Review: AURA Music & Arts Festival – Conspirator, RAQ, Kung Fu, Tribute To Stevie Wonder, Heavy Pets, Papadosio

AURA Music Festival @ Spirit of Suwannee Music Park: Feb. 15th – 17th

Words: Allie Po
Photos: Jim Gilbert

It’s hard to sum up three days of perfection into one measly review, and the AURA Music & Arts Festival was no exception. In its fourth incarnation, AURA found its home this year at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida – the biggest venue to date for this special festival. Anyone who has been to there will tell you that there is a unique energy about those woods; the Spanish moss hanging low from large, expansive Oak trees, with muted colors that leave you wondering if it is moss, frozen icicles or fairy dust.

[All Photos by Jim Gilbert]

The forecast warned us it was going to be a chilly one, but I think everyone at the festival was surprised at just how cold it actually was. With temperatures dipping into the high 20s at night, you would never know you were in Florida! That being said, one of the great perks about Suwannee is that you have permission to build a fire pretty much anywhere you want. There were plenty of locals selling firewood throughout the grounds, and some were nice enough to give you a golf cart ride back to your campsite (although a heady trade is always appreciated; I gave Teddy good conversation, an apple, a banana and $4 for the lift). Not that we needed the fire for food because the selection of food vendors was exceptional and delicious. From hot pizza, spicy pad thai and fresh coffee, to the best breakfast bowl I’ve had in my life. And, lets not forget a big shout out to Florida’s oldest craft brewery, Dunedin, for providing the most delicious selection of libations all weekend long

Whether cold or hot, the obvious solution to any temperature woe is beer and boogying, so let the games begin! My AURA experience kicked off on Friday evening with a RAQ reunion, their first live performance since 2011. They opened their set with Shirley Be A Drooler, followed by one of my personal favorites, Botz. The musicianship and energy was high with the members of RAQ as dusk began to settle in and more people emerged from the woods.

These first sets at a music festival are beautiful, as you observe old friends finding and embracing each other now that the large gaps of time and geography are closed. You begin to realize that at this moment, everything is obsolete except what brought us all here: music, love and positive expression. RAQ took us into the dark with more fan favorites like Walking in Circles and a Late Night > Sweet Cream Butter > Late Night sequence before they closed the set with Tumblin’ Down.

[Full RAQ Set Video by Mark Duclos]

The stage set up at Suwannee was perfect. All music was featured on two stages, the Amphitheater and the Porch Stage, both within very close proximity. This made it extremely easy and practical to jump back and forth between the two, without missing any music. There were no overlapping sets, and each band had ample time to offer the AURA crowd a good dose of what they are about. Friday night’s lineup brought us Break Science, two sets of Conspirator, a set with Kung Fu and a closing set from Perpetual Groove.

Conspirator’s performance was like a built-in space heater, because with them comes the inability to stand still. The four-piece maintained a great balance between their deep, electronically-produced music and their roots in melodic instrumentation during a live set. They built up the crowd with escalating drums and heavy drops, and even urged Aura-goers to “make-out to this song” a couple of times. I was standing next to my sister, and while she’s certainly cute, that wasn’t really a viable option (but I will endorse that it WAS good make-out music). At one point they broke into an instrumental cover of Daft Punk’s One More Time which was totally bonkers.

Energy was not lost on the Porch Stage when Kung Fu took over. With all members clad in traditional Kung Fu garb, the fellas were looking sharp. By no means did their style undermine their ability to bring the funk, because this quintet had the verve of a kamikaze! Between all five members of this band, it is no wonder they dub themselves “Kung Fu” – they all have serious chops.

We saw Kung Fu again on Saturday, producing a killer Stevie Wonder tribute featuring Nigel Hall. Nigel really “went there” in his act as Stevie Wonder, with head grooving, dark sunglasses and other tributes to the legendary performer. This set kicked off with one of my personal favorites, Contusion, and also included Stevie songs Do I Do, Too High, Ordinary Pain, Sir Duke and a killer version of Higher Ground featuring Adam Smirnoff and Jimmy Dunstan, I Wish, I’ll Be Loving You Always and You Haven’t Done Nothin’.

[Entire Stevie Wonder Tribute Video by Mark Duclos]

Two nights of Perpetual Groove was enough to make many who had never heard of them fans. It is obvious that front man Brock Butler is a lover and appreciator of all music, and that really came through between the P. Groove sets and all of the other bands he sat in with. First night gave us a gorgeous jam on Green Tea, and a head-ripping Macumba that nearly sank me into the ground. Was I hearing Beastie Boys, Brock or Jay-Z? I heard all of it, and it was intermixed flawlessly. During Walking In Place, Brock shouted out, “Your aura! It’s purple! I love you. It’s purple!” This little reference to the film Almost Famous became the mantra of the weekend for all festival goers, really bringing an added element of community and cheer.

Perpetual Groove opened their Saturday set with All My Friends (LCD Soundsystem). Having high expectations when it comes to covering LCD Soundsystem, I was certainly pleased with their rendition. Their cover of Naïve Melody (Talking Heads) erupted through the audience causing one big massive shout-along that will be permanently ingrained in my memory. The band’s final festival set before heading off for an “indefinite hiatus” had longtime fans emotional, even bringing some to tears. They are surely a band that will be missed, as they approach their “final show” at the Georgia Theatre on April 5.

Saturday was filled with delicious treats for everyone, starting with yoga at the Tribal Council dome, led by the lovely Kelly Searcy (Green Monkey Yoga; Miami). Newton Crosby managed to siphon people from their slumbers (even though it was raining) with their songs Saturday People, Slip Pass and a first-time played rendition of Tears For Fears’ Sowing the Seeds of Love. They even conjured out the sunshine when Brock Butler sat in with them for Faceless.

In the campground, we enjoyed a renegade day set from Consider the Source that was bursting with excitement. It was a perfect way to make up for missing their 1:30pm Friday slot, and they did not disappoint. Greenhouse Lounge got gangsta under the crescent moon, dropping incredibly tight beats by newest addition to the band, drummer Scotty Zwang. Don’t let this description pigeonhole these boys, they know how to deliver a well balanced mix of samples, breakbeat, dubstep and jam.

Florida natives The Heavy Pets’ sets were a great mix of jazzy, surf rock and progressive jams. I was particularly impressed with their vocals and Jim Wuest’s work on keys. Their sets included sit-ins with Ali Newitt and Adam Smirnoff aka Shmeeans (Lettuce), who was commonly spotted dancing and enjoying other music that weekend. Dopapod blew the lid off the place with tight, upbeat performances, even garnering a few glowstick wars. They were not the only ones who made a strong impression on festivalgoers, as Papadosio threw down during the closing performance of the evening. For those having to leave Sunday before dark, it was our last chance to see the breathtaking visuals of the lasers dancing on the hanging moss. The word on the trails back to camp was, “That Papadosio set was siiiick.”

Sunday saw two perfectly placed sets; the first being a Brock Butler acoustic set, followed by a great little Sunday sermon from The Lee Boys. After a long weekend of rage, what better way to spend Sunday morning than with a little “Brockfast?” He opened his sets with Wildflowers (Tom Petty), and played others like If I Wanted Somebody (Dawes), For Now Forget, Big Country (Bela Fleck) and a gorgeous cover of Come Talk To Me (P. Gabriel) featuring Emily Carroll. Their voices together were that of grace, and Carroll nailed the angelic nature of Sinead O’Connor’s vocals in the original.

At the end of the day, AURA Music & Arts Fest made a strong impression on everyone who went. Event founder and organizer Daryl Wolff and his company AURA Music Events and Brotherly Love Productions put on a stellar production that went off without a hitch. I am excited to see what the future holds for this group of young professionals who strive to bring music and family together, and I highly recommend AURA to anyone and everyone who can make it next year. I assure you, it’s worth the trip. And remember, “YOUR AURA!!! IT’S PURPLE!!!”

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