AURA Music and Arts Festival 2014 Memo: Funk ’n’ Dance!

[Written as a Facebook post, then published later in 2014 on Tie Your Shoes Reviews.]

Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, Florida

OK, boys and girls! Let’s start with a short pop quiz!

Question 1: What is the difference between AURA and Bear Creek?

While you are pondering that, here is Question 2: what would possess a person to sit in the north Florida woods in near-freezing temperatures late into the night (early in the morning?)?

The answer to Question 1 is: ONE DAY. Really. That’s it. You can quibble about minor differences if you want (R&B tilt or jamtronica, Paul Levine or Daryl Wolff, a couple thousand people). The bottom line is this: FUNK RULES, and these two festivals and the wonderful people who put them on for our pleasure make life magnificent. We are blessed indeed.

And the answer to Question 2 is: FUNK RULES! Or, to quote Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: “’Cause all I wanna do is F-U-N-K!” Or Lotus before their Saturday night set: “We’re gonna keep it FUNKY, if that’s all right with you!”

I have a couple of theories about our festivals.  OK, I have a whole SLEW of theories, but here are a couple:

Most of the bands at festivals such as AURA Music and Arts Festival and Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival have REALLY good vocalists, superior to the drek you hear if you listen to commercial radio.

I feel like I have been on a remarkable run of concerts ever since the summer of 2012 (and I STILL haven’t written that up yet!). It is as if the Midas touch affects almost every band I have seen. I used to try to compare band performances, but how do you “compare” a Mike Dillon slam-fest to Dumpstaphunk or a brilliant Cape Breton fiddler (that would be Jennifer Roland)? The benchmark for me is when a band or musician takes me to that magical place, where it seems, in the moment at least, to be “as good as it gets.”

Going to a festival is a lot like going to a party. At a party, you will certainly see some BFFs, but you probably see them elsewhere, too. You ALSO see some people you may have met before but did not really get to know. AND you meet some people you have never, ever seen before. Same with bands at a festival. You probably know the headliners fairly well, seen them at least a time or three at shows. Then there are a couple bands you have seen briefly or listened to while preoccupied with conversation or other activity. And, to me, the very best aspect is discovering bands you have never ever heard who rip your head right off!

With that in mind, I also always like to see the opening band of the festival AND the opening band each day. I know many sleep in or stay at the campgrounds for a while before heading to the stages; everybody has a different festival style. My style is MUSIC MUSIC and MORE MUSIC! The opening bands for Saturday and Sunday, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Lucky Costello, were unknown to me, and they both absolutely knocked it out of the park. (I was going to try to avoid sports metaphors. Oh, well.)

 

FRIDAY

The festival opener on Friday (there was music Thursday night) was Displace, a superb quartet from Tampa. I had only seen them for the first time in November opening for ZOOGMA, and they blew us away. The next two times were even better. Displace won the Vote-Us-to-AURA contest (something like that), and I confess I voted Chicago-style (early and often; hey, it was legal!). And while I am thrilled that they got to show their stuff and did a great job revving up the dancers, it is too bad another band in the contest, DYNOHUNTER, did not make it. They were in Tampa a week before and were absolutely incredible (I scribbled about that, too). It is easy to focus on front men Chris Sgammato on alto sax , guitar and vocals and Sam Dobkin on guitar (he has been on fire of late), but what shoves Displace into overdrive is the kick-ass rhythm section of Vinny Svoboda and Tucker Sody (bass and drums). You’ll be hearing a lot more from these boys! (Hey, they’re all young enough to be my children! OR, I’m old enough to be their father!)

If the main theme of AURA was FUNK, then the other was DANCING, which is not surprising, since FUNK makes you DANCE. So the early attendees were treated to a real dance-fest as Displace lit everybody up.  If you see the videos, you can read the sheer joy on the boys’ faces as they played. Next, we all rolled down from the Porch Stage to the Amphitheatre, where The Resolvers were doing their big-band reggae thing. I am not a huge reggae fan, but these guys played with joy and precision and had everyone on their feet (the leitmotif of the festival). Imagine my delight when they busted out Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints!”

Wandering around to get my bearings with the merch and food areas, I stumbled across the BLP Vibe tent. It was used primarily for yoga and meditation with a few other surprises. Surprise One was Fat Mannequin, a subset of The Heavy Pets. Mike Garulli and Jeff Lloyd, the guitar slingers, joined with Tony D’Amato (bass) for a great acoustic set. Without a doubt (and I certainly hope this one gets uploaded by the tapers), the most beautiful thing I heard the entire weekend was a stunning take on “Eleanor Rigby.” Legendary!

Stokeswood (from Atlanta) had two slots during the festival. Their first one on the porch stage was a tribute to Hall and Oates. Sometimes attempts of this sort go south; this one went due north! They had everyone singing and dancing (see?) to a wide variety of H & O tunes, hits and more obscure songs (at least to me). Those were the ones I really enjoyed, especially “Family Man,” a song I had never heard. WOW. Singer Adam Patterson and a female companion nailed the vocal duos.

By now, word had spread throughout the festival grounds that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. The wicked winter storm farther north would delay Conspirator to Saturday and prevent Kung Fu from arriving at all. This was particularly disappointing, because Kung Fu are true fan favorites and some very sick individuals; missing their sets Friday and Saturday would require some schedule adjustments.

Regretting that I had missed Monozygotik (MZG) in the Music Hall, I went to check out The Revivalists, who put on another dynamic New Orleans set fronted by David Shaw on vocals. And I made it to the Music Hall to hear Vermont-based Twiddle, a very versatile quartet capable of covering numerous genres, which is true of most of the bands on the jam scene these days. Twiddle had a fresh, clean sound as they rocked the hall.

Back out on the Porch Stage, The Heavy Pets were piling on more diversity.  This was my 18th show, and it was for me their best yet. Everything seemed to click, and I confess to being an officer in the Jeff Lloyd Fan Club — he was a wild man all weekend on guitar. I cannot remember when bassist Tony D’Amato joined the band, but his contribution adds incredible punch to the Pets’ sound.

And we all rolled back down to the Amphitheater to hear Papadosio. I had “met” them once before, but clearly I did not pay attention then. Papadosio embodies the theme of the AURA festival: rock, electronica, psychedelia, funk and dance. They already had a prominent slot made all the more prominent because of the snow problems of Conspirator and Kung Fu. So naturally they stepped right up and blasted everyone sky-high (some folks may already have been there, I observed).

Back on the Porch Stage, ZOOGMA did their funky thing. They mix other people’s tracks with their own slam-bang electronic rock. If I had one slight complaint about this set (having seen a half-dozen shows), this one relied a bit too much on the other tracks and not enough on their own music. But I got my “M10” to keep me in a very happy place!

Looking at the schedule, I realized I had made a grave error. I had not gone back in the Music Hall to catch Joey Porter of the Motet and Friends Super Jam. I was kicking myself in the backside, when I heard people saying that Joey and pals were in fact taking the late Amphitheatre slot vacated by the snow-bound Conspirator. SCORE!

Porter is a manic maniac on keyboards, and he had assembled a great team of players including guys from the Revivalists and Earphunk, among others. To my great delight, the group also featured Chris Sgammato of Displace on alto sax and Jeff Lloyd on guitar. I was in heaven!  There were so many highlights and great solos; my top moment was when they lit into “Love Having You Around,” a magnificent Stevie Wonder song from Music of My Mind (1970).

It was a wee bit nippy at this point. I marveled at the scantily clad while I was wearing FIVE layers up top, so I thankfully headed back into the Music Hall for Start Making Sense, a band that performs as a tribute to the Talking Heads. What a wonderful treat! I regret never having seen the Talking Heads live, but these boys were wonderful. The sextet delivered two hours of TH tunes, many of which were not familiar to me (or many there, apparently). And those tunes were just as compelling as the hits and a great introduction to music I should have checked out more carefully. Front man Jon Braun has the quirky stage appearance, vocal chops and confidence to pull off this great tribute.

We walked out of the Hall to discover that the clear skies we had anticipated all weekend had been attacked by a brief but prolific thunderstorm. Fortunately, the rain abated just as we exited, so I stumbled over to the silent disco. I was funked and danced out, and nothing seemed very compelling after the Talking Heads tribute, so it was back to the tent to huddle under as many layers as I could muster to try to garner strength for day two.

 

SATURDAY

Friday was a raging success at AURA, despite the necessity of shuffling the schedule due to weather problems farther north. Daryl Wolf and his band of merry men and women took lemons and made outstanding fermented lemonade. The brief storm late Friday night gave way to magnificent skies Saturday morning and very mild conditions.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, a Baltimore outfit that was able to trudge through the tundra, mile after mile to get to Florida, made the most of this opportunity with the lead-off slot at the Amphitheatre. And immediately the quartet propelled all the early music-goers into deep funk space with their psychedelic funk grooves. Not to mention the matching pants that were beyond description! As I mentioned earlier, the theme of their show comes from one of their songs: “’cause all I wanna do is F-U-N-K!” I am giddy in anticipation of their upcoming swing through Florida!

Superhuman Happiness has been getting a lot of airplay on JamOn! (SiriusXM 29). I wasn’t knocked out by the radio tunes, but we all know the live performance is the thing. True to form, this seven-piece collective, part of the Royal Potato family, had a fresh, clean, diverse sound that was perfect for the beautiful afternoon.

Then I drifted into the music hall to learn about Polyester Pimpstrap; I had never managed to see them before. I see they have been working as a trio recently, but a former member joined them after five (?) years away. Their website says “jamband booty music.” No argument from me.  These guys sounded great! And I would say here what I would say about every musician at the festival: all of them were having an absolute blast!

The snow had delayed Conspirator by a day, and Kung Fu’s slot was open, since they were totally snowed in. Mike Dillon graciously moved his set to the earlier slot to accommodate. Dillon is an acquired taste, and I get that some people NEVER acquire it. Others [read: ME] cannot get enough. Mike Dillon Band, Garage a Trois, Dead Kenny Gs – I’ll see him every time. There may be artists you may like better, but I guarantee that NOBODY BUT NOBODY brings it harder than Mike Dillon. He is a manic maniac, the only way I can describe him as he plays the vibes and percussion, raps, prances around the stage and sings “Carly Hates the Dubstep” (no crowd-surfing this time). And Carly! Carly Meyers is a pixie-fied whirling dervish who plays trombone and percussion and flits around the stage like a mayfly.

Truth be told, I wasn’t thinking a lot about Marco Benevento’s upcoming set, even though I’ve seen him before and he sat in briefly with Dillon, a bandmate in Garage a Trois. WRONG AGAIN! Benevento delivered an uplifting, fun, funky set that captivated me so much I forgot to see Jimkata in the music hall (fortunately, they too are making a Florida run).

At the start of a remarkable bunch of music I saw and heard in July of 2012 (review still percolating), I saw Serotonic at the Dunedin Brewery. In between their great sets, the sound man (who does a great job with the live mix) was playing something that sounded like Jimmy Herring, or, WOW, I don’t know, but it was so good! Turns out it was Dopapod.  I ordered several CDs and finally got to see them a couple of times. Now I was going to get two more sets in two days! And they delivered big time. Their website describes them as an electronic band without computers, a band that improvises. The sound is fresh and clean. Feels like I have used that phrase before, but it applies to many in the stable of artists we enjoy seeing at these festivals. It certainly beats old and stale!

Now I was torn. Particle was looming ahead, but I was dying to see Future Rock. I have listened to their CD Gears for years, really enjoying that jamtronic mix of keyboards, bass and drums. I was delighted! And so were they; you could see how much fun they were having on stage in the music hall. Right decision, even if it meant missing part of the Particle set.

The standard I look for is when the music is, “in the moment, as good as it gets,” when it sends me to musical nirvana. Almost every band at AURA had at least a few of these moments if not more. Particle had a sequence of tunes in the middle of the set for more than half an hour where I felt like I was just floating. It didn’t hurt that I was over near the guy on the other side of the fence breathing fire (via some alcoholic liquid)! I was surprised to see that the captain of the ship, Steve Molitz, had a new rhythm section in addition to guitarist Ben Combe, but you would never have known that; the set was seamless.

Time for more decisions.  Papadosio was back at the Amphitheatre for night two, but CopE was gearing up in the music hall. I stayed for the beginning of the Papadosio set, a match for Friday’s great show, before walking toward the music hall. Once again, I was waylaid by some Heavy Pets at the BLP Vibe Tent (last night it was Fat Mannequin). This time, the Pets’ subset was Lather Up! featuring Jim Wuest on keys, Jamie Newitt on drums, and Tony D’Amato on bass. The trio was joined by Pets’ guitar player Jeff Lloyd and Mike Greenwell from Lotus! How can you be in two places at once when… well, I was just going to be late to the CopE show.  These guys were funking the place UP! Finally, I tore myself away to see the Hometeam boys, CopE.

I think this was my 25th show, and I have no problem declaring that it was my favorite of all of them. This was a monster performance from all four members, and the music hall was jammed and jamming! It was gratifying to see so many newcomers to CopE discovering what this quartet can do.  They blew up one of the fan favorites “Shake Anything > Shakedown Street > Shake Anything.” Hell, yeah!

And back outside for Conspirator. I am a huge Disco Biscuits fan, and I love seeing Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein in any capacity (although I could sure use a Bisco fix), and Chris Michetti is insane. Just insane. There were so many fabulous guitar players this entire weekend, and Michetti is one of the very best anywhere – a true underrated talent. Conspirator had a long segment that started, I think, with “Velvet Red” and just kept blasting toward the stratosphere. As good as it gets.  Again.

Lotus  Lotus  Lotus. Clearly, they had picked up on the weekend’s themes of funk and dancing. As they hit the amphitheatre stage, somebody said, “We’re gonna keep it funky if that’s all right with you!” And the fans went wild! Their hypnotic trance-dance music reels you in and twirls you every which way. A.G.A.I.G.! It was pure heaven.

The chilly temperatures induced many to head back inside to see The Werks prove they deserved this late-night slot. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much, even though I have seen them and enjoyed them before. WRONG ONCE AGAIN! They were tremendous, and for me Chris Houser’s guitar stood out. And folks were somehow still on their feet dancing. Me? I might be the best chair dancer ever!

A glutton for punishment, I headed to the silent disco for just a WEE bit more. Semantiks was rocking the house, but I was really impressed with Scott Solomon, who was providing just what I needed before I dragged myself back to the tent in anticipation of day three!

 

SUNDAY

Finally, day three of the great AURA festival.  You know I am all about the music, but sometimes that is to the exclusion of friends, a failing on my part. There have been suggestions in the past that TieYourShoes belonged in a category with the Loch Ness monster and Sasquatch – rumors without substantiation.

I determined this festival to do better, and my reward was time well spent with a bunch of brothers and sisters. The list is too long, and I’m bound to forget a lot, but Winston, Capt. Brian and the Gov’nah could help me compile a list! Thanks to all who shared their wonderful hospitality. THAT’S how we roll!

Day 1 started with an excellent set from Displace; Day 2 kicked off the funkin’ with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. Could Day 3 match up? Turns out, the answer was: ABSOLUTELY! Lucky Costello, a Jacksonville band, came out blazing with a piano-driven attack and a tremendous opening set (and with a go-go dancer besides!). It was another wonderful, beautiful afternoon in the north Florida woods, and Lucky Costello took full advantage of the set-up. I’m looking forward to Round Two!

From the porch stage, we rolled down to the amphitheatre to check out Earphunk. They knocked me out twice at Bear Creek 2012, so I was ready, and so were they. More funky New Orleans boys, they had everybody dancing. My favorite moments were when they hit some sweet Afrobeat.  What a blast!

I noted after Bear Creek that there wasn’t a single band I saw I wouldn’t want to see again. I’d say the same about AURA, with ONE exception: Catfish Alliance. You know, musically they weren’t bad, although nothing special. However, if you’re trying to impress a mid-afternoon crowd of dancers, encouraging them to stay on their feet and get closer to the stage, you should probably reconsider babbling stuff like this: “I like the way y’all are dancing! It makes my dick move.” WOW. Looked like a perfect opportunity to walk back to camp for a beer with Trevor and Harry.

The Werks had the next amphitheatre slot and had apparently recovered from their late-night romp in the music hall the previous night. It was the perfect antidote for that earlier poison. They were in perfect sync, driving us toward sundown and a second helping of Dopapod. Both bands seemed to buoy those who had funked, danced and partied hard the past three days. This was another great Dopapod show, and from there it only made sense gather together at the amphitheatre for Lotus one more time.

Lotus proved again that they were worthy of the closing slot. Their sound is so clean and funky and sinuous and captivating. It was the perfect end to a near-perfect weekend!  Except that it WASN’T the end!

Back at the campfire in Waneetopia, word came that the Funky Nuggets, who had one of the happy hour slots on Thursday for the early birds, were setting up their silent sirkus. They have invested in a full set of silent disco headphones and equipment. Scrogg and Ms. Scrogg and I tettered in the direction of the Funky Nuggets. Right PAST them the first time, actually, but finally we were on location. They were taking a while getting the band set up to play. In the interim, two DJs were spinning their stuff on the two available channels. I only know that the one guy (and I swore I would remember his name – NOT) started with a lengthy James Brown mix that just got tastier and tastier. After an hour, though, and still no band, I’m blaming the Gov’nah’s ’shine. I was done, baked. Put a fork in me. NIGHT NIGHT.

I will never miss Bear Creek or AURA. Thank you Paul Levine and Daryl Wolff and your cast of hundreds making our lives just that much better!  [OK. Never say ‘never,’ but I sure mean to try!]

 

[Ed. note: About that “Never say ‘never’ thing. The 2014 edition of Bear Creek would be the last, and AURA would make it two more years before closing up shop. Still my two favorite festivals, but now, thanks to Paul Levine, we have Suwannee Rising, which will make these my THREE favorite festivals!]

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