New Orleans Jazz Fest may be six months and 600 miles away, but you can get a tasty shot of the Crescent City's musical talent at one of Florida's funkiest music festivals next month.
It's Bear Creek Music and Art Festival, Nov. 12-14 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, about 200 miles north of Tampa just off Interstate 10.
This is a three-day dance throwdown in one of the most gorgeous music venues on the East Coast. There's plenty of room to stretch out at Spirit of the Suwannee Park, with more than 500 acres for camping, rental cabins, a restaurant and a spectacular riverfront beach (although, be aware, the river is a ways from the music). At one of the six stages, people hang hammocks in a natural amphitheater that's filled with trees and dripping with Spanish moss. Heaven. Your only job for the weekend is to listen.
When you've got members of the famous New Orleans Neville family as well as original funkateers who have played with the likes of James Brown, Van Morrison, the Funky Meters, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton's Parliament Funkadelic, you just know it's got to be good.
"A lot of the bands we choose are bands we have seen late nights at Jazz Fest," said music promoter Paul Levine, who, with Lyle Williams, puts on Bear Creek, now in its fourth year.
Bear Creek offers more than 100 sets of music. You can see jam bands (Moe., Umphrey's McGee, Everyone Orchestra), funk bands (Soulive, Rebirth Brass band, George Porter Jr. and the Runnin Pardners, Bernie Worrell and SociaLybrium, the New Mastersounds, Orgone, Dr. Klaw, Lettuce), reggae (John Brown's Body, Spiritual Rez), jazz, and a bit of electronica (Perpetual Groove, Bonobo, Alex B., the Dead Kenny G's).
Levine and Williams take special pride in encouraging musicians to collaborate with one another — their goal is for Bear Creek to have the most sit-ins of any music festival. That's a welcome treat for both musicians and fans.
"We invite bands to come and spend a couple of days," Levine said. "They are able to relax and be with other musicians. It spurs that spontaneity. Collaborations can happen and the audience gets to witness the collaboration. People are seeing things they won't see happen again."
Bear Creek has "artists at large," musicians who, Levine said, "like to be challenged and want to try different things with different people." They roam the festival, sitting in with various bands. This year's artists-at-large include trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who both held down the funk in James Brown's band. It's a good bet they'll sit in with fellow James Brown alum Maceo Parker's band, and when that happens, I dare you to stay in your chair. Drummer Yonrico Scott and keyboard player Kofi Burbridge, both of the Derek Trucks Band, are also artists-at-large, along with Jennifer Hartswick, Mike Dillon, the Shady Horns, Skerik, Jans Ingber and Donna Hopkins.
About 4,000 people attended last year's Bear Creek, and organizers are hoping to top that this year. "I really believe in my heart that Bear Creek is an incredible value," said Levine. "People have to stretch the dollar further than they used to. We have 100 sets of music scheduled over the weekend. Dollar for dollar, you don't get a better value. We fill the schedule to the seams."
Definitely plan on taking Monday off work — Sunday night features a sublime funk get-down, including an extended jam session with Ivan Neville's fantastic band Dumpstaphunk and a whole mess of ridiculously talented musicians sitting in. (Ivan's dad is New Orleans balladeer Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers.)
"When you leave Bear Creek," Levine said, "you are so happy and satisfied because you've been barraged by music and art and color and great people, you feel you're refreshed and recharged for the new year."
Julie Hauserman, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee.