Bear Creek Music and Art Festival took place at the hands-down best outdoor live music venue there is on the East Coast. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, located in Live Oak, Florida, just five hours from Charleston, boasts gorgeous and spacious primitive camping and some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever seen shows at. It is a rustic, down-to-earth woodsy venue, with an idyllic North Florida campground right by the black-water Suwannee River. Suwannee is a host to four to five large-scale festivals every year. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you like, they have a festival for it.
Since attending my first festival at this venue back in February, Aura Music and Arts Festival, I have anxiously awaited my return. And it was glorious. With headliners like Umphrey’s McGee, Lettuce, Break Science, The Floozies, and The New Mastersounds, Bear Creek was like a trip through American music history. The complete lineup was a smorgasbord of funk, with artists hailing from New Orleans to Brooklyn to the UK, and back to Alabama and Georgia. A funk-driven festival, bands crossed many genres new and old, including rock, jam, jazz, blues, folk, and, of course, EDM. Funk truly is a sort of melting pot of musical stylings from R&B and soul roots to jam bands, and even fusions of psychedelic rock. Orgone was a band I enjoyed hearing for the first time, largely because they incorporated some major rock influences dating back to the '60s. Adding to the soulfulness of the weekend, I have to say I was extremely impressed by Lettuce. A funk band from Brooklyn, the seven-man band was right up my alley. Their use of horns like sax and trumpet in their music totally gave them an edge on some of the other smaller funk bands. It was obvious that one of their major influences must have been Earth, Wind & Fire, and I say this because of the high-energy carefree vibe in the audience that was similar to what I would imagine and Earth, Wind & Fire show would’ve been like. After getting my funk fix, I was finally able to process the two sets of Umphrey’s I saw (my first ever Umphrey’s shows) on Friday night. They absolutely killed it. Playing on the main stage, which happens to be my favorite stage ever, Umphrey’s McGee’s set took me through all walks of musical moods. Ryan Stasik, who oozes rock star, killed it on bass, holding down the bottom end. The natural amphitheater, built right into the woods, is perfect for light shows and sound acoustics. Shaded by a canopy of tall live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss, the amphitheater is perfect for getting down up front or even putting up a hammock and getting a great view down below. Jeff Waful, who does lighting for Umphrey’s, had a beautiful canvas to work with, and it was mesmerizing seeing his lights bouncing off the trees and dancing around the amphitheater while the sound naturally reverberated and amplified. Even the trees seemed to be dancing!
One of my favorite memories of that first night was when the show was about to start. We were waiting up front, watching primary vocalist Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey’s tune up, and this guy with a thick Southern accent holds up his black lab like Simba and screams, “Bayliss, will you bless ma dog?!” Amidst us all cracking up, to my surprise he actually did—forming a cross with his fingers, he blessed that guy’s dog. Although a small tidbit and meaningless story, for some reason this event said a lot to me about the guys in Umphrey’s. They are totally down-to-earth dudes, just normal guys with normal lives who happen to be rock stars on the side. And indeed, they did rock out. Delicately taking us all through the phases of their music, the mood ranged from teethh-grittingly hard (almost metal) to a sudden carefree section. I enjoyed how they kept a good balance throughout of light and hard, keeping us all on our feet. I guess that’s how Umphrey’s shows are—you never know what you’re going to get, but you are guaranteed they will deliver. Together for more than 13 years, it's safe to say they have mastered the art of innovation and diversification. Though they played some classics like “In The Kitchen” and “Comma Later,” some of the more notable songs were actually covers. They did David Bowie’s “Fame” and absolutely nailed it. I usually am not a fan of cover bands, but Umphrey’s truly does covers better than the original, which is extremely hard to do considering the initial popularity of their song choices.
Easing up on the funk aspect for a bit, the Break Science set at the Purple Hat Stage was a breath of fresh air. Their style reminded me of Pretty Lights, so I was not surprised to find that they are actually on Pretty Lights Music Label. The duo from Brooklyn gave me my electronic fix, with some hard bass drops and even some hip-hop here and there. Pushing the boundaries of modern music, I’m sure these two will continue to blow up as they travel all over, making their mark on the livetronica scene. Other memorable bands include The New Mastersounds, Soulive, Dumpstaphunk, and the Nth Power. I have to mention guitar prodigy Brandon Niederauer, an 11 year old that Umphrey’s brought on stage during their third set. This kid is like a young Jimi Hendrix. I mean, he can really play with the best. On stage with Umphrey’s, Brandon stole the show on Saturday night, creating uproarious applause at the end of his sick guitar solo. Definitely check this kid out because he is going places. Zach Deputy is another name I need to mention. He has attended every Bear Creek Fest yet, and his music is different than anything you’ve ever heard—ever. He seemed to mix soul singing, folk, and EDM. This is something I wouldn’t have expected to be done, but he more than pulled it off, and I was an instant fan after seeing just a few songs. Overall, this weekend at Suwannee strengthened my love for live music, the atmosphere, and the beautiful humans that flock to these events again and again.
Even if you are not a festivalgoer, the Spirit of the Suwannee has both a regular campground and rental cabins. Other amenities in the park include a bird sanctuary, disc golf, hiking trails, a café and restaurant, and a fully stocked, moderately priced general store. However, make sure you check the event schedule! Otherwise, you might be caught roaming around with thousands of wild and free hippies. Regardless, this venue is not too far from home, and it is a beautiful one-of-a-kind setting with great music and great people. All who have experienced it become united by the memory of the trip to Suwannee, a home away from home. It is an adult playground made of nature, which allows people any age to attend and return to childlike pleasures, freedom, and bliss. I cannot wait to return for Aura 2015!
Aura Music Festival: March 6–9, 2015
Suwannee Springfest: March 19–21, 2015
Wanee Music Festival: April 16–18, 2015
Suwannee River Jam: April 29–May 2, 2015
And many more to come…Stay posted!
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