March 2nd kicked off the second year of the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival in the middle of the gorgeous Sunshine Grove. The festival gates opened at noon on March 2nd and the party continued until the early hours of Monday morning. With how wildly successful Okeechobee Fest was in 2016, the stakes were high for its second year, and with the total ticket sales toppling over 6,000 more than last year, there were plenty of eager fans to make it bigger and better.
Arriving at the festival Friday night, the moment I opened my car door I heard people around me yelling “positive vibes” as loud as their lungs would carry. That would definitely become the mantra for the weekend, though. I’ve been to plenty of festivals as both a guest and a reporter and it is no easy feat to take over 30,000 people and create a safe, friendly space for multiple days. Bouncing back and forth between stages, in and out of the Grove (the main area of the music venues where the stages Be, Here, and Now were located), and encountering more people than you can imagine – I not once heard a rude comment, or saw any type of fights. Not to say there wasn’t any – but to have that many strangers together for four days straight and almost everyone in good spirits? That’s pretty amazing.
Okeechobee is divided up into different sections including the Grove (main music venues), Chobeewobee Village, Aquachobee, and tons of camping grounds along the outer ring. Chobeewobee Village was an intricately laid out market that had tons of artwork, vendors, and a gorgeous Palace music stage; while Aquachobee was the beach area that also included a music stage. Jungle 51 was positioned at the top of the village, which hosted DJs late into the night. Do yourself a favor, and grab a map as soon as you get to the grounds. There is apparently a road aptly called “The Long Way Around,” guess who ended up on that road when trying to race to catch Wiz Khalifa? Grab a map; it’s invaluable to your weekend (or at least the first day until you know your way around).
Friday night was absolutely freezing (okay, cold for Florida) which had the crowd decked out in novelty onesies to comfortably jam out to the main names of the night including Wiz Khalifa, Cold War Kids, Flume, and Young the Giant. The days leading up the festival there were concerns that Wiz would not make it to the festival after the untimely passing of his sister, and you can bet when he hit that stage the fans made it the right decision. Kicking off with “Bake Sale” Wiz slammed through hit after hit and a couple freestyles, but closed out with an emotional “See You Again.” Young the Giant were full of crazy energy and their frontman Sameer Gadhia was all over the place with a stellar performance. They played most of their well known hits including “My Body,” “Something to Believe In,” “Silvertongue,” and “Apartment.”
Saturday was full of high points from the moment the Grove gates opened. George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic put on a wild musical circus, and though the frontman ditched his signature rainbow locks, there was plenty of color from his ragtag troupe. Ravers, saxmen, and some serious sick tunes warped together that by the time “We Want the Funk” came on; the funk had already well been brought.
One of the most rock-and-roll moments of the entire festival took place on the Be stage during The Revivalists set. Singer, David Shaw, took to running down the barricade separating the crowd, and on his way back to the stage, took a slamming fall into the steel. With blood gushing out of his wound, Shaw jumped back on stage and finished out the set – not missing a single note during the ordeal – true rock-and-roll.
Griz, Snails, and Bassnectar all played Friday night, which brought the EDM-enthusiasts, and Bassheads, out in droves. Carrying thousands of flags (after admitting so many of these, I finally learned they are called totems in the community), with light up hula hoops, and finger lights there were as many things to watch in the crowd as there were in the stage. The Bassheads stole the show though, you know that moment at a metal show during an epic solo where the mosh pit veterans are just slamming into each other repeatedly? Well these guys have their own version of that which consists of the outer edges of the crowd to grab the barricade, and the people in the middle to just pray for balance, and rather than headbang, they bodybang. It’s an absolutely incredible thing to watch, especially if you’ve never been to a Bassnectar show yourself, but the complete unity felt by the entire group of people was overwhelmingly beautiful in its own special way.
Rae Sremmund may have been one of the craziest performances of the entire weekend. Within the first two songs, Slim Jxmmi had jumped into the crowd (twice) and crowd surfed back to the stage, sprayed the stage and the crowd with Hennessey, and flown a giant totem that carried the Florida state and Cuban flags. While Solange’s set got pushed back by half an hour (tearing the crowd between a painful Solange and Bassnectar crossover) due to technical difficulties, when she hit the stage the crowd was entranced by her synchronized dance moves, and radiant presence. Her entire crew was so immaculately in-sync that it looked simultaneously well-rehearsed, yet effortless. What may have been one of the coolest parts of the festival happened on the Here stage well into the night – The PoWow! Hosted by Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers, McDonald sat perched at his piano, knocking out classic hits with some special guests and members of numerous bands handling tons of instruments. Solange regraced the stage and belted out “What a Fool Believes” with McDonald, creating an absolutely beautiful duet – and all smiles from the performers. Griz also returned with McDonald covering both Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and Michael Jackson’s “PYT.” Usher and the Roots closed out Saturday night for me, and though I had been blown away by plenty of the acts earlier on, this was the set I had been waiting for. As a kid of the 90’s if quoting an Usher song would somehow save me from a life or death situation, I’d have it under control. Usher’s popular R&B hits with The Roots funky grooves were absolute magic when combined. We can only hope this is not the last time these two collaborate together, because when The Roots bring a Caribbean melody to the classic “OMG” it makes an already perfect dance song, even better.
Sunday was a much slower day starting out, the bands were definitely putting out killer performances, but as the festival came towards a close, the vibe of the crowd was mellower than it had been the previous day. Dirt caked, sunburnt music lovers were treading around the Grove, soaking up the last day of music, while others headed out insistent on beating out on some of the traffic. Indie rockers, Futurebirds, of Athens, Georgia, brought quite the following to the festival. It was an exceptional mix of genres that fit perfectly on the more easy-going day. One of the major highlights of Sunday was undoubtedly the Okeechobee Gospel Soul Experience with the Blind Boys of Alabama. I wasn’t positive on what to expect from the set, but from the moment these soulful artists rang out with “Spirit in the Sky,” I was hooked. Allen Stone, a soul musician that performed earlier in the day, joined the Blind Boys on stage and their chemistry was infectious. From Stone’s adorably goofy smile that clearly gleamed with a happiness to be there, to those beautiful old church tunes, I’d say plenty of people passing by got sucked into a performance they may have otherwise overlooked. The front row was full of old school festival goers that grew up on this music, singing right along. Mike Posner brought high energy to the Now stage with his hits like “Cooler than Me” and “Be as You Are.” His saxman was extremely entertaining to watch as he bounced back and forth wildly on the stage (and had an adorable teddy bear friend stationed up on his mic stand.)
The Growlers were one of the most interesting bands of the day. Combining eccentric dance moves from singer Brooks Nielsen, and the whole band decked out in matching jumpsuits and beanies, they were attention grabbing and their “Beach Goth” songs did not disappoint. Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals brought their Grammy nominated hits to the Now stage which was packed to the tree line with people wanting to see the up-and-comer. .Paak is explosive on the stage, with a continuous stream of momentum and energy he not only danced and jumped around the stage, but also took over the drum kit, banging out one of the strongest performances we saw. The Lumineers played a gorgeous folk set that was a perfect ending band for the festival. With smooth vocals, acoustic guitars, a cello, variety of percussion, and a mandolin the crowd was gifted a perfectly wrapped up set that included “Ho Hey,” “Cleopatra,” and “Submarines.” To close out the EDM artists for the weekend, Pretty Lights took the Now stage, this time bringing his live band with him. True to their name, Pretty Lights put on the craziest light show of the weekend, with colorful spotlights, and horizontal lasers turning the stage into something out a spy movie.
Okeechobee proved to be one of the most immersive festivals I have come across. When you’re in the middle of nowhere South Florida, with cell phone reception spotty at best, surrounded by 30,000 could-be friends, you learn to connect with those around you. Okeechobee is truly a unique experience, and though people all weekend were comparing it to Bonnaroo or a modern day Woodstock, I think Okeechobee falls in its own realm. From the vendors, the unique collection of musicians, artists, and the effort the community put into their totems, outfits, and campsites it may read “typical festival,” but it’s far from. If Okeechobee continues to expand and put together their safe Portal for the festival-goers, I don’t see any reason why it will not become a staple in the festival circuit.