Over the past three years, Bear Creek has increasingly become the staple festival of the southeast. With festivals such as Langerado taking steps towards extinction, Bear Creek has flourished, and has put together lineups that seem to outdo years past, which seems hard to believe. The heavy hitting acts included progressive-rock touring giant Umphrey’s McGee. As someone who has been a big supporter of their music and tours, I had been anticipating this weekend since they released the initial lineup; and even more so, when they announced that they would be playing two nights and three sets throughout the weekend. Umphrey’s, along with jamband-journeymen, moe., The New Deal, Perpetual Groove and Lettuce, among many others, made for one of the most well-rounded festival lineups I had ever had the privilege of being a part of.
The breathtaking Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park played host to the 7,000 people in attendance. For the Florida locals, the Spirit of the Suwannee has become a second home to music lovers, hosting festivals ranging from the tremendous (in size and experience) Allman Brothers’ Wanee Fest, to more intimate, but equally beautiful Springfest and Magnolia Fest.
With four active stages, there seemed to be one problem and one problem alone; there was simply too much good music for anyone to be able to see everything. This is the kind of problem people have come to expect when they visit the Suwannee Music Park. The festival affectionately became known as "Bear Creek Week" as it grew closer. Many in attendance arrived at the grounds on Wednesday, in order to catch the ‘Pre-Pre Party.’ Zoogma, an Oxford, Mississippi-based, jam-tronica five-piece, and Ft. Lauderdale natives, The Heavy Pets opened up the festival the right way, with nearly four hours of music that would set the stage for the rest of the weekend.
The energy in the air on Thursday was electric, as you could feel the campground begin to fill in, and become consumed with anticipation for the long weekend that was before us. Although the music started at 2 p.m., the show that kicked off my evening was local funk/jazz jam-machines, The Fritz. Hailing from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, The Fritz brought the indoor ‘Full Sail Stage’ to its dancin’ feet with its infectious grooves and the relentless soul and passion coming from every member of the diverse band. As the crowd grew, with familiar faces intermingling with many new ones, the temperature, along with the sun, began to fall.
Later that night, Umphrey’s McGee took to the ‘Purple Hat Tent’ stage for what would be one of the highlights of my weekend. Kicking off the first set was a beautiful ‘2nd Self’, followed a few songs later by a rousing ‘Ringo’. They closed the firing first set with an awe-inspiring rendition of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, a song that would resonate with those in attendance for the rest of the weekend. Second set highlights included; a foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’, rare bluegrass tune, ‘Bad Poker’ as the opener. They also resurrected a ‘mash-up’ that they composed for their recent Halloween show at The Pageant in St. Louis called ‘The Way You Rule The World’. This is a wonderfully orchestrated mixture of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, by Michael Jackson and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’ by Tears for Fears.
Thursday night’s late-night festivities led to a late start for most, on Friday. Local, heavy-hitting, four-piece, dub step/Electro trip-hop champs, Greenhouse Lounge, shook the festival site late Friday afternoon, and set the tempo for the rest of the night. The boys from Jacksonville Beach brought their ever-growing fan base out of their tents and onto the ‘Campground Stage’ dance floor. The stage and its unbelievable backdrop were truly a sight to behold. Just beyond the band, lies a framework unlike any I had seen before. A small lake with a thick perimeter of weeping willows made for a visual spectacle, while Greenhouse Lounge brought out new remixes and samples from hip-hop heavyweights such as 50 cent, Dead Prez and Lil’ Jon. There is a very present need for electronic music, particularly dub step, in the scene. Greenhouse Lounge brought just what the doctor ordered; melodic, well-crafted and downright dirty bass-driven music.
A big highlight of my festival came at the most unexpected time, from the most unexpected person. As I was preparing for my short walk from my camp site to the stages, I noticed a familiar face walking down the path. Now, when I say familiar, I don’t mean it in the sense that I saw a buddy of mine from school, or a long lost relative. It was Brock Butler, of Perpetual Groove. As he walked by, there seemed to be a mutual understanding that I knew who he was, but didn’t really know how to strike up a conversation, except for yelling "YOU’RE BROCK BUTLER FROM P-GROOVE!" Thankfully, I resisted the urge, but I believe he sensed my apprehension as he approached me to shake hands, and greet an obvious fan who was a bit star struck. We chatted as he walked with my friends and I to the stages.
As an artist who has become a Suwannee Music Park staple, I was very interested to see if he had developed an emotional tie to the venue, like so many people around him had. To my surprise, he told me that he had actually written one of Perpetual Groove’s most popular songs, ‘Three Weeks’, while at the music park. As we parted ways, I became more excited than ever to be present for Perpetual Groove’s show later that night.
When it finally came, I was pleasantly greeted by the joyous, sing-a-long tune, ‘Sweet Caroline.’ It was a show that showed the bands range, and their ability to bend and span many different genres; an attribute that has kept me coming back to their shows since the first time I saw them.
One of the greatest things about the Bear Creek Arts & Music Festival is the communal vibe that is shared throughout the grounds. The most special part about this, is that it starts with the artists, who are always looking to get up on stage with someone they have never played with before, and jam as if they had been together for years. That night Umphrey’s McGee had multiple sit-ins, including; Ivan Neville and Bernie Worrell on stage for a jam in the middle of an unfinished ‘Nothing Too Fancy’. Two songs later, Jen Hartswick graced the stage for a version of ‘Barracuda’ by Heart.
From the moment the festival schedule was released, there was a palpable anticipation for what Saturday would bring. The ‘Purple Hat Tent’ was jam-packed with over nine hours of electronic-driven dance music, that would eventually have me begging for a spare moment to wrap my head around what, exactly I was witnessing.
My marathon evening in the tent would start with Break Science, featuring Adam Deitch on drums, who, more than effectively, had the crowd in the zone for what was to follow. The remainder of the night is simply too much to put into words. With Bonobo Live Band (who has created a buzz in Florida following his performance), Elliott Lipp, The New Deal and Lettuce, Bear Creek outdid itself night after night.
Saturday ended with a regionally rare Lettuce show, which focused predominantly on their recently released album, "Rage." Adam Deitch, previously mentioned for his Saturday night show with Break Science, was ever-present throughout the festival, keeping beat for an incredible seven shows over the course of the weekend.
Sunday featured a true testament to the magic of Bear Creek and the Suwannee Music Park. For a one-time only event, Lettuce served as the backing band for members of James Brown’s band; including legend Pee Wee Ellis.
The thought of writing a review for a festival of this magnitude sounded like it would be a breeze. However, when there are countless moments that found me reeling for words, it makes writing about it that much harder. If you have never been to the Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival, than do yourself a big favor, and make it a point in 2011; you will thank me later.