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Bear Creek’s Family Vibe

The Bear Creek Music and Arts Festival returns this weekend, bringing plenty of funk and fun times to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL. While much of the country takes a break from festivals when the summer ends, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park keeps the festival season going throughout the year. The beautiful 500+ acre campground—which sits on the banks of Florida’s Suwannee River—plays host to a variety of musical events, including Magnolia Festival, the String Cheese Incident’s Suwannee Hulaween, Springfest, the Wanee Festival, Aura Fest, Purple Hatter’s Ball and, of course, Bear Creek.

One of the things that Bear Creek has become known over the years for is its use of “Artists-at-Large,” or musicians that have been booked to sit in with the other acts. While the festival always has a solid lineup of performers that play the event in the traditional sense, the artists-at-large are curveballs that can show up unannounced at any time to add a little something extra to the show. It’s a great way to keep things interesting and create unique musical moments that fans and musicians alike will remember down the road. We spoke with Bear Creek mastermind Paul Levine about the thinking behind the concept, as well as some of this year’s most anticipated artists at large. He even gave us a quick recap of the first-ever Suwannee Hulaween festival, which went down at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park over Halloween weekend.

Can you say a few things about Bear Creek?

We have the seventh Bear Creek coming up next week. We consider Bear Creek to be the premier funk and groove festival in the country. At Bear Creek, we’ve taken a lot from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival over the years. Not taken from them, but transplanted the vibe of Jazz Fest and that time in New Orleans into the woods at the Spirit of the Suwannee.

We’ve created a sanctuary for this type of music. Each year hundreds of funk and dance musicians come together at Bear Creek. It’s become something very special; a family affair.

One of things that Bear Creek has pioneered is the artist at large concept. Can you talk a little bit about the program and what goes into choosing the different artists at large?

I don’t think artists at large is unique to Bear Creek and I don’t think we started it, but I think we do it more than any other festival in the country that I’m aware of. There have been artists at large at other events over the years; they just didn’t call them “artists at large.” That comes out of going to other festivals. Going to Jazz Fest and not necessarily the festival proper, but hanging out at the clubs in New Orleans late night when all the bands play sets until seven, eight o’clock in the morning. There are shows all night.

What you can expect to see there is different musicians sitting in with each other. A lot of musicians run from show to show to sit in with their friends. It’s a huge celebration of music and of each other. The genre of music is very friendly and family-oriented. People support each other and give each other the opportunity to shine.

What you learn from going to those types of shows and concerts is that, at least for me, the best music is something that’s unique; something you wouldn’t expect; something you may never see again anywhere. That happens when you have a sit-in, or guest artist with a band. Those types of things you can practice, but things happen in the moment that are spontaneous that can lead to incredible music moments.

We wanted to recreate that. We wanted to bring some attention and notoriety to some fabulous musicians. We try hard each year to bring on some well-known musicians at large like Karl Denson, Pee Wee Ellis or Fred Wesley, or Zach Deputy or Robert Walter. We like to feature some great players from the more local and regional scenes that aren’t as well-known but still have incredible chops.

We give them the opportunity to get on stage to help them with their notoriety and career. Like I said, we feel like a family and with those artists at large sitting in with those bands we have created some unique and unforgettable moments. I’m pretty sure we have more sit-ins per show at Bear Creek than anywhere else in the country.

You have a lot of bands who play two different shows at the festival. It’s kind of part of the same vibe.

It plays a very big role in the family vibe at Bear Creek. At most events – not all – some other events have bands that play twice, but not as many as us. Bands normally just show up, play a show and leave. When I talk to musicians, they say, “I see these guys a million times, but I never get to spend five minutes with them because they spend time in the tour bus and then leave.”

They don’t get to see those friends in a festival environment. By having groups twice, it allows some of the musicians to really settle in, relax. Being there for two days with their musical peers leads to more sit-ins, bands, records and collaborations. The guys like to roam the ground and hang out with the fans. It brings everyone closer together that way. If you see a band twice instead of once, you can develop a more intimate relationship with the band and I think that comes through clearly at Bear Creek.

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