words by Faris Al-Majed
About a week ago I went to Blackwater Music Festival and The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park for the first time. My friend Maxx sold me with the prospect of great live music (specifically reggae) and an awesome venue that he described as one of the best in the nation. I’d be lying if I said i wasn’t somewhat hesitant to camp in the Florida swamp for three days in August, but the experience seemed like something worth any petty discomforts.
We set out from Miami that evening and six hours, two rest stops, and a mandatory trip to the local 24hr Walmart later, we arrived. It was nearly 2am when we entered the campgrounds and found some of Maxx’s friends who had made it earlier that day. Arriving so late at night I couldn’t really see anything around me except the scattered flickering of campsites, fire performers, and some of the brightest stars I have ever seen.
The next morning, after finally getting my bearings and some breakfast, we all headed for the river. The swimming area was a beach at the bottom of a slight hill. At the top was a small stage with a band already setting up. We all darted for the water and it wasn’t long before we were enjoying some live music from the comforts of the cool black water of the Suwannee.
A few hours later we headed for the main stage. It sat at the bottom of a natural amphitheater with spanish moss draped trees throughout the incline. People had their hammocks set up between the trees above the main floor. A really unique vibe. After a smooth set by the Expendables, the biggest crowd so far gathered for Slightly Stoopid. It was one of two sets they did over the weekend, the first being all acoustic.
This was the first time I had seen them live, and had only heard a few of their songs in the past. I’ve always loved getting my first impression of an artist/band by seeing them live and Slightly Stoopid was no let down. After a pitstop back to the campsite we headed back to the main stage, this time for Stephen Marley.
Marley and his band played a good mix of all acoustic new material with a few of his father’s classics. The overall vibe for his set was a bit more mellow but he picked everyone up by closing out with a funky cover of Could You Be Loved. The closing main stage act for the night was Michal Menert, again it was my first time hearing of him.
Accompanied by a drummer and bass player, Menert’s trippy blend of hiphop, jazz and electronic music was really different than anything I had seen before. He would trigger a sequence samples live while the drummer and bass player added to the whole experience. Menert’s high energy and stage pressence kept the crowd moving until 2am. It was a fresh change from what I had a seen so far, a true standout act.
The next day, after an early swim, more live music at the river, and some venue exploring, it was back to the main stage for Steel Pulse, legends of the reggae world.
They probably had the best crowd control of any of the reggae acts. Every one was singing along and the positive energy they preached had spread to thousands. It seemed like the clouds of ganja smoke were thickest during their set as well, no coincidence. Steel Pulse opened with “Blues Dance Raid” and continued through the set with other classics such as “Chant A Psalm”. They ended out the set with a tribute song to Trayvon Martin.
Slightly Stoopid then took to the Ampitheatre stage for their second set. A quick rain storm dispersed some of the crowd (we had to run back to cover up our camp) but no more than 15 minutes later the rain stopped and everyone reassembled for what ended up being an uplifting and refreshing set. The rain just gave a much needed cool down to everyone after a humid day in the high 90s. It did not disappoint as they changed up their setlist that even included an Eazy E tribute. Their musicians were great, particularly the sax player who I later found out was Karl Denson.
Mississippi-based Zoogma replaced Gramatik as the final act on the main stage. I had seen them on the smaller Music Hall stage the night before but wasn’t able to take in as much of their performance. A couple high points were their Biggie Smalls, Eagles’ Hotel California mashup and even a salute to fellow Mississippians Three Six Mafia with a rendition of Stay Fly (M10).
After exploring the campgrounds and observing groups of fire performers and impromptu DJ sets, I stumbled back to my hammock and found myself melancholy that the festival had ended so quickly! I saw more live music in three days then I probably had all last year and honestly can’t wait to go back. The weekend just felt like part summer camp, 1960s time warp, and festival all in one. Good music, great people, and a venue so unique to Florida and the South you have to experience it yourself to really understand. Definitely worth every minute of the drive and every dollar spent. Big thank you to everyone involved and the city of Live Oak for having us. Until Hulaween!