By Jacob McMenamin
The Spirit of Suwanee Music Park is just outside of Live Oak, FL, about an hour and a half east of Tallahassee. It’s home to a number of yearly festivals, concerts, and other events, but one of the most notable is the Bear Creek Music Festival, now in its eighth year running: a showcase of funk, jam, blues, and soul bands from all over the country. I rolled into the park grounds after dark, trying to navigate my way through a city of tents and ambling pedestrians on my way to our group’s campsite. After setting up my tent, I headed into the festival grounds to catch Umphrey McGee‘s first set. The Chicago-based jam/prog band has a style that is hard to pin down, but is filled with funky grooves and explosive rhythms. It’s the kind of booty-shaking music that even old folks with bad knees will still get up and dance to. Umphrey’s played two more sets during the festival, each one a little different than the last, showcasing the group’s versatile style.
After Umphrey’s, I grabbed some jambalaya from one of the food tents near the Purple Hat stage. At twelve dollars, it was a little expensive, but big enough to share, and one of the best damn dishes I’ve ever had at any outdoor event. I enjoyed it sitting on the grass while electronic duo Breakscience played their mellow hip-hop-influenced jams in the distance. I wrapped up the first night with Soulive, a funky, jazzy, soul-infused trio, and The New Mastersounds, whom for me were a highlight of the whole festival. A more traditionally-influenced jazz-fusion/funk band all the way from Leeds, the Mastersounds played a tight, extra-funky set, and had an excellent stage presence. Towards the middle of their set they brought on The Heard, a brass trio of Chicago teenagers that had been tagging along with them on tours. The addition of their horns completed the ensemble, adding panache and incredible technical skill to a group of already seasoned musical veterans.
Saturday began with The Main Squeeze, a self-described “raging funk experience,” a description which aptly and succinctly describes their sound. Perfect feel-good jams to dance to in the midday sun. Highlights from Saturday evening include Nth Power, a soul-funk lovefest that sounds like Phish meets Bobby Womack, as well as another personal favorite for the weekend, the Nicholas Payton Trio. The classic jazz trio setup of drum, double-bass and keyboard, has a slight twist here: Mr. Payton, the namesake of the group, plays the trumpet and keyboard. At the same time. His ability to bust out trumpet solos while vamping on the keyboard is impressive, but not as impressive as his mastery of circular breathing. Payton could hold a note on his horn for well over a minute straight, and it blew the crowd away. But Payton is not just a one-trick pony. He is absolutely oozing with talent, reminiscent of the jazz masters of the bebop and straight-ahead movements. Definitely a standout artist among the other festival acts.
It wasn’t hard to tell that Sunday was a recovery day for everyone at Bear Creek. Only two stages out of the four were open, and most of the acts had already played a set earlier during the festival. However, standing out among these was St. Paul & The Broken Bones, a seven-piece gospel-infused soul band that could lift you straight out of whatever gutter you woke up in and make you feel like a million dollars. Frontman Paul Janeway grew up singing in the church in Birmingham, AL, and his vocal talent is as immense as it is raw and powerful. Emotional ballads about heartbreak, overcoming the odds, and a few excellent covers abound (have you ever heard a gospel-ized version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” or David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream?”).
Overall, while I enjoyed my time at the festival, I couldn’t help but feel that it was lacking a little bit in variety. Certainly it was intended to have a specific sound and even set of genres, but I also feel like many of the groups came too close to the cliché of being that “festival band,” especially when all presented together at once. It’s very easy for bands like Umphrey’s McGee, Nth Power and Lettuce, to sound a little too similar to each other when you listen to them one after the other. However, I think for the most part, Bear Creek managed to avoid this. I would still like to see some new names next year, just to freshen things up, but the point of a music festival like this one is to have fun with your friends, be in the moment, and enjoy some funky music. And in that respect, I believe Bear Creek was a success.