GroundUp Music Festival 2019
North Beach Bandshell, Park Stage
Miami Beach, FL
February 8-10, 2019
An internet acquaintance has a running post gag that she labels with #BecauseFlorida. In it she basically puts forth all of the unattractive, wacky and head-scratching reports that come out of the Sunshine State. It IS funny (and seemingly never at a loss for material) but I suspect you could easily paint many a state as a bastion of insanity if you used the right brush.
But let's face it, all jokes aside, Florida IS different. A wildly unique mix of ethnicities, cultures and attitudes herded into an enviable climate. Within THAT lies Miami Beach, where it seems the multipliers-that-be have elevated that Florida model to a whole other level.
It's a totally appropriate place then for the GroundUp Music Festivala musical smorgasboard offering a wonderfully improbable mix of styles and sounds that does its setting proud.
With the familiar laid out next to the exotic, it was easy for attendees to indulge in a variety of musics that they might never have thought to try on their own. From the Moroccan sounds of Innov Gnawa
and percussion powerhouse PRD Mais from Brazil, to Canadian singer-songwriters The O'Pears and the iconic David Crosby
's Lighthouse Band, to jazz/R&B goddess Lalah Hathaway
and, Multi-instrumentalist, singer (and whistler) Andrew Bird
, to the dulcimer fusion trio House of Waters
and the funky fun of Tank and the Bangas, 2019 festival-goers were given a wide variety to sample.
The connecting thread through it all seems to be a precious, if not elusive niche that host band Snarky Puppy
has always endeavored to tap intoone of uncommon musicianship coupled with populist accessibilityor as SP likes to put it: "Music for brain and booty."
This proved to be a solid recipe for crossover appeal for the festival's three days. Looking at all manner of people(some sporting wildly disparate T shirts from Toto and Weather Report to Dream Theater and gulp, Marilyn Manson)grooving hard to the powerhouse funk of Ghost-Note one minute, and then spotting them swaying to the breezy sounds of Afro-Peruvian grande dame Susana Baca
the next was an extraordinary thing to witness. Maybe this willing eclecticism is indicative of their fan base in general but as with many things SP, it really does seem to fly square in the face of conventional wisdom.
So too does their leader, bassist and festival artistic director, Michael League
"My vision for the festival is for people to come to it and maybe not recognize anyone who's on the bill, but end up with a list of new artists they've discovered. That's the dream for meand maybe eventually not even announce the artists, period. Just to have people come and experience everything blindin a very pure and open-minded way. "
This suggests another measure of the festival's success could be how many times one might have said, "Wow, I think I've found my new favorite band..." Admittedly, this was experienced at GUM Fest more than once but It's hard to say how many times because, truth be told, it gradually became an expectation. High marks there...
In addition to an extremely talented musical roster of knowns and unknowns (a complete list is below), there were a host of other things that also set GUM Fest experience apart:
Unlike many festivals, the main performances at GroundUp were scheduled with no overlap on two different stages in close proximity so attendees never had to miss a show. A big plus to be sure, in light of so many worthy acts performing. Add to this a very egalitarian schedule with all artists doing one set only (with no encores), tightly timed to maximize the number and variety of artists presented(rather than a handful of openers with a few big names hogging inordinate amounts of time). If there is one small caveat here, it would be that the scheduling might have been timed just a bit too tight. At a few points, it felt that the addition of couple of minutes between acts might have been nice to make the move from stage to stage a bit less urgent(an urgency magnified by all else regarding the festival being so chill). All in all though, it was a very minor thing in light of the amount of music this afforded per day.
The Workshops / Masterclasses
There were about 10 of these over the three days held outdoors in front of the main building on the bandshell grounds or on the beach. Their various topics were weighted towards the instructional(Groove Construction and Songwriting Workshop)and the quasi historical(The Story of Sacred Steel and The African in Peru)to the mostly participational(Acapella By the Sea). They featured a broad mix of the performing artists present and were as entertaining as they were informative. Unlike the stage shows, some of these were scheduled at times that overlapped with the main performances. As a result, these (and the late night shows) were some of the few times one had to pick and choose what they wanted to seeand what they had to to skip.
It was quite fortunate then that the Improvisors Workshopthe first event of the first day of the festivaldidn't overlap with anything, for it proved to be a session not to be missed. Featuring vocalist Lalah Hathaway, saxophonist Chris Potter
, drummer Nate Smith
, bassist (and Artist-at-Large) Richard Bona
and moderated by Michael League, it was a rare thing indeed to see artists of this caliber playingand more importantly, playing aroundwith each other to explore and share what they do with an intimate group of fascinated onlookers. And those onlookers included other festival performers like David Crosby (marveling at Lalah Hathaway's scatting abilities) and SP saxman Bob Reynolds
(being a bit rapt while capturing Chris Potter's explosions of off-the-cuff magic on his video recorder). It was extraordinary in that is was equal parts informality, virtuosity and inclusivenesssomething that was to be very emblematic for the three days to come.
A number of the other workshops caught were standouts. Among these were Groove Constructionwith SP drummers Larnell Lewis
, Jamison Ross
and Jason JT Thomas (and one unscheduled Robert "Sput" Searightand another entitled A Bass Conversation that featured bassists Michael League, Richard Bona, Wes Stephenson
(The Funky Knuckles), MonoNeon (Ghost Note, Prince) and Panagiotis Andreou
(The NY Gypsy All-Stars, Now vs Now)where the "conversation" was happily both verbal and musical.
The Artist-at-Large / Guest walk-ons / Mixed line ups
The Artist-at Large at GUM Fest has no slated performances per se, but makes appearances in many a set over the course of the festival. This year's 2019 artist-at-large was bassist extraordinaire Richard Bona (solo artist, Pat Metheny
, Zawinul Syndicate, Mike Stern
). Bona's participation in sets with Andrew Bird, David Crosby, and Bokanté
as well as joining in workshops were always among the brightest spots of the festival.
Other unannounced walk on guests were common as well and included trumpeter Nicholas Payton
(who guested in sets with The Smoogies, Ghost-Note and Snarky Puppy), saxophonist / flautist Carlos Malta
( who sat in with PRD Mais along with SP saxman Chris Bullock
) and David Crosby (who jumped onstage to join singer / keyboardist Michelle Willis
' band ).
It was also common for musicians to commingle and form line ups for each other's performances The O'Pears sang back-up for Maz
and Michelle Willis' bands for the entirety of their sets and different members of Snarky Puppy joined in to form the backing bands of many actsespecially those SP members who presented sets of their solo material. Michael League himself played in at least five different line ups.
Artist Mingling / Size / Family Vibe / Other Stuff
The stage wasn't the only place the saw musicians freely mingling. There were very few segregations between artists and audience at GUM Fest. In fact it seemed the performers came to hang and watch as much as perform and many were there for the duration. There were always members of a band from earlier in the day watching who ever was on at the moment. Look over there and see David Crosby sitting at a table watching Snarky Puppy's set. Look over there and see Richard Bona gently swinging in the next hammock while the O'Pears are playing the Park Stage. That really nice guy Jamey, who you just shot the breeze with, turns out to be Paul Simon's percussionist(he's gotta go play his set with Bokante now). Spy Michael League, repeatedly being approached by festival-goers, always leading the conversation with "Are you having a good time?" Pretty uncommon...
Because the festival is relatively small (limited to about 1800), faces become more familiar each day, they acknowledge you back, you have conversations, you find people from your hometown, etc.
Other "little" things made a huge difference in the experience. The openness of the staff, volunteers, vendors and bartenders was pretty remarkable too. Chat with Leo at the merch kiosk enough to know that he worked last year's festival and came back to volunteer again "'cause he dug it so much." (There was a lot of that going around.) The food vendors would notice that you had really gone for the sesame noodles a bunch of times already and playfully goaded you into trying something new (and equally delicious).
The main food menu(done by Miami's own resident food celeb Michelle Bernstein)was interesting and very tasty. And for those who watch foodie shows (such as Top Chef and the like), it was doubly a gas to see Bernstein herself behind the tables for a while each day(especially since she truly seemed to be enjoying herself along with everyone else). Again uncommon....
The Late Shows
For those who, after each day's eight to nine hours of music, still had an appetite for more, there were additional late shows every night just down the main drag at The Alexander Hotel. Two upstairs event roomswhich often served as rehearsal spaces during the daywere outfitted "nightclub style," and not only supplied an additional five sets of music every night, but also a healthy share of the festival's surprises. This was where much of the wildest interplay and cross-pollination played out among the festival's musicians. Along with solo sets from many members of the SP collective and extra sets from artists on and off the day roster, you had many bands combining and recombining to form some unique ensembles. If you had the stamina, staying up to nearly sunrise was worth it, for it seemed the later it got, the more unbridled the musicians became.
With solidly packed days and the additional late shows, the GroundUp Music Festival provided for the willing some 36+ hours of observable music (from nearly as many acts)in just three days. That's a fairly gargantuan amount. There are admittedly some (ahem) who had trouble making it all the way through to the extreme wee hours but, be that as it may, this deep musical cup runneth over sufficiently to make a full review of every artist witnessed a fool's errand. And indeed, in a festival with literally NO BAD ACTS, one would run out of superlatives quickly if it were attempted.
As such, and in no order, here's an offering of some synopses of the highest points(there were honestly no real lows)and even then it's at the risk of droning on too long. The rest of the acts are listed afterward in the full schedule with reporter's notes where appropriate (or indeed where still conscious)...
Chris Potter Circuits
Chris Potter debuted material from his newly released Circuits
album with his former Underground drummer Nate Smith and keyboardist James Francies. With Potter ever asserting himself as perhaps THE premier saxophonist of his generation and Smith's chops and authentic groove sense, it was left to James Francies
to hold down basslines with his left hand and supply accompaniment with the otherand prove an adequate foil in doing so. Not only was Francies adequate, but he provided a supreme lock with Smith (over often odd-metered terrain) and defied all previous displays of hand independence, soloing on synth bass and piano simultaneously. A devastating set to witness from three musicians who should never be off your radar.
New York Gypsy All-Stars
The All-Stars and their modern tinged hybrid (combining Balkan, Greek, Turkish and Indian influences with heavy NY-style musicianship) crushed it with a powerful and infectious performance. Who knew there was going to be a mass craving for Gypsy ethno-fusion spiked with konnakol post festival?
Again, every surfacing of Artist-at-Large Richard Bona was a real treat. Favorite moments: His beautiful duo performance with Andrew Bird on Mike Stern's "Still There" and his guest spot soloing on David Crosby and the Lighthouse Band's moving rendition of "Deja Vu."
In addition to a beautiful set with her own band, her reprising of the Grammy award-winning "Something" with Snarky Puppy on the first day was just as jaw dropping as the original. In all, Hathaway showed that she may just be hands down the most gifted scatter/vocal improviser since Ella Fitzgerald.
Andrew Bird's (GUM Fest Version of) Live From the Great Room
Though Bird and his band played a satisfying set on the second night, his first day's set of conversational and impromptu pairings (with Richard Bona, The O'Pears, and SP keyboardist Bill Laurance
) was not only magical in its spontaneity but yielded brighter glimpses of Bird's sometimes unorthodox virtuosity.
This virtually unknown group of four young women from Bogota (playing flutes, percussion and singing, often simultaneously) mesmerized with one of the most feral and intoxicating displays at GUM Fest.
Providing one of the most satisfying surprises in a festival chock full of amazing instrumentalists, SP hornman-turned-singer Mike "Maz" Maher delivered a beautiful set of pop songcraft that showed how simplicitydone rightcould be every bit as virtuosic.
Robert Sput Searight and Nate Werth
's instrumental power-funk vehicle (featuring former Prince bassist Mono Neon) blew minds with its unrelenting tightness. 'Nuff said. Full stop. Mic drop.
David Crosby and the Lighthouse Band
Crosbywith bandmates Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens
and Michael Leagueperformed an enchanting set drawn from their recent Here If You Listen
album along with a mix of Crosby catalog favorites that certified this group to be on a par any of the singer's past endeavors. Highpoints included the Willis composition "Janet" as well as Crosby's "Deja Vu," Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," and closing rendition of the Neil Young penned "Ohio." Most amazing though was the stunning vocal power Crosby still summons from the very core of his 77-year-old frame. Truly remarkable...
Though he played great in sets with Snarky Puppy and the Yay Yennings
Quartet, it was the drummer / vocalist's late night solo set that really showcased Mr. Ross' mind-blowing musicality. You don't see many shows opened with solo acapella voxand then just drums and voicebut the authenticity of his musical presence alone was riveting enough. By the time the rest of the ensemble joined in, there was an argument to be made that when Jamison Ross
gets a cut, only music flows out.
Snarky Puppy (three sets)
As billed, the hosts of the festival played a set each of the three days with differing line upsthat only a band with such a deep roster of musicians could provide. (Note: It was indeed interesting to see off-duty members of Snarky Puppy amid the crowd, having a rare opportunity to check out their own band.) While each of their three performances contained a mix of old and new material, each also had its own feel. The first night's set was comprised of recent catalog favorites with just a couple of new tunes included but ended spectacularly with Lalah Hathaway guesting on a reprise of their joint award-winning tune "Something." The bulk of the second night's set was given over to trotting out, as League put it, "their bench players" from the upcoming album. If this was arguably the most tentative of the three SP sets musically, it is understandable but it also may have made it the most endearing. With League's humble disclaimers prefacing each premiered tune, the feeling of being privy to a sort of musical coming out party overrode any collective jitters put forth by the band.
The third and final SP set appropriately closed out the regular performances on the final day of the festival. Of the three, it featured the largest Pups cast assembled (12 membersthat swelled to perhaps 18 as the set went on) playing a host of crowd favorites plus three of their strongest new compositions from Immigrance
"Xavi," "Bad Kids to the Back" and the exotic ballad "Even Us." The set was capped off nicely with an adventurous version of "Lingus" that saw the favorite not only augmented rhythmically by the group Innov Gnawa, but altered a bit compositionally as to give it a Moroccan harmonic bent as well. The regular festival then closed to heady ovation (incited to a roar by the irrepressible Shaun Martin
As much as their sets were highlight-worthy, the real upshot of all the SP performances was in reminding how the band itself (and its esprit de corps) thoroughly embodied the immersive musical and familial vibe that was core to the experience at GUM Fest.
At this point, there's a George Orwell quote that keeps nagging:
"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, everything else is public relations."
So be it. Today I guess I'm the PR man, Georgebut without regret. A great time was had, musically and otherwise and it would be silly not to treat it as such.
It's kind of uncanny how often Michael League does seem to exhibit a Midas touchthough he himself would probably be the first to refute it. However, there should be little debate among those who were part of these three days in Miami Beachin GUM Fest, League and his colleagues have truly fashioned a thing of gold.
Full 2019 Performance Schedule (with notes)
- Innov Gnawa -Dervish-like Moroccan trance grooves with traditional rhythm and bass instruments...
- PRD Mais. These Brazilian rhythmatists impressed and grabbed the crowd. The largely percussion oriented set was augmented by appearances by flautist / saxophonists Carlos Malta and Chris Bullock but emphasized that even "untuned" percussion has a melodic nature -in the right hands.
- Snarky Puppy. (See highlights above)
- Tank and the Bangas. Feel-good grooves layered with a free associative mix of vocal / rap / performance art from vocalists Jelly Joseph and Tarriona "Tank" Ball.
- Andrew Bird. Songs from the Great Room (See highlights above)
- Chris Potter Circuits. (See highlights above)
- Lalah Hathaway. (See highlights above)
Late night shows
- Sammy Figueroa. NY/Miami Latin Jazz conguero mainstay...
- Yay Yennings Quartet. Stylistically perhaps a surprise to many but great bebop from SP members Jay Jennings, Bob Reynolds and Jamison Ross.
- House of Waters. (See entry below)
- The O'Pears. (See entry below)
- Shaun Martin's Go-Go Party
- Shenzi. Miami's own Shenzi thoroughly impressed with their groove-smart, jazz-influenced neo-soul.
- Michelle Willis. Canadian keyboardist / singer / songwriter Willis showed she has some serious chops in all those categories. It explains handily why she is a member of both David Crosby's Sky Trails Band and Lighthouse Band (and as Crosby often proclaims, his favorite singer in the world). Willis also had some delightful support during her rock-solid set from Crosby, the O'Pears and uber-multi-talent Louis Cato.
- Bokante. Michael League's "other" band put forth an incredibly rich blend of musical styles and heritage to form a new creation that somehow infused without diluting. Bokante's set featured strong performances from League's fellow SP members Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti on guitars Roosevelt Collier on lap steel and the percussion triumvirate of Andre Ferrari, Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa. Despite all that (and a guest appearance from Richard Bona) vocalist Malika Tirolien clearly owned the stage whenever her vocal presence rang out. Formidable...
- Ghost-Note. (See highlights above)
- Bill Laurance.One of the first SP alums with a burgeoning solo career, Laurance (who generally performs with a backing band) put forth a bold and inventive solo-piano set where he would also augment (and interactively improvise) with machines. A sneak preview of sorts to the motivations behind his forthcoming album entitled Cables.
- The O'Pears. A truly angelic vocal blend from this trio of Canadian singer / songwriters. They performed a nice set as well as consistently brightening the stage in wherever they appeared throughout the festival in support of others.
- Snarky Puppy. (See highlights above)
- La Perla. (See highlights above)
- Andrew Bird. (See highlights above)
Late Night Shows
- Justin Stanton. A solid set from SP keyman / trumpeter Stanton that featured many fellow SP members and debuted material from an imminent solo release.
- Innov Gnawa. (See above)
- Mark Lettieri Trio. SP guitar-Jedi Mark Lettieri played a stirring set in a power trio with (Funky Knuckles) bassist Wes Stephenson and (SP, FORQ) drummer Jason JT Thomas. Featured were premiers of songs from his upcoming album Things of That Nature.
- Secret Trio
- Ghost-Note Jam
- The Smoogies. Yet another fine band in the SP vein. Solid set with a guest walk-on from trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
- Lucy Woodward. The powerfully voiced Woodward and company totally delivered on a modern update of the singer-fronted Big Band. The band was amply manned by students from Miami's Frost School of Music as well as a few of Woodward's regular sidemen. Kudos to Woodward, the students and their arranger / conductor who all never missed a beat while freak wind gusts formed tumbleweeds of blown sheet music at their feet onstage. Killer tune of the set. "Too Hot to Last."
- House of Waters. A hammered dulcimer fusion trio? You bet. The sonic environs created by this surprising combo of timbres made their set refreshing. The enviable chops and writing made made it adventurous. Great performance by all but a stand out from bassist Moto Fukushima.
- Maz. (See highlights above)
- Susana Baca. The grand dame of Afro-Peruvian music delivered a jazz-tinged set that enticed even obvious fans of drastically different musics.
- Funky Knuckles. The Knucks may not get all the love they deserve due to their proximity in origin and style to Snarky Puppy-but they sure earned it this night on the Park Stage. Not unlike SP, they pulled the crowd in with their sense of groove and melody but the Knuckles cleary upped ante, taking the music to higher technical reaches and cementing it with a vicious tightness. Kudos to newest band member Kwinton Gray for his performance on keys.
- David Crosby. (See highlights above)
- The New York Gypsy All-Stars. (See highlights above)
- Snarky Puppy. (See highlights above)
Late Night Shows
- Jonathan Scales. Scales put his steel pans front and center in a jazz context and elevated the instrument's capabilities right before the late night crowd at the Alexander. Some exemplary rhythm section work let his often intricate compositions sing in the spare trio format as well.
- Jamison Ross. (See highlights above
- La Perla. (See highlights above)
- PRD Mais with Carlos Malta
Workshops / Masterclasses
Improvisors' Workshop; The Story of Sacred Steel; Rhythm Workshop; Songwriting Workshop; Musical Interview; The African in Peru; Miamibloco; Percussion Summit; Bass Conversation; Groove Construction; A Capella By The Sea.