Looking Back on AURA: Part 1

The first full weekend of March provided music fans from across the country with their first major festival of 2015.  AURA Music & Arts Festival, hosted in the beautiful national forest at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, boasted many of jam rock's hottest bands, and even two of the scenes original pioneers: The Disco Biscuits and moe.  With a potentially questionable weather forecast heading in, the rain held off, for the most part, allowing attendees and performers to enjoy nearly perfect weather from Thursday through the closing set from the newly formed, Break Science Live Band on Sunday night.  

While the festival officially began Friday afternoon, those who made it in on Thursday didn't have long to set up the campsite before the party began.  Ghost Owl, which features Adam Perry, Albert Suttle, and Matthew McDonald of Perpetual Groove, took on the weekend's opening set as the sun set in Live Oak, FL.  Having performed for over a decade as members of Perpetual Groove, the chemistry of these three couldn't possibly go unnoticed.  


The Motet, a jazz-influenced, super-funk group from Denver, was due up next.  One would be hard pressed to find a more soulful, energetic band.  The Motet's music demands your dancing shoes and seems to pump positive energy and laughter into anyone lucky enough to be in the vicinity.  Vocalist Jans Ingber's enthusiasm is contagious, making it entirely too easy let loose and bounce around the crowd.  While most groups bring in the horn section for special occasions, much of the heart and soul of The Motet lies within trumpeter Gabe Marvin and saxophonist Matt Pitts.  

The rhythm of Dave Watts (drums) never seems to fade, as was evident in this set when The Motet tackled Earth Wind & Fire's "Jupiter" and Parliament Funkadelic's "Handcuffs."  The first "guest sit-in" of the weekend came when Eli Winderman (Dopapod) joined the party for "Shake."  The set came to a close with "Closed Mouth Don't Get Fed", leaving just enough time for a "Cheap Shit" encore, a track from The Motet's 2005 studio release, Music For Life. 

Dopapod, a Boston-born, Berkeley educated foursome, didn't waste any time as they took the stage just before midnight.  A nearly two-hour set featured two of my personal favorites ("Turnin' Knobs" and "Faba") and even a massive family jam with all seven members of The Motet to close out the night.  Dopapod is one band that words simply can't do justice.  I once read a description of Dopapod from RVA Magazine which truly hits the nail on the head, not an easy task with these guys: “Dopapod isn’t so much a jam band as they are a band that improvises. They are an electronic band without computers. They are a metal band with groove and soul. They are a jazz group with less wine and more acid. They are what would happen if Zappa, Yes, Deadmau5, and The Meters all sat down for a cup of coffee.”  Truer words have never been spoken, and having both Dopapod and The Motet close out the "pre-party" on stage together could not have set a more promising tone for the weekend.  Check out the video below of the "DopaTet" super jam on "New James".


(Dopapod w/ The Motet aka DopaTet - "New James" - Video by Live & Listen)

As Saturday morning rolled around, new campsites surfaced in every corner of Suwannee, many alongside the lake, and all within an easy 10-minute walk of all four stages.  One common dilemma of music festivals is having to decide on one stage when multiple bands are playing.  Fortunately, Spirit of Suwannee and AURA have minimized this qualm as efficiently as possible.  The main stage (The Amphitheater Stage) is centrally located between The Porch Stage, The Music Hall, and The Vibe Tent, none being more that a five minute walk from the other.  Set times were very punctual, making the transition between the Amphitheater Stage and Porch Stage an especially seamless task.  


The Mantras fired up on the Porch Stage mid-afternoon, and there was no turning back from that point.  The term "jam machine" is perfect for this six man band from Greensboro, NC.  It's no surprise that The Mantras' latest studio album, Jam Bands Destroyed My Life, was recorded in the home studio of Umphrey's McGee's Jake Cinnenger.  Guitarists Kenn Mogel and Keith Allen made for an entertaining battle throughout the set.  A weekend highlight came in "Burnin' Down The Mountain," a mash up of Talking Heads' "Burnin' Down The House" and Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain."  Rob Compa (Dopapod) made a guest appearance on "Before My Time," the final song from a red hot afternoon set from The Mantras.  


Jimkata (Ithaca, NY) began immediately on the Amphitheater Stage, giving the afternoon more of an indie, electro-rock feel.  Jimkata has quickly climbed the ladder of the festival circuit, leaving little to no doubt that we have only seen the beginning.  The set began with three tunes off of the latest album Die Digital ("Die Digital", "Legoland", "Electronic Stone") and also included a few older Jimkata tunes ("Place of Dreams", "Devil's in the Details") before closing with two more Die Digital tracks ("Chain Store, "American Cars"). 


Before long, The Heavy Pets began a set which would last through the sunset.  The vast range of this band was seen right off the bat, as they took on a particularly unique cover of Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box," just before moving into the super-funky "Sigismondi."  "Giant Birds," "Chew," and "Movie Star" kept the party alive, as the crowd only seemed to get bigger.  "Dewpoint", another funk filled favorite led by Jim Wuest (keyboards), drove the crowd into the night, leaving just enough time for "3 AM" and "Sopressatta".


As The Heavy Pets were wrapping up, one of our favorite bands on the scene was getting started inside The Music Hall.  McLovins, making their second AURA appearance in three years, even brought along their three-piece horn section for the trip from Connecticut to Florida.  Two tracks from their latest EP, Funk No Uno began the set ("Wasp", "Step Sista"), before making way for two older McLovins tunes, "DMT" and "Purple Trees."  Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" was strategically placed right in the middle of "Tokyo Tea," before "Man In The Blue Coat" and "Catch The Ball" brought the set to a close.


Meanwhile, moe. was preparing to begin in the amphitheater.  This would make for one of very few moe. appearances in the Southeast this year.  Two new tracks from last year's release, No Guts No Glory, came first ("Annihilation Blues", "Same Old Story").  "Spaz Medicine" erased any doubt that we would miss out on many of the classic moe. jams.  "Bullet" couldn't have segued into "Kyle's Song" more seamlessly, exactly as it does on Wormwood, moe's 2003 studio release.  While "Billy Goat" was included on the latest album, the song has been a fan favorite for many years.  This version in particular seemed to go the extra mile, lasting well over fifteen minutes.  "Not Coming Down > Wormwood" gave us yet another direct reflection from Wormwood, before "St. Augustine," a perennial moe. jam, which led many of us in their direction at a young age.  Mike Dillon joined the band for some extra special "Meat".  The boys from Buffalo, NY then went deep into the catalog with an "Akimbo" encore.


(moe. - "Kyle's Song > George" - Video by Cheesehead Productions)

(Rob Derhak of moe.)

Immediately after the encore from moe., Dopapod was back, this time on the Porch Stage.  While many of us were fortunate enough to catch the pre-party, this set was surely one that many fans had been waiting for.  The classic “Trapper Keeper” kicked off the set.  This was the Dopapod tune which caught my attention nearly two years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.  “Cloud World” and “Job For A Man” would follow, before the festival’s most popular guest, Roosevelt Collier, joined the boys for “8 Years Ended”.  “Weird Charlie” and “Turn By Turn” only seemed to pump more energy to an already rowdy crowd.  Dopapod has a special ability to tackle covers which you would never expect.  Their take on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” had me blinking to confirm that Rob Compa was still on stage and not Gwen Stefani.  The second, blazing Dopapod set of the weekend concluded with “Vol. 3 #86”, leaving the massive audience absolutely floored.


(Dopapod w/ Roosevelt Collier - "8 Years Ended" - Video by Cheesehead Productions)

Much anticipation led us back to the Amphitheatre Stage for Papadosio’s first set of the weekend.  These guys have been a major part of all six years for AURA, and the buzz in the air only confirmed it.  The set began with “Paradigm Shift”, “Find Your Cloud”, “Magreenery”.  Being my first live experience with this band, I was overwhelmed by the overall production and stage presence.  The LED screens along the back of the stage and in front of the drum kits were mesmerizing, for all the right reasons. The Asheville-based, psychedelic rockers continued with “How Not to Float”, “Taking Turns”, “Direction Song”, and “Now You Know”.  A steady mix of instrumental tunes and those with vocal arrangements made for a smooth ride.  Before long, the set was brought to a close with “Method of Control” and “TV Song”.  At this point, we were 10 hours in on the day, with one last late-night set to conclude Friday night in Suwannee.


(Papadosio - "Method of Control" - Video by Cheesehead Productions)

A packed, exhausted crowd made their way to the Music Hall in need of a boost of adrenaline.  Fortunately, one of the most exuberant, entertaining bands I have ever seen was ready to rock.  Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, born during their days at University of Maryland, came out firing to many fans that had been waiting all day and night.  Try to envision the lovechild of The Talking Heads, Phish, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and you’ll have an idea of what the Pigeons bring to the table.  “Fade Fast” set the tone and even included some synchronized dancing between Greg Ormont (guitar/vocals) and Jeremy Schon (lead guitar).  “Melting Lights”, which tells an incredibly entertaining story, was entirely too appropriate for the mindset of many.  “Live It Up” and “Walk Outside” carried the room into the The Village People’s “Kung Fu Fighting”.  “Walk Outside Space” was next in the set, only before a very special treat.  Tom Hamilton Jr. (American Babies, Joe’ Russo’s Almost Dead, Brothers Past) joined the Pigeons for “F.U,” arguably their most well known tune to date.  Just watching this amazingly talented young group trade licks with Hamilton was a treat in itself.  Being able to sing along every word with them was the icing on the cake.  “Horizon” and “The Liquid” would follow, before one last blast from the past to close out the night.  Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters” theme song would now be the exclamation point on an unforgettable day of music in one of the most amazing music parks in the country.  A perfect choice to end Friday night at AURA, from one of the most highly anticipated performances of the weekend.


(Pigeons Playing Ping Pong - "Kung Fu Fighting" - Video by Cheesehead Productions)


As an effort to capture as much of this amazing weekend as possible, and avoid an overload of information, we decided to split this weekend recap into two segments.  Hope you have enjoyed the recollection thus far, and please stay tuned for Part Two of our AURA recap this weekend!