When Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League founded the music label GroundUp in 2012, his goal was to connect audiences with artists he believed were deserving of more attention. The label has since become a taste-making vehicle for jazz, world, rock, folk, and gospel from a smattering of artists, all anchored by League's three-time Grammy-winning jazz and funk collective.
League took his efforts to promote artists he loves and respects a step further in 2017 by launching GroundUp Music Festival. Hosted annually in February at the idyllic open-air amphitheater the North Beach Bandshell, GroundUp is League’s platform for curating a lineup of established and emerging artists from around the world.
“We book artists who are not only great musicians and play great music, but play great live,” the festival's artistic director explains. “That lets the audience use the whole festival as a plane of discovery. The ideal thing is that people who come to the festival leave and think, Holy shit, I have homework to do. They go home on Monday and immediately they’re making playlists, buying records from the artists they saw, and checking out who those artists have played with previously — using [the festival] as a ground zero for exploration.”
The fourth-annual edition of GroundUp will take place over three consecutive days beginning Friday, February 14. In addition to offering three Snarky Puppy sets with a different lineup each night, the fest's roster also includes singer-songwriter and keyboardist Michael McDonald, progressive future-funk outfit Lettuce, Grammy Award-winning Mexican folk-fusion singer Lila Downs, and American jazz saxophonist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter.
The festival's lineup and its audience are remarkably international. GroudUp not only has not booked artists from the likes of Colombia, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, and Greece, but also has sold tickets to non-Miami residents from 48 states and 54 countries are among GroundUp's ticket-buyers.
“Although it’s logistically more complicated to invite artists from all over the world who need to get visas to play, I feel like the effect is different from going to a standard blues or jazz festival,” League says. “You’ll be standing in the crowd watching a group from Morocco, and then next to you a Brazilian percussion ensemble is also watching the set. And you get the feeling that this is what the world should be like — celebrating diversity — and the festival is really a microcosm of that.”
On top of its emphasis on global bookings, GroundUp is a vehicle for artists to push themselves creatively. The festival fosters an environment in which improvisation and experimentation are encouraged, orchestrating never-before-seen artist combinations and welcoming exploratory performances that expand beyond an act’s traditional set. League himself will be joined by McDonald and Potter, as well as fellow Snarky Puppy drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross and Shaun Martin on organ, for a special acoustic set that will showcase each artist outside of his normal bands, effectively treating the audience to a performance that may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime affair.
“The whole idea is to put artists in a new context, and I tell all of the artists to use this festival as an excuse to do the thing that you’ve always wanted to do but have been too scared to,” League says. “A lot of artists are typically worried to do that because the audience won't like it, but our audience really listens. While we’re programming the festival, we try to leave as much space as possible for the artists to be expressive and spontaneous. Most of the things that happen at the festival we could not plan.”
This collaborative format harks back to GroundUp’s early days when Snarky Puppy members performed during most of the festival’s sets. Getting creative with a limited budget, League told the artists he booked that instead of paying to fly in multiple entire bands, Snarky Puppy musicians would learn each act’s music and play alongside them.
“Snarky Puppy playing with most of the acts was cool, but it was a lot of Snarky Puppy, and that’s not what the festival is about,” he recalls. “The festival doesn’t have headliners, the last artist doesn't play the longest set, and the idea is that it’s not a Snarky Puppy festival."
League's unpretentious attitude is palpable during the intimate gathering, which invites artists to stay for all three days of the event in order to enjoy other sets and Miami’s warm weather. Past their own performances, artists fill their weekend hosting songwriting classes, guitar clinics, percussion circles, workshops, masterclasses, and talks — and connecting directly with their fans.
Each day kicks off with prefestival VIP cocktails and brunches, which will include a rare Snarky Puppy acoustic set and an unplugged collaboration between powerhouses Lila Downs and Flor de Toloache. After the festival ends each evening, GroundUp throws late-night satellite shows at a new location every year. The 2020 late-nights will take place at Night Out in downtown Miami and include sets from Nth Power and Lettuce, a stacked Songwriter Circle consisting of five artists, and other diversions. These fan-focused affairs offer attendees even more opportunities to experience their favorite musicians up close and personal, a cornerstone of GroundUp’s more personalized approach to curation.
“The first day, you’re walking around and you see an incredible musician walk right by you, and you keep seeing them around the festival, and they’re watching a set next to you,” League says. “It helps to destroy the barrier between audience and artists. The whole thing just feels more like a party in somebody’s backyard than a stressy festival.”
A far cry from a typical festival that looks to grow each year, League has no interest in adding more stages or terrain. Instead, he wants to continue improving the festival’s quality and eventually build up a dedicated following that trusts his vision and taste enough to purchase tickets without seeing the lineup — “making the festival a completely blind experience where you go in and you don’t know who you’re seeing until they start playing,” he explains.
In terms of what’s new and different this year, League laughs and says, “Everything.”
“We set the table and let people eat how they want to eat, and put them in a position in which they’re comfortable to try new things,” he says. “We keep certain traditions that work well, like Magda Giannikou’s A Cappella by the Sea, but it’s always with different songs and different artists participating. The purpose of the festival is to put an audience in front of artists they’ve never heard of and have those artists blow them away.”
GroundUp Music Festival. Friday, February 14, through Sunday, February 16, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $85 to $825 via groundupmusicfestival.com.
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