GroundUp Festival on Miami Beach Serves Up Good Vibes, Great Music

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley
January 29, 2023 at 4:07 PM

Multi-Grammy award winners Snarky Puppy, founders of GroundUp, perform all three nights of the festival over three days beginning Friday, Feb. 3 at the Miami Beach Bandshell and Faena Theater. (Photo courtesy of GroundUP Music)

Since the GroundUP Music Festival’s inception in 2017, musically minded travelers set their sights on North Beach area of Miami Beach which, for a few short days, feels a bit like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but with better light and balmier weather.

The February festival is the creation of Michael League, Miami music promotor Paul Lehr, and the instrumental collective Snarky Puppy. Not content to simply make music themselves, as the band has done since their college days in North Texas, League and company founded something of a maker-space for established and up-and-coming musicians they admired—some from the United States, others from far beyond. The group now has a record label, GroundUP Music, and a roster of more than 30 bands and individual artists.

This year’s festival is Friday, Feb. 3 through Sunday, Feb. 5 at the Miami Beach Bandshell with late-night shows at the Faena Theater.

Silvana Estrada, the Latin Grammy’s Best New Artist winner for 2022, plays the
Miami Beach Bandshell stage on Friday evening and an intimate, unplugged brunch on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Ruso)

Diehard GroundUP acolytes travel to Miami from all corners of the globe to listen to music, learn from master musicians, be part of an afternoon a capella sing-along on the sand, and rub shoulders with performers in a much more relaxed and intimate atmosphere than any megafestival can offer. And the event’s setting —outside, next to the ocean, on Miami Beach, in February—is the secret sauce that makes the dish even more delicious, not just for out-of-towners, but for Miamians wanting to savor their city in a way only tourists often do.

Snarky Puppy leader Michael League is the mastermind behind the GroundUP lineup of extraordinary and eclectic musicians. (Photo courtesy of GroundUP Music)

League, the mastermind behind GroundUP, is like a musical mad scientist experimenting with different novel and boundary-pushing sonic concoctions.  The common denominator of all of League’s ventures is the ace musicians he attracts. “He has a gentleness and an openness that has its own kind of magnetism,” singer Lizz Wright says. Virtually all the artists stick around for the entire weekend—sitting in with other bands, giving master classes, or just hearing each other perform. The late, legendary David Crosby, for example, one of the festival’s earliest and most ardent supporters, would do just that.

“While standing at the first set of the first GUMFest, I heard some dude next to me cheering like crazy between songs,” said John Westbay, a drummer and GroundUP habitué who hasn’t missed a festival. “When I looked next to me, it was the one and only David Crosby!”

Crosby was also one of the renowned teaching artists at the festival, offering songwriting workshops in 2017 and 2019. In 2020, the songwriting class was led by Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers.

Onstage, attendees will hear unlikely but delicious pairings like that of Brazilian harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret with jazz harpist Edmar Castañeda. Other performers include progressive jazz players like keyboardist Rachel Eckroth and her band, and the ultra-indie Australian singer Nai Palm.

The ethereal Silvana Estrada, Mexico’s great revelation of 2022, opens the festival on Friday. The Latin Grammy “Best New Artist” winner from rural Coatepec met League during an early attempt at becoming a jazz artist in New York City, when he hired her to sing backup vocals. After her stint in the States ended, she returned to Mexico to reassess her artistic options. League and other mentors in the United States like guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Antonio Sánchez were convinced of her talent as a lyricist and the uniqueness of her voice, and they had urged her to strike her own path. It took the pain of a broken heart, though, to inspire her to pen the soulful album “Marchita,” which put her firmly on the road to stardom.

Wright, performing Saturday, also had a childhood that was rooted in music. Her father was pastor and musical director at a little church in Hahirah, Ga.

“I was immediately put to work in my father’s church,” she says. “I was five.”

WATCH: Inspicio Arts interview: Paul Lehr and GroundUP Music

Wright layers that bedrock gospel foundation with jazz, soul—even folk. To hear her sing can feel like a religious experience, her lush and velvety vocals like a prayer.

“I sing what I know,” says Wright. “I sing my time in the mountains, the look on my grandmother’s face, what I’ve dreamed, the way I’ve lived.”

Singer Gisela Joao will bring the soulful sounds of Portuguese fado to the festival. Her lyrics put a contemporary spin on this traditional form while remaining true to fado’s emblematic vocal style and emotional intensity. She has a solo performance on Friday, and appears Saturday with Mirrors, a jazz group formed in Portugal in 2021 with Joao, League, Justin Stanton, Becca Stevens and Louis Cato (Cato recently replaced Jon Batiste as the new musical director on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert”).

Singer Magda Giannikou, leads audience members in “A Capella by the
Sea,” a beloved staple of the GroundUP experience. (Photo courtesy of GroundUP Music)

GroundUP always has a rich offering of instrumental music, and this year’s edition will be a literal smorgasbord for guitar enthusiasts: genre-busting guitarist Isaiah Sharkey is this year’s musician-at-large, sitting in with different groups throughout the weekend. Friday’s lineup includes both jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and Grammy-nominated folk singer/songwriter Madison Cunningham, a consummate player in her own right. Mark Lettieri, San Francisco’s neofunk gift to the guitar gods, will bring in the funk on his Saturday set.

Anchoring the festival, as always, are League’s own band of bros, the jazz and funkmasters Snarky Puppy. The four-time Grammy-winning group performs a closing set nightly on the Bandshell’s main stage. It’s part of their charm that The Fam, as they like to call themselves, still seem a bit mystified by their runaway success and the accolades that have come with it. League told Washington’s WTOP that the first two times the group won Grammys, “we brought the whole band on stage, like 20 people . . .We’re like the misfits of the Grammys, like the Bad News Bears”—if, that is, the Bad News Bears had started a successful record label, sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall, or had a tribe of avid groupies willing to crisscross continents to hear them play.

While none of the programming at GroundUP overlaps, even the most hardcore fans would be hard put to remain conscious for all the events the festival offers. For night owls, the show moves south on Collins to the Faena Theater, starting at midnight to 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 11 p.m. and wrapping up at 3 a.m. on Sunday. And early-ish risers with deep pockets can catch intimate brunch performances by Silvana Estrada on Saturday and Jeff Tweedy on Sunday.

Raised in the gospel tradition, jazz singer Lizz Wright brings her rich and powerful vocals to Saturday’s lineup. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Kitt)

In a new educational initiative, GroundUP is partnering this year with Miami’s Young Musicians Unite to give high school and college musicians the opportunity to attend a free Snarky Puppy master class and open rehearsal at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 5 pm (students should preregister at the link on GroundUP Festival’s Instagram page.

“The workshop is a dream come true for many of our students,” says Young Musicians Unite CEO Sammy Gonzalez via email. “Our students and staff are huge fans of Snarky Puppy. Everyone is excited to meet Michael (League) and honored to have an opportunity to perform for him and even play a song together!”

WHAT: GroundUP Music Festival

WHERE: Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, also Faena Theater, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

WHEN: Friday, Feb. 3, Saturday, Feb. 4 and Sunday, Feb. 5. Festival grounds open at 2:15 pm Friday and Saturday, 1:30 pm on Sunday. Music ends on the mainstage by 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m. on Sunday. 

TICKETS: $130, single-day regular pass, $210, premium pass, $345, 3-day regular pass, $545, 3-day premium pass

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