A Feast of Funk and Soul (and Blues and Rock and Jazz) Food!
Paul Levine certainly knows how to throw a party. In his time at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, he has certainly been involved with a lot of them, including Suwanee Hulaween, Purple Hatter’s Ball, Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival, AURA Music & Arts Festival, various Roosevelt Collier Getdowns and more. His latest brainstorm was to get a jumpstart on Thanksgiving with a festival celebrating music AND food, aptly titled A Feast of Funk and Soul Food (November 18 & 19).
The idea was simple, really: invite an intimate audience, some spectacular music and a cohort of talented chefs for a weekend of camaraderie, family and fun. Mr. Levine nailed it!
Most of the music was held inside the cozy confines of SoSMP’s Music Hall. It did start outside in the courtyard with Albert Simpson entertaining during happy hour and dinner Friday, Isaac Corbitt sitting in on harmonica. We arrived too late to hear him; fortunately, we would get a second shot Saturday.
Leisure Chief opened the Music Hall action. Here is the Reader’s Digest version, and you might as well get used to this comment: best set ever! This outstanding Orlando quintet has been honing their sound, but this was a truly superb performance. They played tunes from their album King of Nothing and other originals, starting with “Glide” and “Weekend.” Drummer Derek Engstrom handles most of the vocals, and his voice is a perfect match for the bands funky jazz sound.
They really knocked out one of the best tunes, “Grandmaster,” and followed with “Reinvent Rearrange.” Christian Ryan sounded great on all of his reeds and flute, and recent addition Jordan Garno has fully integrated his guitar into the band’s sound. It was also great to see Nick Bogdon on stage with his former bandmates. Harmonica master Isaac Corbitt joined in on “Afroesque,” their best Afrobeat tune. Now you might wonder how Corbitt would fit into that format. The answer was: brilliantly!
Also: the sound crew was spectacular. It was not too loud (my pet peeve), and everything was crystal clear. It adds so much to our enjoyment when the sound is so perfectly… perfect! Tony Collingwood and crew were just amazing.
I was really looking forward to Jennifer Hartswick’s set. She is always amazing, whether playing with Trey Anastasio or her own band or sitting in with… everybody. As they took the stage, her “band” looked vaguely familiar. That’s because three of the evening’s headliners (The Nth Power) were on stage with Hartswick, along with Rob Marscher on keyboards. From stage left were Nikki Glaspie on drums, Nate Edgar on bass and Nick Cassarino on guitar. However spectacular I imagined her set was going to be, I had drastically underestimated. As usual.
They blasted out with “You Got the Power.” My notes said: HOLY SHIT. This was spectacular. Hartswick is an astounding singer and excellent trumpet player. The second tune was a deep and dirty blues, with Cassarino on a wicked guitar solo, then Marscher on Hammond B3. Hartswick showed off her great trumpet chops next.
It got totally nasty on the next tune, Marscher first on synthesizer, then Edgar, then Hartswick. I’d seen The Nth Power a number of times, but obviously I was not paying attention. Edgar was spectacular all night (and the next night as well), as were Cassarino and Glaspie.
There are a couple of ways you could approach James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” You could do it as a parody, or you could attempt to update it, somehow. Hartswick chose the best approach: straight, no chaser. This was one of the best female vocal performances I have ever heard. Isaac Corbitt sat in on harp.
There was jazz, too, with “Do You Feel It.” As the evening began, we had just learned about the passing of Sharon Jones, and Hartswick did her proud with a cover. “Drown In My Own Tears” was a masterpiece, with Cassarino on guitar and James Casey (who also plays with Trey and would be joining the next evening’s Earth, Wind and Fire tribute) rocking the house on tenor sax.
Some backing band!
The set break was short, since there was no need for equipment change (for all three bands). The Nth Power simply came out and continued what they had started, with Courtney J’Mell Smith on keyboards, of course. At this point, for whatever reason, my notes became useless. Cassarino is simultaneously a superb front man, excellent guitar player, and tremendous vocalist, his lilting near-falsetto positively heavenly.
Edgar continued to blow my mind on bass, and Nikki Glaspie’s power at the drum kit is amazing. Oh, yeah, and she sings up a storm, too. And Smith? What a tremendous player: electric piano, B3, clavinet, synthesizer. He stood out all set long. Failed notes aside, I fully appreciated the awesome power of this incredible quartet. Finally. Near the end, Cassarino said, “We’re going to play two more. We’re in Florida, ain’t we?” Huge roar of approval for the remark and the set.
Saturday began early with Albert Simpson playing during the Louisiana shrimp boil and then music inside. At the beginning of Simpson’s set, I confess I was not drawn in. Then, something happened. A string broke, and it took several minutes to repair. When he returned, there was a very different vibe, and he nailed song after song, starting with “Bertha” and another Dead song, then “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” several very good originals and more. He played songs from his albums and covers with equal relish.
After lunch, Scott Campbell had assembled his band for an early set of music. MusicFestNews had just published a review of his new album, An Old Photo, which you can read here. Campbell’s band featured Randy Barnhill on bass, Leon Anderson on drums, and John Babich on keyboards. And Avis Berry on vocals. We had seen her at two previous Purple Hatter’s Balls, including the one where the band covered the Blind Faith album; she handled all the singing!
From the moment they began with the first track from the album, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” you could sense this was going to be special. On the album, logically, it featured Campbell’s vocals as well as his excellent guitar playing. Berry acted in a largely back-up role. In concert, Campbell gives her free rein, because she is simply spectacular. In two days, we heard two of the very best singers you’ll hear anywhere in Hartswick and Berry.
The version of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” they offered was amazing, bluesy and so heartfelt. The instrumental “Still Water” gave each member of the band a chance to shine. They followed that with a nasty slow blues: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Campbell’s guitar perfect. It got even better as he lamented the recent passing of Mose Allison, after which Berry totally owned “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy.” Oh, man.
John Hiatt got a shout-out as they played “Feels Like Rain,” and then things got really better. Like “Got to Get Better in a Little While” better. This was the best cover of the Derek and the Dominos song I’ve ever heard, Berry riding atop the superb band.
Throughout the set, Babich’s New Orleans proclivities were delightfully obvious, and the rhythm section worked together as a unit. There was the spacey instrumental “Black Death,” next a Tex-Mexy romp, followed by a full-on Allman Brothers-type rave-up, with the Dr. That would be Roosevelt ‘The Dr.’ Collier, one of most revered performers at events at Live Oak and far beyond. Barnhill had a magnificent bass solo. And they closed with a glorious version of “Little Wing” and a Talking Heads cover.
During dinner, Vlad the Inhaler was busy entertaining in the courtyard. Vlad is one of the park’s best ambassadors and is involved with almost every fest at SoSMP. He was spinning great dance music as people walked to and fro, had dinner, and chilled out before the evening’s events began.
Music resumed after dinner as The Groove Orient took over the Music Hall. Like each of the sets Friday and Campbell’s after lunch, this group, another excellent Orlando quintet, were awesome. Best set ever. Well, of the 13 or so I’ve heard. After performing some of their great originals, they did justice to Booker T.’s “Soul Limbo,” with a special feature with Bucky Buckingham (drums) and David Vanegas (percussion).
“Ghost Train” was excellent, as Chuck Magid led the band on guitar, Harry Ong huge on bass. Once again, the sound was spot on the entire evening. And Tommy Shugart was having his way with all of the keyboards and guitar as well. There was a truly tender moment as they delivered a song we all needed titled “I Need More Love in My Life Every Day.” OK, maybe the title is shorter, but the sentiment is not. They finished with a song “about The Man” titled “Twisted Sister,” Ong grabbing the microphone and Vanegas the bass. Great way to finish the set!
Roosevelt Collier reminded us, once again, that his ‘band’ will be incredible, no matter who is ‘in the band.’ For his set, Collier grabbed Shugart and Buckingham from The Groove Orient and added bass player extraordinaire Matt Lapham, a frequent partner of Collier. The result was simply ridiculous.
If you have seen Collier and band (whoever they are) before, then you know his set consists of songs and long jams. They lifted off with a truly nasty jam that bounced through “Superstition” and P-Funk magic. The second jam was similar. Buckingham locked in almost immediately with Collier and Lapham; meanwhile, Shugart was dancing over all of the keyboards, adding great colors to the proceedings.
Atlanta’s Voodoo Visionary was passing through on the way to Zen Awakening and stopped in for the evening. Collier called guitarist Mike Wilson to the stage, and he responded with great additions to Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” and then “Hot ‘Lanta.”
The next jam featured “The Jam,” specifically, the song from Graham Central Station’s Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It. And that worked itself into a variation of “Goin’ Down,” with a Buckingham drum feature. Collier and Lapham were musical gold on every tune. After “Come Together,” they played something similar to Collier’s “On My Way,” with Shugart blowing up on piano and Hammond B3 and then guitar.
Things got totally out of hand when Collier called up Magid to play guitar. Vanegas hit the percussion stand and was joined by… James Casey! Shugart wailed on clavinet, and Magid had a fine guitar solo.
And Roosevelt Collier reminded everyone why he is the best at what he does. Also, congratulations! His son Ezra Roosevelt Collier was born just weeks ago!
Finally, it was time for the main event: Earth, Wind and Power — The Nth Power playing EW&F tunes with an incredible horn section, percussionist and extra keyboard player. They wasted no time, jumping into a powerful if surprising opener: 1979’s “In the Stone.” And they were off! By the time the 11-member band had finished “September,” we all knew we were in for an awesome ride.
The entire band was decked out in wildly wonderful costumes, most notably Glaspie’s green and yellow dress and head wrap. Clearly, they had gone all out to reprise their Earth, Wind and Power set from JazzFest. Cassarino’s off-white outfit was perfect in his role as front man, and Smith’s dashiki absolutely shimmered.
And what a horn section: Jennifer Hartswick and Farnell Newton, trumpets; Skerik and James Casey, tenor saxophones; and Brian Thomas, trombone. Marscher, Hartswick’s keyboard player, doubled up with Smith all set long, and David Sadownick added greatly with his percussion array.
They really lit it up early with “Fantasy > Sun Goddess.” SUN GODDESS! Casey had a killer tenor solo, Smith having his way with the keyboards. And then, what really came to the fore — and remained there the rest of the night — was Smith’s spectacular falsetto, wonderfully channelling that Philip Bailey vibe.
“Open Our Eyes” was the earliest tune they played (1974), followed by a smokin’ medley that began with “Jupiter,” Skerik and Casey tearing it up on tenors. That segued into “Getaway” and a hot, hot “Got to Get You Into My Life,” during which Cassarino got everybody involved in a singalong. Sadownick got a nice feature before the medley moved into “Love’s Holiday.”
So it was clear that the setlist had be very carefully chosen for hits and deep cuts as well, truly a masterpiece. Also, it seems like an appropriate time to offer this, having seen Earth, Wind and Fire several times, starting in 1976: Earth, Wind and Fire are not better than this. What a brilliant set this was, truly powerful.
Next, the band paired “Runnin’” and “Brazilian Rhyme.” Skerik and Sadownick paired up before Skerik took us all on a wild ride, all Albert Ayler and Dead Kenny Gs. All through the set, Casey, Hartswick and Newton also added background vocals to augment Glaspie, Cassarino and the amazing Smith. And Hartswick was out front on trumpet and then vocal on “Rhyme.”
Thomas got a nice feature on “Mighty, Mighty,” as did Smith on B3, unless it was Marscher (just not sure). And then Smith truly delighted with “After the Love,” “Reasons” and “Devotion.” Casey had a great run on “After the Love.” “Devotion” was truly badass with Glaspie standing out on vocals. It is also time to point out how important the rhythm section is for this set, and Glaspie and Edgar totally owned it. “Shining Star” led into a long “Serpentine Fire” with numerous false endings as Cassarino introduced the ensemble.
Levine had no difficulty getting us to wail for an encore, and Earth, Wind and Power responded with a glorious “That’s the Way of the World” as the members of the horn section each got one more great shot: Farnell, Hartswick, Casey, Skerik and Thomas.
We all left the Music Hall deliriously happy and totally drained. We got seven simply stunning sets of music and even more from Simpson and Vlad.
There was food galore, as you would expect. This was a great concept, and we certainly hope Levine continues and refines this project (and expand it for vegetarians). But let me just say that the jalapeño mac and cheese was killer!
Let’s do it again, Paul!
Photographs by kind permission of Suzette Sears Baird, Kelly-Ann Garno, Joey Pye/Staged Right, and Jonny Scoblionko/ScoBeat Media.