ROOTS THAT RUN DEEP: Celebrating Five Years of the Bear Creek Music & Art Festival. An interview with Paul Levine
Front page image via Jeffery Dupuis
Anyone who has ever loved something has a Mecca for that passion. Racing fans have NASCAR, Football enthusiasts have Super Bowl, Harold and Kumar have White Castle, so on and so on. If you’re a festival-loving, live music addict living in the south, then your Mecca is just weeks away in the form of the Bear Creek Music and Art Festival.
Next month, November 10-13, the Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park will play host to the fifth annual Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival. With four consecutive days of music, seven stages, a super-star headliner, and a newly added silent disco tent, one thing is certain: This festival, much like a fine wine, only seems to get better with age; a rare find in the music festival world.
In true Bear Creek fashion this year’s line-up boasts a colorful array of talented musicians from funk legends to the freshest up and coming jam and electronic acts. Headliners include The Trey Anastasio Band, Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood, The Funky Meters, Galactic, Soul Live, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plus so much more.
With nearly 100 acts gracing the beautiful Spirit of the Suwanee over the long weekend the truth is it doesn’t really matter which sets you choose to see. Festival creator Paul Levine, along with the Big V Productions crew, hand picks only the best and brightest of national, regional and local acts to fit the bill. You won’t find any fillers here.
No matter what your plan of action is over the weekend, whether you’re a festival aficionado or new to the scene, the only rule is to make it your own. Open your mind as well as your ears, and pave your own musical journey. Whether you plan on posting up in a hammock by the amphitheater all weekend, or would rather rage the silent disco til the sun comes up, one thing is absolute. Celebrating five magical years of this magnificent festival will undoubtedly be the matter at heart at Bear Creek 2011.
In anticipation of the upcoming fest I’ve decided to spare you the typical “band bios,” and “what to bring” lists, those are all things you can look up on the inter-webs. Instead I’d like to take some time to celebrate Bear Creek in its entirety, and the driving forces behind it. I’d like to extend a toast to fans old and new to a truly one of a kind festival where impeccable music, unparalleled vibes and brotherly/sisterly love trump all else. Cheers to five unforgettable years of the Bear Creek Music and Art festival and many, many more to come.
The man with the plan, festival creator Paul Levine, took a few minutes out of his busy day to chat with Sub Ap! about what this festival has meant to him over its half decade long journey to the top.
SubAp!: How did the vision of Bear Creek come to light?
Paul Levine: Well we are in the fifth year now, but it really all started before Bear Creek with a festival celled Down on the Farm. When we realized Down on the Farm wasn’t going to happen again there was still a ton of momentum and energy going. We had a lot of good people who wanted to make something great happen and bring together the musical community. Then I met my partner Lyle Williams, from Thomasville, GA. We talked about it and decided to go ahead with a new venture. We found a piece of property in Quincy, FL and were scheduled to have our first Bear Creek there five years ago. It ended up last minute not working out at the property so we scrambled and moved the production over to the Spirit of the Suwanee. We all feel that it was really one of those defining, fateful moments. As it turned out, Bear Creek and Spirit of the Suwanee turned out to be a really beautiful partnership.
SubAp!: Unlike most festivals of this caliber, Bear Creek only seems to get better with age. What strategies do you and your team use to ensure this festival maintains its grassroots appeal and intimate charm?
Paul Levine: Bear Creek musically, philosophically and artistically was always deep rooted in the music festival community, especially in New Orleans, and in the New Orleans Jazz Festival. It came out of great love and great appreciation for music and for the community that surrounds it. Of course it’s a business, but we started it because we felt that we could have a business that focuses in on all this great funk, jam and dance music.
A lot of the bands we invite to play are not the ones who are necessarily playing top 40 radio, or selling tons of records. They’re the bands that are out there playing great shows every night. We’ve always tried to focus on that, it started with Down on the Farm and transpired into Bear Creek.
The community that loves that kind of music is very special and loyal, the staff that we have are the same, they are part of that community. Most of us have been working together for over eight years at the Bear Creek staff. We never hire or bring in new people because no one leaves. We’ve been more concerned with building a truly special community, then necessarily selling more tickets.
We all feel that it was really one of those defining, fateful moments.
Bear Creek founder, Paul Levine on the festival’s somewhat accidental change from Quincy, Fla. to The Spirit of Suwannee Park
SubAp!: There are a few game changers in store for Bear Creek 2011. Like the addition of super headliner T.A.B. It must have been pretty awesome to book a musician of Trey’s stature. I’m personally hoping he will take part in some sweet collaborations and family jams. Which aspects of the upcoming Bear Creek are you most excited about?
Paul Levine: On a personal level, and speaking on behalf of our entire organization, it’s a great honor to have Trey come down and play our show. We are all Phish fans and have a great respect for his career and the amazing things he has done. Trey certainly has a superstar stature but he also has some roots in the Bear Creek community. I saw him play a super-jam in New Orleans some time ago with Ray Webber and Tony Hall of Dumpstaphunk, who are both Bear Creek regulars.
Jennifer Hartswick who plays in T.A.B. was at Bear Creek last year and actually also played at the first Down on the Farm. We felt that inviting him here, with his friendships and relationships, that he’s really going to understand what Bear Creek is all about. That he will be comfortable and really feel the vibe and what’s going on. I think it’s going to lead into the best Trey Anastasio show of the year; I’ve got no doubt about that.
SubAp!: The line-up is such an eclectic, well rounded, array of musicians, from funk legends to the freshest up and coming electro acts. What is the process like of choosing acts for the bill?
Paul Levine: Choosing the line-up really gets a lot harder as each year goes along. A lot of musicians feel like Bear Creek is a place where they can come and hang out with their friends. Where they can interact and perform with their friends. I think that part of the community helps to create better music. When choosing the artists there are different components involved, like for example we have a lot of Florida bands.
We are from Florida, we are in Florida, and so we definitely feel a responsibility to represent great music that happens in Florida. Some of the bands grow and become national acts and in that case they start to go into a different category. In the end we really feel like the Florida local and regional bands deserve an opportunity to play and we take that very seriously.
Of course Bear Creek originated as more of a funk-driven festival, so that is always going to be a big part of it as well. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Lettuce, New Mastersounds, George Porter Jr., you are probably going to see those folks on the bill more years than not. What’s really nice is the respect that all of the musicians have for each other and the collaboration interaction that happens at Bear Creek. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think we’ve done a good job of growing our electronic music component as a festival. We are still a live band festival predominately, but we’ve been adding more DJs and electronic stuff in recent years. The live music component is an undeniable force in our scene. The best part for me is when you see a young music fan, who was maybe introduced to the scene by way of electronic music, and then they go see someone like Maceo Parker, who wrote a lot of the beats that these people are playing. To see the look on their faces when they put the dots together and realize how one thing led to the next or vice versa, is a really special moment.
SubAp!: How does it feel to celebrate an incredible half decade of Bear Creek, and what are some of your personal highlights over its five year journey to the top?
Paul Levine: Getting to five years as a music festival is a wonderful accomplishment for all of us in our organization. There’s a lot of incredibly hard work that goes into it. Everyone is I’m sure underpaid, but we don’t do it for the money. It’s about seeing how people feel at the end of the weekend; the smiles and the hugs, and a lot of tears even. The festival has a certain magic to it that even when you organize it you can’t anticipate people responding a certain way, it just kind of happens organically.
The roots of the festival run really deep with a lot of people. There are a lot of people to be thanked and appreciated for sharing in its growth. We started off in Quincy, FL and had dozens and dozens of people come out and volunteer to help build this, the FSU community was a huge part of it. They weren’t just from Tallahassee though, they were from Jacksonville and Gainesville and other areas. It really did start on a grass roots level and I think because of that, for a lot of people it became a reunion.
A lot of these people were college students and as they got older and went off into the work world, I think Bear Creek became this place where they know they can all reunite. They mark it on their calendar every year and will never miss a Bear Creek, because it’s the place where they know they will see their family. I think because of that love for each other, and in a similar vein how musicians come back here year after year, and get to spend time with each other and become part of the family with our staff and with our audience, it creates this really amazing feeling. That is really the most special thing to me.
Musically, it’s hard to forget when Nigel Hall was married at the second Bear Creek. Kofi Burbridge was playing the flute during the precession, and Papa Mali was giving away the bride. It was really mind blowing. Then that night Lettuce was playing on the Porch stage and Derek Trucks came out for a few songs. He was unannounced at the festival, no one knew he was going to be there; he just showed up and played. I think it blew people’s minds. It blew my mind. Then Nigel brought out his new bride on stage, I will never forget that moment.
I’ll also never forget the first year, and the amazing Burning Spear set at the amphitheater. It was freezing cold and he had steam coming off of his head on stage. Jennifer Hartswick singing with Umphrey’s McGee last year was also really memorable for me. So, so many other things; all the Dumpsta-jams, all the incredible New Mastersound’s shows, the late night Zach Deputy shows in the campground. There are too many amazing memories to count; they’ve all been so special.
Some folks have said to me what really sets Bear Creek apart is not the music that you actually see but the music that you miss. People might say that there are too many bands, but on the other side you are able to go on a musical adventure at Bear Creek. Anywhere you go you’re going to see a killer band and I think that’s part of the adventure and what makes it so unique.
SubAp!: What is your vision for the future of Bear Creek? In what ways do you see it growing or evolving?
Paul Levine: I think that the future of this type of music is bright. There are so many great young bands. Young funky bands, who have almost got like a new R&B scene going. The electronic music is developing and getting more polished. There’s a ton of new music that keeps becoming accessible. We just keep going out and seeing shows and trying to bring the best bands that we can. Even with the addition of Trey Anastasio, we don’t want to get caught up in, “Ok, now how do we top this or out do that?” We think we have a great formula here. We don’t have to get bigger, or add more headliners. Sometimes festivals just spend money to spend money.
I think we try to offer a unique experience here every time. We’re going to keep putting out fresh lineups and bringing the best live music we can to this place. I suppose each year we try to incorporate a bit of a theme. This year is a little more jazz, last year was the James Brown horn. There are a few undertones of the weekend that you may be able to hold on to, but we hope fans take away from it a lot more than that.