GroundUP is real. This is a real music event, with real people and real musicians. It’s really about the music and the community. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is.
Now in its fourth year, GroundUP Festival was created and brought to the North Beach Bandshell by Brooklyn-based music collective Snarky Puppy, a genre-defying band of upwards of 25 members formed by bassist and primary composer Michael League in 2003.
“Michael and GroundUP have cultivated a community that’s so authentic,” said Clare McEnerney, who works in the band’s visual department.
Throughout the three-day event this President’s Day weekend, every claim from the festival’s press release was substantiated. The usual separation between the audience and the bands dissolved. I frequently spotted my favorite musicians in the crowd. I joined in a sunset acapella circle on the beach. I left with a feeling of discovery of new music. I felt connected.
GroundUP proves that there’s room in Miami’s music scene for something organic, something other than EDM. I was blown away to learn prior to going that The New York Times recently identified the formation of GroundUP one of the top ten definitive moments in jazz in the last decade. Under a colorful canopy of hammocks and lights strung between the palms, Snarky Puppy brings together an unexpected mix of genres to create an intimate place for music to be celebrated and shared.
Yacht rock pioneer Michael McDonald, most widely known for his contributions as vocalist for The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, took to the Bandshell stage Friday night with his quintet for a high energy set. McDonald’s GroundUP performance came as his first live show since last month’s announcement of his impending induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Doobie Brothers later this year. Among the top moments in the set, the band played a soulful version of “Takin’ it to the Streets,” written by McDonald as his first single with The Doobie Brothers in 1976.
Acknowledging the Valentines in the crowd from his piano, he introduced one of his closing songs, the melancholic rock and roll classic “Hallelujah” popularized by Jeff Buckley. “It’s one of the best love songs ever written, ‘cause it’s one of the most honest love songs ever written,” McDonald said.
“As a photographer, I’ve shot more than 100 festivals in my career, and none compare to a GroundUp Festival,” said Fountaine Lewis of Richmond, VA, who has shot the festival every year since its inception. “This Michael McDonald set was my favorite in four years.”
Staying true to the mystical essence of their namesake flower, the central ingredient to a Mexican love potion, the jazzy sirens of Grammy award-winning, all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache beguiled their Valentine’s Day audience from the Park stage on Friday night. Flor de Toloache blends compact harmonies, playful covers (like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”), and a soulful celebration of womanhood and Latin heritage.
“I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I grew up listening to this song that I gravitated to as an Afro-Latina, because it celebrates Afro-Latinas — and we aren’t celebrated very often,” violinist Mireya Ramos told the crowd, introducing their rendition of “Las Caras Lindas.” “That’s part of what we stand for as Flor De Toloache,” she continued.
Closing out the festival Friday evening was the legendary Latin Grammy Award-winning Hamilton De Holanda, who has been hailed as the Jimi Hendrix of the mandolin and the Brazilian Jerry Garcia, and has shared the stage with the likes of Dave Matthews, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and many others. A mad scientist of jazz and bandolin bandit, De Holanda delivers every chord with superhuman fluidity. As if he was born knowing how, each strum pours perfectly from his fingers, and he appears almost to surprise even himself with the transcendental result. Playing a number of tracks from his most recent album, Harmonize, De Holanda and his quartet built a crescendo to an explosion of electric rhythms like in the upbeat hit, “Samba Blues.”
While GroundUP Festival founders Snarky Puppy played all three nights, Saturday was my first time catching a set. As they surpass and redefine all limitations of genre or label — beyond jazz, contemporary, funk, or jam — it’s best when appreciating their musical gifts to heed the advice of Nate Chinen of The New York Times: “take them for what they are, rather than judge them for what they’re not.” Watching Snarky Puppy feels like hanging out with your best friends in college at someone’s band practice in the garage, and everyone’s just jamming out and having the time of their lives. That’s exactly how they got started in 2003, as a group of music students at the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. Their camaraderie is contagious. Their pride and trust in each other is evident. The visceral talent of each musician multiplies when layered on top of each other. Their show is a party that just keeps on growing. What a ride.
“This goes out to Michael McDonald who blessed us yesterday,” founder Michael League told the crowd. Later they welcomed Hamilton De Holanda to join them for a song.
One of the main aims of GroundUP is to enable festival goers to discover new artists they love, and that’s exactly what happened when I caught Breastfist’s set. Here’s a band that does not take themselves too seriously. Beyond their outlandish name, their song “Dried Fruit” is excellent evidence of this (“Dried fruit / You’ve got some pleasurous textures!”). According to GroundUP’s website, the band was created to be nothing more or less than “just sexy grooves and funky bass lines” — and decked out in full costumes of neon spandex, quirky goggles, head scarves and face masks, they delivered just this, with a sound reminiscent of Red Hot Chili Peppers in their early Freaky Styley days.
Headlining on Sunday night, even as this was my most anticipated set of the festival, I was not prepared for the metaphysical journey Lettuce was about to lead me on. From the opening chords of “Krewe” and the neon emergence of larger-than-life bassist Erick Coomes, I was strapped to a rocket ship and abducted to an otherworldly dimension of psychedelic funk where I want to live forever in the groove. Since its debut in June 2019, the band’s album Elevate hit #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album Chart and the iTunes R&B Albums Chart. Their set Sunday night included their jazzy cover of British New Wave band Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” After having my mind blown by Lettuce at the Bandshell stage, I was lucky enough to get a second dose at their late-night set at The Alexander Hotel. For those who can never get enough, late night sets were programmed nightly at The Alexander from 11pm-4am with two stages. As Michael League put it on Sunday night, “Time flies when you’re listening to music 17 hours a day.”
“This has been one of the most spiritual musical journeys I’ve ever experienced,” said festival-goer JP Espiritusanto. “I’ve been to a lot of festivals — I’m a musician myself — I’ve been fans of these musicians for 16 years, and I’ve gotten to see all of them in three days. The festival touched all the angles of what I learned as a musician — jazz, funk, rock. These were idols of mine when I was studying these types of music.”
At the conclusion of their Sunday night set, Snarky Puppy founder Michael League confirmed that the fifth annual GroundUP will take place at the North Beach Bandshell once again next year from February 12-14, with a lineup featuring artists including Isaiah Sharkey, Kurt Rosenwinkel Caipi Band, Weedie Braimah, The Nth Power, and more. For a limited time, ‘blind faith’ tickets are available at the lowest price available all year, with 3-day General Admission passes at $199 and daily passes at $76. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.groundupmusicfestival.com.