It's not difficult to see why regional music festivals have been booming over the past few years. For starters, gaining any semblance of intimacy or interpersonal connection with artists at big-budget festivals has become almost impossible unless you buy an expensive VIP ticket. Couple that with (necessary) corporate sponsorships and lousy views, and you're a long way from Woodstock or even Lollapalooza.
Jordan Puryear has tackled this unpleasantness in organizing the annual Virginia Key Grassroots Music & Dance Festival. "Our stages are very interactive compared to a lot of festivals," the curator says. "We don’t put up barriers and fences between the audience and the band." One of the aims of Grassroots, he says, is to knock performers off their pedestals and bring them closer to the audience. Where other festivals create distinctions based on hierarchies, Grassroots tears them down.
The festival began 25 years ago as a nonprofit supporting arts and education before management decided advocacy could be well served by a music festival. Activism is baked into the cake of the Grassroots organization. The festival showcases political and environmental organizations, along with wellness workshops and yoga, as prominently as it presents musical talent. Last year, alongside performances by some of Miami's leading bands, Ben & Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen hosted a discussion on how best to get money out of politics.
Michael Mut, bassist for the band Electric Piquete, which will perform at Grassroots for the third consecutive year, says one of the factors that attracted him is the festival's focus on local talent. "It’s a really good way to showcase local bands," he says. "A majority of this year’s lineup is made up of locals."
But that wasn't always the case. When the nonprofit set out to produce its first music festival, organizers sought out national and internationally recognized headliners. "When we first came here, we knew that there was great music in Miami, but we hadn't really met the players and discovered the whole scene," Puryear says. "As the festivals progressed, especially this last event, we're really focusing on mostly regional South Florida music and headliners." This year's lineup includes local heavy-hitters such as Locos por Juana, Elastic Bond, and Tamboka, alongside bands like New York's Big Mean Sound Machine.
About 20 bands round out this year’s lineup. Grassroots is a camping festival, and a unique one at that. Its gorgeous location in Virginia Key Beach Park affords guests the chance to wake up to the sound of crashing waves outside their tents before they head to the stage for live music. Attendees can camp from Thursday, February 21, through Sunday, February 25, and Puryear says their main focus this year will be their Grassroots Festival Dance Tent, where they’ll host music all day Saturday and Sunday during the festival. They’ll also facilitate activities such as kayaking so that fans can enjoy not only the music but also the historic beach park.
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Though they're known as local acts, many of the Miami bands performing at Grassroots are recognized much farther up I-95. Locos por Juana and Elastic Bond in particular have found success outside of South Florida. Puryear says he understood the kind of talent he was working with the first time he took acts out on the road to other iterations of Grassroots in New York and North Carolina, where the organization hosts spring, summer, and fall festivals. "People were just amazed at the music. They really didn't know anything about what was hidden down here in Miami," he says.
Mut, who also does promotional work behind the scenes for Grassroots, envisions it growing into another leading national gathering. It could be the destination winter festival, he says.
Achieving that status would require some recalibration, but Grassroots has undergone significant change before. Even when the fest concentrated on national rather regional acts, Puryear says the ethos and position on the elimination of barriers between fans and artists was the same. Today, Grassroots continues to limit sponsorships and relies on a high-fidelity analog sound system to take the music to the people. Grassroots, it could be said, is a response to and beachside respite from the ills that plague modern-day festivals.
Virginia Key Grassroots Music & Dance Festival. 9 p.m. Wednesday, February 21, through Sunday, February 25, at Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Miami; 305-960-4600; virginiakeybeachpark.net. Tickets cost $35 via grassrootsfest.thundertix.com.