AURA is the Perfect Name for This Festival
Once again, the AURA Music and Arts Festival (March 3-5) reminded me why it is my favorite festival: wonderful music, wonderful people, wonderful venue. Once again, I didn’t want to take my wristband off. I wanted to keep those memories with me for another year. Those who were there are already pumped for 2017.
There was one problem. Tell you what. You tell the joke first, have a hardy laugh, and then I’ll mention it. Ready? GO!
HA HA HA HA HA! That is still the funniest joke ever, isn’t it?
The sound, especially the bass, was WAAAAY too loud Thursday and part of Friday. By Saturday, the problem had resolved itself. It is too loud when it’s painful to stand FOH at an outdoor festival, when the pressure is pounding your chest, when earplugs are required equipment. Louder doesn’t make it better, just louder. You can tell the joke again if you like.
AURA started with a bang on Thursday and never let up… not, at least, until the rains and lightning dampened everyone’s enthusiasm a bit. Ten bands had nine and a half great performances (maybe it was nine and a third), although the Silent Disco helped those cold and wet stay a bit warmer.
Lucky Costello, from Jacksonville, tossed off a righteous set that ought to put them in big-league conversations. There were hints of Lotus and the Disco Biscuits, but this set was all their own. And there is no forgetting their wonderful go-go dancer! I didn’t see their first two originals as I was setting up camp, but I could hear them just fine. As I walked in, they played a great cover of AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces.” They announced their last number 25 minutes before the end of their set, and proceeded to fill the entire 25 with a brilliant “Hustle > Soundcloud.”
Immediately the marathon began. In between sets on the Amphitheater Stage, there were simultaneous sets on the Porch Stage and Vibe Tent. I opted for the Porch first to check out Electric Kif from Miami; they’ve created quite a buzz around the state. Instantly I understood why. This quartet was throwing down hot funk, disco fusion, ‘70s jazz/rock fusion and more. It is great so many bands mining this fertile sound!
Up at the Vibe Tent, CBDB (from Tuscaloosa) was also having a very solid funky set. They are a quintet with two guitars, and the songs were great, including a really cool cover of “Immigrant Song.” Receptor Sound and Lights was handling the Vibe Tent, and I confess my prejudice, because Andy Lytle, Russ Bowers and crew are friends, but they truly had the best sound the entire weekend. Fortunately, as mentioned, the other two stages eventually caught up.
Greenhouse Lounge saved their best for last. They had played their last club show in Tampa in December, and this AURA set would be their last for the foreseeable future. MusicFestNews photographer David Lee, whose superb work accompanies this article, was camping near them and had a nice time talking to them. They simply found themselves heading in different directions. We always prefer harmonious separations. Here is the GHL Facebook message:
“Lastly, we thank all of you for the love and support all these years and through our hiatus. We will be back and promise it will be that much better. Thank you for your understanding as we take this break to grow as individuals and better ourselves so we can return and bring new life and renewed energy to our music.”
Their set was pure dynamite. You could have seen their smiles from space. There were sit-ins from artist-at-large Scotty Zwang (Dopapod) and from Jason Hunnicutt. For one of the tunes where they chose to play on top of a recorded track, they picked “Oye Como Va,” the original by Tito Puente. We look forward to their return.
Stage-hopping time again, and another two great performances. There were eleven of these ‘conflicts’ over the course of the weekend, and I only missed two, on Saturday. This time it was Jimkata vs. Fusik. Jimkata was a fine trio: bass, drums, guitar. After a bit, I headed back to the Vibe Tent.
Fusik was slamming. This sextet had just begun a Santana-like medley that was built on “Jingo” and “Soul Sacrifice.” The whole set was just sick, and then a guest trumpet player (Trace from Bedside) invaded, and it got even sicker. There were some excellent guitar solos from Antonio “Sanchez” Rivera as well.
Many of us encountered Pink Talking Fish for the first time at Wanee 2014 and were totally blown away. This AURA set was a monster, too. They glide so easily from group to group: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond > Nothing But Flowers > Moma Dance, Mother, Burning Down The House, Mike’s Song > Dogs > Psycho Killer > Dogs > Once In A Lifetime > Weekapaug Groove.” The groove this band delivers is infectious all on its own, and then they play these songs. Holly Bowling sat in on keyboards for “Weekapaug Groove.” MASSIVE.
I love Asheville’s The Fritz, but I wanted to check out Third Nature first, and I’m really glad I did. The first part of their set was very jamtronica à la Pnuma Trio and The New Deal. Then the trio was joined by Lilly-Anne Merat on vocals and keytar. I definitely need to check them out again.
Back to The Fritz, just in time to hear Jamal Woods lead them into “Let’s Dance,” which everybody did. From there, I would agree with the sentiment of their song “Things are Getting Better.” That led into a really nasty variation on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Woods’ keyboards front and center. It got ridiculous during “Got to Be a Better Way.” There was this amazing smile on Jamie Hendrickson’s face as he shredded, and the man of the hour (well, 75 minutes) was bassist Jake O’ Connor. He just BLEW. IT. UP.
I had seen a brilliant set from The Werks at the Hometeam New Year’s Rally, so I was really looking forward to the night’s closing set at the amphitheater. “Good to Be Alive” was the perfect start, and they began to gear up. They hit their stride as Rob Chafin’s drums introduced the third tune, and it was a monster.
I felt something hit my leg. A raindrop. I was sure I had checked the weather, and it was clear. Of course, that was earlier in the morning. A second drop, and another. Followed by a few more. I was contemplating that normal decision: should I just wait this out? Suddenly, the bottom dropped out. Many scurried for shelter immediately (me included), while others danced in the rain. But it got worse and didn’t let up for over an hour. The Werks stopped before the lightning and thunder arrived.
I maneuvered my way to the Vibe Tent, site of the Silent Disco. They worked their hardest to get going ahead of the one AM start time, and they did a truly amazing job. DJ Scotty Solomon covered for DJ Ackdaddy, who was stuck in a cabin during the deluge, spinning great old-school vinyl. My favorite? “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me?” by Peter Brown. That was channel 2. Over one channel 1 was a truly great set from Weazildust. (If you’re wondering where that name came from, watch this video clip.) He was spinning and had a guitar player with him. My notes were non-existent, as I was wet and cold, and it was breezy, and my handy-dandy bag was very damp. At the end of the set, I went back to camp and actually went to bed at 2:30, a rarity for me. Maybe it was 3:30. Hard to say.
There was much more to do than just listen to music. The yoga tent was constantly busy, and there were hooping classes. Many great art installations were available to enjoy, and vendors of all sorts hawked their wares.
Mercifully, music did not start until 1:15. I appreciated the extra rest. As I made my way to the amphitheater, I heard the wonderful strains of Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery,” done Derek Trucks-style. This was the Ben Sparaco Band from Coral Springs, north of Miami. Sparaco was playing a guitar that, to my amateur eyes, looked just like Trucks’, and he played the slide in much the same way. This is hardly a complaint; he and the band were excellent, a great start to the day. They followed with two originals: “Ghost of Myself” and “ Heartless Hope.”
Then I drifted over to the Eno Lotus Lounge, a DJ booth with hammocks reaching out like tentacles, to hear some more from DJ Scotty Solomon. He was mixing new stuff and old; my favorite was an Orgōne tune segueing into “Cloud Nine.”
Back at the amphitheater, Sparaco and band played another new tune. On “Hammer That Nail,” not only did Sparaco invoke the sound of Derek Trucks but he also sounded just like Mike Mattison, the superb vocalist who has been with Trucks forever (well, nearly). In the middle of their final tune, “Walk On Love,” they included a really nice “Within You, Without You” tease.
And it was back to being a two-timer, splitting the 75 minutes between the two stages. I checked out Atlanta’s Dank first, a quartet who delivers “earth rock and space funk.” They were good, and I will see them again, but I was looking for more, and I knew that a whirling dervish was playing at the top of the hill.
At last year’s AURA, I stumbled into the Vibe Tent (well, whatever the stage was called last year) to see a band I didn’t know: Yojimbo. Turns out I DID know them: Carly Meyers and Adam Gertner from Mike Dillon’s band. Since then, the duo changed their name to Roar! (I saw the first official Roar! show at Dunedin Brewery’s Oktobeerfest). Gertner wails on the drums and also on the computer, while Ms. Meyers, sings, plays trombone and percussion, and dances and twirls. This was a great, energetic set. For those accustomed to seeing her almost exclusively on trombone, this was a great chance to check out her strong voice. I know it’s really fun saying the F-word over and over again, but eventually it just seemed gratuitous.
Crazy Fingers, just one of South Florida’s Dead channelers, were up next. They wasted no time, plunging into “Feel Like a Stranger,” hitting a quote from “Help On the Way,” then working into “Eyes of the World > Slipknot! > Come Together.” I zipped back to the Eno Lotus Lounge to catch DJ Craig Heneveld, a one-time Tampa native now a nationally recognized talent living in Boulder. He was spinning a great set, and I made it back to the amphitheater in time to see Ben Sparaco, an occasional compatriot of the Crazy Fingers boys, sitting in on “That’s It for The Other One.”
Next came the worst conflict of the weekend, for me. In this corner, weighing 165, from New Orleans… Mike Dillon! And in that corner, four boys from Nashville… Backup Planet! I love Mike Dillon and looked forward to hearing his new band, but… at Hometeam New Year’s Rally, Backup Planet absolutely knocked us out. TKO.
I went to see Dillon and band first. He had a drummer, guitarist and a guy who played electric and double basses and bass synth as well. And then there was the man himself of vibes and percussion. He is a manic maniac, which is why we love him; there is no gray area where Mr. Dillon is concerned. He and his band were great. But…
Up the hill to hear Backup Planet. Would they send me to nirvana again? YES! YES! YES! The first tune I caught was a bouncy rocker, then some straight-up funk, then another rocker (a Nick Jonas tune?). They proceeded to blow it wide open with “Stratus,” the Billy Cobham opus. Carson Brown was a beast on kit. They tore up the remainder of the set. WOW!
ALO brought the Bay area sound (SanFranciso) to Live Oak, delivering an enjoyable set that both rocked and laid back, Jack Johnson-like, ideal for this early evening slot. “Living in a Plastic Bubble” featured some great keyboard playing from Zack Gill and sweet guitar from Dan Lebowitz.
They told us that Roar! had been touring with them for a while, so close that they recorded a special EP for Record Store Day (always, it seems, on Wanee weekend). Then they realized it hadn’t been released yet, which was amusing. Meyers and Gertner came out and joined them for several songs (I think). Meyers played a world of trombone, Gertner on percussion, while Gill grabbed his ukulele. It was great.
Back up the hill to check on yet another Mike Dillon project, Nunchuck! This punk rock project featured the two Dopapod artists at large, Scott Zwang and Chuck Jones (drums and bass), and Craig Brodhead. It was insanity. I stayed for a bit, but I am a Particle fanatic, so I had to head back to the Porch Stage. Sulana and others assure me it was totally nuts, including Dillon swinging from the rafters. I have no doubt.
Particle has been through some interesting chapters in it history, but this is one of the strongest. The group is centered around keyboard wizard Steve Molitz, and they turned in one hell of a show. It began with a long first tune, Clay Parnell huge on bass. Several more tunes followed with vocals, and then the title track to the soon-to-be-released album Accelerator. Mike Daum was absolutely brilliant on guitar all set, and Molitz was… Molitz, one of the best in the business. They closed with a tremendous version of “The Elevator” from the band’s first album, Launchpad. That’s how you do it.
I had been a fan of The New Deal for ten years before I actually got to see them, for 20 whole minutes, at Bear Creek 2010 (BRRR! Creek), so you can imagine I was pumped for this one. Comments from friends later ranged from “something you could buy at Walmart” to “best set of the weekend.” I’d say it was a whole lot closer to the latter.
The Toronto trio was firing on all cylinders, really enjoying themselves. After several great jamtronic tunes, keyboards player Jamie Shields asked us, “Do you know what happened today? Something that hasn’t happened in a long time! We released an F’ing album today (elision mine). It’s been, like, 1966 since we did that.”
They proceeded to play several tracks from the new album, Mercury Switch, including “Quattro.” Dan Kurtz was killing it on bass, as was drummer Joel Stouffer. They played a very long and deluxe version of the title track before closing.
Turkuaz was up next, and I was excited about that set, too. I had no idea who Bedside (live band) was and planned to blow it off. Turkuaz was unmitigated fun. As Pat says, “Friends don’t let friends miss Turkuaz.” This nine-piece band blows up a funk storm, and they were tremendous, the two female vocalists on the stage left, three horns stage right.
Their ‘powerfunk’ was exactly that, and then things got crazy with the first appearance from the two queens (and artists at large), Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick. These two ladies are simply brilliant singers and players, Cressman on trombone, Hartswick on trumpet. They have lit up the stage many times at numerous SoSMP festivals, and they were on fire this weekend.
Interestingly, fitting for the first song they joined in on, each started her solo with a series of very shofar-like blasts (well, it was Shabbat) before becoming increasingly intricate, a mesmerizing effect. Then the band played a song from the new album, Digitonium.
But then I decided I did want to check out Bedside (live band). Best decision of the weekend; I am so glad I did not miss this. Looking left to right: keyboards, tenor sax, trumpet and lyricon, two percussionists, a female vocalist, and DJ Ackdaddy. It was terrific, deep, deep funk, and then it got just plain sick when Jim Wuest (the Heavy Pets) joined in on keyboards, followed by Mike Garulli (also the Pets) on guitar. I really look forward to seeing this Miami band again.
Finally, it was time for Thievery Corporation to shut down the amphitheater for the night. Hillary said it best: “It was like Snoop Dogg, the Beastie Boys and the Dead got together, and then Bob Marley showed up.” Let’s go with that.
There were at least five or six players and four vocalists throughout the set. There was a kora and… it was deluxe. A reggae tune became a hip-hop version of “Fire On the Mountain;” just when you settled into one genre, they turned on a dime and went a different direction, all of it amazing. They dedicated a song (possibly) called “Vampire” to the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Pure magic.
Silent Disco didn’t begin until 2 AM. On channel one, it was Vlad the Inhaler vs. Matthew Connor. Both of these Jacksonville DJs work hard at home and probably harder at the park, helping to set up events such as Reunion: Campout Concert Series and the Roosevelt Collier Suwannee Getdowns. It was nice to see them trading back and forth. But you had to keep switching channels, because on channel two was the total insanity of Telekinetic Walrus from Miami. Their self-description of “experimental psychedelic hip-hop, funky electronic bass, & weirdness” barely begins to cover it. What a blast!
I had hoped to hear Zwang Band & Chewie at 3, but I a wee bit chilly. The roaring campfire was a welcome sight. Finally made it to sleep at 5.
I had ‘displaced’ my schedule, and I did not realize that Holly Bowling’s rather quiet piano set began at noon; I missed the whole darn thing. Rats.
By the time I ambled towards the food vendors, Displace was on the Porch Stage playing a great set. I had hoped to go check out Garrin Benfield at the Vibe Tent, but it just didn’t happen. By the time Displace powered through a huge “Generation Sloan,” I was hooked. Again. This is a tremendous quartet from Tampa that has played Hulaween, AURA and numerous other festival around the state.
There were new tunes likely to end up on their second album, including “Float,” “Archibald” and “Friction.” Holly Bowling sat in on “Hillsborough River Rapids.” Sam Dobkin was playing a world of guitar, and they blew up my favorite song, “Geonosis Shuffle,” with the rhythm section (Vinny Svoboda and Tucker Sody) anchoring everything.
Discovering they had a few minutes left, Chris Sgammato (sax, guitar, keyboards, vocals) said: “If you’ve got any angst left over from high school, now’s the time to let it out.” And a great cover of System of a Down’s “Toxicity” poured out.
I had seen Bright Light Social Hour some years back at AURA but did not remember much. This was a WOW performance. The quartet filled the early afternoon with great vibes, occasionally very Floyd-like. They can do just about anything, including a really spacey cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Blues, funk, rock — they had it all.
I missed my third performance of the day, The Resolvers. I have seen them before and like them, but I just couldn’t wait to see Broccoli Samurai again. I encountered them last summer at The Big WHAT? and was totally captivated. And they did it to me again. Their funkin’ jamtronic goodness was just what I needed.
Broccoli Samurai blasted out with a hot tune, and this was the start of three sets in a row at the Vibe Tent where the guitar players looked like they were in junior high and played like masters. Michael Vincent had a tremendous set. On the second tune, keyboard player Ryan Hodson also grabbed a guitar. Then another young’un joined in: Jeremy Schon from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. It got ridiculous and never let up, and then the Dopapod boys, Zwang and Jones, jumped on stage to make sure it was totally sick. Which it was.
There was great anticipation for the Tribute to the ‘80s set designed by The Heavy Pets, but I don’t think anything could have prepared us for just how deluxe this would be. In addition to The Pets, Natalie Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick, tenor saxophonist Robert Smiley, and vocalist Alison Paige Hilley were on stage for the entire performance.
If you’re going to throw a party, you might as well start with “1999” and “Let’s Dance.” They followed a Police tune with “Take On Me,” sung by Hilley. Jim Wuest was totally pimped out for the event. Jeff Lloyd sang “Steppin’ Out,” which segued into “Touch of Grey,” Mike Garulli on vocals.
During “Another One Bites the Dust,” somebody with a saxophone bumrushed the stage… and was promptly escorted off. Not sure what that was all about. A great “Call Me Al” suddenly veered into “Rock the Casbah,” all punked out with Mike Dillon on vibes and vocals. Hartswick had a great solo on a tune Wuest sang, and then Cressman totally owned “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
This segment of the show belonged to these two great ladies. Cressman sang “I’m Coming Out.” Then they both sang “Celebrate,” and Hartswick blew Rick James away on “Give It to Me Baby.” Then the Pets welcomed AURA organizer Daryl Wolff to the stage — with his keytar — for “Blinded by Science” and I Ran.” Man, that was fun!
Pat and I went separate ways next, as he headed for Tom Hamilton’s American Babies (reminding me how three Biscuits showed up at THAB’s set last year) while I went to see my Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. I had just seen THAB a few weeks back.
The Pigeons were their usual insane selves. Scrambled Greg is about the best frontman ever, Schon was shredding up a storm, and Ben Carrey was nuts on bass. There were new tunes and old favorites. Somehow, I tore myself away and went down to see Tom Hamilton so that Pat would give me less shizz. They sounded awesome. Naturally, Aron Magner from the Biscuits joined them after I went back up the hill.
The Pigeons set blew wide open when the two ladies — Cressman and Hartswick — joined in for “F.U.” Incredible.
And then it was time for one of the most anticipated moments of the entire fest: the return of Snarky Puppy. During the show, concertmeister Michael League pointed out that Paul Levine first brought SP to the park in 2010 for the Blackwater Festival. I saw both of the SP sets at Bear Creek 2011, the last time they had performed there (I believe).
This version of Snarky Puppy had nine members, and we realized that League has a whole set of interchangeable band members, but that makes zero difference in the amazing sound the band produces. It reminded me of Frank Zappa’s bands, and, like Zappa, League is really good about introducing the band, including after solos. They kicked out with “Whitecap” from Tell Your Friends, a song they had played at Bear Creek 2011. Next up was a tune called “Gaa” featuring Mike Dillon on percussion.
The horn section featured a tenor player, flugelhorn and trumpet, and they were superb, especially the muted trumpet playing. Somewhere along the line, Cressman and Hartswick joined them, and the piano player grabbed a trumpet: trombone, tenor, three trumpets and flugelhorn. WOW WOW WOW. One of the songs included a lovely “Do That Stuff” tease.
Time for the last pair of conflicting sets. I decided to see The Main Squeeze first. I like them well enough, but I am just not a huge fan. That is on me, because they have a huge following and an adoring crowd at the Porch Stage. I saw two songs before heading up to check out Aqueous, yet another band I knew nothing about, from Buffalo.
This quartet was squarely in my wheelhouse: jamtronic rock, funk rock, prog rock, two more great young guitar players. Aqueous had a superb set, and I am excited that they will be playing the Great Outdoors Jam in July in Lakeland FL.
It was time for the grand finale: The Disco Biscuits. Last year’s show was awesome, especially the hour-long “Helicopters > I-Man > Crickets > E Jam > Helicopters.” What would they do this year to blow us all away?
Answer: start with 27+ minutes of “Scarlet Begonias > I Know You Rider” featuring Tom Hamilton. After that, “Spacebirdmatingcall > Pimp Blue Rikki > Morph Dusseldorf (ending only)” was just insane. Then the ladies returned one last time to blow up “Funky Town > Spacebirdmatingcall.”
There was really good music playing during the set break, and then it was time for round two. So of course they opened with the beginning of “Morph Dusseldorf” into “Mulberry’s Dream.” They closed with an amazingly long sequence right up until absolute quitting time: “Caterpillar > Fifth of Beethoven, Home Again > Caterpillar.” Pure genius. It is so easy to forget what a phenomenal guitar player Jon Gutwillig truly is. Probably my favorite Marc Brownstein performance ever, and Allen Aucoin lays down such an amazing beat.
Silent Disco? Why not? On channel two, Lurk City was working his magic. Meanwhile, Mined Loops was killing it on channel one. Jamie Newitt (The Heavy Pets) was playing drums while a DJ was spinning. It was really nice. I was determined to make it to DuBBle James at 3 AM. That is yet another subset of the Heavy Pets, this time with Newitt and keyboard player Jim Wuest. It was most excellent.
Tired and cold, I managed to get back to the warmth of the blazing campfire (“Are we gonna run outta wood?” Sulana asked. The answer, eventually, was YES.) Sleep at 6, up at 10, out at noon, back on the radio at 6 in Tampa (jazz show on WMNF 88.5). That’s how I roll.
AURA continues to be my favorite music festival. And I hope with all my heart that I will be enjoying AURA 2017 in 12 months, more or less. Wonderful music, wonderful people, wonderful venue. What more could you ask for?
Photographs courtesy of Gypsyshooter. Photograph of Daryl Wolff courtesy of Megan Baker.