South Florida has been bereft of jam-focused music festivals for well over a decade but that changed last weekend with the inaugural North Beach Music Festival. The two-day event took place in the idyllic setting of the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach, Florida on Friday, December 10 and Saturday, December 11 featuring an amazing lineup with sets containing plenty of otherworldly collaborations.
The North Beach Bandshell is a beautiful venue that was just the right size for those looking to dip their toes back into live music festivals nearly two years into the pandemic without attending a huge event. Organizers GMP Live assembled an array of bands and musicians open to improvisation and taking chances during their sets. While some of the collaborations were announced in the weeks and months leading up to the festival, there was no lack of surprises.
Here’s a list featuring just some of the many highlights from the festival’s debut:
The Horn Section
Shortly after Turkuaz imploded, North Beach Music Festival organizers tapped the band’s horn section, fittingly dubbed The Horn Section, as the event’s Artists-At-Large. Josh Schwartz, Greg Sanderson and Chris Brouwers took the ball and ran with it. The Horn Section were a constant presence at the festival as they made appearances with The Heavy Pets, TAUK, Electric Kif, The Motet, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Aqueous and Eric Krasno throughout the weekend.
Nearly all of The Horn Section’s guest spots were fantastic but a few in particular stood out. The trio augmented TAUK, Jennifer Hartswick and former bandmate Shira Elias on a blistering cover of Beyoncé’s 2003 smash “Crazy In Love.” Hartswick and Elias belted out the tune as The Horn Section played the familiar melody at the heart of the song. Another fantastic appearance came during Aqueous’ all-killer, no-filler hour-long set. The Horn Section added to “Weight Of The Word” in reprising the role they played in recording the song for the Buffalo-based band’s 2018 LP Color Wheel. Plus, the horns stuck around to back AQ and Elias on a smoking “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie) cover that also featured former Turkuaz guitarist Craig Brodhead.
North Beach organizers gave fans a taste of the local music scene on Friday with sets from The Heavy Pets, Tand and Electric Kif. While The Heavy Pets displayed why their still around after nearly two decades and Tand showed off the impressive recent lineup addition of The Heavy Pets guitarist Mike Garulli, it was Electric Kif that wowed. The group had the perfect vibe for sunset on Friday as they focused heavily on material from their 2021 album, Dreamlike.
The title track stood out in monstrous form and the group was helped by guests throughout including a pair of percussionists and The Horn Section. Guitarist Eric Escanes laid down groovy soundscapes while keyboardist Jason Matthews kept the audience engaged with inventive stylings. Be sure to check out Electric Kif when they come to your town.
Colorado-based funk act The Motet were in fine form for the penultimate main stage set on Friday evening. The band was joined by The String Cheese Incident percussionist Jason Hann for the 10-song performance which started with keyboardist Joey Porter taking the lead on “You Can’t Fool Me.” Then, Hartswick added trumpet to “Rynodub” before The Horn Section sat-in on the earwormy “Cheap Shit.” Next, Elias made her first appearance of the set in teaming with Jennifer and The Motet on “Highly Compatible.”
More guest spots were in store including PPPP guitarist Jeremy Schon shining on “Nemesis” and Hartswick and Elias helping The Motet crush “Death Or Devotion” and “Get It Right” to close out the set. The band’s lineup may have changed but they were still firing on all cylinders.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
Judging from the number of attendees wearing Pigeons Playing Ping Pong gear on Friday, it was clear the Baltimore-based quartet was one of the festival’s biggest draws. Sure, the group loaded their main stage set with killer guest spots but it was the live staple “Poseidon” that stood out as the best moment of the performance. The Flock does love their sit-ins and what wasn’t to love about Hann adding to “Move Like That” and “Upfunk,” TAUK keyboardist Alric “A.C.” Carter stepping into “Sunny Day” and The Horn Section bringing the brass to a version of “King Kong” that incorporated a cover of Stevie Wonder’ “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” Pigeons capped the first day of the festival by teaming with Porter and The Horn Section for the beloved “F.U.” and kept the horns around for “Doc.”
Jennifer Hartswick & Brendan Bayliss
Though Jennifer Hartswick and Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss may be good friends their hilarious and biting banter with each other was nearly as enjoyable as their hour-long set on Saturday afternoon. Hartswick revealed the pair’s collaboration will now be known as “Hartliss.” Jennifer and Brendan loaded their jukebox-style performance with singalong covers, including outstanding takes on such songs as Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies,” Derek & The Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues,” John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Hartswick and Bayliss traded vocal duties during a set in which Brendan remained on acoustic guitar. Bayliss starred on “Can’t Find My Way Home” while Jennifer crushed “Creep.” A fun moment took place while the duo was performing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” as they noticed TAUK drummer Isaac Teel in the crowd and brought him up for an impromptu guest spot. The pair finished the set with another highlight, a spot-on rendition of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Keyboardist Marco Benevento has really gelled with his trio featuring bassist Karina Rykman and drummer David Butler. The three-piece had festivalgoers dancing throughout their otherworldly performance on Saturday night. Rykman was another North Beach Music Festival musician who kept busy as she also led her own band on a stellar set towards the end of Friday’s action. Karina adds so much to Marco’s music with “Dropkick” and the anthemic “At The Show” among the highlights from Benevento’s performance.
Spafford showed they were worthy of closing out the festival with two unique sets. The first was a 45-minute all-improv performance that saw the quartet explore various soundscapes throughout as they moved from evil, guitar-based peaks to pretty blissful excursions and back again. They were feeling it and seemed extremely psyched to be back together after a stellar fall tour that ended unfortunately with keyboardist Andrew “Red” Johnson missing the last three shows following a positive COVID-19 test.
The all-improv set was followed by a wonderful performance from Krasno’s new band, The Assembly, on the second stage. Spafford then returned to close out the festival with a stellar Spafford & Friends set. The Arizona-based quartet went it alone to open with the fitting “All My Friends” and then was joined by A.C. Carter on keys and Nate Werth on percussion for a lengthy “In The Eyes Of Thieves.” Werth stuck around and Kraz contributed to the frenetic “Backdoor Funk,” while Nate and keyboardist Marco Benevento gave a new feel to staple “Mind’s Unchained.” An insane “Whipping Post” featuring Werth, Kraz and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer followed before Spafford and their friends concluded a memorable weekend with “Ain’t That Wrong.”
Between the music, the setting and the perfect weather, the first North Beach Music Festival was a blast. Here’s hoping the event returns for years to come.