Last weekend, Rosanna and I flew to Miami for the first ever GroundUP Music Festival. I’d never traveled for music before, or for that matter been to a weekend long music festival, but it was a really fun experience. There was a tremendous amount of good music and it was fun to see some of my favorite artists live.
Aside from music, a number of things made the festival a really enjoyable experience. First, they capped the number of people at 1500, so I never felt like I was drowning in crowds. It felt like a very casual and intimate festival. Also, there were never two performances at the same time, so I never had to decide between multiple acts that I wanted to see. Lastly, the performers themselves attended the festival just like the rest of us, and we got to enjoy music together and talk to them too.
Of course the highlights were the shows themselves. John Medeski’s Mad Skillet was really fun with tasty Hammond organ lines supported by a funky sousaphone. Jacob Collier’s one-man show at the late night set was a phenomenal spectacle. He looped and played piano, upright bass, organ, drums, a bunch of percussion, as well as singing through a harmonizer pedal, running all around stage playing everything. Chris Thile and Michael Daves played a set too, singing sweet harmonies over breakneck bluegrass mandolin and guitar.
Snarky Puppy played all three days of the festival, each night better than the last. The band was impossibly tight and solos were beyond imaginative. Both the horns and rhythm section were in lockstep, not a note out of place. In particular, I really enjoyed watching Michael League direct the band while playing bass, cueing solos and when to move on in the form. There was no point at which it wasn’t crystal clear where the band was supposed to be, and they followed cues flawlessly. He’s also got the world’s best bass face, which was amazing to see in person. (Yes, he’s playing a baritone guitar in the picture below, with his other band Bokanté.)
The set Snarky Puppy played on the third night had special significance. It’d just been announced that they’d won their third Grammy and the band was visibly really excited about it. The audience whooped and cheered, while the band started to play Lingus, which the throngs of Snarky Puppy fans sang along with joyously.
In addition to the great performances, the festival included workshops led by the performers. Bill Laurance, one of the keyboardists in Snarky Puppy, gave a workshop on “Finding a Voice” in which he detailed his journey in producing record after record, trying to hone in on a voice that he felt was truly his. He insisted that persistence was one of the most important things in music. The anecdote that stood out to me most was that Snarky Puppy toured and recorded for seven(?) years before they started to see any financial success.
A bunch of percussionists and drummers from the various groups performing in the festival gave a little Q/A session as well. Larnell Lewis, one of the drummers for Snarky Puppy, talked about setting aside focused time for specific practice goals, like 15 minutes of metronome exercises or 20 minutes of learning tunes. He also talked about using mental practice, when a drum kit is not available, where he runs through rhythms and tunes in his head while on the road. Jamison Ross talked about how the multiple drummers in Snarky Puppy coordinated by listening to the other drummers and either matched rhythms to provide emphasis or filled space where the other drummer wasn’t playing. Larnell also mentioned that for certain pieces, they would trade off who played kick or snare as a way to not collide with each other. I’d always wondered how they coordinated so successfully.
Esperanza Spalding and Becca Stevens gave a workshop on their songwriting process, in which they talked about the importance of building a song around a story. They also noodled around with progressions and melodies on stage, building the first bits of a song. It was really encouraging to hear them talk about how songwriting is a slog for them as well, that they also don’t have a magic bullet that allows them to pump out endless material. Esperanza, like Bill, spoke of persisting and not giving up on a song even if it doesn’t sound good at first.
Snarky Puppy also ran a workshop with a band from a local music school. They had the band play a couple pieces and different members of Snarky Puppy gave feedback on how they could improve. Michael talked about the importance of synchronizing voicings between the guitars and keyboards on hits to get a much crisper, clean sound.
Michael League and David Crosby gave a workshop on “Chasing the Muse”, which was mostly a Q/A session on their songwriting process. They advocated for recording everything. Michael apparently keeps a collection of voice recordings of song snippets that he adds to whenever the idea strikes. Whenever he sits down to get some writing done, he listens through them until he finds one that inspires him.
All in all, the festival was a fantastic experience. Learning about the musicians’ writing and practicing habits in the workshops and hearing gorgeous music they create was endlessly inspiring. A lot of the information in the workshops wasn’t new to me, but it was somehow encouraging to hear that even brilliantly successful musicians go through the same practicing and writing grinds that I do. Time to make some music!