Bear Music Fest unites bands, fans at Gold Country summer camp

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The first-ever Bear Music Fest will be nothing like its organizers originally brainstormed, and they say that’s how they would prefer it.

“I think the best things in life come out of the limitations with which you’re presented,” says Kevin Merritt, the event’s executive producer.

The idea pitched two years ago by Lair of the Bear campground managers would have hauled truck stages and thousands of people to the sprawling, 100-acre natural playground located three hours outside the Bay Area, in Pinecrest, in the Gold Country foothills north of Yosemite. The U.S. Forest Service, however, said permitting such an event would take years, sending organizers back to the drawing board.

“We had already fallen in love with the camp and the area, so I started thinking, ‘Why do we want to do this big thing anyway? The magic of this place is that it’s so quaint. It’s summer camp,’” says Merritt. “All these things came together once we abandoned the idea of this massive Bonnaroo-type festival. In a way, the limitations from the Forest Service spurred these other great ideas.”

Bear Music Fest mountains copy

What organizers came up with is a family-friendly festival with a maximum attendance of 700 geared at creating experiences instead of just noise. Each band was handpicked based on the stage and time of day they would perform. While the entire camp is spread out, the performance and common areas are close together.

Bear Music Fest

The Mother Hips, The Main Squeeze, Caleb Hawley, Bayonics, more
September 9-11 (Check-in begins at 12:30 p.m. Friday)
Lair of the Bear camp in Pinecrest
$145-$700
More Info

“We’d say, ‘What would you want to hear if you’re sitting by the pool and it’s a beautiful, sunny California afternoon?’” explains Merritt. “Or ‘I need a band for Saturday night that everyone can dance to.’”

“We’re a good band to fit that bill,” says Ben “Smiley” Silverstein, keyboardist for The Main Squeeze. “We bring a lot of energy and a lot of interaction on stage. It’s a combination of so many different styles, it becomes infectious.”

The funk and R&B band is currently working on a new album, the follow-up to 2015’s Mind Your Head.

“We’re right in the thick of it,” says Silverstein, who adds the first two songs off that album will be released in the next couple of months.

“It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking to play a new song for a new crowd because you don’t know how they’re going to receive it,” Silverstein says. “It’s very fresh and exciting for us.”

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The Main Squeeze’s performance at Bear Music Fest will bring the group full circle in a way; Smiley and guitarist Max Newman founded the group after meeting at a New York sleep-away camp.

“We’re very excited to be returning to a camp, which is close to home for us,” Silverstein says. “We’re very comfortable at a place like that.”

Organizers say families will be comfortable too. A pass purchase includes the performances, of course, but also your bunk in a cabin, prepared food and childcare if needed.

“You’re not going to dump the kids off at some babysitting service,” Merritt points out. “There are actual camp counselors there. The kids get this real experience and aren’t just shoved into a playground somewhere.”

The family-friendly nature of the festival also inspired organizers when choosing performers. They say they selected artists who were willing to commit to the weekend, not just a single show. As a result, Merritt says most bands are staying both Friday and Saturday night, performing more than once and even offering up activities for the whole family.

For example, Bayonics, an 11-piece Mission District group that blends hip-hop, funk and R&B, will perform multiple times as well as teach a drum workshop for kids on Saturday,

“They’re in for the weekend,” Merritt says. “We’re hoping it fosters some interaction.”

Bear Music Fest pool and lodge

That interaction is what Caleb Hawley says keeps him going when he’s on the road. A month-long tour with dates all over the West Coast kicks off with his performance at Bear Music Fest.

“I don’t fully know what to expect, but I’m excited to be a part of the event’s first year,” says the singer-songwriter. Hawley says festgoers can expect a high-energy performance when he takes the stage. “It’s soul music at its core. We hit all ends of it, from early Motown to early ‘80s and ‘90s influence with more synthesizers.”

Caleb Hawley edited

Other performers include the Bay Area’s Mother Hips, the Shakespeare-inspired Q Brothers and cello-playing rockers Tornado Rider. (View the full lineup).

“We’ve chosen bands from all over the country. A lot of them aren’t your standard festival acts; they’re not on the circuit, yet a lot of them have a ton of experience. They’re very seasoned and they put on a great show,” Merritt says.

Unlike typical large-scale festivals that require hours of planning for camping and logistics, organizers say Bear Music Fest is put together in a way that allows for stress-free planning, even for last-minute pass-buyers.

“It’s a really easy decision,” says Merritt. “Just decide to go and everything else will be taken care of for you.”

Follow journalist Brandi Smith at Twitter.com/BrandNewSmith, Facebook.com/BrandiSmithTV and BrandiSmith.me.

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