Music Festival is a hit

OKEECHOBEE — The first Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival was deemed a success by the thousands of music fans who gathered at Sunshine Grove in rural northeastern Okeechobee County. For four days they camped, enjoyed their favorite performers and bands, soaked in the Florida sunshine, relaxed in YogaChobee, made new friends and in general just had a good time.

Before the festival, organizer Steve Sybesma had explained they designed the stage areas to accommodate a crowd of 35,000, but limited ticket sales to 30,000. By the evening of March 3 — the first day campers were allowed to come on the property and start setting up — the event was sold out.

Getting into the festival on Thursday and Friday meant some long waits, as vehicles were stopped and searched before entering the campground.

Most of the 68 felony arrests that were made at the festival over the weekend were during those entry searches. Organizers had warned festival-goers that vehicles were subject to search before they could enter the festival grounds.

The list of items which would not be allowed were posted on the website which sold the tickets.

Those who opted for day parking walked in, but not before bags were searched. Bags were also searched at the entry to the main stage area.

In addition to the impressive music line up of more than 100 acts, there was a lot to see and do at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival.

While tens of thousands gathered at main stages for the headline acts, there were plenty of places to get away from the crowds. This was by design, and it kept the mood of the festival more relaxed.

At the beach area, dubbed AquaChobee, visitors took in the Florida sunshine, played beach volleyball and frisbee, went wading or swimming in the pond, and rode a Ferris Wheel while enjoying music from the Oasis stage.

The popular YogaChobee area featured yoga and meditation classes, a massage tent and giant sculptures. Vendors offered a variety of food, as well as body painting, clothing and souvenirs. There was even a barber shop. A voter registration booth promoted participation in the upcoming elections.

A natural grouping of trees — which Floridians call a hammock — was the spot for a shady tea garden, furnished with treasured finds from thrift stores in Okeechobee County. While there were hammocks fastened to trees in the hammock, seating choices also included sofas and a recliner.

An inflatable igloo enclosure provided more options for those who wanted a break from other festivities.

Those who wanted to dance all night met that goal at Jungle 51, an electronic dance party that raged from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. The area was surrounded by trees, which helped buffer the sound from campers who wanted to get a little sleep.

“I could hear the music at night,” one camper explained. “But it didn’t keep me from sleeping.”

While most of the festival-goers were in their 20s, there were also senior citizens who were still rocking, and some young families with children. Most of the youngest fans sported hearing protection.

The eclectic mix of music performances provided something to please just about everyone, and a chance to sample the work of many entertainers.

Some fans who came to hear a particular band wound up with some new favorite artists.

There was a lot the festival got right. The creative use of spaces to relax was effective in promoting a positive atmosphere. The engineering at the main stage areas, and use of structure to target sound meant even though the stages were within easy walking distance of each other, those enjoying a concert at one stage did not hear music from a competing stage a short distance away. The lineup of talent was superb. The variety of food vendors was delightful, and it wasn’t the normal “festival food.” The whole festival area was beautiful, with artwork and colorful lighting enhancing the ranchland’s natural beauty. And it stayed pretty clean, thanks to the efforts of the Clean Vibes volunteers who swept through the areas to pick up trash and garbage anytime there was a break in the crowd.

There were some areas where improvement is needed. The number of campsites required was underestimated, as evidenced by the tents that popped up on any available bit of ground — including the space next to the port-a-lets and the day parking area. Traffic control is another concern. On Friday there were reports that the Florida Turnpike turn lane for YeeHaw Junction was backed up for a mile.

The first year presented a learning curve. The festival’s Facebook page proclaimed “See you next year.” It won’t be long before organizers use the lessons learned from the 2016 festival to start planning for 2017.

For more on the festival online, see

The following press release is from the  festival organizers:

The sold out first year of Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival opened its gates Thursday afternoon March 3, 2016 to the strains of the Miami Beach High School’s Jazz Band with Nigel Hall and Florida superstar guitarist Roosevelt Collier.

By nightfall, the all-night dance parties commenced at the AquaChobee stage and Jungle 51, and Okeechobee quickly established itself as one of the premiere festivals in the United States. Featuring an incomparable 800-acre festival site made up of large stretches of luscious flat lands and stunning tufts of tropical jungle, the perfect weather met the creative layout, gorgeous lighting, stunning sound systems and remarkable programming to create a weekend for the ages for this new annual spring break event. Festival founders knew it would be great, but how great it was surpassed their wildest imaginations.

“I couldn’t be more pleased and excited,” said festival co-founder Paul Peck of Soundslinger. “We had a feeling we were creating something special, but I’m still trying to process exactly what just took place here. Everything went perfectly as designed and our fans loved it in every way we hoped. There was a fantastic energy on site all weekend as one great moment lead to another. The Okeechobee community is an extraordinary one. We can’t wait to do this again next year.”

Among the many highlights from the weekend were all the spontaneous sit-ins and collaborations, including the legendary PoWoW! Featuring Miguel, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, John Oates, Skrillex, Mumford & Sons, Mac Miller, the legendary Meters rhythm section, the Preservation Hall Jazz horns and more, as well as Tom Morello and The Avett Brothers coming on stage to close the powerful Mumford & Sons set and the festival itself to play “House of the Rising Sun,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Then there were the parades that Butler and Preservation Hall led through AquaChobee and the surprise DJ sets by Butler and Morello. The diversity of the music could be felt everywhere.

From Kendrick Lamar’s epic performance one day after dropping his new album to Robert Plant’s sunset slot during which a “shooting star” exploded in the sky above the stage (the explosion turned out to be a SPACE X rocket ship launching out of the NASA space center in the Cocoa Beach area) to Bassnectar and Skrillex’s sonic explosions to Kamasi Washington’s jazz explorations to all the local Florida artists that appeared via the Destination Okeechobee program.

Notable additions to the high level of positivity that radiated throughout the festival were the diverse and delicious food being offered by local vendors and the locally sourced well lit artwork that could be found in every nook.

Lounges were created in jungles where fans of all ages relaxed in hammocks that were slung between palm trees. While Jungle 51 burned with lasers and lights beaming from a crashed UFO, an oasis of escape and calm could be found in the forest called YogaChobee.

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