The weather forecast called for heavy thunderstorms each day. The Purple Hatter’s Ball vibe knew better. Other than a small sprinkle, that vibe kept all of us at Purple Hatter’s happy and dry (at least until Sunday evening). As it has been every year of its ten-year existence, this was a family affair with great music, great hugs, and great community. Mama Margie Weiss and Paul Levine have seen to that.
The Thursday pre-party featured great sounds in the Music Hall, the only time music would be indoors. Blackwater Grease, a “new” conglomeration of Jacksonville musicians including several associated with S.P.O.R.E., got the party started in fine fashion with their three-guitar attack and rock in a variety of flavors, anchored by Steve Honig on bass.
Then Bells and Robes took the stage. Dean Spaniol and Luke Sipka play great electronic music, and this was a really energetic set. The uptempo jam was perfect for the evening unfolding.
Purple Hatter’s Ball was founded after the murder of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman — due to police complicity — in order to honor Rachel’s memory and work to ensure that no one is ever thrust into the situation that led to her death. Two of her favorites, Zach Deputy and DubConscious, played the pre-party and also played over the next two days.
Zach Deputy is a party waiting to happen, and he kept the groove going for his entire set. And DubConscious aced their show as well, positivity filling up the Music Hall.
There were activities each day in the Yoga and Arts Village, including yoga, kirtan, bellydance and chakra balancing.
Vlad the Inhaler, aka Vladimir Kulishevskiy, had the honor of opening the Amphitheater Stage with a tremendous DJ set. He went far beyond what I had seen him do before with a powerful set of… everything. House, acid jazz, dub — there was just so much going on. If you’ve been to any festivals at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, you are probably also aware that Vlad is a tremendous ambassador for the Live Oak venue.
The Lucky Costello set that followed was a rollercoaster ride of emotions, because this would be their penultimate show (last one will be in Jacksonville Beach June 15th). The quartet came out roaring with a 15-minute-plus “Street Walker > Cloud Song” that is clearly in Disco Biscuits territory. Of particular note was the great tone Jeff Raimondo’s bass guitar was getting all set long. “Cryptid Creatures” mined the same vein before they shifted to full-on prog rock, somehow almost dubstep-like, with a vamp that recalled “Dixie,” of all things. And that shifted to the total funk of “Solar Bowl.” For their encore, as their dancing girl (no go-go stand) glistened in the sunlight, Will Begley’s heavy piano was at the center. We will really miss this group. Several of the members are working on a new project as we speak.
Up on the porch stage, another band that has played all ten PHBs was Trial by Stone; they were friends with Rachel. This Tallahassee quintet plays punk-metal-ska, or something like that, absolutely delightfully in-your-face ragers. Once again, they were brilliant, launching with “Killing in the Name of Jah.” The band’s two trombone players, Roth and Zac, are just so on point, as they demonstrated on “17 Hits” as three robot dancers crowded the stage. “Police State” marched the borderline between heavy reggae and ska, with former band member Jeff Bradley on percussion the entire set.
Singer/rager Buck tore into some Zappa-like guitar shredding during “Whiskey and Pickle Juice.” There was a sing-along during “Radio.” Things went deep reggae during “Burning Babylon,” after which they encouraged everyone to circle up for “Grow and Grow.” There were great trombone solos and on guitar as well during fan favorite “Mr. Fuck Face,” and Juanjamon and tenor saxophone helped them blast “DubVader.” That’s how you do it!
DubConscious had their second set at the Amphitheater. This was by far my favorite set I’ve heard from them, so powerful, positive and uplifting. They opened with a great long trance-y jam before a great dance number written by drummer Matt Woolley, with bassist Carl Lindberg rocking the crowd. “Stereo Typical” was strong, and the closing tune was simply superb.
We opted to have dinner during the Catfish Alliance set, although we saw the first song, Sexual Manatee in full regalia, the band sounding great.
My mantra at festivals is to be sure to check out bands you’ve never seen before. That was never more true than when The Russ Liquid Test hit the stage. They were stunning. One aspect in particular appealed — although not to everyone — no matter where I thought the music was going, it veered someplace else. They opened with a dub-heavy song before jamming out totally. Drummer Deven Trusclair was incredibly propulsive, and Andrew Block on guitar was dynamite. And then there was Russ Liquid. The man with the plan had a band of keyboards and computers, and he was wicked awesome on trumpet, muted trumpet, wah-wah trumpet: WOW.
Then Liquid said, “we’re going to take you out of your comfort zone!” Not mine! They flirted with disco, more dub, trance-y stuff, “1984,” and “a new tune we’ve never played live.”
Up the hill, The Malah truly impressed. They have played the park many times, but this set seemed special. After their opener, the trio moved into “Up On this,” one of the band’s signature songs. Eventually, the set tumbled into chill lounge jazz and then disco funk. “Percolator” was on fire.
The headliner for the evening was Emancipator, an electronic duo. While the sound at the Porch Stage was pristine all weekend (with one glitch Saturday), This set was so overpoweringly loud that it was difficult to enjoy at the Amphitheater. It was almost too loud at our campsite, but I really enjoyed what they did, especially the violin playing.
The early part of the day’s schedule began at the beach stage. Cleverly, the schedule alternated DJs and bands so that there was little downtime. We missed the first three sets there, starting with Ion Zide, singer-songwriter Albert Simpson, and Nick Fresh. The river is extremely low due to drought conditions.
We did go down to discover a packed crowd for The Juanjamon Band from St. Petersburg. Whether it was the party atmosphere or the whole Purple Hatter’s Ball vibe I couldn’t say, but this the best of the dozens of sets we’ve heard from this quintet. Keyboard wizard Matt Giancola in particular was simply out of this world. Opener “Mr. Juanjamon” featured Juanja’s distinct vocals on this tune, a killer guitar solo from Dre Mack, and Juanja on tenor. Then one of the band’s classic medleys followed: “I Don’t Mind > Mushroom Summa > Knockin’ Boots > Real Nice Booty.” Giancola somehow spun the heavy funk into pure jazz fusion during his superior solo, and Mack lit it up again on guitar.
Another nice jazzy song followed, with “Hey Chester > Night of the Thumpasaurus Peoples” yielding a drum outing from Michael ‘Thunderfoot’ Garrie, and they closed with “When You Go to New Orleans.” One again, Trevor McDannel’s bass shoved this set over the top. Pure gold.
The dilemma now: stay at the beach for Jeff Randall and Lucidea or head back to the amphitheater to hear The Dead Keys play a tribute to the late Scott Campbell, a regular performer at Purple Hatter’s Balls past. The five musicians were fronted by three vocalists, including Avis Berry, a regular collaborator with Campbell. Several Dead tunes washed over us, especially a stirring “Morning Dew” highlighted by Berry’s powerful singing, and they closed with a very strong “Fare Thee Well.”
The Parker Urban Band has made a wonderful return to the scene after their maternity leave — John and Juanita Parkerurban with baby Mateo in tow. The Porch Stage set began with gorgeous vocalese from Myrna Stallworth and Juanita, whose intertwined voices are simply heavenly. That led into a supersonic “Fire In My Soul.” The ladies took five so that the band could work out on Wes Montgomery’s “4 by 6,” with John rocking his guitar solo and Chris Poland matching him on alto sax. “Get It Together” offered John’s hip hop lyrics, followed by “Find a Little Peace.”
Albert Simpson and Isaac Corbitt joined in on “Midnight Rider,” Juanita’s and Myrna’s voices again in glorious tandem, and they made that segue into “Fire On the Mountain.” Next, new tune “Wizard” received another tremendous treatment, and they closed with a ballad featuring Stallworth. Amen.
Mama Margie had her heartfelt segment next, talking about Rachel and the ongoing work of the Rachel Morningstar Foundation. Zach Deputy had the honor of following her with the bounciest, dance-iest, most uptempo set I’ve ever heard from him. That’s what you call perfect timing. The island lilt and grooves were wonderful.
The next four sets of music were similarly off the charts. MZG kept the party going on the Porch. This one was a challenge, because “the power dropped out five times. Damn near broke our hearts. Haven’t felt that let down in a minute,” they said, they being twin brothers Charles and Zachary Weinert, both of whom do production and programming. They also make great music, and they bounce around like they’re on pogo sticks. Despite all of the problems, it was a fabulous set, truly.
It had been a while since we’d seen Perpetual Groove, and I confess I was unprepared for the stunning set about to unfold. It was metal, it was prog, it was awesome. Their first song, “Teakwood,” turned “heavy as hell,” I wrote, followed by a great keyboard feature from Matt McDonald. The rhythm section of Adam Perry (bass) and Albert Suttle (drums) were relentless. Did we mention Brock Butler’s amazing guitar work throughout? “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” was excellent though marred by much-too-loud bass.
The amazing set also included a great cover of “Closer” and then some brilliant electronic spacey funk, followed by an incredible jam with Butler wailing on slide guitar on “Mayday.” Just WOW.
It didn’t get any lighter as we went up the hill one last time to get the answer to that age-old question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ZOOGMA? They were equally unrelenting with a dynamic set, rock and electronica firmly enmeshed. All four members play instruments and either “live sequencing” or synthesizer. By the time they rolled out new single”What It Is,” we were all hooked. Then Brock Bowling invited Brock Butler on stage for a massive “Avalanche,” which led to a huge jam as well. ZOOGMA rocks!
It was time to “put it in the Dumpster!” Mama Margie came out to welcome us again, and we were beyond excited to see the Naughty Professor horns on stage with Dumpstaphunk. We’d seen them perform together at Funk Fest 8 in Punta Gorda, but this was even more epic. And how did they start? “I Wish You Would.” OH, HELL YES! Ivan Neville was on fire as he encouraged us: “Let’s Get At It.” The horns — John Culbreath, trumpet; Ian Bowman, tenor sax; and Nick Ellman, alto and baritone saxes — again helped to blow up “I Know You Know.” On the strong Dumpstaphunk single “Justice,” Tony Hall had a great guitar solo.
After “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (GCS), they played a wonderful “Midnight Rider” with huge solos from Ivan on Hammond B3 and Bowman on tenor. Next up: “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” “I’m in a Blues Thing” turned into a Texas swing-style romp, And Ian Neville tore it up on “Unity.” Hall (well, somebody) invited dancing girls to fill up the stage, which they did to power “Up for the Down Stroke.” The encore include Ivan’s B3 and horns on “Time After Time” and a killer version of “Soul Vaccination” to top off the night.
All music was at the beach, followed by the tenth anniversary Potluck Celebration. Booty Boo had the first turn, followed by the reggae-funk-soul grooves of Universal Green. The Brothers Kulishevskiy had round three — Vlad the Inhaler and Leo from Lava. And Roosevelt Collier and friends, with the remarkable Matt Lapham on bass, had the last word.
When the music was over, it was time to eat, and the pot-luck dinner was the perfect answer!
There were amazing art installations near the Amphitheater for all to enjoy walking back and forth to camp. We especially liked the color plexiglass spiral created by Bryan Scroggie of Short-Cut Camp. There were painters working throughout the weekend and also many flow artists and hooper. And there were some absolutely fabulous costumes (yes, I know).
Examining this amazing event on the heels of the first Backwoods Fam Jam and the amazing Orange Blossom Jamboree, it is impossible to overstate the powerful family feeling we all experience.
We are beyond blessed. Thank you, Mama Margie, Paul Levine, SoSMP, and the entire Purple Hatter’s crew for what you do for us.
Same time, next year?