As previously stated, I attended this year’s Bear Creek music fest purely as a soul-food spectator; no camera, no zoom recorder, no phone, no nothing. Just pure eyes and ears. That was a good decision, a liberating thing that allowed me to savor the experience with no distractions. For those so interested, I’ll go over the highlights from this year.
1. Headtronics. This was the unknown band that knocked me out. Members include DJ Logic, Freekbass, Will Bernard on guitar, Steve Molitz (keyboardist from Particle), and a live drummer who sorta stayed in the background. I went to watch these guys never having heard of them before, and had zero expectations. We were right in front and damn… my socks were knocked clean off by the end of the first tune. Electronic beats with top-notch musical integration between the players. Will Bernard had some killin solos and Steve Molitz on keyboards held his own too. Out of everything I saw, this one made me go for the dancefloor high score. I definitely want to find a taped recording of this show. This was the unforeseen gem!
2. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. This one’s more obvious. People had been hyping up this group to me for a long time–they lived up to those expectations. Sharon is the real deal. The new-generation torchbearer in the Aretha Franklin style soul champion lineage. Superb energy, showmanship, passion, and legit vocal chops. In-tune, on-point, and selling it all night. FIRE. I would see this group again in a heartbeat.
Honorable mention for the Sugarman 3. These guys used simple arrangements with impeccably tasteful sounds for an ensemble greater than the sum of the parts. Solos were short but sweet and the whole deal felt polished & choreographed, in a good way. I bought their new LP afterward.
Flops I Really Wanted to Like:
1. The Budos Band. These guys were the biggest disappointment of the fest. I really wanted to love them. I tried hard. I adore their albums, their horn section sounds great, plus their set list for the evening was perfectly selected but… something just didn’t come across live. The energy was lacking, the solos were universally mediocre at best, and the stage banter between tracks was comprised of yelling/cursing. Strange. I would not go see them again. Unfortunate.
2. Charles Bradley. This guy used to be a James Brown impersonator who then started doing his own material. Awesome concept and I had heard rave reviews of his live performance, however his intonation was off quite often, which turned me off quick. And his dancing came off as silly and laughable to me. Maybe someone else would dig it but not me. Cheesy.
Big Chief Eric Krasno seemed more mellow this year, perhaps reflecting a deeper, personal contentment with his recent engagement (I know that feel bro!). But he did take the crowd to probably the most intense musical peak of the festival with his solo on Soulive’s “Eleanor Rigby”. That was a major highlight. In later solos he seemed content to let it marinate, particularly in Lettuce’s second set.
Eddie Roberts also reached for the sky on a thrilling rendition of “Thermal Bad” which gave Krasno a run for his money in my book. You could debate which rollercoaster took you higher, but it would come down to a matter of personal preference: Krasno is more soulful and possibly a little more dexterous in his playing, while Roberts delivers his distinctive articulation style and unimpeachable ability to sustain a long crescendo of energy even atop of a raging band behind him. Either way, those two set the bar.
Most Silver-Lined Cloud:
The keyboard player for the New Mastersounds, Joe Tatton, was unable to attend, due to some kind of visa issue. In his place Robert Walter filled in for two whole sets, playing their catalog with a mix of impressive accuracy where appropriate and fascinating divergence where space existed for personal interpretation. Having seen the Mastersounds perform probably close to 20 times now, I have long felt that Tatton is the most unpredictable element of the gig; swinging from bored and unengaged over to fiery and wickedly good–you never know what the night will hold with him. There were multitudes of spots where Robert Walter hit a grand slam on the B3, peppered throughout both sets. I profusely enjoyed seeing this NMS configuration. A delight, unquestionably. I did miss Joe’s top-notch space-outs, effects use, his clean dexterity, and overall sensibility. But this was a treat. I do want to see Joe back at the keys, but seeing this incarnation of my favorite band was probably the best overall highlight of the fest for me. Sort of an alternate reality, ‘what-if’ version of the band. And a badass, enthralling one at that.
Best Facial Expressions:
The bass player from Chapter 2, handily. He wins this contest every year with his huge infectious smile, but this time he took it to another level with a deranged look that said “is this for real, or is this really for real?!” Out in the crowd we were giggling and yelling “I know, I KNOW!”
Most Impressive New Chops:
Rashawn Ross, the trumpeter for Lettuce, completely blew up their first night with resoundingly powerful, clean, clear high notes and one particularly superb solo; doubtlessly the best I’ve ever heard from him, studio or live. This guy’s been hitting the practice room and it showed.
Most Promiscuous Sit-Ins:
Pee Wee Ellis, the elder statesman of tenor sax, decisively had the highest number of guest appearances. He does need a little certain je ne sais qua to ‘push’ him into taking a great solo. He’s capable, of course, but the right mood has to be there. This was best achieved with Ike Stubblefield’s group. Bill called it; “That was the best Pee Wee solo I’ve ever heard.” Indeed.
Best Musical Interaction:
Eddie Roberts and Grant Green Junior shared the stage during one tune of the second New Mastersounds set. Grant Green was parked on his barstool and Eddie stood close next to him for an extended session of trading solos. Their trading had a very advanced level of musicianship where they finished each other’s phrases and challenged one another by echoing styles and techniques on top of those continuous riffs. Their facial expressions during this exchange were also humorous as they sought to one-up each other. At the end of it, my buddy Bill laughed and said, “I think Mister Roberts actually got a little bit of a lesson there!” Sort of heartwarming in a way, to see this exchange between different generations of musicians who continue in the tradition that Grant Green Senior began. I’m glad I was there to witness this.
Perhaps Robert Walter’s presence acted as a tacit invitation for guest appearances with the New Mastersounds because this year saw the largest amount of them out of the three years I’ve been to Bear Creek. In that same second New Mastersounds set, things got crazy when FOUR keyboard players took to the B3 and Rhodes, reaching over each other and elbowing for position in a comical, photogenic moment of sheer keyboard firepower. Included were Nigel Hall, Ike Stubblefield, Robert Walter, and Wil Blades. I yelled to Bill “Joe Tatton, you’ve been replaced!” Bill, ever the defender of Joe, said “no one man can replace Joe.” In spite of the joke, I do agree.
Most Valuable Player:
Nikki Glaspie seemed to be not only sitting in with everyone under the sun, but at the helm for several different acts I’ve never seen her with. She played drums both nights for Dumpstaphunk and although memory fails me as to who, she was main drummer for a few other acts as well. Her bombastic style, particularly the way she throws in extra accents and cymbal crashes anywhere but on beat one, has always made me enjoy her playing. She was everywhere at this fest, and dropping serious beats.
The vendors at this fest are remarkably consistent. Big shout out goes to the Grilled Cheese Wagon, who delivered a toasty and delicious three day run of grilled cheeses, egg wraps, and quesadillas. Why eat anywhere else when these people do it so solid without fail, every single time? Honorable mention to Homegrown music for supplying me with some excellent new shirts and being the worthy recipient of a custom cassette tape I labored over only to have the intended tradee disappear into craigslist oblivion.
The outdoor purple hat stage remained this year, which is definitely preferable to the tented configuration, sound-wise. They scheduled all affiliated acts consecutively though, which I sort of wish they hadn’t, in the interest of sit-ins and cross-pollination. Friday night the purple hat belonged strictly to Daptone records, and Saturday it strictly belonged to Royal Family records. Admittedly it was cool to see all of their offerings in a row, but still, for interbreeding these awesome musical endeavors, I prefer it mixed up.
There was also no end-of-the-fest treehouse jam session this year. In its place there was a VIP jam in the barn. We hung out there for a while and were not impressed with the sounds we heard. Don’t know who was playing but it definitely didn’t involve Royal Family, Daptone, or Nawlins. Instead we found a golf cart equipped with a heavy-duty laser light show and hopped on for an epic joyride. We tipped it over by accident, rode it through the woods, beatboxed with random passerbys, eventually arriving at an impromptu drum jam just up the road from our campsite where we spent the rest of the night generally banging on anything that made noise. Those kind of randomized interactions are very much a part of the festival experience and I’m glad there was a window to fit that in. Good. Frickin. Times.