The Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival is running through Monday on the 800-acre site known as Sunshine Grove, and the SouthFlorida.com is running right along with it. All weekend, we’ll be posting updates, photos, interviews, videos and recaps from the festival.
GLAMPING AT OKEECHOBEE
Past the crowds of general admission next to one of the main stages lies an oasis of luxury. The gated-off, white-tented VIP lounge is extravagant, with free food, a complimentary juice bar and massages.
One of the busiest areas in the lounge, a hair corner run by Kirsten Kiki, is new this year. For 6 ½ hours a day, Kiki offers men’s and women’s haircuts as well as hair-braiding.
“I haven’t really stopped,” Kiki says. “I have to take a list of people that I can take, and when I get to them, I get to them.”
The long waitlist is filled hours before Kiki is scheduled to finish her day, though she does her best to get to everyone. She’s meticulous with these over-the-top hairdos, sometimes restarting to make sure each is perfect. Women of all ages patiently wait for “Game of Thrones”-worthy hairdos with complex braids, colored hair extensions, feathers and glitter.
“I really like all the options she has,” Lisa Leturno says as lime green and hot pink hair is woven into her braids. “I’ve never really even put extensions in my hair before … I might be inspired to dye my hair.”
While Kiki does hair full-time in Fort Lauderdale, she’s also an artist, and for her, braiding is an extension of her art. She’s been able to showcase her artwork at the festival, live painting on Friday and selling prints at her booth. Kiki’s work also decorates the artists’ dressing rooms at Okeechobee.
— Talia J. Medina
THE PREHISTORIC ART OF OKEECHOBEE
The sculpture of a mammoth built by artist Joel Stockdill for the 2016 Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival has vines growing up its legs. Made of used metal, plastic and wood, the sculpture was one of the most impressive artworks at last year’s event.
The artist returned to Okeechobee this year to sculpt a saber-toothed tiger, once again using recycled materials that were found on the festival grounds. The giant creature stands near an entrance to the main stages.
“Both of these are prehistoric animals that lived here in Florida, both of which are instinct now,” says Nikos Katsaounis, the festival’s creative and art director. “It’s almost like reviving their spirit, using material that our society had discarded to make something beautiful.”
Many of the artworks commissioned or bought for Okeechobee will remain on the grounds throughout the year, and will be part of future festivals.
Katsaounis wants the grounds of Okeechobee to become a “festival-art retirement home,” which people can visit at any time of year to see the art and participate in workshops.
Last year, Katsaounis also bought the “Pavilion Palace,” a gazebo-castle structure built by Stockdill and artist Shrine On also using recycled materials. The work has appeared at festivals such as Burning Man, but it has been retired and will remain at Okeechobee’s Chobeewobee Village.
“We felt that collecting some of these iconic pieces and giving them a place to live will give an opportunity for people to come and visit them later,” Katsaounis says.
“It’s a music and arts festival because we believe that society has taught us to overappreciate art and make it difficult to understand, and unaccessible,” he adds. “Everyone should participate in this conversation, because it makes us human.”
— Barbara Corbellini Duarte
LIVING THE DREAM
“Our laptop player couldn’t make it,” an unsmiling Sturgill Simpson cracked Saturday night from the Now Stage at Okeechobee. It was a joke with bite, as the poetic honky-tonker from Kentucky was the odd duck on a festival lineup stocked with EDM-friendly hip-hop outfits and globally famous DJs. If Simpson’s set was short on laser lights and turbo BPMs, it was long on heart, with the guitar-playing singer-songwriter delivering music from his Grammy-winning 2016 album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” Written as an emotionally bare welcome letter to his newborn son, the album confirms Simpson’s status as an heir to the outlaw-country legacy established by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and the like.
This music may not have been what most Okeechobee attendees came to hear, but Simpson and his three-piece band were determined to make them listen. “After playing the Grammys with a 32-piece band, there’s only one way to go,” Simpson said, spreading his arms wide toward his more modest combo. “You ain’t got to like it, but you’re going to learn to.”
The night’s lesson included “Railroad of Sin,” a down-home pickathon from Simpson’s 2013 debut album, “High Top Mountain”; the crushing “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” and “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” both from “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”; and the psychedelic “Turtles All the Way Down” and “Living the Dream,” from his breakthrough 2014 album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.” Just as Simpson made something new from Nirvana’s “In Bloom” on “A Sailor’s Guide,” on Saturday night, he discovered fresh reserves of soul in Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have To Be Crazy” and William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” suggesting to the audience that if you want to write the future, you’d do well to understand the past.
Before exiting the stage, Simpson dedicated the show to his ailing grandfather, whom he would fly home to Kentucky to visit in the morning. “I don’t even know how he’s doing,” Simpson, 38, lamented. “He’s just trying to make it happen like the rest of us.”
— Jake Cline
Saturday afternoon at Okeechobee got funky thanks to psychedelic-soul shaman George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, who brought the Mothership to the Now Stage and offered jam-heavy spins on classics such as "Flashlight," "(Not Just) Knee Deep," "Give Up the Funk.”
Clinton came bounding onstage in a leopard-print dashiki, accompanied by a battalion of bumping-and-grinding female dancers and a shirtless man with a white hat and fuzzy white boots.
Midway through "(Not Just) Knee Deep,” the 15-minute version,” Clinton called the audience "a bunch of freaks," which drew appreciative roars from the crowd of 1,000, who waved totems and giant inflatable sharks from the front row.
With 15 minutes remaining in the 75-minute set, white-dreadlocked P-Funk guitarist Michael Hampton drew another cheer from the crowd with his wailing solo, as another P-Funk member invited the audience to scat-sing and shout, "We gonna turn this mother out."
— Phillip Valys
ANOTHER REASON TO TIP YOUR BARTENDER
Art Friedrich is a bartender at the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, but behind the crazy eyewear, he’s also the president of Urban Oasis Project, a Miami-based nonprofit that works to provide healthy food for low-income families. Urban Oasis Project is one of more than 20 nonprofits with volunteers running the bars at Okeechobee to raise money for their respective causes.
“Our mission is to help grow local food in Miami and make it accessible to everyone,” Friedrich says. “All the money from the festival that we generate goes into supporting our food-stamp-doubling program, so that we can provide healthy food access for people of all income levels. A lot of people don’t even know that their tips are all donations going to the nonprofit.”
So … yeah, tip your bartender. For more information, visit UrbanOasisProject.org.
— Ben Crandell
HANDS ACROSS OKEECHOBEE
Artist Dave “Dave1” Lavernia aims to spread peace and love one handprint at a time.
The Miami muralist, 30, has spent his Okeechobee spray-painting the interactive mural “#huemansforearth,” in which festivalgoers are invited to trace their hands on a plywood canvas with acrylic-paint pens and scrawl messages of peace and love inside the drawing.
“I want people to be more aware about protecting our fellow species on Earth,” says Lavernia, adding a jet of black spray paint over an outline of a koi. "It's about unity and togetherness."
Lavernia, who lives in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, specializes in murals distinguished by wide-eyed wolves, tigers and fish tangled up in orchids and leaves. He reckons he's given out 400 multicolored paint pens, which have been used to write hundreds of messages such as, “Starve the ego, feed the soul,” “Share love” and “I'm here for a good time, not a long time.” Instead of hands, people have drawn dinosaurs, yin-and-yang symbols and rock ’n’ roll salutes.
The messages appear on a two-walled plywood canvas, built from recycled pallets and donated Plexiglas courtesy of the Fort Lauderdale brewery LauderAle.
Lavernia says Okeechobee folks covered the walls on Thursday and Friday, so on Saturday he's painting orcas and wolves over the handprints.
“My job is to create a mural in black and white over the whole thing,” Lavernia says. “It’s all about saving the Earth.”
— Phillip Valys
THE BIKE DANCER
When he isn't pedaling passengers to their campsites, pedicab driver Rick $haw is dancing on his bike.
On Saturday morning, the 37-year-old Chicagoan idled near the Aquachobee entrance, executing a few boredom-relieving dance tricks. Cranking the knob on a subwoofer anchored to the bike, $haw bounced in his seat to hip-hop, twirled the pedals backward and lunged from his seat to the handlebars.
He twirled and bowed. Other pedicab drivers clapped. Four women whooped and begged him to repeat the trick.
"This used to make a lot of hot girls jump on the cab, but I'm married now," says Shaw, who's driven pedicabs for eight years in Chicago and at music festivals such as Coachella, Firefly and Electric Forest.
He says pedicab-dancing passes the time while waiting for fares, often while transporting up to six people at a time. But doing it too often will "probably get me fired," he says. He's been tempting fate this way for several years.
Still, $haw met his wife while dancing outside a Chicago nightclub.
“I do it more for the excitement,” $haw says. “And it makes the pedicab look more fun, which gets me more rides and tips.”
— Phillip Valys
THE PEOPLE’S SHOW
Although there’s no lack of great music at Okeechobee, at times the most impressive performances happen far from the main stages. Flow artists once again brought their glowing toys to the grounds and are putting on a show.
Reveille at Okeechobee Saturday morning, if you were up at the crack of 10 a.m., came from a soundcheck by Usher and the Roots. Not many bands can segue so gracefully between the classic Kool & the Gang come-on “Jungle Boogie” and Usher’s crushingly romantic “Throwback.” They are scheduled to go on at 11:45 p.m. Saturday for a set running more than two hours. Like you have somewhere else to be at 2 a.m. — Ben Crandell
ALL ABOUT THAT BASSNECTAR
Bassnectar fans are out in droves at Okeechobee. The cultish fans have traveled from Maryland and beyond to see their favorite DJ and producer. Known as “Bassheads,” these fans will don the Bassnectar symbol all weekend long on hats and flags and even as tattoos.
In a 2013 blog post, Bassnectar said, “I always took [the symbol] to be kind of my own ‘yin yang’ interpretation, with an open end that flows out endlessly.”
Many of his fans offer their own interpretations of the simple geometric shape.
“[The symbol] kind of reminds me of a ripple effect,” says Dena Fox, of Tampa, who wears a rare Red Rocks Bassnectar pin on her Bassnectar hat. “It doesn’t matter who we talk to, what we touch. It’s going to affect the next person that’s involved in it . We’re all interlocked. … Be conscious of what you’re doing to others, to yourself, to the Earth and then forward, move in and move out.”
Although she’s working for the production company running the festival again this year, Fox says a Bassnectar show can appear just as wild when viewed from backstage.
Meanwhile, out in the fields of general admission, an abundance of Bassnectar symbols can be spotted soaring on totems.
“I feel like the bass symbol unites us all,” says Roula Gogos, who drove 12 hours from Virginia for her sixth Bassnectar show. “[I love] everything about him. The way that he gives back, his music, how his music makes [its] own words.”
Like Gogos, Anthony Nahr drove more than 10 hours from East Tennessee to see Bassnectar. The 25-year-old laughs with sleepless delirium.
“I do a little bit of graphic design, and obviously I love Bassnectar and everything it brings for people and everything it’s about,” Nahr says of his homemade flag. “It’s why we come to this. Bassnectar means so much love. There’s so much love in the community ... It’s unexplainable.”
— Talia J. Medina
YOU JUST NEVER KNOW
Buddas Iscarus, of Chapel Hill, N.C., has the tatts, nose ring, facial hair and avocation (massage therapist) appropriate to a veteran music-festival traveler. But last year’s Okeechobee Music Festival was his first major camping festival. And despite his outward appearance, his purpose in driving down for the inaugual OMF was decidedly mainstream. “We drove down here just for Hall & Oates. I loved Hall & Oates growing up,” he says. That said, he did soon fall under the spell of Jungle 51. “All the lights and lasers. It was like, ‘This is pretty freaking awesome!’”
— Ben Crandell
AT OKEECHOBEE TO ‘GET MY LIFE BACK’
Sean Perkins of Evansville, Ind., is attending his first major music festival with friends at Okeechobee this weekend, three years after a spinal cord tumor left him in a wheelchair. “I just wanted to kind of get my life back,” he says. “I decided I’m going to get out there and live life and see what I can do.”
A 27-year-old certified nursing assistant who works with developmentally disabled patients in a nursing home, Perkins gives the handicapped accommodations at the festival a thumbs-up, with a couple of reservations.
“It’s actually not been too bad, but the sand has been a really big issue,” he says. “As long as I can get to the grass — and fortunately I have awesome people around me who are very willing to help me — I get around OK.”
Then, there are the handicapped bathrooms, which are being used by able-bodied people.
“I get it, because there’s aren’t too many people in wheelchairs,” Perkins says.
He has just one request: Clean up after yourself, dude.
“Men are really bad about peeing on the toilet seat, so it’s nasty,” he says. “I have that problem all the time.”
— Ben Crandell
Ron Tannebaum and Ken Pomerance, of Fort Lauderdale, are at the Okeechobee Music Festival inside a tent for their drug and alcohol recovery organization called In The Rooms. They offer meetings every three hours, describing their tent as an "oasis" from myriad temptations found across the festival grounds. Business is booming: They requested a larger tent this year and meetings are still standing room only. For information, visit InTheRooms.com.
— Ben Crandell
HERE HE COMES TO SAVE THE DAY
Fear not, Okeechobee, Deer Man is here. William Sohner, of Chapel Hill, N.C., invented the character when he saw bad guys doing evil at Bonnaroo and felt compelled to intervene.
“Everyone needs a superhero,” he says.
— Ben Crandell
Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival kicked off its second year March 2 with its usual mix of Hula-Hoopers, dancers, music lovers and fire-spinners jamming to loud beats and laser shows.
The festivities started with an opening ceremony led by hip-hop artist Akim Funk Buddha. Dozens of performers dressed as mythical creatures and covered in paint and glitter followed the musician across Chobeewobee Village while inviting people to join in the dancing.
— Barbara Corbellini Duarte
The tea lounge is still the best spot for people who are looking for a break from the rowdy crowds. Amber lamps, comfortable couches and hammocks create the perfect atmosphere for relaxation.
The “Lost in Time” area inside the lounge features a bar and climbing nets hanging from trees.
Okeechobee attracts people of all ages. Bill Lemmon, 66, and Pam Lemmon, 63, of North Carolina, are attending the festival for the second year.
They say they enjoyed the crowds and the atmosphere, and are learning to appreciate new genres of music.
“Our music preference is anything but country,” Bill Lemmon said. “We’re starting to get into EDM.”
Jungle 51 is the place to be during the late-night hours. Red and green lasers light up the trees, while DJs spin techno from 9 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m.
Late-night partying created the longest lines at the food court by the Aquachobee section of the festival grounds.
But the area still offers gorgeous views of the sunset.
BEND ME, SHAPE ME, WAKE ME
Friday at Okeechobee opened with Alignment Hatha Yoga with Alex Carvahlo. More than 50 yogis sat on mats, towels or the grass under a bright-yellow sunshade sail, patiently awaiting the start of the 8:30 a.m. class
Accompanied by a recording of chimes and steel drums, Carvahlo, of Miami Beach, opened the class by saying, “This practice is my savior. It’s my joy. It’s the love of my life, so thank you all for coming to share my heart with me.”
Within a few minutes, the class doubled in size.
“I’ve never taught for this many people before, so it’s a huge privilege and a blessing and opportunity to get to share my message, which is radical self-love and worthiness and knowing that we matter,” Carvhalo says.
The 75-minute class ended with 100-plus people chanting “om.”
“I could just feel all the positive vibes coming from everybody,” says Nicole Russ, who watched her older sister participate in the class. “On Sunday … I’m definitely going to try [yoga].”
About 15 yoga classes will be offered at Yogachobee this weekend, though this is the only class Carvahlo will teach.
— Talia J. Medina