Three’s the charm for the third annual Big Orange Music Festival held on November 3 in Punta Gorda, Florida, featuring wild, high-energy performances by headliners Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, The Honey IslandSwamp Band with Robert Randolph and more. Fueled by world-class acts from diverse genres including blues, Americana, Southern rock, country, funk and soul and boundless determination on the part of promoters and fans to overcome everything from hurricanes to last-minute lineup changes, Big Orange Music Festival has firmly established itself as one of the best small music events in Florida.
Last year, Hurricane Irma slammed Southwest Florida on September 9, forcing BOMF to cancel and reschedule, and this year rising stars Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances just five days before the festival, sending father-and-son promotion team Nick and Matthew Nemec scrambling to find a replacement. Luckily, Robert Randolph, who is quite possibly the best pedal steel guitarist alive today, rode to the rescue, to the delight of music enthusiasts.
Neither event deterred the Nemecs or fans from throwing their support behind the festival. Around 1,800 music lovers showed up at Laishley Park on the banks of the Peace River in historic Punta Gorda to boogie and soak up the music which also included performances by Southwest Florida’s powerhouse bluesmen Sean Chambers Band, indie rock and pop artists Ben Sparaco & The New Effect, country rebel Whey Jennings, and local roots musicians Michael Haymans and his Hibiscus Band.
The weather couldn’t have been better or the scenery more beautiful, with sunshine sparkling off the pristine waters of the Peace River. Openers Michael Haymans and His Hibiscus Band warmed up a small crowd that trickled in early for the festivities but which grew in enthusiasm and size by the time Whey Jennings took the stage.
The grandson of country music legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter is keeping the family business alive with a voice as raw and authentic as outlaw country music has produced lately. Any tinges of pop that currently infect modern popular country music were undetectable in his stripped-down performance that channeled the spirit of his grandfather and the authentic roots of country music.
Moving along on the music spectrum, Ben Sparaco and The New Effect brought their buoyant brand of bluesy pop and soul to a clearly receptive audience. The Nashville threesome consisting of Sparaco on guitar and vocals, Adam Discipio on bass and Anthony Quirk on drums offered up a richly layered sound much bigger than anything that could be boxed into a pop label, treating the audience to an indubitably enjoyable and danceable set that included tunes off their new EP Greetings, From Ben Sparaco And The New Effect.
We bobbed and swayed to the soulful grooves of “There Is Not Them” and “Too Alright,” and “Casual Friends” rocked us out of our seats. Sparaco went out with a screaming guitar solo reminiscent of a young Derek Trucks on “Walk On The Levee,” a song about hurricanes that he wrote in high school while living in the Sunshine State. It was a fitting finale for this Florida crowd.
You can’t fake the blues. If it doesn’t come from some place deep where pain lives alongside joy, then it’s just not real. Sean Chamber knows that place well and opens the door wide every time he gets behind a mike. With guitar in hand and the excellent Sean Chambers Band, with bassist Todd Cook, drummer Scott Philips and keyboardist Rick Curran backing him, Chambers unloaded the full force of the blues on an adoring audience who were on their feet for much of his set.
We were treated to a blast of classic blues and rock that included Leon Russell’s “Going Down,” The Allman Brothers’ “You Don’t Love Me,” and a shamelessly sexy version of Bob Seger’s “Come To Poppa,” along with tunes off Chamber’s new release Welcome To My Blues. The band’s performance of “Red Hot Mama” from the new album should be rated “X” for filthy good, and “Black Eyed Susie” was bursting at the seams with smoking guitar riffs. This was the Sean Chambers Band’s second memorable appearance at The Big Orange Music Festival, and we suspect it won’t be their last.
Born out of the heart of Americana and the streets of New Orleans, the Honey Island Swamp Band is a rollercoaster of nonstop fun and roadhouse rhythms. Made up of Lee Yankie on guitar (who was filling in for Chris Mule while he recovers from a recent car accident), Sam Price on bass, Garland Paul on drums, Trevor Brooks on keyboards and multi instrumentalist Aaron Wilkinson on mandolin, guitar, harmonica and vocals, the band wasted no time claiming the audience for their own with Yankie’s sizzling guitar poured over Wilkinson’s vocals and command of the acoustic guitar. Together with a bumping rhythm section, including Price in his trademark overalls, bare feet and Elvis aviator glasses and Paul relentlessly pounding the drums, the band unleashed powerful, soulful rhythms on original tunes off their latest release Demolition Day that forced people out of their seats.
If there was anyone left sitting when Robert Randolph joined the Honey Island Swamp Band to teases of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall,” they were quickly back up when he broke into Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy.” The music came fast and furious, and I couldn’t keep up with the joyful strains of Randolph’s pedal steel guitar piercing the air.
But just when we thought we couldn’t rage any harder, the band pulled out all the stops to close with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” Aaron Wilkinson blowing a glorious harmonica and Randolph practically destroying his instrument as the sun was setting over the Peace River.
There would be very little sitting during the night’s set as Shorty and company tore through a cross-section of older and newer tunes like “Buckjump,” “The Craziest Thing,” and “Where It At.”
Ever the consummate bandleader, Shorty held the audience in thrall with one of the tightest, most preternaturally talented group of artists in the world. Consisting of Andrews on trumpet and trombone, Pete Murano on guitar, BK Jackson on tenor sax, Mike Bass-Baily on bass, Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax, Joey Peebles on drums, and complemented on this tour by backup singers Chrishira Perrier and Tracy Lee, they took us to a higher plane where rock and funk collide on “Here Come The Girls.”
Not finished with us by a long shot, Shorty brought out Robert Randolph for a blissful romp through Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” followed by a relentless “Lose My Mind” before leaving us with the ever-so-satisfying horn-heavy “Hurricane Season” and “Do It To Me.” Count Punta Gorda in as Trombone Shorty territory.
Kudos to Nick and Matthew Nemec for chasing their dreams of putting Punta Gorda on the map of music festival circuits. By all accounts, The Big Orange Music Festival was and will continue to be a success. We’ll be there again next year on the banks of the Peace River.