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Okeechobee Music Festival opens with joyful noise

Witness the blissful vibe on Day 1 at Okeechobee Music Festival (@okeechobeefest).

Where did all the joy go in this angry, cynical world? For one weekend, at least, look no further than Sunshine Grove.

The inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival came to life with more than half the sellout crowd of 30,000 arriving the night before Friday's formal opening, filling the fields and woods with a pure, organic euphoria that radiated from every surface.

Negativity was banished in favor of twirling and hugging, rudeness was replaced by courtesy. Those in line for food and drinks (and the Ferris wheel) were patient and collegial. Did we miss Rod Serling welcoming us to the Twilight Zone?

The first night was a remarkable gathering of tribes — the parking lot dotted with plates from Colorado, Iowa and New York — a pilgrimage inspired by a shared love of music, but also by a desire to experience the rapture, aided by Red Bull and Adderall, that could be felt and heard in the first glow of the sun Friday morning.

If the participants in this parade were mostly in their early 20s, it was not exclusively so. The Pied Piper Friday night may have been swaggering 67-year-old Robert Plant, who explained to the crowd at one point during his charismatic, Led Zeppelin-heavy set: "I just can't stop talking about love."

"Everyone at our camp, all the people around us, have been so friendly," said Taylor Black, cheerily, as she sat in the glow of the Ferris wheel near the lakeside beach known as Aquachobee.

Black, 19, and friend Bayly Forbes, 22, were a couple of hours removed from a 12-hour drive that began at 1:30 a.m. Thursday from Birmingham, Ala., to attend their first camping festival. Back home, Black is a college student with a part-time job in a fast-food restaurant, while Forbes works full-time waiting tables at an upscale Italian restaurant.

The commitment of time and nearly $600 for tickets was worth it, they said, and not only to see favorite acts such as Mac Miller, Fetty Wap and Mumford & Sons.

"It's about the experience, having a good time and getting to meet new people," Forbes said. To that end, she noted that they left a bowl of candy on the hood of their car.

The Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival takes place through Sunday on 800 acres at Sunshine Grove, north of the lake that gives the festival its name. The diverse lineup ranges from Friday night performances by Plant, Hall & Oates and Bassnectar; Kendrick Lamar and Skrillex on Saturday, and Mumford & Sons, Tom Morello, Ween, Jason Isbell and Future on Sunday.

The festival site, once a planned residential development, includes six miles of paved roadway that wind through landscaped fields and groves of trees, now bathed in colored lights for extra majesty. Deer remained scarce, but the armadillos didn't seem to mind.

On Friday the three main stages opened, revealing a large clearing lined with food booths, bars and vendors, with stands of pines and palms greatly prized for their shade from the upper-70s temperatures. Attire was casual and thoughtful: bikinis and Carhartt boots, superheroes and at least two bearded gents topped with lampshades.

Veteran leadership

Rick Harris, a 65-year-old psychologist from Fort Lauderdale, is a veteran festivalgoer who went VIP ($599 per ticket, plus RV parking) with his wife, Marie. The two have been to every edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and Harris says Okeechobee is already in the conversation with that popular gathering in rural Tennessee.

"The setting is much more idyllic," Harris said as Texas folk-rockers the Oh Hellos performed behind him in the high sun. "Look at this. The trees, the grass, it's beautiful. Bonnaroo is an empty field, for the most part."

Harris said the Okeechobee RV parking demands a bit of a walk, but the paved roads are another big advantage.

"I've been to Bonnaroo when it's muddy, the first year, and they literally had to push us in," he says. "Every day they had to push the car to get us in. So this is just paradise."

Harris described seeing the Miami Pop Festival at Gulfstream Park in 1968, a show that featured Jimi Hendrix.

"I'm still looking for the '60s, that's why I come to places like this. That joy. It's here," he said.

Plant channeled plenty of nostalgia Friday night in a powerful headlining set that ran just over an hour, and introduced most in the crowd to his excellent backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters, in particular guitarists Skin Tyson and Justin Adams, and West African violinist Juldeh Camara.

Looking trim and energized, with his trademark pile of curls properly uncooperative, Plant wasted no time in assuring old fans that he'd draw from the Led Zeppelin catalog, with "Black Dog" stoking the crowd into one of several sing-alongs. He paired Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful," given a world-music vibe via Camara's exotic bow work, with the Zeppelin classic "Goin' to California," which got enthusiastic vocal help from the youthful crowd.

"Trampled Under Foot" and "Little Maggie," from the Space Shifters' album "Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar," were twisted into something spacey and new by Camara and keyboardist John Baggott. Plant then brought the house down with a winding version of his tour de force, "Whole Lotta Love," which would have been a good time to pass the hat to pay for that Led Zeppelin reunion. It was a great moment in Okeechobee's short history.

Miami's Spam Allstars delivered a killer set of Latin funk at Aquachobee Thursday night, with Friday including strong sets from Roadkill Ghost Choir, Grace Potter and the irreverent Brown Sabbath. Afrobeta (2 a.m.) and Telekinetic Walrus (3 a.m.) were locals to look forward to Saturday morning.

Welcome to the Jungle

One of the spaces sure to become a signature destination is Jungle 51, a glowing forest devoted to electronic dance music that opened Thursday night to an eager crowd of young people pressing against the temporary gates manned by black-clad bouncer types with radios around their necks.

Flags, totems and lighted banners flew over these armies of the night, with consistent entertainment from the totems, tall sticks topped with nonsensical, neon-lined symbols that included Nibbler from "Futurama," Ben Franklin from the $100 bill and actor John C. Reilly. ("It's just silly," its handler said.) Even at the gates of Jungle 51, with a sense of history being made, the crowd was patient and respectful, with one gatecrasher drawing an admonishment: "Hey, follow the rules, bro."

The first people to enter Jungle 51 ran toward a lighted stage at the other end of the forest clearing, the trees lit by walls of red lights, with lasers overhead. A DJ provided a thumping reminder of the EDM theme.

The Okeechobee Musical Festival balances elements of rock, rap, alt-country, acid jazz, Latin funk and acts that make use of all these styles. When the Okeechobee Allstars finished their set Thursday night, New York-based hip-hop auteur Akim Funk Buddha led a brass band in a parade that slithered through the festival site and into Jungle 51, where tuba, trombone and its high-stepping bandleader opened a circle on the dance floor in a battle with the DJ. We'll call it a draw.

Russell Mick, a filmmaker and owner of Running Man Pictures, made the rounds of the site Thursday night while shooting material for two short videos for Visit Florida, the state tourism site. Mick said he was impressed by how outgoing and curious people were when they saw his cameras, calling it "a very kind atmosphere."

"I think these are some of the best people there are. I just do," Mick said, laughing. "These are some genuinely good people, who care about others. They care about our natural world. Of course, they enjoy camaraderie, and especially music, but there are just some really good people here."

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