The annual Purple Hatter’s Ball recently took place again in the beautiful setting of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Scattered lakes alive with frog song, a tannic river with soft, white beaches, and hot, dusty trails make up much of the park which is lined with towering oaks and lanky cypress trees bearded in wispy Spanish moss providing a peacefully natural shade. It was our collective’s fist time to the camping grounds, but, being originally based in Tallahassee, we had heard a lot about it in the past from some of our supporters. Although our usual inclination is to research music and events heavily (we’re huge nerds), we decided to just dive head first into this one.
One thing we did look into though was the festival’s purpose. Each year Purple Hatter’s Ball coincides with Mother’s Day and there is a heart-wrenching story behind it involving the “throwaway” disposition towards confidential informants (CI), a product of pitfalls shared between an unjust criminal justice system, reckless police brutality, and a failed war on drugs. Drug policy reform is something we firmly believe in at any scale. Looking towards a better future, it’s necessary to acknowledge that the system has lost sight of serving the people and has in turn become bloated, attempting to do anything to protect police and drug enforcement agencies’ bottom lines.
Last year we devoted our three year anniversary towards advancing United for Care‘s efforts to get medical marijuana passed. It was working on that campaign that we saw firsthand the desperation of various Florida criminal justice and law enforcement departments all trying to keep the status quo. They mangled the bill and completely distanced their arguments from any sort of reality, targeting the public with an opposition steeped in absolute fear mongering instead. Just imagine what law enforcement are willing to do behind closed doors when there are no real rules or guidelines to follow. This makes the efforts behind Purple Hatter’s Ball all the more important.
In memory of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman who was murdered while operating as a CI in a botched sting, Margie Weiss and Irv Hoffman have channeled the pain, anger, and frustration from the violent loss of their daughter and turned it into something much more far-reaching and positive. The Florida legislature is not known as a progressive springboard, but through their hard work Margie and Irv introduced Rachel’s Law, giving CIs even the most basic of rights and protections afforded to citizens. No longer is the police justification of “needing” to quickly flip suspects in a frenzied turn around an acceptable excuse for the abuse of our young and vulnerable. It’s the first law of its kind and Rachel’s parents hope to set an example, eventually turning it into a national model. In this light, proceeds from the festival benefit The Rachel Morningstar Foundation, whose purpose is to educate the public on the current use of and the risks for confidential informants.
This consciousness was not lost on festival-goers. Many that we spoke to were well aware of Rachel’s story and the meaning behind the shared weekend of music and partying we were to enjoy, just as Rachel would have. Every year her spirit is revived in the loving, caring attitude that permeates the park during Purple Hatter’s Ball, harboring a strong, friendly vibe that exists more-so than most large-scale productions of its nature. Overflowing with such feelings of openness and acceptance, even the most out of place absolutely belong. Those not so engulfed in festival culture — Suwannee having its own uniquely individual style — are just as welcomed into the family. After all, everyone is there to escape the confines of their day-to-day routine and enter into a world where we can collectively reenvision the type of society we hope awaits us upon our return. Rachel’s parents set the example that we must then act on these ideas and be the change we seek. Throughout the weekend, the holistically curated Yoga and Healing Arts portion of the fest offered a variety of classes and hands on workshops furthering this goal.
On to the festivities, the music at Purple Hatter’s Ball was excitingly diverse without ever dragging into the tropes that can sometimes accompany jam band gatherings. With programming spread across four stages, at any given moment one could hear multi-genre blends of funk, soul, jazz, rhythm & blues, prog rock, reggae, electronica, drum ‘n bass, disco, house, and more, with some groups proudly displaying West African and Latin influences and others incorporating tinges of acid or psychedelic flair. All admittedly way more music than any one set of ears and feet could fit in.
Rachel’s Beach Stage was split between DJs and band performances, hosting our Open House Conspiracy collective hybrid performance on Friday. Born out of the incubator that was our Thursday nights at The Warehouse in Tallahassee, the lineup consisted of bleek ‘n coy on the decks and Brad Ashwell, Forrest Lee, and Don Juan accompanying on the congas, electric guitar, and horn respectively. Completely improvised in both the selections and the live instruments, they covered disco, house, dub reggae, and more — including a stripped back version of an original of Brad and Don’s.
The Jacksonville band performing before our cross-generational motley crew ensemble, Tambor was a total surprise and a highlight of the weekend with their refreshingly minimal take on jazz fusion and world music. Often as the later hours approached and the sun gave away to clouds, with the beach lingerers pleasantly cooked and ready to return from the out-of-the-way paradise for the main programming, the crowds at the Beach Stage thinned. This made it easy to come to a consensus amongst those remaining that Tambor was in fact a gem to be uncovered by the larger public and on an undoubtedly talent-lead rise. The rest of the first night’s programming went by quickly due to deliriousness from the day’s early morning drive leaving us running on a serious lack of sleep.
After a long rest and another day trip to the beach, it was the second night of music that wound up appealing more to our tastes. Back at the Purple Hat Amphitheater to see the artist we had been most excited about preceding the festival, Charles Bradley proved unequivocally why he was the Screaming Eagle of Soul. His life’s story is one of intense struggle set between the streets and the projects, with his first record deal and exposure to the world not manifesting until his 60’s. Much like the legend of Sixto Rodriguez, the late coming of artists far ahead of the times reminds us that we must discover for ourselves and not depend on the music industry to spoonfeed us, lest we allow some of the greatest voices of our age slip through the cracks. It’s in his lengthy journey that Bradley’s soulful voice and deeply emotional delivery developed, taking a clearly captivated Suwannee audience through joy, love, passion, and pain.
We have not seen a more loved up crowd, mesmerized in each other’s arms, slowdancing into the night as when Charles Bradley performs “Lovin’ You, Baby.” Shaking his hand while thanking him for his voice and the life within it during a break in his performance, he graciously responded, “It’s painful, but somebody’s got to give them the truth.” What he said between songs on the mic was equally powerful. After breaking into “Heartaches and Pain,” he sympathized with Rachel’s mother, relating through his own brother that was shot in the head, the backbone of what the song is about. Bradley told the crowd he knew he loved Margie Weiss from the moment they met and commended her for openly accepting everybody in attendence, holding hands with them, and guiding them towards a better future — the traits that make someone a true leader, “You are the ones to keep us from doing the wrong things and put us in the right places.” With this, he picked up on the essense of the Purple Hatter’s Ball experience, shaping it with a profound amount of his own wisdom. Bradley would go on to say more about the times and our shared humanity, proving himself to be a overtly empathetic and deep man. Returning to his lyrics, they suddenly held even more weight and truth.
Not quite brimming with people for Charles Bradley’s set, but very much well received, the theater would later fill in for Lotus. It was their performance that made us finally and fully capitulate to the weekend’s programming. A wicked journey of guitar, synths, and drums with electronica overtones, they covered classics like the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” but much more surprisingly they also turned out an extensive rendition of Todd Terje’s “Inspector Norse.” Arguably better than the original, Lotus rids it of any synth overembellishments in favor of subtle and funky live instruments, recreating it as the finer organic disco earworm it was meant to be. With inlfuences like The Orb, St. Germain, Kraftwerk, LTJ Bukem, and Brian Eno, to name a few, the electronic groove behind Lotus’ progressive and post rock back bone makes sense and helps explain their crossover appeal and our astonishment at their set.
Later that night, more into early Sunday morning than anything, our resident bleek ‘n coy enjoyed closing out Momma Margie’s Forrest Stage with a Silent Disco set to a packed, fenced in crowd. He took the opportunity to start his set with Foremost Poet’s classic “Moonraker (Acappella),” at some point incorporating house with samples from the psychedelic musings of Timothy Leary, and finishing things by winding down with ethereal, strung out songs like James Teej’s “Night Wears Thin.”
Finally, using the more laidback atmosphere of Sunday to spend hanging with friends and catching up, the sounds of the Forrest Stage filled the afternoon while listening from a camp nestled right along the Spirit Lake, not too far away. The family affair blues of Clearwater’s Galbraith Group perfectly soundtracked the rendeavous before Future Vintage out of Tampa took over with some of the funkiest, electro filled bass line sounds of the entire weekend.
Calling it in a little early and all the more eager to hug our mother for Mother’s Day, Purple Hatter’s Ball 2015 was a wrap. Born out of tragedy, the festival transforms itself into something positive and life affirming, more than just in the symbolic release of Momma Margie’s release of the butterflies, but in the entire spirit of the event.