The second annual GroundUP Music Festival, which took place Feb. 9-11 in Miami Beach, felt a bit like paradise.
Spearheaded by Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League, the festival brought together a diverse mix of artists for a three-day jam session in a Deco-inspired music haven on Miami Beach’s north coast. In only its second year, the festival already has broadened its profile, drawing major artists—and diverse crowds—to its gates. A testament to that expanding appeal was Saturday’s headlining performance, which united League with guitarist Lioenel Loueke, drummer Larnell Lewis and saxophonist Joshua Redman. It was the first time the quartet had performed together, but the musicians shared an obvious sense of adventurism. Playing through a handful of new tunes (“Aziza Dance,” “Hide and Seek,” “Earflower”) and Redman’s classic “Jazz Crimes,” the group coalesced around improvisational signposts as if it had been rehearsing for years.
“We all got off the stage after that and thought to ourselves, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that just happened,’” League later said.
The set was the highlight of the festival’s second night, which also featured standout performances by emerging vocalist-keyboardist Alina Engibaryan, percussionist JoJo Mayer’s “live electronica” trio Nerve, pop-punk-jazz duo Knower, bluegrass trio The Wood Brothers and festival headliners Snarky Puppy, which performed all three nights.
One of the GroundUP Festival’s hallmarks seems to be a porous division between fan and musician, with performers often rubbing shoulders with local admirers between sets, during workshops and at after-hours jam sessions.
“We had a green room backstage, but hardly anybody used it,” League said, explaining the festival’s atmosphere.
The lineup also was representative of the bassist’s genre-spanning musical appetite. In putting the festival together, League followed his own intrinsic formula.
“My rules for inviting artists were I had to love them; they had to be able to totally bring it in a live setting; and they have to be good people,” he said.
That formula worked on Feb. 10, a day that positioned previously mentioned musicians alongside an eclectic bunch of performers, including bassist Victor Wooten, Miami bluesman Roosevelt Collier and Ghanain djembe master Weedie Braimah. The music took place on two stages at the Miami Beach Bandshell, near the Surfside neighborhood, so close to the beach that attendees could hear waves lapping at the shore. Vendors selling instruments, clothing and jewelry dotted the lawn between the intimate Park Stage and the concrete, Deco-inspired Bandshell Stage, and food was provided by local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein.
“It really feels like you’re having a party in your backyard,” League said. “I can’t say enough good things about that place. Michelle Bernstein rocked it with the menu. The food was delicious. Great local beer. Great coffee. It’s very difficult to not have a good time.”
That sentiment was reinforced by the crowd, which numbered about 1,400 to 1,500 visitors per day. League said that the attendance marked an uptick of about 40 percent from the festival’s inaugural installment. But he noticed another shift as well.
“The audience seemed to skew a little bit younger,” he said.
For a jazz audience, that’s rare. It’s also healthy and shows that Snarky Puppy’s unique blend of accessible groove and improvisational technique can serve as a magnet for a new generation of fans. As exhibited Feb. 10, the band is capable of unleashing the same frenetic energy and rhythmic drive as that of a stadium-filling DJ. Special guest artists Jamison Ross (drums) and Zach Brock (violin) helped add a jolt of electricity to the proceedings. During the band’s set—highlights of which included “Flood,” “GO” and “Lingus”—countless bodies were set in motion.
Aside from the star-power onstage, there also were a considerable number of celebrities in the audience. Peppered among spectators at the Miami Beach Bandshell were banjoist Bela Fleck, percussionist Future Man, drummer Mark Guiliana and guitarist Charlie Hunter—all of whom had performed earlier. Guiliana and keyboardist Robert Glasper were among headliners on Feb. 11.
Snarky Puppy had never played in Miami until the first GroundUP Festival last year, and League admitted to being hesitant to perform in the city at first.
“Miami has been stigmatized in some ways,” he said. “Electronic music, strip clubs—it’s the plastic L.A. of the East Coast. But then you get here and it’s completely different. The arts and culture are changing; the food scene is changing. Young people are really trying to do things here.”
League said he believes that the city of Miami—which in many ways is defined by its fusion of cultures, flavors, languages and sounds—is the perfect home for his nascent music festival.
“It’s out of the closet: Miami really wants this kind of music,” he said.
Moving forward, League hopes to expand the festival’s footprint to include an even more eclectic lineup. Not one for procrastination, he already has started to make his list of prospective artists. The possibilities, he said, are thrilling.
“That’s the greatest three hours of my year,” he said. ” It really is like creating your own paradise.” DB