-titled first album. They rocked, and there was plenty of funk. Zak Weinert from MZG came out to share some his boogie music on guitar. Brandon Maynard had a great night on guitar as well.
The Floozies had the late-night slot on the main stage. This duo from Lawrence KS is Matt Hill, producer, guitar; and Mark Hill on drums. I was hoping for a riveting set, but for me it was not, more like EDM (see above again). Please understand that the crowd was bouncing and joyous. I heard the remainder of the set from our tent at Short-Cut Camp.
Which means I missed Silent Disco again, and really missed Leisure Chief getting to finish their set back in the woods, then collaborating with the Groove Orient boys for a three-hour set.
This was Flat Land’s third Purple Hatter’s appearance, site of their first festival. The Gainesville quintet’s meteoric rise in the past year has been wonderful to watch. This was the third date on their album release tour, and they featured many of the songs from Arrow to the Heart, including the first single, “Poco a Poco,” “Say You Cared > Black Rain,” and “Rufio’s Last Stand.”
They also included a new tune about the summer solstice, very timely (solstice was the next day), and a reminder about all those whom we have lost, performing “Kiss” as a tribute. Fae Nae was delightfully animated in addition to her fine vocals and violin playing.
At last year’s PHB, the Scott Campbell Band with Avis Berry covered the Blind Faith album. While there was no such focused plan this year, they offered a fine set, starting with Derek & the Dominos’ “Got to Get Better in a Little While.” Berry’s voice is so big and rich, and she handles this material with great style. They did reprise “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Later, Berry sat out, and Campbell said that the trio on stage was called Black Cat Bones, and they played “Number Two.” They closed their set with a moving “Purple Rain.”
At AURA Music and Arts Festival (*sniff, sniff*), Bedside had a tremendous full band set. The DJ duo again filled the stage with great musicians, including Eric Escanes, guitar, and Jason Matthews, keyboards, both from Electric Kif (superb fusion band from Miami), Christian Ryan from Leisure Chief on alto and flute, and Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe).
It was another awesome set of deep house and acid jazz, performed live. Trace Barfield played a ton of beautiful muted trumpet and some great stuff on EWI as well, matching up nicely with Ryan for the band’s signature “horn-driven sound.” Toward the end of the set, they invited Fae Nae to the stage for several songs on violin and vocal, closing with “Pain.” Quaranta and the Electric Kif boys were outstanding.
Everybody made it to the Amphitheater for Mama Margie’s butterfly release. Margie Weiss is the mother of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, in whose honor the festival exists. She and Paul Levine spoke about the festival, the important work on changing confidential informant laws, and loving each other in such turbulent times. Then, 50 people each released a butterfly, and the visual was very powerful.
Next, Levine introduced Dubconscious, Rachel’s favorite band. These guys have played every Purple Hatter’s Ball, and they had two sets this year, including a Saturday beach set. They kept everyone feeling that positive vibe, dancing, laughing, maybe crying a bit, joy and hope filling the dance floor.
Another of Rachel’s favorites is Catfish Alliance from Tallahassee, featuring the one and only (probably a good thing) Sexual Manatee. Once again they did their thing.
Finally, Melvin Seals and JGB provided the perfect ending to a weekend of healing with their beautiful, soulful music. Whether they were playing songs from the Garcia songbook or other like-minded material, Seals, Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks brought the San Francisco sound to Live Oak. The band, which had visited recently at Wanee Music Festival, were sparkling once again.
Purple Hatter’s Ball: you are my sunshine. In the past year, we lost Bear Creek and AURA. Please don’t take my sunshine away.