The setting lived up to the hype.
Organizers promised the 800-acre patch of rural Florida ranchland that hosted last weekend's inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival had to be seen to be appreciated, and that was true from the moment you found your campsite.
From the main musical "grove," ringed with pine trees that glowed in swirling colors at sundown, to the man-made "Aquachobee Beach" that looked like a slice of spring break heaven, Okeechobee's site was unique, well-maintained, eminently walkable and somehow ineffably Floridian, woven into the state's natural fabric in a way few events of this magnitude ever are.
The festival was a relatively peaceful affair, too. Okeechobee County Sheriff's officials made 68 arrests at the festival, most of them drug-related, including one for trafficking. Yet there were no reports of violence, and on the whole, the campsite felt safe and secluded (very secluded, judging from the near-complete lack of cell service) at all hours of the night.
We don't know how much organizers spent on the inaugural Okeechobee, and there's no guarantee it made money, even after drawing a sellout crowd of 30,000 — the impeccable infrastructure and high-priced talent alone must have cost a small fortune.
Still, after an inaugural event that drew mostly raves, there's little doubt Okeechobee will be back in 2017.
"They've done a beautiful thing trying to create a collaborative atmosphere," said Marcus Mumford, the singer of Mumford and Sons, who closed the festival Sunday night. "We'd love to come back. We love this place."
Here are four more thoughts on this weekend's events.
Organizers went for broke booking Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant and Skrillex for their main stage, and each act paid dividends with a stellar set. Lamar's was poetic and impassioned, as he brought a diehard fan to sing and dance on stage during his depression saga U, and Mumford and Sons brought out guests like the Avett Brothers, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and guitarist Tom Morello for a free-wheeling festival finale. These were two A-list acts who rarely play Florida, and both seemed energized by the ravenous greeting they got.
BEATS TRUMP GUITARS
Mumford and Sons, Robert Plant, Hall and Oates and the Avett Brothers may be big names, but by and large, rappers and DJs far outdrew rock acts at Okeechobee. Rappers like Future and Mac Miller had some of the biggest and rowdiest crowds of the entire festival, and anytime a star EDM act took the stage — Bassnectar, Skrillex, Odesza, Gramatik — it was almost impossible to walk through that part of the festival. Pity a poor legend like soul icon Booker T. Jones, who on Saturday played a stellar midafternoon set to a way-too-small crowd. This just wasn't his scene.
WHO WON THE FEST?
Mumford and Sons, Lamar, Plant and Miguel were all as magnificent as expected. The otherworldly light displays of Odesza and Big Grams were marvels of electronic engineering, and their music was just as hard to deny. I was impressed with two younger groups, Texas Americana troupe the Oh Hellos and L.A. retro-rockers the Shelters. And my two favorite daytime sets came from gutsy, heart-wrenching troubadour Jason Isbell and whiskey-drenched rockers Deer Tick. I'd seen both before, but had never heard them sound quite this good. But all that said, for me, there's no question about what was the set of the weekend …
WOW, WHAT A POWOW
Near the end of Saturday night's much-anticipated "PoWoW" all-star jam session, Skrillex, still sweaty from his headlining DJ set, grabbed a microphone and instructed the crowd to give it up for "one of the most amazing bands that ever existed in the history of bands!" Behind him, jamming out to Earth, Wind and Fire's Let's Groove, were Mumford and Sons, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Miguel, Arcade Fire singer Win Butler, Hall and Oates' John Oates, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, members of the Meters and Soulive and more. Festival honchos promised history would be made at this year's inaugural fest, and the PoWoW's electrifying, once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of talent delivered it.
For full reviews of all three days of the Okeechobee Music Festival, see tampabay.com/soundcheck.