GroundUp artistic director and Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League.
GroundUp artistic director and Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League.
Photo by Stella K.

Michael League Crafts an Intimate Festival Experience in GroundUp Music

Michael League isn’t one to overcomplicate things. Even while presiding over his demanding role as bassist and bandleader of his instrumental jazz-fusion outfit Snarky Puppy, League has founded an independent record label and corresponding music festival, GroundUp, on top of maintaining an intensive tour schedule and a smattering of side projects.

For most musicians, the acclaim of being one of the most respected bassists in contemporary music would be enough, but not for League. “I just like to realize ideas,” he says. “I mean, if I have an idea to do something, I like to do it. And sometimes those things kind of overlap with each other, and that’s when life gets complicated."

One such idea — complications and all — is the GroundUp Music Festival, whose second-annual edition will take place this weekend, February 9 through 11, at the North Beach Bandshell. The event, which presented the likes of folk-rock legend David Crosby and Miami’s own pedal steel guitar master Roosevelt Collier in its inaugural year, was conceived as a relaxed alternative to traditional festival fare, offering fans of virtuosic musicianship a chance to listen to – and in some instances, even directly interact with – their favorite artists in an intimate setting.

“We have a backstage area for the artists, and I think it was empty for the entire festival last year because the artists were out on the grounds checking out the gigs,” League says, comparing the festival’s atmosphere to a nice party in your friend’s backyard. “You really feel like everybody is friends and there isn’t any kind of barrier between the artist and the audience.”

According to League, the festival began both as a natural extension of the GroundUp label’s community-minded ideals and as a response to the current state of the live-music market.

“The good news about streaming — even though it has completely upended the industry — is that more people are listening to music, more people have access to music, and, actually, people are really going out to see live performances,” League says. “And so this is our way of taking what we have built over the last five, six years as a label — like the community we've built and community of listeners we've built — and creating a live, visceral experience for them.”

Despite seeming obvious in retrospect, League, the festival’s artistic director, did not originally conceptualize GroundUp Music Festival as a Miami-based event. For that innovation, credit goes to Paul Lehr, GroundUp’s CEO and the former president and CEO of the Miami-based National YoungArts Foundation. Even with Lehr’s assurances, League was initially unsure about holding GroundUp in Miami. He was sold on the idea only after it was fully underway.

“The festival ground is super close to the beach. [Then there's] the temperature, the fact that people in the audience came from almost 35 countries… and for many of those people, they were coming from like frozen tundra,” League says with a laugh. “And then the next day they're on a beach listening to you know Chris Thile or Pedrito Martinez or something; it creates a very cool atmosphere, I really love it.”

In addition to shows from musicians such as Béla Fleck, Becca Stevens, and the Wood Brothers — plus nightly performances by League and Snarky Puppy themselves — several of the artists in GroundUp’s lineup will also lead a series of workshops and master classes.

“This year, we have some really interesting things: We have drum icons Mark Guiliana and Jojo Mayer doing a workshop together, and I'm leading a bass class with and interviewing Victor Wooten,” League shares. What’s more, Robert Glasper, Alan Hampton, and Becca Stevens all have special events planned as well.

League and company are producing GroundUp Music Festival with their eye on the long game. Ultimately, League hopes to cultivate a yearly gathering where attendees make their ticket purchases based not on name recognition, but rather, on the promise of discovery and the new.

“I just try to put together a bill that's well balanced, that represents music from around the world, where every single performer is not just a great artist but a great live act and everyone's a good person. And if all those things are in place, people don’t need to know who the artists are to go to the festival,” League says. “It’s more exciting, I think, to go knowing, Man, I don’t know who I’m going to see, but I know they’re all going to be amazing."

GroundUp Music Festival. With Snarky Puppy, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones Trio, the Wood Brothers, Becca Stevens, and others. 1 p.m. Friday, February 9, through Sunday, February 11, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; groundupmusicfestival.com. Tickets cost $30 to $825 via eventbrite.com.

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