The Mouse Who Roars: ZenFest at All World Acres in Plant City

Tiny little ZenFest rolls into All World Acres in Plant City, Florida, for the tenth time February 7-8-9, a mighty mouse in a sea of festival lions. The stage is minuscule, the camping space slightly expanded but still small, but nonetheless wonderful music and community pours out every year.

ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

Alley Melendez has been curating this event since its inception. It is more of a singer/songwriter event this year than previously, but there are great musicians and bands performing for the 2020 edition.

Let’s introduce first those who performed at last year’s event. Then we will explore new additions to the lineup.




Treblehawk opened the show Friday late afternoon with a raw, incisive set that was the perfect was to begin. Then the remarkable troubadour Mama Gina did her thing, regaling us with wonderful stories and poignant commentary before slipping ever so briefly into her Nine Toes the Bard alter ego.

Mama Gina

Christina Ungstad presented a fine set before running the open mic portion of the evening under gorgeous skies. A number of performers scheduled for Saturday or Sunday got the chance to sing a few songs during that time.

Christina Ungstad – Jess Phillips


The first two musicians who performed Saturday demonstrated why such festivals will always be more important than the pop dreck that pours out of commercial radio. Two lovely voices presented sets of heartfelt music. The second was Enid Ortiz. She is a looper and plays guitar, and she used the loop machine effectively. She followed “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To,” which she said would be her first single, with a nice cover of the Gnarls Barkley tune “Crazy.” Then self-deprecatingly, she offered “more depressing originals,” including “It’s Not Us” and “Please Love Me.” To close she played a cover of “The Kill,” a song by 30 Seconds to Mars.

Enid Ortiz – ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

Introvert was back again this year, spitting rhymes over a recorded musical background. He is truly intense, sometimes uncomfortably so, but there is a place and a need for such self-expression. “Ask for Help” and “I Sold My Soul Today” were two of his performances.

Introvert – ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

Last year, Este Loves came to open mic but did not have a scheduled appearance. She did this year. In fact, she led the Friday night campfire jam that continued well past dawn. I have opined regularly that Este Loves consistently delivers world-class sets. Initially, I wanted to say it was regardless of the people she has gathered to perform with her, and I have confirmed that it doesn’t matter who plays; they all become swept up in her radiance and vibes.

ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

You would never have known this “pick-up band” wasn’t a regularly working ensemble. She began with “Bump in the Road,” funny in that there were none in this set. Many of Este’s songs weave together several different elements, such as the second tune, “Welcome to the Party.” You might have thought the song was called “In the Moment,” or even possibly “Here to Stay,” as the band moved seamlessly from one element to the other — a self-contained medley of sorts. “If we want it, we can do it” was the theme of “This Too Shall Pass.”

Este Loves – ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

Este does a fascinating hip hop delivery to some lyrics, and that shone through on “Destiny’s Unfolding” as she encouraged us to “Push your limits out of the way.” In the back, Adam Horwitz and cajon sounded like a whole drum kit. That’s the sort of influence Este wields.

“Skinny-dippin’” melted into “All I Wanna Do is Boogie with You,” which featured a masterful slide guitar solo by Tony Tyler. “Rouxter” contained that uplifting lyric “I must have done some right to have a friend like you.” These songs just get down deep inside of you; they certainly do me. “A Little Life Under the Moonlight” evolved into “Red Judy” and then “Embrace Yourself.” Este slowed it down a little with “You Get Me High,” but then she turned right around and kicked it back into high gear with “Searchin’,” a real shitkicker that provided plenty of space for solos.

For the seventh time in seven Zen Fests, shoeless soul had the honor of closing out Saturday night. There is something delightedly different about them, from Rene Schlegel’s Swiss accent and wonderful vocal style to Dave Gerulat’s eclectic presence at the drum kit. They twist up rock, “prozac pop,” jazz, blues, reggae and more into a magical blend, and this set was, for many of us, their most magical of all. Mike Ratza was on tenor saxophone and Sladjan Vidic on bass.

shoeless soul – Photo credit: Chuck Smalling

They opened with a bluesy number called “Happiness,” followed by one of Schlegel’s most outstanding compositions, “Modern Day Pioneers.” The band was on fire, smiles everywhere across the stage and in the crowd. As Schlegel sang “Time,” we were reminded that time is a “gift you’ve been given. Maybe it was “Mother Nature,” a song with a reggae-ish lilt, that Schlegel crushed a great wah-wah guitar solo and Ridic was simply stratospheric on bass.

Ratza’s tenor sax gives the band a tremendous extra dimension, giving them that genre flexibility. After “Mother Nature,” “starring role,” Adrian Praino commented about this — and every — shoeless soul performance:

“It’s like holding a puppy. You can’t help but smile!”

They played “Bubble Song” about “living life in a bubble,” and then Schlegel commented about returning year after year to Zen Fest.

“They’re going to get us out of a retirement home for a walker race.”

To which Richard Fiallo, proprietor of All World Acres, announced:

“And we’re going to bring you back every year!”

That was met with great huzzahs. “Paving the Way,” all about “games people play,” seemed like the perfect way to finish the set — and the evening.

BRAVO, shoeless soul!

[Sunday’s notes are AWOL.]

ZenFest2019 – James Menendez



Music began right after lunch with Aaron Field, a singer-songwriter, accompanying himself on guitar.

Aaron Field

Introvert was up next with his mix of rap, poetry and hip hop. He does seem like a shy type, but on stage he is fearless.

Brian Brown, impressive at last year’s open mike, repeated with a great set on acoustic guitar.

Brian Brown



Frankie Rae has played Zen Fest before. She is an excellent singer/songwriter who released the album Brave last March.

Frankie Raye

Coming Home The Band have also played at AWA previously. This Winter Haven trio is a hard-rockin’ blues band featuring Amberle Madden, vocalist, songwriter, bass; Tony Madden, guitar; Jason Brubaker, drums.

New to Zen Fest are House of I, an experimental/psychedelic rock band from Miami, with Daniel Caballero, guitar, vocals; Kenneth Rodriguez, guitar, vocals; Emmit Dobyn, bass; and Elizabeth Piedrahita, drums.

House of I

Ashleigh will also be performing, as will Myles Optimystic from Lakeland, voted  “Most Likely to Transcend This Dimension Mid-Performance.” We can’t wait!

Last but definitely not least, Ethan Coy is a mainstay at All World Acres, the monk who has hosted events such as Sustainable Living and Earth Guardians Gathering. He has played at other events, but this will be his first ZenFest performance. He is a fine conscious songwriter who sings and plays electric piano. He will be accompanied by Tim Symonds on percussion.



Camping and parking are limited. Alley Menendez says:

As some of you already know, ZenFest is a great time and a very relaxing and artistic event. For those of you who don’t know, come find out. ZenFest specifically showcases local talent in music, live art, etc. ZenFest is also a charity event to help keep the beautiful camp ground at All World Acres up and running for more events throughout the year. All performers and workers do this event out of kindness and love for their community, so make sure to tip them or buy their merch to support them or at least help them out with gas money. It’s one big family of people giving to each other :)

This year will be ’80s Theme so feel free to wear your favorite ’80s attire and just enjoy yourself!

ZenFest2019 – James Menendez

For more fest info, please go to the webpage:


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