Earlier this month, Okeechobee County hosted the inaugural Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival at Sunshine Grove. Fans that followed the coverage leading up to the festival would probably agree that there was a lot of hype to live up to. Before anyone knew much about Okeechobee, the festival was being promoted as a Coachella or Bonnaroo of sorts for Florida and the South East. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider that Paul Peck, a co-founder of Okeechobee Music Festival, is also credited as one of the masterminds behind Bonnaroo Music Festival. Comparing a first-time festival to well-established festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo certainly sets the bar high. If anyone had any doubts about whether or not Okeechobee would live up to the hype, I’m sure those doubts were long gone by the end of the weekend. The reaction from fans was one of resounding success. The first Okeechobee Music Festival was a smashing success and it’s here to stay.
The weekend kicked off on the night of Thursday, March 3, with Miami Beach High School’s marching jazz band kicking off a parade around the festival grounds. Thursday night was largely limited to small and local music acts, as headliners were booked specifically for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. Starting the festival with a local high school jazz band is an example of the great lengths that Paul Peck and crew took to curate an original festival—one that brings in big headliners like Mumford & Sons, Bassnectar, and Kendrick Lamar, while simultaneously enlisting the support of local musicians and artists. From the moment that I first arrived, it was very clear to me that Okeechobee was a festival created by musicians and artists for music and art enthusiasts. There were no cheap gimmicks, just a whole lot of passion, hard work, art and music. That notion becomes even clearer when you read about Paul Peck’s goals and ambitions, and what it takes to create a collaborative music festival.
One of the unique aspects of Okeechobee was the PoWow!. The PoWow! is a superstar collaboration that’s exclusive to Okeechobee. A host of talented artists from a range of genres share one of the main stages to create a special experience. This year, the PoWow! featured Miguel, Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Hall & Oates, Skrillex (performing on the guitar), and many more. Similarly, although not listed as an official PoWow!, the last night saw Mumford & Sons share the stage with The Avett Brothers, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That collaborative mentality is so important because it highlights a critical aspect that a festival should celebrate: inclusivity. There are a number of festivals that attract tens of thousands of patrons and have great monetary success, but can feel insincere due to the emphasis placed on headliners and big ticket artists. Okeechobee felt very different; instead of focusing on individuals, it focused on the group experience, which is what festivals are really all about: sharing a weekend of music, dancing, and art with incredible people.
In addition to the music collaboration, there was a significant emphasis on the art experience. Okeechobee had a number of different themed stages and art installations: The Grove (main stage area), Aquachobee Beach, Yogachobee, ChobeeWobee Village, Jungle 51, Natarja Torana, and more. Of the themed areas, Jungle 51 was one of the most mesmerizing. Jungle 51 was located in the middle of a palm tree forest. A stage at the back of the forest was complemented by a crashed UFO and generous amounts of fog, lasers, and lights. Jungle 51 featured 12 hours of music per day: from 9PM to 9AM, every day. This is where the house and techno lovers would go to dance until the early hours of the morning. The non-stop music combined with the unique lighting created an atmosphere that allowed patrons to get lost in the music for hours.
The Natarja Torana stage also played a special role during the weekend, as the structure was built with help from Dancebreak contributors, as previously noted. The Natarja Torana stage was located near Aquachobee Beach, giving patrons the opportunity to stop and dance or just listen as they passed by.
After an experience like Okeechobee, it can be difficult to try to put together a list of top performances at the festival. The music was so carefully curated; many of the artists put on spectacular performances. Robert Plant brought some good old nostalgic classic rock. Medicine for the People brought the musical medicine. Bassnectar, per usual, got the crowd rowdy, as did RL Grime and Kill the Noise (who also decided to Rick Roll everyone). Classixx presented a smooth exploration of retro-sounding Nu Disco music. Lettuce and Lotus brought the jams, while Big Gigantic fused heavy-hitting dubstep with their usual jazz-infused music. Big Wild brought a dynamic performance with a range of different percussion instruments (check back here soon for our follow-up interview with Big Wild). Bonobo crafted an artful set that coincided with the setting sun. Big Grams provided an eclectic mix of hip hop and vocals. Personally, my favorite moment of the weekend was when Odesza rocked the crowd with cerebrally blissful music, followed up by the outstanding closing ceremony with Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Tom Morello (who absolutely shredded on the guitar), and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Overall, there was little to complain about at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. From my experience, it was one of the most professional and well-organized festivals that I have been to. The festival suffered from some of the normal festival madness, like long waits for showers and the general store (at peak hours) and long wait times to leave the festival at the end of the weekend; all issues that are not unique to Okeechobee. Perhaps one of the only warranted gripes was the size of the stages. Okeechobee could certainly benefit from larger stages to accommodate a larger crowd next year, especially if they plan on growing. It certainly will be necessary, as I can only imagine that Okeechobee will have tremendous growth as word gets out of this incredible experience. Thank you Okeechobee and Okeechobeings, we hope to see you all next year!
Make sure to check out our photos from Okeechobee on our Facebook page!