It’s as if the firey ball of celestial gas knew it was the West Palm Beach festival’s last day, and in what was either a generous token of its appreciation, or a cruel joke, the heat of 5 days combined itself into one 24 hour period.
While ice cream and frozen chocolate bananas melted in the what felt like close to a 100 degree heat index, the bands used music as their shield, bringing a performance level that was high as the temperature.
While Jesse Royal brought tropical vibes from the Ford Stage, the far away castle of the JetBlue Stage in what was either the greatest irony or meanest trick, finally figured out the optimal level of audio to get the sound from the stage to echo at the bend of the Waterfront bay, letting bystanders listen to what was in store in the guise of Judah and the Lion.
Meanwhile, on the Tire Kingdom stage, the venue continued it’s streak of incredible openers, with Sons of Mystro being the perfect act to top off the festival’s amazing run.
The act, composed of brothers Malcolm & Umoja McNeish, joined by DJ Venomous on decks, live drummer and guitarist and even their Father on mixers, the band dazzled alongside each other, their chemistry drawing the crowd out of the shade and into the open lawn, dancing their way to the stage.
There is a precarious measure to doing what Sons Of Mystro do, which is perform amazing covers of pop songs, showing not only their own talents, but the level of inspiration that classical music extends to, bubbling underneath the surface with a hidden fire waiting to be unlocked. The caution and danger in doing this however, is that the art form itself can get lost in the crowd appeal, with the crowd dancing to songs that they now, but not appreciating the extent and work it takes to do so. One of the main reasons why classical players who cover tracks get millions of views, but not the actual credit they so richly deserve.
The act ensure however that this doesn’t happen, by garnering complete and total command and respect of their craft, playing covers of bands such as DJ Snake, Rihanna, reggae style tracks and Prince, playing tribute by adding their styles to “Purple Rain” amongst others.
Further demonstration came in the form of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, the track formerly reduced to a meme starter, into a video game score like track, making even the God’s cry as rain came out of literal nowhere though no retreat was shown from those in attendance, dancing in the rain as the act continued.
As amazing as the McNeith brothers are, the equal heroes of the set were their guitarist & drummer, who were able to seamlessly jump from genre to genre without missing a beat; never overplaying, nor underdoing themselves, acting as the perfect backdrop to the Sons abilities.
The last day always brings with it a moment of spontaneous sadness that come nighttime, the streets will be cleared and the city once again the machinery bustle it is.
It’s acts like the brothers however that lessen the blow, appreciative that you were able to to see them at all.
The feeling of celebration continued with modern reggae legends, and major influence for a great majority of Florida’s tropical acts, Slightly Stoopid.
One of the band’s greatest qualities, and the reason for it’s large respect from both newer and older acts alike is that they’ve never stopped being a local band.
Despite being in their twenty first year of performing, and being a staple in the genre itself, they’ve never let it get it to their heads, they play with the gratuity and identity of a newer band, expressed in every song, and even in between. There are no large egos on stage, nor huge band antics. Just a group of musicians making the best music they can, and enjoying every moment of the experience.
The act are the best example of “local band makes good”, being what every local act hopes to be, while still being that band, setting a quality bar that is both legendary and refreshing.
This unifying factor is especially expressed in the members of the members of the audience, with everyone from shy 5 year olds, to swaying 80 year old couples twirling to the tropical sounds.
Exiting out with encore, “Castles In The Sand”, you’re left with undeniable intoxication, which is what the genre was created for, expressed in Bob Marley’s vision of reggae. And as the crowd swayed to the last echoing guitar, the palm trees moved in equal respect, carrying the flow until next time.
Speaking of local acts, over on the Tire Kingdom Stage, a magic mixture of a growing crowd and fan support began to brew as Miami four piece No Traffik took the stage.
The band, playing an evening slot (which was refreshing to see, showing Sunfest’s care for local talent; as important and amazing it is to see bigger acts play where they may not have taken the chance to go previously, there would be no complaints if Sunfest were to continue this trend, as the festival did originate from these roots) lived up the talents well, playing with a power and determination that you only hear of in the stories of bands past, and bars where the names of infamous acts such as Dockers Clutch amongst others are said, with only the memories that still float around.
When all you had to do to feel you were on top of the world was to assemble your friends, a few instruments, and fill up your local bar. The camaraderie of the era is mythical, and remains sacred as it didn’t matter whether you made it big or not, what mattered was that you did it.
And as No Traffik states in their bio, and credo, they uphold their mythos, stating that they’re just 4 guys trying to live their dreams.
The work put out was indeed impressive and the Miami group are climbing up the pantheon, with a good percentage of the crowd for the band singing the lyrics back without prompt.
One of the major and greatest forces of the act to watch was in drummer Wesley Hoskins, who hammered out beats in Lars Ulrich type frenzy on the kick drums, all while seemingly not breaking a single sweat. While all members displayed a level of professionalism, it was Hoskins that sincerely stole the show, and remained completely modest throughout it.
Amidst the age range of those who might have been in those legendary local acts, to one’s just starting, it’s good to see the headbangers ball is still rolling on.
And from metal sensabilities, to southern comforts and camaraderie, the Charleston, North Carolina duo Shovel & Rope doled out their immense and rich sound back on the main Ford Stage.
Where later performer, and headliner Alabama Shakes thrives in vocal power, Shovels & Rope get their thrills and roots in their ability to show that minimalism is a magic not to be taken lightly, and how two members can sound just as pure as a group of 8.
The group still seem relatively, and sadly underrated, as they are a force to be reckoned with, and a chemistry akin to Johnny & June.
Often swapping instruments, from drums to guitar & vocals, and multitasking playing percussion while blowing into a harmonica, the duo represent the side of country that is rarely given spotlight to, with country stations too busy playing what can be arguably stated as pop and rap for the genre, commercialism now creeping it’s way there as well.
Somewhere in between Garth Brooks and Willie Nelson, there lies a sonic field that, while consistent and powerful as the Delta, is just as romantic and beautiful as a hundred nights filled with fireflies that dazzle around the listener as they play. Shovels & Rope not only live in that area, but represent it, providing magic amongst the intensity they play with, and a love that is not only evident, but comforting.
Sunfest coordinators once again deserve massive kudos for putting the act on the major stage, when others may have chosen Coleman Hell, who gets more airplay than many of the artists present today.
From tracks like “Birmingham”, “Gasoline” and “The Devil Is All Around”, the couple give an intimacy and honesty that drew a crowd slowly, like the build-ups they’re so effortlessly well at.
It’s easy to gush about the band, but like southern hospitality, you need to see it to feel it’s power, and I hope Shovels & Rope find their way back to the sunset they so beautifully narrated.
Goodbyes are hard; 365 days to the next time you can sneak away for five days is sometimes painstakingly long, and ticks by slowly. In this sense, it helps to save the best performances for last, to reminiscence upon during those longer days where the clock moves slower than usual and the sun beats on days that stretch farther than Texan fields.
This is where Alabama Shakes come in.
One of the festival biggest crowd drawers, and yet one of the lesser known acts (an enigma which though baffling, was true; the crowd packed to an amazing shoulder to shoulder level seemingly out of nowhere), the awe have become review darlings largely due to lead vocalist Brittany Howard.
Coming in not too educated on the act, it only takes one song to realize what the hype surrounding them is all about.
Playing with an elegance and chemistry that borders on the classic, Howard’s vocal work is truly something to behold. Able to transition flawlessly to a James Brown yell, Prince like scream and straight into an Etta James like form behind a Sam Cooke like warmth, the range of influence is breathtaking, and talent, awe-inspiring.
With that said, it’s almost unfair that the organizers placed Evanescence at the same time slot of the band, a tease on the next door Tire Kingdom stage.
Though the attempt to create a finale experience for everyone (Walk The Moon on the JetBlue Stage appealing to the pop side of things) was appreciated, my co-correspondent who examined the other stages said that the energy at Evanescence’s set was equally palpable, which comes at no surprise as Amy Lee still remains at the top of the hard rock female vocalist list, with a voice just as strong as Howard’s.
Considering that Alabama Shakes’ audience is not too far a genre gap from the 90’s staples, it’d be a fair assumption to say a good percentage of the crowd were either cussing to the heavens, or wishing they were able to be at two places at once.
Howard stated that tonight was the final night of the tour, and she wasn’t going to hold anything back. Viewers of the Alabama act were treated to nothing less of the peak of what the band had to offer, on soul wrenching vocals & blues like heartache in their lyrics, it’s a thin line that the act thrive on, with an audience that sang the lyrics back without any asking needed.
Another one of their impressive attributes due largely in part to the wide range they cover, is that they could literally open for any genre. The ultimate music umbrella, you could place the band in an R&B, Funk, Indie, Country or even Motown setting and they wouldn’t seem out of place, rather, owning every moment.
This power comes via a breadth of musical knowledge, as well as the fact that the members are an extension of one another. All equally powerful as the other, there is no Kings of Leon sized ego, nor is there a need for there to be any. Remove even one element of the group, and you would notice something amiss. It is in this, amongst all their other talents, that they have an example of what a “perfect” band is.
From crowd favorite “Hold On, haunting “Gimme All Your Love”, and rock laden “Don’t Wanna Fight”, the tracks are just a highlight of the musical rainbow the act covered, maximized in intensity by their back-up vocalists from Georgia.
Perhaps the greatest example of Alabama Shake’s power was in finale “You Ain’t Alone”, a beautiful and touching track, delivered with an “Unchained Melody” like opening guitar, and lyrics you could feel in your soul.
There were no pyrotechnics or overly loud exits, but a graceful and poignant goodbye with a heavenly delivery.
As the crowd dispersed, and off to watch Sunfest’s annual finale fireworks, the real light show, explosions and thrills were in the acts that gave nothing less than 150%, both in heat and without.
Sparks of color and shapes burst through the night, as smoke created a cinematic fog over West Palm’s skyline, revealing a hidden beauty.
And all in all, Sunfest is a diamond in the rough. It isn’t as big as Miami’s Ultra, nor is it the Okeechobee Arts Festival.
But it does sparkle, shimmer and shine on the reflective waterfront, quieting down from the parties held on it.
The festival’s greatest asset lies in it’s individuality, unafraid to be what it is.
And as the patrons walked the empty streets back home, that’s a good note to leave on.
Be nothing but your best, and the city’s yours.
Isn’t that the ultimate dream?