This review is dedicated to the memory of Robert Byerts who always lived life to the fullest and never walked through life without a smile….
Where do I even start? I guess I’ll start from the beginning, but I keep wanting to interrupt myself with all of the priceless memories that I made while inside “The Portal” at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival 2017. And when I say priceless, I truly mean priceless! [Click here for full photo gallery by Chris Rivera]
I developed new friendships and was reacquainted with old ones. I discovered new music that I can’t get out of my head and rediscovered old favorites that are itching to regain their rightful place in my speakers. I was brought to tears of joy several times throughout the weekend and for every time there were tears of joy there were twice as many tears of laughter! I left Okeechobee with a sense of rejuvenation that I needed so desperately. As it does with everyone, life grabs a hold of you and drags you away. It drags you away from your childish sense of wonder; from your sense of adventure. Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival served as my shot of life and as the weekend progressed, I quickly realized that all of these incredibly uplifting experiences were happening for a reason.
While that “Peter Pan” mentality is a great one to live by, bills still have to be paid and my day job is what keeps the lights on. That being said, I wasn’t able to slip away from work until Thursday afternoon and decided to pit stop at my friend Chelsea’s house at a midway point. Little did I know that Chelsea would organize one of the best crews the following day that only added to the magical time at Okeechobee. Plenty on the crew to come.
After a quick trip to Guitar Center for a mic adapter that ended up being the wrong one, I was on my way. The moment I hit Okeechobee Highway from I95, I quickly realized that this is still a music festival and the authorities were there to tell us that. The roadie that was in my Yeti cup found a new home in the cooler and I immediately tried to place myself in the “Student Driver” car that I drove 15 years ago. I was white-knuckled the entire way into the festival grounds. While it sucks that those stopped probably didn’t get to experience the magic that took place, it is a humbling reminder that there is an opposing side to the good times that we experience at music festivals and it’s very important to always keep your eyes and ears open.
I feel for those that got caught up, but there was no stopping my good time and after getting my credentials, I was cruising to that good time with the top down and the wind in my hair. I drive a Camry so I didn’t have the top down, but in my head I was driving a drop-top Benz in true South Florida fashion. There were several times that I allowed myself to drift off into other places throughout the weekend. Sometimes it was the music that took me there, but other times were me just drifting off into magical places in my mind.
My first order of business once I pulled onsite was to sit down with band Con Brio and dive into their set from the night before and find out what it is that makes the band tick. The group from the Bay area is quickly becoming a recognizable force in the live music scene. For a band that’s played with acts such as The Revivalists and Galactic, and working with legendary producer Mario Caldato Jr. (The Beastie Boys), they’ve been somewhat hidden from the east coast. But not any more. The band played a raucous set that captivated the Thursday night crowd of nearly 30,000 people and served as the primer to a weekend full of amazing music.
“We have the same goal,” Brendan Liu said. “We want to make great music and we want to share it with people.” The trumpet player seemed to voice the position of the entire band with that one statement.
Myself and Con Brio
After rapping with Con Brio for a little bit, I was off to try and get the lay of the land and boy was I quickly overwhelmed by the size of Okeechobee. As I just mentioned, 30,000 people arrived on Thursday and there were an additional 20,000 that came on Friday. Four of those individuals were my crew for the weekend and I had no idea that it would take hours to try and find them. Normally I would start to get a bit anxious without my people, but for some reason I wasn’t the least bit anxious and instead was completely content being by myself.
As fate would have it, I ran into my high school friends David and Sara O’Neill. The three of us discussed how we’d all be in attendance but we never thought that we’d be able to find each other with such ease and with no effort whatsoever. Remember when I said that everything was happening for a reason?
Finding these two proved to key in helping me discover the expansiveness of the property, but it also allowed me to look back at some of my first festivals. This year’s Okeechobee was only their second festival and the look of amazement and excitement in their eyes helped me quickly rediscover the joy of experiencing music festivals for the first time.
After a quick pit stop at their campsite that seemed to be more of a 5K than a pit stop, and a wardrobe change for Sara, we funneled our way back into the main music area. We caught several acts that I had never heard of mainly because the bill for Okeechobee featured artists that I hadn’t seen before. I try to follow all of the changing trends in our music scene, but it is developing at such a rapid rate that it’s tough to keep up at times. Festivals like Okeechobee serve as a discovery lab of new music for people like me and I love them for it!
The three of us made our way to the Logic set and I quickly realized the depth of hip hop on this year’s bill. Logic is one the hottest rappers on the scene and he showed why on Friday evening. He ushered in the night with his truth-telling rhymes and it proved to be the right stepping stone for the night’s festivities that featured a headlining set from Wiz Khalifa.
As fate would have it, I lost David and Sara but there was no worry at all. I went with the flow and it led me to one my favorite discoveries of the weekend. FKJ (French Kiwi Juice) was playing on the HERE stage and I’m so glad that I found this gem of a show. His smooth, yet beat driven take on R&B and jazz was a breathe of fresh air and left wanting to buy a plane ticket to Paris to discover the Parisian EDM scene. I got lost in his music and I’m still captivated by it which is why I can’t turn it off no matter where I am.
When I was able to get off of the cloud that my newly discovered French beat master put me on, I was able to see kids running to the Wiz show. As someone that hasn’t dived into the Wiz discography, I was quick to dismiss these kids’ eagerness to see this show. But as I told you earlier, I was going with the flow and I found myself loving every single minute of the Wiz show. The overall production of his set would make any live music fan immersed in the show and he did just that with me.
Wiz Khalifa photo courtesy of Chris Lampkins
I stuck around for a bit of the Flume show but I was poised to get myself a prime spot for MY main event of the night which was The Vulfpeck. This band is the hottest thing on the live music circuit and it bears no explanation as to why. Their musical prowess, paired with their love for theatrical performance is such a breathe of comical relief that every fan of live music needs to experience. Their show on this particular night was nothing short of amazing and the 75 minute set seemed to pass right before my eyes. With incredible covers of “Boogie On Reggae Woman”(Stevie Wonder), “Up on Cripple Creek” (The Band) and “ABC” (Jackson 5), The Vulfpeck had their influences on full display leaving the entire crowd wanting more.
When the dust had settled I found myself wandering through music area in awe of the first day at Okeechobee. Suddenly I looked up and was delighted to see my crew for the weekend looking for Chelsea’s phone. Along with Chelsea were her friends Meesh (thinks she can beat me in PacMan…psh!) and Shaq whom I was stoked to finally meet and Tampa Toni the Rail Rider whom I’ve known for years and was finally able to hug after years of trying to connect. Toni took an Amtrak to get to the fest but her name “Rail Rider” took on a new meaning as she was constantly trying to get to the front of every show. I’m pretty sure I dubbed her the “Rail Rider” at the late night Snails show at the Incendia Stage that left the crowd speechless when Griz decided to make an appearance that lasted several hours.
The night quickly turned into morning and it was time for a little bit of shuteye before an eventful Saturday that I held high hopes for after an amazing first day.
After experiencing Friday with a whimsical demeanor, I promised myself to experience everything Saturday had to offer with the same mentality. There were several acts that I had to see on Saturday and while I was not going to miss these shows, my newly discovered love of wandering on my own and allowing fate to dictate where I ended up left me with my eyes open and ready to say “yes” to pretty much anything thrown my way. I wanted to experience all of the different facets of the festival and everything it had to offer.
I spoke with some of the festival security to find out how they had been treated by the concert goers and the response was nothing short of gratifying. I can only imagine the fear festival producers feel when it comes to the possibility of their attendees mixing with security in an unfavorable manner. According to Rick of Checkmate Protection and Security, he felt nothing but love from all of the concert goers.
“Everyone has been very respectful,” Rick said. “They’re here to just have a good time.”
As someone that’s had a bird’s eye view of how a festival is produced, it’s comforting to know that such a large number of people can come together with the common goal of having a good time without ruining it for everyone else.
After spending the last 10+ years attending music festivals, I’ve been able to watch my network of friends grow over an expansive area. I’ve made friends through music that span the globe and it’s amazing when one of them is in Denver, CO and says “Go to the Voodoo Child Collective and meet my friends.” I can’t thank my dear friend Jessie Popper enough for this incredible, yet indirect introduction. Voodood Child Collective was founded by Kylie Roswell and Julia Gobin as a “collective of conscious imports and local artists and handcrafts.” Based out of New Orleans, these beautiful women bring their experiences of traveling and life to their art and women that love crafty creations need to look no further than the work of these ladies.
Getting back to the music that I spoke of previously, The Revivalists are a group that I have fallen in love with over the last several months and I could not wait to experience their live show. The band’s sound is paired with descriptive lyrics that speak of pushing through the tough times in life and showing your perseverance as a human. I’ve connected to these aspects of the band as I recently walked through a tough time of my own. Being able to see the raw energy that David Shaw and the band put into their music and performance first hand, proved to be the closure of that chapter that I had searched for and left me in a state of pure joy that I only hope anyone going through a tough time can feel. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and music is a propelling agent that helps people reach that light.
After such an emotional and uplifting set, I walked away from the music area to grasp that feeling and to try to bottle it up for future referencing.
Before coming down to Okeechobee I did a couple promo interviews and one of them happened to be world renowned jazz pianist Jon Simon who also happened to be one of the primary investors of the event. I wanted to shake the hand that helped create such a magical event and to thank him for bringing such a beautiful group of people together.
Simon quickly reminded me of the Jacob Collier show that was about to begin. Collier is a two time Grammy winning British phenom that is nothing short of breathtaking. His ability to control every facet of his production is mesmerizing and his presence on stage is nothing short of dominant. His music reminded me so much of Yes, a band that I grew up listening to with my mother from a very young age. Collier’s ability to captivate a crowd is one that every musician dreams of and for him to have it at such a young age leaves little doubt to the additional success that this young man is going to experience.
I’m glad I wore my tennis shoes Saturday night as I would find myself running back and forth between the three main stages and three phenomenal performances. Sturgill Simpson is someone that has blasted onto the live music scene, winning a Grammy for “Best Country Album” this past year and is well deserved. His dominant voice is one that gives hope to fans of old country and lets them know that the sound of their biggest heroes like Merle Haggard, Willie and Waylon, and George Jones is alive and well.
Usher and The Roots was a show that I dubbed as a “Can’t Miss” show and I couldn’t have been more right. The incredibly popular R&B singer paired with The Roots seamlessly as they guided the crowd through a parade of both acts’ greatest hits in a soulful, jazzy and rhythmic fashion that left the crowd begging for the rehearsal tapes. If there was ever a time to have been a fly on the wall, those rehearsals might have been the one.
I guess you could call Saturday night the night of Grammy winners, as famed singer/songwriter Michael McDonald took the stage for the SuperJam of the festival. As a massive fan of The Doobie Brothers, I’ve always loved McDonald but not to the extent of Tom Johnston. That all changed when I watched McDonald perform some of his biggest hits with an all-star cast behind him.
As I mentioned previously, I was infatuated with The Vulfpeck’s set Friday night and I was incredibly surprised as they were introduced as the back up band for the SuperJam. Pair that with Eric Krasno on guitar and Solange on vocals and I was a kid in a candy store. Listening to this group of magical musicians work their way through songs that have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember seemed to be the rocket that propelled me into my feeling of rejuvenation. Songs like “I Keep Forgetting” and “Taking It To The Streets” allowed me to go back to the times of dancing with my mom in the living room when all you knew was the music coming through the speakers. I didn’t even know I was making memories when I was that child in the living room until I witnessed such magic coming from this all-star cast decades later.
Solange photo courtesy of Wildly Civil
This magical weekend was exactly what I needed in my life and at the precise time! While the music was far from over on Sunday, that damn day job was pulling me back to Jacksonville and I unfortunately had to slip away. But not before I took away some of the most incredible memories that I’ve made in my 31 short years of existence. I was able to connect with so many people on so many levels. I made incredible connections with everyone that was in attendance. Clearly I wasn’t able to personally meet everyone that attended but the minute I shake hands with anyone that was there, I’m immediately connected to that person in a way that only those that went can understand.
In time where so much of the world is at war with one another, when citizens of countries are on polar opposite ends from one another and refuse to lay down their swords, Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival proved that understanding and unity is truly attainable! That we can be one as humans and move forward together with compassion and humility. 50,000 people isn’t a blip on the radar of the world’s population, and there are massive issues facing us a species, but the sense of unity that Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival was displaying was so powerful that it makes me wonder why our leaders can’t follow this simple formula when trying to understand others.
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival was one for the record books for me and a time of my life that I will not soon forget. From the people that I met, the activities that I took part in and the powerful music that left us all in awe, the producers of this magical festival deserve the largest round of applause for their efforts to try and bring people together in the name of love, unity and music. Thank you Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, from the bottom of my heart!
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