To the background of funk and jam bands, loud horns, echoing percussions, and away from the hula-hoops, tie-die, and an array of fest-goers running wild in animal costumes, Jasper's Toft Willingham sat back in a "borrowed" golf cart to chat about life, inspiration, and, of course, music.
"We are warriors for fun," Toft said of his "reggae horn funk party" band Spiritual Rez Saturday during the height of the fourth annual Bear Creek Music Festival at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak. The feel good band took the Full Sail Stage by storm with a flood of contagious energy infused with an eclectic yet balanced mix of volcanic guitar solos, jazz horn riffs and fresh island sounds. The crowd grooved to songs inspiring happiness and healing off their album "Nexus," which includes tracks like "One Light," "Unity" and "Wake Up Boy." This latest effort follows 2006's "Rising in the East" and a previous 6-song EP.
Fronted by Toft, Spiritual Rez includes Van Gordon Martin, lead guitar, vocals; Jesse Shaternick, bass; Ian "Meat" Miller, drums; Kory Stanbury, saxophone, and Bryan House on the trombone. The guy's personalities are almost as diverse as their musical influences, which range from rock to old Jamaican reggae to classical.
“What could one say about Spiritual Rez? They’re a fun bunch of dudes,” Toft laughed.
So where does all this good energy come from? Toft called the group's creative process "universal." They read, they jam, they meditate, they listen to music, they listen to more music, and then they jam some more. But Toft said he and his guys get most of their ideas from people and fellow musicians they meet along the way of their rigorous touring schedule. Not that they mind — it’s what they live for.
"Our mission is to provide everyone with as good a time as possible. We want to give people a few hours to escape from their everyday lives," said Toft.
Basically, in an often disconnected world filled with stress and loneliness, Spiritual Rez offers unity, love, and a few hours to dance like there's no tomorrow. The majority of those in the crowd during Saturday evening’s show had shown up at Bear Creek for the sole purpose of seeing “Rez”, as their true fans call them. One group had driven to Florida from Virginia after hearing Rez was scheduled for Bear Creek. Family and close friends from Jasper, including Toft’s mother who danced right up front, were also in the crowd: screaming the loudest and owning their bragging rights. “These guys going to be a household names one day soon,” said long-time friend of the band John Adams, of Jasper.
After the show, the entire audience was drenched in sweat, still smiling, and this reporter’s shoes were literally danced to pieces.
"This is ultimately selfish, because I'm getting so much out of it," Toft said.
When Toft’s not touring or back in Boston where the group met at Berklee School of Music in 2002, he comes home to a “little shack” not far from the Suwannee. “Coming to this place has always been like a vacation for me. Just the quiet and tranquility,” he said.
As far as his goals for the future, well that’s simple. "I want to take it to the limit," he said. "Our near-future goal is to spread the album. Make it go viral,” he added. “Our long term goal… Sell out every stadium on the planet."
The Bear Creek crowd wouldn’t argue with that.
“You like reggae music? Scream it to me!” Toft yelled out from stage.
The whole room erupted.