Suwannee Rising: “Thanks for coming. SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!”
Photographs courtesy of Mandi Nulph
Videos courtesy of FunkCity.net
Videos courtesy of Volke Mon
Do you know how to make a few thousand people happy?
Paul Levine does. He waits until 2 AM Saturday night (OK, Sunday morning), after Lettuce has blown our minds a second time, and he stands at the microphone and says,
“Thanks for coming. SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!”
And, with that, an enormous cry of elation went up from the crowd at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak for the inaugural Suwannee Rising Music Festival (April 4-5-6). In fact, each time Levine introduced one of the bands with deep, deep SoSMP roots, he talked about family and those bands who have supported every festival we’ve loved at the park.
Since about midday Thursday, I’ve encountered more than a dozen ledes (that’s the actual journalism word) to introduce this review, each one perfect in its own way. It would certainly be fair to say that Suwannee Rising is truly the phoenix rising from the ashes of Bear Creek and Wanee (and AURA), three magnificent festivals no longer doing business. We have not heard official attendance yet, but it was much busier than early indications suggested.
And the single most prominent aspect of the entire weekend was the smile on EACH and EVERY person you encountered: staff, crew, musicians, and happy campers alike. Many of us would have convened at the park even if there had been NO festival at all, just to be with family again at the happiest place in the world (which is not in Kissimmee). Levine at one point mentioned the two families (Bear Creek and Wanee) combining for this even, and we’ll call that a supergroup, thank you very much.
Ivan Neville, on stage with Dumpstaphunk, said:
“We love Paul. We love Paul. We’re so tight he even got to introduce the band on Tony Hall’s mic! Nobody gets to do that!” (Laughter all around)
In fact, everybody sang Levine’s praises, from on stage and at every campground. We had a real need, and he and his outstanding team delivered.
The music, in fact, was spectacular. There were numerous performances that qualified for my “Good As It Gets” award. And, let’s just get this out of the way now:
“I have seen the future of funk. It is Ghost-Note.”
If anyone ever asks you what Bear Creek (of blessed memory) was like, you can tell them: it was EXACTLY like the Ghost-Note set on the Porch Stage Friday night.
Also, the sound was the best I’ve ever heard at SoSMP, and that includes 36+ festivals there. With minor exceptions, it was not too loud, often a complaint about the Amphitheatre. And Receptor Sound and Lighting crushed over at the Porch Stage.
I posted this Friday morning from the park:
We knew it would be wonderful. Magical. Transcendent. We only underestimated HOW wonderful, HOW magical, HOW transcendent Suwannee Rising would be. The spirits of Bear Creek and Wanee are alive and well here at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. You can feel it in every smile you encounter everywhere you go.
Music? We began with four stunning performances by Jacksonville bands. Paul Levine was a genius to set us up like bowling pins for this lineup. Custard Pie had a brilliant opening set, followed by another excellent one by Ben Strok & The Full Electric. Then The Melody Trucks Band FINALLY got to grace the Amphitheatre Stage, and they crushed. And the Afro-Cubano band LPT blew us away.
The Fritz finally got to play the Amphitheatre as well, and the funked it ALL up. Then Voodoo Visionary had a romp with an astonishing last 15 minutes of jazzy “The Heathen.” And The New Mastersounds did what they always do. Simon Allen and Pete Shand (drums and bass) kept diving into that deep groove pocket.
We are so blessed. Full report eventually! Check out the wristband!
The day began with a glorious gathering of the Sisters and Brothers of the Suwannee at Shelly Smith’s wonderful campsite at the top of the hill on River Road. Hundreds of people stopped by for hugs, kisses, beverages, food, and other treats. It would also mark the beginning of the birthday celebration for our Gov’nah, the esteemed Adam Pierce (actually Saturday, I believe). It was the perfect start to the perfect weekend.
As noted, it was a brilliant move to have Custard Pie open this festival up. From start to finish, the construction of the lineup was genius. It appeared that there were more than the three Custard Pie dudes on stage as they began. In fact, The trio were augmented by West Brook (Melody Trucks Band, Ginger Beard Man) on slide guitar, Ben Strok on guitar and Max Zargon (The Full Electric, Trail Driver) on keyboards.
There was always special consideration that Levine gave in selecting the first band to perform at Bear Creek including some of my favorites: Shak Nasti, The Heavy Pets, London Souls, Savi Fernandez Band, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes, and Freddie’s Finest. Custard Pie fits into the group snugly.
Rory Joseph, Aaron Webb, and Brandon Howell jumped immediately into a badass Latino groove which turned into a trance-y jam which became jazzier as it stretched out: “Long Time Gone Part 1 > Redabs > James Brown.” Finally, I scribbled in my notepad “just stupid.” Because, well, it was.
Reed Skahill (Ajeva) came on stage to sing “I’d Rather Be with You” (from Stretchin’ Out with Bootsy’s Rubber Band) with smokin’ synth by Zargon. Strok and Zargon then split to get ready for their set following. The quartet shifted into psychedelic trance, with West Brook playing ostinato slide guitar. They jammed heavy, they played Calypso, they did whatever they wanted, and everybody there for the opening set dug what was shakin’. The set included a tune titled “Moondark” that will merit an article all to itself.
Music bounced all three days between the Amphitheatre and the Porch Stage, which was not used for Wanee or for Suwannee Hulaween. Ben Strok and The Full Electric opened that stage, and Jacksonville was now two-for-two in the fabulous set department. Brandon Howell returned the favor, playing drums with them the entire set. The quartet killed with funky fusion on “Blood and Guts.” They slowed things down (slightly), and Zargon, Strok, and Howell all soloed. As it segued into “I Feel Good,” Adam Kenneway’s bass helped drive the Latin groove.
Every time anyone mentioned Suwannee Rising on stage, there was a huge roar of approval, and that roar got louder as time progressed. “Bottle of Time > Jumbl’d Jim” got a huge response, and the closing “Wilson / I Got a Feelin’ / Prince Caspian” mashup closed the set perfectly.
As noted, this was more Bear Creek than Wanee, but the next set was one of the most important of the weekend: the Melody Trucks Band. Trucks and her band deserved to be part of last year’s Wanee but were overlooked. Finally getting to hear this great band on the main stage was a treat beyond imagination.
It was transcendent. Trucks (percussion), Willis Gore (guitar), and Shane Platten (bass) all sang at some point during the set, full of great originals and some fine covers. They opened with “Fire Inside,” sung by guitarist Brady Clampitt, and “Syncronicity” and never let up. Trucks chose to “release the beast” early this set, turning Platten loose for “Jellyfish.” Isaac Corbitt had an outstanding solo, then paired up with drummer Shaun Taunton for more.
“Livin A Lie” was huge, Trucks on vocals, and then Lamar Williams, Jr., was invited to the stage for “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’.” “Freight Train,” a song dedicated to her dad, Butch Trucks, included a quick “Les Brers in A Minor Tease.” Trucks noted the influence the late Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) had on her, and they offered “Yield Not to Temptation.” Everybody took a turn, but West Brook owned this one. They closed the set with on of her dad’s favorites from Frogwings: “Pattern.” BRAVA! BRAVO!
One of the greatest memories of Bear Creek was discovering bands outside your usual listening realm. Jacksonville’s LPT did precisely that with their spectacular Afro-Cubano band. They claim to be conjunto — a small band — but with ten men on stage pumping up the rhythm, I think they are overqualified. This was an all-out dance party, salsa first and foremost, but vocalist Josué A. Cruz kindly led us through explanations of bolero, rhumba, and mambo as well. There was no chance of standing still while they tore up the Porch Stage.
Then it was back down the hill for Asheville’s funkmeisters supreme: The Fritz. They more than matched their blistering Hulaween set, blasting out with two of their best live tracks, “Stuck in Between” and “Another Way.” There is no better front man than Jamar Woods, singing and playing a bank of keyboards. Jamie Hendrickson was on fire on guitar, and Jake O’Connor’s bass rocked the house.
They did a bust-out on “Lithium” by Nirvana, then followed it up with a huge jam on “Casual Mistakes.” As “Oppenheim” yielded to “Undertow,” the percussion break by the Mikes — Mike Tillis and Mikey Spice — had a “Soul Sacrifice” vibe to it during “You.”
That crushing set was followed by another from Atlanta funkateers Voodoo Visionary. They too jumped on the opportunity, coming out to “Testify” (by the light of the moon!) Scottie MacDonald is an engaging front man, cheerleading and singing all the while. Drummer Mac Schmitz kept his foot on the gas, driving the band through a tremendous set, including “Off the Ground” and “True Colors.”
Their set on the Porch stage became incendiary first when they delivered a fine Prince medley: “I Wanna Be Your Lover > Controversy.” And the last dozen minutes or so might be the best performance I’ve ever heard from the quintet: a simply fabulous take on “The Heathen” from their first album, Spirit of the Groove. Bassist Trent Gilson blew it up first, followed by Mike Wilson on guitar in George Benson mode. Then Marcus White threw down a dynamite keyboard solo, and Wilson came back for a straight-up Frank Zappa solo. DAMN!
And some frequent visitors to the park shut down night one: The New Mastersounds. This was, as always, a stunning example of their homage to the glorious soulful funky jazz — or jazzy funk — that was birthed in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Eddie Roberts, always the most stylish man on stage (OK, tied with Karl D), was soaring on guitar. They opened with “Tantalus” from last year’s Renewable Energy, something this quartet from Leeds definitely has. They reached back for an “old” tune from 2005 (“Too Bad”), then invited Lamar Williams, Jr., to sing with them. The new vinyl 45 will be released May 3. Williams and the band have an album coming out shortly. They played “Shake It” and “Kings and Queens” together.
The band dedicated “Pudding and Pie” to the late Kofi Burbridge, then tore through “Carrot Juice.” Williams returned for “Love They Deserve” and “Taking Me Down.” He stayed up for “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More;” Joe Tatton was all over this on piano. They celebrated the band’s 20-year anniversary with their first song from their first album: “One Note Brown.” Called back for an encore, Williams jumped back up to join in on “Get On the Good Foot.” Tatton owned this one, too.
One of the most special aspects of The New Mastersounds, for me, is the very special deep groove that drummer Simon Allen and bassist Pete Shand hit on occasion, just magical. There were a LOT of occasions this set!
Kaleigh Baker’s Someday Honey opened the afternoon with just the right vibe. We had anticipated rain but ducked almost all of it. Baker, a fine blues shouter and song interpreter, had a band powered by two excellent players: Matt Walker on guitar and Tommy Shugart (The Groove Orient) on Hammond B3 and guitar. Several songs in, they played a new tune and then a blues, as Shugart grabbed his guitar to tear it up with Walker.
We got a Buck Owens and a Buckaroos staple, “Tiger by the Tail,” followed by a real shitkicker, then Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real’s “Forget About Georgia.” There was a great song questioning “What Would Tom Waits Do?” And Melody Trucks, who was with us in the audience all weekend, joined Baker for the last song.
From there, we jumped right into a prog rocket of massive proportions from The Difference, a St. Petersburg collective which has gone through some changes and the consolidation of two groups into one — with one very positive result. They began with “Theme from Jurassic Park,” which always draws attention, before slamming into a huge prog tune, “Jig of The Blasphemette.” Justino Lee Walker is the spokesperson for the group, singing and bending strings. The funk, cinematic touches, and rock are all anchored by Yral ‘datdudeondrums’ Morris and Jimmy Rector on percussion. And titan Vinny Svoboda stepped up and learned all the material for this important set.
Walker then explained the creative process the band is following to complete their special concept album about the life cycle. First up was “Genesis.” Then we got a long segment from Act III: “Adolescence.” There was some very Zappa-like “20 Small Cigars”-type stuff going on before it exploded. During a section with Cody Moore on saxophone, it also reminded of Snarky Puppy. There was some straight-up Latin fusion during “Flight of The Kiwi > Daydream Fugue” centered on Mark Mayea’s outstanding electric piano, then a beautiful twin guitar segment (Walker and Jason Hobert), the highlight of which was the magnificent bass work from Svoboda underneath. And they let him pick the final tune. “Pop Song.” Wise choice!
New Orleans Suspects have graced the Amphitheatre during Wanee before, and it was great seeing them back for this new festival. This quintet has deep, deep funk and New Orleans roots, and they laid it all out. We got music from a brand new album and some nuggets as well. Jake Eckert on guitar and Jeff Watkins on tenor were wailing all set long, and that New Orleans groove doesn’t get deeper than what Eric Vogel and Willie Green lay down. Meanwhile, C.R. Gruver’s keyboards danced over it all. One delicious nugget was “Yes We Can Can.”
The only set I missed all weekend was Good Talk owing to a dinner engagement.
The New Mastersounds were up again. It was so nice to see them on consecutive days. They again filled the stage up with those amazing grooves, with “Miracles” a stunning opener, especially from Roberts on guitar. There were songs from up and down their catalog and more collaborations with Lamar Williams, Jr., the best of which was, perhaps, “Let’s Go Back.” “San Frantico” was great, too. And they finished with a BOP ba DAH DAH sing-along chorus.
St. Petersburg’s Come Back Alice also had a superb Hulaween set, and they delivered more of the same on the Porch. “Make It Happen” featured killer fiddle work from Dani Jaye and some wicked slide playing from Tony Tyler, while Sean Hartley and Brad Elliott held down the bottom and beat.
They tossed out a great cover of Gov’t Mule’s “Bad Little Doggie,” Tyler properly channelling Warren Haynes. Jimmy Rector was punctuating everything with his percussion. There was a beautiful new tune, very gospel-like and “Eyes of the World” reminiscent, called “Digital Eye,” and they came back to rock out with a fine take on “Layla” to great praise.
There was great anticipation for Oteil and Friends. And, no matter how great we thought it might be, we underestimated. If all we got was the opening medley “Blue Skies > Franklin’s Tower > Cats Out Under the Stars,” it would have been enough, 26 glorious minutes. His band was superb: Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Scott Metzger on guitar, Neal Casal also on guitar, and John Kimock on drums. They followed that up with a great shuffle blues, “Tore Up.”
I am in the minority here: I thought that “Dear Prudence” was flat, but then it’s a flat tune to begin with. Everybody else loved it. The real highlights of the set were a superb “Ophelia,” with remarkable piano work from Chimenti, and then a magnificent “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” You could feel Wanee all around you — we all did.
Meanwhile, up on the hill, there were just a few installations. The Complimentary Bar was back — always a good time with them. There was a big yoga tent with a series of events going on throughout the festival. And our boys from Because of the Lotus were there, with their live painting and biofeedback capabilities and more. Now I confess I had never put on the virtual reality headset before. MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN. Moe Angelo and Pat Anglin stepped up for Suwannee Rising, and we all benefitted.
Ghost-Note. Let me say it again: GHOST-NOTE. This is the sort of performance we were accustomed to hearing at Bear Creek, only this one was on steroids. Jaw-dropping doesn’t begin to describe the sensation watching this masterful collective pour out jazz, hip hop, funk, world music, and pure insanity. Led by Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight and fellow Puppy Nate Werth on percussion, it was a true revelation. Every member of the band had the opportunity to step out on songs from their debut album Swag-ism and more, but undeniably there was great focus on bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas.
The band swung back and forth between incredibly tight arrangements and some superb free playing. “Pace Maker” was one of the tunes in the set, plus a song dedicated to Kofi Burbridge. The group also featured A.J. Brown, Sylvester Onyejiaka, Dominique Xavier Taplin, Jonathan Mones, Peter Knudsen, and Mike Jelani Brooks.
Later on, Jen and I compared notes and made the same comment: after Ghost-Note, we didn’t see how anybody was going to follow that. To which Lettuce said HOLD MY BEER! Further, we agreed that neither set was better than the other, just different approaches.
Lettuce has played dozens of times at SoSMP, most recently at Purple Hatter’s Ball last June and then twice at Suwannee Hulaween. And I loved all three of those… and the dozen or so other times I’ve heard them, but this was somehow — different. The sound was perfect, and there was a much jazzier edge to my ears.
Ryan Zoidis was just tearing it up on tenor sax, and Adam (Shmeeans) Smirnoff’s solo was sonic magnificence. Oteil jumped in on ?. Fan favorite “Squadlive” yielded to James Brown’s “Body Heat,” and it was totally ON. Another favorite, “I Need You,” gave everyone the chance to sing along, and they closed night two with more JB: “Ain’t It Funky Now.”
The warm sun bathed the Porch Stage dance floor for Shevonne Philidor, a Tampa vocalist who can move in almost any direction vocally. Hers was a delightful set, the perfect way to get started. She is a talented songwriter, and we heard “Just Right” and “Feelin’ Fine” in the set. There was also a great disco moment with The Jackson 5’s “Dancin’ Machine.” Finally, there was a “Secret Agent Man”-like intro that led to a powerful “Purple Rain,” leaving smiling faces everywhere.
Florida is blessed with many great fusion bands, and we were fortunate to have Electric Kif on stage this time. In addition to their own sets, they have often backed Roosevelt Collier at SoSMP. Their rhythm section — Rodrigo Zambrano on bass and Armando Lopez on drums — are so incredibly tight, and Jason Matthews plays his keyboards of that platform. The star of the set may have been Eric Escanes on guitar, who was just killer start to finish.
They opened with “Labrats” and “Spider,” and from there the set continued to build. They were really powering by the time they got to “Weird Fishes,” “Little Louie,” and “Jefe,” at which point they tore the roof off the sucker with “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups.” And still they were weren’t done, saying good by with a truly spacey tune they claim was the National Anthem.
St. Petersburg’s Ella Jet and Future Soul graced the Porch next. This fine band offered a lovely set of originals. The set opened with “Cerbz” and “Vision Screen,” Ella Jet looking elegantly slinky, exactly what her voice sounds like. Kevin Mendel and Zach West provided the melodies on guitar and keyboards while Levi Foe and Dillon Reeder provided the bottom and the beat. This set provided a great buffer between Electric Kif and the madness about to follow.
Ghost-Note, Round 2, was only slightly less head-spinning than their Friday set. Mike Jelani Brooks had some great tenor sax solos, and Jonathan Mones, all 4’10” of him (more or less) was a true superstar on alto sax. There was a song with the “Sungoddess” chant, and Robert “Sput” Searight gave us a new tune titled “Fatback,” featuring exactly that on drums. There was a funky tune that went into an “Ostinato”-like groove courtesy of MonoNeon.
Peter Knudsen ripped a fine solo on the title track from the double-disk Swag-ism, as did Mones. There was a song dedicated to Weedie Brahma, “Weedie Be Good,” before the 100-mph finish with the Brecker Brothers’ “Some Skunk Funk,” MonoNeon in the lead.
I almost walked away from the set by Ben Fagan & the Holy City Hooligans. All I saw at first was a DJ and then a guy singing and playing some odd sort of drums for percussion. I am glad I didn’t. They had a drummer, too, and it was a quirky but catchy presentation. I probably would have stayed anyway, but Fagan’s voice is gorgeous, hitting falsettos, smooth poppy stuff, and reggae hip hop, often Jamiroquai-like. I know, right?
Later in the set, there was a sequence with “Gettin’ High” (reggae), “Fly High,” and “Higher Love.” The DJ was pumping some nasty bass, none nastier than on “My Kind of People.”
You know it’s going to be a blast as you walk down the hill to the Amphitheatre as Dumpstaphunk begins with your favorite jam: “I Wish You Would.” And they did! After “Jazz They Call It Funk,” we got more favorites, including “Justice” (relevant every day) and “Do It.” The double basses of Tony Hall and Nick Daniels were killer, always with Ivan Neville’s hand on the throttle.
Things went crazy as they played “Superfly” and “Stand!” But it got ridiculous when MonoNeon stepped into the jam (three bass players!) for “Up for the Down Stroke,” which jammed and eventually twisted up into “Flashlight.”
Ben Sparaco has been playing at the park practically since he was a toddler (well, almost). He and his band The Full Effect began with the title of the band’s first EP, There Is No Them, then a rocker called “Last Minute.” He dedicated the set to Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman, Kofi Burbridge, and Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). There was a fine sequence that began with “Grey Rain” into the intro (only) to “Band on the Run,” then “Casual Friends.” It was very effective. Adam Discipio on bass and Anthony Quirk on drums accompanied Sparaco.
Then there was a 100% jazz “So What” which jammed into “They Love Each Other.” One of Sparaco’s best tunes, “Walk on the Levee,” was simply WOW, and the harmony vocals on “Scared of the Dark” were beautiful.
Maybe it was just my state of mind, but I’ve never heard a set from moe. like the one they offered Saturday night. Totally blown away. It began innocently enough with staple “Rebubula,” but with each layer it developed — for at least some of us — into a cohesive, organic unit. “Mar de Ma” was such a fine groove, and as they drove through “Bear Song” and “New Hope for the New Year,” everyone had the opportunity to shine, although Jim Loughlin on all manner of percussion was a true superstar. Credit the sound crew, too; in some venues, Loughlin’s contributions are all but drowned out. Vince Amico was a powerhouse all set long, two glorious hours.
Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey took turns shredding, often playing that soul-stirring tandem guitar lead. Garvey’s slide lit up “Brittle End” before an enormous jam during “Opium,” while “Lazarus” was jazzy, vibes and that twin lead again. The beautiful “Silver Sun” shimmered Beatles-like before they returned to “Rebub.” The encore began with “White Light,” and that yielded to a most satisfying “Recreational Chemistry” to finish us off.
There was considerable discussion about the opportunity Levine provided Holey Miss Moley playing the penultimate set between moe. and Lettuce. It is impossible to overstate just how spectacularly they rose to the occasion. The eleven-person juggernaut opened with “Devil Funk” and let the intensity build from there, following it with a massive Afrobeat workout on “Shake It with Me;” the vocals were stunning.
And speaking of Afrobeat, a genre at which Holey Miss Moley truly excels, they asked Melody Trucks to sit in on percussion for their magnum opus, “Afroshaft.” Incendiary. The vocal tunes were a blast, including “Mary Jane” and “Hold On, I’m Coming,” but the highlight of the set — and absolutely one of the best performances of the weekend — arrived in their next-to-last song, a new tune titled “Here to Dance.” The band was perfect; the vocals from Miss Robyn Alleman Pack and Ellie McCaw were perfecter. Also, a reminder that the addition of Jen Peacock Ryan on trumpet and vocals gives the band’s sound another great dimension.
I have often opined about the idea of As Good As It Gets, where I don’t try to rank bands who hit the paragon. I’ve changed my mind. It began at Suwannee Hulaween and continued at Funk Fest Punta Gorda in March. But these two performances by Lettuce were simply stunning, funky jazz more than jazzy funk.
After the sublime opening “Moksha Intro – The Force (inc. I Got It Made [Special Ed]),” I thought: “That’s Miles,” although I couldn’t place it. It was “Black Satin” (On the Corner). Benny Bloom’s wah-wah trumpet was simply shimmering. It was tenor player Ryan Zoidis’ turn next on “Pocket Change,” and that morphed into a Latin romp (“Shmink Dabby Kane”).
Erick ‘Jesus’ Coomes, who was bouncing all set, bounced double-time on bass during “Madison Square.” Nigel Hall was a monster behind his Hammond B3 and other keyboards and when he was out front cheerleading on vocals.
“Larimar” was more Miles’-inspired magic, reminiscent of “It’s About That Time,” Bloom again the star. Adam Deitsch powered the entire set from his drum kit, and Adam ‘Schmeeans’ Smirnoff lit up every tune.
Some bands are just more equal than others.
We were camped at the top of the hill, and I wandered over to Shelly Smith’s campsite, the home of the meet and greet for the Sisters and Brothers of the Suwannee. The place was already packed. There were setting up equipment. Mark Mayea (The Difference, Ajeva) was playing a lovely version of “Spain.” And I knew Matt Lapham was there, somewhere, but he hadn’t played all weekend (that I knew about, anyway).
AND. I. LEFT. AND. WENT. TO BED.
So I leave here this link of Spencer Storch’s fine review from ShowsIGoTo. Because HE DIDN’T go to bed.
The phoenix has risen. We will be back — in force — next April for another magical weekend with family, friends, music, and love.