As we’ve done for the last 5 years, my buddy Bill and I made the pilgrimage to Bear Creek music festival in Florida. Every year this fest is dynamite, dipped in gold. That might be selling it short. Bear Creek is really the only place on planet Earth where you can get this concentrated of a dose of funky music in the span of 3 days. Not even Jazzfest in New Orleans can match the density of pure funk-per-minute that goes on here. There is no peer. From my standpoint, 2014 may be my favorite yet. Let’s rap about it:
Right off the bat I’ll mention a few groups whom I’d never even heard of prior to BC14 that took me there. First thing we saw when we arrived was a band called Turquaz who came in with something to prove. Their punchy horns and funky vibes immediately set the tone for the rest of the fest. It was a positively ideal first act to catch. Their street team was walking through the crowd handing out slap-koozies–which are exactly what you think they are. This idea is so brilliant that it is somewhat baffling that I have never heard of it until now. Well played Turquaz. They had a peppy sound and ooh, their trumpet player also had some effects going on, which was a running theme to my delight.
Another band which made an instant fan out of me was The Fritz from Asheville NC. They mixed 80% funky dance grooves with 20% tricky synchonized unison lines, which was totally a formula for success in my book. Centerstage was their keyboard player who also did main vocals and brought a lot of showmanship to the spectacle. Although they were young guys, they really knew how to play. I’d love to see them again. They were almost prog-rock at times, which I generally shy away from, but their funkyness always brought me back.
Completing the trifecta of winning first introductions was a band called Tauk. Bill bought their CD which we listened to on the way back to the airport–it was very Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck inspired, which is cool and all, but not really my thing. However their live performance was great. Most notably they played a double-length version of “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” by the Beatles that slammed absurdly hard. Bill commented that as hard as Soulive has rocked that tune in the past, these guys dialed it up a notch further, which was an accomplishment.
The Nth Power was fun to watch, bringing their vocal driven comtemporary soul to life on the Purple Hat stage which was the best-sounding stage of the fest this year. At the climax of their tune “Only Love” maybe ten people suddenly appeared in the crowd holding up big placards with the word “LOVE” on them, which was a synergistic moment for sure.
BC’14 was one of my favorite Creeks in a long time–possibly ever–because of the TRUMPETS! Me, being a trumpet player myself, I’m obviously very biased by this aspect of the music and 2014 was the year those brass players collectively decided to get the hell up in there and deliver. In terms of both veterans and newcomers alike, the trumpets of Bear Creek delivered a delicious, heaping platter of excellence, which warrants a through digression:
The best awesome new thing (which I knew beforehand was going to be awesome) was The Heard, a horn-section driven band from my old stomping grounds in Chicago. Those three horns (tenor sax, trombone, trumpet) brought a lot of rambunctious energy and very tight section playing. They had a polished, rehearsed-sounding feel to their hits, with a pleasing length to their punches. A section like the one in Lettuce tends to clip their hits super short, which is great for their style, but it was nice to hear the Heard Horns deliver some fatter punches by comparison, a choice that seemed deliberate. Anyone could have predicted their set was gonna be hot simply by the oh-so-enviable late night Saturday timeslot they were given, and indeed that contract went filled. The horns also sat in with the New Mastersounds on both their sets and lended some very well-executed performances of familiar lines. In particular, the nimble melodies of “Fast Man” sounded right on the money: notes were clean, articulations were tight, and the three players were together in their timing. It was a real treat.
Jen Hartswick is a perennial representive of the trumpet community at Bear Creek and this year she too delivered bigger and better than before. In previous years I felt underwhelmed by her playing; the power/chops were adequate but not strong, and her phrases were unfocused, trailing off–like a speechgiver who was obviously winging it, unsure of what she was going to say next and clumsily tripping over sentences. Not this year. Her tone was brighter and clearer, with more strength. And her phrases were well-spoken musical ideas which connected between the pauses. Musically there was just a lot more substance in her thoughts… I’m sure my listening has probably improved as the years have passed but it certainly wasn’t just that.
In prior Bear Creeks I watched the trumpet players and thought to myself “man, I could be up there. I can do those things these guys are doing and I can hang with the level of improv that’s being put forth.” Not this year. One man who firmly put his foot down and said “here’s the bar” was Nicholas Payton. His group was introduced as being “at the forefront of modern American music” and correspondingly he blew me away with his talent, playing keyboards and trumpet at the same time–and doing it WELL. Payton understands how to handle the Rhodes in particular, and his trumpet is customized with a short metal stand coming off the bottom of his valve casings, so that he can rest the weight of the horn on the keyboard edge, and play both instruments without the weight of the trumpet fatiguing his right hand. His tone was loud and powerful, with clear, searing highs which he used as violent punctuation against the tones of his well-seasoned jazz trio who had put on their funky caps to tackle this festival. After a long stint on keys, mainly between Rhodes and B3, he’d re-enter on the horn with a piercing high note, like a burst of lightning from the sky, out of the blue. His solos were those of a jazz player who knew the real book, knew how to play changes.
Nicholas got up centerstage with Lettuce during the last set of the festival and proceeded to play the most “out” solo of the weekend. Watching the facial expressions of the string instrument players was almost comedy: Jesus on the bass and Schmeens on the guitar looked at each other with some alarm, their expressions seeming to say “Does he know what key we’re in? Should we… should we change the key? Wait… wait, no? Okay there he’s in. No. Now he’s off again. Okay. Ummm. There, he found it. No, he’s out….. Alright, well he’s obviously doing his own thing here, just let him go.” Personally I always enjoy a mostly “in” solo more than I enjoy a mostly “out” solo but heady jazz cats always love the out. Watching Nicholas’ jazz-rooted trio take things in-and-funky was a treat for me, someone who lives on the funk side of the fence, but seeing him solo with Lettuce was the inverse! I imagine that would have been a treat for someone who really loves an outside soloist; if Skerik was around and listening, I bet he ate that moment up.
Speaking of Skerik, he got up with The New Mastersounds and played a pretty “in” solo for his usual tastes. Although he’s a brilliant tenor player, his tendency is to get up and go nuts, squawking and squealing like a madman–which he pulls off well, ratcheting up the overall intensity of what’s happening onstage. But it was cool to hear him get inside the groove and do something a bit more thoughtful. My comment at the time was, ‘okay, I guess you can play like that too, you just always choose not to.’
So as an aside, last year I didn’t write about Bear Creek, mostly because it was a bit of a “down” year. The weather was rainy and the mixing on the main amphitheater soundboard was… regrettable, leaving many potentially great moments seemingly unamplified. This year we did do a fair amount of moving around during the shows, and as Bill discovered about the main amphitheater, “something is off about that bowl”. Indeed. You actually don’t want to be close to the stage for the best sound. There are some definite “dead zones” where a soloist seems to disappear into the back of the mix. Walk back toward the soundboard another 20 feet and surpise, you can hear everything again! Maybe it’s the wide distance between the left and right speaker arrays, maybe it’s the absorbtion of the crowd when it gets densely populated? In any event, the takeaway is that location is pivotal for getting the most out of those shows. They also keep changing their other stages around every year and bafflingly they did away with Uncle Charlie’s Porch Stage this year which was unfortunate since that one clearly had the best sound quality every year. I’d be willing to bet money they just walked that sound system down the hill over to the Purple Hat stage, since it sounded better than it ever has. That stage was the hot place to be this year.
And about that Purple Hat Stage: probably my 3 favorite acts of the fest all tore it apart there. Predictably: The New Mastersounds, Lettuce, and Soulive. The Mastersounds were their usual selves, serving up tasty versions of their classics with a few new treats from their bag of endlessly refilling compositions. Simon declared “as is customary, we will fill the stage with incredible guest appearances” and so they did. Highlights were the aforementioned “The Heard” horns, and Bernard Perdy. Two years ago their Keyboard player Joe Tatton couldn’t make the journey due to passport issues so B3 wrangler-extraordinare Robert Walter filled his seat for the duration, which was a special treat. Those kind of special permutations of your favorite acts are a hallmark of BC. Having seen NMS live shows too many times to count anymore, I was greatly pleased with their sets although I wouldn’t say they did much to catch me off-guard. But that’s alright. Sometimes a great show is exactly what you expect it to be, and NMS fell into that category this year. I bought a zip up sweatshirt with their logo on it at the merchandise booth but barely got a chance to brandish it. Friday was long-underwear weather, Saturday was jeans, and Sunday was shorts-all-night weather, which was splendid.
A familiar act who did catch me off guard was Lettuce, with a half-dozen or so forays into dub territory–something I’ve never heard them do as prominently or repeatedly as in their two sets at BC14. I completely endorse this new playing field for their repertoire. Dubbing out with some trippy delays and free spaces gives some nice breathing room to contrast against their dense, in-your-face slam tracks. The horns each had little effects units they were tweaking during these moments, which was straight up my alley. Returning again to the excellent trumpet playing this year, Eric Bloom has taken over Rashawn Ross’ old shoes, which are some mighty big shoes to fill. Rashawn has a searing, cutting high range that slices authoratively through any sound known to man so he can’t really be outgunned in that regard, but Eric sounded better than ever this year with clear, clean chops and better solo ideas for sure. Where Rashawn always seemed to build up to some high note climax in his solos but then didn’t really have anywhere to go, Bloom had lots of ideas, lots of places to go. Which is maybe not as dramatic, but more intellectually stimualting as a player. Lettuce was maybe at their peak shortly after the release of “Rage!” and two years back they owned the festival with their explosive, razor-sharp funk. Indeed at the time the comment was made “If god himself had a funk band, I don’t think it could be any harder-hitting, or bigger, or nastier than Lettuce.” A sentiment I still stand by–they still gots it.
My one complaint–and complaning about anything that happens at Bear Creek is like saying the bread that came with your flawless surf’n’turf dinner was maybe too doughy–was that we didn’t get enough Eric Krasno. He was “Space Krasno” this year with Lettuce, standing literally in the back and fiddling with some weird noise-making keyboard that was only sometimes audible when he wasn’t neck-deep in some oddball effects setting on his guitar that turned it into a dubbed-out sound machine. And yeah, that’s awesome and all. I enjoyed this strange-flavored, alternate reality Lettuce from outer space. Outer space is definitely a part of the big bad funk sound for sure. But it’s just that, c’mon, this is the guy–in my eyes more than anyone else here–who can deliver that throat-grabbing, oh-my-god, face-melting solo freakout that gives you that feeling. You know the one. That feeling that takes you to another place. So Krasno was around, but he was more of a wheel on the train rather than wearing the engineer hat. Only twice did he step up for a “big” solo and having seen what he is capable of in the past, I think he only took it to like 65%. On this note I miss his Chapter 2 project with Nigel Hall on vocals. That was some real take-me-to-church get-down action which needs to come back again.
And all this finally brings me to the Soulive set.
I’ve seen Soulive many times, again too many times to count anymore. Maybe my all time favorite was at the House of Blues in Chicago circa 2006 when the Shady Horns were backing them up with Rashawn on trumpet. And then their Bear Creek set shortly after the release of “Rubber Soulive” where they played all the great Beatles tunes, that was something special. But this set, this set… knocked me out. Like I said already sometimes a great set is where you get just what you expected like NMS this year, or when a familiar act goes a new direction like Lettuce with the dub. But for a very familiar act to blow you away again like you’re seeing them fresh, for the first time, they’ve got to really come out of left field with something unexpected and that’s what Soulive did. Out of all the sets I saw this year, theirs covered the widest stylistic range. They came out swinging with three well-chosen originals including Aladdin, a personal favorite of mine. Bill commented that he wished they had horns up there, and yeah, there were the unlimited resources of Bear Creek horns probably standing around backstage so that was maybe a questionable choice to keep it just the trio for that moment but even so, they brought the energy. Between tracks the comment was made, “Fire. Breathing. Monsters… and there’s only 3 of them!” Which sums it up. And I’m guessing that’s the point they were trying to make.
But from there-on-out the pendulum started to swing wildly; a slow bluesy gospel section, followed by Eleanor Rigby with a ripping guitar solo. When the music paused at last I leaned over to Bill and said, “submitted for your consideration by Eric Krasno; his entry for best guitar solo of the fest.” And maybe it was, for my tastes. Out of all the many possible things a guitarist can possibly do–everyone is looking for a certain blend of stylistic rootings and phrasing sensiblities–Krasno barks right up my tree with his pentatonic/blues roots and thick application of bended notes, so I am inherently biased toward his playing. This year he was awash with phaser, even over sections he typically play clean. As previously mentioned he didn’t really step out front and *grab it* with Lettuce this year, so Soulive was his best moment. When I interviewed him a few years back, he commented a bit on what factors will push him to “take it there”. To paraphrase I’d say there has to be three things: A. the internal motivation to rock it B. the available sonic space to fit (the sound can’t be too loud or crowded) and C. the band behind him pushing it.
When Eleanor Rigby had seemingly run its course with solo section completed, out comes rap artist Talib Kweli. He did some freestyle on the verse sections and then made the crowd sing along for the chorus of the tune, which brought a whole new energy. It was like this build up/intensify thing with the rhymes then when the choruses dropped it felt even more anthemic. Pretty rad, and unexpected. When that was done, they did a rendition of Talib’s tune “Get By” and one other jam I didn’t recognize. A decent foray into hip hop territory. After that, the trio dove deep underwater into some dubbed-out seas which resonated big time with this guy since my own musical project has been messing around with dub too. This was before either of the Lettuce sets so it had the impact of surprise. But the biggest surprise of the whole fest was immediately after the first dub moment.
For a rendition of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” the trio brought out… an 11 year old guitar-playing boy with the stage name Taz. Who then proceeded to genuinely blow everyone’s mind. “How old is this person?!” exclaimed Bill. From where we stood in the crowd it was hard to tell if this was a kid or a young looking midget, or even a male or a female with a pretty rocking afro who was mostly facing Krasno. After struggling to discern who or what I was looking at, one thing became clear: this little boy could rock. Like no other kid you’ve seen, ever, anywhere. On TV or the internet or anything. He new how to play tunes, he knew how to solo with fast notes or with bends and tension, he knew what facial expressions to make, he knew how to pay attention and respond musically. He just… had it all. I even found out later that he had his own shirt in the merchandise booth! Disbelief would be the best word to describe the collective reaction to this kid. I’ve seen child prodigies before but this kid, this is something else. And as a piece of the Soulive performance, this clinched it as the set that just defied all predictions. They played their classics, they played the Beatles, they featured a hip-hop star, they dubbed it out, and then they brought out a little child who proceeded to deliever a blistering guitar solo you never thought was even possible from someone that age. Mind = blown.
Walking away from the show to go see the New Mastersounds at the amphitheater I was shouting to Bill, “What did we just watch!? No, really, what was that? Did I imagine it?” But no, I did not, and over the rest of the weekend Taz went on to be the toast of the fest this year, making brief appearances with all the major acts on classic rock hits with screaming solos like you’ve never heard from a kid. A humorous moment happened during the Orchestra at Large set when a bee flew up to him and he got scared. Taz stopped playing and his eyes widened as he backed up slowly until it flew away. “A BEE!” he mouthed to the crowd as he started up again, rocking the wah on his Pedaltrain Jr. “From the mouthes of babes!” exclaimed Ivan Neville from Dumpstaphunk, shaking his head. Eddie Roberts chuckled that “I had just STARTED playing guitar when I was 11.” Every year you bump into some memorable faces at the fest and there is a guy who always wears a peanut shell as an earring whom we’ve made friends with. Mr. Peanut-Earring commented “Look at the other musicians on stage. Half of them are looking at him so proud like he’s their own son, and the other half are just mad! Like, what the hell!? I had to WORK for this!?” I burst out laughing because he was so right.
Mr. Peanut-Earring has been a fixture of the fest every year and this year when we bumped into him in the crowd he seemed very excited to see us. He gave both Bill and I a big hug and we talked music for a while. You meet all kinds of funny characters at fests like this so I shrugged it off when he seemed strangely emotional that we remembered him and was loving the conversation. It wasn’t until after he walked away that Bill told me Mr. Peanut-Earring had informed him he was diagnosed with cancer. Here I thought maybe he was on something but no, the emotion was genuine. It was a sobering moment, and I felt sad for him. But maybe also happy too. After all, he was here, and he had been here many times now. This place, for people who love this kind of music, is a spiritual gathering, a religious experience. I don’t think that’s exaggerating it. Sure it’s a meeting of the minds, where like minded travelers from parts far-flung unite under a groove but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to dance like you mean it, it’s a cathartic escape into some other dimension with the hippest soundtrack imaginable, flooding into your ears and mind, controlling your legs. It’s a place where you forget everything that’s wrong and let the sound take you away. Where all the musicians push it to their top level and that does something to you too, watching that magic when the performers themselves seem to become infected with this viral euphoria that feeds back and forth between everyone in the whole forest. I said to Bill, “you know some day they’re going to stop doing this fest for one reason or another. And we’ll look back on this like it was some kind of golden age or utopia where everyone who was anyone all just had to be.” I know Mr. Peanut-Earring knows exactly what I’m talking about here and damn, if you gotta go out, one last dose of that sweet Bear Creek gospel sure would be comforting. I know I’d want it. We’ll be looking for you there next year buddy.