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Okeechobee Music Festival 2017: Bassnectar's stairway to heaven

Moments before he took the stage at last year’s inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, massively popular DJ-producer Bassnectar went looking for communion, a muse. It was his first live performance of the year, and he felt that a reintroduction was in order.

His first stop was at the side of the stage, where he watched from the wings as rock god Robert Plant conjured the timeless power of the Led Zeppelin catalog, with chunks of "Black Dog," "Trampled Under Foot," "Goin' to California" and “Whole Lotta Love" driving the young crowd into a frenzy.

The music of Led Zeppelin holds a special place in the memory of the man once better known as Lorin Ashton, a figure on the Northern California death-metal scene. As a youth, Bassnectar made his first attempt at spinning vinyl on a turntable he bought for the immediate purpose of listening to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” in reverse to divine its back-masked messages.

“It says some pretty crazy s---t. It’s also debatable that it wasn’t just garbled nonsense,” he says, laughing. “But it was definitely the first time that I manipulated vinyl, instead of just hitting ‘play’ on my parents’ stereo, to hold the vinyl down and use your hands to move it around in reverse and control the audio.”

Bassnectar says he was energized by what he saw onstage, and also in front of the stage, where, as Plant performed, thousands of the DJ’s totem-bearing fans had poured into a darkened clearing framed in palms and pines ornamented by dancing lasers.  

It had been several months since his previous performance, and as his crew began erecting a stand of speakers that would soon shake the forest, Bassnectar decided he required full immersion. Under a hoodie that did little to obscure his identity, the superstar DJ — toast of Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Ultra Music Festival — stepped from the stage to take an unceremonious walk into the waves of waiting fans. Such is the vibe at the Okeechobee Music Festival.

“I didn’t want to take pictures or be weird,” says the 39-year-old performer, who grew up in a self-described “hippie commune” near San Francisco. “I just wanted to hang out and have a short little interaction with people. And it was just really cool. People were so kind and conscientious. Sweet. It was a really sweet vibe. It just inspired me before the set. Kind of the calm before the storm.”

Minutes later, enveloped by a tower of technology and the deafening shrieks of the masses on the meadow, Bassnectar sent the opening guitar licks of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” ricocheting through the trees as an introduction to his pounding  2011 remix “Head’s Up.” It was instantly one of the signature moments of the Okeechobee Music Festival.

It is a performance Bassnectar fans may again look forward to as he reprises his role as a headliner at the second annual OMF, which returns March 2-5 to 800 acres at Sunshine Grove, property once planned for residential development on the north side of Lake Okeechobee.

This year’s lineup again strives for diversity, with Kings of Leon, Wiz Khalifa, Pretty Lights, Sturgill Simpson, Usher and the Roots, Flume, Solange, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Sleigh Bells, Rae Sremmurd, Waka Flocka Flame, Mike Posner, the Lumineers, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, Cold War Kids, Snakehips and the Blind Boys of Alabama, to name just a few. Four-day OMF passes are on sale for $279 at OkeechobeeFest.com. Three-day passes are sold out, as are all levels of VIP packages.

Speaking by phone from his studio on a rainy, chilly day in Northern California, Bassnectar says he was impressed by the crowds and level of organization at last year’s OMF, especially for an inaugural event. Headliners in 2016 included Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar and Skrillex.

“I was really delighted. It seemed like it gained the momentum that a festival would gain after 10 years, just on its first year,” he says. “It was, like, 30,000 people and it really did feel jubilant.”

Bassnectar had just finished work on the album “Unlimited,” released in June, when he arrived at Okeechobee last year. After putting out an album or an EP each year for the past 15 years, he has spent the past 12 months designing music strictly for a live, festival setting.

Drawing on material from his vast record collection, pre-Bassnectar music he made in the ‘90s and early 2000s, unfinished projects languishing on old hard drives, film scores and favorite rock tracks, the DJ has created “packs” of sounds that he can adjust to suit a certain audience or environment. He calls them “little adventures.”

The interplay between artist and live audience has become a focus for Bassnectar, who speaks humbly about the devotion of fans (“it being normal makes it no less weird”) and his role as festival star (“the more invisible I can become, I think, the better. It’s a group experience”).

“Last fall, a friend was asking me, ‘What does it feel like to be at this point in your career where every show is sold out and the crowds are so big,’ ” he says. “I realized I don’t know where this came from, and I don’t know where it’s going or how long it will last, but anything I can do to enjoy the moment more, I will do.”

Seeing electronic music work its way into mainstream culture, with artists like himself performing in front of major crowds once reserved for rock stars, has “blown my mind,” Bassnectar says. He’s not ready to call electronic music the new rock ‘n’ roll, but he admits that festivals bring out a “Beatlemania” vibe.

“Anything that inspires a freestyle explosion of excitement and energy is what is commonly thought of when you think of rock ’n’ roll,” he says “You’re not thinking Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2017. Rock ’n’ roll is the Beatles when they first broke out and that pandemonium. I think that’s what these festivals are kind of reinventing now.”

Beyond the music-driven hysteria, gatherings like Okeechobee have an important social component, Bassnectar says, acknowledging that “the world is so much different” from what it was a year ago. Citing the “audacious” deceit of the Trump administration and the ineffectual response of the media and other democratic institutions, he says he has become much more politically aware in the last 12 months.

“[Okeechobee] can be a place to let go of the political frustrations and just enjoy,” he says. “But … instead of it being a kind of Treasure Island-escapist type of thing, I would hope that it would be more of a recharge center, where people would become increasingly grateful for their good fortune and the blessings and how lucky they are, and somehow inspired to give back out of that gratitude.”

Bassnectar says the Okeechobee Music Festival has an abundance of a critical resource that is in short supply these days: empathy.

“It’s that one distinct thing that does make you human. It is that saving grace,” he says. “What will save the human race is that ability to feel compassion for others, to feel a reflex toward connection over division.”

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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