Review: Okeechobee Music Festival, Day 1, roars to life with Robert Plant, Hall and Oates, Bassnectar and more
Even before it got fully off the ground, the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival was a hit.
With 30,000 fans on the ground in Okeechobee, the inaugural experiment in Floridian festival culture was a sellout by the time gates opened Friday.
"Surprising news," co-founder Steve Sybesma said, but news he'll gladly take, given the hit-and-miss history of festivals in the Sunshine State.
Okeechobee's soft opening Thursday gave way to a more star-studded Friday, with headliners Hall and Oates, Robert Plant and Bassnectar, not to mention a bonus publicity bump when Saturday's headliner, Kendrick Lamar, decided to surprise-release an all-new album. Lamar's untitled unmastered. was the talk of many a campsite Friday, whipping anticipation for this weekend's main events into a fever pitch. Let's get a couple of quick snags out of the way. Cell reception is more or less a myth on this far-flung farmland (I couldn't text or tweet from the general festival grounds all Friday), and the sprawling campgrounds aren't particularly well-mapped or -marked, so godspeed to anyone trying to stumble back to their tent after midnight.
But if the mission was to capture the eclectic, hippie-dippy vibe of Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, they've done a pretty good job. Every corner of the fest has sone silly, onomatopoeic name (Chobeewobee Village, Loopy Loop, Wishbone Way); there's a ton of tank tops and tie-dye everywhere; and everyone's in a just-roll-with-it mood.
And just like at this year's Bonnaroo, where the headliners are Pearl Jam and Dead and Company, Friday's schedule was steeped in classic rock.
Emerging as the sun set behind treetops bathed in swirling pink lights, Plant looked every bit the rock god Okeechobee expected him to be, whipping his feral mane, twirling his mic stand and pulling jungle juju from his swampy surroundings.
The set was heavy on solo songs with his stellar new band the Sensational Space Shifters -- not a bad thing, given the excellence of their 2014 album Lullaby and The Ceaseless Roar, or the rip-roaring rockabilly cover Funny In My Mind (I Believe I'm Fixin' to Die).
But each time he dipped into the Led Zeppelin catalog, it felt like a real moment -- a tribal Black Dog; a courtly, acoustic Going to California; a spongy, funky Trampled Under Foot; and the mother of them all, a chainsaw rendition of Whole Lotta Love.
Hall and Oates must've known Plant wound be tough to follow, but the got the main stage crowd moving with a murderer's row of nostalgic, feel-good hits: Opener Out of Touch, followed in due time by a sneaky Maneater and a heroically jammed-out I Can't Go For That.
This being 2016, however, the kids came not for for Sara Smile, but for tasty, tasty bass, as dubstep demigod Bassnectar was by far Day 1's biggest draw. The widely respected DJ teased the crowd with a taste of Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle, but soon launched into a set of squelchy, punked-out mixes of Biggie and Washed Out, punctuated by pillars of CO2 and flame.
And the day before playing Wild 94.1 Wild Splash in Clearwater, goofy Pennsylvania rapper Lil Dicky may have outdrawn the great Plant, mixing rhymes about wanting to be rich with a smattering of politics ("When I say abortion, you say pro-choice! Abortion!" Pro-choice! "Abortion!" Pro-choice!) and even an a cappella rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Like Bonnaroo (and most other major festivals), Okeechobee is all about mixing genres, which is why you're going to see Brownout blazing through a brass-powered soul tribute to Black Sabbath, then a set of earthy jam-pop from Nahko and Medicine For the People, followed by an hour of furious jazz from sax sensation Kamasi Washington; topped by a snarling late-night set from Wasila, Alaska alt-rockers Portugal. The Man.
As Portugal shut down the main stages, leaving the hardcore ravers to party with all-night DJs in the Sabal palm groves, something Grace Potter said earlier, during her turbo-charged soul session, was still ringing true.
"Seeing as this is the first year of this festival, I figure we should set the bar pretty high," Potter told the crowd.
So far, so good.
More observations from Day 2 of Okeechobee:
Florida bands were well represented on Friday, from the sunny and swampy psychedelia of Jacksonville's Sunbears! and DeLand's Roadkill Ghost Choir to the folksy Americana of Orlando's 502's.
Gainesville's Hundred Waters got a prime-time set opposite Hall and Oates, and delivered an enchanting tableau of watery, post-alternative ambience, spiked with occasional hits of intense, crystalline trance.
"We're from Florida," said singer Nicole Miglis, beaming in a spiderweb of spotlights, "so this is incredible to be here."
Unfortunately, Miglis later put her foot in her mouth as only a true Floridian can.
Gesturing to a flag totem in the darkened crowd, she said: "Can we get the Confederate flag taken down?" She tried to start a chant: "Lower the flag! Lower the flag!"
One problem: It wasn't a Confederate flag. It was the state flag of Florida.
"Oh my god, I'm such an idiot," she said, clearly mortified. "Wow. That's going to haunt me forever."
It all worked out, though -- she invited the flag bearer up to the stage to wave the Florida banner high as she serenaded him with an acoustic Show Me Love. And everyone did.
During the daylight hours, there was plenty of room in the main stage area to play Frisbee or dance, spread out a blanket or hang a hammock between pines. (Didn't bring a hammock? Buy one for only $45!) There was at least partial shade in plenty of places, heightening the sensation that you're really ensconced in an enclave, set apart from civilization.
And God bless all the shirtless bros and booty-shorted lady ravers who came here expecting Florida sunshine, but as soon as the sun went down, the mercury plummeted like a stone, nipping the 50s by 9 p.m. If you're coming on Saturday, wear layers.
One neat new fashion trend: Day-glo, tie-dye body paint. For $10, a company called Black Light Visuals would let you dip your arms into a vat of swirling acrylic paint that glowed beneath ultraviolet light. Voila: Instant psychedelic sleeves. Each time I walked by, the line was at least a dozen deep.
As you might expect from seeing Plant and Hall and Oates on the bill, Okeechobee wasn't exclusive to the young. Nor was it particularly NSFW--the only nudity I saw was a young toddler scampering around his parents' campsite. (Problematic in its own right, but still.)
That said, festival organizers courting college spring breakers made a wise decision in creating Aquachobee Beach, a mini-Cozumel with a sandy beach, volleyball net, swimming hole and tiki bars pouring 24-oz. Coronas for $11. And DJs like Bassnectar and RL Grime are catnip for the party crowd. It's not necessarily the side of Florida you think of when it comes to this rural part of the state, but at Okeechobee, it works.
All weekend long, there are yoga, wellness, art and education sessions in the festival's Yogachobee Village. Judging from the number of people I saw doing yoga outside this area -- in the campgrounds, for example, or even near the main stages -- this was a demographic they managed to reach with solid success.
I briefly popped into a "hoopdance" workshop full of a couple dozen hula-hoopers. "This is why hooping is dangerous," I heard the instructor admonishing them, sternly. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Finally, my surprise-awesome set of the day: Anthemic Texas indie-Americana ensemble the Oh Hellos, whose high-energy, banjo- and fiddle-fueled set came to a rousing close when they were joined by their buds Family and Friends for a bouncy, huggy finale.
Who's gonna top 'em on Saturday? Miguel? Booker T. Jones? King Kendrick? Come back tomorrow to find out!
-- Jay Cridlin