Bear Creek Music Fest 2011 Review

It feels like college all over again.

You have to write something. You know the topic well. Almost too well. So much info to elaborate on. You write a few opening sentences, none of which seem to hit the nail on the head. “Writers block” rings a bell.

That’s the daunting feeling I have come over me each year when I attempt to corral my many thoughts, emotions, memories and experiences involving Bear Creek into a single, cohesive pile of nouns and adjectives. So, shall we?

I can’t say enough good things (or things I haven’t already elaborated on in the past) about Suwannee Music Park. No amount of verbal flattery can do it justice, it’s just one of those places you have to spend a few days at yourself to get a full grasp and appreciation. Compared to the desolate, treeless plains that many outdoor festivals inhabit, Suwannee Park provides a lush, wooded utopia littered with trails, lakes, a disc golf course and an array of wildlife. Couple that natural beauty with the stages (7, in Bear Creek’s case), art tents, exceptional camping areas, quality craft and food vendors, a world-class lineup that covers everything from New Orleans funk to modern electronic, and more smiling faces than you can count…. and you have the ingredients for what went down last weekend at the Park.

Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood w/Roosevelt Collier (by Gary Reckard)

We pulled in around 5:30 on Thursday afternoon, a late arrival compared to that of many Bear Creek loyalists. With darkness setting in quickly, we set up camp at a feverish pace, had a few celebratory libations, and set off to the stages. First up, George Porter & The Runnin’ Pardners.  This was a great way to set the tone for the weekend. George’s bass playing is immaculate, running up and down the neck of his guitar effortlessly. He’s a joy to watch, and truly one of the best bassists I’ve seen to date. I’ve caught him multiple times with various projects and sit-ins, and this was up there in the top few. Mucho ass-shakery.

George Porter Jr. & The Runnin' Pardners

After a quick trip to camp (a walk of all of 5 minutes) for a snack & cocktail to warm the bones, we were back at the Purple Hat stage for Beats Antique, an act I’ve been listening to for a long while, but had yet to catch live. Beats Antique is an amalgamation of sounds that span a plethora of genres. The 3-piece combines electronic production with live instrumentation to form quite the unique stage presence. Between the entrancing belly-dancing and constant variation of style, it stayed very entertaining throughout the set. I really love their use of samples (horn, sitar, etc.) alongside the live percussion and strings. By the sound of it, the rest of the crowd felt very much the same way. Another great set in the bag.

Our next and final stop of the night was Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Karl has become a staple of sorts at Suwannee Park, and for good reason, the crowd eats up every minute he spends on stage, and this evening was no different. It’s hard to pick a favorite set, or single highlight from the weekend, but this set was definitely a contender. Karl’s stage presence is fantastic, he seems to invigorate everyone around him, whether it be from his contagious ear-to-ear smile, or simply his sheer talent. I’m always captivated by some killer saxophone, and Karl hit the nail on the head to close out my opening night. Some highlights….

Simply destroys it starting at the 4 min. mark…..

After a brisk slumber in the tent, it was time for round 2.

Though the plan was to wake up > Papadosio > Dr. Lonnie Smith…. funny how things change when surrounded by a massive group of friends old & new, and how precedence is given to socialization over live music. So it went more like wake up > eggs > cocktails > yada yada > Anders > Chali 2’NA Band.

Chali is such a fun guy. I had the pleasure to have booked him earlier in the year for an event in Jax, and spent some time laughing at his antics and incredibly uplifting personality. Those same antics are just as evident in his stage presence. Something about his baritone voice and consta-grin is captivating, not to mention his prolific past with Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli. And his set at Bear Creek was no exception. He had the crowd fully engaged from the first verse, weaving seamlessly between new originals and Jurassic 5 classics. His unique hip-hop style went great with the gorgeous afternoon weather, and the band he had assembled brought the oh-so-necessary funk element to the Bear Creek ears.

The rest of our day went Garage a Trois > Soulive > Medeski Martin & Wood > Karl Denson’s Tiny U > Galactic > Dr. Klaw.

Garage a Trois was entertaining as usual. I always enjoy the antics of Skerik & Dillon, and this set was no exception. Everyone always seems to be having a blast on stage. Each of the members is incredibly talented, having worked in a variety of other projects over the years, which results in Garage A Trois having a sound all their own. And while not particularly dance-friendly, the quartet’s feverish, manic audio escapade was a great way to warm-up for the night.  The set closed with a full-speed-ahead punk rock number that seemed like second nature for the band.

Garage A Trois

Since we had already caught Beat’s Antique the day before, we opted to head over to Soulive’s set at the Amphitheater stage. Not that that was a tough to decision to make. I can’t get enough Krasno, and lucky for me he seemed to be on stage more often than not throughout the weekend. Between him and Adam Deitch, they must’ve played something like 15 sets collectively, though oftentimes sharing the same stage. This set definitely put the “Soul” in Soulive. Whether it was their take on the Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (Kraz absolutely crushes his lead in the 2nd half), or the emotion drenched vocals of Cory Glover (who probably graced as many stages as Krasno/Deitch throughout the weekend), it was likely the most heart-felt hour & a half of music we caught all weekend. There’s something to be said of Neal Evans’ soul-stirring organ playing, as well. I really enjoy him with Lettuce, but Soulive seems to be a platform for him to fully get his point across.

Next was Medeski, Martin & Wood. While I’ve enjoyed their sets immensely in the past (a show in Ft. Lauderdale years ago comes to mind), and they are clearly virtuosos of their craft, I just wasn’t captivated this time around. In fairness, I should mention that I only stuck around for the first few tracks. I think on a personal level I craved something more structured and cohesive, rather than their style of free-form jazzy improvisation, at that point in the evening. Knowing that Karl D was just about to kick off his massacre of the Amphitheater stage, it was a simple choice to move along into the night.

Karl D‘s 2nd set of the weekend for us was another huge success. I enjoy every minute Karl is on stage, and this high energy set helped to keep the dancin’ feet warm as the temperatures dropped into the low 30’s! This project is all one could hope for musically, but having not caught him alongside The Greyboy Allstars (another Denson project), I’d love to see that go down at Bear Creek 2012.

Saturday found us having a family gathering of sorts, it was time for North Florida natives Greenhouse Lounge to take the stage. Not only are they a staple in the FL music scene, and repeat offenders at Bear Creek, but the band and group of friends that stem from them are about as tight-knit a’group as one could ever hope to be a part of. GHL has changed in size over the years, and has slimmed down to a 3-piece powerhouse these days. Adding to the ambiance of their performance, this was to be drummer Jason Hunnicutt’s final performance with them on the kit, so I knew it would be nothing short of a rager. While their sound may be a departure from the funk stylings that define Bear Creek, it was a welcome change of pace, and the crowd ate up every second of the drum n bass melee that followed. Having been a fan of GHL for years and catching countless shows, I can definitely say that this set was nothing short of them at their best. Jason is an incredible drummer, but knowing these guys I think they will be just fine in the future, no matter what the band’s lineup morphs into next. Bassist Dave McSweeney and guitarist Zach Weinert will no doubt continue to make waves in the FL music scene. Truly a perfect ending to this chapter in GHL history!

Lettuce is probably my personal favorite act of the entire Bear Creek lineup, and for good reason. They’re basically a sum of the many parts that you see throughout the weekend. They have some of the most cohesive, high energy, entertaining, engaging stage shows of any band I’ve seen. They played some of their usual tracks from their most recent 2 albums, and then a few that didn’t seem as familiar. I was surprised to see them scheduled on the Porch Stage, but it turned out to be just fine (at least from our view/perspective). We were front & center for this set, and I was grinning like a little kid from the first note. Adam Deitch is a human drum machine, and once again Eric Krasno showed why he’s the top dawg. For me, Lettuce is the embodiment of funk, and the Bear Creek experience as a whole. They have the skills, the energy, the stage antics, and just never fail to bring a helluva dance party. Hands down, set of the weekend.

Next was one of, if not the most, highly anticipated sets for many, the Trey Anastasio Band.

“As night fell upon the Spirit of Suwannee Saturday night, there was a different sort of vibe in the air.  The festival was in high gear, with all of the stages in full swing after being packed with phenomenal music all day. Rumors had swirled all weekend with thoughts that Trey’s team was pushing to switch from the Amphitheater Stage to the Purple Hat Stage for production reasons. But the hardcore fans, who checked into the amphitheater prior to Trey’s set time, found lighting designer Chris Kuroda preparing the natural canopy for illuminating destruction. They, undoubtedly, let out a sigh of relief.  For those who haven’t seen a show on this magical stage, it is truly a sight that has to be experienced.  One of Florida’s greatest wonders, this legendary stage has played host to some amazing musicians, but arguably had yet to see one of this stature.

From the second the lights went down, everyone knew we were in for something special. As the only show of the weekend that had no competition, the house was packed, and from the first notes Trey threw out via his new Languedoc it was ON. He started the set off with some TAB heavy hitters, including a ripping Push On Til The Day to open things up, followed by Caymen Review and Burlap Sack and Pumps. Trey’s band proved early on to be a perfect headliner for this particular fest, as his horn section meshed perfectly with the weekends theme, and he himself added the rockstar status needed to shake things up a bit on Saturday night (as some were already 4 days deep in the funk). Consisting of Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, and Russell Remington, the brass section belted out big band compositions while Trey weaved through their structured play masterfully. Towards the middle of the set, Trey settled into a solid rendition of the tune Sand, which has become a Phish staple over the years, but was actually written with TAB bass player Tony Markalis and drummer Russ Lawton when they first met in Burlington, VT many years prior.  The space-funk repetitiveness of this tune has always allowed a lot of room for keyboardist Ray Pakowski to open up, and this rendition would not disappoint. The rest of the set consisted of some great covers, Phish tunes and TAB staples, that sent the place into a frenzy until midnight.  All-in-all it was a fantastic show.  If you came into the show with Phishy expectations, you likely disappointed yourself, but those looking to hear a big band throw down were treated to the time of their lives.  Many were also disappointed that Trey didn’t make an appearance later for Jen Hartswick’s set- or the Dumpstajam late nights as Bear Creek is known for extensive collaborations- since both bands feature former/current band-mates. Nonetheless, one can only assume Trey was content with the footprint he left at the Spirit of Suwannee.” -TAB review courtesy of Trey Hebron, FMB guest writer

Trey Anastasio Band
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak,FL
Bear Creek Music and Art Festival
Big IV Amphitheater Stage

  • Push On til the Day 
  • Caymen Review
  • Burlap Sack and Pumps
  • Gotta Jibboo
  • Magilla
  • Money, Love and Change
  • Trey talks
  • Sand> 
  • Valentine
  • Ooh Child
  • The Devil Went Down To Georgia
  • Simple Twist Up Dave
  • Small Axe
  • Shine
  • Alaska
  • Mr. Completely> 
  • Tuesday> 
  • Clint Eastwood
  • First Tube


  • Pigtail
  • Heavy Things
  • Black Dog

Big Gigantic proceeded to tear down the Porch Stage. Dominic Lalli is a beast on the sax, as is Jeremy Salken on the drums. Though I’ve started to grow bored with their live sets, the crowd was definitely dialed in and rowdy as can be. Not to take anything away from them, because the duo obviously has a recipe for success, but their sound can seem a bit repetitive after seeing them time and again over the years. Nonetheless, we had a good time listening to Lalli go to town on his saxophone over a variety of drum & bass, hip hop and dubstep explorations.
(Atrocious sound, but you get the idea…)

Some other acts that impressed us over the weekend, but didn’t make it into this review… Papadosio, Breakestra, Orgone, Dr. Klaw, Galactic, SirCharles, Zoogma, and surely others who got lost in the blur that encompasses parts of any weekend of this caliber!

I asked Bear Creek founder, Paul Levine, for his brief thoughts on what the event has manifested itself into….

“Well I am thankful that Bear Creek continues to grow and improve. Our staff matures together and the results are a better festival experience for guests and artists. The Bear Creek vibe fosters a relaxed environment that allows musicians to feel comfortable around their friends and peers. I think this feeling leads to better performances and more creativity and spontaneity….. We certainly view the festival as a big success. Hard not to when so many people are so happy and excited by their experience.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We had to head out on Sunday (doh!) due to real-world responsibilities, but will try to make sure that doesn’t happen next time around. Year after year, our crew leaves Bear Creek beyond satisfied. The music, the crowd, the staff, and the setting all come together to create a vibe that a review such as this will never do justice. If you haven’t made it down to FL yet for Bear Creek, I’m sorry, and may I recommend requesting off work for next year, and booking those flights way in advance. For those of you that did make it this year, thank you for contributing to the memories that we’ll surely cherish forever. Cheers!

Check out this great video compilation from the folks at FunkIt.virose.net…..

Some photos lifted from http://dinoperrucciphotography.com/

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