FESTIVAL FEATURE 
BEAR CREEK MUSIC FESTIVAL
By Rob Johnson
Photos by Syd Atkinson


There are many uniquely American forms of music, each of which could only have developed in our melting pot society. Jazz is often hailed as the “most American of all art forms,” with its inherent sense of freedom and limitless possibilities. The blues are another kind of musical evolution that could only have happened in America, combining the griot storytelling tradition of West Africa with European musical forms to create a unique hybrid that never existed before. And of course, rock and roll is possibly the most famous of all American cultural exports, and its urgency and raw power are undeniable.

However, there is another unique American musical genre, one that at its best is as worthy of praise as any other, which never seems to get the respect it deserves. This form of music is deeply tied to African rhythms, but at the same time, is as modern as the most contemporary dance music. It is fairly simple music in some ways, while at the same time, it is deceptively complex. For one weekend at least, Funk with a capital F finally got the spotlight.

The 2008 Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival featured a wide variety of music, from the high energy newgrass of Yonder Mountain String Band to the epic techno-rock of Perpetual Groove and the old-school roots reggae of John Brown’s Body. By the time the smoke cleared, though, the most memorable musical moments centered around a funky backbeat and a horn section. The HTN booth was located right in the sonic trajectory of both major stages – the crossroads, if you will. From noon every day until well past midnight, there was good music playing constantly, without even having to move a muscle. The only downside was that if you wanted some peace and quiet, you had to go somewhere else, but for a group of certified music junkies the weekend was something approaching nirvana.

Friday began with a very emotional moment for us at HTN, with a tribute set to Bill Ector, our former Publisher who passed away in July. Tommy Talton of Cowboy fame did a wonderful job of paying homage to Bill with a funky, down-home set that crackled with passion and good humor, two qualities that Bill had in spades. It was a great start to a great weekend of music, and a fitting tribute to Bill, who loved the Spirit of Suwanee Music Park as much as anybody.

Friday saw lots of great sets, from local Jacksonville rockers Inca Maya to the Afro-Beat sound of the Afromotive. However, the day really kicked into gear when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band hit the Amphitheater Stage. The first of several New Orleans-based acts at the festival, they brought the party vibe and lots of energy, and artist-in-residence Kofi Burbridge joined in on flute and vocals to take it to a higher level.

Fellow New Orleanians Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk came up next and drew the first really big crowd of the day, despite some competition from Ancient Harmony at the Music Hall Stage. How funky is this band? They need TWO bassists, that’s how funky they are. Either Tony Hall OR Nick Daniels would be able to hold down the bottom end for a normal band, but Dumpstaphunk hits a little harder, digs a little deeper, and lays down the funk a little nastier than most bands.

The Motet, featuring Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident, conjured up a heady, rhythmic brew of Latin, African and jazz sounds on the Big IV Stage, led by excellent drummer Dave Watts. The free-form big band called Everyone Orchestra, with Jon Fishman from Phish on drums, took on a noticeably funky flavor that reflected the overall sound of the festival. The jams were still loose, even chaotic at times, but a strong rhythm pulse tied it all together nicely.

Perpetual Groove, Dubconscious and the relentless funk juggernaut known as Lettuce (more on them later) kept the party going until after 2 AM on Friday night. There had already been a lot of great music, and two full days were yet to come.

SATURDAY

The Suwannee Bluegrass Mafia, featuring Magnoliafest co-founder Randy Judy, got Saturday off to a peaceful, pastoral start with their gentle acoustic wake-up call. Jim Weider’s Project Percolator was impressive, with lengthy jazz-funk jams that crackled with energy and purpose. The day really got on the good foot with Dr. Claw, a supergroup featuring members of Dumpstaphunk and Lettuce, plus frontman Big Sam from Big Sam’s Funky Nation, with special guest Kofi Burbridge along for the ride. This was their first show outside New Orleans, and as you would expect with that pedigree, they brought the funk.

However, the entire day Saturday was dominated by rumors of a surprise appearance by Derek Trucks. Anxious, excited whispers and wild, unfounded speculation were the order of the day. Will Derek show up? If so, who will he jam with? It added a fun element of mystery to the whole day.

Yonder Mountain String Band commented that they had been off the road for a good long while, and wouldn’t be playing again until New Year’s, so they were “going to get it all out RIGHT NOW!” They lived up to that promise with a spirited set that proved why they are one of the brightest up-and-coming bands on the music scene today. This is a band with the complete package – virtuoso musicianship, tight vocal harmonies, and strong songwriting. Since Bear Creek didn’t have much bluegrass on the menu, this show was a nice change of pace before the funk onslaught to follow.

Right before Lettuce hit the stage, Derek stopped by the HTN booth to say hello, and he was in good spirits. After a quick chat, he apologized and said he had to get moving, saying “I’m sitting in with these guys” as he pointed to the Big IV Stage. From that point on, Saturday was one of the finest nights of music to ever grace the hallowed ground of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park.

With a brawny horn line, two guitarists, and an all-star rhythm section, Lettuce is a power-packed avalanche of sound. They made their mark quickly, and when Derek joined the band onstage, the entire festival went up a notch or two. The crowd seemed to realize they were witnessing history, and Derek’s red-hot slide licks sounded so good juxtaposed with Lettuce’s wall of sound. By the time the set was over, everybody knew two things:

1) Derek Trucks is in the house, and he came to play.
2) Lettuce is a big, bad funk powerhouse, and can hang with anybody, even Derek.

Next up, Dumpstaphunk hosted the “Bear Creek DumpstaJam” at the Amphitheater, with a wide array of special guests joining in at various times. Derek got on stage for CCR’s “Fortunate Son” and an extra-funky version of The Rolling Stones “Miss You” that many people hailed as the jam of the festival. There was a special vibe in the air at this point, and even though the temperature was plummeting after the sun went down, the crowd kept warm by dancing and grooving under the stars.

Soulive, a band that emerged when Lettuce broke up in the ’90s, shares several of the same members as Lettuce, and their late night set was almost like Lettuce Part Two, and that was a good thing. Soulive is based around the Evans brothers, Neal on organ and Alan on drums, along with guitarist extraordinaire Eric Krasno. If anything, this show was even hotter, with Derek playing more than half the set and creating some magical interplay with guitarist Krasno, who stood his ground and went toe-to-toe with Mr. Trucks without flinching. By the end of the show, Kofi was playing flute along with Lettuce’s horn section, while Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk joined Neal Evans on keyboards, creating a sort of big band funk sound that electrified the crowd. This kind of spontaneous jamming and musical communion is what music festivals are all about.

SUNDAY

Sunday found the majority of the crowd a little bleary-eyed and cold, but still ready for more good live music. Longtime HTN favorite Donna Hopkins got the sluggish crowd moving with her set of sultry, soulful blues. The funk was evident here as well, as bassist Charlie Wooton led the band through a spirited version of the Wild Tchoupitoulas classic “Meet De Boys On De Battlefront.”

Tishamingo and Mofro were a perfect 1-2 punch of local North Florida flavor to close out the Amphitheater Stage, and they both delivered and then some. JJ Grey of Mofro seemed to be in especially good spirits, comparing the festival to a family reunion as the band played their first show in North Florida since the CD release show for their new disc Orange Blossoms.

The New Mastersounds are from Leeds, England, but you’d never guess by listening. These blokes have the in-the-pocket funk sound down to a science, and it says a lot about them that they sounded so good in a weekend full of exceptional funk music. After they finished up, the Tallahassee All-Stars put on a great show that emphasized the local, grassroots nature of this Florida-centric fest.

In their second year at the Spirit of Suwannee, Bear Creek showed that this is a festival with legs. By featuring the funk so prominently, they avoided overlapping with other festivals like Wanee and Magnoliafest, instead blazing their own trail and establishing their own groove. See you there next year!

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